About eleven o'clock on the following morning, after two tyre troubles, I was passing out of the quaint mediaeval town of Hildesheim, intending to reach Hanover before noon. I had come around the Haupt Bahnhof and on to the highway beyond the railroad, when my heart gave a leap as a policeman dashed out into the road in front of me and held up his hand.
"Your name?" he demanded gruffly.
"William Hartley—an Englishman," was my prompt response.
"I must, I regret, insist on your presence at the police-office," he said authoritatively.
"Oh!" I cried, annoyed. "I suppose I must go through the same farce as at Zerbst last night."
"You were at Zerbst—you admit that?" asked the man in uniform.
The instant those words left his lips I saw that I was trapped. It was, no doubt, as I had suspected. The superintendent of police at Zerbst had seen stamped upon the engines the maker's name, "Napier," and this he had reported by telegraph to Dyer in Dresden. Then a second telegraphic order had gone forth for my arrest.
"Well," I laughed, "it is surely no crime to admit having been to Zerbst, is it? There seems an unusual hue-and-cry over this mysterious Englishman, isn't there? But if you say I must go to the police-office, I suppose I must. Get up here beside me and show me the way."
The man clambered up, when, in a moment, I put on all speed forward. The road was wide and open, without a house on it.
"No!" he cried; "back—into the town!"
I, however, made no response, but let the car rip along at a good fifty miles an hour. She hummed merrily.
"Stop! stop! I order you to stop!" he shouted, but I heeded him not. I saw that he had grown frightened at the fearful pace we were travelling.
Suddenly, when we had gone about seven miles, I pulled up at a lonely part of the road, and, pointing my revolver at his head, ordered him to descend.
He saw that I was desperate. It was a moment for deeds, not words. I saw him make a movement to draw out his own weapon; therefore, ere he was aware of it, I struck him a blow full in the face, practically repeating my tactics with Upton. The fellow reeled out of the car, but before I could get started again he fired twice at me, happily missing me each time.
He made a desperate dash to get on the footboard again, but I prevented him, and in turn was compelled to fire.
My bullet struck his right shoulder, and his weapon fell to the ground. Then I left him standing in the road, uttering a wild torrent of curses as I waved my hand in defiant farewell.
A mile from Hanover I threw off my grey beard and other disguise, washed my face in a brook, abandoned the car, and at three o'clock that afternoon found myself safely in the express for Brussels, on my way to Paris, the city which at that moment I deemed safest for me.
From that moment to this I have not been upon German soil.
THE LADY OF THE GREAT NORTH ROAD
It occurred about a month after my return from Germany. A strange affair, assuredly; and stranger still that my life should have been spared to relate it.
After luncheon at the Trocadero I mounted into the car, a new forty six-cylinder "Napier" that we had purchased only a week before, to drive to Barnack, an old-world Northamptonshire village near Stamford, where I had to meet the audacious rascal Count Bindo. From Piccadilly Circus, I started forth upon my hundred-mile run with a light heart, in keen anticipation of a merry time. The Houghs, with whom Bindo was staying, always had gay house-parties, for the Major, his wife, and Marigold, his daughter, were keen on hunting, and we usually went to the meets of the Fitzwilliam, and got good runs across the park, Castor Hanglands, and the neighbourhood.
Through the grey, damp afternoon I drove on up the Great North Road, that straight, broad highway which you who motor know so well. Simmons, Bindo's new valet, was suffering from neuralgia; therefore I had left him in London, and, sitting alone, had ample time for reflection.
The road surface was good, the car running like a clock, and on the level, open highway out of Biggleswade through Tempsford and Eaton Socon along to Buckden the speed-indicator was registering thirty-five and even forty miles an hour. I was anxious to get to Barnack before dark; therefore, regardless of any police-traps that might be set, I "let her rip."
The cheerless afternoon had drawn to a close, and rain had begun to fall. In a week or ten days we should be on the Riviera again, amid the sunshine and the flowers; and as I drew on my mackintosh I pitied those compelled to bear the unequal rigour of the English winter. I was rushing up Alconbury Hill on my "second," having done seventy miles without stopping, when of a sudden I felt that drag on the steering-wheel that every motorist knows and dreads. The car refused to answer to the wheel—there was a puncture in the near hind tyre.
For nearly three-quarters of an hour I worked away by the light of one of the acetylene head-lamps, for darkness had now fallen, and at last I recommenced to climb the hill and drop down into Sawtry, the big French lamps illuminating the dark, wet road.
About two miles beyond Sawtry, when, by reason of the winding of the road, I had slackened down to about fifteen miles an hour, I came to cross-roads and a sign-post, against which something white shone in the darkness. At first I believed it to be a white dog, but next moment I heard a woman's voice hailing me, and turning, saw in the lamp-light as I flashed past, a tall, handsome figure, with a long dark cloak over a light dress. She raised her arms frantically, calling to me. Therefore I put down the brakes hard, stopped, and then reversed the car, until I came back to where she stood in the muddy road.
The moment she opened her mouth I recognised that she was a lady.
"Excuse me," she exclaimed breathlessly, "but would you do me a great favour—and take us on to Wansford—to the railway?" And looking, I made out that she held by the hand a fair-haired little lad about seven years of age, well dressed in a thick overcoat and knitted woollen cap and gloves. "You will not refuse, will you?" she implored. "The life of a person very dear to me depends upon it." And in her voice I detected an accent by which I knew she was not English.
Seeing how deeply in earnest she was, and that she was no mere wayfarer desirous of a "lift," I expressed my readiness to do her a favour, and, getting down, opened the door of the tonneau, removed the waterproof rug, and assisted the little lad and herself to get in.
"Ah, sir, this kindness is one for which I can never sufficiently thank you. Others may be able to render you some service in return," she said, "but for myself I can only give you the heartfelt thanks of a distressed woman."
In her refined voice there was a ring of deep earnestness. Who could she be?
The hood of her heavy, fur-lined cape was drawn over her head, and in the darkness I could not distinguish her features. The little boy huddled close to her as we tore on towards Wansford Station, her destination, fifteen miles distant. The ceaseless rain fell heavier as we entered the long, old-world village of Stilton, and noticing they had no mackintoshes, I pulled up before the "Bell," that well-known inn of the coaching days where the York coaches changed horses.
"You are not surely going to make a stop here, are you? No one must see us. Let us go on!" she urged in apprehension.
"But you can't go through this storm," I said. "No one shall see you. There is a little sitting-room at the side that we may have until the rain has ceased." And then, with apparent reluctance, she allowed me to lead her and the boy through the old stone hall and into the little, low, old-fashioned room, the window of which, with its red blind, looked out upon the village street.
As she seated herself in the high-backed arm-chair beside the fire, her dark, refined face was turned towards me, while the little lad stood huddled up against her, as though half afraid of me. That she was a lady was at once apparent. Her age was about twenty-two, and her countenance one of the most beautiful that I had ever gazed upon. Her dark, luminous eyes met mine with an expression half of innate modesty, half of fear. The white hand lying in her lap trembled, and with the other she stroked the child's head caressingly.
She had unhooked her dripping cloak, and I saw that beneath she wore a well-cut travelling-gown of pale-grey cloth that fitted admirably, and showed off her neat figure to perfection. Her dress betrayed her foreign birth, but the accent when she spoke was only very slight, a rolling of the "r's," by which I knew that she was French.
"I'm so afraid that someone may see me here," she said, after a slight pause.
"Then I take it, mademoiselle, that you are leaving the neighbourhood in secret?" I remarked in French, with some suspicion, still wondering who she might be. The boy was certainly not her child, yet he seemed to regard her as his guardian.
"Yes, m'sieur," was her brief reply; and then in French she said, after a pause, "I am wondering whether I can trust you further."
"Trust me?" I echoed. "Certainly you can, mademoiselle." And taking out a card, I handed it to her, declaring my readiness to serve her in any way in my power.
She was silent for some moments.
"To-morrow, or the next day, there will be a sensation in the neighbourhood where I joined you," she said at last.
"A mystery, you mean?" I exclaimed, looking straight into her handsome face.
"Yes," she answered in a deep, hoarse voice. "A mystery. But," she added quickly, "you will not prejudge me until you know—will you? Recollect me merely as an unhappy woman whom you have assisted, not as——" She sighed deeply, without concluding the sentence.
I saw that her splendid eyes were filled with tears—tears of regret, it seemed.
"Not as what?" I inquired softly. "May I not at least know your name?"
"Ah!" she said bitterly. "Call me Clotilde, if you like. The name will be as good as any other—until you know the truth."
"But, mademoiselle, you are in distress, I see. Cannot I do anything else for you now than merely dropping you at the roadside station? I am on my way to Stamford."
"No," she sighed; "you can do nothing more at present. Only deny that you have ever met me."
Her words puzzled me. At one moment I wondered if she were not some clever woman who was abducting the lad, and by whose plausible tale I was being led into rendering her assistance. And yet as I stood with my back to the fire gazing at her as she sat, I recognised a something about her that told me she was no mere adventuress.
Upon her finger was a magnificent ring—a coronet of fine diamonds that flashed and sparkled beneath the lamp-light, and when she smiled at me her face assumed a sweet expression that held me in fascination.
"Cannot you tell me what has occurred?" I asked at last, in a quiet, earnest voice. "What is the nature of the sensation that is imminent?"
"Ah no!" she answered hoarsely. "You will know soon enough."
"But, mademoiselle, I confess I should like to meet you again in London, and offer you my services. In half an hour we shall part."
"Yes, we shall part; and if we do not meet again I shall always remember you as one who performed one of the greatest services a man can perform. To-night, m'sieur, you have saved my life—and his," she added, pointing to the little lad at her side.
"Saved your lives? How?"
"You will know one day," was her evasive reply.
"And who is he?"
"I regret that I am not permitted to tell you," she answered.
At that instant heavy footsteps sounded in the hall, and gruff voices exchanged greetings.
"Hark!" she gasped, starting to her feet in alarm. "Is the door locked?"
I sprang to it, and, as the waiting-maid had left it slightly ajar, I could see the new-comers. I closed it, and slid the bolt into its socket.
"Who are they?" she inquired.
"Two men in dark overcoats and soft felt hats. They look like foreigners."
"Ah! I know!" she gasped, terrified, her face blanched in an instant. "Let us go! They must not see me! You will help me to escape, won't you? Can I get out without them recognising me?"
Was it possible that she had committed some crime, and they were detectives? Surely this adventure was a strange and mysterious one.
"Remain here," I exclaimed quickly. "I'll go out and prepare the car. When all is ready, I will keep watch while you and the boy slip out."
I went forth into the pelting rain, took off the rugs from the seats, and started the motor. Then returning, and finding no one in the passage—the two men having evidently passed on into the tap-room—I beckoned to her, and she and the lad stole softly along and out into the roadway.
In a moment they were both in the car, and a few seconds later we were tearing along the broad road out of Stilton village at a pace that might have cost me a five-pound fine.
What was the forthcoming "sensation"? Why was she flying from the two strangers?
She feared we might be followed, therefore I decided to drive her to Peterborough. We tore on through the biting wind and driving rain, past Water Newton and Orton, until we drew up at the Great Northern Station at Peterborough, where she descended, and for a moment held my hand in a warm grasp of heartfelt thankfulness.
"You must thank this gentleman," she said to the lad. "Recollect that to-night he has saved your life. They meant to kill you."
"Thank you, sir," said the little lad simply, holding out his hand.
When they had gone I remounted and drove away to Barnack, utterly dumbfounded. The fair stranger, whoever she was, held me in fascination. Never in all my life had I met a woman possessed of such perfect grace and such exquisite charm. She had fled from her enemies. What startling event had occurred that evening to cause her and the lad to take to the road so ill-prepared?
What was the "sensation" which she had prophesied on the morrow? I longed for day to dawn, when I might learn the truth.
Yet though I chatted with the grooms and other outdoor servants at Barnack during the next day, I heard nothing.
Over the dinner-table that evening, however, old Colonel Cooper, who had driven over from Polebrook, near Oundle, related to the guests a strange story that he had heard earlier in the day.
"A mysterious affair has happened over at Buckworth, near the Great North Road, they say," he exclaimed, adjusting his monocle and addressing his hostess and Bindo, who sat on her right. "It seems that a house called 'The Cedars,' about a mile out of the village, has been rented furnished by some foreigners, a man named Latour and his wife and son, whose movements were rather suspicious. Yesterday they received three visitors, who came to spend a week; but just before dinner one of the servants, on entering the drawing-room, was horrified to find both her master and mistress lying upon the floor dead, strangled by the silken cords used to loop up the curtains, while the visitors and the little boy were missing. So swiftly and quietly was it all done," he added, "that the servants heard nothing. The three visitors are described as very gentlemanly-looking men, evidently Frenchmen, who appeared to be on most intimate terms of friendship with their hostess. One of them, however, is declared by the groom to be a man he had met in the neighbourhood two days before; therefore it would seem as though the affair had been very carefully planned."
"Most extraordinary!" declared Bindo, while a chorus of surprise and horror went around the table. "And the boy is missing with the assassins?"
"Yes; they have apparently taken him away with them. They say that there's some woman at the bottom of it all—and most probably," sniffed the old Colonel. "The foreigners who live here in England are mostly a queer lot, who've broken the laws of their own country and efface their identity here."
I listened at the open door with breathless interest as the old fellow discussed the affair with young Lady Casterton, who sat next him, while around the table various theories were advanced.
"I met the man Latour once—one day in the summer," exclaimed Mr. Molesworth, a tall, thin-faced man, rector of a neighbouring parish. "He was introduced to me at the village flower-show at Alconbury, when I was doing duty there. He struck me as a very pleasant, well-bred man, who spoke English perfectly."
I stood in the corridor like a man in a dream. Had I actually assisted the mysterious woman to abduct the child? Every detail of my adventure on the previous night arose vividly before me. That she had been aware of the terrible tragedy was apparent, for without doubt she was in league with the assassins. She had made me promise to deny having seen her, and I ground my teeth at having been so cleverly tricked by a pretty woman.
Yet ought I to prejudge her when still ignorant of the truth, which she had promised to reveal to me? Was it just?
Next day, making excuse that I wished to test the car, I ran over to the sleepy little village of Buckworth, which lay in a hollow about two miles from the sign-post where I had been stopped by Clotilde. "The Cedars" was a large, old-fashioned house, standing away from the village in its own grounds, and at the village inn, where I called, I learned from the landlord many additional details of how the three mysterious visitors had arrived in a station-fly from Huntingdon, how eagerly Mr. Latour had welcomed them, and how they had disappeared at nightfall, after accomplishing their object.
"I hear it said that a woman is at the bottom of it all," I remarked.
"Of course we can't say, sir," he replied; "but a little while ago Mr. Latour was seen several times by men working in the fields to meet, down at Alconbury Brook, a rather handsome, dark young lady, and walk with her."
Was that lady Clotilde? I wondered.
The inquest, held two days later, revealed nothing concerning the antecedents of the Latours, except that they had taken "The Cedars" furnished a year before, and very rarely received visitors. Mr. Latour was believed to be French, but even of that nobody was certain.
A week afterwards, after taking Bindo up to Nottingham, I returned to London, and watched daily for some communication, as Clotilde had promised. Weeks passed, but none came, and I gradually became more and more convinced that I had been the victim of an adventuress.
One afternoon, however, I received at my rooms in Bloomsbury a brief note in a woman's handwriting, unsigned, asking me to call at an address in Eccleston Street, Pimlico, that evening, at half-past nine. "I desire to thank you for your kindness to me," was the concluding sentence of the letter.
Naturally, I kept the appointment, and on ringing at the door was shown up by a man-servant to a sitting-room on the first floor, where I stood prepared again to meet the woman who held me entranced by her beauty.
But instead of a woman there appeared two dark-faced, sinister-looking foreigners, who entered without a word and closed the door behind them. I instantly recognised them as those I had seen in the passage of the "Bell" at Stilton.
"Well? So you have come?" laughed the elder of the two. "We have asked you here because we wish to know something." And I saw that in his hand he held some object which glistened as it caught my eye. It was a plated revolver. I had been trapped!
"What do you want to know?" I inquired, quickly on the alert against the pair of desperate ruffians.
"Answer me, Mr. Ewart," said the elder of the two, a man with a grey beard and a foreign accent. "You were driving an automobile near Alconbury on a certain evening, and a woman stopped you. She had a boy with her, and she gave you something—a packet of papers, to keep in safety for her. Where are they? We want them."
"I know nothing of what you are saying," I declared, recollecting Clotilde's injunction. "I think you must be mistaken."
The men smiled grimly, and the elder made a signal, as though to someone behind me, and next instant I felt a silken cord slipped over my head and pulled tight by an unseen hand. A third man had stepped noiselessly from the long cupboard beside the fireplace, to which my back had been turned.
I felt the cord cutting into my throat, and tried to struggle and shout, but a cloth was clapped upon my mouth, and my hands secured by a second cord.
"Now," said the elder man, "tell us the truth, or, if not, you die. You understand? Where is that packet?"
"I know nothing of any packet," I gasped with great difficulty.
"It's a lie! She gave it to you! Where did you take her to?"
I was silent. I had given my promise of secrecy, and yet I was entirely helpless in their unscrupulous hands. Again and again they demanded the papers, which they said she had given me to keep for her, and my denial only brought upon me the increased torture of the cord, until I was almost black in the face, and my veins stood out knotted and hard.
I realised, to my horror, that they intended to murder me, just as they had assassinated Latour and his wife. I fought for life, but my struggles only tightened the cord, and thus increased my agony.
"Tell us where you have put those papers," demanded the younger of the villainous, black-eyed pair, while the third man held me helpless with hands of steel. "Where is the boy?"
"I have no idea," I replied.
"Then die," laughed the man with the grey beard. "We have given you a chance of life, and you refuse to take it. You assisted her to escape and you will share the fate of the others."
I saw that to save myself was impossible, but with a superhuman effort I succeeded in slipping the noose from my hands and hooking my fingers in the cord around my throat. The fellow behind placed his knee in my back, and drew the cord with all his might to strangle me; but I cried hoarsely for help, and clung to the fatal cord.
In an instant the two others, joined by a fourth, fell upon me, but by doing so the cord became loosened, and I ducked my head. For a second my right hand was freed, and I drew from my belt the long Italian knife which I often carry as a better weapon in a scrimmage than a revolver, and struck upward at the fellow who had sentenced me to death. The blade entered his stomach, and he fell forward with an agonised cry. Then slashing indiscriminately right and left, I quickly cleared myself of them. A revolver flashed close to me, but the bullet whizzed past, and making a sudden dash for the door I rushed headlong down the stairs and out into the Buckingham Palace Road, still holding my knife, my hands smeared with the blood of my enemies, and the cord still around my neck.
I went direct to the police-station, and within five minutes half a dozen constables were on their way round to the house. But on arrival they found that the men, notwithstanding their severe wounds, had fled, fearing the information I should give. The owner of the house knew nothing, save that he had let it furnished a fortnight before to the grey-bearded man, who had given the name of Burton, although he was a foreigner.
The shock had upset my nerves considerably, but, accompanied by Blythe and Bindo, I drove the car down to Dover, took her across to Calais, and then drove across France to Marseilles, and along the Riviera to Genoa and Pisa, and on to Florence—a delightful journey, which I had accomplished on three previous occasions, for we preferred the car to the stuffy wagon-lit of the Rome express.
Times without number I wondered what was the nature of those documents, and why the gang desired to obtain possession of them. But it was all a mystery, inscrutable and complete. And I told the Count nothing.
Our season at Florence was a gay one, and there were many pleasant gatherings at Bindo's villa. The season was, however, an empty one as far as coups were concerned. The various festas had succeeded one another, and the month of May, the brightest and merriest in Italy, was nearly at an end, when one afternoon I was walking in the Cascine, the Hyde Park of the Florentines, idly watching the procession of carriages, many of whose fair occupants were known to me. Of a sudden there passed a smart victoria-and-pair, among the cushions of which lolled the figure of a well-dressed woman.
Our eyes met. In an instant the recognition was mutual, and she gave an order to stop. It was the sweet-faced wayfarer of the Great North Road—the woman who had enchanted me!
I stood in the roadway, hat in hand, as Italian etiquette requires.
"Ah! I am so pleased to meet you again," she said in French. "I have much to tell you. Can you call on me—to-night at seven, if you have no prior engagement? We have the Villa Simoncini, in the Viale. Anyone will direct you to it. We cannot talk here."
"I shall be delighted. I know the villa quite well," was my answer; and then, with a smile, she drove on, and somehow I thought that the idlers watching us looked at me strangely.
At seven o'clock I was conducted through the great marble hall of the villa, one of the finest residences on the outskirts of Florence, and into the beautiful salon, upholstered in pale-green silk, where my pretty companion of that exciting run on the Great North Road rose to greet me with eager, outstretched hand; while behind her stood a tall, white-headed, military-looking man, whom she introduced as her father, General Stefanovitch.
"I asked you here for seven," she said, with a sweet smile; "but we do not dine until eight, therefore we may talk. How fortunate we should meet to-day! I intended to write to you."
I gathered from her subsequent conversation that we might speak frankly before her father, therefore I described to her the exciting adventure that had happened to me in Eccleston Street, whereupon she said—
"Ah! it is only to-day that I am able to reveal to you the truth, relying upon you not to make it public. The secret of the Latours must still be strictly kept, at all hazards."
"What was their secret?" I inquired breathlessly.
"Listen, and I will tell you," she said, motioning me to a seat and sinking into a low lounge-chair herself, while the General stood astride upon the bear-skin stretched before the English fire-grate. "Those men sought the life of one person only—the boy. They went to England to kill him."
"And would have done so, Clotilde, had you not saved him," declared her father.
"It was not I," she said quickly. "It was Mr. Ewart, who snatched us from them. They were following, and we both should have shared the fate of the Latours had he not taken us up and driven us away. The thanks of the State are due to Mr. Ewart." And at that moment the little lad entered shyly, and, walking towards her, took her hand.
"The State—what do you mean?" I asked, puzzled.
"The truth is this," she said, smiling. "Little Paul, here, lived in England incognito as Paul Latour, but he is really His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Paul of Bosnia, heir to the throne. Because there was a conspiracy in the capital to kill him, he was sent to England in secret in the care of his tutor and his wife, who took the name of Latour, while he passed as their son. The revolutionists had sworn to kill the King's son, and by some means discovered his whereabouts in England; whereupon four of them were chosen to go there and assassinate him. By good fortune I learnt the truth, and as maid-of-honour to the Queen resolved to say nothing, but to go alone to England in secret and rescue the Crown Prince. The four conspirators had already left our capital; therefore I went in hot pursuit, travelling across Europe, and reaching London on the day before we met. I managed to overtake them, and, watching their movements, I travelled by the same train down to Huntingdon. On arrival there, while they were bargaining with a fly-man to take them on their fateful errand, I got into a cab and drove with all speed out to Buckworth. I had been there before, and knew the place well. I crossed the lawn, entered the drawing-room by the French window, and found little Paul alone. The Latours were out, he said; so I induced him to leave the place with me without the knowledge of the servants. I desired to see the Latours, and also to watch the movements of the assassins; therefore we hid in the wood close to the house at a spot where I had once met Latour secretly with a message from Her Majesty, who somehow mistrusted Latour's wife. In half an hour three of the men arrived, and were met by Latour, who had returned almost at the same moment. They entered, carrying some hand-baggage with them, and I was compelled to remain in hiding, awaiting an opportunity to speak with him. At half-past seven, however, to my great surprise I saw them slip out one by one, and disappear into the wood close to where little Paul and I were hiding in the undergrowth. Then, suspecting something was wrong by the stealthiness of their movements, I crept across the grounds and re-entered the drawing-room from the lawn, where, to my horror, I found Latour and his wife lying dead. I saw that a tragedy had been enacted, and, regaining the wood, hastened on with little Paul in the opposite direction, until I came to the Great North Road, and there met you driving your car. They had heard from Latour that the child had wandered out somewhere, and were, I knew, scouring the country for him. Only by your aid the Crown Prince was saved, and we came here into hiding, the King sending my father to meet me and to live here as his son's protector."
"But why did they kill the Latours?"
"It was part of the conspiracy. Latour, who had recently been back in Bosnia, had, they discovered, given information to the chief of police regarding a plot against the Queen, and they, the revolutionists, had condemned both him and his wife to death."
"And the packet which they demanded of me?"
"It contains certain papers concerning the royal family of Bosnia, secrets which the revolutionists desire to obtain and publish," she explained. "The King, distrustful of those about him, gave the packet into the hands of his faithful subject Latour, in England, and he, in preference to putting it into a safe, which might attract the spies of the conspirators, kept it in a small cavity behind the wainscoting in the drawing-room at Buckworth—a spot which he showed me, so that if any untoward event occurred I should at least know where the documents were secreted. When I realised the terrible fate of the unfortunate Latour and noticed the disordered state of the room and study beyond, I suspected that search had been made for them, and going to the spot I pressed the spring, and, finding them still safe, secured them. The revolutionists undoubtedly saw us leaving the inn at Stilton together, and believed that I had secured the documents as well as the boy, and that I had probably, in my flight, handed them to you for safe keeping."
"And the assassins? What has become of them?"
"They returned to Bosnia when they had recovered from the wounds you inflicted, but were at once arrested on information supplied by me, and have all four been condemned to solitary confinement for life—a punishment which is worse than death."
Since that evening I have been a frequent visitor at the Stefanovitchs', who still live in Florence under the name of Darfour, and more than once has the little Crown Prince thanked me. The pretty, dark-eyed Clotilde and her father are quite popular in society, but no one dreams that little Paul, who is so carefully guarded by the old General and his trusty soldier-servant, is heir to a European throne, or that his life was saved in curious circumstances by "the Count's chauffeur."
THE RED ROOSTER
As chauffeur to one of the most ingenious adventurers who ever staked a louis at the tables, and travelling constantly up and down Europe, as I did, I frequently came across strange romances in real life—stranger by far than any in fiction. My profession often took me amid exciting scenes, for wherever there was a centre of unusual excitement on the Continent, and consequent opportunities for pilfering, there we generally were.
I have acquaintances in every capital; I chatter in half a dozen tongues; I have the reputation of being an authority on hotels and the best routes hither and thither; while I believe I am known in most of the chief garages in the capitals.
Yes, mine was a strange life, full of romance, of constant change, of excitement—sometimes of peril.
The latter was quickly apparent when last winter, after two days of hard travelling over those endless frozen roads and through the dark forests of Eastern Poland, I pulled up before a small inn on the outskirts of the dismal-looking town of Ostrog. The place, with its roofs covered with freshly fallen snow, lay upon the slight slope of a low hill, beneath which wound the Wilija Goryn, now frozen so hard that the bridge was hardly ever used. It was January, and that month in Poland is always a cold one.
I had come up from Budapest to Tarnopol, crossed the frontier at the little village of Kolodno, and thence driven the "forty" along the valleys into Volynien, a long, weary, dispiriting run, on and on, until the monotony of the scenery maddened me. Cramped and cold I was, notwithstanding the big Russian fur shuba I wore, the fur cap with flaps, fur gloves, and fur rug. The country inns in which I had spent the past two nights had been filthy places, where the stoves had been surrounded by evil-smelling peasantry, where the food was uneatable, and where a wooden bench had served me as a bed.
I was on my way to meet Bindo, who was to be the guest of a Russian countess in Ostrog. Whenever I mentioned my destination, the post-house keepers held up their hands. The Red Rooster was crowing in Ostrog, they said significantly.
It was true. Russia was under the Terror, and in no place in the whole empire were the revolutionists so determined as in the town whither I was bound.
As I stood up and descended unsteadily from the car my eyes fell upon something upon the snow near the door of the inn. There was blood. It told its own tale.
From the white town across the frozen river I heard revolver shots, followed by a loud explosion that shook the whole place.
Inside the long, low common room of the inn, with its high brick stove, against which half a dozen frightened-looking men and women were huddled, I asked for the proprietor, whereupon an elderly man with shaggy hair and beard came forth, pulling his forelock.
"I want to stay here," I said.
"Yes, your Excellency," was the old fellow's reply in Polish, regarding the car in surprise. "Whatever accommodation my poor inn can afford is at your service;" and he at once shouted orders to a man to bring in my kit, while the women, all of them flat-faced peasants, made room for me at the stove.
From where I stood I could hear the sound of desultory firing across the bridge, and inquired what was in progress.
But there was an ominous silence. They did not reply; for, as I afterwards discovered, they had taken me for a high police official from Petersburg, thus accounting for the innkeeper's courtesy.
"Tell me," I said, addressing the wrinkle-faced old Pole, "what is happening over yonder?"
"The Cossacks," he stammered. "Krasiloff and his Cossacks are upon us! They have just entered the town, and are shooting down people everywhere. The fight for freedom has commenced, Excellency. But it is horrible. A poor woman was shot dead before my door half an hour ago, and her body taken away by the soldiers."
Terrible reports of the Russian revolution had filtered through to England, but I had no idea when I started that I was bound for the disturbed district. I inquired for the house of the Countess Alexandrovsky, and was directed to it—across the town, they said. With a glance to see that my revolver was loaded, I threw aside my shuba, and leaving the inn walked across the bridge into a poor narrow street of wretched-looking houses, many of them built of wood. A man limped slowly past me, wounded in the leg, and leaving blood-spots behind him as he went. An old woman was seated in a doorway, her face buried in her hands, wailing—
"My poor son!—dead!—dead!"
Before me I saw a great barricade composed of trees, household furniture, paving-stones, overturned carts, pieces of barbed wire—in fact, everything and anything the populace could seize upon for the construction of hasty defence. Upon the top, silhouetted against the clear, frosty sky, was the scarlet flag of the Revolution—the Red Rooster was crowing!
Excited men were there, armed with rifles, shouting and giving orders. Then I saw that a small space had been left open against the wall of a house so that persons might pass and repass.
As I approached, a wild-haired man shouted to me and beckoned frantically. I grasped his meaning. He wished me to come within. I ran forward, entered the town proper, and a few moments later the opening was closed by a dozen slabs of stone being heaped into it by as many willing hands.
Thus I, an inoffensive chauffeur, found myself in the very centre of the Revolution, behind the barricades, of which there were, it seemed, six or seven. From the rear there was constant firing, and the streets in the vicinity were, I saw to my horror, already filled with dead and wounded. I wondered why Count Bindo should come there—except, perhaps, that the Countess owned certain jewels that my master intended to handle. Women were wailing over husbands, lovers, brothers; men over their daughters and wives. Even children of tender age were lying helpless and wounded, some of them shattered and dead.
Ah! that sight was sickening. It was wholesale butchery.
Above us bullets whistled as the Cossacks came suddenly round a side street and made a desperate attack upon the barricade I had entered only a few minutes before. A dozen of those fighting for their freedom fell back dead at my feet at the first volley. They had been on top of the barricade, offering a mark to the troops of the Czar. Before us and behind us there was firing, for behind was another barricade. We were, in fact, between two deadly fires.
Revolver in hand, I stood ready to defend my own life. In those exciting moments I disregarded the danger I ran from being struck in that veritable hail of lead. Men fell wounded all around me, and there was blood everywhere. A thin, dark-haired young fellow under thirty—a Moscow student I subsequently heard—seemed to be the ringleader, for above the firing could be heard his shouts of encouragement.
"Fight, my comrades!" he cried, standing close to me and waving the red flag he carried—the emblem of the Terror. "Down with the Czar! Kill the vermin he sends to us! Long live freedom! Kill them!" he shrieked. "They have killed your wives and daughters. Men of Ostrog, remember your duty to-day. Set an example to Russia. Do not let the Moscow fiasco be repeated here. Fight! Fight on as long as you have a drop of life-blood in you, and we shall win, we shall win. Down with the Autocrat! Down with the——"
His sentence was never finished, for at that instant he reeled backwards, with half his face shot away by a Cossack bullet.
The situation was, for me, one of greatest peril. The whole place was in open revolt, and when the troops broke down the defences, as I saw they must do sooner or later, then we should all be caught in a trap, and no quarter would be given.
The massacre would be the same as at Moscow, and many other towns in Eastern Russia, wherein the populace had been shot down indiscriminately, and official telegrams sent to Petersburg reporting "Order now reigns."
I sought shelter in a doorway, but scarcely had I done so than a bullet embedded itself in the woodwork a few inches from my head. At the barricade the women were helping the men, loading their rifles for them, shouting and encouraging them to fight gallantly for freedom.
A yellow-haired young woman, not more than twenty, emerged from a house close by where I stood, and ran past me to the barricade. As she passed I saw that she carried something in her hand. It looked like a small cylinder of metal.
Shouting to a man who was firing through a loophole near the top of the barricade, she handed it up to him. Taking it carefully, he scrambled up higher, waited for a few moments, and then raising himself, he hurled it far into the air, into the midst of an advancing troop of Cossacks.
There was a red flash, a terrific explosion which shook the whole town, wrecking the houses in the immediate vicinity, and blowing to atoms dozens of the Czar's soldiers.
A wild shout of victory went up from the revolutionists when they saw the havoc caused by the awful bomb. The yellow-haired girl returned again, and brought another, which, after some ten minutes or so, was similarly hurled against the troops, with equally disastrous effect.
The roadway was strewn with the bodies of those Cossacks which General Kinski, the governor of the town, had telegraphed for, and whom Krasiloff had ordered to give no quarter to the revolutionists. In Western Russia the name of Krasiloff was synonymous with all that was cruel and brutal. It was he who ordered the flogging of the five young women at Minsk, those poor unfortunate creatures who were knouted by Cossacks, who laid their backs bare to the bone. As everyone in Russia knows, two of them, both members of good families, died within a few hours, and yet no reprimand did he receive from Petersburg. By the Czar, and at the Ministry of the Interior, he was known to be a hard man, and for that reason certain towns where the revolutionary spirit was strongest had been given into his hands.
At Kiev he had executed without trial dozens of men and women arrested for revolutionary acts. A common grave was dug in the prison-yard, and the victims, four at a time, were led forward to the edge of the pit and shot, each batch being compelled to witness the execution of the four prisoners preceding them. With a refinement of cruelty that was only equalled by the Inquisition, he had wrung confessions from women and afterwards had them shot and buried. At Petersburg they knew these things, but he had actually been commended for his loyalty to the Czar!
And now that he had been hurriedly moved to Ostrog the people knew that his order to the Cossacks was to massacre the people, and more especially the Jewish portion of the population, without mercy.
Where was Bindo? I wondered.
"Krasiloff is here!" said a man whose face was smeared with blood, as he stood by me. "He intends that we shall all die, but we will fight for it. The Revolution has only just commenced. Soon the peasants will rise, and we will sweep the country clean of the vermin the Czar has placed upon us. To-day Kinski, the Governor, has been fired at twice, but unsuccessfully. He wants a bomb, and he shall have it," he added meaningly. "Olga—the girl yonder with the yellow hair—has one for him!" and he laughed grimly.
I recognised my own deadly peril. I stood revolver in hand, though I had not fired a shot, for I was no revolutionist. I was only awaiting the inevitable breaking down of the barricade—and the awful catastrophe that must befall the town when those Cossacks, drunk with the lust for blood, swept into the streets.
Around me, men and women were shouting themselves hoarse, while the red emblem of terror still waved lazily from the top of the barricade. The men manning the improvised defence kept up a withering fire upon the troops, who, in the open road, were afforded no cover. Time after time the place shook as those terrible bombs exploded with awful result, for the yellow-haired girl seemed to keep up a continuous supply of them. They were only seven or eight inches long, but hurled into a company of soldiers their effect was deadly.
For half an hour longer it seemed as though the defence of the town would be effectual, yet of a sudden the redoubled shouts of those about me told me the truth.
The Cossacks had been reinforced, and were about to rush the barricade.
I managed to peer forth, and there, sure enough, the whole roadway was filled with soldiers.
Yells, curses, heavy firing, men falling back from the barricade to die around me, and the disappearance of the red flag, showed that the Cossacks were at last scaling the great pile of miscellaneous objects that blocked the street. A dozen of the Czar's soldiers appeared silhouetted against the sky as they scrambled across the top of the barricade, but next second a dozen corpses fell to earth, riddled by the bullets of the men standing below in readiness.
In a moment, however, other men appeared in their places, and still more and more. Women threw up their hands in despair and fled for their lives while men—calmly prepared to die in the Cause—shouted again and again, "Down with Krasiloff and the Czar! Long live the Revolution! Victory for the People's Will!"
I stood undecided. I was facing death. Those Cossacks with orders to massacre would give no quarter, and would not discriminate. Krasiloff was waiting for his dastardly order to be carried out. The Czar had given him instructions to crush the Revolution by whatever means he thought proper.
Those moments of suspense seemed hours. Suddenly there was another flash, a stunning report, the air was filled with debris, and a great breach opened in the barricade. The Cossacks had used explosives to clear away the obstruction. Next instant they were upon us.
I flew—flew for my life. Whither my legs carried me I know not. Women's despairing shrieks rent the air on every hand. The massacre had commenced. I remember I dashed into a long, narrow street that seemed half deserted, then turned corner after corner, but behind me, ever increasing, rose the cries of the doomed populace. The Cossacks were following the people into their houses and killing men, women, and even children.
Suddenly, as I turned into a side street, I saw that it led into a large open thoroughfare—the main road through the town, I expect. And there, straight before me, I saw that an awful scene was being enacted.
I turned to run back, but at that instant a woman's long, despairing cry reached me, causing me to glance within a doorway, where stood a big brutal Cossack, who had pursued and captured a pretty, dark-haired, well-dressed girl.
"Save me!" she shrieked as I passed. "Oh, save me, sir!" she gasped, white, terrified, and breathless with struggling. "He will kill me!"
The burly soldier had his bearded face close down to hers, his arms clasped around her, and had evidently forced her from the street into the entry.
For a second I hesitated.
"Oh, sir, save me! Save me, and God will reward you!" she implored, her big dark eyes turned to mine in final appeal.
The fellow at that moment raised his fist and struck her a brutal blow upon the mouth that caused the blood to flow, saying with a savage growl—
"Be quiet, will you?"
"Let that woman go!" I commanded in the best Russian I could muster.
In an instant, with a glare in his fiery eyes, for the blood-lust was within him, he turned upon me and sneeringly asked who I was to give him orders, while the poor girl reeled, half stunned by his blow.
"Let her go, I say!" I shouted, advancing quickly towards him.
But in a moment he had drawn his big army revolver, and ere I became aware of his dastardly intention, he raised it a few inches from her face.
Quick as thought I raised my own weapon, which I had held behind me, and being accredited a fairly good shot, I fired, in an endeavour to save the poor girl.
Fortunately my bullet struck, for he stepped back, his revolver dropped from his fingers upon the stones, and stumbling forward he fell dead at her feet without a word. My shot had, I saw, hit him in the temple, and death had probably been instantaneous.
With a cry of joy at her sudden release, the girl rushed across to me, and raising my left hand to her lips, kissed it, at the same time thanking me.
Then, for the first time, I recognised how uncommonly pretty she was. Not more than eighteen, she was slim and petite, with a narrow waist and graceful figure—quite unlike in refinement and in dress to the other women I had seen in Ostrog. Her dark hair had come unbound in her desperate struggle with the Cossack and hung about her shoulders, her bodice was torn and revealed a bare white neck, and her chest heaved and fell as in breathless, disjointed sentences she thanked me again and again.
There was not a second to lose, however. She was, I recognised, a Jewess, and Krasiloff's orders were to spare them not.
From the main street beyond rose the shouts and screams, the firing and wild triumphant yells, as the terrible massacre progressed.
"Come with me!" she cried breathlessly. "Along here. I know of a place of safety."
And she led the way, running swiftly, for about two hundred yards, and then turning into a narrow, dirty courtyard, passed through an evil, forbidding-looking house, where all was silent as the grave.
With a key, she quickly opened the door of a poor, ill-furnished room, which she closed behind her, but did not lock. Then, opening a door on the opposite side, which had been papered over so as to escape observation, I saw there was a flight of damp stone stairs leading down to a cellar or some subterranean regions beneath the house.
"Down here!" she said, taking a candle, lighting it and handing it to me. "Go—I will follow."
I descended cautiously into the cold, dank place, discovering it to be a kind of unlighted cellar hewn out of the rock. A table, a chair, a lamp, and some provisions showed that preparation had been made for concealment there, but ere I had entirely explored the place my pretty fellow-fugitive rejoined me.
"This, I hope, is a place of safety," she said. "They will not find us here. This is where Gustave lived before his flight."
"Gustave?" I repeated, looking her straight in the face.
She dropped her eyes and blushed. Her silence told its own tale. The previous occupant of that rock chamber was her lover.
Her name was Luba—Luba Lazareff, she told me. But of herself she would tell me nothing further. Her reticence was curious, yet before long I recognised the reason of her refusal.
Candle in hand, I was examining the deepest recesses of the dark cavernous place, while she lit the lamp, when, to my surprise, I discovered at the farther end a workman's bench upon which were various pieces of turned metal, pieces of tube of various sizes, and little phials of glass like those used for the tiny tabloids for subcutaneous injections.
I took one up to examine it, but at that instant she noticed me and screamed in terror.
"Ah! sir, for Heaven's sake, put that down—very carefully. Touch nothing there, or we may both be blown to pieces! See!" she added in a low, intense voice of confession, as she dashed forward, "there are finished bombs there! Gustave could not carry them all away, so he left those with me."
"Then Gustave made these—eh?"
"Yes. And see, he gave me this!" and she drew from her breast a small shining cylinder of brass, a beautifully-finished little object about four inches long. "He gave this to me to use—if necessary!" the girl added, a meaning flash in her dark eyes.
For a moment I was silent.
"Then you would have used it upon that Cossack?" I said slowly.
"That was my intention."
"And kill yourself as well as your assailant?"
"I have promised him," was her simple answer.
"And this Gustave? You love him? Tell me all about him. Remember, I am your friend, and will help you if I can."
She hesitated, and I was compelled to urge her again and again ere she would speak.
"Well, he is French—from Paris," she said at last, as we still stood before the bomb-maker's bench. "He is a chemist, and being an Anarchist, came to us, and joined us in the Revolution. The petards thrown over the barricades to-day were of his make, but he had to fly. He left yesterday."
"Ah! how can I tell? The Cossacks may have caught and killed him. He may be dead," she added hoarsely.
"Which direction has he taken?"
"He was compelled to leave hurriedly at midnight. He came, kissed me, and gave me this," she said, still holding the shining little bomb in her small white hand. "He said he intended, if possible, to get over the hills to the frontier at Satanow."
I saw that she was deeply in love with the fugitive, whoever he might be.
Outside, the awful massacre was in progress we knew, but no sound of it reached us down in that rock-hewn tomb.
The yellow lamp-light fell upon her sweet, dimpled face, but when she turned her splendid eyes to mine I saw that in them was a look of anxiety and terror inexpressible.
I inquired of her father and mother, for she was of a superior class, as I had, from the first moment, detected. She spoke French extremely well, and we had dropped into that language as being easier for me than Russian.
"What can it matter to you, sir, a stranger?" she sighed.
"But I am interested in you, mademoiselle," I answered. "Had I not been, I should not have fired that shot."
"Ah yes!" she cried quickly. "I am an ingrate! You saved my life;" and again she seized both my hands and kissed them.
"Hark!" I cried, startled. "What's that?" for I distinctly heard a sound of cracking wood.
The next moment men's gruff voices reached us from above.
"The Cossacks!" she screamed. "They have found us—they have found us!" and the light died out of her beautiful countenance.
In her trembling hand she held the terrible little engine of destruction.
With a quick movement I gripped her wrist, urging her to refrain until all hope was abandoned, and together we stood facing the soldiers as they descended the stairs to where we were. They were, it seems, searching every house.
"Ah!" they cried, "a good hiding-place this! But the wall was hollow, and revealed the door."
"Well, my pretty!" exclaimed a big leering Cossack, chucking the trembling girl beneath the chin.
"Hold!" I commanded the half-dozen men who now stood before us, their swords red with the life-blood of the Revolution. But before I could utter further word the poor girl was wrenched from my grasp, and the Cossack was smothering her face with his hot, nauseous kisses.
"Hold, I tell you!" I shouted. "Release her, or it is at your own peril!"
"Hulloa!" they laughed. "Who are you?" and one of the men raised his sword to strike me, whilst another held him back, exclaiming, "Let us hear what he has to say."
"Then, listen!" I said, drawing from my pocket-book a folded paper. "Read this, and look well at the signature. This girl is under my protection;" and I handed the document to the man who held little Luba in his arms. It was only my Foreign Office passport, but I knew they could not read English and that it was a formidable screed, with its coat-of-arms and visa.
The men, astounded at my announcement, read what they took to be some all-powerful ukase beneath the lamp-light, and took counsel among themselves.
"And who, pray, is this Jewess?" inquired one.
"My affianced wife," was my quick reply. "And I command you at once to take us under safe escort to General Krasiloff—quickly, without delay. We took refuge in this place from the Revolution, in which we have taken no part."
I saw, however, with sinking heart, that one of the men was examining the bomb-maker's bench, and had recognised the character of what remained there.
He looked at us, smiled grimly, and whispered smoothly to one of his companions.
Again, in an authoritative tone, I demanded to be taken to Krasiloff; and presently, after being marched as prisoners across the town, past scenes so horrible that they are still vividly before my eyes, we were taken into the chief police-office, where the hated official, a fat, red-faced man in a general's uniform—the man without pity or remorse, the murderer of women and children—was sitting at a table. He greeted me with a grunt.
"General," I said, addressing him, "I have to present to you this order of my sovereign, King Edward, and to demand safe conduct. Your soldiers found me and my——"
"Your pretty Jewess—eh?" and a smile of sarcasm spread over his fat face. "Well, go on;" and he took the paper I handed him, knitting his brows again as his eyes fell upon the Imperial arms and the signature.
"We were found in a cellar where we had hidden from the revolt," I said.
"The place has been used for the manufacture of bombs," declared one of the Cossacks.
The General looked my pretty companion straight in the face.
"What is your name, girl?" he demanded roughly.
"Native of where?"
"What are you doing in Ostrog?"
"She is with me," I interposed. "I demand protection for her."
"I am addressing the prisoner, sir," was his cold remark.
"You refuse to obey the request of the King of England? Good! Then I shall report you to the Minister," I exclaimed, piqued at his insolence.
"Speak, girl!" he roared, his black eyes fixed fiercely upon her. "Why are you in Ostrog? You are no provincial—you know."
"She is my affianced wife," I said, "and in face of that document she need make no reply to any of your questions. Read what His Majesty commands."
"Thank you, sir. I have already read it." But I knew he could not read English.
A short, stout little man, shabbily dressed, pushed his way forward to the table, saying—
"Luba Lazareff is a well-known revolutionist, your excellency. The French maker of bombs, Gustave Lemaire, is her lover—not this gentleman. Gustave only left Ostrog yesterday." The speaker was, it was plain, an agent of secret police.
"And where is Lemaire now? I gave orders for his arrest some days ago."
"He was found this morning by the patrol on the road to Schumsk, recognised and shot."
At this poor little Luba gave vent to a piercing scream, and burst into a torrent of bitter tears.
"You fiends!" she cried. "You have shot my Gustave! He is dead—dead!"
"There was no doubt, I suppose, as to his identity?" asked the General.
"None, your Excellency. Some papers found upon the body have been forwarded to us with the report."
"Then let the girl be shot also. She aided him in the manufacture of the bombs."
"Shot!" I gasped, utterly staggered. "What do you mean, General? You will shoot a poor defenceless girl—and in face of that ukase before you—in face of my demand for her protection! I have promised her marriage," I cried in desperation, "and you condemn her to execution!"
"My Emperor has given me orders to quell the rebellion, and all who make bombs for use against the Government must die. His Majesty gave me orders to execute all such," said the official sternly. "You, sir, will have safe-conduct to whatever place you wish to visit. Take the girl away."
"But, General, reflect a moment whether this is not——"
"I never reflect, sir," he cried angrily; and rising from his chair with outstretched hand, he snapped—
"How much of my time are you going to lose over the wench? Take her away—and let it be done at once."
The poor condemned girl, blanched to the lips and trembling from head to foot, turned quickly to me, and in a few words in French thanked me and again kissed my hand, with the brief words, "Farewell, you have done your best. God will reward you!"
Then, with one accord, we all turned, and together went mournfully forth into the street.
A lump arose in my throat, for I saw, as the General pointed out, that my pretended ukase did not extend beyond my own person. Luba was a Russian subject, and therefore under the Russian martial law.
Of a sudden, however, just as we emerged into the roadway, the unfortunate girl, at whose side I still remained, turned, and raising her tearful face to mine, with sudden impetuosity kissed me.
Then, before any of us were aware of her intention, she turned, and rushed back into the room where the General was still sitting.
The Cossacks dashed back after her, but ere they reached the chamber there was a terrific explosion, the air was filled with debris, the back of the building was torn completely out, and when, a few minutes later, I summoned courage to enter and peep within the wrecked room, I saw a scene that I dare not describe here in cold print.
Suffice it to say that the bodies of Luba Lazareff and General Stephen Krasiloff were unrecognisable, save for the shreds of clothing that still remained.
Luba had used her bomb in revenge for Gustave's death, and she had freed Russia of the heartless tyrant who had condemned her to die.
An hour later I found the blackened ruins of the house of Countess Alexandrovsky, but hearing no news of Bindo I returned to the car, and set out again towards the Austrian frontier.
Yes, that brief run in Russia was full of excitement.
CONCERNING THE OTHER FELLOW
Last spring Count Bindo again renewed his lease of the furnished villa on the Viale dei Colli, that beautiful drive that winds up behind the Arno from the Porta Romana, in Florence, past San Miniato. It was a fine old place, standing in its own grounds, and was the German Embassy in the days when the Lily City was the Italian capital.
There were reasons for this. Sir Charles Blythe was living at the Grand, and Henderson was at the Hotel de la Ville. A coup was intended at one of the jewellers on the Ponte Vecchio—a place where it was known that there were a quantity of valuable pearls.
It was not, however, successful; for certain difficulties arose that were insurmountable.
The trio left Florence at the beginning of May, but I was left alone with the car and with the Italian servants to idle away the days as best I could. They had all three gone to Aix, I think.
The only other Englishman left in Florence appeared to be a man I had recently re-encountered, named Charlie Whitaker. He and I had become great friends, as we had been several years before. I often took him for a run on the car, to Bologna, Livorno, or Siena, and we used to meet nearly every evening.
One stifling August night Florence lay gasping.
Above the clatter of the cafe, the music, the laughter of women and the loud chatter in Italian, the strident cries of the newsvendors rose in the great moonlit Piazza, with its huge equestrian statue of the beloved Vittorio looming dark against the steely sky.
Only the popolo, the merry, brown-faced, easy-going Florentines, were still in the sun-baked city. All Society, even the richer tradesmen, and certainly all the foreign residents, had fled—all of the latter save two, Charlie and myself.
You, who know the quaint old mediaeval city in the winter "season," when the smart balls are given at the Corsini or the Strozzi, when the Cascine is filled with pretty women at four o'clock, and the jewellers on the Ponte Vecchio put forth their imitation cinquecento wares, would not know it in August, when beneath that fiery Tuscan sun it is as a city of the dead by day, while at night the lower classes come forth from their slums to idle, to gossip, and to enjoy the bel fresco after the heat and burden of the day.
On an August night the little dark-eyed seamstress sits and enjoys her ice at the same tin-topped table at the Gambrinus where the foreign Princess has sat in April. In winter Florence is a city of the wealthy; in summer it is given over entirely to the populace. So great is the sweltering, breathless heat, that everyone who can leave Florence in August leaves it. The great villas and palaces are closed; the Florence Club, that most exclusive institution in Europe, is shut up; the hotels move up to Camaldoli, to Pracchia, or to Abetone; and to be seen in Florence in those blazing days causes wonder and comment.
Charlie and I were the only two foreigners in Florence. I had remained on at the orders of Bindo, and Charlie—well, he remained for the best of reasons, because he hadn't the money with which to go up into the mountains, or down to the sea.
Charlie Whitaker was an "outsider," I knew, but not by any fault of his own. He lived in Florence mostly on the charity of his friends. A tall, lithe, good-looking fellow of thirty-two, he came of a Yorkshire stock, and for seven or eight years had lived the gay life of town, and been a member of the Stock Exchange. Left very well off, he had developed keen business instincts, and had been so successful that in three years he had gained a comfortable fortune by speculation. He bought a bijou house in Deanery Street, off Park Lane, turned it inside out, and made a pretty bachelor residence of it.
Half London knew Charlie Whitaker. I first met him when he was about to purchase a new "Napier." He gave smart luncheon-parties at the Bachelors, dinners at the Savoy, and was the pet of certain countesses of the smart set. Indeed, he led the London life of a man of ample means untrammelled with a woman, until, of a sudden, he failed. Why, nobody knew; even to his most intimate friends the crisis was a complete mystery.
I only know that I met him in the Strand one night. He seemed sad and pensive. Then, when he grasped my hand in farewell, he said—
"Well, Ewart, good-night. I may see you again some day."
That "some day" came very soon. Two months later he was living en pension at twenty-five lire a week in the attic of a great old mediaeval palace close to the Piazza Santa Trinita. Florence, the greatest city for gossip in the whole world, quickly knew his past, and nobody would receive him. Snubbed everywhere, jeered at by the stuck-up foreign colony of successful English shopkeepers, he received no invitations, and I believe I was his only friend.
Even my friendship with him brought criticism upon me—modest chauffeur that I was. Why did I make an intimate of such a man? Some declared him to be an absconding bankrupt; others cast suspicion that he had fled from England because of some grave scandal; while others made open charges against him in the Club that were cruel to a degree.
Up at the villa, however, he was always welcome. I alone knew that he was a man of sterling worth, that his misfortunes were none of his own seeking, and that the charges against him were all false. He had made a big speculation and had unfortunately burnt his fingers—that was all.
And on this hot, feverish night, with the clear white moon shining down upon the Piazza, we sat to gossip, to drink our iced bock, and to smoke our long Toscano cigars, which, to the resident in Italy, become so palatable.
I knew that Charlie had had his romance, one of the strangest of all that I had known. Crushed, hipped, bankrupt, almost penniless, he had never mentioned it to me. It was his own private affair, and I, as his friend, never referred to so painful a subject.
It is strange how one takes to some men. All my friends looked askance when I walked about Florence with Charlie Whitaker. Some insinuated that his past was a very black one, and others openly declared that he never dare face the Consul, or go back to England, because a warrant was out for him. Truly he was under a cloud, poor fellow, and I often felt sorry for all the open snubs he received.
As we sat that night smoking outside on the pavement, with the merry, careless populace idling to and fro, he seemed a trifle more pensive than usual, and I inquired the reason.
"Nothing, Ewart," he declared, with a faint smile; "nothing very particular. Thoughts—only thoughts of——"
"Of town—of our dear old London that I suppose I shall never see again," and his mouth hardened. "Do you remember Pall Mall, the Park, the Devonshire—and Vivi?"
I nodded, and pulled at my cheap cigar.
Vivi! Did I remember her? Why, I had often driven the Honourable Victoria Violet Finlay, the girl—for she was only eighteen—who had once flirted with me when I was in her father's service. Why, I wondered, did he mention her? Could he know the truth? Could he know the galling bitterness of my own heart? I think not. Through the many months I had been the Count's chauffeur I had held my secret, though my heart was full of bitterness.
Mention of her name recalled, under that white Italian moonlight, a vision of her—the tall, slim, graceful girlish figure, the oval delicate face with clear blue eyes, and the wealth of red-gold hair beneath her motor-cap. She rose before me with that sad, bitter smile of farewell that she had given me when, as she was seated beside me in the car, on our way from Guildford to London, I bent over her small white hand for the last time.
Whew! Why are we men given memories? Half one's life seems to be made up of vain regrets. Since that day I had, it was true, never ceased to think of her, yet I had lived a lonely, melancholy life, even though it were fraught with such constant excitement.
"You knew Vivi, of course?" I remarked, after a long silence, looking my fellow-exile straight in the face.
"I met her once or twice at the house of my aunt, Lady Ailesworth," was his reply. "I wonder where she is now? There was some talk of her marrying Baron de Boek, the Belgian banker. Did you hear it?"
I nodded. The rumour was, alas! too well known to me. How is it that the memory of one woman clings to a man above all others? Why does one woman's face haunt every man, whatever age he may be, or whether he be honest or a thief?
Whitaker was watching my countenance so intently that I was filled with surprise. I had never told a soul of my flirtation.
Three youths passed along the pavement playing upon their mandolines an air from the latest opera at the Arena, laughing at two hatless girls of the people who were drinking coffee at the table next to us, and next moment the al fresco orchestra in the balcony above struck up a waltz.
"Faugh!" cried my companion, starting up. "Let's go. This music is intolerable! Let's walk along the Lung Arno, by the river."
I rose, and together we strolled to the river-side along that embankment, the favourite walk of Dante and of Petrarch, of Raphael and of Michelangelo. All was silent, for the great ponderous palaces lining the river were closed till winter, and there were no shops or cafes.
For a long time we walked in the brilliant night without uttering a word. At last he said in a strange, hard voice—
"I've received news to-day which every other man beside myself would regard as the very worst information possible, and yet, to me, it is the most welcome."
"What's that?" I inquired.
"I saw two doctors, Pellegrini and Gori, to-day, and both have said the same thing—I am dying. In a few weeks I shall have ceased to trouble anybody."
"Dying!" I gasped, halting and staring at him. "Why, my dear fellow, you are the very picture of health."
"I know," he smiled. "But I have for a long time suspected myself doomed. I have a complaint that is incurable. Therefore I wonder if you would do me one small favour. Will you keep this letter until I am dead, and afterwards open it and act upon its instructions? They may seem strange to you, but you will ascertain the truth. When you do know the truth, recollect that though dead I beg of you one thing—your forgiveness."
"Forgiveness? For what? I don't understand you."
"No," he said bitterly. "Of course you don't. And I have no wish that you should—until after I am dead. You are my only friend, and yet I have to ask you to forgive. Here is the letter," he added, drawing an envelope from his pocket and handing it to me. "Take it to-night, for I never know if I may live to see another day."
I took it, and noting its big black seal, placed it carefully in my inner pocket. Two loafers were standing in the shadow in front of us, and their presence reminded me that that end of the Lung Arno is not very safe at night. Therefore we turned, slowly retracing our steps back to the quaint old bridge with the houses upon it—the Ponte Vecchio.
Just before we reached it my companion stopped, and grasping my hand suddenly, said in a choking voice—
"You have been my only friend since my downfall, Ewart. Without you, I should have starved. These very clothes I wear were bought with money you have so generously given me. I can never thank you sufficiently. You have prolonged a useless and broken life, but it will soon be at an end, and I shall no longer be a burden to you."
"A burden? What rubbish! You're not yourself to-night, Whitaker. Cheer up, for Heaven's sake."
"Can a condemned man laugh? Well," he added, with a mocking smile, "I'll try. Come, old fellow, let's go back to the Gambrinus and have another bock—before we part. I've got a franc—one of yours—so I'll stand it!"
And we walked on to the big Piazza, with its music and its garish cafes, the customers of which overflowed into the square, where they sat in great groups.
Italy is indeed a complex country, and contains more of the flotsam and jetsam of English derelicts than any other country in all Europe. Every Italian town has its own coterie of broken-down Englishmen and Englishwomen, the first-mentioned mostly sharks, and the latter mostly drunkards. Truly the shifty existence led by these exiles presents a strange phrase of life, so essentially cosmopolitan and yet so essentially tragic.
It was half-past one when I left my friend to walk home out of the town through the narrow Via Romana. The ill-lit neighbourhood through which I had to pass was somewhat unsafe late at night, but being well known in Florence I never feared, and was walking briskly, full of thought of my own love-romance, when, of a sudden, two rough-looking men coming out of a side street collided with me, apologised, and went off hurriedly.
At first I felt bewildered, so sudden was the encounter. My thoughts had been very far away from that dark ancient street. But next moment I felt in my pocket. My wallet—in which one carries the paper currency of Italy—was gone, and with it Whitaker's precious letter!
Those men had evidently watched me take out my wallet when on the Lung Arno, and waited for me as I walked home.
I turned to look after them, but they had already disappeared into that maze of crooked, squalid streets around the Pitti. Fortunately, there was not more than a sovereign in it. I was filled with regret, however, on account of my friend's letter. He had trusted me with some secret. I had accepted the confidence he reposed in me, and yet, by my carelessness, the secret, whatever it was, had passed into other hands. Should I tell him? I hesitated. What would you have done in such circumstances?
Well, I decided to say nothing. If the thief knew me, as he most probably did, he might return the letter anonymously when he discovered that it was of no value. And that there was anything of value within was entirely out of the question.
So months went by. I was ordered to take the car back to England, and then went to Germany and to France. Only once Whitaker wrote to me. Florence, he declared, was very dull now I had left.
A coup had been made in Biarritz,—a little matter of a few sparklers,—and Bindo and I found ourselves living, early in January, at the Villa Igiea, at Palermo.
As I sat alone, smoking and gazing out upon the blue bay, with the distant mountains purple in the calm sundown, the quick frou-frou of silken skirts passed close by me, and a tall, slender girl, very elegantly dressed, went forth alone into the beautiful gardens that slope down to the sea. I noted her neat figure, her gait, the red-gold tint of her hair, and the peculiar manner in which she carried her left hand when walking.
Could it be Vivi? I sat up, staring after her in wonder. Her figure was perfect, her elegant cream gown was evidently the "creation" of one of the man-milliners of the Rue de la Paix, and I noticed that the women sitting around had turned and were admiring her for her general chic.
She turned into the gardens ere I could catch a glimpse of her face, and I sat back again, laughing at my own foolishness. Somehow, during the past three years, I had fancied I saw her a dozen times—in London, in Rome, in Paris, in Nice, and elsewhere. But I had always, alas! discovered it to be an illusion. The figure of this girl in cream merely resembled hers, that was all. I tried to convince myself of it, and yet I was unable to do so. Why, I cannot tell, but I had been seized with a keen desire to see her face. I half rose, but sat back again, ridiculing my own thoughts. And so five minutes passed, until, unable to resist longer, I rose, went forth into the gardens, and wandered among the palms in search of her.
At last I found her standing by a low wall, her face turned towards the sea. Alone, she had paused in her walk, and with her eyes turned across the bay she was in a deep reverie. Then, as she heard my footstep, she turned and faced me.
"Vivi!" I cried, rushing toward her.
"You!—George!" she gasped, starting back in sudden amazement.
"Yes," I said madly. "At last, after all this long time, I have found you!"
She held her breath. Her beautiful countenance changed, her sweet mouth hardened; I fancied I saw tears welling in her great blue eyes that were so fathomless.
"I—I did not dream that you were here, or I would never have come," she faltered. "Never!"
"Because you still wish to avoid me—eh? Your memory still remains to me—but, alas! only a memory," I said sadly, taking her hand again and holding it firmly within my own. "I am only a chauffeur."
Our eyes met. She looked at me long and steadily. Her chest rose and fell, and she turned her gaze from me, away to the purple mountains across the bay.
"Let me still remain only a memory," she answered in a low, strained voice. "It is as painful to me to meet you—as to you."
"But why? Tell me why?" I demanded, raising her soft hand again to my lips. "Do you remember that day on the Ripley road—the day when we parted?"
She nodded, and her chest rose and fell again, stirred by her own deep emotions.
"You would give me no reason for your sudden decision."
"And I still can give you none."
She was silent, standing there with the brilliant Southern afterglow falling full upon her beautiful face. Behind her was a background of feathery palms, and we were alone.
I still held her hand, though she endeavoured to withdraw it.
"Ah!" I cried, "you always withhold your reason from me. I am not rich like other men who admire and flatter you, yet I tell you—ah yes, I swear to you—that only you do I love. Ever since you came fresh from your school in Germany I admired you. Do you remember how many times you sat at my side on the old Panhard? Surely you must have known that? Surely you must have guessed the reason why I always preferred you in the front seat?"
"Yes—yes!" she faltered, interrupting me. "I know. I loved you, but I was foolish—very foolish."
She made no reply, but burst suddenly into tears.
Tenderly I placed my arm about her waist. What could I do, save to try and comfort her? In the three years that had passed she had grown into womanhood, and yet she still preserved that sweet girlishness that, in these go-ahead days, is so refreshing and attractive in a woman in her early twenties.
In those calm moments in the glorious Sicilian sundown I recollected those days when at seventeen she had admitted her love for me, and we were happy. Visions of that blissful past arose before me—and then the crushing blow I had received prior to our parting.
"Vivi, tell me," I whispered at last, "why do you still hold aloof from me?"
"Because I—I must."
"But why? You surely are now your own mistress?"
Her eyes were fixed upon me again very gravely for some moments in silence. Then she answered in a low voice—
"But I can never marry you. It is impossible."
"No, I know. There is such a wide difference in our stations," I said regretfully.
"No, it is not that. The reason is one that is my own secret," was her answer, as she drew her breath and her little hands clenched themselves.
"May I not know it?"
"No—never. It—well, it concerns myself alone."
"But you still love me, Vivi? You still think of me?" I cried.
And then she turned away in the direction of the hotel.
I followed, and grasping her by the hand, repeated my question.
"My secret is my own," was all the satisfaction she would give me.
And I was forced at last to allow her to walk back to the hotel, and to follow her alone.
What was the nature of her secret?
If ever a man's heart sank to the depths of despair mine sank at that moment. She had been all the world to me, and, cosmopolitan adventurer that I had now become, I met a thousand bright-eyed chic and attractive women, yet I revered her memory as the one woman who was pure and perfect.
I watched her disappear into the green-carpeted hotel-lounge, where an orchestra of mandolinists were playing an air from La Boheme. Then I turned away, full of my own sad thoughts, and strolled in the falling twilight beside the grey sea.
Just before dinner, after re-entering the hotel, I wrote a note and gave it to the hall-porter to send to the Signorina.
"The Signorina and the Signora have left, Signore. They went down to the boat for Naples half an hour ago."
I tore up the note, and next day left Palermo.
Next night I was in Naples, but could find no trace of them. So I went on to Rome, where I was equally unsuccessful. From the Eternal City I took the express to Calais, and on to London, where I learnt that the Viscount her father had died six months before, and that she was travelling on the Continent with her aunt.
Nearly a year passed without any news of my love.
I spent the spring at Monte Carlo, and in May, the month of flowers, found myself back at Bindo's old villa in Florence, gloomy to me on account of my own loneliness. The two English dogs barked me welcome, and Charlie Whitaker that night came and dined; for Bindo was away.
After dinner we sat in the long wicker chairs out in the garden beneath the palms, taking our coffee in the flower-scented air, with the myriad fire-flies dancing about us.
At table Charlie had been in his best mood, telling me all the gossip of Florence, but out in the garden, with his face in the shadow, he seemed to become morose and uncommunicative. I asked how he had got on during my absence, for I knew he was friendless.
"Oh, fairly well," was his answer. "A bit lonely, you know. But I used to come up here every day and take the dogs out for a run. An outsider like I am can't expect invitations to dinners and dances, you know;" and he sighed, and drew vigorously at his cigar.
"By the way," I said presently, "you remember you once mentioned that you knew Vivi Finlay in the old days in town. I met her in Palermo in the winter."
He started from his chair, and leaning towards me, echoed—
"You met her!—you? Tell me about her. How did she look? What is she doing?" he asked, with an earnest eagerness that surprised me.
Briefly I explained how I had walked and chatted with her in the gardens of the Igiea at Palermo, though I did not tell him the subject of our conversation. I tried, too, to induce him to tell me what he knew of her, but he would say nothing beyond what I already knew.
"I wonder she don't marry," I remarked at last; but to this he made no response, though I fancied that in the half light I detected a curious smile upon his face, as though he was aware that we had been lovers.
He deftly turned the conversation, though he became more bitter, as if his life was now even more soured than formerly. Then, at midnight, he took his hat and stick, and I opened the gate of the drive and let him out upon the road.
As he left, he grasped my hand warmly, and in a voice full of emotion said—
"Good-night, Ewart. May you be rewarded one day for keeping from starvation a good-for-nothing devil like myself!"
And he passed on into the darkness beneath the trees, on his way back to his high-up humble room down in the heart of the town.
At eight o'clock next morning, when I met Pietro, Bindo's man, I noticed an unusual expression upon his face, and asked him what had happened.
"I have bad news for you, Signor Ewart," he answered with hesitation. "At four o'clock this morning the Signor Whitaker was found by the police lying upon the pavement of the Lung Arno, close to the Porta San Frediano. He was dead—struck down with a knife from behind."
"Murdered!" I gasped.
"Yes, Signore. It is already in the papers;" and he handed me a copy of the Nazione.
Dumbfounded, unnerved, I dressed myself quickly, and driving down to the police-office, saw the head of the detective department, a man named Bianchi.
The sharp-featured little man sitting at the table, after taking down a summary of all I knew regarding my poor friend, explained how the discovery had been made. The body was quite cold when found, and the deep wound between the shoulders showed most conclusively that he had fallen by the hand of an assassin. I was then shown the body, and looked upon the face of poor Charlie, the "outsider," for the last time.
"He had no money upon him," I told Bianchi. "Indeed, before leaving me he had remarked that he was almost without a soldo."
"Yes. It is that very fact which puzzles us. The motive of the crime was evidently not robbery."
In the days that succeeded the police made most searching inquiries, but discovered nothing. My only regret—and it was indeed a deep one—was that I had lost the letter he had given me with injunctions to open it after his death. Did he fear assassination? I wondered. Did that letter give any clue to the assassin?
But the precious document, whatever it might be, was now irretrievably lost, and the death of "Mr. Charles Whitaker, late of the Stock Exchange," as the papers put it, remained one of the many murder-mysteries of the city of Florence.
* * * * *
Months had gone by—months of constant travel and loneliness, grief and despair.
I was in my room at the Hotel Bonne Femme in Turin, having a wash after a dusty run with the "forty," when the waiter announced Mr. Bianchi, and the sharp-featured, black-haired little man, recently promoted from Florence to watch the Anarchists in Milan.
"I am very glad, Signor Ewart, that I have been able to catch you here; you are such a bird of passage, you know," he said in Italian. "But in searching the house of a thief in Florence the other day our men found this letter, addressed to you;" and he produced from his pocket the missive that Charlie had on that hot night entrusted to my care.
I broke the black seal and read it eagerly. Its contents held me speechless in amazement.
"Do you know anything of a young man named Giovanni Murri, a Florentine?" I inquired quickly.
"Murri?" he repeated, knitting his brows. "Why, if I remember aright, a young man of that name was found drowned in the Arno on the same day that your friend the Signor Whitaker was discovered dead. He had been a waiter in London, it was said."
"That was the man. He killed my poor friend, and then committed suicide;" and I briefly explained how Whitaker had given me the letter which two hours afterwards had been stolen from me.
"The thief was the son of Count di Ferraris' gardener—a bad character. Finding that it was addressed to you, he evidently intended to return it unopened, and forgot to do so," Bianchi said. "But may I not read the letter?"
"No," I replied firmly. "It concerns a purely private affair. All that I can tell you is that Murri killed my friend. It explains the mystery."
Three nights later, I stood with my well-beloved in the elegant drawing-room of a house just off Park Lane, where she was living with her aunt.
I had placed the dead man's letter in her hand, and she was reading it breathlessly, her sweet face blanched, her tiny hands trembling.
"Mr. Ewart," she faltered hoarsely, her eyes downcast as she stood before me, "it is the truth. I ought to have told you long ago. Forgive me."
"I have already forgiven you. You must have suffered just as bitterly as I have done," I said, taking her hand.
"Ah yes. God alone knows the wretched life I have led, loving you and yet not daring to tell you my secret. As Charlie has written here, the young Italian, my father's valet, fell in love with me when I came home from school in Germany, and once I foolishly allowed him to kiss me. From that moment he became filled with a mad passion for me, and though I induced my father to dismiss him, he haunted me. Then I met Charlie Whitaker, and fancied that I loved him. Every girl is anxious to secure a husband. He was rich, kind, good-looking, and all that was eligible, save that he was not of the nobility, and for that reason he knew that my father would discountenance him. He, however, induced me to take a step that I afterwards bitterly regretted. I met him one morning at the registry office at Kensington, and we were married. We lunched together at the Savoy, and then I drove home again. That very afternoon the crash came, and on that same night he was compelled to leave England for the Continent, a ruined man."
"He must have known of the impending crisis," I remarked simply.
"I fear he did," was her reply. "But it was only a week later that you, who had known me so long, spoke to me. You told me of your love, alas! too late. What could I reply? What irony of Fate!"
"Yes, yes. I see. You could not tell me the truth."
"No. For several reasons. I loved you, yet I knew that if you were in ignorance you would remain Charlie's friend. Ah! you cannot know the awful suspense, and the thousand and one subterfuges I had to adopt. Murri, who was still in London, employed at the Carlton Club, continued to pester me with his passionate letters—the letters of an imbecile. Somehow, a year later, he discovered our marriage, by the official record, I think, and then he met me in secret one day and vowed a terrible vengeance."
"His threat he carried out," I said; "and you, my darling, are at last free."
Her head fell upon my shoulder, her chiffons rose and fell again, and our lips met in a long, hot, passionate caress, by which I knew that she was still mine—still my own sweet love.
But I was merely a chauffeur—and an adventurer.
That is why I have not married.
THE LADY IN A HURRY
"Ah! your London is such a strange place. So dull, so triste—so very damp and foggy."
"Not always, mademoiselle," I replied. "You have been there in winter. You should go in June. In the season it is as pleasant as anywhere else in the world."
"I have no desire to return. And yet——"
"And yet I have decided to go straight to Boulogne, and across the Channel."
I had met Julie Rosier under curious circumstances only a few hours before. I was on a run alone, with the forty "Napier," from Limoges to London, and on that particular winter's night had pulled up at the small station of Bersac to send a telegram. I had written out the message, leaving the car outside, and was walking along the platform, when the stationmaster, who had been talking with a tall, dark-haired, good-looking girl, approached me, cap in hand.
"Excuse me, m'sieur, but a lady wishes to ask a great favour of you."
"Of me? What is it?" I inquired, rising.
Glancing at the tall figure in black, I saw that she was not more than twenty-two at the outside, and that she had the bearing and manner of a lady.
"Well, m'sieur, she will explain herself," the man said; whereupon the fair stranger approached, bowing, and exclaimed—
"I trust M'sieur will pardon me for what I am about to ask. I know it is great presumption on my part, a total stranger, but the fact is that I am bound to get to Paris to-morrow morning. It is imperative—most imperative—that I should be there and keep an appointment. I find, however, that the last train has gone. I thought——" and she hesitated, with downcast eyes.
"You mean that you want me to allow you to travel in the car, mademoiselle?" I said, with a smile.
"Ah! m'sieur, if you would—if you only would! It would be an act of friendship that I would never forget."
She saw my hesitation, and I detected how anxious she became. Her gloved hands were trembling, and she seemed agitated and pale to the lips.
Again I scrutinised her. There was nothing of the police spy or adventuress about her. On the contrary, she seemed a very charmingly modest young woman.
"But surely it would be rather wearisome, mademoiselle?" I said.
"No, no, not at all. I must get to Paris at all costs. Ah! m'sieur, you will allow me to do as I ask, will you not? Do, I implore you!"
I made no reply; for, truth to tell, although I was not suspicious, I hesitated to allow the fair stranger to be my travelling companion. It was against my principle. Yet, reading disinclination in my silence, she continued—
"Ah! m'sieur, if you only knew in what deadly peril I am! By granting this favour to me you can——" and she broke off short. "Well," she went on, "I may as well tell you the truth, m'sieur;" and in her eyes there was a strange look that I had never seen in those of any woman before,—"you can save my life."
"Your life?" I echoed, but at that moment the stationmaster, standing at the buffet door, said—
"Pardon, m'sieur. I am just closing the station. The last train has departed."
"Do take me!" implored the girl. "Do, m'sieur! Do!"
There was no time for further discussion, therefore I did as she requested, and a few moments later, with a dressing-case, which was all the baggage she had, she mounted into the car beside me, and we moved off northward to the capital.
I offered her the fur rug, and she wrapped it about her knees with the air of one used to motoring.
And so, hour after hour, we sat and chatted. I asked her if she liked a cigarette, and she gladly accepted. So we smoked together, while she told me something of herself. She was a native of Nimes, where her people had been wealthy landowners, she said, but some unfortunate speculation on her father's part brought ruin to them, and she was now governess in the family of a certain Baron de Moret, of the Chateau de Moret, near Paris.
A governess! I had believed from her dress and manner that she was at least the daughter of some French aristocrat, and I confess I was disappointed to find that she was only a superior servant.
"I have just come from Nice," she explained, "on very urgent business—business that concerns my own self. If I am not in Paris this morning I shall, in all probability, pay the penalty with my life."
"How? What do you mean?"
In the grey dawn, as we went on towards Paris, I saw that her countenance was that of a woman who held a secret. At first I had been conscious that there was something unusual about her, and suspected her to be an adventuress; but now, on further acquaintance, I became convinced that she held possession of some knowledge that she was yearning to betray, yet feared to do so.
One fact that struck me as curious was that, in the course of our conversation, she showed that she knew my destination was London. This puzzled me.
"When we arrive in Paris I must leave you to keep my appointments," she said. "We will meet again at the corner of the Rue Royale, if you really will take me on to Boulogne with you?"
"Most certainly," was my reply.
"Ah!" she sighed, looking straight into my face with those great dark eyes that were so luminous, "you do not know—you can never guess what a great service you have rendered me by allowing me to travel here with you. My peril is the gravest that—well, that ever threatened a woman; yet now, by your aid, I shall be able to save myself. Otherwise, to-morrow my body would have been exposed in the Morgue—the corpse of a woman unknown."
"These words of yours interest me."
"Ah! m'sieur, you do not know. And I cannot tell you. It is a secret—ah! if I only dare speak you would help me, I know;" and I saw in her face a look full of apprehension and distress.
As she raised her hand to push the dark hair from her brow, as though it oppressed her, my eyes caught sight of something glistening upon her wrist, half concealed by the lace on her sleeve. It was a magnificent diamond bangle.
Surely such an ornament would not be worn by a mere governess! I looked again into her handsome face, and wondered if she were deceiving me.
"If it be in my power to assist you, mademoiselle, I will do so with the greatest pleasure. But of course I cannot without knowing the circumstances."
"And I regret that my lips are closed concerning them," she sighed, looking straight before her despairingly.
"Do you not fear to go alone?"
"I fear them no longer," was her reply, as she glanced at the little gold watch in her bracelet. "We shall be in Paris before ten o'clock—thanks to you, m'sieur."
"Well, when you first made the request I had no idea of the urgency of your journey," I remarked. "But I'm glad, very glad, that I've had an opportunity of rendering you some slight service."
"Slight, m'sieur? Why, you have saved me. I owe you a debt which I can never repay—never;" and the laces at her throat rose and fell as she sighed, her wonderful eyes still fixed upon me.