Before I could answer, she pointed to her writing-desk on the table at the fireside. "Bring it!" she cried, "bring it!".
At the same moment I felt Alicia's hand on my shoulder, and saw Alicia's face red with anger—and no wonder!
"What does this mean?" she asked. "Does your mother want to insult me?".
I said a few words to quiet her; what they were I don't remember—I was so confused and astonished at the time. Before I had done, I heard my mother behind me.
My aunt had fetched her desk. She had opened it; she had taken a paper from it. Step by step, helping herself along by the wall, she came nearer and nearer, with the paper in her hand. She looked at the paper—she looked in Alicia's face—she lifted the long, loose sleeve of her gown, and examined her hand and arm. I saw fear suddenly take the place of anger in Alicia's eyes. She shook herself free of my mother's grasp. "Mad!" she said to herself, "and Francis never told me!" With those words she ran out of the room.
I was hastening out after her, when my mother signed to me to stop. She read the words written on the paper. While they fell slowly, one by one, from her lips, she pointed toward the open door.
"Light gray eyes, with a droop in the left eyelid. Flaxen hair, with a gold-yellow streak in it. White arms, with a down upon them. Little, lady's hand, with a rosy-red look about the finger nails. The Dream Woman, Francis! The Dream Woman!"
Something darkened the parlor window as those words were spoken. I looked sidelong at the shadow. Alicia Warlock had come back! She was peering in at us over the low window blind. There was the fatal face which had first looked at me in the bedroom of the lonely inn. There, resting on the window blind, was the lovely little hand which had held the murderous knife. I had seen her before we met in the village. The Dream Woman! The Dream Woman!
I expect nobody to approve of what I have next to tell of myself. In three weeks from the day when my mother had identified her with the Woman of the Dream, I took Alicia Warlock to church, and made her my wife. I was a man bewitched. Again and again I say it—I was a man bewitched!
During the interval before my marriage, our little household at the cottage was broken up. My mother and my aunt quarreled. My mother, believing in the Dream, entreated me to break off my engagement. My aunt, believing in the cards, urged me to marry.
This difference of opinion produced a dispute between them, in the course of which my aunt Chance—quite unconscious of having any superstitious feelings of her own—actually set out the cards which prophesied happiness to me in my married life, and asked my mother how anybody but "a blinded heathen could be fule enough, after seeing those cairds, to believe in a dream!" This was, naturally, too much for my mother's patience; hard words followed on either side; Mrs. Chance returned in dudgeon to her friends in Scotland. She left me a written statement of my future prospects, as revealed by the cards, and with it an address at which a post-office order would reach her. "The day was not that far off," she remarked, "when Francie might remember what he owed to his aunt Chance, maintaining her ain unbleemished widowhood on thratty punds a year."
Having refused to give her sanction to my marriage, my mother also refused to be present at the wedding, or to visit Alicia afterwards. There was no anger at the bottom of this conduct on her part. Believing as she did in this Dream, she was simply in mortal fear of my wife. I understood this, and I made allowances for her. Not a cross word passed between us. My one happy remembrance now—though I did disobey her in the matter of my marriage—is this: I loved and respected my good mother to the last.
As for my wife, she expressed no regret at the estrangement between her mother-in-law and herself. By common consent, we never spoke on that subject. We settled in the manufacturing town which I have already mentioned, and we kept a lodging-house. My kind master, at my request, granted me a lump sum in place of my annuity. This put us into a good house, decently furnished. For a while things went well enough. I may describe myself at this time of my life as a happy man.
My misfortunes began with a return of the complaint with which my mother had already suffered. The doctor confessed, when I asked him the question, that there was danger to be dreaded this time. Naturally, after hearing this, I was a good deal away at the cottage. Naturally also, I left the business of looking after the house, in my absence, to my wife. Little by little, I found her beginning to alter toward me. While my back was turned, she formed acquaintances with people of the doubtful and dissipated sort. One day, I observed something in her manner which forced the suspicion on me that she had been drinking. Before the week was out, my suspicion was a certainty. From keeping company with drunkards, she had grown to be a drunkard herself.
I did all a man could do to reclaim her. Quite useless! She had never really returned the love I felt for her: I had no influence; I could do nothing. My mother, hearing of this last worse trouble, resolved to try what her influence could do. Ill as she was, I found her one day dressed to go out.
"I am not long for this world, Francis," she said. "I shall not feel easy on my deathbed, unless I have done my best to the last to make you happy. I mean to put my own fears and my own feelings out of the question, and go with you to your wife, and try what I can do to reclaim her. Take me home with you, Francis. Let me do all I can to help my son, before it is too late."
How could I disobey her? We took the railway to the town: it was only half an hour's ride. By one o'clock in the afternoon we reached my house. It was our dinner hour, and Alicia was in the kitchen. I was able to take my mother quietly into the parlor and then to prepare my wife for the visit. She had drunk but little at that early hour; and, luckily, the devil in her was tamed for the time.
She followed me into the parlor, and the meeting passed off better than I had ventured to forecast; with this one drawback, that my mother—though she tried hard to control herself—shrank from looking my wife in the face when she spoke to her. It was a relief to me when Alicia began to prepare the table for dinner.
She laid the cloth, brought in the bread tray, and cut some slices for us from the loaf. Then she returned to the kitchen. At that moment, while I was still anxiously watching my mother, I was startled by seeing the same ghastly change pass over her face which had altered it in the morning when Alicia and she first met. Before I could say a word, she started up with a look of horror.
"Take me back!—home, home again, Francis! Come with me, and never go back more!"
I was afraid to ask for an explanation; I could only sign her to be silent, and help her quickly to the door. As we passed the bread tray on the table, she stopped and pointed to it.
"Did you see what your wife cut your bread with?" she asked.
"No, mother; I was not noticing. What was it?"
I did look. A new clasp knife, with a buckhorn handle, lay with the loaf in the bread tray. I stretched out my hand to possess myself of it. At the same moment, there was a noise in the kitchen, and my mother caught me by the arm.
"The knife of the Dream! Francis, I'm faint with fear—take me away before she comes back!"
I couldn't speak to comfort or even to answer her. Superior as I was to superstition, the discovery of the knife staggered me. In silence, I helped my mother out of the house; and took her home.
I held out my hand to say good-by. She tried to stop me.
"Don't go back, Francis! don't go back!".
"I must get the knife, mother. I must go back by the next train." I held to that resolution. By the next train I went back.
My wife had, of course, discovered our secret departure from the house. She had been drinking. She was in a fury of passion. The dinner in the kitchen was flung under the grate; the cloth was off the parlor table. Where was the knife?
I was foolish enough to ask for it. She refused to give it to me. In the course of the dispute between us which followed, I discovered that there was a horrible story attached to the knife. It had been used in a murder—years since—and had been so skillfully hidden that the authorities had been unable to produce it at the trial. By help of some of her disreputable friends, my wife had been able to purchase this relic of a bygone crime. Her perverted nature set some horrid unacknowledged value on the knife. Seeing there was no hope of getting it by fair means, I determined to search for it, later in the day, in secret. The search was unsuccessful. Night came on, and I left the house to walk about the streets. You will understand what a broken man I was by this time, when I tell you I was afraid to sleep in the same room with her!
Three weeks passed. Still she refused to give up the knife; and still that fear of sleeping in the same room with her possessed me. I walked about at night, or dozed in the parlor, or sat watching by my mother's bedside. Before the end of the first week in the new month, the worst misfortune of all befell me—my mother died. It wanted then but a short time to my birthday. She had longed to live till that day. I was present at her death. Her last words in this world were addressed to me. "Don't go back, my son—don't go back!"
I was obliged to go back, if it was only to watch my wife. In the last days of my mother's illness she had spitefully added a sting to my grief by declaring she would assert her right to attend the funeral. In spite of all that I could do or say, she held to her word. On the day appointed for the burial she forced herself, inflamed and shameless with drink, into my presence, and swore she would walk in the funeral procession to my mother's grave.
This last insult—after all I had gone through already—was more than I could endure. It maddened me. Try to make allowances for a man beside himself. I struck her.
The instant the blow was dealt, I repented it. She crouched down, silent, in a corner of the room, and eyed me steadily. It was a look that cooled my hot blood in an instant. There was no time now to think of making atonement. I could only risk the worst, and make sure of her till the funeral was over. I locked her into her bedroom.
When I came back, after laying my mother in the grave, I found her sitting by the bedside, very much altered in look and bearing, with a bundle on her lap. She faced me quietly; she spoke with a curious stillness in her voice—strangely and unnaturally composed in look and manner.
"No man has ever struck me yet," she said. "My husband shall have no second opportunity. Set the door open, and let me go."
She passed me, and left the room. I saw her walk away up the street. Was she gone for good?
All that night I watched and waited. No footstep came near the house. The next night, overcome with fatigue, I lay down on the bed in my clothes, with the door locked, the key on the table, and the candle burning. My slumber was not disturbed. The third night, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, passed, and nothing happened. I lay down on the seventh night, still suspicious of something happening; still in my clothes; still with the door locked, the key on the table, and the candle burning.
My rest was disturbed. I awoke twice, without any sensation of uneasiness. The third time, that horrid shivering of the night at the lonely inn, that awful sinking pain at the heart, came back again, and roused me in an instant. My eyes turned to the left-hand side of the bed. And there stood, looking at me—
The Dream Woman again? No! My wife. The living woman, with the face of the Dream—in the attitude of the Dream—the fair arm up; the knife clasped in the delicate white hand.
I sprang upon her on the instant; but not quickly enough to stop her from hiding the knife. Without a word from me, without a cry from her, I pinioned her in a chair. With one hand I felt up her sleeve; and there, where the Dream Woman had hidden the knife, my wife had hidden it—the knife with the buckhorn handle, that looked like new.
What I felt when I made that discovery I could not realize at the time, and I can't describe now. I took one steady look at her with the knife in my hand. "You meant to kill me?" I said.
"Yes," she answered; "I meant to kill you." She crossed her arms over her bosom, and stared me coolly in the face. "I shall do it yet," she said. "With that knife."
I don't know what possessed me—I swear to you I am no coward; and yet I acted like a coward. The horrors got hold of me. I couldn't look at her—I couldn't speak to her. I left her (with the knife in my hand), and went out into the night.
There was a bleak wind abroad, and the smell of rain was in the air. The church clocks chimed the quarter as I walked beyond the last house in the town. I asked the first policeman I met what hour that was, of which the quarter past had just struck.
The man looked at his watch, and answered, "Two o'clock." Two in the morning. What day of the month was this day that had just begun? I reckoned it up from the date of my mother's funeral. The horrid parallel between the dream and the reality was complete—it was my birthday!
Had I escaped, the mortal peril which the dream foretold? or had I only received a second warning? As that doubt crossed my mind I stopped on my way out of the town. The air had revived me—I felt in some degree like my own self again. After a little thinking, I began to see plainly the mistake I had made in leaving my wife free to go where she liked and to do as she pleased.
I turned instantly, and made my way back to the house. It was still dark. I had left the candle burning in the bedchamber. When I looked up to the window of the room now, there was no light in it. I advanced to the house door. On going away, I remembered to have closed it; on trying it now, I found it open.
I waited outside, never losing sight of the house till daylight. Then I ventured indoors—listened, and heard nothing—looked into the kitchen, scullery, parlor, and found nothing—went up at last into the bedroom. It was empty.
A picklock lay on the floor, which told me how she had gained entrance in the night. And that was the one trace I could find of the Dream Woman.
I waited in the house till the town was astir for the day, and then I went to consult a lawyer. In the confused state of my mind at the time, I had one clear notion of what I meant to do: I was determined to sell my house and leave the neighborhood. There were obstacles in the way which I had not counted on. I was told I had creditors to satisfy before I could leave—I, who had given my wife the money to pay my bills regularly every week! Inquiry showed that she had embezzled every farthing of the money I had intrusted to her. I had no choice but to pay over again.
Placed in this awkward position, my first duty was to set things right, with the help of my lawyer. During my forced sojourn in the town I did two foolish things. And, as a consequence that followed, I heard once more, and heard for the last time, of my wife.
In the first place, having got possession of the knife, I was rash enough to keep it in my pocket. In the second place, having something of importance to say to my lawyer, at a late hour of the evening, I went to his house after dark—alone and on foot. I got there safely enough. Returning, I was seized on from behind by two men, dragged down a passage and robbed—not only of the little money I had about me, but also of the knife. It was the lawyer's opinion (as it was mine) that the thieves were among the disreputable acquaintances formed by my wife, and that they had attacked me at her instigation. To confirm this view I received a letter the next day, without date or address, written in Alicia's hand. The first line informed me that the knife was back again in her possession. The second line reminded me of the day when I struck her. The third line warned me that she would wash out the stain of that blow in my blood, and repeated the words, "I shall do it with the knife!"
These things happened a year ago. The law laid hands on the men who had robbed me; but from that time to this, the law has failed completely to find a trace of my wife.
My story is told. When I had paid the creditors and paid the legal expenses, I had barely five pounds left out of the sale of my house; and I had the world to begin over again. Some months since—drifting here and there—I found my way to Underbridge. The landlord of the inn had known something of my father's family in times past. He gave me (all he had to give) my food, and shelter in the yard. Except on market days, there is nothing to do. In the coming winter the inn is to be shut up, and I shall have to shift for myself. My old master would help me if I applied to him—but I don't like to apply: he has done more for me already than I deserve. Besides, in another year who knows but my troubles may all be at an end? Next winter will bring me nigh to my next birthday, and my next birthday may be the day of my death. Yes! it's true I sat up all last night; and I heard two in the morning strike: and nothing happened. Still, allowing for that, the time to come is a time I don't trust. My wife has got the knife—my wife is looking for me. I am above superstition, mind! I don't say I believe in dreams; I only say, Alicia Warlock is looking for me. It is possible I may be wrong. It is possible I may be right. Who can tell?
THE THIRD NARRATIVE
THE STORY CONTINUED BY PERCY FAIRBANK
We took leave of Francis Raven at the door of Farleigh Hall, with the understanding that he might expect to hear from us again.
The same night Mrs. Fairbank and I had a discussion in the sanctuary of our own room. The topic was "The Hostler's Story"; and the question in dispute between us turned on the measure of charitable duty that we owed to the hostler himself.
The view I took of the man's narrative was of the purely matter-of-fact kind. Francis Raven had, in my opinion, brooded over the misty connection between his strange dream and his vile wife, until his mind was in a state of partial delusion on that subject. I was quite willing to help him with a trifle of money, and to recommend him to the kindness of my lawyer, if he was really in any danger and wanted advice. There my idea of my duty toward this afflicted person began and ended.
Confronted with this sensible view of the matter, Mrs. Fairbank's romantic temperament rushed, as usual, into extremes. "I should no more think of losing sight of Francis Raven when his next birthday comes round," says my wife, "than I should think of laying down a good story with the last chapters unread. I am positively determined, Percy, to take him back with us when we return to France, in the capacity of groom. What does one man more or less among the horses matter to people as rich as we are?" In this strain the partner of my joys and sorrows ran on, perfectly impenetrable to everything that I could say on the side of common sense. Need I tell my married brethren how it ended? Of course I allowed my wife to irritate me, and spoke to her sharply.
Of course my wife turned her face away indignantly on the conjugal pillow, and burst into tears. Of course upon that, "Mr." made his excuses, and "Mrs." had her own way.
Before the week was out we rode over to Underbridge, and duly offered to Francis Raven a place in our service as supernumerary groom.
At first the poor fellow seemed hardly able to realize his own extraordinary good fortune. Recovering himself, he expressed his gratitude modestly and becomingly. Mrs. Fairbank's ready sympathies overflowed, as usual, at her lips. She talked to him about our home in France, as if the worn, gray-headed hostler had been a child. "Such a dear old house, Francis; and such pretty gardens! Stables! Stables ten times as big as your stables here—quite a choice of rooms for you. You must learn the name of our house—Maison Rouge. Our nearest town is Metz. We are within a walk of the beautiful River Moselle. And when we want a change we have only to take the railway to the frontier, and find ourselves in Germany."
Listening, so far, with a very bewildered face, Francis started and changed color when my wife reached the end of her last sentence. "Germany?" he repeated.
"Yes. Does Germany remind you of anything?"
The hostler's eyes looked down sadly on the ground. "Germany reminds me of my wife," he replied.
"She once told me she had lived in Germany—long before I knew her—in the time when she was a young girl."
"Was she living with relations or friends?"
"She was living as governess in a foreign family."
"In what part of Germany?"
"I don't remember, ma'am. I doubt if she told me."
"Did she tell you the name of the family?"
"Yes, ma'am. It was a foreign name, and it has slipped my memory long since. The head of the family was a wine grower in a large way of business—I remember that."
"Did you hear what sort of wine he grew? There are wine growers in our neighborhood. Was it Moselle wine?"
"I couldn't say, ma'am, I doubt if I ever heard."
There the conversation dropped. We engaged to communicate with Francis Raven before we left England, and took our leave. I had made arrangements to pay our round of visits to English friends, and to return to Maison Rouge in the summer. On the eve of departure, certain difficulties in connection with the management of some landed property of mine in Ireland obliged us to alter our plans. Instead of getting back to our house in France in the Summer, we only returned a week or two before Christmas. Francis Raven accompanied us, and was duly established, in the nominal capacity of stable keeper, among the servants at Maison Rouge.
Before long, some of the objections to taking him into our employment, which I had foreseen and had vainly mentioned to my wife, forced themselves on our attention in no very agreeable form. Francis Raven failed (as I had feared he would) to get on smoothly with his fellow-servants They were all French; and not one of them understood English. Francis, on his side, was equally ignorant of French. His reserved manners, his melancholy temperament, his solitary ways—all told against him. Our servants called him "the English Bear." He grew widely known in the neighborhood under his nickname. Quarrels took place, ending once or twice in blows. It became plain, even to Mrs. Fairbank herself, that some wise change must be made. While we were still considering what the change was to be, the unfortunate hostler was thrown on our hands for some time to come by an accident in the stables. Still pursued by his proverbial ill-luck, the poor wretch's leg was broken by a kick from a horse.
He was attended to by our own surgeon, in his comfortable bedroom at the stables. As the date of his birthday drew near, he was still confined to his bed.
Physically speaking, he was doing very well. Morally speaking, the surgeon was not satisfied. Francis Raven was suffering under some mysterious mental disturbance, which interfered seriously with his rest at night. Hearing this, I thought it my duty to tell the medical attendant what was preying on the patient's mind. As a practical man, he shared my opinion that the hostler was in a state of delusion on the subject of his Wife and his Dream. "Curable delusion, in my opinion," the surgeon added, "if the experiment could be fairly tried."
"How can it be tried?" I asked. Instead of replying, the surgeon put a question to me, on his side.
"Do you happen to know," he said, "that this year is Leap Year?"
"Mrs. Fairbank reminded me of it yesterday," I answered. "Otherwise I might not have known it."
"Do you think Francis Raven knows that this year is Leap Year?"
(I began to see dimly what my friend was driving at.)
"It depends," I answered, "on whether he has got an English almanac. Suppose he has not got the almanac—what then?"
"In that case," pursued the surgeon, "Francis Raven is innocent of all suspicion that there is a twenty-ninth day in February this year. As a necessary consequence—what will he do? He will anticipate the appearance of the Woman with the Knife, at two in the morning of the twenty-ninth of February, instead of the first of March. Let him suffer all his superstitious terrors on the wrong day. Leave him, on the day that is really his birthday, to pass a perfectly quiet night, and to be as sound asleep as other people at two in the morning. And then, when he wakes comfortably in time for his breakfast, shame him out of his delusion by telling him the truth."
I agreed to try the experiment. Leaving the surgeon to caution Mrs. Fairbank on the subject of Leap Year, I went to the stables to see Mr. Raven.
The poor fellow was full of forebodings of the fate in store for him on the ominous first of March. He eagerly entreated me to order one of the men servants to sit up with him on the birthday morning. In granting his request, I asked him to tell me on which day of the week his birthday fell. He reckoned the days on his fingers; and proved his innocence of all suspicion that it was Leap Year, by fixing on the twenty-ninth of February, in the full persuasion that it was the first of March. Pledged to try the surgeon's experiment, I left his error uncorrected, of course. In so doing, I took my first step blindfold toward the last act in the drama of the Hostler's Dream.
The next day brought with it a little domestic difficulty, which indirectly and strangely associated itself with the coming end.
My wife received a letter, inviting us to assist in celebrating the "Silver Wedding" of two worthy German neighbors of ours—Mr. and Mrs. Beldheimer. Mr. Beldheimer was a large wine grower on the banks of the Moselle. His house was situated on the frontier line of France and Germany; and the distance from our house was sufficiently considerable to make it necessary for us to sleep under our host's roof. Under these circumstances, if we accepted the invitation, a comparison of dates showed that we should be away from home on the morning of the first of March. Mrs. Fairbank—holding to her absurd resolution to see with her own eyes what might, or might not, happen to Francis Raven on his birthday—flatly declined to leave Maison Rouge. "It's easy to send an excuse," she said, in her off-hand manner.
I failed, for my part, to see any easy way out of the difficulty. The celebration of a "Silver Wedding" in Germany is the celebration of twenty-five years of happy married life; and the host's claim upon the consideration of his friends on such an occasion is something in the nature of a royal "command." After considerable discussion, finding my wife's obstinacy invincible, and feeling that the absence of both of us from the festival would certainly offend our friends, I left Mrs. Fairbank to make her excuses for herself, and directed her to accept the invitation so far as I was concerned. In so doing, I took my second step, blindfold, toward the last act in the drama of the Hostler's Dream.
A week elapsed; the last days of February were at hand. Another domestic difficulty happened; and, again, this event also proved to be strangely associated with the coming end.
My head groom at the stables was one Joseph Rigobert. He was an ill-conditioned fellow, inordinately vain of his personal appearance, and by no means scrupulous in his conduct with women. His one virtue consisted of his fondness for horses, and in the care he took of the animals under his charge. In a word, he was too good a groom to be easily replaced, or he would have quitted my service long since. On the occasion of which I am now writing, he was reported to me by my steward as growing idle and disorderly in his habits. The principal offense alleged against him was, that he had been seen that day in the city of Metz, in the company of a woman (supposed to be an Englishwoman), whom he was entertaining at a tavern, when he ought to have been on his way back to Maison Rouge. The man's defense was that "the lady" (as he called her) was an English stranger, unacquainted with the ways of the place, and that he had only shown her where she could obtain some refreshments at her own request. I administered the necessary reprimand, without troubling myself to inquire further into the matter. In failing to do this, I took my third step, blindfold, toward the last act in the drama of the Hostler's Dream.
On the evening of the twenty-eighth, I informed the servants at the stables that one of them must watch through the night by the Englishman's bedside. Joseph Rigobert immediately volunteered for the duty—as a means, no doubt, of winning his way back to my favor. I accepted his proposal.
That day the surgeon dined with us. Toward midnight he and I left the smoking room, and repaired to Francis Raven's bedside. Rigobert was at his post, with no very agreeable expression on his face. The Frenchman and the Englishman had evidently not got on well together so far. Francis Raven lay helpless on his bed, waiting silently for two in the morning and the Dream Woman.
"I have come, Francis, to bid you good night," I said, cheerfully. "To-morrow morning I shall look in at breakfast time, before I leave home on a journey."
"Thank you for all your kindness, sir. You will not see me alive to-morrow morning. She will find me this time. Mark my words—she will find me this time."
"My good fellow! she couldn't find you in England. How in the world is she to find you in France?"
"It's borne in on my mind, sir, that she will find me here. At two in the morning on my birthday I shall see her again, and see her for the last time."
"Do you mean that she will kill you?"
"I mean that, sir, she will kill me—with the knife."
"And with Rigobert in the room to protect you?"
"I am a doomed man. Fifty Rigoberts couldn't protect me."
"And you wanted somebody to sit up with you?"
"Mere weakness, sir. I don't like to be left alone on my deathbed."
I looked at the surgeon. If he had encouraged me, I should certainly, out of sheer compassion, have confessed to Francis Raven the trick that we were playing him. The surgeon held to his experiment; the surgeon's face plainly said—"No."
The next day (the twenty-ninth of February) was the day of the "Silver Wedding." The first thing in the morning, I went to Francis Raven's room. Rigobert met me at the door.
"How has he passed the night?" I asked.
"Saying his prayers, and looking for ghosts," Rigobert answered. "A lunatic asylum is the only proper place for him."
I approached the bedside. "Well, Francis, here you are, safe and sound, in spite of what you said to me last night."
His eyes rested on mine with a vacant, wondering look.
"I don't understand it," he said.
"Did you see anything of your wife when the clock struck two?"
"Did anything happen?"
"Nothing happened, sir."
"Doesn't this satisfy you that you were wrong?"
His eyes still kept their vacant, wondering look. He only repeated the words he had spoken already: "I don't understand it."
I made a last attempt to cheer him. "Come, come, Francis! keep a good heart. You will be out of bed in a fortnight."
He shook his head on the pillow. "There's something wrong," he said. "I don't expect you to believe me, sir. I only say there's something wrong—and time will show it."
I left the room. Half an hour later I started for Mr. Beldheimer's house; leaving the arrangements for the morning of the first of March in the hands of the doctor and my wife.
The one thing which principally struck me when I joined the guests at the "Silver Wedding" is also the one thing which it is necessary to mention here. On this joyful occasion a noticeable lady present was out of spirits. That lady was no other than the heroine of the festival, the mistress of the house!
In the course of the evening I spoke to Mr. Beldheimer's eldest son on the subject of his mother. As an old friend of the family, I had a claim on his confidence which the young man willingly recognized.
"We have had a very disagreeable matter to deal with," he said; "and my mother has not recovered the painful impression left on her mind. Many years since, when my sisters were children, we had an English governess in the house. She left us, as we then understood, to be married. We heard no more of her until a week or ten days since, when my mother received a letter, in which our ex-governess described herself as being in a condition of great poverty and distress. After much hesitation she had ventured—at the suggestion of a lady who had been kind to her—to write to her former employers, and to appeal to their remembrance of old times. You know my mother: she is not only the most kind-hearted, but the most innocent of women—it is impossible to persuade her of the wickedness that there is in the world. She replied by return of post, inviting the governess to come here and see her, and inclosing the money for her traveling expenses. When my father came home, and heard what had been done, he wrote at once to his agent in London to make inquiries, inclosing the address on the governess' letter. Before he could receive the agent's reply the governess, arrived. She produced the worst possible impression on his mind. The agent's letter, arriving a few days later, confirmed his suspicions. Since we had lost sight of her, the woman had led a most disreputable life. My father spoke to her privately: he offered—on condition of her leaving the house—a sum of money to take her back to England. If she refused, the alternative would be an appeal to the authorities and a public scandal. She accepted the money, and left the house. On her way back to England she appears to have stopped at Metz. You will understand what sort of woman she is when I tell you that she was seen the other day in a tavern, with your handsome groom, Joseph Rigobert."
While my informant was relating these circumstances, my memory was at work. I recalled what Francis Raven had vaguely told us of his wife's experience in former days as governess in a German family. A suspicion of the truth suddenly flashed across my mind. "What was the woman's name?" I asked.
Mr. Beldheimer's son answered: "Alicia Warlock."
I had but one idea when I heard that reply—to get back to my house without a moment's needless delay. It was then ten o'clock at night—the last train to Metz had left long since. I arranged with my young friend—after duly informing him of the circumstances—that I should go by the first train in the morning, instead of staying to breakfast with the other guests who slept in the house.
At intervals during the night I wondered uneasily how things were going on at Maison Rouge. Again and again the same question occurred to me, on my journey home in the early morning—the morning of the first of March. As the event proved, but one person in my house knew what really happened at the stables on Francis Raven's birthday. Let Joseph Rigobert take my place as narrator, and tell the story of the end to You—as he told it, in times past, to his lawyer and to Me.
FOURTH (AND LAST) NARRATIVE
STATEMENT OF JOSEPH RIGOBERT: ADDRESSED TO THE ADVOCATE WHO DEFENDED HIM AT HIS TRIAL
Respected Sir,—On the twenty-seventh of February I was sent, on business connected with the stables at Maison Rouge, to the city of Metz. On the public promenade I met a magnificent woman. Complexion, blond. Nationality, English. We mutually admired each other; we fell into conversation. (She spoke French perfectly—with the English accent.) I offered refreshment; my proposal was accepted. We had a long and interesting interview—we discovered that we were made for each other. So far, Who is to blame?
Is it my fault that I am a handsome man—universally agreeable as such to the fair sex? Is it a criminal offense to be accessible to the amiable weakness of love? I ask again, Who is to blame? Clearly, nature. Not the beautiful lady—not my humble self.
To resume. The most hard-hearted person living will understand that two beings made for each other could not possibly part without an appointment to meet again.
I made arrangements for the accommodation of the lady in the village near Maison Rouge. She consented to honor me with her company at supper, in my apartment at the stables, on the night of the twenty-ninth. The time fixed on was the time when the other servants were accustomed to retire—eleven o'clock.
Among the grooms attached to the stables was an Englishman, laid up with a broken leg. His name was Francis. His manners were repulsive; he was ignorant of the French language. In the kitchen he went by the nickname of the "English Bear." Strange to say, he was a great favorite with my master and my mistress. They even humored certain superstitious terrors to which this repulsive person was subject—terrors into the nature of which I, as an advanced freethinker, never thought it worth my while to inquire.
On the evening of the twenty-eighth the Englishman, being a prey to the terrors which I have mentioned, requested that one of his fellow servants might sit up with him for that night only. The wish that he expressed was backed by Mr. Fairbank's authority. Having already incurred my master's displeasure—in what way, a proper sense of my own dignity forbids me to relate—I volunteered to watch by the bedside of the English Bear. My object was to satisfy Mr. Fairbank that I bore no malice, on my side, after what had occurred between us. The wretched Englishman passed a night of delirium. Not understanding his barbarous language, I could only gather from his gesture that he was in deadly fear of some fancied apparition at his bedside. From time to time, when this madman disturbed my slumbers, I quieted him by swearing at him. This is the shortest and best way of dealing with persons in his condition.
On the morning of the twenty-ninth, Mr. Fairbank left us on a journey. Later in the day, to my unspeakable disgust, I found that I had not done with the Englishman yet. In Mr. Fairbank's absence, Mrs. Fairbank took an incomprehensible interest in the question of my delirious fellow servant's repose at night. Again, one or the other of us was to watch at his bedside, and report it, if anything happened. Expecting my fair friend to supper, it was necessary to make sure that the other servants at the stables would be safe in their beds that night. Accordingly, I volunteered once more to be the man who kept watch. Mrs. Fairbank complimented me on my humanity. I possess great command over my feelings. I accepted the compliment without a blush.
Twice, after nightfall, my mistress and the doctor (the last staying in the house in Mr. Fairbank's absence) came to make inquiries. Once before the arrival of my fair friend—and once after. On the second occasion (my apartment being next door to the Englishman's) I was obliged to hide my charming guest in the harness room. She consented, with angelic resignation, to immolate her dignity to the servile necessities of my position. A more amiable woman (so far) I never met with!
After the second visit I was left free. It was then close on midnight. Up to that time there was nothing in the behavior of the mad Englishman to reward Mrs. Fairbank and the doctor for presenting themselves at his bedside. He lay half awake, half asleep, with an odd wondering kind of look in his face. My mistress at parting warned me to be particularly watchful of him toward two in the morning. The doctor (in case anything happened) left me a large hand bell to ring, which could easily be heard at the house.
Restored to the society of my fair friend, I spread the supper table. A pate, a sausage, and a few bottles of generous Moselle wine, composed our simple meal. When persons adore each other, the intoxicating illusion of Love transforms the simplest meal into a banquet. With immeasurable capacities for enjoyment, we sat down to table. At the very moment when I placed my fascinating companion in a chair, the infamous Englishman in the next room took that occasion, of all others, to become restless and noisy once more. He struck with his stick on the floor; he cried out, in a delirious access of terror, "Rigobert! Rigobert!"
The sound of that lamentable voice, suddenly assailing our ears, terrified my fair friend. She lost all her charming color in an instant. "Good heavens!" she exclaimed. "Who is that in the next room?"
"A mad Englishman."
"Compose yourself, my angel. I will quiet him."
The lamentable voice called out on me again, "Rigobert! Rigobert!"
My fair friend caught me by the arm. "Who is he?" she cried. "What is his name?"
Something in her face struck me as she put that question. A spasm of jealousy shook me to the soul. "You know him?" I said.
"His name!" she vehemently repeated; "his name!"
"Francis," I answered.
I shrugged my shoulders. I could neither remember nor pronounce the barbarous English surname. I could only tell her it began with an "R."
She dropped back into the chair. Was she going to faint? No: she recovered, and more than recovered, her lost color. Her eyes flashed superbly. What did it mean? Profoundly as I understand women in general, I was puzzled by this woman!
"You know him?" I repeated.
She laughed at me. "What nonsense! How should I know him? Go and quiet the wretch."
My looking-glass was near. One glance at it satisfied me that no woman in her senses could prefer the Englishman to Me. I recovered my self-respect. I hastened to the Englishman's bedside.
The moment I appeared he pointed eagerly toward my room. He overwhelmed me with a torrent of words in his own language. I made out, from his gestures and his looks, that he had, in some incomprehensible manner, discovered the presence of my guest; and, stranger still, that he was scared by the idea of a person in my room. I endeavored to compose him on the system which I have already mentioned—that is to say, I swore at him in my language. The result not proving satisfactory, I own I shook my fist in his face, and left the bedchamber.
Returning to my fair friend, I found her walking backward and forward in a state of excitement wonderful to behold. She had not waited for me to fill her glass—she had begun the generous Moselle in my absence. I prevailed on her with difficulty to place herself at the table. Nothing would induce her to eat. "My appetite is gone," she said. "Give me wine."
The generous Moselle deserves its name—delicate on the palate, with prodigious "body." The strength of this fine wine produced no stupefying effect on my remarkable guest. It appeared to strengthen and exhilarate her—nothing more. She always spoke in the same low tone, and always, turn the conversation as I might, brought it back with the same dexterity to the subject of the Englishman in the next room. In any other woman this persistency would have offended me. My lovely guest was irresistible; I answered her questions with the docility of a child. She possessed all the amusing eccentricity of her nation. When I told her of the accident which confined the Englishman to his bed, she sprang to her feet. An extraordinary smile irradiated her countenance. She said, "Show me the horse who broke the Englishman's leg! I must see that horse!" I took her to the stables. She kissed the horse—on my word of honor, she kissed the horse! That struck me. I said. "You do know the man; and he has wronged you in some way." No! she would not admit it, even then. "I kiss all beautiful animals," she said. "Haven't I kissed you?" With that charming explanation of her conduct, she ran back up the stairs. I only remained behind to lock the stable door again. When I rejoined her, I made a startling discovery. I caught her coming out of the Englishman's room.
"I was just going downstairs again to call you," she said. "The man in there is getting noisy once more."
The mad Englishman's voice assailed our ears once again. "Rigobert! Rigobert!"
He was a frightful object to look at when I saw him this time. His eyes were staring wildly; the perspiration was pouring over his face. In a panic of terror he clasped his hands; he pointed up to heaven. By every sign and gesture that a man can make, he entreated me not to leave him again. I really could not help smiling. The idea of my staying with him, and leaving my fair friend by herself in the next room!
I turned to the door. When the mad wretch saw me leaving him he burst out into a screech of despair—so shrill that I feared it might awaken the sleeping servants.
My presence of mind in emergencies is proverbial among those who know me. I tore open the cupboard in which he kept his linen—seized a handful of his handkerchiefs—gagged him with one of them, and secured his hands with the others. There was now no danger of his alarming the servants. After tying the last knot, I looked up.
The door between the Englishman's room and mine was open. My fair friend was standing on the threshold—watching him as he lay helpless on the bed; watching me as I tied the last knot.
"What are you doing there?" I asked. "Why did you open the door?"
She stepped up to me, and whispered her answer in my ear, with her eyes all the time upon the man on the bed:
"I heard him scream."
"I thought you had killed him."
I drew back from her in horror. The suspicion of me which her words implied was sufficiently detestable in itself. But her manner when she uttered the words was more revolting still. It so powerfully affected me that I started back from that beautiful creature as I might have recoiled from a reptile crawling over my flesh.
Before I had recovered myself sufficiently to reply, my nerves were assailed by another shock. I suddenly heard my mistress's voice calling to me from the stable yard.
There was no time to think—there was only time to act. The one thing needed was to keep Mrs. Fairbank from ascending the stairs, and discovering—not my lady guest only—but the Englishman also, gagged and bound on his bed. I instantly hurried to the yard. As I ran down the stairs I heard the stable clock strike the quarter to two in the morning.
My mistress was eager and agitated. The doctor (in attendance on her) was smiling to himself, like a man amused at his own thoughts.
"Is Francis awake or asleep?" Mrs. Fairbank inquired.
"He has been a little restless, madam. But he is now quiet again. If he is not disturbed" (I added those words to prevent her from ascending the stairs), "he will soon fall off into a quiet sleep."
"Has nothing happened since I was here last?"
The doctor lifted his eyebrows with a comical look of distress. "Alas, alas, Mrs. Fairbank!" he said. "Nothing has happened! The days of romance are over!"
"It is not two o'clock yet," my mistress answered, a little irritably.
The smell of the stables was strong on the morning air. She put her handkerchief to her nose and led the way out of the yard by the north entrance—the entrance communicating with the gardens and the house. I was ordered to follow her, along with the doctor. Once out of the smell of the stables she began to question me again. She was unwilling to believe that nothing had occurred in her absence. I invented the best answers I could think of on the spur of the moment; and the doctor stood by laughing. So the minutes passed till the clock struck two. Upon that, Mrs. Fairbank announced her intention of personally visiting the Englishman in his room. To my great relief, the doctor interfered to stop her from doing this.
"You have heard that Francis is just falling asleep," he said. "If you enter his room you may disturb him. It is essential to the success of my experiment that he should have a good night's rest, and that he should own it himself, before I tell him the truth. I must request, madam, that you will not disturb the man. Rigobert will ring the alarm bell if anything happens."
My mistress was unwilling to yield. For the next five minutes, at least, there was a warm discussion between the two. In the end Mrs. Fairbank was obliged to give way—for the time. "In half an hour," she said, "Francis will either be sound asleep, or awake again. In half an hour I shall come back." She took the doctor's arm. They returned together to the house.
Left by myself, with half an hour before me, I resolved to take the Englishwoman back to the village—then, returning to the stables, to remove the gag and the bindings from Francis, and to let him screech to his heart's content. What would his alarming the whole establishment matter to me after I had got rid of the compromising presence of my guest?
Returning to the yard I heard a sound like the creaking of an open door on its hinges. The gate of the north entrance I had just closed with my own hand. I went round to the west entrance, at the back of the stables. It opened on a field crossed by two footpaths in Mr. Fairbank's grounds. The nearest footpath led to the village. The other led to the highroad and the river.
Arriving at the west entrance I found the door open—swinging to and fro slowly in the fresh morning breeze. I had myself locked and bolted that door after admitting my fair friend at eleven o'clock. A vague dread of something wrong stole its way into my mind. I hurried back to the stables.
I looked into my own room. It was empty. I went to the harness room. Not a sign of the woman was there. I returned to my room, and approached the door of the Englishman's bedchamber. Was it possible that she had remained there during my absence? An unaccountable reluctance to open the door made me hesitate, with my hand on the lock. I listened. There was not a sound inside. I called softly. There was no answer. I drew back a step, still hesitating. I noticed something dark moving slowly in the crevice between the bottom of the door and the boarded floor. Snatching up the candle from the table, I held it low, and looked. The dark, slowly moving object was a stream of blood!
That horrid sight roused me. I opened the door. The Englishman lay on his bed—alone in the room. He was stabbed in two places—in the throat and in the heart. The weapon was left in the second wound. It was a knife of English manufacture, with a handle of buckhorn as good as new.
I instantly gave the alarm. Witnesses can speak to what followed. It is monstrous to suppose that I am guilty of the murder. I admit that I am capable of committing follies: but I shrink from the bare idea of a crime. Besides, I had no motive for killing the man. The woman murdered him in my absence. The woman escaped by the west entrance while I was talking to my mistress. I have no more to say. I swear to you what I have here written is a true statement of all that happened on the morning of the first of March.
Accept, sir, the assurance of my sentiments of profound gratitude and respect.
LAST LINES.—ADDED BY PERCY FAIRBANK
Tried for the murder of Francis Raven, Joseph Rigobert was found Not Guilty; the papers of the assassinated man presented ample evidence of the deadly animosity felt toward him by his wife.
The investigations pursued on the morning when the crime was committed showed that the murderess, after leaving the stable, had taken the footpath which led to the river. The river was dragged—without result. It remains doubtful to this day whether she died by drowning or not. The one thing certain is—that Alicia Warlock was never seen again.
So—beginning in mystery, ending in mystery—the Dream Woman passes from your view. Ghost; demon; or living human creature—say for yourselves which she is. Or, knowing what unfathomed wonders are around you, what unfathomed wonders are in you, let the wise words of the greatest of all poets be explanation enough:
"We are such stuff As dreams are made of, and our little life Is rounded with, a sleep."
The Lost Duchess
"Has the duchess returned?"
"No, your grace."
Knowles came farther into the room. He had a letter on a salver. When the duke had taken it, Knowles still lingered. The duke glanced at him.
"Is an answer required?"
"No, your grace." Still Knowles lingered. "Something a little singular has happened. The carriage has returned without the duchess, and the men say that they thought her grace was in it."
"What do you mean?"
"I hardly understand myself, your grace. Perhaps you would like to see Barnes."
Barnes was the coachman.
"Send him up." When Knowles had gone, and he was alone, his grace showed signs of being slightly annoyed. He looked at his watch. "I told her she'd better be in by four. She says that she's not feeling well, and yet one would think that she was not aware of the fatigue entailed in having the prince come to dinner, and a mob of people to follow. I particularly wished her to lie down for a couple of hours."
Knowles ushered in not only Barnes, the coachman, but Moysey, the footman, too. Both these persons seemed to be ill at ease. The duke glanced at them sharply. In his voice there was a suggestion of impatience.
"What is the matter?"
Barnes explained as best he could.
"If you please, your grace, we waited for the duchess outside Cane and Wilson's, the drapers. The duchess came out, got into the carriage, and Moysey shut the door, and her grace said, 'Home!' and yet when we got home she wasn't there."
"She wasn't where?"
"Her grace wasn't in the carriage, your grace."
"What on earth do you mean?"
"Her grace did get into the carriage; you shut the door, didn't you?"
Barnes turned to Moysey. Moysey brought his hand up to his brow in a sort of military salute—he had been a soldier in the regiment in which, once upon a time, the duke had been a subaltern.
"She did. The duchess came out of the shop. She seemed rather in a hurry, I thought. She got into the carriage, and she said, 'Home, Moysey!' I shut the door, and Barnes drove straight home. We never stopped anywhere, and we never noticed nothing happen on the way; and yet when we got home the carriage was empty."
The duke started.
"Do you mean to tell me that the duchess got out of the carriage while you were driving full pelt through the streets without saying anything to you, and without you noticing it?"
"The carriage was empty when we got home, your grace."
"Was either of the doors open?"
"No, your grace."
"You fellows have been up to some infernal mischief. You have made a mess of it. You never picked up the duchess, and you're trying to palm this tale off on me to save yourselves."
Barnes was moved to adjuration:
"I'll take my Bible oath, your grace, that the duchess got into the carriage outside Cane and Wilson's."
Moysey seconded his colleague.
"I will swear to that, your grace. She got into that carriage, and I shut the door, and she said, 'Home, Moysey!'"
The duke looked as if he did not know what to make of the story and its tellers.
"What carriage did you have?"
"Her grace's brougham, your grace."
"The brougham was ordered because I understood that the duchess was not feeling very well, and there's rather a high wind, your grace."
The duke snapped at him:
"What has that to do with it? Are you suggesting that the duchess was more likely to jump out of a brougham while it was dashing through the streets than out of any other kind of vehicle?"
The duke's glance fell on the letter which Knowles had brought him when he first had entered. He had placed it on his writing table. Now he took it up. It was addressed:
"To His Grace the Duke of Datchet. Private! VERY PRESSING!!!"
The name was written in a fine, clear, almost feminine hand. The words in the left-hand corner of the envelope were written in a different hand. They were large and bold; almost as though they had been painted with the end of the penholder instead of being written with the pen. The envelope itself was of an unusual size, and bulged out as though it contained something else besides a letter.
The duke tore the envelope open. As he did so something fell out of it on to the writing table. It looked as though it was a lock of a woman's hair. As he glanced at it the duke seemed to be a trifle startled. The duke read the letter:
"Your grace will be so good as to bring five hundred pounds in gold to the Piccadilly end of the Burlington Arcade within an hour of the receipt of this. The Duchess of Datchet has been kidnaped. An imitation duchess got into the carriage, which was waiting outside Cane and Wilson's, and she alighted on the road. Unless your grace does as you are requested, the Duchess of Datchet's left-hand little finger will be at once cut off, and sent home in time to receive the prince to dinner. Other portions of her grace will follow. A lock of her grace's hair is inclosed with this as an earnest of our good intentions.
"Before 5:30 p.m. your grace is requested to be at the Piccadilly end of the Burlington Arcade with five hundred pounds in gold. You will there be accosted by an individual in a white top hat, and with a gardenia in his buttonhole. You will be entirely at liberty to give him into custody, or to have him followed by the police, in which case the duchess's left arm, cut off at the shoulder, will be sent home for dinner—not to mention other extremely possible contingencies. But you are advised to give the individual in question the five hundred pounds in gold, because in that case the duchess herself will be home in time to receive the prince to dinner, and with one of the best stories with which to entertain your distinguished guests they ever heard.
"Remember! not later than 5:30, unless you wish to receive her grace's little finger."
The duke stared at this amazing epistle when he had read it as though he found it difficult to believe the evidence of his eyes. He was not a demonstrative person, as a rule, but this little communication astonished even him. He read it again. Then his hands dropped to his sides, and he swore.
He took up the lock of hair which had fallen out of the envelope. Was it possible that it could be his wife's, the duchess? Was it possible that a Duchess of Datchet could be kidnaped, in broad daylight, in the heart of London, and be sent home, as it were, in pieces? Had sacrilegious hands already been playing pranks with that great lady's hair? Certainly, that hair was so like her hair that the mere resemblance made his grace's blood run cold. He turned on Messrs. Barnes and Moysey as though he would have liked to rend them.
He moved forward as though the intention had entered his ducal heart to knock his servants down. But, if that were so, he did not act quite up to his intention. Instead, he stretched out his arm, pointing at them as if he were an accusing spirit:
"Will you swear that it was the duchess who got into the carriage outside Cane and Wilson's?"
Barnes began to stammer:
"I'll swear, your grace, that I—I thought—"
The duke stormed an interruption:
"I don't ask what you thought. I ask you, will you swear it was?"
The duke's anger was more than Barnes could face. He was silent. Moysey showed a larger courage.
"I could have sworn that it was at the time, your grace. But now it seems to me that it's a rummy go."
"A rummy go!" The peculiarity of the phrase did not seem to strike the duke just then—at least, he echoed it as if it didn't. "You call it a rummy go! Do you know that I am told in this letter that the woman who entered the carriage was not the duchess? What you were thinking about, or what case you will be able to make out for yourselves, you know better than I; but I can tell you this—that in an hour you will leave my service, and you may esteem yourselves fortunate if, to-night, you are not both of you sleeping in jail."
One might almost have suspected that the words were spoken in irony. But before they could answer, another servant entered, who also brought a letter for the duke. When his grace's glance fell on it he uttered an exclamation. The writing on the envelope was the same writing that had been on the envelope which had contained the very singular communication—like it in all respects, down to the broomstick-end thickness of the "Private!" and "Very pressing!!!" in the corner.
"Who brought this?" stormed the duke.
The servant appeared to be a little startled by the violence of his grace's manner.
"A lady—or, at least, your grace, she seemed to be a lady."
"Where is she?"
"She came in a hansom, your grace. She gave me that letter, and said, 'Give that to the Duke of Datchet at once—without a moment's delay!' Then she got into the hansom again, and drove away."
"Why didn't you stop her?"
The man seemed surprised, as though the idea of stopping chance visitors to the ducal mansion vi et armis had not, until that moment, entered into his philosophy. The duke continued to regard the man as if he could say a good deal, if he chose. Then he pointed to the door. His lips said nothing, but his gesture much. The servant vanished.
"Another hoax!" the duke said grimly, as he tore the envelope open.
This time the envelope contained a sheet of paper, and in the sheet of paper another envelope. The duke unfolded the sheet of paper. On it some words were written. These:
"The duchess appears so particularly anxious to drop you a line, that one really hasn't the heart to refuse her.
"Her grace's communication—written amidst blinding tears!—you will find inclosed with this."
"Knowles," said the duke, in a voice which actually trembled, "Knowles, hoax or no hoax, I will be even with the gentleman who wrote that."
Handing the sheet of paper to Mr. Knowles, his grace turned his attention to the envelope which had been inclosed. It was a small, square envelope, of the finest quality, and it reeked with perfume. The duke's countenance assumed an added frown—he had no fondness for envelopes which were scented. In the center of the envelope were the words, "To the Duke of Datchet," written in the big, bold, sprawling hand which he knew so well.
"Mabel's writing," he said, half to himself, as, with shaking fingers, he tore the envelope open.
The sheet of paper which he took out was almost as stiff as cardboard. It, too, emitted what his grace deemed the nauseous odors of the perfumer's shop. On it was written this letter:
"MY DEAR HEREWARD—For Heaven's sake do what these people require! I don't know what has happened or where I am, but I am nearly distracted! They have already cut off some of my hair, and they tell me that, if you don't let them have five hundred pounds in gold by half-past five, they will cut off my little finger too. I would sooner die than lose my little finger—and—I don't know what else besides.
"By the token which I send you, and which has never, until now, been off my breast, I conjure you to help me.
When he read that letter the duke turned white—very white, as white as the paper on which it was written. He passed the epistle on to Knowles.
"I suppose that also is a hoax?"
Mr. Knowles was silent. He still yielded to his constitutional disrelish to commit himself. At last he asked:
"What is it that your grace proposes to do?"
The duke spoke with a bitterness which almost suggested a personal animosity toward the inoffensive Mr. Knowles.
"I propose, with your permission, to release the duchess from the custody of my estimable correspondent. I propose—always with your permission—to comply with his modest request, and to take him his five hundred pounds in gold." He paused, then continued in a tone which, coming from him, meant volumes: "Afterwards, I propose to cry quits with the concocter of this pretty little hoax, even if it costs me every penny I possess. He shall pay more for that five hundred pounds than he supposes."
The Duke of Datchet, coming out of the bank, lingered for a moment on the steps. In one hand he carried a canvas bag which seemed well weighted. On his countenance there was an expression which to a casual observer might have suggested that his grace was not completely at his ease. That casual observer happened to come strolling by. It took the form of Ivor Dacre.
Mr. Dacre looked the Duke of Datchet up and down in that languid way he has. He perceived the canvas bag. Then he remarked, possibly intending to be facetious:
"Been robbing the bank? Shall I call a cart?"
Nobody minds what Ivor Dacre says. Besides, he is the duke's own cousin. Perhaps a little removed; still, there it is. So the duke smiled a sickly smile, as if Mr. Dacre's delicate wit had given him a passing touch of indigestion.
Mr. Dacre noticed that the duke looked sallow, so he gave his pretty sense of humor another airing.
"Kitchen boiler burst? When I saw the duchess just now I wondered if it had."
His grace distinctly started. He almost dropped the canvas bag.
"You saw the duchess just now, Ivor! When?"
The duke was evidently moved. Mr. Dacre was stirred to languid curiosity. "I can't say I clocked it. Perhaps half an hour ago; perhaps a little more."
"Half an hour ago! Are you sure? Where did you see her?"
Mr. Dacre wondered. The Duchess of Datchet could scarcely have been eloping in broad daylight. Moreover, she had not yet been married a year. Everyone knew that she and the duke were still as fond of each other as if they were not man and wife. So, although the duke, for some cause or other, was evidently in an odd state of agitation, Mr. Dacre saw no reason why he should not make a clean breast of all he knew.
"She was going like blazes in a hansom cab."
"In a hansom cab? Where?"
"Down Waterloo Place."
"Was she alone?"
Mr. Dacre reflected. He glanced at the duke out of the corners of his eyes. His languid utterance became a positive drawl.
"I rather fancy that she wasn't."
"Who was with her?"
"My dear fellow, if you were to offer me the bank I couldn't tell you."
"Was it a man?"
Mr. Dacre's drawl became still more pronounced.
"I rather fancy that it was."
Mr. Dacre expected something. The duke was so excited. But he by no means expected what actually came.
"Ivor, she's been kidnaped!"
Mr. Dacre did what he had never been known to do before within the memory of man—he dropped his eyeglass.
"She has! Some scoundrel has decoyed her away, and trapped her. He's already sent me a lock of her hair, and he tells me that if I don't let him have five hundred pounds in gold by half-past five he'll let me have her little finger."
Mr. Dacre did not know what to make of his grace at all. He was a sober man—it couldn't be that! Mr. Dacre felt really concerned.
"I'll call a cab, old man, and you'd better let me see you home."
Mr. Dacre half raised his stick to hail a passing hansom. The duke caught him by the arm.
"You ass! What do you mean? I am telling you the simple truth. My wife's been kidnaped."
Mr. Dacre's countenance was a thing to be seen—and remembered.
"Oh! I hadn't heard that there was much of that sort of thing about just now. They talk of poodles being kidnaped, but as for duchesses—You'd really better let me call that cab."
"Ivor, do you want me to kick you? Don't you see that to me it's a question of life and death? I've been in there to get the money." His grace motioned toward the bank. "I'm going to take it to the scoundrel who has my darling at his mercy. Let me but have her hand in mine again, and he shall continue to pay for every sovereign with tears of blood until he dies."
"Look here, Datchet, I don't know if you're having a joke with me, or if you're not well—"
The duke stepped impatiently into the roadway.
"Ivor, you're a fool! Can't you tell jest from earnest, health from disease? I'm off! Are you coming with me? It would be as well that I should have a witness."
"Where are you off to?"
"To the other end of the Arcade."
"Who is the gentleman you expect to have the pleasure of meeting there?"
"How should I know?" The duke took a letter from his pocket—it was the letter which had just arrived. "The fellow is to wear a white top hat, and a gardenia in his buttonhole."
"What is it you have there?"
"It's the letter which brought the news—look for yourself and see; but, for God's sake, make haste!" His grace glanced at his watch. "It's already twenty after five."
"And do you mean to say that on the strength of a letter such as this you are going to hand over five hundred pounds to—"
The duke cut Mr. Dacre short.
"What are five hundred pounds to me? Besides, you don't know all. There is another letter. And I have heard from Mabel. But I will tell you all about it later. If you are coming, come!"
Folding up the letter, Mr. Dacre returned it to the duke.
"As you say, what are five hundred pounds to you? It's as well they are not as much to you as they are to me, or I'm afraid—"
"Hang it, Ivor, do prose afterwards!"
The duke hurried across the road. Mr. Dacre hastened after him. As they entered the Arcade they passed a constable. Mr. Dacre touched his companion's arm.
"Don't you think we'd better ask our friend in blue to walk behind us? His neighborhood might be handy."
"Nonsense!" The duke stopped short. "Ivor, this is my affair, not yours. If you are not content to play the part of silent witness, be so good as to leave me."
"My dear Datchet, I'm entirely at your service. I can be every whit as insane as you, I do assure you."
Side by side they moved rapidly down the Burlington Arcade. The duke was obviously in a state of the extremest nervous tension. Mr. Dacre was equally obviously in a state of the most supreme enjoyment. People stared as they rushed past. The duke saw nothing. Mr. Dacre saw everything, and smiled.
When they reached the Piccadilly end of the Arcade the duke pulled up. He looked about him. Mr. Dacre also looked about him.
"I see nothing of your white-hatted and gardenia-buttonholed friend," said Ivor.
The duke referred to his watch.
"It's not yet half-past five. I'm up to time."
Mr. Dacre held his stick in front of him and leaned on it. He indulged himself with a beatific smile.
"It strikes me, my dear Datchet, that you've been the victim of one of the finest things in hoaxes—"
"I hope I haven't kept you waiting."
The voice which interrupted Mr. Dacre came from the rear. While they were looking in front of them some one approached them from behind, apparently coming out of the shop which was at their backs.
The speaker looked a gentleman. He sounded like one, too. Costume, appearance, manner, were beyond reproach—even beyond the criticism of two such keen critics as were these. The glorious attire of a London dandy was surmounted with a beautiful white top hat. In his buttonhole was a magnificent gardenia.
In age the stranger was scarcely more than a boy, and a sunny-faced, handsome boy at that. His cheeks were hairless, his eyes were blue. His smile was not only innocent, it was bland. Never was there a more conspicuous illustration of that repose which stamps the caste of Vere de Vere.
The duke looked at him and glowered. Mr. Dacre looked at him and smiled.
"Who are you?" asked the duke.
"Ah—that is the question!" The newcomer's refined and musical voice breathed the very soul of affability. "I am an individual who is so unfortunate as to be in want of five hundred pounds."
"Are you the scoundrel who sent me that infamous letter?"
The charming stranger never turned a hair.
"I am the scoundrel mentioned in that infamous letter who wants to accost you at the Piccadilly end of the Burlington Arcade before half-past five—as witness my white hat and my gardenia."
"Where's my wife?"
The stranger gently swung his stick in front of him with his two hands. He regarded the duke as a merry-hearted son might regard his father. The thing was beautiful!
"Her grace will be home almost as soon as you are—when you have given me the money which I perceive you have all ready for me in that scarcely elegant-looking canvas bag." He shrugged his shoulders quite gracefully. "Unfortunately, in these matters one has no choice—one is forced to ask for gold."
"And suppose, instead of giving you what is in this canvas bag, I take you by the throat and choke the life right out of you?"
"Or suppose," amended Mr. Dacre, "that you do better, and commend this gentleman to the tender mercies of the first policeman we encounter."
The stranger turned to Mr. Dacre. He condescended to become conscious of his presence.
"Is this gentleman your grace's friend? Ah—Mr. Dacre, I perceive! I have the honor of knowing Mr. Dacre, though, possibly, I am unknown to him."
"You were—until this moment."
With an airy little laugh the stranger returned to the duke. He brushed an invisible speck of dust off the sleeve of his coat.
"As has been intimated in that infamous letter, his grace is at perfect liberty to give me into custody—why not? Only"—he said it with his boyish smile—"if a particular communication is not received from me in certain quarters within a certain time the Duchess of Datchet's beautiful white arm will be hacked off at the shoulder."
The duke would have taken the stranger by the throat, and have done his best to choke the life right out of him then and there, if Mr. Dacre had not intervened.
"Steady, old man!" Mr. Dacre turned to the stranger. "You appear to be a pretty sort of a scoundrel."
The stranger gave his shoulders that almost imperceptible shrug.
"Oh, my dear Dacre, I am in want of money! I believe that you sometimes are in want of money, too."
Everybody knows that nobody knows where Ivor Dacre gets his money from, so the allusion must have tickled him immensely.
"You're a cool hand," he said.
"Some men are born that way."
"So I should imagine. Men like you must be born, not made."
"Precisely—as you say!" The stranger turned, with his graceful smile, to the duke: "But are we not wasting precious time? I can assure your grace that, in this particular matter, moments are of value."
Mr. Dacre interposed before the duke could answer.
"If you take my strongly urged advice, Datchet, you will summon this constable who is now coming down the Arcade, and hand this gentleman over to his keeping. I do not think that you need fear that the duchess will lose her arm, or even her little finger. Scoundrels of this one's kidney are most amenable to reason when they have handcuffs on their wrists."
The duke plainly hesitated. He would—and he would not. The stranger, as he eyed him, seemed much amused.
"My dear duke, by all means act on Mr. Dacre's valuable suggestion. As I said before, why not? It would at least be interesting to see if the duchess does or does not lose her arm—almost as interesting to you as to Mr. Dacre. Those blackmailing, kidnaping scoundrels do use such empty menaces. Besides, you would have the pleasure of seeing me locked up. My imprisonment for life would recompense you even for the loss of her grace's arm. And five hundred pounds is such a sum to have to pay—merely for a wife! Why not, therefore, act on Mr. Dacre's suggestion? Here comes the constable." The constable referred to was advancing toward them—he was not a dozen yards away. "Let me beckon to him—I will with pleasure." He took out his watch—a gold chronograph repeater. "There are scarcely ten minutes left during which it will be possible for me to send the communication which I spoke of, so that it may arrive in time. As it will then be too late, and the instruments are already prepared for the little operation which her grace is eagerly anticipating, it would, perhaps, be as well, after all, that you should give me into charge. You would have saved your five hundred pounds, and you would, at any rate, have something in exchange for her grace's mutilated limb. Ah, here is the constable! Officer!"
The stranger spoke with such a pleasant little air of easy geniality that it was impossible to tell if he were in jest or in earnest. This fact impressed the duke much more than if he had gone in for a liberal indulgence of the—under the circumstances—orthodox melodramatic scowling. And, indeed, in the face of his own common sense, it impressed Mr. Ivor Dacre too.
This well-bred, well-groomed youth was just the being to realize—aux bouts des ongles—a modern type of the devil, the type which depicts him as a perfect gentleman, who keeps smiling all the time.
The constable whom this audacious rogue had signaled approached the little group. He addressed the stranger:
"Do you want me, sir?"
"No, I do not want you. I think it is the Duke of Datchet."
The constable, who knew the duke very well by sight, saluted him as he turned to receive instructions.
The duke looked white, even savage. There was not a pleasant look in his eyes and about his lips. He appeared to be endeavoring to put a great restraint upon himself. There was a momentary silence. Mr. Dacre made a movement as if to interpose. The duke caught him by the arm.
He spoke: "No, constable, I do not want you. This person is mistaken."
The constable looked as if he could not quite make out how such a mistake could have arisen, hesitated, then, with another salute, he moved away.
The stranger was still holding his watch in his hand.
"Only eight minutes," he said.
The duke seemed to experience some difficulty in giving utterance to what he had to say.
"If I give you this five hundred pounds, you—you—"
As the duke paused, as if at a loss for language which was strong enough to convey his meaning, the stranger laughed.
"Let us take the adjectives for granted. Besides, it is only boys who call each other names—men do things. If you give me the five hundred sovereigns, which you have in that bag, at once—in five minutes it will be too late—I will promise—I will not swear; if you do not credit my simple promise, you will not believe my solemn affirmation—I will promise that, possibly within an hour, certainly within an hour and a half, the Duchess of Datchet shall return to you absolutely uninjured—except, of course, as you are already aware, with regard to a few of the hairs of her head. I will promise this on the understanding that you do not yourself attempt to see where I go, and that you will allow no one else to do so." This with a glance at Ivor Dacre. "I shall know at once if I am followed. If you entertain such intentions, you had better, on all accounts, remain in possession of your five hundred pounds."
The duke eyed him very grimly.
"I entertain no such intentions—until the duchess returns."
Again the stranger indulged in that musical laugh of his.
"Ah, until the duchess returns! Of course, then the bargain's at an end. When you are once more in the enjoyment of her grace's society, you will be at liberty to set all the dogs in Europe at my heels. I assure you I fully expect that you will do so—why not?" The duke raised the canvas bag. "My dear duke, ten thousand thanks! You shall see her grace at Datchet House, 'pon my honor, probably within the hour."
"Well," commented Ivor Dacre, when the stranger had vanished, with the bag, into Piccadilly, and as the duke and himself moved toward Burlington Gardens, "if a gentleman is to be robbed, it is as well that he should have another gentleman rob him."
Mr. Dacre eyed his companion covertly as they progressed. His Grace of Datchet appeared to have some fresh cause for uneasiness. All at once he gave it utterance, in a tone of voice which was extremely somber:
"Ivor, do you think that scoundrel will dare to play me false?"
"I think," murmured Mr. Dacre, "that he has dared to play you pretty false already."
"I don't mean that. But I mean how am I to know, now that he has his money, that he will still not keep Mabel in his clutches?"
There came an echo from Mr. Dacre.
"Just so—how are you to know?"
"I believe that something of this sort has been done in the States."
"I thought that there they were content to kidnap them after they were dead. I was not aware that they had, as yet, got quite so far as the living."
"I believe that I have heard of something just like this."
"Possibly; they are giants over there."
"And in that case the scoundrels, when their demands were met, refused to keep to the letter of their bargain and asked for more."
The duke stood still. He clinched his fists, and swore:
"Ivor, if that—villain doesn't keep his word, and Mabel isn't home within the hour, by—I shall go mad!"
"My dear Datchet"—Mr. Dacre loved strong language as little as he loved a scene—"let us trust to time and, a little, to your white-hatted and gardenia-buttonholed friend's word of honor. You should have thought of possible eventualities before you showed your confidence—really. Suppose, instead of going mad, we first of all go home?"
A hansom stood waiting for a fare at the end of the Arcade. Mr. Dacre had handed the duke into it before his grace had quite realized that the vehicle was there.
"Tell the fellow to drive faster." That was what the duke said when the cab had started.
"My dear Datchet, the man's already driving his geerage off its legs. If a bobby catches sight of him he'll take his number."
A moment later, a murmur from the duke:
"I don't know if you're aware that the prince is coming to dinner?"
"I am perfectly aware of it."
"You take it uncommonly cool. How easy it is to bear our brother's burdens! Ivor, if Mabel doesn't turn up I shall feel like murder."
"I sympathize with you, Datchet, with all my heart, though, I may observe, parenthetically, that I very far from realize the situation even yet. Take my advice. If the duchess does not show quite as soon as we both of us desire, don't make a scene; just let me see what I can do."
Judging from the expression of his countenance, the duke was conscious of no overwhelming desire to witness an exhibition of Mr. Dacre's prowess.
When the cab reached Datchet House his grace dashed up the steps three at a time. The door flew open.
"Has the duchess returned?"
A voice floated downward from above. Some one came running down the stairs. It was her Grace of Datchet.
She actually rushed into the duke's extended arms. And he kissed her, and she kissed him—before the servants.
"So you're not quite dead?" she cried.
"I am almost," he said.
She drew herself a little away from him.
"Hereward, were you seriously hurt?"
"Do you suppose that I could have been otherwise than seriously hurt?"
"My darling! Was it a Pickford's van?"
The duke stared.
"A Pickford's van? I don't understand. But come in here. Come along, Ivor. Mabel, you don't see Ivor."
"How do you do, Mr. Dacre?"
Then the trio withdrew into a little anteroom; it was really time. Even then the pair conducted themselves as if Mr. Dacre had been nothing and no one. The duke took the lady's two hands in his. He eyed her fondly.
"So you are uninjured, with the exception of that lock of hair. Where did the villain take it from?"
The lady looked a little puzzled.
"What lock of hair?"
From an envelope which he took from his pocket the duke produced a shining tress. It was the lock of hair which had arrived in the first communication. "I will have it framed."
"You will have what framed?" The duchess glanced at what the duke was so tenderly caressing, almost, as it seemed, a little dubiously. "Whatever is it you have there?"
"It is the lock of hair which that scoundrel sent me." Something in the lady's face caused him to ask a question; "Didn't he tell you he had sent it to me?"
"Did the brute tell you that he meant to cut off your little finger?"
A very curious look came into the lady's face. She glanced at the duke as if she, all at once, was half afraid of him. She cast at Mr. Dacre what really seemed to be a look of inquiry. Her voice was tremulously anxious.
"Hereward, did—did the accident affect you mentally?"
"How could it not have affected me mentally? Do you think that my mental organization is of steel?"
"But you look so well."
"Of course I look well, now that I have you back again. Tell me, darling, did that hound actually threaten you with cutting off your arm? If he did, I shall feel half inclined to kill him yet."
The duchess seemed positively to shrink from her better half's near neighborhood.
"Hereward, was it a Pickford's van?"
The duke seemed puzzled. Well he might be.
"Was what a Pickford's van?"
The lady turned to Mr. Dacre. In her voice there was a ring of anguish.
"Mr. Dacre, tell me, was it a Pickford's van?"
Ivor could only imitate his relative's repetition of her inquiry.
"I don't quite catch you—was what a Pickford's van?"
The duchess clasped her hands in front of her.
"What is it you are keeping from me? What is it you are trying to hide? I implore you to tell me the worst, whatever it may be! Do not keep me any longer in suspense; you do not know what I already have endured. Mr. Dacre, is my husband mad?"
One need scarcely observe that the lady's amazing appeal to Mr. Dacre as to her husband's sanity was received with something like surprise. As the duke continued to stare at her, a dreadful fear began to loom in his brain.
"My darling, your brain is unhinged!"
He advanced to take her two hands again in his; but, to his unmistakable distress, she shrank away from him.
"Hereward—don't touch me. How is it that I missed you? Why did you not wait until I came?"
"Wait until you came?"
The duke's bewilderment increased.
"Surely, if your injuries turned out, after all, to be slight, that was all the more reason why you should have waited, after sending for me like that."
"I sent for you—I?" The duke's tone was grave. "My darling, perhaps you had better come upstairs."
"Not until we have had an explanation. You must have known that I should come. Why did you not wait for me after you had sent me that?"
The duchess held out something to the duke. He took it. It was a card—his own visiting card. Something was written on the back of it. He read aloud what was written.
"Mabel, come to me at once with the bearer. They tell me that they cannot take me home." It looks like my own writing."
"Looks like it! It is your writing."
"It looks like it—and written with a shaky pen."
"My dear child, one's hand would shake at such a moment as that."
"Mabel, where did you get this?"
"It was brought to me in Cane and Wilson's."
"Who brought it?"
"Who brought it? Why, the man you sent."
"The man I sent!" A light burst upon the duke's brain. He fell back a pace. "It's the decoy!"
Her grace echoed the words:
"The scoundrel! To set a trap with such a bait! My poor innocent darling, did you think it came from me? Tell me, Mabel, where did he cut off your hair?"
"Cut off my hair?"
Her grace put her hand to her head as if to make sure that her hair was there.
"Where did he take you to?"
"He took me to Draper's Buildings."
"I have never been in the City before, but he told me it was Draper's Buildings. Isn't that near the Stock Exchange?"
"Near the Stock Exchange?"
It seemed rather a curious place to which to take a kidnaped victim. The man's audacity!
"He told me that you were coming out of the Stock Exchange when a van knocked you over. He said that he thought it was a Pickford's van—was it a Pickford's van?"
"No, it was not a Pickford's van. Mabel, were you in Draper's Buildings when you wrote that letter?"
"Wrote what letter?"
"Have you forgotten it already? I do not believe that there is a word in it which will not be branded on my brain until I die."
"Hereward! What do you mean?"
"Surely you cannot have written me such a letter as that, and then have forgotten it already?"
He handed her the letter which had arrived in the second communication. She glanced at it, askance. Then she took it with a little gasp.
"Hereward, if you don't mind, I think I'll take a chair." She took a chair. "Whatever—whatever's this?" As she read the letter the varying expressions which passed across her face were, in themselves, a study in psychology. "Is it possible that you can imagine that, under any conceivable circumstances, I could have written such a letter as this?"
She rose to her feet with emphasis.
"Hereward, don't say that you thought this came from me!"
"Not from you?" He remembered Knowles's diplomatic reception of the epistle on its first appearance. "I suppose that you will say next that this is not a lock of your hair?"
"My dear child, what bee have you got in your bonnet? This a lock of my hair! Why, it's not in the least bit like my hair!"
Which was certainly inaccurate. As far as color was concerned it was an almost perfect match. The duke turned to Mr. Dacre.
"Ivor, I've had to go through a good deal this afternoon. If I have to go through much more, something will crack!" He touched his forehead. "I think it's my turn to take a chair." Not the one which the duchess had vacated, but one which faced it. He stretched out his legs in front of him; he thrust his hands into his trousers pockets; he said, in a tone which was not gloomy but absolutely grewsome:
"Might I ask, Mabel, if you have been kidnaped?"
"The word I used was 'kidnaped.' But I will spell it if you like. Or I will get a dictionary, that you may see its meaning."
The duchess looked as if she was beginning to be not quite sure if she was awake or sleeping. She turned to Ivor.
"Mr. Dacre, has the accident affected Hereward's brain?"
The duke took the words out of his cousin's mouth.
"On that point, my dear, let me ease your mind. I don't know if you are under the impression that I should be the same shape after a Pickford's van had run over me as I was before; but, in any case, I have not been run over by a Pickford's van. So far as I am concerned there has been no accident. Dismiss that delusion from your mind."
"You appear surprised. One might even think that you were sorry. But may I now ask what you did when you arrived at Draper's Buildings?"
"Did! I looked for you!"
"Indeed! And when you had looked in vain, what was the next item in your programme?"
The lady shrank still farther from him.
"Hereward, have you been having a jest at my expense? Can you have been so cruel?" Tears stood in her eyes.
Rising, the duke laid his hand upon her arm.
"Mabel, tell me—what did you do when you had looked for me in vain?"
"I looked for you upstairs and downstairs and everywhere. It was quite a large place, it took me ever such a time. I thought that I should go distracted. Nobody seemed to know anything about you, or even that there had been an accident at all—it was all offices. I couldn't make it out in the least, and the people didn't seem to be able to make me out either. So when I couldn't find you anywhere I came straight home again."
The duke was silent for a moment. Then with funereal gravity he turned to Mr. Dacre. He put to him this question: