"I am afraid," she said softly, "that it was for me."
"For you," he answered, "of course. But your letter hinted at an explanation."
"Explanations" she yawned, "are so tedious."
"Tell me, at least," he said, "how the poor young idiot offended you."
"Offended me! Scarcely that."
"You are not a woman" he said, "to interfere in anything without a cause."
"I am a woman of whim," she said. "You have told me so many times."
"You are a very wonderful woman," he said softly, "and you know very well that your will is quite sufficient for me. Yet you are also a generous woman. I have many a time had to stand godfather to your literary foundlings. You have never yet exercised the contrary privilege. I have done a mean thing and an ungenerous thing, and though I would do it again at your bidding, again and again, I should like an excuse—if there is any excuse."
"I am so sorry," she said. "There will be no excuse for you. I, too, have been mean and ungenerous—but I should be the same again. I took some interest in that young man, and I offered him my help. He coolly declined it—talked of succeeding by his own exertions. So priggish, you know, and I felt bound to let him see that the path to literary fame was not altogether the pleasant highway he seemed to expect."
"That was all?"
"He wounded your vanity; you stoop to retaliate."
She beamed upon him.
"How nice of you to be so candid. I value frankness from my friends more than anything in the world.
"It is the exact truth!"
"It was unworthy of you," he said shortly.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"You think much too well of me," she said. "You know I am a woman to the finger tips."
"I don't call that a womanly action," he said.
"Ah! that is because you know nothing of women." There was a moment's silence. From a distant room, dimly seen through a vista of curved and pillared archways, a woman's voice came pealing out to them, the passionate climax of an Italian love song, the voice of a prima donna of world-wide fame. A storm of applause was echoed through the near rooms, a buzz of appreciative criticism followed. Drexley rose up from the seat where he had been sitting.
"Thank you," he said. "I have learned what I wanted to know. I will go now. Good evening."
She stood by his side—as tall as he—and looked at him curiously. It was as though she were seeking to discover from his face how much his opinion of her had altered. But if so, she was disappointed. His face was inscrutable.
"You are angry with me?"
"I have no right to be that."
"Not with you."
"After all," she said, "there is no harm done. He will come to me, and then I shall see that his future is properly shaped. If he is what I have an idea that he may be, I shall be of far greater help to him than ever you could have been."
But Drexley was silent. He was thinking then of her proteges. Had they, after all, been such brilliant successes? One or two were doing fairly well, from a pecuniary point of view—but there were others! She read his thought, and a faint spot of colour burned for a moment on her cheek. She was very nearly angry. What a bear, a brute!
"I know what you were thinking of," she said coldly. "It is not generous of you. I did all I could for poor Austin, and as for Fennel—well, he was mad."
"You are the kind of woman," he said, looking her suddenly full in the face, "who deals out kindnesses to men which they would often be much better without. You are generous, great-hearted, sympathetic, else I would not speak like this to you. But you have a devil's gift somewhere. You make the most unlikely men your slaves—and you send them mad with kindness.
"You are neither fair nor reasonable," she answered. "You talk as though I were Circe behind a bar. Such rubbish."
"I never insinuated that it was wilful," he said sadly. "I believe in you. I know that you are generous. Only—you are very beautiful, and at times you are too kind."
"My hateful sex!" she exclaimed dolefully. "Why can't men forget it sometimes? Isn't it a little hard upon me, my friend? I am, you know, very rich, and I have influence. Nothing interests me so much as helping on a little young people who have gifts. Isn't it a little hard that I should I have to abandon what surely isn't a mischievous thing to do because one of the young men has been foolish enough to fancy himself in love with me?"
They were interrupted. She turned to bid him good night.
"At least," she said smiling, "I will be very careful indeed with this boy."
"If he comes to you!"
"If he comes," she repeated, with an odd little smile at the corner of her lips.
* * * * *
Drexley walked through the crowded streets to his club, where his appearance in such unwonted garb was hailed with a storm of applause and a good deal of chaff. He held his own as usual, lighted his pipe, and played a game of pool. But all the same he was not quite himself. There was the old restlessness hot in his blood, and a strong sense of dissatisfaction with himself. Later on, Rice was brought in by a friend, and he drew him on one side.
"Rice," he said abruptly, "about that young fellow you brought to see me to-day—"
Rice looked his chief full in the face.
"Well?" he said simply.
"I don't want to altogether lose sight of him. You haven't his address by any chance, have you?"
"I only wish I had," Rice answered shortly. "May be there by now."
He pointed out of the window to where the Thames, black and sullen, but lit with a thousand fitful lights, flowed sullenly seaward. Drexley shuddered.
"Don't talk rot, Rice," he said.
"Oh, I don't know," the younger man answered. "You gave him a knockdown blow, and an unexpected one.
"I was sorry," Drexley said, awkwardly. "In the conduct of the magazine I have to sometimes consider other people. I am not wholly my own master."
Rice, who knew who the "other people" were, muttered a curse between his teeth. Drexley turned frowning away.
"At any rate, if you hear anything of him," he said, "let me know."
"Does the Countess de Reuss intend to be kind to him?" Rice asked.
"Go to the devil!" Drexley answered savagely.
DOUGLAS GUEST GETS HIS "CHANCE"
There followed a time then when the black waters of nethermost London closed over Douglas's head. He struggled and fought to the last gasp, but in the end the great stream carried him away on her bosom, and with scarcely a sob he watched all those wonderful rose-coloured dreams of his fade away into empty space. He was one of the flotsam and jetsam of life. No one would have the work of his brains, and his unskilled hands failed to earn anything for him save a few dry crusts. He had made desperate efforts to win a hearing. Whilst his few pence lasted, and his inkpot was full, he wrote several short stories, and left them here and there at the offices of various magazines. He had no permanent address, he would call for the reply, he said; and so he did, till his coat burst at the seams and his boots gave out. Then he gave it up in despair. It was his work that was wrong, he told himself. What had seemed well enough to him amongst the Cumberland hills was crude and amateurish here. He was a fool ever to have reckoned himself a writer. It was the Ibex which had misled him. He cursed the Ibex, its editor, and all connected with it. That was at the time when he had sunk lowest, when it seemed to him, who, only a few days ago, had looked out upon life a marvellous panorama of life and colour and things beautiful, that death after all was the one thing to be desired. Yet he carried himself bravely through those evil days. Every morning he stripped and swam in the Serpentine, stiff enough often after a night spent out of doors, but ever with that vigorous desire for personal cleanliness which never left him even at the worst. As soon as his clothes fell into rags about him he presented the strange appearance of a tramp whose face and hands were spotless, and who carried himself even till towards the end with a sort of easy grace as though he were indeed only masquerading. But there came a time when the luck of the loafer went against him. From morning to night he tramped the streets, willing to work even till his back was broken, but unable to earn a copper. The gnawings of hunger roused something of the wild beast in him. A fiercer light burned in his eyes, his thin lips curled into hard, stern lines. He loitered about the Strand, and the crowds of theatre-goers in their evening dresses, borne backwards and forwards in cabs and carriages, and crowding the pavements also, stirred in him a slow, passionate anger. The bitter inequalities of life, its flagrant and rank injustices, he seemed for the first time to wholly realise. A Banquo amongst the gay stream of people who brushed lightly against him every moment. He lost for the time that admirable gift of sympathetic interest in his fellows which had once been his chief trait. His outlook upon life was changed. To the world which had misused him so he showed an altered front. He scowled at the men, and kept his face turned from the women. What had they done, these people, that they should be well-dressed and merry, whilst the aching in his bones grew to madness, and hunger gnawed at his life strings. One night, with twitching fingers and face drawn white with pain, he turned away from the crowded streets towards Westminster, sank into a seat, and, picking up the half of a newspaper, read the smug little account of a journalist who had spent a few hours a day perhaps in the slums. As he read he laughed softly to himself, and then, clutching the paper in his hands, he walked away to the Embankment, up Northumberland Avenue, and into the Strand. After a few inquiries he found the offices of the newspaper, and marched boldly inside. A vast speculation, the enterprise of a millionaire, the Daily Courier, though it sold for a halfpenny, was housed in a palace. In a gothic chamber, like the hall of a chapel, hung with electric lights and filled with a crowd of workers and loungers, Douglas stood clutching the fragment of newspaper still in his hand, looking around for some one to address himself to—a strange figure in his rags, wan, starving, but something of personal distinction still clinging to him. A boy looked over a mahogany partition at him and opened a trap window.
"Well?" he asked sharply. "Do you want papers to sell? This is the wrong entrance for that, you know."
"I want to see some one in authority," Douglas said; "the sub-editor, if possible."
It was a democratic undertaking, this newspaper, with its vast circulation and mighty staff, and visitors of all sorts daily crossed its threshold. Yet this man's coat hung about him in tatters, and his boots were almost soleless. The boy hesitated.
"What business?" he asked curtly.
"I will explain it—to him—in a moment," Douglas answered. "If he is busy, one of the staff will do. I am in no hurry. I can wait."
The boy closed the trapdoor and withdrew. In a few minutes a young man, smartly dressed, with sparse moustache and a pince-nez, came out of a door opposite to Douglas.
"Want to see me?" he inquired tersely. "I'm an assistant editor."
Douglas held out the fragment of paper.
"I've just read that," he said. "Picked it up on a seat."
The man glanced at it and nodded.
"It's badly done," Douglas said, bluntly. "The man's only sat down on the outside of the thing and sketched. It isn't real. It couldn't be. No one can write of starvation who merely sees it written in the faces of other people. No one can write of the homeless who is playing at vagabondage."
The assistant editor looked his visitor up and down, and nodded quietly.
"If this sort of thing is likely to interest your readers," Douglas said, "give me pen and paper and I will write of the thing as it is. I am homeless, and I am starving. The loneliness that your man writes of so prettily, I will set down in black and white. Man, I am starving now, and I will write it down so that every one who reads shall understand. I have slept under arches and on seats, I have lain dreaming with the rain beating in my face, and I have seen strange things down in the underneath life where hell is. Give me a chance and I will set down these things for you, as no one has ever set them down before."
Douglas gave a little lurch, swayed, and recovered himself with an effort. The sub-editor looked at him with interest.
"Do you drink?" he asked quietly.
"No," Douglas answered. "I'm faint for want of food, that's all. Give me pen and ink, and if you can use what I write, pay me for it. You don't stand to lose anything, and I'm—I'm—"
The sub-editor took a small piece of gold from his pocket and interrupted him.
"That's all right," he said. "We'll see what you can do anyway. But you must have something to eat first. Let me give you this on account; now go straight away and get a feed and a glass of wine. I'll have a room ready for you when you get back."
Douglas drew a little breath. His fingers closed upon the piece of gold. There was a glare in his eyes which was almost wolfish. He had dared to let his thoughts rest for a moment upon food. He, who was fighting the last grim fight against starvation. He spoke in a whisper, for his voice was almost gone.
"How do you know that I shall come back?"
"I am content to risk it," the sub-editor answered, smiling. "Come back in an hour's time and ask for Mr. Rawlinson."
Douglas staggered out, speechless. There was a sob sticking in his throat and a mist of tears before his eyes.
THE MAN WHO NEARLY WENT UNDER
At midnight a man sat writing at a desk in a corner of a great room full of hanging lights, a hive of industry. All around him was the clicking of typewriters, the monotonous dictation of reporters, the tinkling of telephone bells. When they had set him down here, they had asked him whether the noises would disturb him, but he had only smiled grimly. They brought him pen and paper and a box of cigarettes—which he ignored. Then they left him alone, and no sound in the great room was more constant than the scratching of his pen across the paper.
As the first page fluttered from his fingers he bent for a moment his head, and his pen was held in nerveless fingers. Since he had come to London, sanguine, buoyant, light-hearted, this was the first time he had written a line for which he expected payment. The irony of it was borne in upon him with swift, unresisting agony. This was the first fruit of his brain, this passionate rending aside of the curtain, which hung like a shroud before the grim horrors of that seething lower world of misery. In his earlier work there had been a certain delicate fancifulness, an airy grace of diction and description, a very curious heritage of a man brought up in the narrowest of lines, where every influence had been a constraint. There was nothing of that in the words which were leaping now hot from his heart. Yet he knew very well that he was writing as a man inspired.
That was his only pause. Midnight struck, one and two o'clock, but his pen only flew the faster. Many curious glances were cast upon him, the man in rags with the burning eyes, who wrote as though possessed by some inexorcisable demon. At last Rawlinson came softly to his side and took up a handful of the wet sheets. He was smoking a cigarette, for his own labours were nearly over, but as he read it burned out between his fingers. He beckoned to another man, and silently passed him some of the sheets. They drew a little on one side.
"Wonderful," the other man whispered, in a tone of rare enthusiasm. "Who on earth is he?"
Rawlinson shook his head.
"No idea. He came here like that—nearly fainted before my eyes—wanted to write something in Austin's line—looked as though he could do it too. I gave him half a sovereign to get something to eat, and told him to come back. There he's been ever since—nearly three hours. What a study for one of those lurid sketches of Forbes' as he sits now."
"I never read anything like it," the newcomer said. "He's a magnificent find. How on earth did a man who can do work like that get into such a state?"
Rawlinson shrugged his shoulders.
"Who can tell. Not drink, I should say. Laziness perhaps, or ill-luck. I only know that to-night he has written his way on to the staff of this paper."
The other man was watching Douglas as though fascinated.
"He has written his way into greater things," he murmured. "It makes one feel like a hackneyed 'penny-a-liner' to read work like that."
"He's about done up," Rawlinson said. "Do you think I ought to stop him?"
"Not likely. If there's such a thing in the world as inspiration he's got it now. Don't miss a line. Let him write till he faints, but have some one watch him and give him a stiff whiskey and soda directly he stops."
"I shall stay myself," Rawlinson said. "It's an 'off' day to-morrow, anyhow. Come and have a drink."
From behind and below came the roar of machinery, rolls of wet proofs came flooding into the room at every moment. Now and then a hansom set down a belated reporter, who passed swiftly in to his work, taking off his coat as he went. Outside the sparrows began to chirp, dawn lightened the sky, and strange gleams of light stole into the vast room. Then suddenly from Douglas's desk came a sound.
Rawlinson rushed up too late to save him. Douglas had swayed for a moment and then fallen over sideways. He lay upon the ground a huddled heap, white and motionless.
They laid him flat upon his back, undid his clothing, and sent for a doctor. A window a few yards away was thrown up and a rush of cold, fresh air streamed into the room. But for all they could do Douglas never moved, and his face was like the face of a dead man. Rawlinson stood up, horribly anxious, and gave way to the doctor, who felt his heart and looked grave. For an hour the pendulum swung backwards and forwards between life and death. Then the doctor stood up with a sigh of relief.
"He'll do now," he said; "but it was a narrow squeak."
"Exhaustion?" Rawlinson asked.
"Starvation," the doctor answered grimly. "The man has been sober all his life, and a careful liver, or he would be dead now. What are you going to do with him? It'll take him a day or two to pull round."
"Whatever you advise," Rawlinson answered.
"Has he any money?"
"You can treat him as though he were a millionaire," Rawlinson answered. "Give him every chance. The Daily Courier pays cheerfully."
* * * * *
They moved him into the private ward of a great hospital, where patients with complicated disorders and bottomless purses were sometimes treated, but where never before a man had come suffering from starvation. Everything that science and careful nursing could do, was done for him, and in a few days be astonished them all by sitting up in bed suddenly and demanding to know what had happened. He listened without emotion, he heard the generous message from the Daily Courier which, a month ago, would have set every pulse in his body tingling with excitement, without comment. He grew rapidly stronger, but side by side with his physical improvement came a curious mental lassitude, a weariness of mind which made him content to lie and watch the housetops and the clouds, with never a desire to move nor to step back once more into life. The old enthusiasms seemed chilled out of him. They showed him his work in print, told him that he had stirred millions of his fellow-creatures as nothing of the sort had ever done before, that everywhere people were talking of him and his wonderful work. He only smiled faintly and looked once more at the clouds. They left paper and pens upon his table. He looked at them without interest, and they remained untouched, Rawlinson himself called daily to inquire, and one day the doctor sent for him.
"Your protege is physically all right now," he said. "He is suffering simply from shock. I should say that he had a fearful time struggling before he went down, and it will be a matter of time before he's himself again.
"All right," Rawlinson said. "Do all you can for him."
"I was going to suggest," the doctor said, "that one of us puts it delicately to him that he's a considerable expense to you. It needs something like that to stir him up. He could put on his hat and walk out of the place to-morrow if he liked."
"Not for the world," Rawlinson answered promptly. "If he was costing us fifty guineas a week instead of ten, we should be perfectly satisfied. Let him stay till he feels like moving. Then we'll send him to the sea, if he'll go."
The doctor laughed.
"You're great people, Rawlinson," he said. "Not many philanthropists like you."
"It's not philanthropy," the sub-editor answered. "If you asked me to put into L. s. d. what those articles were worth to us, I couldn't tell you. But I can tell you this. We've paid thousands down more than once, for an advertisement which wasn't worth half so much as those few sheets of manuscript. We've an endless purse, but there's a short supply of what we want to buy—originality. If we come across it we don't let it go easily, I can tell you."
So Douglas was left undisturbed. Then one morning he woke up to find his room a bower of roses, roses whose perfume and beauty took his breath away. The nurse, who had tended a prince, said she had never seen anything like them before. Douglas looked at them for a while fascinated, stooped down and bathed his face in the blossoms. When he spoke there was a change. One sense at least was revived in him—his love for things beautiful.
"Where did they come from?" he asked.
The nurse smiled.
"A lady heft them yesterday," she said. "She drove up and stayed for some time with the doctor. I believe that she is coming again to-day."
Douglas made no remark. Only the nurse smiled as she noticed him linger a little over his dressing, and look for the first time with interest at the clothes which had been sent in for him. Towards midday he grew restless. Early in the afternoon there was a soft tap at the door.
"May I come in?"
The nurse opened the door. There was a rustle of draperies, and to Douglas it seemed as though the room was suddenly full of wonderful colour. A new life flowed in his veins. It was Emily de Reuss who came towards him with outstretched hands.
THE FIRST TASTE OF FAME
At first he scarcely recognised her. He had seen her last in furs, to-day she seemed like a delicate dream of Springtime. She wore a white spotless muslin gown, whose exquisite simplicity had been the triumph of a French artiste. Her hat, large and drooping, was a vision of pink roses and soft creamy lace. There was a dainty suggestion of colour about her throat—only the sunlight seemed to discover when she moved the faint glinting green beneath the transparent folds of her gown.
She came over to Douglas with outstretched hands, and he was bewildered, for she had not smiled upon him like this once during that long journey to London.
"So it is I who have had to come to you," she exclaimed, taking his hands in hers. "May I sit down and talk for a little while? I am so glad—every one is glad—that you are better."
He laughed, a little oddly.
"Every one? Why I could count on the fingers of one hand the people with whom I have spoken since I came to London."
"Yes," she said, "but to-day you could not count in an hour the people who know you. You are very fortunate. You have made a wonderful start. You have got over all your difficulties so easily."
"So easily?" He smiled again and then shuddered. She looked into his face, and she too felt like shuddering.
"You do not know," he said. "No one will ever know what it is like—to go under—to be saved as it were by a miracle."
"You suffered, I know," she murmured, "but you gained a wonderful experience."
"You do not understand," he said, in a low tone. "No one will ever understand."
"You could have saved yourself so much," she said regretfully, "if you had kept your promise to come and see me.
"I could not," he answered. "I lost your address. It went into the Thames with an old coat the very night I reached London. But for that I should have come and begged from you."
"You would have made me famous," she answered laughing. "I should have claimed the merit of discovering you."
He looked puzzled.
"Of course you know," she said, "how every one has been reading those wonderful articles of yours in the Courier? You are very fortunate. You have made a reputation at one sitting."
He shook his head.
"A fleeting one, I am afraid. I can understand those articles seeming lifelike. You see I wrote them almost literally with my blood. It was my last effort. I was starving, poisoned with horrors, sick to death of the brutality of life."
"Things had gone so hardly with you then?" she murmured.
"From the first. I came to London as an adventurer, it is true. I knew no one, and I had no money. But the editor of the Ibex had written me kindly, had accepted a story and asked for more. Yet when I went to see him he seemed to have forgotten or repented. He would not give me a hearing. Even the story he had accepted he told me he could not use for a long time—and I was relying upon the money for that. That was the beginning of my ill-luck, and afterwards it never left me."
She sat for a moment with a look in her deep, soft eyes which he could not understand. Afterwards he thought of it and wondered. It passed away very soon, and she bent towards him with her face full of sympathy.
"It has left you now," she said softly, "and for ever. Do you know I have come to take you for a drive? The doctor says that it will do you good."
With a curious sense of unreality he followed her downstairs, and took the vacant seat in the victoria. It was all so much like a dream, like one of those wonderful visions which had come to him at times in the days of his homeless wanderings. Surely it was an illusion. The luxurious carriage, the great horses with their silver-mounted harness, the servants in their smart liveries, and above all, this beautiful woman, who leaned back at his side, watching him often with a sort of gentle curiosity. At first he sat still, quite dazed, his senses a little numbed, the feeling of unreality so strong upon him that he was almost tongue-tied. But presently the life of the streets awakened him. It was all so fascinating and alluring. They were in a part of London of which he had seen little—and that little from the gutters. To-day in the brilliant sunshine, in clothes better than any he had ever worn before, and side by side with a woman whom every one seemed honoured to know, he looked upon it with different eyes. They drove along Bond Street at a snail's pace and stopped for a few minutes at one of the smaller galleries, where she took him in to see a wonderful Russian picture, about which every one was talking. Fancying that he looked tired she insisted upon tea, and they stopped at some curious little rooms, and sat together at a tiny table drinking tea with sliced lemons, and eating strawberries such as he had never seen before. Then on again to the Park, where they pulled up under the trees, and she waved constantly away the friends who would have surrounded her carriage. One or two would not be denied, and to all of them she introduced Jesson—the young writer—they had seen that wonderful work of his in the Daily Courier, of course? He took no part in any conversation more than he could help, leaning back amongst the cushions with the white lace of her parasol close to his cheek, watching the faces of the men and women who streamed by, and the great banks of rhododendrons dimly seen lower down through the waving green trees. The murmur of pleasant conversation fell constantly upon his ears—surely that other world was part of an evil dream, a relic of his delirium. Heaven and hell could never exist so close together. But by-and-bye, when they drove off she herself brought the truth home to him.
"Do you know," she said, "this afternoon I have had an idea? Some day I hope so much that it may come true. Do you mind if I tell it you? It concerns yourself."
"Tell me, of course," he said.
"You have written so wonderfully of that terrible world beneath—that world whose burden we would all give so much to lighten. You have written so vividly that every one knows that you yourself have been there. Presently—not now, of course—but some day I would have you write of life as we see it about us to-day—of the world beautiful—and I would have you illustrate it as one who has lived in it, drunk of its joys, even as one of its happiest children. Think what a wealth of great experiences must lie between the two extremes! It is what you would wish for—you, to whom the study of your fellow-creatures is the chosen pursuit of life."
He smiled at her thoughtfully.
"I do not know," he replied, "but I should think very few in this world are ever permitted to pass behind both canopies. To me it seems impossible that I should have ceased so suddenly to be a denizen of the one, and even more impossible that I should ever have caught a glimpse of the other."
"You will not always say so," she murmured. "You have everything in your favour now—youth, strength, experience, and reputation."
"Even then," he answered, "I doubt whether I still possess the capacity for happiness. I feel at times as though what had gone before had frozen the blood in my veins."
"Your friends" she said, "must make up to you for the past. Forgetfulness is sometimes hardly won, but it is never an impossibility."
"My friends? My dear lady, I do not possess one."
She raised her parasol. Her wonderful eyes sought his, her delicately-gloved hand rested for a moment lightly upon his palm.
"And what am I?" she asked softly.
He was only human, and his heart beat the faster for that gentle touch and the gleam in her eyes. She was so beautiful, so unlike any other woman with whom he had ever spoken.
"Have I any right to call you my friend?" he faltered.
"Have you any right," she answered brightly, "to call me anything else?"
"I wonder what makes you so kind to me," he said.
"I liked you from the moment you jumped into the railway carriage" she replied, "in those ridiculous clothes, and with a face like a ghost. Then I liked your independence in refusing to come and be helped along, and since I have read your—but we won't talk about that, only if you have really no friends, let me be your first."
No wonder his brain felt a little dizzy. They were driving through the great squares now, and already he began to wonder with a dull regret how much longer it was to last. Then at a corner they came face to face with Drexley. He was walking moodily along, but at the sight of them he stopped short upon the pavement. Emily de Reuss bowed and smiled. Drexley returned the salute with a furious glance at her companion. He felt like a man befooled. Douglas, too, sat forward in the carriage, a bright spot of colour in his cheeks.
"You know that man?" he said.
She assented quietly.
"Yes, I have met him. He is the editor of the Ibex."
Douglas remembered the bitterness of that interview and Rice's amazement, but he said nothing. He leaned back with half closed eyes. After all perhaps it had been for the best. Yet Drexley's black look puzzled him.
A VISITOR FROM SCOTLAND YARD
The carriage pulled up before one of the handsomest houses in London. Douglas, brought back suddenly to the present, realised that this wonderful afternoon was at an end. The stopping of the carriage seemed to him, in a sense, symbolical. The interlude was over. He must go back to his brooding land of negatives.
"It has been very kind of you to come and see me, and to take me out," he said.
She interrupted the words of farewell which were upon his lips.
"Our little jaunt is not over yet," she remarked, smiling. "We are going to have dinner together—you and I alone, and afterwards I will show you that even a town house can sometimes boast of a pleasant garden. You needn't look at your clothes. We shall be alone, and you will be very welcome as you are."
They passed in together, and Douglas was inclined to wonder more than ever whether this were not a dream, only that his imagination could never have revealed anything like this to him. Outside the hall-porter's office was a great silver bowl sprinkled all over with the afternoon's cards and notes. A footman with powdered hair admitted them, another moved respectfully before them, and threw open the door of the room to which Emily de Reuss led him. He had only a mixed impression of pale and beautiful statuary, drooping flowers with strange perfumes, and the distant rippling of water; then he found himself in a tiny octagonal chamber draped in yellow and white—a woman's den, cosy, dainty, cool. She made him sit in an easy-chair, which seemed to sink below him almost to the ground, and moved herself to a little writing-table.
"There is just one message I must send" she said, "to a stupid house where I am half expected to dine. It will not take me half a minute."
He sat still, listening mechanically to the sound of her pen scratching across the paper. A tiny dachshund jumped into his lap, and with a little snort of content curled itself up to sleep. He let his hand wander over its sleek satin coat—the touch of anything living seemed to inspire him with a more complete confidence as to the permanent and material nature of his surroundings. Meanwhile, Emily de Reuss wrote her excuses to a Duchess—a dinner-party of three weeks' standing—knowing all the while that she was guilty of an unpardonable social offence. She sealed her letter and touched a bell by her side. Then she came over to him.
"Now I am free" she announced, "for a whole evening. How delightful! What shall we do? I am ordering dinner at eight. Would you like to look at my books, or play billiards, or sit here and talk? The garden I am going to leave till afterwards. I want you to see it at its best."
"I should like to see your books," he replied.
She rose and moved towards the door.
"I am not certain," she said, "whether you will care for my library. You will think it perhaps too modern. But there will be books there that you will like, I am sure of that."
Douglas had never seen or dreamed of anything like it. The room was ecclesiastical in shape and architecture, fluted pillars supported an oak-beamed ceiling, and at its upper end was a small organ. But it was its colour scheme which was so wonderful. The great cases which came out in wings into the room were white. Everything was white—the rugs, the raised frescoes on the walls, the chairs and hangings.
She watched his face, and assuming an apologetic attitude, said, "it is unusual—and untraditional, I know, but I wanted something different, and mine is essentially a modern library. In this country there is so much to depress one, and one's surroundings, after all, count for much. That is my poetry recess. You seem to have found your way there by instinct."
"I think it is charming," he remarked. "Only at first it takes your breath away. But what beautiful editions."
He hesitated, with his hand upon a volume. She laughed at him and took it down herself. Perhaps she knew that her arm was shapely. At least she let it remain for a moment stretched out as though to reach the next volume.
"I always buy editions de luxe when they are to be had," she said. "A beautiful book deserves a beautiful binding and paper. I believe in the whole effect. It is not fair to Ruskin to read him in paper covers, and fancy Le Gallienne in an eighteenpenny series."
"You have Pater!" he exclaimed; "and isn't that a volume of De Maupassant's?"
His fingers shook with eagerness. She put a tiny volume into his hands. He shook back the hair from his head and forgot that he had ever been ill, that he had ever suffered, that he had ever despaired. For the love of books was in his blood, and his tongue was loosened. For the first time in his life he knew the full delight of a sympathetic listener. They entered upon a new relationship in those few minutes.
The summons for dinner found them still there. Douglas, with a faint flush in his cheeks and brilliant eyes; she, too, imbued with a little of his literary excitement. She handed him over to a manservant, who offered him dress clothes, and waited upon him with the calm, dexterous skill of a well-trained valet. He laughed softly to himself as he passed down the broad stairs. Surely he had wandered through dreamland into some corner of the Arabian Nights?—else he had passed from one extreme of life to the other with a strange, almost magical, celerity.
Dinner surprised him by being so pleasantly homely. A single trim maidservant waited upon them, a man at the sideboard opened the wine, carved, and vanished early in the repast. Over a great bowl of clustering roses he could see her within a few feet of him, plainly dressed in black lace with a band of velvet around her white neck, her eyes resting often upon him full of gentle sympathy. They talked of the books they had been looking at, a conversation all the while without background or foreground. Only once she lifted her glass, which had just been filled, and looked across to him.
"To the city—beautiful," she said softly. "May the day soon come when you shall write of it—and forget!"
He drank the toast fervently. But of the future then he found it hard to think. The transition to this from his days of misery had been too sudden. As yet his sense of proportion had not had time to adjust itself. Behind him were nameless horrors—that he had a future at all was a fact which he had only recognised during the last few hours.
Afterwards they sat in low chairs on a terrace with coffee on a small round table between them, a fountain playing beneath, beyond, the trees of the park, the countless lights of the streets, and the gleaming fires of innumerable hansoms. It was the London of broad streets, opulent, dignified, afire for pleasure. Women were whirled by, bright-eyed, bejewelled, softly clad in white feathers and opera cloaks; men hatless, immaculate as regards shirt-fronts and ties, well-groomed, the best of their race. Wonderful sight for Douglas, fresh from the farmhouse amongst the hills, the Scotch college, the poverty-stricken seminary. Back went his thoughts to that dreary past, and though the night was hot he shivered. She looked at him curiously.
"You are cold?"
He shook his head.
"I was thinking," he answered.
She laid her fingers upon his arm, a touch so thrilling and yet so delicate.
"Don't you know," she said, "that of all philosophies the essence is to command one's thoughts, to brush away the immaterial, the unworthy, the unhappy. Try and think that life starts with you from to-day. You are one of those few, those very few people, Douglas Jesson, who have before them a future. Try and keep yourself master of it."
A servant stepped out on to the balcony and stood respectfully before them. She looked up frowning.
"What is it, Mason?" she asked. "I told you that I was not seeing any one at all to-night."
"The person, madame," he answered, "is from Scotland Yard, and he says that his business is most important. He has called twice before. He begged me to give you his card, and to say that he will wait until you can find it convenient to spare him a few minutes." She looked at the card—
"Mr. Richard Grey, from Scotland Yard."
Then she rose regretfully.
"What the man can possibly want with me," she said, "Heaven only knows. You will smoke a cigarette, my friend, till I return. I shall not be long."
He stood up to let her pass, untroubled—not sorry for a moment's solitude. It was not until she had gone that a thought flashed into his mind, which stopped his heart from beating and brought a deadly faintness upon him.
EMILY DE REUSS TELLS A LIE
A tall, thin man with grave eyes and pale cheeks rose to meet Emily de Reuss when she entered the sitting-room into which he had been shown. She regarded him with faint curiosity. She concluded that he had called upon her with reference to one of her servants. She had a large household, and it was possible that some of the members of it had fallen under police supervision. She only regretted that he had not chosen some other evening.
"The Countess de Reuss, I believe?"
She assented. A nod was quite sufficient.
"I have been instructed to call and ask you a few questions with reference to your journey from Accreton on February 10th last," he continued. "I am sorry to trouble you, but from information which we have received, it seemed possible that you might be able to help us."
She stood quite still, not a muscle in her colourless face twitched or moved in any way. She showed little of her surprise, none of her intense and breathless interest. The man looked at her in admiration. She was politely interested—also acquiescent.
"I remember my journey from Accreton perfectly well," she said. "But I cannot see that anything in connection with it can possibly be of interest to Scotland Yard. Perhaps you will be a little more explicit."
The man bowed.
"You had a travelling companion, we are given to understand. A young man who entered your carriage at the last moment," he added.
"I had a travelling companion, it is true," she admitted slowly. "It is also true that he entered my carriage at the last moment. But how that can possibly concern you, I cannot imagine."
"We should like to know his name," the man said.
Emily de Reuss shook her head slowly.
"I really am afraid," she replied, "that I cannot tell you that."
"He was a stranger, then—you did not know him before?" the man asked quickly.
"On the contrary," she answered, shaking her head, "he was an old friend."
The man's face fell. Obviously he was disappointed. She toyed with a bracelet for a moment and then yawned.
"If he was an old friend," Mr. Grey said, "why will you not give me his name?"
"If you will show me a sufficient reason why I should," she answered, "I will not hesitate. But you force me to ask you directly, what possible concern can it be of yours?"
"Your ladyship may remember," he said, "that there was a shocking accident upon the train?"
She assented with a little shudder.
"Yes, I remember that."
"A man threw himself from the train and was crushed to death. His body was quite unrecognisable, but from some papers found upon or near him, it was concluded that his name was Douglas Guest."
"I remember hearing that, too," she agreed.
"Well, there seems to have been plenty of reason for Mr. Douglas Guest to have committed suicide, as I daresay you know, if ever you read the papers."
"I never by any chance open an English one," she said.
"Then you probably didn't hear of a murder in a Cumberland village the night before. No? Well there was one, and the man who was wanted for it was—Mr. Douglas Guest."
"The man who threw himself from the carriage window?"
"Apparently, yes. We made searching inquiries into the matter, and we came to the conclusion that Douglas Guest was the man, and that he had either committed suicide, or been killed in trying to jump from the train. We were disposed, therefore, to let the matter drop until a few days ago, when we had a visit from a Miss Strong, who proved to be the daughter of the old farmer who was murdered. She seemed to have got hold of an idea that Douglas Guest had by some means foisted his identity on to the dead man, and was still alive. She absolutely denied that a part of the clothing which was preserved had ever belonged to Douglas Guest, and she worked upon 'the chief' to such an extent that he told me off to see this through."
"I still do not see," she said, "in what way I am concerned in this."
"It was your fellow-passenger, Countess, not yourself, concerning whom we were curious. We hoped that you might be able to give us some information. We understood that he joined the train hurriedly. If you like I will read you a description of Douglas Guest."
Emily de Reuss looked him in the face and shrugged her shoulders.
"My good man," she said, "it is not necessary. I am not in the least interested in the young man, and when I tell you that I went to the trouble and expense of engaging a compartment you will perhaps understand that I should not for a moment have tolerated any intrusion on the part of a stranger. The gentleman who accompanied me to London was one of the house party at Maddenham Priory, and an old friend."
The officer closed his notebook with a little sigh and bowed.
"It only remains for me," he said, "to express to your ladyship my regrets at having troubled you in the matter. Personally, your statement confirms my own view of the case. The young lady is excitable, and has been deceived."
Emily de Reuss inclined her head, and touched the knob of an electric bell. At the door the officer turned back.
"It would perhaps be as well," he said, "if you would favour us with the name of the gentleman who was your companion."
"I think it quite unnecessary," she answered. "I have certain reasons, not perhaps very serious ones, but still worth consideration, for not publishing it abroad who my companion was. It must be sufficient for you that he was one of my fellow-guests at Maddenham Priory, and a friend for whom I can vouch."
The servant was at the door. Mr. Grey bowed.
"As your ladyship wishes, of course," he said.
* * * * *
Emily de Reuss made no immediate movement to rejoin her guest. She was a woman of nerve and courage, but this had rather taken her breath away. She had had no time for thought. She had answered as though by instinct. It was only now that she realised what she had done. She had lied deliberately, had placed herself, should the truth ever be known, in an utterly false if not a dangerous position, for the sake of a boy of whose antecedents she knew nothing, and on whom rested, at any rate, the shadow of a very ugly suspicion. She had done this, who frankly owned to an absorbing selfishness, whose conduct of life ever gravitated from the centre of self. After all, what folly! She had been generous upon impulse. How ridiculous!
She walked slowly out to where Douglas sat waiting. She came upon him like a ghost in the dim light, and when the soft rustling of her gown announced her presence, he started violently, and turned a bloodless face with twitching lips and eager eyes to hers. The sight of it was a shock to her. He had been living in fear, then—her falsehoods for his sake had been necessary.
"Has he gone?" he asked incoherently.
"Was it—about me?"
"You'd better tell me," he begged.
She sat down by his side and glanced around. They were alone and out of earshot from the windows.
"My visitor," she said, "was a detective—from Scotland Yard. He came to know if I could give him any information about my fellow—passenger from Accreton on February 10th."
"Why? Why did he want to know?"
"There was a murder, he said—a Cumberland farmer, and a young man named Douglas Guest was missing."
"Douglas Guest" he said, hoarsely, "was in that train. He was killed. It was in the papers."
"So the detective believed," she said, "but a daughter of the murdered man—"
"—Has taken up the case and positively refused to identify some of the clothing belonging to the dead man. There was some talk of a young man, who answered to the description of Douglas Guest, having forced himself into my carriage. The man came to ask me about this."
"And you told him—what?"
She adjusted a bracelet carefully, her beautiful eyes fixed upon his haggard face.
"I told him a lie," she answered. "I told him that my companion was a fellow-guest at the house where I had been staying."
A little sob of relief broke in his throat. He seized her hand in his and pressed it to his lips. It seemed to her that the touch was of fire. She looked at him thoughtfully.
"You are Douglas Guest, then?" she asked, quietly.
"I am," he answered.
JOAN STRONG, AVENGER
At an attic window, from which stretched a Babylonic wilderness of slated roofs and cowled chimney pots, two girls were sitting. The tan of the wind and the sun was upon their cheeks, their clothes lacked the cheap smartness of the Londoner. They were both in mourning for their father, Gideon Strong.
"Suicide, nay! I'll never believe that it was Douglas," Joan declared firmly. "Nay, but I know the lad too well. He was ever pining for London, for gay places and the stir of life. There was evil in his blood. It was the books he read, and the strange taste he had for solitude. What else? But he'd not the pluck of a rabbit. He never killed himself—not he! He's a living man to-day, and as I'm a living woman I'll drop my hand upon his shoulder before long."
"God forbid it!" Cicely cried fervently. "Please God if it was Douglas who sinned so grievously that he may be dead."
Joan rose slowly to her feet. In her sombre garb, fashioned with almost pitiless severity, her likeness to her father became almost striking. There were the same high cheek-bones, the heavy eyebrows, the mouth of iron. The blood of many generations of stern yeomen was in her veins.
"'Tis well for you, Cicely," she said, and her voice, metallic enough at all times, seemed, for the bitterness of it, to bite the close air like a rasp. "'Tis well enough for you, Cicely, who had but little to do with him, but do you forget that I was his affianced wife? I have stood up in the Meeting House at Feldwick, and we prayed together for grace. The hypocrite. The abandoned wastrel. That he, who might have been the pastor of Feldwick, ay, and have been chosen to serve in the towns even, should have wandered so miserably."
The younger girl was watching a smoke-begrimed sparrow on the sill with eyes at once vacant and tender. She was slighter and smaller than her sister, of different complexion, with soft, grey eyes and a broad, humorous mouth. Her whole expression was kindly. She had a delicate prettiness of colouring, and a vivacity which seemed to place her amongst a different order of beings. Never were sisters more like and unlike in this world.
"Sometimes," she said reflectively, "I have wondered whether Father was not very hard upon Douglas. He was so different from everybody else there, so fond of books and pictures, clever people, and busy places. There was no one in Feldwick with whom he could have had any tastes at all in common—not a scholar amongst the lot of us."
Joan frowned heavily. Her dark brows contracted, the black eyes flashed.
"Pictures and books," she muttered. "What has a minister of the gospel to do with these? Douglas Guest had chosen his path in life."
"Nay," Cicely interrupted eagerly. "It was chosen for him. He was young, and Father was very stern and obstinate, as who should know better than ourselves, Joan? Douglas never seemed happy after he came back from college. His life was not suitable for him."
Joan was slowly getting angry.
"Not suitable for him?" she retorted. "What folly! Who was he, to pick and choose? It was rare fortune for him that father should have brought him up as he did. You'll say next that I was forced on him, that he didna ask me to be his wife—ay, and stand hand in hand with me before all of them. You've forgotten it, maybe."
But Cicely, to whom that day had been one of agony, marked with a black stone, never to be forgotten, shook her head with a little shudder.
"I'm sure I never hinted at it, Joan," she said; "but for all you can say, I believe he's dead."
"Maybe," Joan answered coldly, "but I'm not yet believing it. It's led astray I believe he was, and heavy's the penalty he'll have to pay. It's my notion he's alive in this city, and that's why I'm here. It'll be a day of reckoning when we meet him, but it'll come, Cicely. I've dreamed of it, and it'll come. I'll never bend the knee at Meeting till I've found him."
"It'll never bring poor Father back to life," she murmured. "You'd best go back to Feldwick, Joan. There's the farm—you and Reuben Smith could work it well enough. Folks there will think you're out of your mind staying on here in London."
"Folks may think what they will," she answered savagely. "I'll not go back till Douglas Guest hangs."
"Then may you never see Feldwick again," Cicely prayed.
"You're but a poor creature yourself," Joan cried, turning upon her with a sudden passion. "You would have him go unpunished then, robber, murderer, deceiver. Oh, don't think that I never saw what was in your mind. I know very well what brings you here now. You want to save him. I saw it all many a time at Feldwick, but you've none so much to flatter yourself about. He took little enough notice of me, and none at all of you. He deceived us all, and as I'm a living woman he shall suffer for it."
Cicely rose up with pale face.
"Joan," she said, "you are talking of the dead."
But Joan only scoffed. She was a woman whose beliefs once allowed to take root in the mind were unassailable, proof against probability, proof against argument. Douglas Guest was alive, and it was her mission to bid him stand forth before the world. She was the avenger—she believed in herself. The spirit of the prophetess was in her veins. She grew more tolerant towards her younger sister. After all she was of weaker mould. How should she see what had come even to her only as an inspiration?
"Come, Cicely," she said, "I'm not for bandying words with you. The world is wide enough for both of us. Let us live at peace towards one another, at any rate. There's tea coming—poor stuff enough, but it's city water and city milk. You shall sit down and tell me what has brought you here, for it's not only to see me, I guess."
The tea was brought; they sat and discussed their plans. Cicely had followed her sister to London, utterly unable to live any longer in a place so full of horrible memories. They had a little money—Cicely, almost enough to live on, but she wanted work. Joan listened, but for her part she had little to say. Only as the clock drew near seven o'clock she grew restless. Her attention wandered. She looked often towards the window.
"You'll stay the night here anyhow, sister?" she said at last.
"Why, I'd counted on it," Cicely admitted.
"Well, that's settled then. This is mostly the time I go out. Are you going with me, or will you rest a bit?"
Cicely rose up briskly.
"I'll come along," she said. "A walk will do me good. The air's so cruel close up here."
"I'm a fast walker," she said, "and I go far."
But Cicely, who divined something of the truth, hesitated no longer, not even for a second.
"I will come," she said.
* * * * *
They passed out into the streets, and the younger girl knew from the first that their walk was a quest. They chose the most frequented thoroughfares, and where the throng was thickest there only they lingered. There was a new look in the face of the elder girl, a grim tightening of the lips, a curious doggedness about the jaws, a light in the black eyes which made her sister shudder to look upon. For there were in Joan Strong, daughter of many generations of north country yeomen, the possibilities of tragedy, a leaven of that passionate resistless force, which when once kindled is no more to be governed than the winds. Narrow she was, devoid of imagination, and uneducated, yet, married to the man whom she had boldly and persistently sought after, she would have been a faithful housewife, after the fashion of her kind. But with the tragedy in her home, the desertion of the man whom she had selected for her husband, another woman had leaped into life. Something in her nature had been touched which, in an ordinary case, would have lain dormant for ever. Cicely knew it and was terrified. This was her sister, and yet a stranger with whom she walked, this steadfast, untiring figure, ever with her eyes mutely questioning the passing throngs. They had become a great way removed during these last few weeks, and, save her sister, there was no one else left in the world. With aching feet and tears in her eyes, Cicely kept pace as well as she could with the untiring, relentless figure by her side. Many people looked at them curiously—the tall, Cassandra-like figure of the elder woman, and the pretty, slight girl struggling to keep pace with her, her lips quivering, her eyes so obviously full of fear. The loiterers on the pavement stared. Joan's fierce, untiring eyes took no more notice of them than if they had been dumb figures. Cicely was continually shrinking back from glances half familiar, half challenging. More than once they were openly accosted, but Joan swept such attempts away with stony indifference. For hour after hour they walked steadily on—then, with a little sob of relief, Cicely saw at last that they had reached their own street. The elder girl produced a key and drew a long sigh. Then she looked curiously down at her companion.
"You'll go back to Feldwick to-morrow, or maybe Saturday, Cicely," she said. "You understand now?"
"How long—will this go on?"
Joan drew herself up. The fierceness of the prophetess was in her dark face.
"Till my hands are upon him," she said. "Till I have dragged him out from the shadows of this hateful city."
A PLAIN QUESTION AND A WARNING
Douglas Jesson had his opportunity, accepted it and became one of the elect. He passed on to the staff of the Courier, where his work was spasmodic and of a leisurely character, but always valuable and appreciated. His salary, which was liberal, seemed to him magnificent. Besides, he had the opportunity of doing other work. All the magazines were open to him, although he was tied down to write for no other newspaper. The passionate effort of one night of misery had brought him out for ever from amongst the purgatory of the unrecognised. For his work was full of grit, often brilliant, never dull. Even Drexley, who hated him, admitted it. Emily de Reuss was charmed.
Douglas's first visit was to Rice, whom he dragged out with him to lunch, ordering such luxuries as were seldom asked for at Spargetti's. They lingered over their cigarettes and talked much. Yet about Rice there was a certain restraint, the more noticeable because of his host's gaiety. Douglas, well-dressed, debonair, with a flower in his buttonhole, and never a wrinkle upon his handsome face, was in no humour for reservations. He filled his companion's glass brimful of wine, and attacked him boldly.
"I want to know," he said, "what ails my philosophic friend. Out with it, man. Has Drexley been more of a bear than usual, or has Spargetti ceased his credit?"
"Neither," Rice answered, smiling. "Drexley is always a bear, and Spargetti's credit is a thing which not one of the chosen has ever seen the bottom of."
"Then what in the name of all that is unholy," Douglas asked, "ails you?"
Rice lighted a cigarette, glanced around, and leaned over the table.
"You, my friend and host. You are upon my mind. I will confess."
Douglas nodded and waited. Rice seemed to find it not altogether easy to continue. He dropped his voice. The question he asked was almost a whisper.
"Is your name really Douglas Jesson—or is it Douglas Guest?"
Douglas gasped and clutched for a moment at the tablecloth. The room was suddenly spinning round and round, the faces of the people were shrouded in mist, his newly-acquired strength was all engrossed in a desperate struggle against that sickening sensation of fainting. Rice's voice seemed to come to him from a long way off.
"Drink your wine, man—quick."
Mechanically he obeyed. He set the glass down empty. Once more the faces in the restaurant were clear, the mists had passed away. But the keen joy of living no longer throbbed in his pulses.
"How did you know?" he asked, hoarsely.
"From the story you sent us," Rice answered. "At first you wrote on the title-page Douglas Guest as the author. Then apparently you changed your mind, crossed it out, and substituted Douglas Jesson, which we took to be a nom-de-plume, especially as you gave us for your address initials to a post-office."
"Did any one else see it?"
"Not unless Drexley did. He has never spoken to me about it."
Douglas drank more wine. He was unused to it, and the colour mounted to his pale cheeks.
"You have asked me a question," he said, "and it is answered. What else?"
"Nothing," Rice said slowly. "It is no concern of mine.
"You are not anxious, then," Douglas said, "to earn a hundred pounds reward?"
"I think if I were you," Rice said, "I would get the Courier to send you abroad. They would do it in a minute."
"Abroad?" Douglas looked across the table questioningly. It was a new idea to him. "Yes. You could visit odd places and write impressions of them. Yours is just the style for that sort of thing—quick and nervous, you know, and lots of colour. People are rabid for anything of that sort just now. Take my tip. Suggest it to Rawlinson."
"I think I will," Douglas said. "Yes, it is a good idea. I wonder—"
Rice leaned once more across the table.
"You wonder what the Countess de Reuss will say. Is that it?"
"I should consult her, of course."
A rare seriousness fell upon Rice. The nonchalance, which was the most pronounced of his mannerisms, had fallen away. It was a new man speaking. One saw, as it were for the first time, that his hair was grey, and that the lines on his face were deeply engraven.
"My young friend," he said, "I want you to listen to me. I am twice your age. I have seen very much more of the world than you. Years ago I had a friend—Silverton. He was about your age—clever, ambitious, good-looking. He scored a small success—a poem, I think it was—and some one took him one day to call on Emily de Reuss. I do not know where he is now, but two months ago I met him in rags, far advanced in consumption, an utter wreck bodily and mentally. Yet when I spoke one word of her he struck me across the lips. To-day I suppose he is dead—pauper's funeral and all that sort of thing, without a doubt. I have taken his case first because he reminded me of you. He had come from the north somewhere, and he was about your age. But he is only one of a score. There is Drexley, a broken man. Once he wrote prose, which of its sort was the best thing going. To-day he is absolutely nerveless. He cannot write a line, and he is drinking heavily. That he has not gone under altogether is simply because as yet he has not received his final dismissal. He still has his uses, so he is allowed to hang on a little longer. Now, Douglas Jesson, listen to one who knows. What you are and who you are—well, no matter. I liked you when we met here, and you have a splendid opportunity before you. Listen. Emily de Reuss will care nothing for your safety. She will oppose your going abroad. You are her latest plaything. She is not weary of you yet, so she will not let you go. Be a man, and do the sensible thing. Too many have been her victims. It may make your heart ache a little; you may fancy yourself a little ungracious. Never mind. You will save your life and your soul. Go abroad as soon as Rawlinson will send you."
Rice's words were too impressive to be disregarded altogether. They stirred up in Douglas's mind a vague uneasiness, but his sense of loyalty to the woman who had befriended him was unshaken. Rice was led away by his feelings for his friend.
"Rice," he said, "I know you're speaking what you believe. I can't quite accept it all. Never mind. I'll remember everything you've said. I'm not quite a boy, you know, and I don't wear my heart upon my sleeve."
"Hard to convince, as they all are," Rice said, with a wintry smile. "Never mind. I'll do my best to save you. Listen to this. Do you know why Drexley behaved so disgracefully to you about your story?"
Douglas looked up eagerly. The thing had always puzzled him.
"Because he had orders from Emily de Reuss to do so. She had given you her address and bidden you go and see her. You never went. So she wrote Drexley to give you no encouragement. It was your punishment. You were to go to her."
"I don't believe it," Douglas declared hotly.
"Then you don't believe me," Rice said quietly, "for on my honour I tell you that I have seen the letter."
Douglas leaned his head upon his hand.
"I'm sorry," he said, wearily. "I believe absolutely in you, but I believe also in her. There must be some misunderstanding."
Rice rose up. Douglas had paid the bill long ago. A waiter, overcome with the munificence of his tip, brought them their hats and preceded them, smiling, to the door. They passed out into the street, and the fresh air was grateful to them both. Rice passed his arm through his companion's.
"I want you to give me just an hour," he said—"no more."
Douglas nodded, and they made their way through a maze of squares and streets southwards. At last Rice stopped before a house in a terrace of smoke-begrimed tenements, and led the way inside. They mounted flight after flight of stairs, pausing at last before a door on the topmost floor. Rice threw it open, and motioned his companion to follow him in.
It was a small chamber, bare and gaunt, without ornament or luxury, without even comfort. The furniture was the poorest of its sort, the scrap of carpet was eked out with linoleum from which the pattern had long been worn. There was only one thing which could be said in its favour—the room was clean. Rice leaned against the mantelpiece, watching his companion's face.
"My friend," he said, "I have brought you here because I wanted you to see my home. Shall I tell you why? Because it is exactly typical of my life. Bare and empty, comfortless, with never a bright spot nor a ray of hope. There is nothing here to dazzle you, is there? All that you can remark in its favour is that it is tolerably clean—all in my life that I can lay claim to is that I have managed to preserve a moderate amount of self-respect. This is my life, my present and my future. I wanted you to see it."
Douglas was puzzled. He scarcely knew what to say, but instinctively he felt that Rice's purpose in bringing him here had not yet been explained. So he waited.
"I have told you," Rice continued, "of Drexley and of poor young Silverton. I have told you that there have been many others. I have told you that she even tried to do you ill that you might be numbered amongst her victims. Now I tell you what as yet I have told no man. I, too, was once the most pitiful of her slaves."
A sharp, staccato cry broke from Douglas's lips. He had not expected this. Rice was suddenly an older man. The careless front he showed to the world was gone. He was haggard, weary, elderly. It was a rare moment with him.
"I made a brave start," he continued—"like you. Some one took me to her house. I made an epigram that pleased her; I passed at once into the circle of her intimates. She flattered me, dazzled me, fed my ambition and my passion. I told her of the girl whom I loved, whom I was engaged to marry. She was on the surface sympathetic; in reality she never afterwards let pass an opportunity of making some scathing remark as to the folly of a young man sacrificing a possibly brilliant future for the commonplace joys of domesticity. I became even as the rest. My head was turned; my letters to Alice became less frequent; every penny of the money I was earning went to pay my tailor's bills, and to keep pace with the life which, as her constant companion, I was forced to live. All the while the girl who trusted me never complained, but was breaking her heart. They sent for me—she was unwell. I had promised to take Emily upon the river, and she declined to let me off. I think that evening some premonition of the truth came to me. We saw a child drowned—I watched Emily's face. She looked at the corpse without a shudder, with frank and brutal curiosity. She had never seen anything really dead,—it was quite interesting. Well, I hurried back to my rooms, meaning to catch a night train into Devonshire. On the mantelpiece was a telegram which had come early in the morning. Alice was worse—their only hope was in my speedy coming. I dashed into a hansom, but on the step another telegram was handed to me. Alice was dead. I had not seen her for ten months, and she was dead."
There was an odd, strained silence. Douglas walked away to the window and gazed with misty eyes over a wilderness of housetops. Rice's head had fallen forward upon his arms. It was long before he spoke again. When he did his tone was changed.
"For days I was stupefied. Then habit conquered. I went to her. I hoped for sympathy—she laughed at me. It was for the best. Then I told her truths, and she flung them back at me. I knew then what manner of woman she was—without heart, vain, callous, soulless. It is the sport of her life to play with, and cast aside when she is weary of them, the men whom she thinks it worth while to make her slaves. A murderess is a queen amongst the angels to her; it is the souls of men she destroys, and laughs when she sees them sink down into hell. My eyes were opened, but it was too late. I had lost the girl who loved me, and whom I loved. I was head over ears in debt, my work had suffered from constant attendance upon her, I lost my position, and every chance I ever had in life went with it. I have become an ill-paid hack, and even to-day I am not free from debt after years of struggling. Douglas Jesson, I have never spoken of these things to any breathing man, but every word is the gospel truth."
Then again there was a silence, for dismay had stolen into the heart of the man who listened. For Douglas knew that the bonds were upon him too, though they had lain upon his shoulders like silken threads. Rice came over to him and laid his hand almost affectionately upon his arm.
"Douglas," he said, "you are man enough to strike a blow for your life. You know that I have spoken truth to you."
"I know it."
"You will be your own man."
Douglas turned upon him with blazing eyes.
"Rice," he cried, "you are a brick. I'll do it. I'll go to her now."
He went out with a brief farewell. Rice sat down upon his one cane chair, and folded his anus. The room seemed very empty.
THE TASTE OF THE LOTUS
Douglas was kept waiting for a minute or two in the long, cool drawing-room at Grosvenor Square. The effect of Rice's story was still strong upon him. The perfume of the flowers, the elegance of the room, and its peculiar atmosphere of taste and luxury irritated rather than soothed him. Even the deference which the servants had shown him, the apologetic butler, her ladyship's own maid with a special message, acquired new significance now, looking at things from Rice's point of view. There was so much in his own circumstances which had lent weight to what he had been told. He was earning a good deal of money, but he was spending more. Emily had insisted upon rooms of her own choosing in a fashionable neighbourhood, and had herself selected the furniture—which was not yet paid for. She had insisted gently but firmly upon his going to the best tailors. The little expeditions in which he had been permitted to act as her escort, the luncheons and dinners at restaurants, although they were not many, were expensive. Yes, Rice was right. To be near Emily de Reuss was to live within a maze of fascination, but the end to it could only be the end of the others. Already he was in debt, a trifle behind with his work—a trifle less keen about it. Already the memory of his sufferings seemed to lie far back in another world—his realisation of them had grown faint. There was something paralysing about the atmosphere of pleasure with which she knew so well how to surround herself.
The door opened and she came in, a dream of spotless muslin and glinting colours. She came over to him with outstretched hands and a brilliant smile upon her lips.
"How is it, my friend," she cried, "that you always come exactly when I want you? You must be a very clever person. I have to go for a minute or two to the stupidest of garden parties at Surbiton. You shall drive with me, and afterwards, if you like, we will come back by Richmond and dine. What do you say?"
"Delightful," he answered, "and if I were an idle man nothing in the world would give me more pleasure. But this afternoon I must not think of it. I am behind with my work already. I only came round for a few minutes' talk with you."
She looked at him curiously. She was not used to be denied.
"Surely," she said, "your work is not so important as all that?"
"I am afraid," he said, "that lately I have been forgetting how important my work really is. That is precisely what I came to talk to you about."
She sat down composedly, but he fancied that her long, dark eyes had narrowed a little, and the smile had gone from her face.
"You will think I am ungrateful, I am afraid," he began, "but, do you know, I am losing hold upon my work, and I have come to the conclusion that I am giving a good deal too much of my time to going out. Thanks to you, I seem to have invitations for almost every day—I go to polo matches, to river parties, to dinners and dances, I do everything except work. You know that I have made a fair start, and I feel that I ought to be making some uses of my opportunities. Besides—I may be quite frank with you, I know—I am spending a great deal more than I am earning, and that won't do, will it?"
She came over and sat by his side on the couch. There was not the slightest sign of disapproval in her manner.
"Do you know, that sounds very sensible, Douglas my friend," she said, quietly. "I should hate to think that I was selfish in liking to have you with me so much, and your work is the first thing, of course. Only you mustn't forget this. Your profession is settled now irrevocably. You will be a writer, and a famous writer, and one reason why I have procured all these invitations for you, and encouraged you to accept them, has been because I want you to grasp life as a whole. You think that you are idling now. You are not. Every new experience you gain is of value to you. Hitherto you have only seen life through dun-coloured spectacles. I want you also to understand the other side. It is your business to know and grasp it from all points. Can't you see that I have found it a pleasure to help you to see that side of which you were ignorant?"
"That is all very true," he answered, "only I have already had more opportunities than most men. Don't you think yourself that it is almost time I buckled to and started life more seriously?"
"It is for you to say," she answered quietly. "You know better than I. If you have work in your brain and you are weary of other things—well, au revoir, and good luck to you. Only you will come and see me now and then, and tell me how you are getting on, for I shall be a little lonely just at first."
She looked at him with eyes a trifle dim, and Douglas felt his heart beat thickly, and the memory of Rice's passionate words seemed suddenly weak.
"I shall come and see you always," he said, "as often as you would have me come. You know that."
She shook her head as though but half convinced. Then she rose to her feet.
"There is just one thing I should like to ask you," she said. "This new resolution of yours—did you come by it alone, or has any one been advising you?"
"I have been talking to a man," he admitted, "who certainly seemed to think that I was neglecting my work."
"Will you tell me who it was?"
Douglas looked into her face and became suddenly grave. The eyes were narrower and brighter, a glint of white teeth showed through the momentarily parted lips. A tiny spot of colour burned in her cheeks—something of the wild animal seemed suddenly to have leaped up in her. Yet how beautiful she was!
"I cannot do that," he faltered.
"Then it was some one who spoke to you of me," she continued calmly. "You need not trouble to contradict me. Hadn't you better hurry away before I have the chance to do you any harm? There is one young man I know, of a melodramatic turn of mind, who persists in looking upon me as a sort of siren, calling my victims on to the rocks. I expect that is the person with whom you have been talking. Douglas Jesson, I think that I am a little disappointed in you."
She stood up and smoothed out her skirts thoughtfully.
He was very near at that moment throwing all thoughts of Rice's words to the winds, and retracting all that he had said. After all, it was she who had brought him back from death. Whatever his future might be, he owed it to her. She looked into his eyes and felt that she had conquered. Yet the very fascination of that smile which parted her lips was like a chill warning to him.
"I will tell you who it was who has been talking to me," he said. "It is a clerk of Drexley's, a man named Rice."
"I thought so. Poor boy. He will never forgive me."
"For what?" Douglas asked quickly. That was the crux of the whole matter.
"For his own folly," she answered quietly. "I was good to him—helped him in many ways. He tried to make love to me. I had to send him away, of course. That is the worst of you young men. If a woman tries to help you, you seem to think it your duty to fall in love with her. What is she to do then?"
"Can't a woman—always make it clear—if she wants to—that that sort of thing is not permitted?"
"Do you think that she can? Do you think that she knows what she wishes herself until the last moment, until it is too late?"
Douglas rose up a little unsteadily.
"Take my own case," he cried, with a sudden little burst of passion. "You are the most beautiful woman whom I have ever seen, you are kind to me, you suffer me to be your companion. Yet if I commit the folly of falling in love with you, you will dismiss me in a moment without a sigh. I am only an ordinary being. Don't you think that I am wise if I try to avoid running such a risk?"
She laughed softly.
"What a calculating mortal. Is this all the effect of Mr. Rice's warning?"
Well, isn't it truth?
She shook her head.
"I can't pretend to say. Do any of us really know, I wonder, what we would do under any given circumstances? I wish you would tell me exactly what your friend complained of in my treatment of him."
"He spoke—not only of himself," Douglas answered. "There was a man called Silverton."
He looked across at her in swift surprise. It seemed to him that her anger had suddenly changed into a wonderful and speechless terror. Her left hand was buried in the sofa cushions, the pupils of her eyes were dilated, she was bloodless to the lips. When she spoke it was hard to recognise her voice.
"What of him? What did he know? What did he tell you—of him?"
Douglas's expression of blank surprise seemed an immense relief to her.
"Only—something like what he told me of himself. He also was foolish enough to fall in love with you, and—"
She rose suddenly and held out her hand.
"Come, my friend," she said, "I have had enough of this. Take me out to my carriage. I think you are very wise to avoid such a dangerous person."
She swept out of the room before him, and down the broad stairs. A footman stood by the side of her victoria until she had settled herself in the most comfortable corner. Then he mounted the box, and she leaned for a moment forward.
"You won't come?" she asked, with a slight gesture of invitation towards the vacant seat.
But Douglas, to whom the invitation seemed, in a sense, allegorical, shook his head. He pointed eastwards.
"The taste of the lotus is sweet," he said, "but one must live."
A MAN WITHOUT A PAST
Whether Rice's point of view and judgment upon Emily de Reuss were prejudiced or not, Douglas certainly passed from her influence into a more robust and invigorating literary life. He gave up his expensive chambers, sold the furniture, reorganised his expenses, and took a single room in a dull little street off the Strand. Rice, aided by a few friends, and also by Douglas's own growing reputation, secured his admission into the same Bohemian club to which he and Drexley belonged. For the first time, Douglas began to meet those who were, strictly speaking, his fellows, and the wonderful good comradeship of his newly-adopted profession was a thing gradually revealed to him. He made many friends, studied hard, and did some brilliant work. He abandoned, upon calmer reflection, the idea of going abroad, and was given to understand that his position on the Courier might be regarded as a permanency. He saw his future gradually defined in clearer colours—it became obvious to him that his days of struggling were past and over. He had won his place within the charmed circle of those who had been tried and proved. Only there was always at the bottom of his heart a secret dread, a shadowy terror, most often present when he found himself alone with Rice or Emily de Reuss. It seemed to him that their eyes were perpetually questioning him, and there was one subject which both religiously and fearfully avoided.
He was popular enough amongst the jovial, lighthearted circle of his fellow-workers and club companions, yet he himself was scarcely of their disposition. His attitude towards life was still serious, he carried always with him some suggestions of a past which must ever remain an ugly and fearsome thing. His sense of humour was unlimited—in repartee he easily held his own. He was agreeable to everybody, but he never sought acquaintances, and avoided intimacies. More especially was he averse to any mention of his earlier days.
Speedwell, sub-editor of the Minute, buttonholed him one day at the club, and led him into a corner.
"You are the very man I wanted to see, Jesson," he exclaimed. "Have a drink?"
"I've just dined, thanks," Douglas answered. "What can I do for you?"
"I'm giving some space in my rag," Speedwell explained, blandly, "to a series of memoirs on prominent journalists of the day, and I want to include you."
"I'm sure you're very kind," Douglas answered, "but you can't be in earnest. To begin with, I'm not a prominent journalist, and I don't suppose I ever shall be—"
"Well, you're a bit of a miracle, you know," Speedwell interrupted. "You've come to the front so quickly, and you've a method of your own—the staccato, nervous style, you know, with lots of colour and dashes. I wish I'd a man on the staff who could do it. Still, that's neither here nor there, and you needn't think I'm hinting, for I tell you frankly the Minute can't afford large-salaried men. What I want from you is a photograph, and just a little sketch of your early life—where you were born, and where you went to school, and that sort of thing. It mayn't do you much good, but it can't do you any harm, and I'll be awfully obliged."
Douglas was silent for a moment. The whole panorama of that joyless youth of his seemed suddenly stretched out before him. He saw himself as boy, and youth, and man; the village school changed into the sectarian university, where the great highroad to knowledge was rank with the weeds of prejudice. He saw himself back again at the farmhouse, he felt again the vague throbbings of that discontent which had culminated in a tragedy. He was suddenly white almost to the lips, a mist seemed to hang about the room, and the cheerful voices of the men playing pool came to him like a dirge from the far distance. Speedwell, waiting in vain for his answer, looked at him in surprise.
"Aren't you well, old chap?" he asked. "You look as though you'd seen a ghost."
Douglas pulled himself together with an effort.
"I'm not quite the thing," he said. "Late, last night, I suppose. I'm sure it's very good of you to think of me, Speedwell, but I'd rather you left me out."
"You see I'm really only a novice—quite a beginner, and I don't feel I've the right to be included."
"That" Speedwell answered, "is our business. You didn't come to us—I came to you. All you have to do is to answer a few questions, and let me have that photo."
Douglas shook his head.
"You must please excuse me, Speedwell," he said. "It's very kind of you, but to tell you the truth, there are certain painful incidents in connection with my life before I came to London which I am anxious to forget. I do not choose to have a past at all."
Speedwell shrugged his shoulders and lit a cigarette. He was none too well pleased.
"You can't expect," he remarked, "to become famous and remain at the same time unknown. There is a great and growing weakness on the part of the public to-day for personalities. I suppose it is the spread of American methods in journalism which is responsible for it. Some day your chroniclers will help themselves to your past, whether you will or not."
Douglas rose up with an uneasy laugh.
"It will be an evil day for them," he said; "perhaps for me. But at least I will not anticipate it."
He wandered restlessly from room to room of the club, returning the greetings of his acquaintances with a certain vagueness, lingering nowhere for more than a moment or two. Finally, he took his hat from the rack and walked out into the street. Fronting him was the Thames. He leaned against the iron railing and looked out across the dusty, sun-baked gardens to where the river flowed down between the bridges. Something of the despair, which had so nearly broken his heart a short while since, seemed again to lay tormenting clutches upon him. After all, was not a man for ever the slave of his past? No present success, no future triumphs could ever wholly free him from the memory of that one merciless hour. As a rule his thoughts recoiled shuddering from even the slightest lingering about it. To-night there swept in upon him with irresistible force a crowd of vivid memories. He saw the quaint old village, its grey stone houses dotted about the hillside, the farmhouse which had been his home—bare, gaunt, everything outside and in typical of the man who ruled there and over the little neighbourhood, a tyrant and a despot. The misery of those days laid hold of him, He turned away from the railings and walked Strandwards, past the door of his lodgings and round many side streets, grimy and unpretentious. He walked like a man possessed, but his memories had taken firm hold of him, shadowy but inexorcisable fiends. It was Cicely now who was walking by his side, and his heart was beating with something of the old stir. What a change her coming had made in that strange corner of the world. Cicely, with her dainty figure and bright, sunny smile, wonderfully light-hearted, a gleam of brilliant colour thrown across their grey life. She loved poetry too, the hills, the sunsets, and those long walks across the purple moorland. It was a wonderful companionship into which they had drifted. He was her refuge in a life which she frankly declared to be insupportable. She was a revelation to him—the first he had had—of delicate femininity, full ever of suggestions of that wonderful world beyond, of which at that time he had only dared to dream. It was she who had kindled his ambitions, who had preached to him silently, but with convincing eloquence, of the glories of freedom, the heritage of his manhood. And all the while Joan, from apart, was watching them. No word crossed her lips, yet often on their return from a day's rambling he caught a look in her eyes which amazed him. Gideon Strong went his way unseeing, stern, and unbending as ever even to his younger daughter, but in those days there was thunder always in the air. Douglas remembered the sensation and shuddered. Once he had come across Joan and her sister together suddenly, and had found it hard work to keep from a shriek of terror. There was a light in Joan's eyes—it seemed to him that he had seen it there often lately. Was there another Joan whom he did not know?
He walked on, grim, pale, chilled. The time when he would lie awake in his little oak-beamed chamber and thoughts of Cicely would soothe him to sleep with pleasant fancies was gone. He thought of her now without emotion—no longer the memory of those walks thrilled his pulses. He knew very well that never again would his heart beat the quicker for her coming, never again, even though the memory of that terrible night could be swept away, would her coming bring joy to him. Firmly though his feet were planted upon the ladder, it seemed to him then in that gloomy mood that every step must take him further away from any chance of that wonderful happiness, so intangible, yet so sweet an adjunct to life. For he was following like a doomed creature in the wake of Drexley, and Rice, and those others. Too late had come his warning. The woman of whom he never dared to think was surely a sorceress. She was only a woman—scarcely even beautiful, yet the world of her sex had become to Douglas Guest as a thing that was not. He turned at last back into the Strand. He would go to his rooms and work for a while. But as he walked slowly down, jostled by many passers-by, still not wholly detached from that phantasmal past, there came upon him a shock so sudden and so overwhelming that the very pavement seemed to yawn at his feet. Towards him two women were slowly walking, holding their own in the press of the crowd, one with horrified eyes already fastened upon him, the other as yet unconscious of his presence. Nearer and nearer they came, and although every impulse of his body bade him fly, his limbs were rigid and every muscle seemed frozen. For the women were Joan and her sister Cicely.
CICELY ASKS A QUESTION
After all, it was the woman who sought him who passed him by, her unwilling companion who recognised him at once, in spite of his altered dress and bearing. They were swallowed up in the crowd before Douglas had recovered himself. Something in Cicely's terrified gaze had instantly checked his first instinct which prompted him to accost them. They were gone, leaving him alike speechless and bewildered. He staggered into a small restaurant, and sitting at an unoccupied table, called for a bottle of wine.
With the first draught his courage returned, his mental perspective commenced to rearrange itself. Cicely and Joan were in London, Cicely had seen him, Joan had not. From the first he had realised that there was danger to him in this encounter. Cicely had seen him, but she had made no motion of recognition, she had obviously refrained from telling her sister of his near presence. From this he concluded that whilst she believed in him and was still his friend, Joan was his enemy. He rolled a cigarette with nervous fingers, and lighted it. Did Joan suspect that he was still alive? and was she looking for him? To the world in general Douglas Guest was dead. How was it with these two girls? There were various small reasons why they might be inclined to doubt what to other people would seem obvious. He recalled Joan's face, grim and forbidding enough, almost a tragical figure in her black garb, as severe and sombre as a country dressmaker could fashion it. He must get to know these things. He must find Cicely. He walked thoughtfully back to the offices of the Courier, where he found some work, which, for the time, completely engrossed him.
The next morning the following advertisement appeared in most of the London newspapers.
"To C. S. I must see you. British Museum to-day at six."
For three days Douglas watched in vain. On the fourth his heart gave a great leap, for a sombre little figure stepped out from an omnibus at the corner of Russell Square and stood hesitatingly upon the pavement, looking in through the iron bars at the Museum. He came across the street to her boldly—she turned and saw him. After all, their greeting approached the conventional. He remembered to raise his hat—she held out her hand—would have withdrawn it, but found it already clasped in his.
"Cicely. How good of you. You saw my advertisement?"
"And you saw me in the Strand, but you would not speak to me. Was that because of Joan?"
"I want to talk to you," he said. "I have so much to say."
She raised her eyes to his, and he saw for the first time how much thinner she was.
"Douglas," she said, "there is something I must ask you first of all before I stay with you for a moment. Must I put it into words?"
"I do not think you need, Cicely," he answered. "I went to your father's room that night beyond a doubt, but I never raised my hand against him. I should have very hard work to prove it, I fancy, but I am wholly innocent of his death—innocent, that is to say, so far as any direct action of mine was concerned."
She drew a long deep breath of relief. Then she looked up to him with a beautiful smile.
"Douglas," she said, "I was sure of it, yet it is a great weight from my heart to hear you say so. Now, can you take me somewhere where we can talk? I am afraid of the streets. I will tell you why afterwards."
He called a hansom and handed her in. After a moment's hesitation he gave the address of the restaurant where he had first met Rice.
"It is only a shabby little place," he explained to her, apologetically, "but we can talk there freely."
"Anywhere," she answered; "how strange it seems to be here—in London with you."
There was a sense of unreality about it to him, but he only laughed.
"Now tell me about Joan."
"It will not be pleasant."
"I do not deserve that it should be," he answered gravely.
"She has always been quite sure that it was not you who was killed in the railway accident. She even imbued me with that belief."
"Her instinct there, at any rate, was true enough," he answered.
"She also believes," Cicely continued, more slowly, "that you robbed and murdered Father."
Douglas shivered. It was hard even now to recall that night unmoved. "Well?"
"She has made up her mind that you are in London, and that sooner or later she will find you."
"And if she does?"
"She has been to Scotland Yard. They will arrest you."
The cab pulled up with a jerk, and a commissionaire threw open the apron. Douglas handed his companion out, and they entered the restaurant together. In a distant corner they found a table to themselves, and he ordered dinner.
"Well, we are safe from Joan here for a little time, at any rate," he said, laughing. "Are you living with her, then?"
"Yes. We have left the farm. There was very little money, you know, after all, and Joan and I will have to take situations. At present we are living upon our capital in the most shameful way. I am afraid she is completely absorbed by one idea—it is horrible."
"It is odd that she should be so vindictive," he said, wearily.
Cicely shrugged her shoulders. She was intensely interested in the little brown pot of soup which the waiter had brought them.
"Joan is very peculiar," she said. "When I think of her I feel like a doll. She is as strong as steel. I think that she cared for you, Douglas, and, putting aside everything else, you behaved shamefully to her."
"She is not like other women," he answered decidedly. "Her caring for me was not a matter of sentiment. Her father ordered, and she obeyed. She knew quite well that it was exactly the same with me. I have never uttered a word of affection to her in my life. Our engagement was an utter farce."
"Still I believe she cared," Cicely continued; "and I believe that, apart from anything else, a sort of slow anger towards you is rankling in her heart all the time."
"I was a coward," Douglas said decidedly. "Even now I cannot understand why for a moment I ever accepted such an impossible situation."
Cicely showed all her teeth—she had fine, white teeth—in a brilliant smile.
"Joan would be quite handsome," she said, "if she were decently dressed."
"Some people might think so," he answered. "She wouldn't be my style. I think I agreed, because in those days we all seemed to do exactly what your Father ordered. Besides, the thing was sprung upon me so suddenly. It took my breath away.
"That was rather like Father," she remarked. "He liked taking us by storm. Now I want to hear how you have got on, and what you are doing. Let us drop the past for a little while, at any rate."
He poured her out a glass of wine, and found time to notice how pretty she was, with her slightly flushed cheeks and bright eyes.
"I am on a newspaper," he said, "the Daily Courier. I got on quite by chance, and they are going to keep me."
She looked at him with keen interest.
"How delightfully fortunate!" she exclaimed. "It is what you wanted all your life, isn't it? And the Ibex story?