"Will appear next month. I have lots of orders for others too. The first thing I wrote for the Courier was quite successful."
She looked at him wistfully. "Couldn't you send it to me?" she asked.
He took out pencil and paper.
"Of course. Give me your address."
She began, but stopped short with a little cry.
"Whatever am I doing!" she exclaimed. "Why, Douglas, you mustn't think of writing nor of sending anything to me. Joan might see it, and she would know your handwriting in a moment."
He paused with the pencil in his hand.
"That's rather a nuisance," he said. "Isn't there somewhere else I can write?"
She shook her head regretfully.
"I'm afraid not."
"It is rather ridiculous," he said frowning. "I don't want to go about in fear and trembling all my life. Don't you think that if I were to see her or write to you I could convince—"
She stopped him, horrified.
"Douglas," she said, "you don't understand Joan. I am not sure that even I, who live with her, do. She reminds me sometimes of those women of the French revolution. There is a light in her eyes when she speaks of you, which makes me shiver. Stay in London if you must, but pray always that chance may not bring you two together."
He answered her with an affectation of lightness, but her words were not without effect upon him. He paid the bill and she lowered her veil. Out in the street he would have called a hansom, but she checked him.
"An omnibus, if you please, Douglas!" she exclaimed. "Joan would never forgive me the extravagance if she saw me in a cab. I can find one at the corner, and I should feel so much more comfortable if you would leave me here."
He looked down at her and realised once more the dainty Watteau—like grace of her oval face and slim, supple figure. He thought of the days when they had stolen out together on to the hillside, oftenest in the falling twilight, sometimes even in the grey dawn, and his heart beat regretfully. How was it that in those days he had never more fully realised her charms?
"I hate letting you go alone," he said, truthfully; "and I certainly cannot let you go like this, without any idea as to your whereabouts."
"We are staying in Wensum Street," she said. "I tell you that you may avoid the neighbourhood. If I am to see you again, it certainly must not be there."
"Why not here?" he urged; "next Thursday night—say at half-past six. I must not lose sight of you again—so soon."
She raised her eyes quickly. It was pleasant to her to think that he cared.
"I think I could manage that," she said, softly.
Douglas went off to his club with a keen sense of having acquired a new interest in life. He was in that mood when companionship of some sort is a necessity.
THE REBELLION OF DREXLEY
"You think," Drexley said, his deep, bass voice trembling with barely-restrained passion, "that we are all your puppets—that you have but to touch the string and we dance to your tune. Leave young Jesson alone, Emily. He has been man enough to strike out a line for himself. Let him keep to it. Give him a chance."
She shrugged her shoulders and smiled upon him sweetly. She always preferred Drexley in his less abject moods.
"You have seen him lately, my friend?" she inquired. "He is well, I hope?"
"Yes, he is well," Drexley answered, bitterly. "Living, like a sensible man, honestly by the labour of his brain, the friend and companion of men—not the sycophant of a woman. I envy him."
She pointed lazily towards the door.
"He was man enough to choose for himself," she said; "so may you. To tell you the truth, my dear friend, when you weary me like this, I feel inclined to say—go, and when I say go—it is for always."
Then there came into his face something which she had seen there once before, and which ever since she had recalled with a vague uneasiness—the look murderous. The veins in his forehead became like whipcord—there was a red flash in his eyes. Yet his self-control was marvellous. His voice, when he spoke, seemed scarcely to rise above a whisper.
"For always?" he surmised—"it would be rest at least. You are not an easy task-mistress, Emily."
Her momentary fear of him evaporated almost as quickly as it had been conceived. She stood with her hand on the bell. "I think," she said, "that you had better go to your club."
He held out a protesting hand—tamed at any rate for the moment.
"You were speaking of Jesson," he said. "Well?"
She moved her finger from the bell, conscious that the crisis was past. She might yet score a victory.
"Yes, I was speaking of Jesson," she continued, lazily. "As you remark—none too politely, by-the-bye—he has decided to do without my help. I have no objection to that. I admire independence in a man. Yet when he spoke to me from his point of view I am afraid that I was rude. We parted, at any rate, abruptly. I have been thinking it over and I am sorry for it. I should like to let him know that on the whole I approve of his intention."
"Write and tell him to come and see you then," Drexley said, gruffly. "He can't refuse—poor devil."
The beautifully-shaped eyebrows of the Countess de Reuss were a trifle uplifted. Yet she smiled faintly.
"No," she said, "he could not refuse. But it is not quite what I want. If I write to him he will imagine many things."
"What do you want me to do?" he asked brusquely.
"You see him often at the club?"
"Go there to-night. Say that we have spoken of him; hint that this absolute withdrawal from my house must appear ungrateful—has seemed so to me. I shall be at home alone a week to-night. Do you understand?"
"I understand, at least, that I am not to come and see you a week to-night," he answered with a harsh laugh.
"That is quite true, my friend," she said, "but what of it? You have no special claim, have you, to monopolise my society?—you nor any man. You are all my friends."
There was a knock at the door—a maid entered.
"Her ladyship will excuse me," she said, "but she is dining at Dowchester House to-night at eight o'clock."
Emily rose and held out her hand to Drexley.
"Quite right, Marie," she said. "I see that I must hurry. You will remember, my friend."
"I will remember," he answered quietly.
He walked eastwards across the park, not briskly as a strong man with the joy of living in his veins, but with slow, dejected footsteps, his great shoulders bent, his heart heavy. Physically he was sound enough, yet the springs of life seemed slack, and a curious lassitude, a weariness of heart and limbs came over him as he passed through the crowds of well-dressed men, his fellows, yet, to his mind, creatures of some other world. He sank into an empty seat, and watched them with lack-lustre eyes. Why had this thing come to him, he wondered, of all men? He was middle-aged, unimaginative, shrewd and well balanced in his whole outlook upon life. Three years ago no man in the world would have appeared less likely to become the wreck he now felt himself—three years ago he had met Emily de Reuss. With a certain fierce eagerness he set himself to face his position. Surely he was still a man? Escape must lie some way. Then he laughed softly and bitterly to himself. Yes, there was escape—escape through the small blue hole in the forehead, which more than once he had pictured to himself lately with horrid reality when fingering his revolver—escape in the arms of the sea which he still loved, for in his day he had been a mighty swimmer. There were no other means save such as these. Long ago he had wearied of asking himself what manner of woman this was, whose lips he had never touched, yet whose allurements seemed to have that touch of wonderful magic which ever postpones, never forbids. He only knew 'that she was to him as she was to those others—only with him the struggle was fiercer. There were times as now, when his love seemed turned to fury. She seemed to him then like some beautiful but unclean animal who fed upon the souls of men. He burned to seize her in his arms, to cover her face with hot kisses, and then to press his fingers around that delicate white throat until the music of her death cry should set him free for ever. But when his thoughts led him hitherwards a cold fear gave him strength to break away—for with them came the singing in his ears, the lights before his eyes, the airiness of heart and laughter which go before madness. He sprang to his feet, steadied himself for a moment, and walked rapidly onwards. The momentary exhilaration died slowly away—the old depression settled down upon his spirits. Yet when he reached the club he was breathless, and the hand which lighted a cigar in the hall shook.
On the stairs he met an acquaintance.
"Going to dine, Drexley?"
"No, I don't think so," he answered blankly. "Do you know if Jesson is in the club?"
"Haven't seen him. Come and have a drink. You look a bit shaky."
Drexley shook his head. He wanted to drink, but not with any thoughts of good fellowship in his heart. His was a fiercer desire—the craving for mad blood or the waters of Lethe. He chose a quiet corner in the reading room, and rang for brandy.
Meanwhile Douglas came blithely down the Strand, a smile upon his lips, a crowd of pleasant thoughts in his brain. To think that little Cicely should have grown so pretty. How pleased she had been to see him, and how she had enjoyed their little dinner. Next week would be something to look forward to. He would look out some of his work which he knew would interest her. After all, it had been she who had been the first person in the world to say a word of encouragement to him.
In the hall of the club some one shouted that Drexley had been inquiring for him. He ordered some coffee and made his way up into the writing-room. Drexley was there waiting, his head drooped upon his folded arms. He looked up as Douglas entered.
DREXLEY SPEAKS OUT
Douglas halted in the middle of the room. He knew Drexley but slightly, and his appearance was forbidding. Drexley waved him to a chair and looked up. His eyes were bloodshot, but his tone was steady enough.
"They told me downstairs that you were inquiring for me," Douglas said.
"Yes. Sit down, will you. I have a sort of message, and there is something I wanted to say."
A waiter brought Douglas his coffee, and being in an extravagant mood he ordered a liqueur.
"What'll you have?" he asked.
Drexley hesitated, but finally shook his head.
"No more," he said. "A cigar, if you like."
Even then Drexley shrank from his task. Their chairs were close together and the room empty—yet for the first ten minutes they spoke of alien subjects, till a suggestive pause from Douglas and a glance at his watch made postponement no longer possible. Then, blowing out fierce clouds of tobacco smoke, he plunged into his subject.
"I've come," he said, "from Emily de Reuss. No, don't interrupt me. I've a sort of message for you which isn't to be delivered as a message at all. I'm to drop a hint to you that she would like you to go and see her, that your refusal to do so would be a little ungracious, because she came and saw you when you were ill. I'm to let you think that she's feeling a little hurt at your behaviour, and finally to work you up into going. Do you see?"
"Not altogether," Douglas answered, laughing.
"Well, it isn't altogether a laughing matter," Drexley said, grimly. "I've got rid of my message. Now I'm going to speak to you on my own account. You're young and you haven't seen much of life. You are no more capable of understanding a woman like Emily de Reuss than you are of talking Hindustanee. For the matter of that neither am I, nor any of us. Any ordinary words which I could use about her must sound ridiculous because of their inadequacy. However, to make myself understood I must try. She is not only a beautiful woman of unlimited wealth and social position, but she has, when she chooses to use them, the most extraordinary powers of attracting people to her. She might exercise these gifts upon men of her own social rank who are, as a rule, of slighter character, and whose experience of the best of her sex is of course larger than ours. She prefers, however, to stoop into another world for her victims—into our world."
"Why victims?" Douglas asked. "Isn't that rather an extreme view of the case?"
"It is a mild view," Drexley said. "I will justify it afterwards. In the first place, I believe that she has genuine literary tastes, and a delight for the original in any shape or form. The men in her own rank of life would neither afford her any pleasure nor would they be for a moment content with the return which she is prepared to offer for their devotion. So she has chosen her victims, or, as you would say, friends, from amongst our men—at least with a more robust virility and more limited expectation. You will admit that so far I have spoken without bias."
"In the main, yes," Douglas answered.
"There are women," Drexley said, "who are very beautiful and very attractive, who admit at times to their friendship men with whom anything but friendship would be impossible, and who contrive to insinuate in some subtle way that their personality is for themselves alone, or for some other chosen one. How it's done, I don't know, but I believe there are plenty of women who do know, and who are able to preserve unbroken friendships with men who, but for the exercise of that gift, must inevitably fall in love with them. And there are also women," Drexley continued, with voice not quite so steady, "who have the opposite gift, who are absolutely heartless, wholly unscrupulous, as cold as adders, and who are continually promising with their eyes, and lips, and their cursed manner what they never intend to give. They will take a strong man and break him upon the wheel, the wreck of whose life is a glorification to their vanity. And of this type is Emily de Reuss."
Douglas was embarrassed—vaguely uneasy. The memory of Rice's words came flooding back to him. Whatever else was true, this man's sufferings were real indeed. To him she had never been anything but a most charming benefactor. In a momentary fit of introspection he told himself, then, that her sex had scarcely ever troubled him.
"I think I know, Mr. Drexley," he said, "why you have spoken to me like this, and I can assure you that I am grateful. If Emily de Reuss is what you say, I am very sorry, for I have never received anything but kindness from her. So far as regards anything else, I do not think that I am in any sort of danger. I will confess to you that I am ambitious. I have not the slightest intention of falling a victim to Emily de Reuss, or any other woman."
Drexley took up his cigar and relit it.
"You speak," he said, "exactly as I should have done years ago. Yet you are fortunate—so far."
"With regard to next Thursday," Douglas added, "I could not go, in any case, as I have an engagement."
"I may tell her that?" Drexley said, looking at him keenly. "I may tell her that you cannot come on Thursday because you have an engagement?"
"Certainly. You may add, if you like, that I have drifted so far into Bohemianism that I am not a fit subject for social civilities. She was very kind to me indeed, and if ever she wishes me to go and see her I will go, of course. But fashionable life, as a whole, has no attractions for me. I am happier where I am."
Drexley stood up and held out his hand.
"I congratulate you," he said. "Don't think I'm an absolute driveller, but don't forget what I've said, if even at present the need for a warning doesn't exist. I'm one of her literary proteges, you see—and there have been others—and I am what you see me."
"Surely with you," he said, "it isn't too late?"
Drexley looked up. There was the dull hopelessness of despair in his bloodshot eyes. Douglas, who had never seen anything like it before, felt an unaccountable sense of depression sweep in upon him.
"I am her bondman," he said, "body and soul. I could not tell you at this moment whether I hate her or love her the more; but I could not live without seeing her."
Douglas passed upstairs to his billiards with a grim vision before his eyes. Drexley was a broken man—of that there was no doubt. He knew that his warning was kindly meant, but many times, both during that evening and afterwards, he regretted that he had ever heard it. He had come into the club almost lighthearted, thinking only of Cicely and of the pleasant days of companionship which might still be theirs. He left it at midnight vaguely restless and disturbed, with the work of weeks destroyed. Emily de Reuss had regained her old place without the slightest effort. Surely it was a hopeless struggle.
A hard week's work left Douglas little time for outside thoughts. Besides his daily articles for the Courier, which in themselves were no inconsiderable task, he had begun at last the novel, the plot of which had for long been simmering in his brain. He had certainly received every encouragement. Rawlinson, who had insisted upon seeing the opening chapters, had at once made him an offer for the story, and the publishing house with which he was connected, although of only recent development, had already made a name and attained a unique position. He gave up the club, and worked steadily every night at his rooms, resolutely thrusting aside all alien thoughts, and immensely relieved to find the excitement of literary creation gradually attaining its old hold upon him. He took his meals at a shabby little restaurant, which none of his associates frequented, declined all invitations, and retired for the next seven days into an obscurity from which nothing could tempt him. There came no word from Emily de Reuss, for which he was thankful, and when he left the office at six o'clock on Thursday evening, and lighting a cigarette strolled through a network of streets towards the restaurant where he was to meet Cicely, he had very much the feeling of a schoolboy whose tasks were laid aside and whose holiday lay before him.
Cicely was there already, looking wonderfully bright and pretty, wearing a new hat and a black and white dress, which, after her country-made mourning, seemed positively smart. Douglas drew her hand through his arm as they entered the room, and felt a pleasant sensation of proprietorship at her laughing surrender. He chose a table where they would least likely be disturbed, and imperilled his reputation with the smiling waiter by ignoring the inevitable Chianti and calling for champagne. Cicely reproved him for his extravagance, but sipped her wine with the air of a connoisseur.
"I couldn't help it," he said, smiling. "You know I've years of parsimony and misery to make up for yet. This new life is so delightful, and since you have come—well, I couldn't help celebrating. Besides, you know, I'm earning quite a good deal of money, and I've started the novel at last."
"Tell me about it," she begged, with sparkling eyes.
"Presently," he answered, "Eat your fish now, please. Over our coffee I will tell you the first chapter. And what excuse have you for wearing a new frock to dazzle the eyes of a lonely bachelor with?"
"Like it?" she asked, turning round on her chair towards him.
"I made it myself," she said, continuing her dinner, "all since last Thursday, too."
"Wonderful," he exclaimed, looking at her once more with admiration. "You must be worn out. Let me fill your glass."
"Oh, I rather like dressmaking," she said. "Joan's disapprobation was much more trying."
"And how is she?"
"Better, I believe, and inclined to be more sensible," she answered cheerfully. "She has given up those horrid walks, and is thinking about taking a situation. I can't tell you how grateful I am."
"So am I," he answered fervently.
They avoided, by mutual though unspoken consent, any further reference to a subject so near akin to grave matters. She was satisfied with Douglas's declaration of innocence—he was only anxious to forget his whole past, and that chapter of it in special. So they passed on to lighter subjects, discussed the people who entered and passed out, praised the dinner and marvelled at its cheapness. They watched the head waiter, with his little black imperial and beady eyes, a miracle of suaveness, deftness, and light-footedness, one moment bowing before a newcomer, his face wreathed with smiles, the next storming with volubility absolutely indescribable at a tardy waiter, a moment later gravely discussing the wine list with a bon viveur, and offering confidential and wholly disinterested advice. It was all ordinary enough perhaps, but a chapter out of real life. Their pleasure was almost the pleasure of children.
Later she grew confidential.
"Douglas," she said, "I am going to tell you a secret."
"If there is anything I thoroughly enjoy after a good dinner," he remarked, fishing an olive out of the dish, "it is a secret."
"You mustn't laugh."
"I'll be as sober as a judge," he promised.
"You know I shall have to earn my own living. We have really very little money and we must, both of us, do something. Now I have been trying to do in earnest what I have done for my own pleasure all my life. Do you know what that is?"
"I think I can guess," he answered, smiling.
"Yes, I told you once—writing children's fairy stories. Now I don't want you to be bothered about it, but I do wish you could give me an idea where to send them."
"You have some written?"
"I have two in that little parcel there."
He broke the string and took one out. It was very neatly typewritten, and a quick glance down the page pleased him.
"Who typed it for you?" he asked.
"Did it myself," she answered. "I learnt shorthand, you know, years ago, and I bought a typewriter last week. I thought if nothing else turned up, I might earn a little that way."
"You are certainly not one of the helpless sort of young women," he said. "Will you let me have the stories for a few days?"
"Will it bother you?" she asked wistfully.
"Well, I don't think so," he assured her. "I won't let it."
Drexley, a little gaunt and pale, but more carefully dressed than usual in evening clothes, passed their table, looking for a vacant seat. Douglas touched his arm.
"Sit here, Drexley," he said. "We're off in a minute, and then you can have the whole table."
Drexley thanked him and surrendered his hat and coat to the waiter. Douglas leaned across to Cicely.
"Cicely," he said, "let me introduce Mr. Drexley to you. Mr. Drexley—Miss Strong. Mr. Drexley will probably be my first victim on your behalf."
Cicely blushed and looked timidly up at the tall, bearded man, who was regarding her with some interest. He smiled kindly and held out his hand.
"I am very pleased to know you, Miss Strong," he said. "May I ask in what way I am to suffer on your behalf?"
"You have the misfortune, sir," Douglas said, "to be the editor of a popular magazine, and you are consequently never safe from the literary aspirant. I am one, Miss Strong is another."
"Oh, Mr. Drexley," she exclaimed, in some confusion, "please don't listen to him. I have never tried to do anything except children's fairy stories, and I'm sure they're not half good enough for the Ibex. I brought Douglas two to look at, but I'm not sure that they're any good at all. I meant to offer them to a children's paper."
"Nevertheless, if you will allow me," Drexley said, stretching out his hand, "I will take them with me and judge for myself. If I can use them, Miss Strong, it will be a pleasure to me to do so; if I cannot, I may be able to make some suggestion as to their disposal."
"It's awfully good of you, Drexley," Douglas declared, but Drexley was bowing to Cicely. All the gratitude the heart of man could desire was in those soft brown eyes and flushed cheeks.
"I see you've nearly finished," Drexley said. "I am only in time to offer you liqueurs. I always take a fin instead of a savoury, and I shall take the liberty of ordering one for you, Jesson, and a creme de menthe for Miss Strong."
"You're very good," Douglas answered.
The order was given to the head-waiter himself, who stood by Drexley's chair. Drexley raised his little glass and bowed to the girl.
"I drink your health, Miss Strong," he said, gravely, "and yours, Jesson. May I find your stories as good as I expect to."
Cicely smiled back at him. Her face was scarlet, for the coupling of their names, and Drexley's quiet smile, was significant. But Douglas only laughed gaily as he reached for his hat, and drew Cicely's feather boa around her with a little air of protection.
"Good night, Drexley," he said.
And Drexley, rising to his feet, bowed gravely, looking into the girl's face with a light in his eyes which ever afterwards haunted her when his name was mentioned—a light, half wistful, half kindly. For several minutes after they had left, he sat looking idly at the "bill of fare" with the same look on his face. There had been no such chance of salvation for him.
THE COUNTESS, THE COUSIN, AND THE CRITIC
Out in the streets they paused. A theatre or any place of amusement was out of the question, for Cicely dared not stay out later than half-past nine. Then a luminous idea came to Douglas.
"Why on earth shouldn't you come to my rooms?" he asked. "I can give you some decent coffee and read you the first chapter of my novel."
She hesitated, but barely for a moment.
"It sounds delightful," she admitted. "I'll come. Glad to. Isn't it lovely to be in this great city, and to know what freedom is—to do what seems well and hear nothing of that everlasting 'other people say'?"
"It's magnificent," he answered.
He beckoned a hansom, handed her in, and somehow forgot to release her hand. The wheels were rubber-tyred and the springs easy. They glided into the sea of traffic with scarcely a sense of movement.
"Life," he said, "is full of new sensations," holding her fingers a little tighter.
"It is our extreme youth," she murmured, gently but firmly withdrawing them. "In a year's time all this will seem crude to you."
"In a year's time," he answered, looking down at her, suddenly thoughtful, "I will remind you of that speech."
She sighed, but her gravity was only for a moment. She was chattering again gaily by the time they reached the street where Douglas's rooms were. He led her up the stairs, ill-carpeted and narrow. His room had never seemed so small and shabby as when at last they reached it and he threw the door open.
She walked at once to the window. The Houses of Parliament, Westminster, the Thames, were all visible. A hundred lights flashed upon the embankments and across the bridges, away opposite, a revolving series of illuminations proclaimed the surpassing quality of a well-known whiskey. Westwards, a glow of fire hung over the city from Leicester Square and the theatres. She gazed at it all, fascinated.
"What a wonderful view, Douglas!" she exclaimed. He rose up, hot from his struggles with a refractory lamp, and came to her side. A sound of bubbling and a pleasant smell of coffee proclaimed the result of his labours.
"I have never yet tired of looking at it," he answered. "I have no blind, as you see, and at night I have had my writing-table here and the window open. Listen."
He threw up the sash. A deep, monotonous roar, almost like the incoming tide of the sea, fell upon their ears.
"You hear it," he said. "That is life, that rolling of wheels, the falling of a thousand footsteps upon the pavement, men and women going to their pleasures, the outcasts and the parasites bearing them company. It is like the sea. It is always there. It is the everbeating pulse of humanity."
He closed the window and led her to an easy chair.
"Cissy," he said, "do you know, this is what we always talked of, that I should write a story and read it first to you? Do you remember?"
"Yes," she answered softly, "I remember."
"We didn't anticipate this." He looked around. "Don't judge me altogether by my surroundings. To tell you the truth, when I started I went too much to the other extreme. I discovered I had made a mistake, so I sold up and found myself in debt. I am earning plenty of money, but I have to economise to get clear. This novel is going to set me straight."
He took some loose pages up in his hand. She looked over his shoulder.
"You haven't improved a bit in your writing," she exclaimed. "Do let me type it for you."
"You shall, with pleasure," he answered. "I believe you're the only person who could read it."
She laughed and took her coffee from him.
"Please light a cigarette," she begged. "I loathe the taste, but the perfume is delightful."
He obeyed her, and she arranged the lamp so that the light fell upon the sheets which he had gathered up into his hand. Then she leaned back in her chair and listened.
* * * * *
She sat up and faced him, her face flushed with excitement, her eyes flashing soft fires.
"There is nothing I can say beyond this," she cried: "it is the sort of book which I always hoped and believed that one day you would write."
"You like it?"
"Like is no word. It is magnificent."
He laughed at her.
"If all my critics were like you."
"I am only afraid of one thing," she said. "When it is finished and published you will be a great man. You will be so far off. I think I wish that it were not quite so clever. It makes me feel lonely."
He came over and sat upon the arm of her chair. She was very sweet, very dainty, very pretty.
"Cissy," he said, "you need never be afraid of that. Whatever might happen in the future, I shall never enjoy an evening more than this one. It rests with you to say whether we may not have many more."
She looked up at him quickly. From where he sat he could see her bosom rising and falling quickly. Then he started suddenly away—Cicely sat up in terror, grasping the sides of her chair. There was a sharp knock at the closed door.
"Is Mr. Jesson in?" a soft voice asked.
"Who is it?" Douglas cried, in blank amazement.
The door opened, and a woman, in a long opera cloak and rustling skirt gathered up in her hands, glided in. It was the Countess de Reuss.
* * * * *
She stood in a little halo of lamplight, a diamond star flashing in her hair, and her neck ablaze with gems. She was dressed to make her bow presently in the presence of Royalty, her dress decollete, her figure superb, her jewels famous throughout the world. Cicely looked at her and gasped—Douglas was speechless. She herself maintained a magnificent composure, although she had, as a matter of fact, received a shock.
"I admit, my friend," she said, holding out her hand to Douglas, "that my visit is unusual, but I can assure you that I am not a ghost. Try my fingers, they are very real."
Douglas recovered himself and drew a long breath.
"I am very glad to see you," he said, "but if I had had any idea that you really wished to see me I would have spared you the trouble of coming to such an outlandish place."
"Oh, I can assure you that I have rather enjoyed it," she answered him. "My coachman believes that I am mad, and my maid is sure of it. Won't you introduce me to your friend—your sister, perhaps?"
Douglas preserved his composure.
"This is my cousin, Cicely Strong," he said, "the Countess de Reuss. The Countess de Reuss was very kind to me, Cicely, when I was ill. I think I told you about her."
Cicely was timid and nervous, nor did she at all understand the situation.
The Countess nodded to her kindly.
"You have a very clever relation," she said. "We are all expecting great things from him. Now let me tell you, Douglas, why I have come. There are two men coming to see me to-morrow whom you positively must meet. One is Mr. Anderson, who owns the great Provincial Syndicate of Newspapers, and pays enormous prices for letters from London, the other is an American. I've asked them purposely for you, and you see I've taken some pains to make sure of your coming."
"It is very good of you," Douglas replied. "I will come, of course, with pleasure."
"At eight o'clock," she said, gathering up her skirts into her hand. "Now, good-by, young people."
She nodded pleasantly and turned away. Douglas took the lamp and hurried to the door.
"You will let me see you to your carriage," he said.
"Cissy, I shall only be a moment. Do you mind the darkness?"
She answered him blithely. The Countess laid her delicate fingers upon his arm, and held up her skirts till he could see her shapely feet with diamond buckles carefully feeling for each stair.
"My friend," she exclaimed, "what ill taste you have shown. You are abominably lodged."
"I am not a chooser," he answered; "but at least here I can pay my way."
She laughed at him.
"Maybe. I believe my ancestors were shopkeepers."
"And the little cousin?" she said, looking at him sideways.
"She is the dearest little girl in the world," he answered, heartily.
"I am not sure that I approve of her, though," the Countess said gaily, "not, at any rate, if it has been she who has kept you away from me all this time."
There was a more personal note in her conversation, the touch of her fingers upon his arm was warm and firm. Thinking of these things, Douglas did not hear the rustle of a skirt behind him as they stepped out upon the pavement. The Countess saw it and kept him talking there lightly for a moment. When at last she let him go, and he ran upstairs, he nearly dropped the lamp he was carrying in surprise. For his little room was empty. Cicely was gone.
A TRAGIC INTERRUPTION
"So you see, my friend Douglas, we must dine alone. Try to look as though the calamity were not so great."
The frown did not pass from Douglas's face, although he made the answer which was expected of him. In a sense he felt that he had been trapped. Opposite to him was Emily de Reuss in her favourite attitude, leaning a little forward, her hands clasped around her right knee, rocking herself backwards and forwards with a slow, rhythmical motion. She wore a gown of vivid scarlet, soft yet brilliant in its colouring. Her arms and shoulders were bare, and a string of pearls around the neck was her only ornament. Dressed exactly as she now was, he had once told her with honest and boyish frankness that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. That she, whose wardrobe was a miracle, and jewel-case the envy of every woman in London, should have chosen to appear to-night in precisely the same toilette, was at the same time an embarrassment and a warning to him. The image of Drexley rose up, the sound of his despairing warning seemed still in his ears. There was a colour in her cheeks, a light in her eyes—subtle indications that his visit was a thing looked forward to, no ordinary occasion. They were in one of the smaller rooms; outside a round table was laid for dinner in the palm-lined conservatory. Presently they sat there together; through the glass was a dazzling view of blue sky, starlit and clear; within, a vista of exotics, whose perfume hung heavy upon the air. Great palms were above their heads, the silver waters of a fountain rose and fell a few feet behind. They were served by a single servant in the de Reuss liveries of grey and silver; everything on the table was daintily fashioned and perfect of its sort. To Douglas, who at heart was passionately fond of beautiful things, it seemed after his gloomy garret a retaste of paradise. Champagne was served to them in a long glass jug of Venetian workmanship, rendered cloudy by the ice, like frosted ware. Emily herself filled his glass and pledged him a toast.
"To the novel," she cried. "May it be as successful in literature as your other work has been in journalism! And Douglas, of course you've dedicated it to me."
"I haven't imposed a dedication upon any one," he answered. "Aren't they out of date?"
She shrugged her shoulders. Her elbows were both on the table, and she leaned across towards him.
"Tell me about your story," she begged. "There is fruit coming, and coffee. Let me fill your glass and you shall tell me of what things you have written, evil or good, the things which are, or the things which should be."
She raised the jug and the wine fell in a Little yellow shower into his foaming glass. He raised it to his lips thoughtfully.
"It is wonderful," he said, "that you should be so interested."
"In the man or his story?"
"In either," he answered. "As a story-writer I am altogether unproven. My novel may prove an utter failure."
She shook her head.
"You are not of the race of men who fail, my dear Douglas," she said. "I think that that is why I like you.',
"I have been as near failure as any man can go," he said.
"It is over," she answered. "Now tell me of your story."
He told her its outline. She listened with slowly nodding head, grasping every point quickly, electrically, sympathetically. His slight awkwardness in speaking of his own work passed away. He expatiated, was coherent and convincing. More than once she interrupted him. Her insight was almost miraculous. She penetrated with perfect ease beneath his words, analysed his motives with him, showed him a psychological weakness in the workings of one of his characters. She was liberal with her praise, called his characters by their christian names as though they were old friends, suggested other moves across the chessboard of his plot, until he felt that he and she, and those dear puppets of his own creations, were denizens together of some fairy and ethereal world, wandering through the fascinating maze of imaginative life. It was almost an intoxication, this wonderfully stimulating contact with a mind so receptive, so brilliant, so sympathetic. He forgot his garret, Cicely, the drear past, the passionate warnings of Drexley and Rice. As a weaver of stories he was in his first youth. He had peopled but few worlds with those wonderfully precious creations—the children of the brain. They were as dear to him as the offspring of his own flesh and blood could ever be. Hitherto they had been the mysterious but delightful companions of his solitude. There was a peculiar pleasure in finding that another, too, could realise them. They seemed indeed to pass, as they two sat there and talked of them, into an actual and material existence, to have taken to themselves bodily shapes, the dear servants of his will, delightful puppets of his own creation. The colour mounted into his cheeks, and the fire of hot life flashed through his pulses. He drank wine again, conscious only of a subtle and quickening happiness, a delicious sense of full and musical life.
"You have given me a wonderful idea of your story," she murmured. "Nothing has charmed me so much for a long while. Now the only thing which I am curious about is the style."
"The style," he repeated. "I don't think I have ever thought of that."
"And yet," she said, "you must have modified your usual style. Your journalistic work, I think, is wonderful—strong, full of life and colour, lurid, biting, rivetting. Yet I doubt whether one could write a novel like that."
"You can scarcely expect a hack journalist," he said, with a smile, "to write with the elegance of a Walter Pater. Yet of course I have taken pains—and there is a good deal of revision to be done."
She shook her head softly.
"Revision" she said, "never affects style. The swing of a good story is never so good as in the first writing of it. Ah, here is Mr. Anderson."
An elderly gentleman was ushered in to them. He carried his hat with him, and had the appearance of a man in a hurry. He greeted Emily with courtesy, Douglas with interest.
"I've looked in for a moment," he said; "carriage waiting at the door—got to speak at the Institute of Journalists and catch the midnight train home. So this is Mr. Jesson, eh?"
Douglas admitted the fact, and the newcomer eyed him keenly.
"Will you write me a London letter of a thousand words three times a week for ten pounds?" he asked abruptly.
"Certainly, if you think I can send you what you want," Douglas answered promptly.
"The Countess answers for it that you can. I've seen your work in the Courier. It's exactly what I wish for—pithy, to the point, crisp and interesting. Never be beguiled into a long sentence, abjure politics as much as possible, and read other London letters that you may learn what to avoid. I can't give you better advice than this."
"I'll try," Douglas declared, laughing.
The elderly gentleman picked up his hat, declined coffee vigorously, and liqueurs scornfully.
"Ten pounds a week," he said, "three months notice either side, and no work of the same sort for any other country paper. I'll be frank with you. I shall sell the letters out, and make a profit on 'em. A dozen newspapers'll take them. Good-night. Address here."
He laid down a card and disappeared. Douglas looked at his companion and laughed. They sat upon a lounge placed back between the fountain and the palms, and drank their coffee. Douglas lit a cigarette.
"Why, I'm a rich man," he exclaimed. "I suppose it's all right."
"Oh, it's quite genuine," she said, "but you ought to have asked more money. Mr. Anderson is very odd, but he's honest and liberal, and a great friend of mine.
"Ten pounds seemed such wealth," he said, with a sudden thought that his days in a garret were over when he chose.
"It is very little," she repeated. "I could have got you more. Still there are some other things I have in view for you."
A sudden wave of gratitude made him ashamed that he had ever for a moment listened to Drexley the lunatic, and Rice, miserable croaker. He held out his hand to her.
"I owe you so much," he said. "I shall never be half grateful enough."
She held his fingers—surely no woman's hand was ever so delicately shaped, so soft, so electric. His fingers remained, only now they enclosed hers.
"I do not want any word of thanks from you," she said. "Only I should like you to remember that I have tried to do what little I could for you."
Still their hands lingered together, and Douglas was thrilled through all his senses by the touch of her fingers, and the soft, dark fire of her eyes. He held his breath for a moment—the splashing of the fountain alone broke a silence eloquent enough, so fascinating indeed that he felt his breath tighten in his throat, and a sudden overmastering desire to seize the embrace which some unspoken instinct seemed to denote awaited him. Afterwards he always felt that if no untoward thing had come then the story of his after life would surely have been painted in other colours. But there came an interruption altogether unexpected, marvellous, tragical. Their hands were still joined, he had turned slightly towards her so that his eyes looked into hers, they were face to face with one of those psychological crises which, since the days of primitiveness, have made man's destiny and woman's vocation. Ever afterwards a thought of that moment brought thrilling recollections—there was the suspense, the footstep outside, the crashing of a pistol shot through the glass. Douglas leaped to his feet with a cry of horror. Emily had sunk back upon her seat, a red spot upon one of her beautiful shoulders, her cheeks slowly paling into unconsciousness. There was a smell of gunpowder in the air, a little cloud of smoke hanging around, and he had one single photographic glimpse of a man's face, haggard, unkempt, maniacal, pressed against the broken pane of glass whence the shot had come. A moment afterwards, when the place was full of servants, and one had run for a doctor, he rushed outside, backwards and forwards like a madman, looking in the shrubs, the arbour, behind seats, everywhere. But of the man who had fired that shot there was no trace.
A VISITOR FOR DOUGLAS JESSON
There followed for Douglas a period of much anxiety, days of fretful restlessness, sleepless nights full of vague and shadowy dejection. Emily de Reuss was ill, too ill to see him or any one. All callers were denied. Daily he left flowers and messages for her—there was no response save a repetition to him always of the doctor's peremptory instructions. The Countess was to see no one, to receive no letters, to be worried by no messages. Absolute quiet was necessary. Her nerves had received a severe shock. Neither from the papers, in the fashionable columns of which he read regretful accounts of her indisposition, nor from the servants who answered his continual inquiries, was there ever the slightest reference to the tragical nature of it. It was obvious that she had recovered consciousness sufficiently to lay her commands upon those few who must have known, and that they had been faithful. Her illness was announced as due to a combination of a fashionable malady and a severe nervous breakdown. Yet the memory of that other thing was ever before him, the fierce, white face with the blazing eyes pressed against the glass, the flash, the wreath of smoke, the faint, exciting smell of gunpowder, and the spot of blood upon that alabaster shoulder. It had been murder attempted at least. No occupation could distract his thoughts from that. The horror of it seemed ever chilling his veins. He longed to share his knowledge with some one, to talk it over with her. Neither was possible. Solitude had never oppressed him more. He grew daily more nervous and hysterical.
For he was all the while tormented by fears and suspicions which stalked ever by his side, grim and ghostly phantoms. Those wan features and dark, starving eyes had kindled within him from the first, a hideous sense of familiarity—against which he fought indeed but ever vainly. Once before he had seen them, and it was at the moment when his own life had first come into touch with things tragical. Yet if his memory served him truthfully, he was surely face to face with an insoluble enigma. What had Emily de Reuss to do with such a man as this?
As the days passed by leaving the situation unchanged, he made a great effort to put all these harrowing speculations away, to devote himself once more to his work, which was beginning to weigh heavily upon him. In a measure he was successful. He was able to perform such tasks as fell to his lot during office hours with his usual exactitude, though everything he wrote was marked at this time with a certain nervous energy, which, without detracting from its literary value, was a sure indication of his own mental state. But it was after the day's work was over that his sufferings commenced in earnest. A vigorous distaste for the society of his fellows asserted itself. Night after night, his solitary dinner hastily snatched at an obscure restaurant, he spent alone in his gaunt sitting-room, his work neglected, his face turned westwards, his luminous eyes ever fascinated by the prospect which stretched from the dark street beneath to the murky horizon. Night after night his imagination peopled with shadows and spectres the great city, whose lights cast a deep glow upon the brooding clouds, and whose ceaseless roar of life seemed ever in his ears. Before him lay the unwritten pages of his novel, through the open window came the sobbing and wailing, the joy and excitement, the ever ringing chorus of life which, if only he could interpret it, must make him famous for ever. Night after night he listened, and drank it in greedily, thrilled through all his senses by this near contact with the great throbbing heart of the world. Yet his pen was idle. More than ever he realised that he had a long apprenticeship to serve. There came a time when he threw down his manuscript and wandered out into the streets. By such means alone could he gain knowledge and the power of knowledge.
Emily de Reuss was still denied to him, Cicely seemed to have passed of her own will entirely out of his life. In those days, either might easily have obtained an empire over him, for he was in a keenly impressionable stage of living, passing through one of those crises which, in men of more experience, come earlier in life. He was full of emotions struggling for expression—it seemed to him, at last, that in solitude he would never find an outlet for them. If he had known where to look he would have sought for Cicely at all risks. He even looked for her nightly at the spot of their first meeting—but always in vain. It was as though she had vanished into thin air. By chance he heard of her at last. She had sent some work to Drexley which he had decided to accept. He spoke warmly of it, but when Douglas asked for her address he shook his head. It had come to him with the proviso of anonymous publication, and his own secrecy as to her whereabouts. He was able to tell Douglas nothing, refused even when he was pressed. Douglas left him with an angry exclamation upon his lips.
His solitude became intolerable. One night he looked out his dress clothes and dined at a large cosmopolitan restaurant, where men and women of all sorts were gathered together. Then for the first time he realised something of the tawdriness of this life of pleasure, which seemed ever calling to him through the open windows of his lonely room. He had a small table to himself, ordered his dinner with care, and drank champagne to bring his spirits so far as possible into touch with the general atmosphere. There was music playing all the while, and the ripple of gay feminine voices fell constantly upon his ears. Women were all around him, gaily dressed and bejewelled, a soft, voluptuous wave of enjoyment seemed floating about the place, enfolding them all—save him. For as he watched and listened his face grew darker and his heart heavier. He felt himself out of place, outside the orbit of these people, very little in sympathy with them. He looked at the woman sitting at the next table, elegantly dressed, laden with jewels, whose laughter was incessant and speeches pointless—her companion found her interesting enough, but Douglas was conscious of nothing save her restless desire to please, her little bursts of frivolous mirth and an ugly twitch of her lips which every now and then revolted him. It was a chance, perhaps, or a mood, which made him look out upon a scene, ordinary enough and inoffensive, through dun-coloured spectacles. He paid his bill and walked thoughtfully homeward, thankful for the cool night air which fanned his forehead. He even entered his bare sitting-room and threw up the window with a positive feeling of relief.
He brought out his work, lighted a cigarette and sat there smoking thoughtfully. The match which kindled his lamp showed him a large square envelope on his mantelpiece. He tore it open and drew out a letter. It was from Emily.
He read it eagerly. Whatever its message, it seemed a relief to him just then to know that his suspense was to be ended.
"My FRIEND,—I am suffering from a slight accident—you alone know the nature of it—and from a shock, the nature of which you cannot understand. I am better, but my doctor is an old woman. He insists upon sending me away. I am going—never mind where. It may be that we shall not meet again for some time. I want you to think of me, my dear Douglas, as kindly as you can. It seems to me that I am a very unfortunate woman. Those whom I would befriend usually end by regarding me as their worst enemy. Do not you also lose faith in me. Some day I shall return, and I hope to find you famous. Work at your novel, dedicate it, if no one who has more right to such an honour has come into your life, to me, and, whatever you do, remember that I am always your friend and that your success will be as dear to me as to yourself.
"EMILY DE REUSS."
Precisely the moment when such a thought came to him, he could not say, but before he had finished reading his attention was partially distracted by a curious and instinctive conviction. He felt that he was not alone—that the solitude of his chamber, high up in the building and cut off, as it were, from the world, had been broken. He ceased reading, and although he was no coward he could feel his heart beating. He felt a strange reluctance to turn round. Then the silence was broken. Close to his left ear sounded the click of a revolver, and a man's voice came to him from out of the shadows.
"Stand precisely as you are, Douglas Guest. If you turn your head, or take a single step towards me, you are a dead man."
Douglas was not a coward, and the sound of a human voice dispelled in a moment the vague fears which had caused his heart to leap. He remained immovable.
"Under those circumstances," he answered steadily, "I can assure you that I have not the slightest intention of moving. Who are you, and what do you want with me?"
A hard little laugh. Again the click of a revolver.
"I want from you several things. First of all, and most important, the address of the writer of that letter which you have just been reading."
"That's precisely," Douglas said, "what I should like to know myself. The lady does not give it."
"You are very near death, Douglas Guest. Her address?
"I am not in the habit of swearing," Douglas answered, "but upon my oath it is not in this letter. Upon my oath I do not know it."
He caught the sound of a sob, but when he would have turned his head there came again the sharp click of the revolver and an angry exclamation from his unseen adversary.
"Stand as you are. If by chance you should see my face I will shoot you. I have killed men before, and I have no love for you."
Then Douglas knew that his assailant, if not a lunatic, was surely verging upon madness. He looked towards the door—the distance was too far. No answer occurred to him which seemed discreet, so he remained silent.
"As to her state of health, Douglas Guest. She has been ill."
"I know nothing save that she is better."
"Have you seen her since?"
"You were with her when she was taken ill?"
"I was," Douglas answered.
"You know the circumstances?"
"I know," Douglas said, "that she was the victim of a cowardly and infamous attempt at assassination."
There came a mocking little laugh. Douglas never turned his head, but he felt instinctively that his life was in danger—that a finger was laid upon the trigger of that revolver.
"You are a brave man, Douglas Guest."
"Braver at least," Douglas answered, "than the man who shoots at women and runs away."
There was the sound of a scornful laugh, a step upon the floor. His unbidden guest was coming from out of the shadows.
"You need fear no longer. I am known to you, I see. I have put my revolver away. You and I will talk for a while."
Douglas turned round with a little breath of relief. Yes, it was the man whom he had expected to see, pale as death, with sunken eyes encircled with deep, black lines, one little spot of colour flaring on his cheeks, shabbily dressed, yet carrying in his personality still the traces of refinement. He dropped into the one easy chair, and Douglas watched him half fascinated.
"You have become" he continued, leaning his head upon his bony fingers, "a man of letters, I believe. I congratulate you. You have stepped into the whirlpool from which no man can retrace his steps. Yet even this is better, is it not, than the Methodism? You were not cut out, I think, for a parson."
"Never mind me and my affairs," Douglas said hoarsely. "I want to have nothing to do with you. I wish you no harm—only I beg that you will leave this room, and that I may never see you again."
The newcomer did not move.
"That is all very well, Mr. Guest," he said, "but I fancy that last time we met it was as fellow-criminals, eh?"
"We were both trying to rob your father," Douglas answered slowly, "but there was a difference. The money I wanted, and took was mine—ay, and more besides. He had no right to withhold it. As for you—"
"Well, he was my father, and of his own will he had never given me a halfpenny in my life. Surely I had a right to something?"
"Let the robbery go," Douglas said, leaning across the table. "It's true that I took but my own—but no more of that. At least I never raised my hand against him."
The man in the chair beat with the tips of his fingers upon the table by his side. He spoke in a dull, unemotional tone.
"Perhaps not, but while you robbed he slept. I was as gentle as you and quieter, but in the midst of it he woke up, and I found his eyes wide open, watching me. I saw his fingers stiffen—in a moment he would have been upon me—so I struck him down. You heard him call and came back. Yet we neither of us thought him dead. I did not wish to kill him. Do you remember how we stood side by side and shuddered?
"Don't!" Douglas cried sharply. "Don't. I wish you would go away."
The man in the chair took no notice. There was a retrospective light in his dark eyes. He tapped upon the table again with his skinny forefinger.
"Just a little blue mark upon his temple," he continued, in the same hard, emotionless voice. "We stood and looked at it, you and I. It was close upon morning then, you know—it seemed to grow light as we stood there, didn't it? You tried to bring him to. I knew that it was no use. I knew then that he was dead."
Douglas reeled where he stood, and every atom of colour had left his cheeks.
"I wish you would go away, or be silent," he moaned. "You will send me mad—as you are."
Then the man in the chair smiled, and awful though his impassiveness had been, that smile was worse.
"It is not I who will send you mad," he said. "She will do it in good time. She has done it to others—she has done it to me. That is why I tried to kill her. That is why I may not rest until I have killed her. Don't you know why I wanted that money? She was at the Priory, and I walked there, to see her for a moment, to hear her voice. I hid in the grounds—it was two days before I saw her. Then she shrank away from me as though I were some unclean animal. She would not look at me, nor suffer me to speak. I had no right, she said, to come into her presence in such a state. I was to come decently dressed, in my right mind—then she might talk with me. But a creature in rags! It wasn't kind, was it? I had waited so long, and I was what she had made me. So I went across the hills to Feldwick, and I wrote a note to my father. He tore it into small pieces unread. So I came by night, a thief, and you also were there by night, a thief. The same night, too. It was queer.
"I do not want to hear any more," Douglas said, with a shiver. "I thought that you were dead."
"I have an excellent recipe for immortality," was the slow, bitter answer. "I desire to die."
"There are your sisters," Douglas said slowly. "They are in London. After all, you did not mean to kill him."
The man shook his head.
"I have no sisters," he said, "nor any kin."
"Why not Africa, and a fresh start?" Douglas said. "I am poor, but I can help you, and I can borrow a bit—enough for your passage and clothes, at any rate."
No thanks—no sign even of having heard. The man had moved to the window. He seemed fascinated by the view. There was a silence between them. Then he waved his hand towards that red glow which hung like a mist of fire over the city.
"A cauldron," he muttered, "a seething cauldron of stinking vice and imperishable iniquity. Once I lodged somewhere near here. I have stood at a window like this by the hour, and my heart has leaped like a boy's at the sound of that roar. Douglas, those old Methodists up in the hill-village were not so far from the truth—not so far from the truth, after all. How I laughed when they wagged their old grey heads and told me that the great South road was the road to Hell."
Life is what we make it, here or in the hills Douglas said, with a sententiousness which sounded to himself like ugly irony.
The man at the window drew himself up. For a moment there was a gleam of the old self.
"For the cattle, ay, Douglas," he answered. "For such as you and me, it is what the woman makes it. I'm going. I've no ill-will towards you, but if you hinder or follow me, I'll shoot you like a dog."
So he passed out and was lost in the byways. Douglas remained sitting at the window with folded arms.
THE LITTLE FIGURE IN BLACK
A season of intense depression, almost of melancholia, came to Douglas. He grew more reserved than ever with his colleagues on the staff of the Courier, who regretted his aloofness and would gladly have drawn him into the ranks of their pleasant comradeship. He avoided the club, where his absence was commented upon, and where he was in a fair way to become a popular member. On the threshold of his ambitions, when the way seemed fair before him, life had suddenly become distasteful. With a fierce effort of concentration he continued to work at his novel, which yet progressed but slowly. He spent much time sitting alone, pondering upon subjects which, from such a standpoint as his present one, seemed terrible enough. He had seen a good deal of the underneath life of London, had himself suffered bitterly, and he began to think of the city which now sheltered him as a city of lost souls drifting onwards to a mysterious and awful goal. Though he had thrown away in the moment of his revolt the shackles of his creed, the religious sense was still strong in him. In those dark days it became almost a torment. He felt that he too was going under. The springs of his ambition, his lusty love of living and fighting grew weak, as physically his muscles grew flaccid. He thought often of Strong—broken on the wheel, a creature hopelessly lost. Was he drifting towards this? One night a strange, sickly excitement came over him while he sat with the pen in his hand. His head swam, and voices which he had almost forgotten rang in his ears. Little specks of red fire danced before his eyes—he lost hold upon his consciousness—he was doubtful even of his own identity. He had become a unit, a lost unit, and for a moment or two he babbled like a child. He set his teeth, walked swiftly up and down the room, struggled and recovered himself. Yet he felt as though a dark wave had broken over his head, and he were still amongst the tumbling waters. He stood before the window and cried out a passionate prayer—to what God he scarcely knew—yet it soothed him. He put on his hat hastily and walked out into the streets.
Afterwards he knew that he had stood that night in deadly danger. A wild craving to escape from himself and his solitude by some unusual means, beat against the walls of his heart. So far in life, from early boyhood to manhood, a vigorous love for things beautiful, an intense self-respect, an Epicureanism half instinctive, half inculcated by his country life and innate spirituality, had kept him from even the thought of things evil. Yet to-night the mainspring of his life was out of gear. It was distraction, instant and immediate, he craved for—of any kind, almost at any cost. He walked blindly, and a curious sense of irresponsibility possessed him. The lights of a little restaurant flared in his face—he entered, and called for wine. He sat at a small table with champagne before him, and the men and women who crowded the place looked at him curiously. Doggedly he filled his glass and drank. Some one came and spoke to him—from whom at another time he would have turned away, kindly enough, but as from a leper. He shared his wine, talked purposelessly, and listened. A luminous moment came, however; he paid his bill, and walked firmly from the place. In the Strand the church bells were ringing, for it was Sunday. He turned westwards and walked rapidly towards Westminster.
Even in the porch he hesitated. Since he had left he had never entered a church nor chapel. The sound of the organ came pealing out to him—others were passing in, in a little stream; soon he, too, found himself in one of the back seats.
* * * * *
Two hours later he walked out into the cool night air a new man, with head erect, his brain clear, swept clean of many sickly phantoms. His virility was renewed, he looked out once more upon life with eyes militant and brave heart. He was full of the sense of having passed through some purging and beneficent experience. It was not that his religious belief or disbeliefs had been affected, or even quickened by anything he had heard—yet, from first to last, those two hours had been full of delight to him. The vast, dimly-lit building, with its imposing array of statuary, shadowy figures of great statesmen, soldiers, and priests seen by him then, as it chanced, for the first time, woke him at once from his lethargy. Religion seemed brought in a single moment into touch with the great things of life. There were men there who had been creedless, but great; genius was honoured side by side with sanctity. The rolling music, the pure, fresh voices of the boys appealed to his sense of the beautiful, as those historical associations reawakened his ambition. The white-robed priest, who stood in the centre of the great building, yet whose voice without effort seemed able to penetrate to its furthest corner, seemed both in his personal self and in his scholarly diction exquisitely in accord with his great surroundings. Without a manuscript, with scarcely a note, he stood there, calm and imposing, the prototype of the modern priest, pleading against worldliness for the sake of beauty and of God. With delicately chosen words and exquisite imagery, the calm enthusiasm of the orator, always self-controlled and sweetly convincing, seemed to Douglas like the transmutation of a beautiful picture into a beautiful poem, instinct with life, vivid and thrilling. He stayed till the sermon was over and the solemn words of the benediction pronounced, till the deep, throbbing notes of the organ rang down the emptying aisles. Then he walked out into the streets a saner and a better man.
The life tingled in his veins as he walked slowly back into pagan London. Here the great restaurants, brilliantly lighted, reminded him that all day he had eaten nothing. He jumped into a hansom and was driven to his rooms, kept the man while he changed his clothes, and drove to Piccadilly. Here he entered a famous restaurant, known to him only by name, found a small table and ordered his dinner with care. He leaned back and looked out upon the throng with a kindly human interest. He had the feeling of having returned once more into touch with his kind. A faint smile was upon his lips, too long suppressed; as he ate and drank, the heavy barrier which had come between him and the garden of his imagination seemed to glide apart. He saw away into the future of the life-story which he was writing. New images sprang up and the old ones became once more pliant and supple. Difficulties fell away—a singular clearness of perception seemed to come to him in those few minutes. The joy of life was in his heart, the zest of it between his teeth. He felt the unaccustomed colour in his cheeks, and an acquaintance who paused to shake hands was astonished at his affability. The gay music sounded strangely to his ears after the great organ notes, but, in its way, it too was beautiful. Life was meant to be beautiful. He had never before felt so sure of it.
The men and women who dine in public at the restaurant of the moment are usually at their best. Douglas was astonished at the beauty of the women, their dresses and jewellery, and the flowers with which their tables were smothered. The gaiety of the place was infectious. He too began to desire a companion. He thought of Emily de Reuss—how well she would look at his table, with her matchless art of dressing and wonderful pearls; he fancied, too, without vanity, that she would approve of his companionship in his present mood. And from Emily de Reuss his thoughts wandered on to Cicely. They were the only two women who had ever held any place in his life. He contrasted them, and grew thoughtful.
Later, he paid his bill, lighted a cigar and strolled homewards. Already his brain was at work. The scenes of his story lay stretched invitingly before him—it seemed that he would only have to take up his pen and write until exhaustion came. He turned off the Strand, humming softly to himself, so wrapt in his world of teeming fancies that he did not notice the little figure in sober black, who looked eagerly into his face as she approached. He would have passed on but for her timid word of remonstrance.
Then he stopped short. It was Cicely.
JOAN STRONG FINDS HER BROTHER
Douglas threw away his cigar and held out both his hands. The trouble passed from Cicely's face. His tone was full of pleasure and his eyes were radiant.
"What fortune, Cissy," he cried. "You were the last person in my thoughts. Thank God that I have found you again."
"You are sure you wanted to see me?" she asked, with some timidity.
"Absolutely," he answered.
"I was foolish to run away—that evening."
"It was too bad of you—and to keep away."
"I think that your visitor frightened me, Douglas."
"Then you need have no more fears," he said. "She has gone abroad."
"Do you have many—ladies to see you?" she asked.
"She has never been before or since," he answered.
"I was foolish," she said. "I will ask no more questions."
They had reached the railings, and he pointed downwards to the gardens below.
"There is an empty seat," he said. "Shall we go there and sit down?"
"Anywhere. Joan is out. I need not go home for an hour."
"Still," he asked, with a grim smile, "searching?"
Cicely did not smile. It was the tragedy of her life to see her sister, once devoted purely to domestic interests, quick-tongued, cleanly, severe, calvinistic, spend fruitless hours day by day seeking a futile vengeance. Joan she had always thought of as a typical farmer's housewife—severe with her tongue perhaps, shrewd, and a trifle of a scold. But this woman who walked the streets of London in her solemn black clothes, pale-faced, untiring, ever with that same glitter in her eyes, was a revelation. She turned to Douglas suddenly.
"Douglas," she said, "did Joan care for you very much?"
"I should not have said so," he answered. "She was willing to marry me when your father ordered it. You know what our engagement was like. We were called into the parlour the Sunday morning before I—I—you remember my trial Sunday at Feldwick?
"Well, he just turned to Joan and said, 'Joan, it is my will that you marry Douglas.' She was evidently prepared, for she held out her hand to me.
"'I am willing, Douglas,' she said. That was all. As for me, I was certainly weak, but for the life of me I could think of nothing to say. Then the chapel bell began to ring, and we were hurried away, and your father solemnly announced our engagement as the people came together. There was not any lovemaking, if that is what you mean."
"Yet, I think," she said, "that Joan must have cared. I sometimes think that it is not the man whom she believes to have killed Father, for whom she seeks—it is for the man who slighted her."
"I hope," he said, gravely, "that she may never find either. Let us forget that such a person exists."
"Willingly," she answered, with a little shrug of the shoulders. "What shall we talk about?"
"First of all then, why are you in evening dress on a Sunday?"
"Been out to dinner," he answered. "Let me tell you all about it."
He tried to let her understand something of the period of depression through which he had passed, and he found her, as ever, wonderfully sympathetic, quick to comprehend, keenly interested. They talked of his novel, he told her of his new ideas, of the fancies which had come dancing into his brain during the last few hours. But she was perhaps more moved than at any time, when he spoke of that wonderful visit of his to the Abbey. He tried to make her feel what it had meant to him, and in a measure he succeeded. Suddenly he stopped—almost in the middle of a sentence. He was astonished to realise how pretty she was.
"Now tell me about yourself," he said. "Have you sent anything to Drexley yet?"
"I think Mr. Drexley is quite the nicest man I know," she declared gaily. "I sent him three little fairy tales, and last week he sent me a cheque for them and asked for more. And do you know what he said, Douglas? I asked him to let me have his honest opinion as to whether I could make enough to live on by such work as I sent him, and he replied that there could be no possible doubt about it. He wants me to write something longer."
He took her hand—which she yielded to him frankly—and forgot to restore it. He was honestly delighted. He noticed too that her fingers were very shapely and their touch—she had withdrawn her gloves—a pleasant thing.
"Cissy," he said, "I must see more of you. We are comrades and fellow-workers. We have begun to do the things we talked about up amongst the hills in the old days. Do you remember how we lay in the heather and the dreams we had? Actually I believe that they are coming true."
Her dark eyes were soft with reminiscences and her face was brilliant with smiles.
"It sounds delightful, cousin Douglas," she replied. "Oh, if only Joan would come to her senses. It seems like a thunderbolt always hanging over us. I believe that if she were to see us together she would go mad."
"I have little to reproach myself with as regards Joan," he said. "Of course that night must always be a black chapter in my life. I could not get to London without money, and I took only a part of what was my own. I need not tell you, Cicely, that I never raised my hand against your father."
Her fingers closed upon his.
"I believe you, Douglas, but there is something I must ask."
"Whilst we are talking of it ask me. Then we will put the subject away for ever."
"Do you know who it was?"
His face grew very pale and stern.
"I believe I do," he answered.
"And you are shielding him? Your silence is shielding him, is it not?"
"I am doing more," he said. "I destroyed my own identity, and the Douglas Guest of Feldwick is an accounted murderer by others besides Joan. I can tell you only this, Cissy. I did it because it seemed to me the best and the most merciful thing to be done."
She looked at him gravely.
"He was my father, Douglas, and though I am not like Joan, yet I too would have justice done."
"There are things," he added, "which you do not know. There are things which I pray that you may never know."
"It is hard to understand," she said.
"It is better not to understand," he answered. "It is even better for Joan to believe what she does. That is all I can tell you."
They sat in silence for a while. There was a frown on Cicely's face. She was not wholly satisfied. And from the river, with its fringe of yellow lights, came the whistling of tugs as they passed out on their way to the ocean, and the flashing of strange illuminations on her dark bosom.
Then suddenly Cicely started forward on the seat, her fingers seized his arm with a feverish grip. She gazed with distended eyes at the grim form coming slowly along in the centre of the asphalted path. It was Joan who came towards them. Their surprise was too great—her coming too sudden for words. Only Douglas felt a small hand steal into his, and Cicely, in spite of her mortal terror, experienced a pleasant sense of protection as those strong fingers closed over hers.
Joan was fifty yards away, level with another seat, on which a solitary man had been sitting in a slouching attitude. As she drew near him the two who were watching with fascinated eyes saw him draw himself upright and then shrink suddenly back. But he was too late. Joan's eyes had lighted upon him. She stopped short, the man's attempt at evasion was obvious. In a moment she was at his side.
"David," she cried. "David!"
He rose up, and would have slunk off, but she caught him by the arm. He shook her away, but there was no escape. He looked around like a hunted animal. She sat down by his side, and he was a prisoner.
"Come," Douglas whispered.
They rose up and went off together.
DAVID AND JOAN
"You have had your way with me. I have suffered you to bring me here, to make me eat and drink. Now I am ready to go.
"But where? You do not look as though you had any settled lodging. We can find you a room here for awhile. You have not told me yet how it is that you are alive after all."
He pushed back a mass of tangled hair and looked at her grimly.
"So it was Father who told you that I was dead, eh?"
"Four years ago, David; ay, and more than that."
"He was a very hard man," David Strong said. "Four years ago I wrote to him—I had a chance—I wanted a few pounds only, to make a decent appearance. That was his answer. To me there came none."
"He did what he believed to be right," Joan said. "You disobeyed him in going away."
"It is true," he answered.
The man began to move about the room, glancing every now and then towards the door with a certain restlessness. He had come once more under the influence of the one person who in his earlier life had always dominated him. She had brought him along, unwilling and feebly protesting. He began to wonder how he should get away.
"You will stay here, David," she said. "You have not yet seen Cicely."
He shook his head.
"No. I am not fit for the company of respectable people. You do not know how low I have fallen. I have lost my caste. I live only for one purpose. When that is accomplished I mean to die."
"That is very foolish talk for a man," she remarked calmly. "I, too, have a purpose in life, but when it is accomplished I mean to live on, to live more fully."
He smiled mockingly.
"There is yet nothing of kinship between us," he said, "for between your purpose and mine there could be no more comparison than between a street puddle and Feldwick Farm. It is a life I seek."
"I would to God, David," she cried fiercely, "that it were the same life. For at the end of my purpose is death."
He gazed at her speechless. For the first time the change in her was brought home to him. The stern lines in her face had become rigid and cruel, a new light shone in her eyes. Joan, the domineering, had become Joan the tragical. He listened to her fascinated—and his limbs shook with fear.
"Can you wonder what it is, David? You have tasted the bitterness of strange happenings, and you have almost forgotten your name and whence you came. It is your task which I have made mine. Yet it is not too late for you, if you will help."
"Speak out," he whispered, hoarsely.
"You knew of Father's death?"
"You knew that he was robbed and murdered?"
The man who was lurking so far as he could in the shadows of the room said nothing—but his eyes seemed to become like balls of red fire, and his livid cheeks were horrible to look upon. Even Joan was startled.
"You knew of these things, David?" she cried.
"Ay," he answered, "I knew. What of it?"
"Can you ask? You have drifted far away from us, David, yet you, too, are a Strong and the last of our race. He was murdered, and as yet the man who slew him goes unpunished. Can you ask me then what should be the purpose of my life? It is to see him hang."
She had risen to her feet, a grim, threatening figure in the unshaded lamplight. The yellow glare fell upon her hard, set face, her tightly compressed lips and black eyebrows. Of a sudden David realised her strange and wonderful likeness to the dead man. His own bloodless lips parted, and the room rang with horrid laughter, surely the laughter of a lunatic.
"Oh, it is a wonderful purpose that," he cried. "To see him hang—hang by the neck. Bah! What concern of yours, Joan, is it, I wonder?"
"I am his daughter."
"And I his son. And, listen, my sister, here is news for you. It was no living man at whose door his death lies, but at a woman's. A woman's, I tell you. You understand? I swear it."
She looked at him doubtfully. Surely he was raving.
"A woman's, David?"
"Ay, a woman's. And there are others too—her victims. Look at me. I myself am one. Her victim, body and soul corrupt. If one could only reach her throat."
Even Joan shuddered at the look which seemed to her devilish, Joan, whose nerves were of iron, and in whom herself the lust for vengeance was as the cry for blood. Yet this was not possible.
"I think that you are raving," she said. "Did you not know that Douglas Guest disappeared that night, and was never more heard of—ay, that there was money missing?"
"Douglas Guest took but his own," he answered. "It is the woman who is guilty."
She was bewildered.
"Woman, David? Why, there was none who would have harmed a hair of his head."
Again he laughed, and again she turned pale with the horror of that unearthly merriment.
"You see but a little way, sister Joan," he said, "and the vengeance you cry for is in other hands. As for Douglas Guest, leave him alone. He is as guiltless as you are."
"You have told me so much," she said firmly, "you must tell me more. How comes it that you know these things?"
He shuddered. His lips moved but she did not catch the sound of words. He was apparently in a state of collapse. She reached brandy from a cupboard and forced some between his teeth.
"Be strong, David," she whispered, "and tell me of these things."
He sat up, and with his incoherent words came the birth to her of a new and horrible suspicion.
"I had to have money," he muttered. "She drove me to it. She turned me away. I was in rags, an ill-looking object. But I never meant that. Douglas was before me, and he knows it."
His head fell back, he was unconscious. Joan rang the bell, and sent the maid for a doctor. Yet when he recovered and learnt what she had done he refused flatly to see him.
"A doctor" he muttered, "would feel my forehead and ask me questions. Their madhouses are full enough without me. I've work to do yet."
She spoke to him soothingly as to a child.
"David," she said, "we have a little money—not much, but such as it is you must share. I cannot have you go about starved or in rags."
He staggered up.
"I'm off. Keep your money. I've no use for it."
She stood in front of the door, her jaws were set and there was a bright, hard light in her eyes.
"You'll not go yet," she said. "You've a secret you're keeping from me. It's my concern as well as yours. We'll talk of it together, David."
"I'll talk of it with no living soul," he answered thickly. "Out of my way."
But Joan neither moved nor quailed.
"They will have it that Douglas Guest was killed," she said. "I have never believed it. I do not believe it now. He is keeping out of the way because of what he did that night."
"Ay," he muttered. "Likely enough."
"We must find him," she continued. "Day by day we have searched. You shall help. If he be not guilty he knows the truth, and he hides. So I say that if he lives we must find him."
"Guilty enough," he muttered. "He is in her toils. Let me pass, sister Joan."
"You have seen him?" she cried. "You know that he is alive?"
"Ay, alive," he answered. "He's alive."
"You have seen him?"