"Leander," said the statue, "command your sister to depart!"
"I'm not his"—Matilda was beginning impetuously, till the hairdresser stopped her.
"You are!" he cried. "You know you're my sister—you've forgotten it, that's all.... Don't say a syllable now, do you hear me? She's going, Lady Venus, going directly!"
"Indeed I'm not," said Matilda, bravely.
"Leave us, maiden!" said the statue. "Your brother is yours no longer, he is mine. Know you who it is that commands? Tremble then, nor oppose the will of Aphrodite of the radiant eyes!"
"I never heard of you before," said Matilda, "but I'm not afraid of you. And, whoever or whatever you are, you shall not take my Leander away against his will. Do you hear? You could never be allowed to do that!"
The statue smiled with pitying scorn. "His own act has given me the power I hold," she said, "and assuredly he shall not escape me!"
"Listen," pleaded Matilda; "perhaps you are not really wicked, it is only that you don't know! The ring he put—without ever thinking what he was doing—on your finger was meant for mine. It was, really! He is my lover; give him back to me!"
"Matilda!" shrieked the wretched man, "you don't know what you're doing. Run away, quick! Do as I tell you!"
"So," said the goddess, turning upon him, "in this, too, you have tried to deceive me! You have loved—you still love this maiden!"
"Oh, not in that way!" he shouted, overcome by his terror for Matilda. "There's some mistake. You mustn't pay any attention to what she says: she's excited. All my sisters get like that when they're excited—they'd say anything!"
"Silence!" commanded the statue. "Should not I have skill to read the signs of love? This girl loves you with no sister's love. Deny it not!"
Leander felt that his position was becoming untenable; he could only save Matilda by a partial abandonment. "Well, suppose she does," he said, "I'm not obliged to return it, am I?"
Matilda shrank back. "Oh, Leander!" she cried, with a piteous little moan.
"You've brought it on yourself!" he said; "you will come here interfering!"
"Interfering!" she repeated wildly, "you call it that! How can I help myself? Am I to stand by and see you giving yourself up to, nobody can tell what? As long as I have strength to move and breath to speak I shall stay here, and beg and pray of you not to be so foolish and wicked as to go away with her! How do you know where she will take you to?"
"Cease this railing!" said the statue. "Leander loves you not! Away, then, before I lay you dead at my feet!"
"Leander," cried the poor girl, "tell me: it isn't true what she says? You didn't mean it! you do love me! You don't really want me to go away?"
For her own sake he must be cruel; but he could scarcely speak the words that were to drive her from his side for ever. "This—this lady," he said, "speaks quite correct. I—I'd very much rather you went!"
She drew a deep sobbing breath. "I don't care for anything any more!" she said, and faced the statue defiantly. "You say you can strike me dead," she said: "I'm sure I hope you can! And the sooner the better—for I will not leave this room!"
The dreamy smile still curved the statue's lips, in terrible contrast to the inflexible purpose of her next words.
"You have called down your own destruction," she said, "and death shall be yours!"
"Stop a bit," cried Leander, "mind what you're doing! Do you think I'll go with you if you touch a single hair of my poor Tillie's head? Why, I'd sooner stay in prison all my life! See here," and he put his arm round Matilda's slight form; "if you crush her, you crush me—so now!"
"And if so," said the goddess, with cruel contempt, "are you of such value in my sight that I should stay my hand? You, whom I have sought but to manifest my power, for no softer feelings have you ever inspired! And now, having withstood me for so long, you turn, even at the moment of yielding, to yonder creature! And it is enough. I will contend no longer for so mean a prize! Slave and fool that you have shown yourself, Aphrodite rejects you in disdain!"
Leander made no secret of his satisfaction at this. "Now you talk sense!" he cried. "I always told you we weren't suited. Tillie, do you hear? She gives me up! She gives me up!"
"Aye," she continued, "I need you not. Upon you and the maiden by your side I invoke a speedy and terrible destruction, which, ere you can attempt to flee, shall surely overtake you!"
Leander was so overcome by this highly unexpected sentence that he lost all control over his limbs; he could only stand where he was, supporting Matilda, and stare at the goddess in fascinated dismay.
The goddess was raising both hands, palm upwards, to the ceiling, and presently she began to chant in a thrilling monotone: "Hear, O Zeus, that sittest on high, delighting in the thunder, hear the prayer of thy daughter, Aphrodite the peerless, as she calleth upon thee, nor suffer her to be set at nought with impunity! Rise now, I beseech thee, and hurl with thine unerring hand a blazing bolt that shall consume these presumptuous insects to a smoking cinder! Blast them, Sire, with the fire-wreaths of thy lightning! blast, and spare not!"
"Kiss me, Tillie, and shut your eyes," said Leander; "it's coming!"
She was nestling close against him, and could not repress a faint shivering moan. "I don't mind, now we're together," she whispered, "if only it won't hurt much!"
The prayer uttered with such deadly intensity had almost ceased to vibrate in their ears, but still the answer tarried; it tarried so long that Leander lost patience, and ventured to open his eyes a little way. He saw the goddess standing there, with a strained expectation on her upturned face.
"I don't wish to hurry you, mum," he said tremulously; "but you ought to be above torturing us. Might I ask you to request your—your relation to look sharp with that thunderbolt?"
"Zeus!" cried the goddess, and her accent was more acute, "thou hast heard—thou wilt not shame me thus! Must I go unavenged?"
Still nothing whatever happened, until at last even Matilda unclosed her eyes. "Leander!" she cried, with a hysterical little laugh, "I don't believe she can do it!"
"No more don't I!" said the hairdresser, withdrawing his arm, and coming forward boldly. "Now look here, Lady Venus," he remarked, "it's time there was an end of this, one way or the other; we can't be kept up here all night, waiting till it suits your Mr. Zooce to make cockshies of us. Either let him do it now, or let it alone!"
The statue's face seemed to be illumined by a stronger light. "Zeus, I thank thee!" she exclaimed, clasping her pale hands above her head; "I am answered! I am answered!"
And, as she spoke, a dull ominous rumble was heard in the distance.
"Matilda, here!" cried the terrified hairdresser, running back to his betrothed; "keep close to me. It's all over this time!"
The rumble increased to a roll, which became a clanking rattle, and then lessened again to a roll, died away to the original rumble, and was heard no more.
Leander breathed again. "To think of my being taken in like that!" he cried. "Why, it's only a van out in the street! It's no good, mum; you can't work it: you'd better give it up!"
The goddess seemed to feel this herself, for she was wringing her hands with a low wail of despair. "Is there none to hear?" she lamented. "Are they all gone—all? Then is Aphrodite fallen indeed; deserted of the gods, her kinsmen; forgotten of mortals; braved and mocked by such as these! Woe! woe! for Olympus in ruins, and Time the dethroner of deities!"
Leander would hardly have been himself if he had forborne to take advantage of her discomfiture. "You see, mum," he said, "you're not everybody. You mustn't expect to have everything your own way down here. We're in the nineteenth century nowadays, mum, and there's another religion come in since you were the fashion!"
"Don't, Leander!" said Matilda, in an undertone; "let her alone, the poor thing!"
She seemed to have quite forgotten that her fallen enemy had been dooming her to destruction the moment before; but there was something so tragic and moving in the sight of such despair that no true woman could be indifferent to it.
Either the taunt or the compassion, however, roused the goddess to a frenzy of passion. "Hold your peace!" she said fiercely, and strode down upon Leander until he beat an instinctive retreat. "Fallen as I am, I will not brook your mean vauntings or insolent pity! Shorn I may be of my ancient power, but something of my divinity clings to me still. Vengeance is not wholly denied to me! Why should I not deal with you even as with those profane wretches who laid impious hands upon this my effigy? Why? why?"
Leander began to feel uncomfortable again. "If I've said anything you object to," he said hastily, "I'll apologise. I will—and so will Matilda—freely and full; in writing, if that will satisfy you!"
"Tremble not for your worthless bodies," she said; "had you been slain, as I purposed, you would but have escaped me, after all! Now a vengeance keener and more enduring shall be mine! In your gross blindness, you have dared to turn from divine Aphrodite to such a thing as this, and for your impiety you shall suffer! This is your doom, and so much at least I can still accomplish: Long as you both may live, strong as your love may endure, never again shall you see her alone, never more shall she be folded to your breast! For ever, I will stand a barrier between you: so shall your days consume away in the torturing desire for a felicity you may never attain!"
"It seems to me, Tillie," said Leander, looking round at her with hollow eyes, "that we may as well give up keeping company together, after that!"
Matilda had been weeping quietly. "Oh no, Leander, not that! Don't let us give each other up: we may—we may get used to it!"
"That is not all," said the revengeful goddess. "I understand but little of the ways of this degenerate age. But one thing I know: this very night, guards are on their way to search this abode for the image in which I have chosen to reveal myself; and, should they find that they are in search of, you will be dragged to some dungeon, and suffer deserved ignominy. It pleased me yesternight to shield you: to-night, be very sure that this marble form shall not escape their vigilance!"
He felt at once that this, at least, was no idle threat. The police might arrive at any instant; she had only to vacate the marble at the moment of their entry—and what could he do? How could he explain its presence? The gates of Portland or Dartmoor were already yawning to receive him! Was it too late, even then, to retrieve the situation? "If it wasn't for Tillie, I could see my way to something, even now," he thought. "I can but try!"
"Lady Venus," he began, clearing his throat, "it's not my desire to be the architect of any mutual unpleasantness—anything but! I don't see any use in denying that you've got the best of it. I'm done—reg'lar bowled over; and if ever there was a poor devil of a toad under a harrer, I've no hesitation in admitting that toad's me! So the only point I should like to submit for your consideration is this: Have things gone too far? Are you quite sure you won't be spiting yourself as well as me over this business? Can't we come to an amicable arrangement? Think it over!"
"Leander, you can't mean it!" cried Matilda.
"You leave me alone," he said hoarsely; "I know what I'm saying!"
Whether the goddess had overstated her indifference, or whether she may have seen a prospect of some still subtler revenge, she certainly did not receive this proposition of Leander's with the contumely that might have been expected; on the contrary, she smiled with a triumphant satisfaction that betrayed a disposition to treat.
"Have my words been fulfilled, then?" she asked. "Is your insolent pride humbled at last? and do you sue to me for the very favours you so long have spurned?"
"You can put it that way if you like," he said doggedly. "If you want me, you'd better say so while there's time, that's all!"
"Little have you merited such leniency," she said; "and yet, it is to you I owe my return to life and consciousness. Shall I abandon what I have taken such pains to win? No! I accept your submission. Speak, then, the words of surrender, and let us depart together!"
"Before I do that," he said firmly, "there's one point I must have settled to my satisfaction."
"You can bargain still!" she exclaimed haughtily. "Are all barbers like you? If your point concerns the safety of this maiden, be at ease; she shall go unharmed, for she is my rival no longer!"
"Well, it wasn't that exactly," he explained; "but I'm doubtful about that ring being the genuine article, and I want to make sure."
"But a short time since, and you were willing to trust all to me!"
"I was; but, if I may take the liberty of observing so, things were different then. You were wrong about that thunderbolt—you may be wrong about the ring!"
"Fool!" she said, "how know you that the quality of the token concerns my power? Were it even of unworthy metal, has it not brought me hither?"
"Yes," he said, "but it mightn't be strong enough to pass me the whole distance, and where should I be then? It don't look more to me than 15 carat, and I daren't run any extra risk."
"How, then, can your doubts be set at rest?" she demanded.
"Easy," he replied: "there are men who understand these things. All I ask of you is to step over with me, and see one of them, and take his opinion; and if he says it's gold—why, then I shall know where I am!"
"Aphrodite submit her claims to the judgment of a mortal!" she cried. "Never will I thus debase myself!"
"Very well," he said, "then we must stay where we are. All I can say is, I've made you a fair offer."
She paused. "Why not?" she said dreamily, as if thinking aloud. "Have not I sued ere this for the decision of a shepherd judge—even of Paris? 'Tis but one last indignity, and then—he is mine indeed! Leander," she added graciously, "it shall be as you will. Lead the way; I follow!"
But Matilda, who had been listening to this compromise with incredulous horror, clung in desperation to her lover's arm, and sought to impede his flight. "Leander!" she cried, "oh, Leander! surely you won't be mad enough to go away with her! You won't be so wicked and sinful as that! Remember who she is: one of the false gods of the poor benighted heathens—she owned it herself! She's nothing less than a live idol! Think of all the times we've been to chapel together; think of your dear aunt, and how she'll feel your being in such awful company! Let the police come, and think what they like: we'll tell them the truth, and make them believe it. Only be brave, and stay here with me; don't let her ensnare you! Have some pity for me; for, if you leave me, I shall die!"
"Already the guards are at your gates," said the statue; "choose quickly—while you may!"
He put Matilda gently from him: "Tillie," he said, with a convulsive effort to remain calm, "you gave me up of your own free will—you know that—and now you've come round too late. The other lady spoke first!"
As she still clung to him, he tried to whisper some last words of a consoling or reassuring nature, and she suddenly relaxed her grasp, and allowed him to make his escape without further dissuasion—not that his arguments had reconciled her to his departure, but because she was mercifully unaware of it.
THE ODD TRICK
"O heart of stone, are you flesh, and caught By that you swore to withstand?"
Outside on the stairs Leander suddenly remembered that his purpose might be as far as ever from being accomplished. The house was being watched: to be seen leaving it would procure his instant arrest.
Hastily excusing himself to the goddess, he rushed down to his laboratory, where he knew there was a magnificent beard and moustache which he had been constructing for some amateur theatricals. With these, and a soft felt hat, he completed a disguise in which he flattered himself he was unrecognisable.
The goddess, however, penetrated it as soon as he rejoined her. "Why have you thus transformed yourself?" she inquired coldly.
"Because," explained Leander, "seeing the police are all on the look-out for me, I thought it couldn't do any harm."
"It is useless!" she returned.
"To be sure," he agreed blankly, "they'll expect me to go out disguised. If only they aren't up to the way out by the back! That's our only chance now."
"Leave all to me," she replied calmly; "with Aphrodite you are safe."
And he never did quite understand how that strange elopement was effected, or even remember whether they left the house from the front or rear. The statue glided swiftly on, and, grasping a corner of her robe, he followed, with only the vaguest sense of obstacles overcome and passed as in a dream.
By the time he had completely regained his senses he was in a crowded thoroughfare, which he recognised as the Gray's Inn Road.
A certain scheme from which, desperate as it was, he hoped much, might be executed as well here as elsewhere, and he looked about him for the aid on which he counted.
"Where, then, lives the wise man whom you would consult?" said Aphrodite.
Leander went on until he could see the coloured lights of a chemist's window, and then he said, "There—right opposite!"
He felt strangely nervous himself, but the goddess seemed even more so. She hung back all at once, and clutched his arm in her marble grasp.
"Leander," she said, "I will not go! See those liquid fires glowing in lurid hues, like the eyes of some dread monster! This test of yours is needless, and I fear it."
"Lady Venus," he said earnestly, "I do assure you they're only big bottles, and quite harmless too, having water in them, not physic. You've no call to be alarmed."
She yielded, and they crossed the road. The shop was small and unpretending. In the window the chief ornaments were speckled plaster limbs clad in elastic socks, and photographs of hideous complaints before and after treatment with a celebrated ointment; and there were certain trophies which indicated that the chemist numbered dentistry among his accomplishments.
Inside, the odour of drugs prevailed, in the absence of the subtle perfume that is part of the fittings of a fashionable apothecary, and on the very threshold the goddess paused irresolute.
"There is magic in the air," she exclaimed, "and fearful poisons. This man is some enchanter!"
"Now I put it to you," said Leander, with some impatience, "does he look it?"
The chemist was a mild little man, with a high forehead, round spectacles, a little red beak of a nose, and a weak grey beard. As they entered, he was addressing a small and draggled child from behind his counter. "Go back and tell your mother," he said, "that she must come herself. I never sell paregoric to children."
There was so little of the wizard in his manner that the goddess, who possibly had some reason to mistrust a mortal magician, was reassured.
As the child retired, the chemist turned to them with a look of bland and dignified inquiry (something, perhaps the consciousness of having once passed an examination, sustains the meekest chemist in an inward superiority). He did not speak.
Leander took it upon himself to explain. "This lady would be glad to be told whether a ring she's got on is the real article or only imitation," he said, "so she thought you could decide it for her."
"Not so," corrected the goddess, austerely. "For myself I care not!"
"Have it your own way!" said Leander. "I should like to be told, then. I suppose, mister, you've some way of testing these things?"
"Oh yes," said the chemist; "I can treat it for you with what we call aquafortis, a combination of nitric and hydrochloric acid, which would tell us at once. I ought to mention, perhaps, that so extremely powerful an agent may injure the appearance of the metal if it is of inferior quality. Will the lady oblige me with the ring?"
Aphrodite extended her hand with haughty indifference. The chemist examined the ring as it circled her finger, and Leander held his breath in tortures of anxiety. A horrible fear came over him that his deep-laid scheme was about to end in failure.
But the chemist remarked at last: "Exactly; thank you, madam. The gold is antique, certainly; but I should be inclined to pronounce it, at first sight, genuine. I will ascertain how this is, if you will take the trouble to remove the ring and pass it over!"
"Why?" demanded Aphrodite, obstinately.
"I could not undertake to treat it while it remains upon your hand," he protested. "The acid might do some injury!"
"It matters not!" she said calmly; and Leander recollected with horror that, as any injury to her statue would have no physical effect upon the goddess herself, she could not be much influenced by the chemist's reason.
"Do what the gentleman tells you," he said, in an eager whisper, as he drew her aside.
"I know your wiles, O perfidious one," she said. "Having induced me to remove this token, you would seize it yourself, and take to flight! I will not remove this ring!"
"There's a thing to say!" said Leander; "there's a suspicion to throw against a man! If you think I'm likely to do that, I'll go right over here, where I can't even see it, and I won't stir out till it's all over. Will that satisfy you? You know why I'm so anxious about that ring; and now, when the gentleman tells you he's almost sure it's gold——"
"It is gold!" said the goddess.
"If you're so sure about it," he retaliated, "why are you afraid to have it proved?"
"I am not afraid," she said; "but I require no proof!"
"I do," he retorted, "and what I told you before I stand to. If that ring is proved—in the only way it can be proved, I mean, by this gentleman testing it as he tells you he can—then there's no more to be said, and I'll go away with you like a lamb. But without that proof I won't stir a step, and so I tell you. It won't take a moment. You can see for yourself that I couldn't possibly catch up the ring from here!"
"Swear to me," she said, "that you will remain where you now stand; and remember," she added, with an accent of triumph, "our compact is that, should yonder man pronounce that the ring has passed through the test with honour, you will follow me whithersoever I bid you!"
"You have only to lead the way," he said, "and I promise you faithfully I'll follow."
Goddesses may be credited with some knowledge of the precious metals, and Aphrodite had no doubt of the result of the chemist's investigations. So it was with an air of serene anticipation that she left Leander upon this, and advanced to the chemist's counter.
"Prove it now," she said, "quickly, that I may go!"
The chemist, who had been waiting in considerable bewilderment, prepared himself to receive the ring, and Leander, keeping his distance, felt his heart beating fast as Aphrodite slowly drew the token from her finger, and placed it in the chemist's outstretched hand.
Scarcely had she done so, as the chemist was retiring with the ring to one of his lamps, before the goddess seemed suddenly aware that she had committed a fatal error.
She made a stride forward to follow and recover it; but, as if some unseen force was restraining her, she stopped short, and a rush of whirling words, in some tongue unknown both to Leander and the chemist, forced its way through lips that smiled still, though they were freezing fast.
Then, with a strange hoarse cry of baffled desire and revenge, she succeeded, by a violent effort, in turning, and bore down with tremendous force upon the cowering hairdresser, who gave himself up at once for lost.
But the marble was already incapable of obeying her will. Within a few paces from him the statue stopped for the last time, with an abruptness that left it quivering and rocking. A greyish hue came over the face, causing the borrowed tints to stand forth, crude and glaring; the arms waved wildly and impotently once or twice, and then grew still for ever, in the attitude conceived long since by the Grecian sculptor!
Leander was free! His hazardous experiment had succeeded. As it was the ring which had brought the passionate, imperious goddess into her marble counterfeit, so—the ring once withdrawn—her power was instantly at an end, and the spell which had enabled her to assume a form of stone was broken.
He had hoped for this, had counted upon it, but even yet hardly dared to believe in his deliverance.
He had not done with it yet, however; for he would have to get the statue out of that shop, and abandon it in some manner which would not compromise himself, and it is by no means an easy matter to mislay a life-size and invaluable antique without attracting an inconvenient amount of attention.
The chemist, who had been staring meanwhile in blank astonishment, now looked inquiringly at Leander, who looked helplessly at him.
At last the latter, unable to be silent any longer, said, "The lady seems unwell, sir."
"Why," Leander admitted, "she does appear a little out of sorts."
"Has she had these attacks before, do you happen to know?"
"She's more often like this than not," said Leander.
"Dear me, sir; but that's very serious. Is there nothing that gives relief?—a little sal volatile, now? Does the lady carry smelling salts? If not, I could——" And the chemist made an offer to come from behind his counter to examine the strange patient.
"No," said Leander, hastily. "Don't you trouble—you leave her to me. I know how to manage her. When she's rigid like this, she can't bear to be taken notice of."
He was wondering all the time how he was to get away with her, until the chemist, who seemed at least as anxious for her departure, suggested the answer: "I should imagine the poor lady would be best at home. Shall I send out for a cab?" he asked.
"Yes," said Leander, gratefully; "bring a hansom. She'll come round better in the open air;" for he had his doubts whether the statue could be stowed inside a four-wheeler.
"I'll go myself," said the obliging man; "my assistant's out. Perhaps the lady will sit down till the cab comes?"
"Thanks," said Leander; "but when she's like this, she's been recommended to stand."
The chemist ran out bare-headed, to return presently with a cab and a small train of interested observers. He offered the statue his arm to the cab-door, an attention which was naturally ignored.
"We shall have to carry her there," said Leander.
"Why, bless me, sir," said the chemist, as he helped to lift her, "she—she's surprisingly heavy!"
"Yes," gasped Leander, over her unconscious shoulder; "when she goes off in one of these sleeps, she does sleep very heavy"—an explanation which, if obscure, was accepted by the other as part of the general strangeness of the case.
On the threshold the chemist stopped again. "I'd almost forgotten the ring," he said.
"I'll take that!" said Leander.
"Excuse me," was the objection, "but I was to give it back to the lady herself. Had I not better put it on her finger, don't you think?"
"Are you a married man?" asked Leander, grimly.
"Yes," said the chemist.
"Then, if you'll take my advice, I wouldn't if I was you—if you're at all anxious to keep out of trouble. You'd better give the ring to me, and I give you my word of honour as a gentleman that I'll give it back to her as soon as ever she's well enough to ask for it."
The other adopted the advice, and, amidst the sympathy of the bystanders, they got the statue into the cab.
"Where to?" asked the man through the trap.
"Charing Cross," said Leander, at random; he ought the drive would give him time for reflection.
"The 'orspital, eh?" said the cabman, and drove off, leaving the mild chemist to stare open-mouthed on the pavement for a moment, and go back to his shop with a growing sense that he had had a very unusual experience.
Now that Leander was alone in the cab with the statue, whose attitude required space, and cramped him uncomfortably, he wondered more and more what he was to do with it. He could not afford to drive about London for ever with her; he dared not take her home; and he was afraid of being seen with her!
All at once he seemed to see a way out of his difficulty. His first step was to do what he could, in the constantly varying light, to reduce the statue to its normal state. He removed the curls which had disfigured her classical brow, and, with his pocket-handkerchief, rubbed most of the colour from her face; then the cloak had only to be torn off, and all that could betray him was gone.
Near Charing Cross, Leander told the driver to take him down Parliament Street, and stop at the entrance to Scotland Yard; there the cabman, at Leander's request, descended, and stared to find him huddled up under the gleaming pale arms of a statue.
"Guv'nor," he remarked, "that warn't the fare I took up, I'll take my dying oath!"
"It's all right," said Leander. "Now, I tell you what I want you to do: go straight in through the archway, find a policeman, and say there's a gentleman in your cab that's found a valuable article that's been missing, and wants assistance in bringing it in. I'll take care of the cab, and here's double fare for your trouble."
"And wuth it, too," was the cabman's comment, as he departed on his mission. "I thought it was the devil I was a drivin', we was that down on the orfside!"
It was no part of Leander's programme to wait for his return; he threw the cloak over his arm, pocketed his beard, and slipped out of the cab and across the road to a spot whence he could watch unseen. And when he had seen the cabman come with two constables, he felt assured that his burden was in safe hands at last, and returned to Southampton Row as quickly as the next hansom he hailed could take him.
He entered his house by the back entrance: it was unguarded; and although he listened long at the foot of the stairs, he heard nothing. Had the Inspector not come yet, or was there a trap? As he went on, he fancied there were sounds in his sitting-room, and went up to the door and listened nervously before entering in.
"Oh, Miss Collum, my poor dear!" a tremulous voice, which he recognised as his aunt's, was saying, "for Mercy's sake, don't lie there like that! She's dying!—and it's my fault for letting her come here!—and what am I to say to her ma?"
Leander had heard enough; he burst in, with a white, horror-stricken face. Yes, it was too true! Matilda was lying back in his crazy armchair, her eyes fast closed, her lips parted.
"Aunt," he said with difficulty, "she's not—not dead?"
"If she is not," returned his aunt, "it's no thanks to you, Leandy Tweddle! Go away; you can do no good to her now!"
"Not till I've heard her speak," cried Tweddle. "Tillie, don't you hear?—it's me!"
To his immense relief, she opened her eyes at the sound of his voice, and turned away with a feeble gesture of fear and avoidance. "You have come back!" she moaned, "and with her! Oh, keep her away!... I can't bear it all over again!... I can't!"
He threw himself down by her chair, and drew down the hands in which she had hidden her face. "Matilda, my poor, hardly-used darling!" he said, "I've come back alone! I've got rid of her, Tillie! I'm free; and there's no one to stand between us any more!"
She pushed back her disordered fair hair, and looked at him with sweet, troubled eyes. "But you went away with her—for ever?" she said. "You said you didn't love me any longer. I heard you ... it was just before——" and she shuddered at the recollection.
"I know," said Leander, soothingly. "I was obligated to speak harsh, to deceive the—the other party, Tillie. I tried to tell you, quiet-like, that you wasn't to mind; but you wouldn't take no notice. But there, we won't talk about it any more, so long as you forgive me; and you do, don't you?"
She hid her face against his shoulder, in answer, from which he drew a favourable conclusion; but Miss Tweddle was not so easily pacified.
"And is this all the explanation you're going to give," she demanded, "for treating this poor child the way you've done, and neglecting her shameful like this? If she's satisfied, Leandy, I'm not."
"I can't help it, aunt," he said. "I've been true to Tillie all the way through, in spite of all appearances to the contrary—as she knows now. And the more I explained, the less you'd understand about it; so we'll leave things where they are. But I've got back the ring, and now you shall see me put it on her finger."
* * * * *
It seemed that Leander had driven to Scotland Yard just in time to save himself, for the Inspector did not make his threatened search that evening.
Two or three days later, however, to Leander's secret alarm, he entered the shop. After all, he felt, it was hopeless to think of deceiving these sleuth-hounds of the Law: this detective had been making inquiries, and identified him as the man who had shared the hansom with that statue!
His knees trembled as he stood behind his glass-topped counter. "Come to make the search, sir?" he said, as cheerfully as he could. "You'll find us ready for you."
"Well," said Inspector Bilbow, with a queer mixture of awkwardness and complacency, "no, not exactly. Tweddle, my good fellow, circumstances have recently assumed a shape that renders a search unnecessary, as perhaps you are aware?"
He looked very hard at Tweddle as he spoke, and the hairdresser felt that this was a crucial moment—the detective was still uncertain whether he had been mixed up with the affair or not. Leander's faculty of ready wit served him better here than on past occasions.
"Aware? No, sir!" he said, with admirable simplicity. "Then that's why you didn't come the other evening! I sat up for you, sir; all night I sat up."
"The fact of the matter is, Tweddle," said Bilbow, who had become suddenly affable and condescending, "I found myself reduced, so to speak, to make use of you as a false clue, if you catch my meaning?"
"I can't say I do quite understand, sir."
"I mean—of course, I saw with half an eye, bless your soul, that you'd had nothing to do with it—it wasn't likely that a poor chap like you had any knowledge of a big plant of that description. No, no; don't you go away with that idea. I never associated you with it for a single instant."
"I'm truly glad to hear it, Mr. Inspector," said Leander.
"It was owing to the line I took up. There were the real parties to put off their guard, and to do that, Tweddle—to do that, it was necessary to appear to suspect you. D'ye see?"
"I think it was a little hard on me, sir," he said; "for being suspected like that hurts a man's feelings, sir. I did feel wounded to have that cast up against me!"
"Well, well," said the Inspector, "we'll go into that later. But, to go on with what I was saying. My tactics, Tweddle, have been crowned with success—the famous Venus is now safe in my hands! What do you say to that?"
"Say? Why, what clever gentlemen you detective officers are, to be sure!" cried Leander.
"Well, to be candid, there's not many in the Department that would have managed the job as neatly; but, then, it was a case I'd gone into, and thoroughly got up."
"That I'm sure you must have done, sir," agreed Leander. "How ever did you come on it?" He felt a kind of curiosity to hear the answer.
"Tweddle," was the solemn reply, "that is a thing you must be content to leave in its native mystery" (which Leander undoubtedly was). "We in the Criminal Investigation Department have our secret channels and our underground sources for obtaining information, but to lay those channels and sources bare to the public would serve no useful end, nor would it be an expedient act on my part. All you have any claim to be told is, that, however costly and complicated, however dangerous even, the means employed may have been (that I say nothing about), the ultimate end has been obtained. The Venus, sir, will be restored to her place in the Gallery at Wricklesmarsh Court, without a scratch on her!"
"You don't say so! Lor!" cried Leander, hoping that his countenance would keep his secret, "well, there now! And my ring, sir, if you remember—isn't that on her?"
"You mustn't expect us to do everything. Your ring was, as I had every reason to expect it would be, missing. But I shall be talking the matter over with Sir Peter Purbecke, who's just come back to Wricklesmarsh from the Continent, and, provided—ahem!—you don't go talking about this affair, I should feel justified in recommending him to make you some substantial acknowledgment for any—well, little inconvenience you may have been put to on account of your slight connection with the business, and the steps I may have thought proper to take in consequence. And, from all I hear of Sir Peter, I think he would be inclined to come down uncommonly handsome."
"Well, Mr. Inspector," said Leander, "all I can say is this: if Sir Peter was to know the life his statue has led me for the past few days, I think he'd say I deserved it—I do, indeed!"
* * * * *
The narrow passage off Southampton Row is at present without a hairdresser's establishment, Leander having resigned his shop, long since, in favour of either a fruiterer or a stationer.
But, in one of the leading West End thoroughfares there is a large and prosperous hair-cutting saloon, over which the name of "Tweddle" glitters resplendent, and the books of which would prove too much for Matilda, even if more domestic duties had not begun to claim her attention.
Leander's troubles are at end. Thanks to Sir Peter Purbecke's munificence, he has made a fresh start; and, so far, Fortune has prospered him. The devices he has invented for correcting Nature's more palpable errors in taste are becoming widely known, while he is famous, too, as the gifted author of a series of brilliant and popular hairwashes. He is accustoming his clients to address him as "Professor"—a title which he has actually had conferred upon him from a quarter in which he is, perhaps, the most highly appreciated—for prosperity has not exactly lessened his self-esteem.
Mr. Jauncy, too, is a married man, although he does not respond so heartily to congratulations. There is no intimacy between the two households, the heads of which recognise that, as Leander puts it, "their wives harmonise better apart."
To the new collection of Casts from the Antique, at South Kensington, there has been recently added one which appears in the official catalogue under the following description:—
"The Cytherean Venus.—Marble statue. Found in a grotto in the Island of Cerigo. Now in the collection of Sir Peter Purbecke, at Wricklesmarsh Court, Black-heath.
"This noble work has been indifferently assigned to various periods; the most general opinion, however, pronounces it to be a copy of an earlier work of Alkamenes, or possibly Kephisodotos.
"The unusual smallness of the extremities seems to betray the hand of a restorer, and there are traces of colour in the original marble, which are supposed to have been added at a somewhat later period."
Should Professor Tweddle ever find himself in the Museum on a Bank Holiday, and enter the new gallery, he could hardly avoid seeing the magnificent cast numbered 333 in the catalogue, and reviving thereby recollections he has almost succeeded in suppressing.
But this is an experience he will probably spare himself; for he is known to entertain, on principle, very strong prejudices against sculpture, and more particularly the Antique.