HALF A CHANCE
BY FREDERIC S. ISHAM
AUTHOR OF UNDER THE ROSE THE LADY OF THE MOUNT, ETC.
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY HERMAN PFEIFER
INDIANAPOLIS THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY PUBLISHERS
COPYRIGHT 1909 THE BOBBS-MERRILL COMPANY
PRESS OF BRAUNWORTH & CO. BOOKBINDERS AND PRINTERS BROOKLYN, N.Y.
* * * * *
I MR. GILLETT'S CHARGE II A MESSAGE TO THE ADMIRALTY III AN UNAPPRECIATED BOUNTY
I THE WHEELS OF JUSTICE II AT THE OPERA III A LESSON IN BOTANY IV TIDES VARYING V IN THE PARK VI A CONFERENCE VII INCIDENTS VIII A CHANGE OF FRONT IX AWAY FROM THE TOWN X A CONTEST XI WAYS AND MEANS XII FESTIVITIES XIII THE PRINCESS SUITE XIV AN ANSWER XV CURRENTS AND COUNTER CURRENTS XVI FLIGHT XVII THE UNEXPECTED XVIII THROUGH THE FOG XIX THE LAST SHIFT XX THE PAPER XXI A CONDITION XXII NEAR THE RIVER XXIII PAST AND PRESENT
* * * * *
MR. GILLETT'S CHARGE
"By all means, m'deah, let's go down between decks and have a look at them."
"Of course, if you wish, Sir Charles, although—Do you think we shall be edified, Mr. Gillett?"
"That depends, m'lady,"—and the speaker, a man with official manners and ferret-like eyes, shifted from one foot to another,—"on what degree, or particular class of criminal your ladyship would be interested in," he added. "If in the ordinary category of skittle sharper or thimblerigger," with a suspicion of mild scorn, "then I do not imagine your ladyship would find much attraction in the present cargo. But, on the other hand," in a livelier tone, "if your ladyship has any curiosity, or shall we say, a psychological bent, regarding the real out-and-outer, the excursion should be to your liking. For," rubbing his hands, "a properer lot of cutthroats and bad magsmen, it has never been my privilege to escort across the equator; and this is my sixth trip to Australia!"
"How interesting! How very interesting!" The lady's voice floated languidly. "Sir Charles is quite right. We must really go down. At any rate, it will be a change, after having been shut up so long in that terrible state-room."
"One moment, m'lady! There's a little formality that must be observed first."
"Formality?" And the lady, who was of portly appearance and uncertain age, gazed from the speaker standing deferentially before her, to a man of size, weight and importance seated in a comfortable chair at her side. "What does he mean, Sir Charles?"
"Regulations, m'lady—m'lord!" was the answer. "No one allowed on the prisoners' deck without the captain's permission. There he is now."
"Then be good enough to beckon to him!" said the lady.
But this Mr. Gillett, agent of the police, discreetly declined to do; Captain Macpherson was a man not to be beckoned to by any one; much less by him. As he stood squarely in the center of the ship, he looked like a mariner capable of commanding his boat and all the people aboard; indeed, some of the characteristics of his vessel seemed to have entered into his own make-up; the man matched the craft. Broad-nosed, wide of beam, big, massive, obstinate-looking, the Lord Nelson plowed aggressively through the seas. With every square sail tugging hard at her sturdy masts, she smote and over-rode the waves, and, beating them down, maintained an unvarying, stubborn poise. But although she refused to vacillate or shuffle to the wooing efforts of the uneasy waters, she progressed not without noise and pother; foamed and fumed mightily at the bow and left behind her a wake, receding almost as far as the eyes might reach. Captain Macpherson looked after the bubbles, cast his glance aloft at the bulging patches of white, and then condescended to observe the agent of the police who had silently approached.
"Sir Charles and lady, and Sir Charles' party have expressed, Captain Macpherson, the desire to obtain permission to visit the prisoners' deck."
Captain Macpherson looked toward Sir Charles and his lady, the other passengers lounging around them, a little girl, at the rail, her hair, blown windward, a splash of gold against the blue sky. "What for?" said the skipper bruskly.
"To have a look at the convicts, I suppose."
"What good'll that do them?" growled the commander. "Idle curiosity, that's what I call it. Well, go along. Only, I'll hold you accountable, and bear this in your mind, no tracts!"
"I don't think," replied Mr. Gillett with some asperity, "you need be apprehensive on that score, Captain Macpherson. Sir Charles and m'lady are not that sort."
"Well, keep them away from the bars. The weather has nae improved the tempers of a few of the rapscallions, and they'd like naught better than a chance for their claws."
"Thanks for the permission, and," a little stiffly, "the admonition, which latter," turning away, "a man whose lifelong profession has been dealing with convicts is most likely to stand in need of and heed."
Captain Macpherson frowned, stumped the other way, then looked once more aloft, and, by the exercise of that ingenuity peculiarly his own, found new tasks for the sailors. Aboard any ship, especially a ship of this character, it was his theory and practice that discipline could not be too strictly maintained and the men on the Lord Nelson knew no idle moments.
"May I go, too?"
The child with the golden hair desisted in her occupation of watching the flying-fish and other real-winged creatures, and, leaving the rail, walked toward the group that was about to follow Mr. Gillett. She was a very beautiful girl of ten or eleven; slim, delicately fashioned, of a definite proud type. But although she held herself erect, in an unconscious patrician sort of way, there was, also, about her something wayward and different from the conventional, aristocratic set. The disordered golden hair proclaimed it, while in the depths of the fine, blue eyes manifold changing lights told of a capriciousness out of the pale of a stiffly decorous and well-contained caste.
"May I go, too, aunt?" she repeated.
"Why, of course!" interposed a blase, cynical-appearing young man who had just emerged from the cabin. "Don't know where she wants to go, or what she wants to do; but don't say she can't; really you mustn't, now."
"Well, since you insist on spoiling her, Lord Ronsdale—"
He twisted a blond mustache which adorned a handsome face that bore many marks of what is called experience of the world. "Couldn't do that! Besides, Jocelyn and I are great chums, don't you know. We're going to be married some day when she grows up."
"Are we?" said the child. "The man I marry must be very big and strong, and must not have light hair."
Lord Ronsdale laughed tolerantly.
"Plenty of time for you to change your mind, don't you know. Meanwhile, I'll not despair. Faint heart, and so on. But," turning to Sir Charles, "where is it she 'wants to go?'"
"To see the convicts."
"Convicts? Ah!" He spoke rather more quickly than usual, with accent sharper.
"You didn't know who your neighbors were going to be when you decided so suddenly to accompany us?"
"No." His voice had a metallic sound.
Sir Charles addressed Mr. Gillett. "Tell us something more definite about your charges whom we are going to inspect. Meant to have found out earlier in the voyage, but been so jolly seasick, what with one gale after another, I for one, until now, haven't much cared whether we had Claude Duval and Dick Turpin themselves for neighbors, or whether we all went straight to Davy Jones' locker together. A bad lot, you have already informed us! But how bad?"
"Well, we haven't exactly M. Duval or Mr. Turpin in the pen, but we've one or two others almost as celebrated in their way. There's Billy Burke, as desperate a cracksman as the country can produce, with," complacently, "a record second to none in his class. He"—and Mr. Gillett, with considerable zest entered into the details of Mr. Burke's eventful and rapacious career. "Then there's the ''Frisco Pet,' or the 'Pride of Golden Gate,' as some of the sporting papers call him."
"The 'Frisco Pet!" Lord Ronsdale started; his color slightly changed; his lashes drooped over his cold eyes. "He is on board this vessel?"
"Yes; you remember him, my Lord, I dare say?"
"In common with many others," shortly.
"Many of the gentry and titled classes did honor him with their attention, I believe."
"Why," asked Jocelyn, whose blue eyes were fastened very intently on the face of the police agent, "did they call him such a funny name, the 'Frisco Pet?"
"Because he's a yankee bruiser, prize-fighter, or was, before the drink got him," explained Mr. Gillett. "And originally, I believe, he hailed from the land of the free. Some one brought him to London, found out about his 'talents' and put him in training. He was a low, ignorant sailor; could scarcely write his own name; but he had biceps and a thick head. Didn't know when he was whipped. I can see him yet, as he used to look, with his giant shoulders and his swagger as he stepped into the ring. There was no nonsense about him—or his fist; could break a board with that. And how the shouts used to go up; 'the pet!' 'a quid on the pet!' 'ten bob on the stars and stripes!' meaning the costume he wore. Oh, he was a favorite in Camden Town! But one night he failed them; met some friends from the forecastle of a Yankee trader that had dropped down the Thames. Went into the ring with a stagger added to the swagger. Well, they took him out unconscious; never was a man worse punished. He never got back to the sawdust, and the sporting gentlemen lost a bright and shining light."
"Broke his heart, I suppose," observed Sir Charles.
"How could that break his heart?" asked the child wonderingly. "I thought when people had their hearts broken—"
"Jocelyn, don't interrupt!" said the wife of Sir Charles. "Although," to her husband, in a lower tone, "I must confess these details a little tiresome!"
"Not a bit!" Sir Charles' voice rose in lively protest. "I remember out in Australia reading about the fellow in the sporting papers from home, and wondering what had become of him. So that was it? Go on, Mr. Gillett! With your permission, m'love!"
The police agent proceeded. "After that it was a case of the rum and the toss-pots, and when he was three sheets in the wind, look out for squalls! He got put in quad, broke out, overpowered and nearly killed two guards. Took to various means of livelihood, until they got him again. Trouble in prison; transferred to the solitary with a little punishment thrown in for a reminder. When he got out of limbo again, he lived in bad company, in one of the tunnels near the Adelphi; hard place for the police to rout a cove from. Then followed a series of rough bungling jobs he was supposed to have been mixed up in. At any rate, he got the credit. More hazards than loot! He had too heavy fingers for anything fine; but he made it quite interesting for the police, quite interesting! So much so, he attracted me, and I concluded to take a hand, to direct the campaign against him, as it were."
Mr. Gillett paused; obviously in his case egotism allied to enthusiasm made his duties a pleasure; he seemed now briefly commending himself in his own mind. "Up to this time," he resumed, "our friend, the ex-pugilist, had never actually killed any one, but soon after I engaged myself to look after him, word was brought to the department that a poor woman had been murdered, a cheap music-hall dancer. She had seen better days, however."
Lord Ronsdale, who had been looking away, yawned, as if finding the police agent "wordy," then strolled to the rail.
"Suspicion pointed strongly in his direction; and we got him after a struggle. It was a hard fight, without a referee, and maybe we used him a little rough, but we had to. Then Dandy Joe was brought in. Joe's a plain, mean little gambler and race-track follower, with courage not big enough for broad operations. But he had a wide knowledge of what we term the thieves' catacombs, and, well, he 'peached' on the big fellow. Gave testimony that was of great service to the prosecution. The case seemed clear enough; there was some sort of contrary evidence put in, but it didn't amount to anything. His record was against him and he got a heavy sentence, with death as a penalty, if he ever sets foot in England again."
"What," asked Mr. Gillett's youngest listener, "is 'peached'?"
"In school-girl parlance, it is, I believe, to 'tell on' some one."
"You mean a tattle-tale?" scornfully. "I hate them."
"They have their uses," he answered softly. "And I'm rather partial to them, myself. But if you are ready, m'lord—m'lady—"
"Quite! Egad! I'm curious to have a look at the fellow. Used to like to see a good honest set-to myself occasionally, before I became—ahem!—governor!" And rising with alacrity, Sir Charles assisted his lady from her chair. "Coming, Ronsdale?"
"Believe I won't go down," drawled the nobleman at the rail. "Air better up here," he explained.
Sir Charles laughed, got together the other members of his party and all followed Mr. Gillett to a narrow companion way. There a strong iron door stopped their progress, but, taking a key from his pocket the police agent thrust it into a great padlock, gave it a turn, and swung back the barrier. Before them stretched a long aisle; at each end stood a soldier, with musket; on one side were the cells, small, heavily-barred. The closeness of the air was particularly and disagreeably noticeable; here sunlight never entered, and the sullen beating of the waves against the wooden shell was the only sound that disturbed the tomb-like stillness of the place.
One or two of the party looked soberer; the child's eyes were large with awe and wonder; she regarded, not without dread, something moving, a shape, a human form in each terrible little coop. But Mr. Gillett's face shone with livelier emotions; he peered into the cells at his charges with a keen bright gaze that had in it something of the animal tamer's zest for his part.
"Well, how are we all to-day?" he observed in his most animated manner to the guard. "All doing well?"
"Number Six complained of being ill, but I say it's only the dumps. Number Fourteen's been garrulous."
"Garrulous, eh? Not a little flighty?" The guard nodded; Mr. Gillett whispered a few instructions, asked a number of other questions. Meanwhile the child had paused before one of the cells and, fascinated, was gazing within. What was it that held her? the pity of the spectacle? the terror of it? Her blue eyes continued to rest on the convict, a young fellow of no more than one-and-twenty, of magnificent proportions, but with face sodden and brutish. For his part he looked at her, open-mouthed, with an expression of stupid surprise at the sight of the figure so daintily and slenderly fashioned, at the tangles of bright golden hair that seemed to have imprisoned some of the sunshine from above.
"Well, I'm blowed!" he muttered hoarsely. "Where'd you come from? Looks like one o' them bally Christmas dolls had dropped offen some counter in Fleet Street and got in here by mistake!"
A mist sprang to the blue eyes; she held her white, pretty fingers tight against her breast. "It must be terrible—here"—she said falteringly.
The convict laughed harshly. "Hell!" he said laconically.
The child trembled. "I'm sorry," she managed to say.
The fierce dark eyes stared at her. "What for?"
"Because—you have to stay here—"
"Well, I'm—" But this time he apparently found no adequate adjective. "If this ain't the rummiest Christmas doll!"
She put out her hand. "Here's something for you, poor man," she said, as steadily as she could. "It's my King George gold piece, date 1762, and belonged to my father who wore it on his watch chain and who is dead. Perhaps they'll let you buy something with it."
He looked at the hand. "If she ain't stickin' out her duke to me, right through the bars. Blamed if she ain't! Looks like a lily! A bally white lily!" he repeated wonderingly. "One of them kind we wonst run acrost when the Cap. turned us adrift on an island, jest to waller in green grass!"
"Don't you want it?" said the child.
He extended a great, coarse hand hesitatingly, as if half-minded to and half-minded not to touch the white finger-tips.
"You ain't afraid?"
The golden head shook ever so slightly; again the big hand went toward the small one, then suddenly dropped.
"Right this way m'lord—m'lady!" The face of the convict abruptly changed; fury, hatred, a blind instinct to kill were unmistakably revealed in his countenance as he heard the bland voice of the police agent. From the child's hand the gold disk fell and rolled under the wooden slab that served as a couch in the cell.
"Jocelyn!" The expostulating tones of the governor's wife preceded the approach of the party. "What are you doing, child, so near the bars?"
"Good heavens!" Mr. Gillett seized the girl's arm and abruptly drew her away. "My dear little lady!" he said. "Really you don't know the danger you run. And near that cell of all of them!"
"That cell?" observed Sir Charles. "Then that is—"
"The convict I was telling you about! The 'Pet of 'Frisco.' The 'Pride of Golden Gate.'"
* * * * *
A MESSAGE TO THE ADMIRALTY
The following night, Captain Macpherson in his cabin, rolled up carefully the chart he had been scanning, deposited it in a copper cylinder and drew from his pocket a small pipe. As he filled and lighted it, exhaling the smoke of the black weed and leaning more comfortably back in his low, swinging chair, the expression of his iron countenance exhibited, in the slightest degree, that solace which comes from the nicotine. Occasionally, however, he would hold his pipe away from his mouth, to pause and listen. The weather had turned nasty again; above, the wind sounded loudly. Now it descended on the ship like a fierce-scolding virago, then rushed on with wild, shrieking dissonance. The Lord Nelson minded not, but continued steadily on her way.
Her captain emptied his pipe, glanced toward his bunk and started to take off his coat. Human nature has its limit; he had passed many sleepless nights and now felt entitled to a brief respite, especially as the chart showed neither reef nor rock anywhere in the neighborhood. But he had only one arm out of the garment when something happened that caused him to change his mind; abruptly hurled to the other end of the cabin, he found himself lying, half-stunned, on the floor. A hubbub of noises filled the air, snappings, crashings, the rending of woodwork.
Captain Macpherson staggered to his feet, and, swaying like a drunken man, stood a few moments holding his hand to his brow. Then his fist clenched and he shook it at the cylinder that had fallen from the table.
"Ye viperous, lying thing!" he cried, and ran from the cabin to the deck.
A single glance told all: two of the ship's giant spars had gone by the board; entangled in her own wreckage, the vessel thumped and pounded with ominous violence against some sunken reef. The full scope of the plight of the once noble ship was plainly made manifest. Though thick streams of scud sped across the sky, the southern moon at the moment looked down between two dark rivulets, and cast its silvery glow like a lime-light, over the spectacle. Captain Macpherson groaned.
"Mr. O'Brien!" he called loudly.
"Aye, aye, sir."
"How long do you give her?"
"Half an hour, sir."
The master shook his head. "She'll nae last that long." And holding to a stanchion, he seemed like a man in a dream.
"Any orders, sir?" asked the chief mate.
Captain Macpherson recovered himself; his tone became once more quick and incisive. "Ye're right; I'm gone daffy. We'll get this business over in a decorous and decent manner. And, Mr. O'Brien—lest I have nae time to speak of it later—should ye get ashore, and ever find yourself in the neighborhood o' Piccadilly, be so gude as to drop into the admiralty office and say Captain Macpherson sends his compliments, and—to the diel with their charts!"
"I'll not forget, sir!" A number of orders followed.
As the chief mate disappeared to execute the commands he had received, the harsh noises of the breaking ship, the seething of the sea about her, the flapping of canvas, like helpless broken wings, was supplemented by a babel of new and terrifying sounds, the screaming and cursing of the convicts below, their blasphemous shrieking to be let out! To this turmoil and uproar were added the frantic appeals and inquiries of the passengers who, more or less dressed, had hurried to the deck and who were now speaking to the master of the ill-starred vessel. He answered them briefly: what could be done, would be done.
"It's a question of the boats, I suppose?" Sir Charles, one of the calmest of the ship's cabin party, asked quickly.
"In ten minutes they'll be ready for the launching with nae lack of water and provision. Get plenty of wraps and greatcoats. It'll be a bit disagreeable, nae doubt, out yon in the wee craft!"
"Wee craft!" The voice of the governor's lady—she was clinging to her husband's arm—rose shrilly. "You surely are not going to send us out there in one of these miserable cockleshells?"
"M'love!" Sir Charles expostulated mildly drawing her closer as he spoke, "it's the only chance, and—" Then to the captain half-apologetically—"She'll meet it with me, as she has met danger before, in the bush, like a true English-woman! But what," indicating the convicts' deck, "what about them? It seems inhuman, yet if they were let out—"
"They must not be!" Lord Ronsdale's metallic voice interposed quickly. "I call upon you, Captain Macpherson, in the name of the women and children—"
"I've thought about that," said Captain Macpherson shortly, and turned to his task.
The boat was soon overhauled, the lockers and water-butt were filled, and the passengers, one by one, set into it. On the whole, at that moment for leaving the ship, their conduct left little room for criticism; one or two of the women who had appeared on the verge of hysterics now restrained audible manifestation of emotion. Sir Charles proved a monument of helpfulness; assisted in placing the women here and there, and extended a helpful hand to Lord Ronsdale, who had become somewhat dazed and inert. Total darkness added to the difficulties of their task, for the moon which until then had shone with much luster now went behind a curtain of cloud. But Captain Macpherson coolly called out by name the men to handle the life-boat, and, with no evidence of disorder, they crowded in, none too soon! As the boat with its human freight hung in readiness for the lowering, the remaining spar of the Lord Nelson fell with a mighty crash.
"Remember the name of your ship, lads!" Captain Macpherson's voice seemed to anticipate a movement of panic among the seamen on deck; if there had been any intention to "rush" the already well-loaded boat, it was stayed. "Mr. Gillett, I'll be troubling ye for the keys to the convicts' deck. Mr. O'Brien, get in and take charge. Steer southeast with a bit of rag; it's your best chance to get picked up. Hold near the ship until the other boat with the crew can come alongside. It's as well to keep company. Are the lines clear? Let her go."
The boat was lowered and at the right moment touched a receding wave. Captain Macpherson waited until the chief officer called out that they were safely away, then gave his last order:
"And now, lads, ye can be lookin' to yourselves!"
They did; the master turned and with some difficulty made his way toward the convicts' cells. Her decks soon deserted, the ship, like a living, writhing thing, seemed to struggle and groan, as if every timber were crying out in vain protest against the tragic consummation. But only an irrevocable voice answered, that of the mocking sea beating harder, the cruel sea, spotted here and there with black patches between which splashes of light revealed the wild waves throwing high their curd in the cold, argent glimmer. One of these illuminating dashes, as if in a spirit of irony, moved toward the ship, almost enveloped it and showed suddenly a number of mad, leaping human figures issuing with horrible cries from one of the hatches.
"The life rafts! Old man said the boats were gone."
"Rafts good enough for the likes of us, eh? Well, he's paid for keeping us down so long. Blime if I don't think Slick Sam killed him."
"The rafts!" Shrieking, calling down maledictions on the captain, they ran about, when suddenly an angry black wave swept the deck; a few went overboard with the hissing crest; several were hurled against the bulwarks, limp, lifeless things, swirled back and forth. One of their number, a big fellow of unusual strength, was shot toward the open companionway leading to the main cabin; as he plunged down, he clutched at and caught the railing. Considerably shaken, dripping with water, he pulled himself together, and, raising a face, sodden and fierce, like a beast brought to bay, he looked around him. The light of one or two swinging lamps that had not yet been shattered revealed dimly the surroundings, the dark leather upholstering, the little tables. Uncertainly the convict paused; then suddenly his eyes brightened; the lustful anticipation of the drunkard who had long been denied shone from his gaze as it rested on a sideboard across the cabin.
"Bottles!" he said, steadying himself. "Rum! Well, I guess there ain't much chance for any of us, and a man's a fool to go to hell thirsty!" He had started toward the sideboard with its bright gleaming ware and its divers and sundry receptacles of spirits and liqueurs, when suddenly his look changed, and his jaw fell.
"What the—" A flow of choice Billingsgate, mingled with the sailor's equally eloquent Golden-Gate, completed the sentence. The convict stood stock-still.
From the door of a state-room at the far end of the cabin a figure appeared. A great shawl draped the small form; the golden hair, a flurry of tangles, floated around it. Clinging to a brass rail that ran along the side of the cabin, she approached, her eyes all alight as if well satisfied with something. Amazed beyond power of action, the man continued to gaze at her, at the tiny feet in the little pink slippers, at something she carried. "By the great horn spoon, the Christmas doll!" he muttered hoarsely. Then forgetting his purpose, the bottles, he lurched quickly toward her.
"Wat you doin' here?" he demanded.
"I slipped out," said the child, holding the rail tighter, as perforce she paused to answer. "I thought it would take only a moment."
"Slipped out?" he repeated.
"Of the life-boat, I mean. It was dark and they didn't see me. I just happened to think, and I had to do it. If I'd told them, they mightn't have let me. It would have been very wicked if I'd gone away and forgotten—don't you think so? And now I'm going back! Only I am afraid I've been longer than I thought I would be. The door of my state-room seemed to stick, and I was a few minutes getting it open."
Beneath disheveled masses of thick dark hair, the brutish face continued to study the fairylike one; for the instant words seemed to fail him. "Do ye mean," he observed, "you come back here for that measly dicky-bird?"
"It isn't 'measly' and it isn't a 'dicky-bird!'" she answered indignantly. "And I'll thank you not to call it that. It's a love-bird, and its name is Dearie!"
"'Dearie'! Ho! Ho!" The ship reeled at a dangerous angle, but the convict appeared not to notice; his voice rose in harsh, irresistible rough merriment. "'Dearie'! And she thanks me not to call it names! It! No bigger'n my thumb! Ho! Ho!" His laughter, strange at such a moment, died abruptly. "Do you know what you've gone and done on account of what's in that cage?" he demanded almost fiercely. "You've got left!"
"Left?" said she blankly, shrinking from him a little. "You don't mean—oh, I thought I would be only a minute! They haven't really gone, and—"
The great fingers closed on her arm. "They've gone and the crew's gone! Both boats are gone!"
"Oh!" The big blue eyes widened on him; an inkling of her plight seemed to come over her; her lips trembled, but she held herself bravely. "You mean—we must drown?"
The thunder of seas breaking on the deck answered; a cascade of water dashed down the companionway and swept round them. The man bent toward the child. "Look a' that! Now ain't ye sorry ye come back?"
"I couldn't leave it to drown!" passionately—"couldn't!—couldn't!"
"Blow me, she's game!" With difficulty he maintained his equilibrium. "See here: maybe there's a chance, if any of them's left to help with the raft. But we've got to git out o' this!"
He passed his hand through her arm, awaited a favorable moment, and then, making a dash for the stairs, drew her, as best he might, to the deck. At the head of the companionway, the wind smote them fiercely with sheets of foam, but his strength stood him in good stead, and bracing himself hard, the man managed to maintain his stand; holding the child close to him, he sheltered her somewhat from the full force of the storm. As he cast his glance over the deck, an oath burst from his lips; the convicts had succeeded in launching one of the rafts and leaving the ship by means of it, or else had been carried away by the seas. Of living man, he caught no sight; only a single one of the dead yet remained, sliding about on the slippery planks with the movement of the ship; now to leeward, now rushing in a contrary direction, as if some grotesque spirit of life yet animated the dark, shapeless form.
From wave-washed decks the man's glance turned to the sea; suddenly he started; his eyes straining, he stared hard. "Maybe they've missed you. One of the ship's boats seems headin' this way!"
Her gaze followed his; at intervals through driving spray a small craft could be discerned, not far distant, now riding high on a crest, now vanishing in a black furrow.
"Are they coming back to save us?" asked the child.
The convict did not answer. Could the boat make the ship, could it hope to, in that sea? It was easier getting away than getting back. Besides, the opportunity for a desperate, heroic attempt to come alongside was not to be given her, for scarcely had they caught sight of her, when the stern of the Lord Nelson, now filled with water from the inflow at the bow, began to settle more rapidly. Then came a frightful wrenching and the vessel seemed to break in two.
"Put yer arms round my neck," said the man, stooping.
She put one of them around; with the other held up the cage. He opened the door of the wickerwork prison and a tiny thing flew out. Then he straightened. Both arms were around him now.
"'Fraid?" he whispered hoarsely.
The child shook her head.
An instant he waited, then launched himself forward. Buffeted hither and thither, he made a fierce fight for the rail, reached it, and leaped far out into the seething waters.
* * * * *
AN UNAPPRECIATED BOUNTY
In the prime of his belligerent career the Pet of 'Frisco had undergone many fierce contests and withstood some terrible punishments, but never had he undertaken a task calling for greater courage and power of endurance than the one he had this night voluntarily assumed. Dashed about by the seas, he yet managed to keep to the surface; minutes seemed to lengthen into eternity; many times he called out loudly. The arms about his neck relaxed, but he held the child to him. Not for an instant did the temptation come to him to release her that he might the more surely save himself. Overwhelmed again and again by the waves, each time he emerged with her tight against his breast; half-strangled, he continued to fight on. But at length even his dogged obstinacy and determination began to flag; he felt his strength going, when raising his eyes he saw one of the small craft from the lost vessel bearing directly down upon him.
The sight inspired new energy and effort; nearer, nearer, she drew; now she was but a few yards away. Then suddenly the sheet of the life-boat went out and the little sail fluttered like a mad thing, while the men bent with might and main over their ash handles in the endeavor to obey the commands of the chief mate in the stern. But despite skill and strength she was not easy to steer; once she nearly capsized; then eager hands reached over the side. The convict held up the child; a voice—the police agent's—called out that they "had her"; and then the mate broke in with harsh, warning yells.
"Pull port!—quick!—or we're over!" And at once the outreaching arms returned quickly to their task; as the child was drawn in, oars dragged and tugged; the life-boat came slowly about, shipping several barrels of water. At the same time some one made the loosened sheet taut, the canvas caught the gust and the craft gained sufficient headway to enable her to run over, and not be run down by the seas. As she careened and plunged, racing down a frothing dark billow, the convict, relieved of his burden, clung to the lower gunwale. By a desperate effort he drew himself up, when a face vaguely remembered—as part of a bad dream—looked into his, with a dash of surprise.
"Eh?—Gimme a hand—"
The asked-for hand swept suddenly under the one grasping the side of the boat, and shot up sharply. In the darkness and confusion no one saw the act. The convict disappeared, but his half-articulate curses followed.
"The fellow's let go," muttered Lord Ronsdale with a shiver.
At the steering oar the chief mate, hearing the cries of the man, cast a swift glance over his shoulder and hesitated. To bring the boat, half-filled with water, around now, meant inevitable disaster; one experiment of the sort had well-nigh ended in their all being drowned. He knew he was personally responsible for the lives in his charge; and with but an instant in which to decide, he declined to repeat the risk.
"He's probably gone by this time, anyhow," he told himself, and drove on.
The convict, however, was not yet quite "gone"; as the boat receded rapidly from view, becoming smaller and smaller, he continued mechanically to use his arms. But he had as little heart as little strength to go on with the uneven contest.
"He's done me! done me!" he repeated to himself. "And I ain't never goin' to git a chance to fix him," he thought, and looked despairingly at the sky. The dark rushing clouds looked like black demons; the stars they uncovered were bright gleaming dagger points. "Ain't never!—the slob!" And with a flood of almost sobbing invective he let himself go.
But as the waters closed over him and he sank, his hand, reaching blindly out to grip in imagination the foe, touched something round—like a serpent, or an eel. His fingers closed about it—it proved to be a line; he drew himself along, and to his surprise found himself again on the surface, and near a great fragment of wreckage. This he might have discovered earlier, but for the anger and hatred that had blinded him to all save the realization of his inability to wreak vengeance. Now, though he managed to reach the edge of the swaying mass from which the line dangled, he was too weak to draw himself up on the floating timbers. But he did pass a loop beneath his arms, and, thus sustained, he waited for his strength to return. Finally, his mind in a daze, the convict clambered, after repeated efforts, upon the wreckage, fastened the line about him again, and, falling into a saucer-like hollow, he sank into unconsciousness.
The night wore on; he did not move. The sea began to subside; still he lay as if dead. Dawn's rosy lips kissed away the black shadows, touched tenderly the waves' tops, and at length the man stirred. He tried to sit up, but at first could not. Finally he raised himself and looked about him.
No other sign of the vessel than that part of it which had served him so well could he see; this fragment seemed rent from the bow; yes, there was the yellow wooden mermaid bobbing to the waves; but not as of old! Poor cast-out trollop,—now the seas made sport of her who once had held her head so high!
The convict continued to gaze out over the ocean. Far away, a dark fringe broke the sea-line—a suggestion of foliage—an island, or a mirage? Tantalizing, it lay like a shadow, illusive, unattainable as the "forgotten isles." The man staggered to his feet; his garments were torn; his hair hung over his brow. He shook his arms at the island;—this phantasy, this vain, empty vision, he regarded it now as some savage creature might a bone just out of its reach; from his lips vile words fell—to be suddenly hushed. Between him and what he gazed at, along the range of vision, an object on one of the projecting timbers caught his eye. It was very small, but it gleamed like a spark sprung from the embers of the dawn.
"The dicky-bird!" His dried lips tried to laugh. "Ef it ain't the dicky-bird!" The bird looked at him. "Ef that doesn't beat—" but he could not think what it "beat." The bird cocked its head. "Ain't ye afeard o' me?" It gave a feeble chirp. "Well, I'm damned!" said the man, and after this mild expression of his feelings, forgot to curse again. He even began to eye the island with a vague questioning wonder, as if asking himself what means might be thought of that would enable him to reach it; but the problem seemed to be beyond solution. The wreckage, like a great lump, lay supinely on the surface of the water; he could not hope to move it.
The day slowly passed; the sun dried his clothes; once or twice the bird made a sound—a plaintive little tone—and involuntarily the man moved with care, thinking not to frighten it. But caution in that regard seemed unnecessary, for the bird appeared very tame and not at all averse to company.
Toward noon the man began to suffer more acutely from thirst, and drawing out a sailors' oilskin pouch, one of the few possessions he had been allowed by the police to retain, he took from it a piece of tobacco which he began to chew. At the same time he eyed the rest of the contents—half a ship's biscuit, some matches and a mariner's thimble. The biscuit he broke, and threw a few crumbs, where the timbers were dry, near the bird. For a long time it looked at the tiny white morsels; but finally, conquering shyness, hopped from its perch and tentatively approached the banquet. Hours went by; the man chewed; the bird pecked.
That night it rained in real, tropical earnest, and he made a water vessel of his shoe, drank many times, ate a few mouthfuls of biscuit, and then placed the filled receptacle where he had thrown the crumbs. As he did so he found himself wondering if the dawn would reveal his little feathered shipmate or whether it had been swept away by the violence of the rain. The early shafts of day showed him the bird on its perch; it had apparently found shelter from the heavy down-pour beneath some out-jutting timber and seemed no worse for the experience. The man's second glance was in the direction of the island; what he saw brought a sudden exclamation to his lips. The land certainly seemed much nearer; some current was sweeping them toward it slowly, but irresistibly. The 'Frisco Pet swore joyfully; his eyes shone. "I may do him yet!" he muttered. The bird chirped; he looked at it. "Breakfast, eh?" he said and tossed a few more crumbs near the shoe.
The second day on the floating bow, he brooded a great deal; the sharper pangs of hunger assailed him; he grew desperately impatient, the distance to the island decreased so gradually. A breeze from the coveted shore fanned his cheek; he fancied it held them back, and fulminated against it,—the beneficent current,—the providential timbers! A feeling of blind helplessness followed; the sun, beating down fiercely, made him light-headed. Hardly knowing what he did, he drew forth the last little bit of the biscuit, ground it between his teeth and greedily swallowed it. The act seemed to sober him; he raised his big hand to his brow and looked at "Dearie"; through the confusion of his thoughts he felt he had done some despicable thing.
"That weren't fair play, were it now?" he said, looking at the bird. "That ain't like a pal," he repeated. The bird remained silent; he fancied reproach in its bead-like eyes, they seemed to bore into him. "And you such a small chap, too!" he muttered; then he turned his back on the island, and, with head resting on his elbow, uttered no further complaint.
That second day on the raft seemed much longer than the first; the second night of infinitely greater duration than the preceding one; but dawn revealed the island very near, so near, indeed, the bird made up its mind to try to reach it. It looked at the man for a moment and then flew away. Long he watched it, a little dark spot—now that he could no longer see the ruby on its breast! At length it was lost to sight; swallowed up by the green blur.
The small winged creature gone, the man missed it. "'Peared like 'twas glad to leave such a pal!" he thought regretfully. The floating timbers became well-nigh intolerable; he kept asking himself if he could swim to land, but, knowing his weakness from long fasting, he curbed his impatience. His eyes grew tired with staring at the longed-for spot; he suffered the torments of Tantalus, and finally could endure them no longer. So making his clothes into a bundle, he tied them around his neck and slipped into the water.
Half an hour later found him, prone and exhausted, on the yellow sands. Near-by, tall and stately trees nodded at him; close at hand a great crab regarded him with reflective interest, hesitating between prudence and carnivorous desire. Gluttonous inclination to sample the goods the gods had provided prevailed over caution; it moved quickly forward, when what it had considered only an unexpected and welcome piece de resistance abruptly got up. The tables were turned; that which came to dine was dined upon; a crushing blow demonstrated the law of the survival of the fittest; the weaker adorned the board. The man tore it to bits, ate it like the famished animal he was. More freely his blood coursed; he looked around; saw other creatures and laughed. There seemed little occasion for any one to starve here; the isle, a beautiful emerald on the breast of the sea, became a fair battle-ground; all he needed was a club and he soon found that.
For a week nothing of moment interrupted the even tenor of his existence; he led the life of a savage and found it to his liking, pounced upon turtles and cooked them, kept his fire going because he had but few matches. Lying before the blaze at night, near a little spring, he told himself that this was better than being behind prison bars; true, he lacked company, but he had known worse solitude—the "solitary." In it, he had lain on the hard stones; here he had soft moss. If only he could reach out and touch those he hated—the unknown enemy whose face had bent over him a fleeting instant ere he had struck his hand from the gunwale; Dandy Joe and the police agent—if only they, too, were here, the place would have been world enough for him. But then, he felt, the time for the reckoning must come,—it lay somewhere in the certain future. Unconscious fatalist, he nourished the conviction as he nourished the coals of his fire.
Other means to enhance his physical comfort chance afforded him; the fleshpots were supplemented with a beverage, stronger and more welcome than that which bubbled and trickled so musically at his feet. One day a box was washed ashore; a message from the civilized centers to the field of primitive man! On its cover were the words, "Via sailing vessel, Lord Nelson" followed by the address. The convict pried the boards apart and gave a shout. Rum!—and plenty of it!—bottle after bottle, in an overcoat of straw, nestling lovingly one upon another. The man licked his lips; knocked off a neck, drank deep, and then, stopping many times, carried his treasure to his bower.
Day after day turned its page, merged into the past; sometimes, perforce, he got up, and, not a pleasant thing to look at, staggered to the beach with his club. There he would slay some crawling thing from the sea, return with his prize to mingle eating with drinking, until sated with both, he would fall back unconscious among the flowers. But the prolonged indulgence began to have a marked effect on his store; bottle after bottle was tossed off; the empty shells flung aside to the daisies. At length the day came when only two bottles remained in the case, one full pair, sole survivors of the lot. The man took them out, set them up and regarded them; a sense of impending disaster, of imminent tragedy, shivered through his dulled consciousness. He reached for the bottles and fondled them, started to knock the head from one and put it down. Resisting desire, he told himself he would have a look at the beach; the ocean had generously cast one box of well-primed bottles at his feet; perhaps it would repeat its hospitable action and make him once more the recipient of its bounty. The thought buoyed him to the shore; the sea lapped the sand with Lydian whispers, and there, beyond the edge of the soft singing ripples, he saw something that made him rub his dazed eyes.
A box!—a big box!—a box as tall as he was! No paltry dozen or two this time! Perhaps there was whisky, too; and the bubbling stuff the long-necked lords had sometimes pressed upon him in the past, when he had "ousted" his man and put quids in their pockets; or some of that fiery vin—something he had once indulged in with a Johnny Frenchman before he took to the tunnel, when he had been free to swagger through old Leicester Square. Anyhow, he would soon find out, and, rushing through the water, he laid a proprietary hand on the box. But to his disappointment, he could not move it; strong though he was, its great weight defied him. Ingenuity came to his aid, for, after a moment's pondering, he left the box to the sea and made his way back to the forest. When he returned he bore on his shoulder a straight, stout limb which he had wrenched from a tree, and in his hand he carried a great stone. The former became a lever, the latter, a fulcrum; and, by patient exercise of one of the simple principles of physics, he managed, at length, to transfer the large box from ocean to land.
To break it open was his next problem, and no easy one, for the boards were thick, the nails many and formidable. A long time he battered and battered in vain with his rocks, but, after an hour or so, he succeeded in splintering his way through the tough pine. His exertions did not end here; an inner sheeting of tin caused him to frown; more furiously he attacked this with sharp bits of coral, cutting and bruising his hands. Unmindful of pain, he was enabled at length to pull back a portion of the protecting metal and reveal the contents of the packing-case. In his befuddled, half-crazed condition, he had thought only of bottles; what he found proved a different sort of merchandise.
Maddened, he tossed and scattered the contents of the box on the beach. The ocean had deceived him, laughed at him, cheated him. He turned from the shore unsteadily, walked back to his camp and knocked the neck from one of the two remaining bottles. A few hours later, sodden, sottish, he lay without motion, face to the sky. And as he breathed thickly, one bleeding hand still holding the empty bottle, a bird from an overhanging branch looked down upon him: a tiny bird, little bigger than his thumb, that carried a bright, beautiful spot of red on its breast, cocked its head questioningly.
* * * * *
THE WHEELS OF JUSTICE
London, in the spring! Sunshine; the Thames agleam with silver ripples, singing as it flows; red sails! Joyous London that has emerged from fogs and basks beneath blue skies! Thoroughfares that give forth a glad hum; wheels singing, too; whips that crack in sprightly arpeggios. On the streets, people, not shadows, who walk with a swing; who really seem to breath and not slink uncannily by! Eyes that regard you with human expression; faces that seem capable of emotion; figures adorned in keeping with the bright realities of the moment. London; old London young again; grimy, repulsive London now bright, shimmering, beautiful!
In such a London, on such a day, about ten o'clock in the morning, three persons whose appearance distinguished them from the ordinary passers-by, turned into a narrow thoroughfare not far from the Strand.
"Quite worth while going to hear John Steele conduct for his client, I assure you!" observed one, a tall, military-looking man, who walked with a slight limp and carried a cane. "He's a new man, but he's making his mark. When he asked to be admitted to the English bar, he surprised even his examiners. His summing-up in the Doughertie murder case was, I heard his lordship remark, one of the most masterly efforts he ever listened to. Just tore the circumstantial evidence to pieces and freed his man! Besides his profession at the bar, he is an unusually gifted criminologist; takes a strong personal interest in the lowest riffraff; is writing a book, I understand—one of the kind that will throw a new light on the subject."
"Just what is a criminologist?" The speaker, a girl of about eighteen, turned as she lightly asked the question, to glance over her shoulder toward several persons who followed them.
"One who seeks to apply to the criminal the methods of psychology, psychiatry and anthropology," he answered with jesting impressiveness.
She laughed. "But you said this Mr. Steele comes from our part of the world, did you not, Captain Forsythe?"
"So I understand, Miss Jocelyn. Not much of a person to talk about himself, don't you know,"—tentatively stroking an imposing pair of mustaches, tinged with gray,—"but he has mentioned, I believe, living in New Zealand; or was it Australia?"
"Australia?" the cold, metallic tones of the third person, a man of about three-and-thirty, inquired. "Most likely the other place, or we should have heard—"
"True, Lord Ronsdale!" said the other man, pausing before a great door. "But here we are."
"'All ye who enter, etc'" laughed the girl.
"Not if one comes just to 'do' it, you know," was the protesting answer. "Quite the thing to take in the criminal courts!"
"When one is only a sort of country cousin, a colonial, just come to town!" she added, waving a small, daintily-gloved hand to the little group of friends who now approached and joined them. "Captain Forsythe is trying to persuade me it is a legitimate part of our slumming plan to take in murder trials, uncle," she said lightly, addressing the foremost of the new-comers. "Just because it's a fad of his! Speaking of this acquaintance or friend of yours, Mr. Steele,—you are something of a criminologist, too, are you not, Captain Forsythe?"
"Well, every man should have a hobby," returned that individual, "and, although I don't aspire to the long name you call me, I confess to a slight amateur interest."
Lord Ronsdale shrugged his shoulders, as to say, every one to his taste; but the girl laughed.
"Slight?" she repeated. "Would you believe it, aunt"—to a portly lady among those who had approached—"he never misses a murder trial! I believe he likes to watch the poor fellows fighting for their lives, to study their faces, their expressions when they're being sentenced, perhaps, to one of those horrible convict ships!"
"Don't speak of them, my dear Jocelyn!" returned that worthy person, with a shudder. "When I think of the Lord Nelson, and that awful night—"
"You were three days in an open boat before being sighted and picked up, I believe, Lady Wray?" observed Captain Forsythe.
"Three days? Years!" returned the governor's wife. "At least, they seemed so to me! I thought every moment would be our last and goodness knows why it wasn't! How we managed to survive it—"
"Narrow squeak, certainly!" said Lord Ronsdale, his lids lowering slightly. "But all's well that ends well, and—"
"Every one behaved splendidly," interposed Sir Charles. "You," gazing contemplatively at the girl, "were but a child then, Jocelyn."
She did not answer; the beautiful face had abruptly changed; all laughter had gone from the clear blue eyes.
"She is thinking of the convict who saved her!" observed Sir Charles in an explanatory tone to Captain Forsythe. "Quite an interesting episode, 'pon honor! Tell you about it later. Never saw anything finer, or better. And the amazing part of it is, the fellow looked like a brute, had the low, ignorant face of an ex-bruiser. He'd gone to the bad, taken to drink, and committed I don't know how many crimes! Yet that man, the lowest of the low—"
"You must not speak of him that way!" The girl's hands were clasped; the slender, shapely figure was very straight. Her beautiful blue eyes, full of varying lights, flashed, then became dimmed; a suspicion of mist blurred the long, sweeping lashes. "He had a big, noble spark in his soul. And I think of him many, many times!" she repeated, the sweet, gay lips trembling sensitively. "Brave fellow! Brave fellow!" The words fell in a whisper.
"Fortunate fellow, I should say, to be so remembered by you, Miss Jocelyn!" interposed Captain Forsythe. "Eh, Ronsdale?"
"Fortunate, indeed!" the thin lips replied stiffly.
"Pity he should have been drowned though!" Captain Forsythe went on. "He would, I am sure, have made a most interesting study in contrasts!"
She, however, seemed not to hear either compliment—or comment, but stood for a moment as in a reverie. "I am almost sorry I was persuaded to come here to-day," she said at length, thoughtfully. "I don't believe I shall like courts, or," she added, "find them amusing!"
"Nonsense!" Sir Charles laughed. "I have heard his lordship has a pretty sense of humor, and never fails, when opportunity offers, to indulge it."
"Even when sentencing people?"
"Well; there is no need of turning the proceedings into a funeral."
"I don't believe I should laugh at his wit," said the girl. "And is this Mr. John Steele witty, too?"
"Oh, no! Anything irrelevant from any one else wouldn't be allowed by his lordship."
Here Ronsdale lifted his hat. "May happen back this way," he observed. "That is," looking at Jocelyn Wray, "if you don't object?"
"I? Not at all! Of course, it would bore you—a trial! You are so easily bored. Is it the club?"
"No; another engagement. Thank you so much for permission to return for you—very kind. Hope you will find it amusing. Good morning!" And Lord Ronsdale vanished down the narrow way.
The others of the party entered the court room and were shown to the seats that Captain Forsythe had taken particular pains to reserve for them. The case, evidently an interesting one to judge from the number of people present, was in progress as they quietly settled down in their chairs at the back. From the vantage point of a slight eminence they found themselves afforded an excellent and unimpaired view of his lordship, the jury, prisoner, witness and barristers. Presumably the case had reached an acute stage, for even the judge appeared slightly mindful of what was going on, and allowed his glance to stray toward the witness. The latter, a little man, in cheap attire flashily debonnaire if the worse for long service, seemed to experience difficulty in speaking, to hesitate before his words, and, when he did answer, to betray in his tone no great amount of confidence. He looked weary and somewhat crestfallen, as if his will were being broken down, or subjected to a severe strain, the truth being ground out of him by some irresistible process.
"That's John Steele cross-examining now!" Captain Forsythe whispered to the girl. "And that's Dandy Joe, as he's called, one of the police spies, cheap race-track man and so on, in the box. He came to the front in a murder trial quite celebrated in its day, and one I always had my own little theory about. Not that it matters now!" he added with a sigh.
But the girl was listening to another voice, a clear voice, a quiet voice, a voice capable of the strongest varying accents. She looked at the speaker; he held himself with the assurance of one certain of his ground. His shoulders were straight and broad; he stood like an athlete, and, when he moved, it was impossible to be unconscious of a certain physical grace that came from well-trained muscles. He carried his head high, as if from a habit of thought, of looking up, not down, when he turned from the pages of the heavy tomes in his study; his face conveyed an impression of intelligence and intensity; his eyes, dark, deep, searched fully those they rested on.
He had reached a point in his cross-examination where he had almost thoroughly discredited this witness for the prosecution, when turning toward a table to take up a paper, his glance, casually lifting, rested on the distinguished party in the rear of the room, or rather it rested on one of them. Against the dark background, the girl's golden hair was well-calculated to catch the wandering gaze; the flowers in her hat, the great bunch of violets in her dress added insistent alluring bits of color in the dim spot where she sat. Erect as a lily stem, she looked oddly out of place in that large, somber room; there, where the harsh requiem of bruised and broken lives unceasingly sounded, she seemed like some presence typical of spring, wafted thither by mistake. The man continued to regard her. Suddenly he started, and his eyes almost eagerly searched the lovely, proud face.
His back was turned to the judge, who stirred nervously, but waited a fraction of a second before he spoke.
"If the cross-examination is finished—" he began.
John Steele wheeled; his face changed; a smile of singular charm accompanied his answer.
"Your lordship will pardon me; the human mind has its aberrations. At the moment, by a curious psychological turn, a feature of another problem seized me; it was like playing two games of chess at once. Perhaps your honor has experienced the sensation?"
His lordship beamed. "Quite so," he observed unctuously. "I have to confess that once in a great while, although following a case very closely, I have found it possible to consider at the same time whether I would later have port or sherry with my canvasback."
Of course every one smiled; the business of the morning ran on, and John Steele, at length, concluded his cross-examination. "I think, your Lordship, the question of the reliability of this man, as a witness, in this, or—any other case—fully established."
"Any other case?" said his lordship. "We are not trying any other case."
"Not now, your Lordship." John Steele bowed. "I ask your lordship's indulgence for the"—an instant's ironical light gleamed from the dark eyes—"superfluity."
"Witness may go," said his lordship bruskly.
Dandy Joe, a good deal damaged in the world's estimation, stepped down; his erstwhile well-curled mustache of brick-dust hue seemed to droop as he slunk out of the box; he appeared subdued, almost frightened,—quite unlike the jaunty little cockney that had stepped so blithely forth to give his testimony.
The witnesses all heard, John Steele, for the defense, spoke briefly; but his words were well-chosen, his sentences of classic purity. As the girl listened, it seemed to her not strange that Captain Forsythe, as well as others, perhaps, should be drawn hither on occasions when this man appeared. Straight, direct logic characterized the speech from beginning to end; only once did a suggestion of sentiment—curt pity for that gin-besotted thing, the prisoner!—obtrude itself; then it passed so quickly his lordship forgot to intervene, and the effect remained, a flash, illuminating, Rembrandt-like!
Time slipped by; the judge looked at his watch, bethought him of a big silver dish filled with an amber-hued specialty of the Ship and Turtle, and adjourned court. His address interrupted by the exigencies of the moment, John Steele began mechanically to gather up his books; his face that had been marked by the set look of one determined to drive on at his best with a task, now wore a preoccupied expression. The prisoner whined a question; Steele did not answer, and some one bustled the man out. Having brought his volumes together in a little pile, Steele absently separated them again; at the same time Sir Charles and his party walked toward the bench. They were met by his lordship and cordially greeted.
"A privilege, Sir Charles, to meet one we have heard of so often, in the antipodes."
"Thank you. His lordship, Judge Beeson, m'dear, whose decisions—"
"Allow me to congratulate you, sir!" The enthusiastic voice was that of Captain Forsythe, addressing John Steele. "Your cross-examination was masterly; had you been in a certain other case, years ago, when the evidence of that very person on the stand to-day—in the main—convicted a man of murder, I fancy the result then would have been different!"
John Steele seemed not to hear; his eyes were turned toward the beautiful girl. She was standing quite close to him now; he could detect the fragrance of the violets she wore, a fresh sweet smell so welcome in that close, musty atmosphere.
"My niece, your Lordship, Miss Wray."
Steele saw her bow and heard her speak to that august court personage; then as the latter, after further brief talk, hurried away—
"Sir Charles, let me present to you Mr. Steele," said Captain Forsythe. "Lady Wray—"
"Happy to know you, sir," said the governor heartily.
"Miss Jocelyn Wray," added the military man, "who," with a laugh, "experienced some doubts about a visit of this kind being conducive to pleasure!"
John Steele took the small gloved hand she gave him; her eyes were very bright.
"I enjoyed—I don't mean that—I am so glad I came," said the girl. "And heard you!" she added.
He thanked her in a low tone, looking at her hand as he dropped it. "You,—you are making England your home?" His voice was singularly hesitating!
"Yes." She looked at him a little surprised. "At least, for the present! But how—" she broke off. "I suppose, though, you could tell by my accent. I've lived nearly all my life in Australia, and—"
Sir Charles, interrupting, reminded them of an appointment; the party turned. A slender figure inclined itself very slightly toward John Steele; a voice wished him good morning. The man stood with his hands on his books; it did not occur to him to accompany her to the door. Suddenly he looked over his shoulder; at the threshold, she, too, had turned her head. An instant their glances met; the next, she was gone.
* * * * *
AT THE OPERA
When John Steele left the court toward the end of the day, he held his head as a man who thinks deeply. From the door he directed his steps toward Charing Cross. But only to wheel abruptly, and retrace his way. He was not an absent-minded man, yet he had been striding unconsciously not toward his customary destination at that hour, the several chambers at once his office and his home. For a moment the strong face of the man relaxed, as if in amusement at his own remissness; gradually however, it once more resumed its expression of musing thoughtfulness. The stream of human beings, in the main, flowed toward him; he breasted the current as he had for many evenings, only this night he did not look into the faces of these, his neighbors; the great city's concourse of atoms swept unmeaningly by.
Turning into a narrow way, not far from the embankment, he stopped before the door of a solid-looking brick building, let himself in, and made his way up-stairs. On the third floor he applied another and smaller key to another lock and, from a hall, entered a large apartment, noteworthy for its handsome array of books that reached from floor to ceiling wherever there was shelf space. Most of these volumes were soberly bound in conventional legal garb but others in elegant, more gracious array, congregated, a little cosmopolitan community, in a section by themselves.
Passing through this apartment, John Steele stepped into that adjoining, the sitting-and dining-room. The small table had already been set; the sun's dying rays that shot through the window revealed snowy linen, brightly gleaming silver and a number of papers and letters. They showed, also, a large cage with a small bird that chirped as the man came in; John Steele looked at it a moment, walked to a mirror and looked at himself. Long the deep eyes studied the firm resolute face; they seemed endeavoring to gaze beyond it; but the present visage, like a shadow, waved before him. The man's expression became inscrutable; stepping to the window, he gazed out on the Thames. A purplish glimmer lent enchantment to the noble stream; it may be as he looked upon it, his thoughts flowed with the river, past dilapidated structures, between whispering reeds on green banks, to the sea!
A discreet rapping at the door, followed by the appearance of a round-faced little man, with a tray, interrupted further contemplation or reverie on John Steele's part. Seating himself at the table, he responded negatively to the servant's inquiry if "anythink" else would be required, and when the man had withdrawn, mechanically turned to his letters and to his simple evening repast. He ate with no great evidence of appetite, soon brushed the missives, half-read, aside, and pushed back his chair.
Lighting a pipe he picked up one of the papers, and for some moments his attention seemed fairly divided between a casual inspection of the light arabesques that ascended in clouds from his lips and the heavy-looking columns of the morning sheet. Suddenly, however, the latter dissipated his further concern in his pipe; he put it down and spread out the big paper in both hands. Amid voluminous wastes of type an item, in the court and society column, had caught his eye:
"Sir Charles and Lady Wray, who are intending henceforth to reside in England, have returned to the stately Wray mansion in Piccadilly, where they will be for the season. Our well-known Governor and his Lady are accompanied by their niece, the beautiful and accomplished Miss Jocelyn Wray, only child of Sir Charles' younger brother, the late Honorable Mr. Richard Wray, whose estate included enormous holdings in Australia as well as several thousand acres in Devonshire. This charming young colonial has already captivated London society."
John Steele read carefully this bit of news, and then re-read it; he even found himself guilty of perusing all the other paragraphs; the comings and goings, the fine doings! They related to a world he had thought little about; a world within the world; just as the people who lived in tunnels and dark passages constituted another world within the world. Her name danced in illustrious company; here were dukes and earls and viscounts; a sprinkling of the foreign element: begums, emirs, the nation's guests. He saw, also, "Sir Charles, Lady Wray and Miss Wray" among the long list of box-holders for that night at the opera, a gala occasion, commanded by royalty for the entertainment of royalty, and, incidentally, of certain barbarian personages who had come across the seas to be diplomatically coddled and fed.
Folding his newspaper, John Steele turned to his legal papers; strove to replace idleness by industry; but the spirit of work failed to respond. He looked at his watch, rang sharply a bell.
"Put out my clothes," he said to the servant who appeared with a lamp, "and have a cab at the door."
The opera had already begun, but pandemonium still reigned about the box-office, and it was half an hour before John Steele succeeded in reaching the little aperture, with a request for anything that chanced to be left down-stairs. Armed with a bit of pasteboard, Steele was stopped as he was about to enter. A thunder of applause from within, indicating that the first act had come to an end, was followed by the usual egress of black and white figures, impatient for cigarettes and light lobby gossip.
"Divine, eh? The opera, I mean!" A voice accosted John Steele, and, turning, he beheld a familiar face with black whiskers, that of Captain Forsythe. "This is somewhat different from the morning's environment?"
"Yes," said the other. "But your first question," with a smile, "I'm afraid I can't answer. I've just come; and, if I hadn't—well, I'm no judge of music."
"Then you must look as if you were!" laughed the captain frankly. "Don't know one jolly note from another, but, for goodness' sake, don't betray me. Just been discussing trills and pizzicatos with Lady Wray."
For a few moments they continued their talk; chance had made them known to each other some time before, and Captain Forsythe had improved every opportunity to become better acquainted with one for whom he entertained a frank admiration. Steele's reserve, however, was not easily penetrated; he accepted and repaid the other's advances with uniform courtesy but Forsythe could not flatter himself the acquaintance had progressed greatly since their first meeting.
A bell sounded; John Steele, excusing himself, entered the auditorium and was shown to his seat. It proved excellently located, and, looking around, he found himself afforded a comprehensive view of a spectacle brilliant and dazzling. Boxes shone with brave hues; gems gleamed over-plentifully; here and there, accentuating the picture, the gorgeous colors of some eastern prince stood out like the brighter bits in a kaleidoscope. Steele's glance swept over royalty, rank and condition. It took in persons who were more than persons—personages; it passed over the impassive face of a dark ameer who looked as if he might have stepped from one of the pages of The Arabian Nights, and lingered on a box a little farther to one side. Here were seated Sir Charles and his wife and party; and among them he could discern the features of Jocelyn Wray—not plainly, she was so far away! Only her golden hair appeared distinct amid many tints.
The curtain went up at last; the music began; melodies that seemed born in the springtime succeeded one another. Perennial in freshness, theme followed theme; what joy, what gladness; what merriment, what madness! John Steele, in the main, kept his attention directed toward the stage; once or twice he glanced quickly aside and upward; now in the dimness, however, the people in the boxes conveyed only a vague shadowy impression. How long was the act; how short? It came to a sudden end; after applause and bravos, men again got up and walked out; he, too, left his seat and strolled toward the back.
"Mr. Steele! One moment!" He found himself once more addressed by the good-humored Captain Forsythe. "Behold in me a Mercury, committed to an imperative mission. You are commanded to appear—not in the royal box—but in Sir Charles'."
"Sir Charles Wray's?" John Steele regarded the speaker quickly.
"Yes," laughed the other. "You see I happened to mention I had seen you. 'Why didn't you bring him with you to the box?' queried Sir Charles. He, by the by, went in for law himself, before he became governor. 'Only had time to shake hands this morning!' 'Yes, why didn't you?' spoke up Miss Jocelyn. 'You command me to bring him?' I inquired. 'By all means!' she laughed, 'I command.' So here I am."
John Steele did not answer, but Captain Forsythe, without waiting for a reply, turned and started up the broad stairway. The other, after a moment's hesitation, followed, duly entered one of the larger boxes, spoke to Sir Charles and his wife and returned the bow of their niece. Amid varied platitudes Steele's glance turned oftenest to the girl. She was dressed in white; a snowy boa drooped from the slender bare shoulders as if it might any moment slip off; a string of pearls, each one with a pearl of pure light in the center, clasped her throat. In her eyes the brightness seemed to sing of dancing cadenzas; her lips, slightly parted, wore the faint suggestion of a smile, as if some canticle or clear cadence had just trembled from them. The small shoe that peeped from beneath silken folds tapped softly to rhythms yet lingering; on her cheeks two small roses unfolded their glad petals.
"I trust Captain Forsythe did not repeat that absurd remark of mine?" she observed lightly, when John Steele, after a few moments' general talk, found himself somehow by her side.
"So he did?" she answered gaily. "He told me he was going to. It is like him; he poses as a bel esprit. Stupid, was it not?"
He answered a word in the negative; the girl smiled; where other men would press the opportunity for a compliment he apparently found no opening.
She waved her hand to the seat next to her, and as he sat down—"Isn't it splendid!" irrelevantly.
"The spectacle, or the opera?" he asked slowly, looking into blue eyes.
"It was the opera I meant. I suppose the spectacle is very grand; but," enthusiastically, "it was the music I was thinking of—how it grips one! Tell me what you think of The Barber, Mr. Steele."
"I'm afraid my views wouldn't be very interesting," he answered. "I know nothing whatever about music."
"Nothing?" Her eyes widened a little; in her accent was mild wonder.
He looked down at the shimmering white folds near his feet. "In earlier days my environment was not exactly a musical one."
"No? I suppose you were engaged in more practical concerns?"
He did not answer directly. "Perhaps you wouldn't mind telling me something about Rossini's music, Miss Wray?"
"I tell you?" Her light silvery laugh rang out. "And Captain Forsythe has only been telling me—all of us—that you were one of the best informed men he had ever met."
"You see how wrong he was!"
"Quite!" The blue eyes regarded him sidewise. He, the keen, strong man, so assured, so invincible in the court room, sat most humbly by her side, confessing his ignorance, want of knowledge about something every school-girl is mistress of! "Or, perhaps, it is because your world is so different from mine! Music, laughter, the traditions of Italian bel canto, you have no room for them, they are too light, too trifling. You are above them," poising her fair head a little higher.
"Perhaps they have been above me," he answered, his tone unconsciously taking an accent of gaiety from the lightness of hers.
The abrupt appearance of the musicians and the dissonances attendant on tuning, interrupted her response; Steele rose and was about to take his departure, when Sir Charles intervened.
"Why don't you stay?" he asked, with true colonial heartiness. "Plenty of room! Unless you've a better place! Two vacant chairs!"
John Steele looked around; he saw three vacant chairs and took one, a little aside and slightly behind the young girl, while the governor's wife, who had moved from the front at the conclusion of the previous act, now returned to her place, next her niece. During the act, some one came in and took a seat in the background; if Steele heard, he did not look around. His gaze remained fastened on the stage; between him and it—or them, art's gaily attired illusions!—a tress of golden hair sometimes intervened, but he did not move. Through threads like woven flashes of light he regarded the scene of the poet's fantasy. Did they make her a part of it,—did they seem to the man the fantasy's intangible medium, its imagery? Threads of gold, threads of melody! He saw the former, heard the latter. They rose and fell wilfully, capriciously, with many an airy and fanciful turn. The man leaned his head on his hand; a clear strain died like a filament of purest metal gently broken. She breathed a little quicker; leaned farther forward; now her slender figure obtruded slightly between him and the performers. He seemed content with a partial view of the stage, and so remained until the curtain went down. The girl turned; in her eyes was a question.
"Beautiful!" said the man, looking at her.
"Charming! What colorature! And the bravura!" Captain Forsythe applauded vigorously.
"You've never met Lord Ronsdale, I believe, Mr. Steele?" Sir Charles' voice, close to his ear, inquired.
"Lord Ronsdale!" John Steele looked perfunctorily around toward the back of the box and saw there a face faintly illumined in the light from the stage: a cynical face, white, mask-like. Had his own features not been set from the partial glow that sifted upward, the sudden emotion that swept Steele's countenance would have been observed. A sound escaped his lips; was drowned, however, in a renewed outbreak of applause. The diva came tripping out once more, the others, too—bowing, smiling—recipients of flowers. John Steele's hand had gripped his knee tightly; he was no longer aware of the stage, the people, even Jocelyn Wray. The girl's attention had again centered on the actors; she with the others had been oblivious to the glint of his eyes, the hard, set expression of his features.
"Old friend, don't you know," went on the voice of Sir Charles when this second tumult of applause had subsided. "Had one rare adventure together. One of the kind that cements a man to you."
As he spoke, the light in the theater flared up; John Steele, no longer hesitating, uncertain, rose; his face had regained its composure. He regarded the slender, aristocratic figure of the nobleman in the background; faultlessly dressed, Lord Ronsdale carried himself with his habitual languid air of assurance. The two bowed; the stony glance of the lord met the impassive one of the man. Then a puzzled look came into the nobleman's eyes; he gazed at Steele more closely; his glance cleared.
"Thought for an instant I'd seen you somewhere before, b'Jove!" he drawled in his metallic tone. "But, of course, I haven't. Never forget a face, don't you know."
"I may not say so much, may not have the diplomat's gift of always remembering people to the extent your lordship possesses it, but I am equally certain I have never before enjoyed the honor of being presented to your lordship!" said John Steele. The words were punctiliously spoken, his accents as cold as the other's. An infinitesimal trace of constraint seemed to have crept into the box; Steele turned and holding out his hand, thanked Sir Charles and his wife for their courtesy.
Jocelyn Wray gazed around. "You are leaving before the last act?" she said with an accent of surprise.
He looked down at her. "Not through preference!"
"Ah!" she laughed. "Business before—music, of course!"
"Our day at home, Mr. Steele, is Thursday," put in the governor's lady, majestically gracious.
"And you'll meet a lot of learned people only too glad to talk about music," added the young girl in a light tone. "That is, if you were sincere in your request for knowledge, and care to profit by the opportunity?"
His face, which had been contained, impassive, now betrayed in the slightest degree an expression of irresolution. Her quick look caught it, became more whimsical; he seemed actually, for an instant, asking himself if he should come. She laughed ever so slightly; the experience was novel; who before had ever weighed the pros and cons when extended this privilege? Then, the next moment, the blue eyes lost some of their mirth; perhaps his manner made her feel the frank informality she had unconsciously been guilty of; she regarded him more coldly.
"Thank you," he said. "You are very good. I shall be most glad."
And bowing to her and to the others he once more turned; as he passed Lord Ronadsle, the eyes of the two men again met; those of the nobleman suddenly dilated and he started.
"B'Jove!" he exclaimed, his gaze following the retreating figure.
"What is it?" Sir Charles looked around. "Recall where you thought you saw him?"
Lord Ronsdale did not at once answer and Sir Charles repeated his question; the nobleman mechanically raised his hand to his face. "Yes; a mere fugitive resemblance," he answered rather hurriedly. "Some one—you—you never met. Altogether quite a different sort of person, don't you know!" regaining his drawl.
"Well," observed Sir Charles, "fugitive resemblances will happen!"
* * * * *
A LESSON IN BOTANY
John Steele was rather late in arriving at the house of Sir Charles Wray in Piccadilly the following Thursday. But nearly every one else was late, and, perhaps knowing the fashionable foible, he had purposely held back to avoid making himself conspicuous by being prompt. The house, his destination, was not unlike other dwellings on that historic thoroughfare; externally it was as monotonous as the average London mansion. The architect had disdained any attempt at ornamentation. As if fearful of being accused of emulating his brother-in-art across the channel, he had put up four walls and laid on a roof; he had given the front wall a slightly outward curve. In so doing, he did not reason why; he was merely following precedent that had created this incomprehensible convexity.
But within, the mansion made a dignified and at the same time a pleasant impression. John Steele, seated at the rear of a spacious room, where he a few moments later found himself among a numerous company, looked around on the old solid furnishings, the heavy rich curtains and those other substantial appurtenances to a fine and stately town house. That funereal atmosphere common to many homes of an ancient period was, however, lacking. The observer felt as if some recent hand, the hand of youth, had been busy hereabouts indulging in light touches that relieved and gladdened the big room. Hues, soft and delicate, met the eye here and there; rugs of fine pattern favored the glance, while tapestries of French workmanship bade it wander amid scenes suggestive of Arcadia. Many found these innovations to their liking; others frowned upon them; but everybody flocked to the house.
The program on the present occasion included a poet and a woman novelist. The former, a Preraphaelite, led his hearers through dim mazes, Hyrcanian wilds. The novelist on the other hand was direct; in following her there seemed no danger of losing the way. At the conclusion of the program proper, an admirer of the poet asked if their young hostess would not play a certain musical something, the theme of one of the bard's effusions, and at once Jocelyn Wray complied. Lord Ronsdale stood sedulously near, turning the leaves; Steele watched the deft hand; it was slim, aristocratic and suggested possibilities in legerdemain.
"An attractive-looking pair!" whispered a woman near John Steele to another of her sex, during a louder passage in the number. "Are they—"
"I don't know; my dear. Perhaps. She's extremely well-off in this world's goods, and he has large properties, but—a diminishing income." She lowered her voice rather abruptly as the cadence came to a pause. The music went on again to its appointed and spirited climax.
"Was formerly in the diplomatic service, I believe;"—the voice also went on—"has strong political aspirations, and, with a wealthy and clever wife—"
"A girl might do worse. He is both cold and capable—an ideal combination for a political career—might become prime minister—with the prestige of his family and hers to—"
John Steele stirred; the whispering ceased. My lord turned the last page; the girl rose and bent for an instant her fair head. And as Steele looked at her, again there came over him—this time, it may be, not without a certain bitterness!—an impression of life and its joys—spring-tide and sunshine, bright, remote!—so remote—for him—
A babel of voices replaced melody; the people got up. A number lingered; many went, after speaking to their hostesses and Sir Charles. John Steele, at the rear, looked at the door leading into the main hall toward the young girl, then stepped across the soft rugs and spoke to her. She answered in the customary manner and others approached. He was about to draw back to leave, when—
"Oh, Mr. Steele," she said, "my uncle wishes to see you before you go. He was saying he had some—"
"Quite right, my dear!" And Sir Charles, who had approached, took John Steele's arm. "Some curious old law books I picked up to-day at a bargain and want your opinion of!" he went on, leading the other into a lofty and restful apartment adjoining, the library. Steele looked around him; his gaze brightened as it rested on the imposing and finely bound volumes.
"You have a superb collection of books," he observed with a sudden quick look at his host.
"Yes; I rather pride myself on my library," said Sir Charles complacently. "Lost a good many of the choicest though," he went on in regretful tones, "some years ago, as I was returning to Australia. A rare lot of law books, a library in themselves, as well as a large collection of the classics, the world's poets and historians, went down with the ill-fated Lord Nelson."
"Ah?" John Steele looked away. "A great mart, London, for fine editions!" he said absently after a pause.
"It is. But here are those I spoke of." And Sir Charles indicated a number of volumes on a large center table. John Steele handled them thoughtfully and for some time his host ran on about them. A choice copy of one of the Elizabethan poets, intruding itself in that august company, then attracted Steele's attention; he picked it up, weighed and caressed it with gentle fingers.
"Who shall measure the influence of—a little parcel like this?" he said at length lightly.
"True." Sir Charles' eye caught the title. "As Portia says: 'It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.' Excellent bit of binding that, too! But," with new zest, "take any interest in rare books of the ring, full of eighteenth century colored prints, and so on?"
"I can't say, at present, that the doings of the ring or the history of pugilists attract me."
"That's because you've never seen an honest, hard-fought battle, perhaps?"
"A flattering designation, I should say, of the spectacle of two brutes disfiguring their already repulsive visages!"
"Two brutes?—disfiguring?"—the drawling voice of Lord Ronsdale who had at that moment stepped in, inquired. "May I ask what the—talk is about?"
Sir Charles turned. "Steele was differing from me about a good, old, honest English sport."
"Sport?" Lord Ronsdale dropped into a chair and helped himself to whisky and soda conveniently near.
"I refer to the ring—its traditions—its chronicles—"
"Ah!" The speaker raised his glass and looked at John Steele. The latter was nonchalantly regarding the pages of a book he yet held; his face was half-turned from the nobleman. The clear-cut, bold profile, the easy, assured carriage, so suggestive of strength, seemed to attract, to compel Lord Ronsdale's attention.
"For my part," went on Sir Charles in a somewhat disappointed tone, "I am one who views with regret the decadence of a great national pastime."
He regarded Ronsdale; the latter set down his glass untasted. "My own opinion," he said crisply; then his face changed; he looked toward the door.
"Well, it's over!" the light tones of Jocelyn Wray interrupted; the girl stood on the threshold, glancing gaily from one to the other. "Did you tell my uncle, Mr. Steele, what you thought of his purchase? I see, while on his favorite subject, he has forgotten to offer you a cigar."
Sir Charles hastened to repair his remissness.
"But how," she went on, "did it go? The program, I mean. Have you forgiven me yet for asking you to come, Mr. Steele?"
"Forgiven?" he repeated. Lord Ronsdale's eyes narrowed on them.
"Confess," she continued, sinking to the arm of a great chair, "you had your misgivings?"
He regarded the supple, slender figure, so airily poised. As she bent forward, he noticed in her hair several flowers shaped like primroses, but light crimson in hue. "What misgivings was it possible to have?" he replied.
"Oh," she replied, "the usual masculine ones! Misgivings, for example, about stepping out of the routine. Routine that makes slaves of men!" with an accent slightly mocking. "And stepping into what? Society! The bugbear of so many men! Poor Society! What flings it has to endure! By the way, did your convict get off?"
"Get off? What—"
"The one you represented—is that the word?—when we were in court."
"Yes; he was acquitted."
"I am glad; somehow you made me feel he was innocent."
"I believed in him," said John Steele.
"And yet the evidence was very strong against him! If some one else had appeared for him—Do you think many innocent people have been—hanged, or sent out of the country, Mr. Steele?" Her eyes looked brighter, her face more earnest now.
"Evidence can play odd caprices."
"Still, your average English juryman is to be depended on!" put in Lord Ronsdale quickly.
"Do you think so?" An instant Steele's eyes rested on the speaker. "No doubt you are right." A sardonic flash seemed to play on the nobleman. "At all events you voice the accepted belief."
"I'm glad you defend, don't prosecute people, Mr. Steele," said the girl irrelevantly.
"A pleasanter task, perhaps!"
"Speaking of sending prisoners out of the country," broke in Sir Charles, "I am not in favor of the penal system myself."
"Rather a simple way of getting rid of undesirables—transportation—it has always seemed to me," dissented Lord Ronsdale.
"Don't they sometimes escape and come back to England?" asked the girl.
"Not apt to, when death for returning stares them in the face," remarked the nobleman.
"Death!" The girl shivered slightly.
John Steele smiled. "The penalty should certainly prove efficacious," he observed lightly.
"Is not such a penalty—for returning, I mean—very severe, Mr. Steele?" asked Jocelyn Wray.
"That," he laughed, "depends somewhat on the point of view, the criminal's, or society's!" His gaze returned to her; the bright bit of color in her hair again seemed to catch and hold his glance. "But," with a sudden change of tone, "will you explain something to me, Miss Wray? Those flowers you wear—surely they are primroses, and yet—"
"Crimson," said the girl. "You find that strange. It is very simple. If you will come with me a moment." She rose, quickly crossed the room to a door at the back, and Steele, following, found himself in a large conservatory that looked out upon an agreeable, if rather restricted, prospect of green garden. Several of the windows of the glass addition were open and the warm sunshine and air entered. A butterfly was fluttering within; in a corner, a bee busied himself buzzing loudly between flowers and sips of saccharine sweetness. Jocelyn Wray stepped in its direction, stooped. The sunlight touched the white neck, where spirals of gold nestled, and fell over her gown in soft, shifting waves.
"You see?" She threw over her shoulder a glance at him; he looked down at primroses, pale yellow; a few near-by were half-red, or spotted with crimson; others, still, were the color of those that nodded in her hair. "You can imagine how it has come about?"
He regarded a great bunch of clustering red roses—the winged marauder hovering noisily over. "I think I can guess. The bees have carried the hue of the roses to them."
"Hue!" cried the girl, with light scorn. "What a prosaic way to express it! Say the soul, the heart's blood. Some of the primroses have yielded only a little; others have been transformed."
"You think, then, some flowers may be much influenced by others?"
"They can't help it," she answered confidently.
"Just as some people," he said in a low tone, "can't help taking into their lives some beautiful hue born of mere casual contact with some one, some time."
"What a poetical sentiment!" she laughed. "Really, it deserves a reward." As he spoke, she plucked a few flowers and held them out in her palm to him; he regarded her merry eyes, the bright tints.
Erect, with well-assured poise, she looked at him; he took one of the flowers, gazed at it, a tiny thing in his own great palm, a tiny, red thing, like a jewel in hue—that reminded him of—what? As through a mist he saw a spark—where?
"Only one?" she said in the same tone. "You are modest. And you don't even condescend to put it in your coat?"
He did so; in his gaze was a sudden new expression, something so compelling, so different, it held her, almost against her will. He seemed to see her and yet not fully to be aware of her presence; she drew back slightly. The girl's crimson lips parted as with a suspicion of faint wonder; the blue eyes, just a little soberer, were, also, in the least degree, perplexed. The man's breast suddenly stirred; a breath—or was it the merest suggestion of a sigh?—escaped the firm lips. He looked out of the window at the garden, conventional, the arrangement of lines one expected.
When his look returned to her it was the same he had worn when he had first stepped forward to speak with her that afternoon.
"Thank you for the lesson in botany, Miss Wray!" he said easily. "I shall not forget it."
The other primroses fell from her fingers; with a response equally careless if somewhat reserved, she turned and reentered the library. Lord Ronsdale regarded both quickly; then started, as he caught sight of the flower in John Steele's coat. A frown crossed his face and he looked away to conceal the singularly cold and vindictive gleam that sprang to his eyes.
* * * * *
One evening about a fortnight later Lord Ronsdale, in a dissatisfied frame of mind, strolled along Piccadilly. His face wore a dark look, the expression of one ill-pleased with fortune's late attitude toward him. Plans that he had long cherished seemed to be in some jeopardy; he had begun to flatter himself that the flowery way to all he desired lay before him and that he had but to tread it, when another, as the soothsayers put it, had crossed his path.
A plain man, a man without title! Lord Ronsdale told himself Miss Jocelyn Wray was no better than an arrant coquette, but the next moment questioned this conclusion. Had she not really been a little taken by the fellow? Certainly she seemed not averse to his company; when she willed, and she willed often, she summoned him to her aide. Nor did he now appear reluctant to come at her bidding; self-assertive though he had shown himself to be he obeyed, sans demur, the wave of my lady's little hand. Was it a certain largeness and reserve about him that had awakened her curiosity? From her high social position had she wished merely to test her own power and amuse herself after a light fashion, surely youth's and beauty's privilege?
But whatever the girl's motive, her conduct in the matter reacted on my lord; the fellow was in the way, very much so. How could he himself pay court to her when she frivolously, if only for the moment, preferred this commoner's company? That very afternoon my lord, entering the music-room of the great mansion, had found her at the piano playing for him, her slim fingers moving over the keys to the tune of one of Chopin's nocturnes. He had surprised a steady, eloquent look in the fellow's eye turned on her when she was unconscious of his gaze, a glance the ardency of which there was no mistaking. It had altered at my lord's rather quiet and abrupt appearance, crystallized into an impersonal icy light, colder even than the nobleman's own stony stare. He had, perforce, to endure the other's presence and conversation, an undercurrent to the light talk of the girl who seemed, Lord Ronsdale thought, a little maliciously aware of the constraint between the two men, and not at all put out by it.
What made the situation even more anomalous to Ronsdale and the less patiently to be borne, was that Sir Charles understood and sympathized with his desires and position in the matter. And why not? Ronsdale's father and Sir Charles had been old and close friends; there were reasons that pointed to the match as a suitable one, and Sir Charles, by his general manner and attitude, had long shown he would put no obstacle in the way of the nobleman's suit for the hand of his fair niece. As for Lady Wray, Lord Ronsdale knew that he had in that practical and worldly person a stanch ally of his wishes; these had not become less ardent since he had witnessed the unqualified success of the beautiful colonial girl in London; noted how men, illustrious in various walks of life, grave diplomats, stately ambassadors, were swayed by her light charm and impulsive frankness of youth. And to have her who could have all London at her feet, including his distinguished self, show a predilection, however short-lived and capricious, for—
"Confound the cad! Where did he come from? Who are his family—if he has one!"
Thus ruminating he had drawn near his club, a square, imposing edifice, when a voice out of the darkness caused him abruptly to pause:
"If it isn't 'is lordship!"
The tones expressed surprise, satisfaction; the nobleman looked down; gave a slight start; then his face became once more cold, apathetic.
"Who are you? What do you want?" he said roughly.
The countenance of the fellow who had ventured to accost the nobleman fell; a vindictive light shone from his eyes.
"It's like a drama at old Drury," he observed, with a slight sneer. "Only your lordship should have said: 'Who the devil are you?'"
Lord Ronsdale looked before him to where, in the distance, near a street lamp, the figure of a policeman might be dimly discerned; then, with obvious intention, he started toward the officer; but the man stepped in front of him. "No, you don't," he said.
The impassive, steel-like glance of Ronsdale played on the man; a white, shapely hand began to reach out. "One moment, and I'll give you in charge as—"
The fellow saw that Ronsdale meant it; he had but an instant to decide; a certain air of cheap, jaunty assurance he had begun to assume vanished. "All right," he said quickly, but with a ring of suppressed venom in his voice. "I'll be off. Your lordship has it all your own way since the Lord Nelson went down." There was a note of bitterness in his tones. "Besides, Dandy Joe's not exactly a favorite at headquarters just now, after the drubbing John Steele gave him."
"John Steele!" Lord Ronsdale looked abruptly round.
The fellow regarded him and ventured to go on: "I was witness for the police and Mr. Gillett, and he—Steele," with a curse, "had me on the stand. He knows every rook and welsher and every swell magsman, and all their haunts and habits. And he knows me—blame—" he made use of another expression more forcible—"if he don't know me as well as if he'd once been a pal. And now," in an injured tone, "Mr. Gillett calls me hard names for bringing discredit, as he terms it, on the force."