THE BLACK BAG
By LOUIS JOSEPH VANCE
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY THOMAS FOGARTY
TO MY MOTHER
I. DIVERSIONS OF A RUINED GENTLEMAN
II. "AND SOME THERE BE WHO HAVE ADVENTURES THRUST UPON THEM"
III. CALENDAR'S DAUGHTER
IV. 9 FROGNALL STREET, W. C.
V. THE MYSTERY OF A FOUR-WHEELER
VI. "BELOW BRIDGE"
VII. DIVERSIONS OF A RUINED GENTLEMAN—RESUMED
VIII. MADAME L'INTRIGANTE
IX. AGAIN "BELOW BRIDGE"; AND BEYOND
X. DESPERATE MEASURES
XI. OFF THE NORE
XII. PICARESQUE PASSAGES
XIII. A PRIMER OF PROGRESSIVE CRIME
XIV. STRATAGEMS AND SPOILS
XVI. TRAVELS WITH A CHAPERON
XVII. ROGUES AND VAGABONDS
XVIII. ADVENTURERS' LUCK
XIX. i—THE UXBRIDGE ROAD
ii—THE CROWN AND MITRE
iii—THE JOURNEY'S END
THE BLACK BAG
DIVERSIONS OF A RUINED GENTLEMAN
Upon a certain dreary April afternoon in the year of grace, 1906, the apprehensions of Philip Kirkwood, Esquire, Artist-peintre, were enlivened by the discovery that he was occupying that singularly distressing social position, which may be summed up succinctly in a phrase through long usage grown proverbial: "Alone in London." These three words have come to connote in our understanding so much of human misery, that to Mr. Kirkwood they seemed to epitomize absolutely, if not happily, the various circumstances attendant upon the predicament wherein he found himself. Inevitably an extremist, because of his youth, (he had just turned twenty-five), he took no count of mitigating matters, and would hotly have resented the suggestion that his case was anything but altogether deplorable and forlorn.
That he was not actually at the end of his resources went for nothing; he held the distinction a quibble, mockingly immaterial,—like the store of guineas in his pocket, too insignificant for mention when contrasted with his needs. And his base of supplies, the American city of his nativity, whence—and not without a glow of pride in his secret heart—he was wont to register at foreign hostelries, had been arbitrarily cut off from him by one of those accidents sardonically classified by insurance and express corporations as Acts of God.
Now to one who has lived all his days serenely in accord with the dictates of his own sweet will, taking no thought for the morrow, such a situation naturally seems both appalling and intolerable, at the first blush. It must be confessed that, to begin with, Kirkwood drew a long and disconsolate face over his fix. And in that black hour, primitive of its kind in his brief span, he became conscious of a sinister apparition taking shape at his elbow—a shade of darkness which, clouting him on the back with a skeleton hand, croaked hollow salutations in his ear.
"Come, Mr. Kirkwood, come!" its mirthless accents rallied him. "Have you no welcome for me?—you, who have been permitted to live the quarter of a century without making my acquaintance? Surely, now, it's high time we were learning something of one another, you and I!" "But I don't understand," returned Kirkwood blankly. "I don't know you—"
"True! But you shall: I am the Shade of Care—"
"Dull Care!" murmured Kirkwood, bewildered and dismayed; for the visitation had come upon him with little presage and no invitation whatever.
"Dull Care," the Shade assured him. "Dull Care am I—and Care that's anything but dull, into the bargain: Care that's like a keen pain in your body, Care that lives a horror in your mind, Care that darkens your days and flavors with bitter poison all your nights, Care that—"
But Kirkwood would not listen further. Courageously submissive to his destiny, knowing in his heart that the Shade had come to stay, he yet found spirit to shake himself with a dogged air, to lift his chin, set the strong muscles of his jaw, and smile that homely wholesome smile which was his peculiarly.
"Very well," he accepted the irremediable with grim humor; "what must be, must. I don't pretend to be glad to see you, but—you're free to stay as long as you find the climate agreeable. I warn you I shan't whine. Lots of men, hundreds and hundreds of 'em, have slept tight o' nights with you for bedfellow; if they could grin and bear you, I believe I can."
Now Care mocked him with a sardonic laugh, and sought to tighten upon his shoulders its bony grasp; but Kirkwood resolutely shrugged it off and went in search of man's most faithful dumb friend, to wit, his pipe; the which, when found and filled, he lighted with a spill twisted from the envelope of a cable message which had been vicariously responsible for his introduction to the Shade of Care.
"It's about time," he announced, watching the paper blacken and burn in the grate fire, "that I was doing something to prove my title to a living." And this was all his valedictory to a vanished competence. "Anyway," he added hastily, as if fearful lest Care, overhearing, might have read into his tone a trace of vain repining, "anyway, I'm a sight better off than those poor devils over there! I really have a great deal to be thankful for, now that my attention's drawn to it."
For the ensuing few minutes he thought it all over, soberly but with a stout heart; standing at a window of his bedroom in the Hotel Pless, hands deep in trouser pockets, pipe fuming voluminously, his gaze wandering out over a blurred infinitude of wet shining roofs and sooty chimney-pots: all of London that a lowering drizzle would let him see, and withal by no means a cheering prospect, nor yet one calculated to offset the disheartening influence of the indomitable Shade of Care. But the truth is that Kirkwood's brain comprehended little that his eyes perceived; his thoughts were with his heart, and that was half a world away and sick with pity for another and a fairer city, stricken in the flower of her loveliness, writhing in Promethean agony upon her storied hills.
There came a rapping at the door.
Kirkwood removed the pipe from between his teeth long enough to say "Come in!" pleasantly.
The knob was turned, the door opened. Kirkwood, swinging on one heel, beheld hesitant upon the threshold a diminutive figure in the livery of the Pless pages.
"Gentleman to see you, sir."
Kirkwood nodded again, smiling. "Show him up, please," he said. But before the words were fairly out of his mouth a footfall sounded in the corridor, a hand was placed upon the shoulder of the page, gently but with decision swinging him out of the way, and a man stepped into the room.
"Mr. Brentwick!" Kirkwood almost shouted, jumping forward to seize his visitor's hand.
"My dear boy!" replied the latter. "I'm delighted to see you. 'Got your note not an hour ago, and came at once—you see!"
"It was mighty good of you. Sit down, please. Here are cigars.... Why, a moment ago I was the most miserable and lonely mortal on the footstool!"
"I can fancy." The elder man looked up, smiling at Kirkwood from the depths of his arm-chair, as the latter stood above him, resting an elbow on the mantel. "The management knows me," he offered explanation of his unceremonious appearance; "so I took the liberty of following on the heels of the bellhop, dear boy. And how are you? Why are you in London, enjoying our abominable spring weather? And why the anxious undertone I detected in your note?"
He continued to stare curiously into Kirkwood's face. At a glance, this Mr. Brentwick was a man of tallish figure and rather slender; with a countenance thin and flushed a sensitive pink, out of which his eyes shone, keen, alert, humorous, and a trace wistful behind his glasses. His years were indeterminate; with the aspect of fifty, the spirit and the verve of thirty assorted oddly. But his hands were old, delicate, fine and fragile; and the lips beneath the drooping white mustache at times trembled, almost imperceptibly, with the generous sentiments that come with mellow age. He held his back straight and his head with an air—an air that was not a swagger but the sign-token of seasoned experience in the world. The most carping could have found no flaw in the quiet taste of his attire. To sum up, Kirkwood's very good friend—and his only one then in London—Mr. Brentwick looked and was an English gentleman.
"Why?" he persisted, as the younger man hesitated. "I am here to find out. To-night I leave for the Continent. In the meantime ..."
"And at midnight I sail for the States," added Kirkwood. "That is mainly why I wished to see you—to say good-by, for the time."
"You're going home—" A shadow clouded Brentwick's clear eyes.
"To fight it out, shoulder to shoulder with my brethren in adversity."
The cloud lifted. "That is the spirit!" declared the elder man. "For the moment I did you the injustice to believe that you were running away. But now I understand. Forgive me.... Pardon, too, the stupidity which I must lay at the door of my advancing years; to me the thought of you as a Parisian fixture has become such a commonplace, Philip, that the news of the disaster hardly stirred me. Now I remember that you are a Californian!"
"I was born in San Francisco," affirmed Kirkwood a bit sadly. "My father and mother were buried there ..."
"And your fortune—?"
"I inherited my father's interest in the firm of Kirkwood & Vanderlip; when I came over to study painting, I left everything in Vanderlip's hands. The business afforded me a handsome living."
"You have heard from Mr. Vanderlip?"
"Fifteen minutes ago." Kirkwood took a cable-form, still damp, from his pocket, and handed it to his guest. Unfolding it, the latter read:
"Kirkwood, Pless, London. Stay where you are no good coming back everything gone no insurance letter follows vanderlip."
"When I got the news in Paris," Kirkwood volunteered, "I tried the banks; they refused to honor my drafts. I had a little money in hand,—enough to see me home,—so closed the studio and came across. I'm booked on the Minneapolis, sailing from Tilbury at daybreak; the boat-train leaves at eleven-thirty. I had hoped you might be able to dine with me and see me off."
In silence Brentwick returned the cable message. Then, with a thoughtful look, "You are sure this is wise?" he queried.
"It's the only thing I can see."
"But your partner says—"
"Naturally he thinks that by this time I should have learned to paint well enough to support myself for a few months, until he can get things running again. Perhaps I might." Brentwick supported the presumption with a decided gesture. "But have I a right to leave Vanderlip to fight it out alone? For Vanderlip has a wife and kiddies to support; I—"
"My ability, such as it is—and that only. It can wait.... No; this means simply that I must come down from the clouds, plant my feet on solid earth, and get to work."
"The sentiment is sound," admitted Brentwick, "the practice of it, folly. Have you stopped to think what part a rising young portrait-painter can contribute toward the rebuilding of a devastated city?"
"The painting can wait," reiterated Kirkwood. "I can work like other men."
"You can do yourself and your genius grave injustice. And I fear me you will, dear boy. It's in keeping with your heritage of American obstinacy. Now if it were a question of money—"
"Mr. Brentwick!" Kirkwood protested vehemently. "I've ample for my present needs," he added.
"Of course," conceded Brentwick with a sigh. "I didn't really hope you would avail yourself of our friendship. Now there's my home in Aspen Villas.... You have seen it?"
"In your absence this afternoon your estimable butler, with commendable discretion, kept me without the doors," laughed the young man.
"It's a comfortable home. You would not consent to share it with me until—?"
"You are more than good; but honestly, I must sail to-night. I wanted only this chance to see you before I left. You'll dine with me, won't you?"
"If you would stay in London, Philip, we would dine together not once but many times; as it is, I myself am booked for Munich, to be gone a week, on business. I have many affairs needing attention between now and the nine-ten train from Victoria. If you will be my guest at Aspen Villas—"
"Please!" begged Kirkwood, with a little laugh of pleasure because of the other's insistence. "I only wish I could. Another day—"
"Oh, you will make your million in a year, and return scandalously independent. It's in your American blood." Frail white fingers tapped an arm of the chair as their owner stared gravely into the fire. "I confess I envy you," he observed.
"The opportunity to make a million in a year?" chuckled Kirkwood.
"No. I envy you your Romance."
"The Romance of a Poor Young Man went out of fashion years ago.... No, my dear friend; my Romance died a natural death half an hour since."
"There spoke Youth—blind, enviable Youth!... On the contrary, you are but turning the leaves of the first chapter of your Romance, Philip."
"Romance is dead," contended the young man stubbornly.
"Long live the King!" Brentwick laughed quietly, still attentive to the fire. "Myself when young," he said softly, "did seek Romance, but never knew it till its day was done. I'm quite sure that is a poor paraphrase of something I have read. In age, one's sight is sharpened—to see Romance in another's life, at least. I say I envy you. You have Youth, unconquerable Youth, and the world before you.... I must go."
He rose stiffly, as though suddenly made conscious of his age. The old eyes peered more than a trifle wistfully, now, into Kirkwood's. "You will not fail to call on me by cable, dear boy, if you need—anything? I ask it as a favor.... I'm glad you wished to see me before going out of my life. One learns to value the friendship of Youth, Philip. Good-by, and good luck attend you."
Alone once more, Kirkwood returned to his window. The disappointment he felt at being robbed of his anticipated pleasure in Brentwick's company at dinner, colored his mood unpleasantly. His musings merged into vacuity, into a dull gray mist of hopelessness comparable only to the dismal skies then lowering over London-town.
Brentwick was good, but Brentwick was mistaken. There was really nothing for Kirkwood to do but to go ahead. But one steamer-trunk remained to be packed; the boat-train would leave before midnight, the steamer with the morning tide; by the morrow's noon he would be upon the high seas, within ten days in New York and among friends; and then ...
The problem of that afterwards perplexed Kirkwood more than he cared to own. Brentwick had opened his eyes to the fact that he would be practically useless in San Francisco; he could not harbor the thought of going back, only to become a charge upon Vanderlip. No; he was resolved that thenceforward he must rely upon himself, carve out his own destiny. But—would the art that he had cultivated with such assiduity, yield him a livelihood if sincerely practised with that end in view? Would the mental and physical equipment of a painter, heretofore dilettante, enable him to become self-supporting?
Knotting his brows in concentration of effort to divine the future, he doubted himself, darkly questioning alike his abilities and his temper under trial; neither ere now had ever been put to the test. His eyes became somberly wistful, his heart sore with regret of Yesterday—his Yesterday of care-free youth and courage, gilded with the ineffable, evanescent glamour of Romance—of such Romance, thrice refined of dross, as only he knows who has wooed his Art with passion passing the love of woman.
Far away, above the acres of huddled roofs and chimney-pots, the storm-mists thinned, lifting transiently; through them, gray, fairy-like, the towers of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament bulked monstrous and unreal, fading when again the fugitive dun vapors closed down upon the city.
Nearer at hand the Shade of Care nudged Kirkwood's elbow, whispering subtly. Romance was indeed dead; the world was cold and cruel.
The gloom deepened.
In the cant of modern metaphysics, the moment was psychological.
There came a rapping at the door.
Kirkwood removed the pipe from between his teeth long enough to say "Come in!" pleasantly.
The knob was turned, the door opened. Kirkwood, turning on one heel, beheld hesitant upon the threshold a diminutive figure in the livery of the Pless pages.
"Gentleman to see you, sir."
Kirkwood nodded again, smiling if somewhat perplexed. Encouraged, the child advanced, proffering a silver card-tray at the end of an unnaturally rigid forearm. Kirkwood took the card dubiously between thumb and forefinger and inspected it without prejudice.
"'George B. Calendar,'" he read. "'George B. Calendar!' But I know no such person. Sure there's no mistake, young man?"
The close-cropped, bullet-shaped, British head was agitated in vigorous negation, and "Card for Mister Kirkwood!" was mumbled in dispassionate accents appropriate to a recitation by rote.
"Very well. But before you show him up, ask this Mr. Calendar if he is quite sure he wants to see Philip Kirkwood."
The child marched out, punctiliously closing the door. Kirkwood tamped down the tobacco in his pipe and puffed energetically, dismissing the interruption to his reverie as a matter of no consequence—an obvious mistake to be rectified by two words with this Mr. Calendar whom he did not know. At the knock he had almost hoped it might be Brentwick, returning with a changed mind about the bid to dinner.
He regretted Brentwick sincerely. Theirs was a curious sort of friendship—extraordinarily close in view of the meagerness of either's information about the other, to say nothing of the disparity between their ages. Concerning the elder man Kirkwood knew little more than that they had met on shipboard, "coming over"; that Brentwick had spent some years in America; that he was an Englishman by birth, a cosmopolitan by habit, by profession a gentleman (employing that term in its most uncompromisingly British significance), and by inclination a collector of "articles of virtue and bigotry," in pursuit of which he made frequent excursions to the Continent from his residence in a quaint quiet street of Old Brompton. It had been during his not infrequent, but ordinarily abbreviated, sojourns in Paris that their steamer acquaintance had ripened into an affection almost filial on the one hand, almost paternal on the other....
There came a rapping at the door.
Kirkwood removed the pipe from between his teeth long enough to say "Come in!" pleasantly.
The knob was turned, the door opened. Kirkwood, swinging on one heel, beheld hesitant upon the threshold a rather rotund figure of medium height, clad in an expressionless gray lounge suit, with a brown "bowler" hat held tentatively in one hand, an umbrella weeping in the other. A voice, which was unctuous and insinuative, emanated from the figure.
Kirkwood nodded, with some effort recalling the name, so detached had been his thoughts since the disappearance of the page.
"Yes, Mr. Calendar—?"
"Are you—ah—busy, Mr. Kirkwood?"
"Are you, Mr. Calendar?" Kirkwood's smile robbed the retort of any flavor of incivility.
Encouraged, the man entered, premising that he would detain his host but a moment, and readily surrendering hat and umbrella. Kirkwood, putting the latter aside, invited his caller to the easy chair which Brentwick had occupied by the fireplace.
"It takes the edge off the dampness," Kirkwood explained in deference to the other's look of pleased surprise at the cheerful bed of coals. "I'm afraid I could never get acclimated to life in a cold, damp room—or a damp cold room—such as you Britishers prefer."
"It is grateful," Mr. Calendar agreed, spreading plump and well cared-for hands to the warmth. "But you are mistaken; I am as much an American as yourself."
"Yes?" Kirkwood looked the man over with more interest, less matter-of-course courtesy.
He proved not unprepossessing, this unclassifiable Mr. Calendar; he was dressed with some care, his complexion was good, and the fullness of his girth, emphasized as it was by a notable lack of inches, bespoke a nature genial, easy-going and sybaritic. His dark eyes, heavy-lidded, were active—curiously, at times, with a subdued glitter—in a face large, round, pink, of which the other most remarkable features were a mustache, close-trimmed and showing streaks of gray, a chubby nose, and duplicate chins. Mr. Calendar was furthermore possessed of a polished bald spot, girdled with a tonsure of silvered hair—circumstances which lent some factitious distinction to a personality otherwise commonplace.
His manner might be best described as uneasy with assurance; as though he frequently found it necessary to make up for his unimpressive stature by assuming an unnatural habit of authority. And there you have him; beyond these points, Kirkwood was conscious of no impressions; the man was apparently neutral-tinted of mind as well as of body.
"So you knew I was an American, Mr. Calendar?" suggested Kirkwood.
"'Saw your name on the register; we both hail from the same neck of the woods, you know."
"I didn't know it, and—"
"Yes; I'm from Frisco, too."
"And I'm sorry."
Mr. Calendar passed five fat fingers nervously over his mustache, glanced alertly up at Kirkwood, as if momentarily inclined to question his tone, then again stared glumly into the fire; for Kirkwood had maintained an attitude purposefully colorless. Not to put too fine a point upon it, be believed that his caller was lying; the man's appearance, his mannerisms, his voice and enunciation, while they might have been American, seemed all un-Californian. To one born and bred in that state, as Kirkwood had been, her sons are unmistakably hall-marked.
Now no man lies without motive. This one chose to reaffirm, with a show of deep feeling: "Yes; I'm from Frisco, too. We're companions in misfortune."
"I hope not altogether," said Kirkwood politely.
Mr. Calendar drew his own inferences from the response and mustered up a show of cheerfulness. "Then you're not completely wiped out?"
"To the contrary, I was hoping you were less unhappy."
"Oh! Then you are—?"
Kirkwood lifted the cable message from the mantel. "I have just heard from my partner at home," he said with a faint smile; and quoted: "'Everything gone; no insurance.'"
Mr. Calendar pursed his plump lips, whistling inaudibly. "Too bad, too bad!" he murmured sympathetically. "We're all hard hit, more or less." He lapsed into dejected apathy, from which Kirkwood, growing at length impatient, found it necessary to rouse him.
"You wished to see me about something else, I'm sure?"
Mr. Calendar started from his reverie. "Eh? ... I was dreaming. I beg pardon. It seems hard to realize, Mr. Kirkwood, that this awful catastrophe has overtaken our beloved metropolis—"
The canting phrases wearied Kirkwood; abruptly he cut in. "Would a sovereign help you out, Mr. Calendar? I don't mind telling you that's about the limit of my present resources."
"Pardon me." Mr. Calendar's moon-like countenance darkened; he assumed a transparent dignity. "You misconstrue my motive, sir."
"Then I'm sorry."
"I am not here to borrow. On the other hand, quite by accident I discovered your name upon the register, down-stairs; a good old Frisco name, if you will permit me to say so. I thought to myself that here was a chance to help a fellow-countryman." Calendar paused, interrogative; Kirkwood remained interested but silent. "If a passage across would help you, I—I think it might be arranged," stammered Calendar, ill at ease.
"It might," admitted Kirkwood, speculative.
"I could fix it so that you could go over—first-class, of course—and pay your way, so to speak, by, rendering us, me and my partner, a trifling service."
"In fact," continued Calendar, warming up to his theme, "there might be something more in it for you than the passage, if—if you're the right man, the man I'm looking for."
"That, of course, is the question."
"Eh?" Calendar pulled up suddenly in a full-winged flight of enthusiasm.
Kirkwood eyed him steadily. "I said that it is a question, Mr. Calendar, whether or not I am the man you're looking for. Between you and me and the fire-dogs, I don't believe I am. Now if you wish to name your quid pro quo, this trifling service I'm to render in recognition of your benevolence, you may."
"Ye-es," slowly. But the speaker delayed his reply until he had surveyed his host from head to foot, with a glance both critical and appreciative.
He saw a man in height rather less than the stock size six-feet so much in demand by the manufacturers of modern heroes of fiction; a man a bit round-shouldered, too, but otherwise sturdily built, self-contained, well-groomed.
Kirkwood wears a boy's honest face; no one has ever called him handsome. A few prejudiced persons have decided that he has an interesting countenance; the propounders of this verdict have been, for the most part, feminine. Kirkwood himself has been heard to declare that his features do not fit; in its essence the statement is true, but there is a very real, if undefinable, engaging quality in their very irregularity. His eyes are brown, pleasant, set wide apart, straightforward of expression.
Now it appeared that, whatever his motive, Mr. Calendar had acted upon impulse in sending his card up to Kirkwood. Possibly he had anticipated a very different sort of reception from a very different sort of man. Even in the light of subsequent events it remains difficult to fathom the mystery of his choice. Perhaps Fate directed it; stranger things have happened at the dictates of a man's Destiny.
At all events, this Calendar proved not lacking in penetration; men of his stamp are commonly endowed with that quality to an eminent degree. Not slow to reckon the caliber of the man before him, the leaven of intuition began to work in his adipose intelligence. He owned himself baffled.
"Thanks," he concluded pensively; "I reckon you're right. You won't do, after all. I've wasted your time. Mine, too."
"Don't mention it."
Calendar got heavily out of his chair, reaching for his hat and umbrella. "Permit me to apologize for an unwarrantable intrusion, Mr. Kirkwood." He faltered; a worried and calculating look shadowed his small eyes. "I was looking for some one to serve me in a certain capacity—"
"Certain or questionable?" propounded Kirkwood blandly, opening the door.
Pointedly Mr. Calendar ignored the imputation. "Sorry I disturbed you. G'dafternoon, Mr. Kirkwood."
"Good-by, Mr. Calendar." A smile twitched the corners of Kirkwood's too-wide mouth.
Calendar stepped hastily out into the hall. As he strode—or rather, rolled—away, Kirkwood maliciously feathered a Parthian arrow.
"By the way, Mr. Calendar—?"
The sound of retreating footsteps was stilled and "Yes?" came from the gloom of the corridor.
"Were you ever in San Francisco? Really and truly? Honest Injun, Mr. Calendar?"
For a space the quiet was disturbed by harsh breathing; then, in a strained voice, "Good day, Mr. Kirkwood"; and again the sound of departing footfalls.
Kirkwood closed the door and the incident simultaneously, with a smart bang of finality. Laughing quietly he went back to the window with its dreary outlook, now the drearier for lengthening evening shadows.
"I wonder what his game is, anyway. An adventurer, of course; the woods are full of 'em. A queer fish, even of his kind! And with a trick up his sleeve as queer and fishy as himself, no doubt!"
"AND SOME THERE BE WHO HAVE ADVENTURES THRUST UPON THEM"
The assumption seems not unwarrantable, that Mr. Calendar figuratively washed his hands of Mr. Kirkwood. Unquestionably Mr. Kirkwood considered himself well rid of Mr. Calendar. When the latter had gone his way, Kirkwood, mindful of the fact that his boat-train would leave St. Paneras at half-after eleven, set about his packing and dismissed from his thoughts the incident created by the fat chevalier d'industrie; and at six o'clock, or thereabouts, let himself out of his room, dressed for the evening, a light rain-coat over one arm, in the other hand a cane,—the drizzle having ceased.
A stolid British lift lifted him down to the ground floor of the establishment in something short of five minutes. Pausing in the office long enough to settle his bill and leave instructions to have his luggage conveyed to the boat-train, he received with entire equanimity the affable benediction of the clerk, in whose eyes he still figured as that radiant creature, an American millionaire; and passed on to the lobby, where he surrendered hat, coat and stick to the cloak-room attendant, ere entering the dining-room.
The hour was a trifle early for a London dinner, the handsome room but moderately filled with patrons. Kirkwood absorbed the fact unconsciously and without displeasure; the earlier, the better: he was determined to consume his last civilized meal (as he chose to consider it) at his serene leisure, to live fully his ebbing moments in the world to which he was born, to drink to its cloying dregs one ultimate draught of luxury.
A benignant waiter bowed him into a chair by a corner table in juxtaposition with an open window, through which, swaying imperceptibly the closed hangings, were wafted gentle gusts of the London evening's sweet, damp breath.
Kirkwood settled himself with an inaudible sigh of pleasure. He was dining, for the last time in Heaven knew how long, in a first-class restaurant.
With a deferential flourish the waiter brought him the menu-card. He had served in his time many an "American, millionaire"; he had also served this Mr. Kirkwood, and respected him as one exalted above the run of his kind, in that he comprehended the art of dining.
Fifteen minutes later the waiter departed rejoicing, his order complete.
To distract a conscience whispering of extravagance, Kirkwood lighted a cigarette.
The room was gradually filling with later arrivals; it was the most favored restaurant in London, and, despite the radiant costumes of the women, its atmosphere remained sedate and restful.
A cab clattered down the side street on which the window opened.
At a near-by table a woman laughed, quietly happy. Incuriously Kirkwood glanced her way. She was bending forward, smiling, flattering her escort with the adoration of her eyes. They were lovers alone in the wilderness of the crowded restaurant. They seemed very happy.
Kirkwood was conscious of a strange pang of emotion. It took him some time to comprehend that it was envy.
He was alone and lonely. For the first time he realized that no woman had ever looked upon him as the woman at the adjoining table looked upon her lover. He had found time to worship but one mistress—his art.
And he was renouncing her.
He was painfully conscious of what he had missed, had lost—or had not yet found: the love of woman.
The sensation was curious—new, unique in his experience.
His cigarette burned down to his fingers as he sat pondering. Abstractedly, he ground its fire out in an ash-tray.
The waiter set before him a silver tureen, covered.
He sat up and began to consume his soup, scarce doing it justice. His dream troubled him—his dream of the love of woman.
From a little distance his waiter regarded him, with an air of disappointment. In the course of an hour and a half he awoke, to discover the attendant in the act of pouring very hot and black coffee from a bright silver pot into a demi-tasse of fragile porcelain. Kirkwood slipped a single lump of sugar into the cup, gave over his cigar-case to be filled, then leaned back, deliberately lighting a long and slender panetela as a preliminary to a last lingering appreciation of the scene of which he was a part.
He reviewed it through narrowed eyelids, lazily; yet with some slight surprise, seeming to see it with new vision, with eyes from which scales of ignorance had dropped.
This long and brilliant dining-hall, with its quiet perfection of proportion and appointment, had always gratified his love of the beautiful; to-night it pleased him to an unusual degree. Yet it was the same as ever; its walls tinted a deep rose, with their hangings of dull cloth-of-gold, its lights discriminatingly clustered and discreetly shaded, redoubled in half a hundred mirrors, its subdued shimmer of plate and glass, its soberly festive assemblage of circumspect men and women splendidly gowned, its decorously muted murmur of voices penetrated and interwoven by the strains of a hidden string orchestra—caressed his senses as always, yet with a difference. To-night he saw it a room populous with lovers, lovers insensibly paired, man unto woman attentive, woman of man regardful.
He had never understood this before. This much he had missed in life.
It seemed hard to realize that one must forego it all for ever.
Presently he found himself acutely self-conscious. The sensation puzzled him; and without appearing to do so, he traced it from effect to cause; and found the cause in a woman—a girl, rather, seated at a table the third removed from him, near the farther wall of the room.
Too considerate, and too embarrassed, to return her scrutiny openly, look for look, he yet felt sure that, however temporarily, he was become the object of her intent interest.
Idly employed with his cigar, he sipped his coffee. In time aware that she had turned her attention elsewhere, he looked up.
At first he was conscious of an effect of disappointment. She was nobody that he knew, even by reputation. She was simply a young girl, barely out of her teens—if as old as that phrase would signify. He wondered what she had found in him to make her think him worth so long a study; and looked again, more keenly curious.
With this second glance, appreciation stirred the artistic side of his nature, that was already grown impatient of his fretted mood. The slender and girlish figure, posed with such absolute lack of intrusion against a screen of rose and gilt, moved him to critical admiration. The tinted glow of shaded candles caught glistening on the spun gold of her fair hair, and enhanced the fine pallor of her young shoulders. He saw promise, and something more than promise, in her face, its oval something dimmed by warm shadows that unavailingly sought to blend youth and beauty alike into the dull, rich background.
In the sheer youth of her (he realized) more than in aught else, lay her chiefest charm. She could be little more than a child, indeed, if he were to judge her by the purity of her shadowed eyes and the absence of emotion in the calm and direct look which presently she turned upon him who sat wondering at the level, penciled darkness of her brows.
At length aware that she had surprised his interest, Kirkwood glanced aside—coolly deliberate, lest she should detect in his attitude anything more than impersonal approval.
A slow color burned his cheeks. In his temples there rose a curious pulsing.
After a while she drew his gaze again, imperiously—herself all unaware of the havoc she was wreaking on his temperament.
He could have fancied her distraught, cloaking an unhappy heart with placid brow and gracious demeanor; but such a conception matched strangely her glowing youth and spirit. What had she to do with Care? What concern had Black Care, whose gaunt shape in sable shrouds had lurked at his shoulder all the evening, despite his rigid preoccupation, with a being as charmingly flushed with budding womanhood as this girl?
"Eighteen?" he hazarded. "Eighteen, or possibly nineteen, dining at the Pless in a ravishing dinner-gown, and—unhappy? Oh, hardly—not she!"
Yet the impression haunted him, and ere long he was fain to seek confirmation or denial of it in the manner of her escort.
The latter sat with back to Kirkwood, cutting a figure as negative as his snug evening clothes. One could surmise little from a fleshy thick neck, a round, glazed bald spot, a fringe of grizzled hair, and two bright red ears.
Somehow the fellow did suggest Kirkwood's caller of the afternoon. The young man could not have said precisely how, for he was unfamiliar with the aspect of that gentleman's back. None the less the suggestion persisted.
By now, a few of the guests, theater-bound, for the most part, were leaving. Here and there a table stood vacant, that had been filled, cloth tarnished, chairs disarranged: in another moment to be transformed into its pristine brilliance under the deft attentions of the servitors.
Down an aisle, past the table at which the girl was sitting, came two, making toward the lobby; the man, a slight and meager young personality, in the lead. Their party had attracted Kirkwood's notice as they entered; why, he did not remember; but it was in his mind that then they had been three. Instinctively he looked at the table they had left—one placed at some distance from the girl, and hidden from her by an angle in the wall. It appeared that the third member had chosen to dally a few moments over his tobacco and a liqueur-brandy. Kirkwood could see him plainly, lounging in his chair and fumbling the stem of a glass: a heavy man, of somber habit, his black and sullen brows lowering and thoughtful above a face boldly handsome.
The woman of the trio was worthy of closer attention. Some paces in the wake of her lack-luster esquire, she was making a leisurely progress, trailing the skirts of a gown magnificent beyond dispute, half concealed though it was by the opera cloak whose soft folds draped her shoulders. Slowly, carrying her head high, she approached, insolent eyes reviewing the room from beneath their heavy lids; a metallic and mature type of dark beauty, supremely selfconfident and self-possessed.
Men turned involuntarily to look after her, not altogether in undiluted admiration.
In the act of passing behind the putative Calendar, she paused momentarily, bending as if to gather up her train. Presumably the action disturbed her balance; she swayed a little, and in the effort to recover, rested the tips of her gloved fingers upon the edge of the table. Simultaneously (Kirkwood could have sworn) a single word left her lips, a word evidently pitched for the ear of the hypothetical Calendar alone. Then she swept on, imperturbable, assured.
To the perplexed observer it was indubitably evident that some communication had passed from the woman to the man. Kirkwood saw the fat shoulders of the girl's companion stiffen suddenly as the woman's hand rested at his elbow; as she moved away, a little rippling shiver was plainly visible in the muscles of his back, beneath his coat—mute token of relaxing tension. An instant later one plump and mottled hand was carelessly placed where the woman's had been; and was at once removed with fingers closed.
To the girl, watching her face covertly, Kirkwood turned for clue to the incident. He made no doubt that she had observed the passage; proof of that one found in her sudden startling pallor (of indignation?) and in her eyes, briefly alight with some inscrutable emotion, though quickly veiled by lowered lashes. Slowly enough she regained color and composure, while her vis-a-vis sat motionless, head inclined as if in thought.
Abruptly the man turned in his chair to summon a waiter, and exposed his profile. Kirkwood was in no wise amazed to recognize Calendar—a badly frightened Calendar now, however, and hardly to be identified with the sleek, glib fellow who had interviewed Kirkwood in the afternoon. His flabby cheeks were ashen and trembling, and upon the back of his chair the fat white fingers were drumming incessantly an inaudible tattoo of shattered nerves.
"Scared silly!" commented Kirkwood. "Why?" Having spoken to his waiter, Calendar for some seconds raked the room with quick glances, as if seeking an acquaintance. Presumably disappointed, he swung back to face the girl, bending forward to reach her ears with accents low-pitched and confidential. She, on her part, fell at once attentive, grave and responsive. Perhaps a dozen sentences passed between them. At the outset her brows contracted and she shook her head in gentle dissent; whereupon Calendar's manner became more imperative. Gradually, unwillingly, she seemed to yield consent. Once she caught her breath sharply, and, infected by her companion's agitation, sat back, color fading again in the round young cheeks.
Kirkwood's waiter put in an inopportune appearance with the bill. The young man paid it. When he looked up again Calendar had swung squarely about in his chair. His eye encountered Kirkwood's. He nodded pleasantly. Temporarily confused, Kirkwood returned the nod.
In a twinkling he had repented; Calendar had left his chair and was wending his way through the tables toward Kirkwood's. Reaching it, he paused, offering the hand of genial fellowship. Kirkwood accepted it half-heartedly (what else was he to do?) remarking at the same time that Calendar had recovered much of his composure. There was now a normal coloring in the heavily jowled countenance, with less glint of fear in the quick, dark eyes; and Calendar's hand, even if moist and cold, no longer trembled. Furthermore it was immediately demonstrated that his impudence had not deserted him.
"Why, Kirkwood, my dear fellow!" he crowed—not so loudly as to attract attention, but in a tone assumed to divert suspicion, should he be overheard. "This is great luck, you know—to find you here."
"Is it?" returned Kirkwood coolly. He disengaged his fingers.
The pink plump face was contorted in a furtive grimace of deprecation. Without waiting for permission Calendar dropped into the vacant chair.
"My dear sir," he proceeded, unabashed, "I throw myself upon your mercy."
"The devil you do!"
"I must. I'm in the deuce of a hole, and there's no one I know here besides yourself. I—I—"
Kirkwood saw fit to lead him on; partly because, out of the corner of his eye, he was aware of the girl's unconcealed suspense. "Go on, please, Mr. Calendar. You throw yourself on a total stranger's mercy because you're in the deuce of a hole; and—?"
"It's this way; I'm called away on urgent business imperative business. I must go at once. My daughter is with me. My daughter! Think of my embarrassment; I can not leave her here, alone, nor can I permit her to go home unprotected."
Calendar paused in anxiety.
"That's easily remedied, then," suggested Kirkwood.
"Put her in a cab at the door."
"I ... No. The devil! I couldn't think of it. You won't understand. I—"
"I do not understand,—" amended the younger man politely.
Calendar compressed his lips nervously. It was plain that the man was quivering with impatience and half-mad with excitement. He held quiet only long enough to regain his self-control and take counsel with his prudence.
"It is impossible, Mr. Kirkwood. I must ask you to be generous and believe me."
"Very well; for the sake of the argument, I do believe you, Mr. Calendar."
"Hell!" exploded the elder man in an undertone. Then swiftly, stammering in his haste: "I can't let Dorothy accompany me to the door," he declared. "She—I—I throw myself upon your mercy!"
"The truth—the truth is, if you will have it, that I am in danger of arrest the moment I leave here. If my daughter is with me, she will have to endure the shame and humiliation—"
"Then why place her in such a position?" Kirkwood demanded sharply.
Calendar's eyes burned, incandescent with resentment. Offended, he offered to rise and go, but changed his mind and sat tight in hope.
"I beg of you, sir—"
"One moment, Mr. Calendar."
Abruptly Kirkwood's weathercock humor shifted—amusement yielding to intrigued interest. After all, why not oblige the fellow? What did anything matter, now? What harm could visit him if he yielded to this corpulent adventurer's insistence? Both from experience and observation he knew this for a world plentifully peopled by soldiers of fortune, contrivers of snares and pitfalls for the feet of the unwary. On the other hand, it is axiomatic that a penniless man is perfectly safe anywhere. Besides, there was the girl to be considered.
Kirkwood considered her, forthwith. In the process thereof, his eyes sought her, perturbed. Their glances clashed. She looked away hastily, crimson to her temples.
Instantly the conflict between curiosity and caution, inclination and distrust, was at an end. With sudden compliance, the young man rose.
"I shall be most happy to be of service to your daughter, Mr. Calendar," he said, placing the emphasis with becoming gravity. And then, the fat adventurer leading the way, Kirkwood strode across the room—wondering somewhat at himself, if the whole truth is to be disclosed.
All but purring with satisfaction and relief, Calendar halted.
"Dorothy, my dear, permit me to introduce an old friend—Mr. Kirkwood. Kirkwood, this is my daughter."
"Miss Calendar," acknowledged Kirkwood.
The girl bowed, her eyes steady upon his own. "Mr. Kirkwood is very kind," she said gravely.
"That's right!" Calendar exclaimed blandly. "He's promised to see you home. Now both of you will pardon my running away, I know."
"Yes," assented Kirkwood agreeably.
The elder man turned and hurried toward the main entrance.
Kirkwood took the chair he had vacated. To his disgust he found himself temporarily dumb. No flicker of thought illuminated the darkness of his confusion. How was he to open a diverting conversation with a young woman whom he had met under auspices so extraordinary? Any attempt to gloze the situation, he felt, would be futile. And, somehow, he did not care to render himself ridiculous in her eyes, little as he knew her.
Inanely dumb, he sat watching her, smiling fatuously until it was borne in on him that he was staring like a boor and grinning like an idiot. Convinced, he blushed for himself; something which served to make him more tongue-tied than ever.
As for his involuntary protegee, she exhibited such sweet composure that he caught himself wondering if she really appreciated the seriousness of her parent's predicament; if, for that matter, its true nature were known to her at all. Calendar, he believed, was capable of prevarication, polite and impolite. Had he lied to his daughter? or to Kirkwood? To both, possibly; to the former alone, not improbably. That the adventurer had told him the desperate truth, Kirkwood was quite convinced; but he now began to believe that the girl had been put off with some fictitious explanation. Her tranquillity and self-control were remarkable, otherwise; she seemed very young to possess those qualities in such eminent degree.
She was looking wearily past him, her gaze probing some unguessed abyss of thought. Kirkwood felt himself privileged to stare in wonder. Her naive aloofness of poise gripped his imagination powerfully,—the more so, perhaps, since it seemed eloquent of her intention to remain enigmatic,—but by no means more powerfully than the unaided appeal of her loveliness.
Presently the girl herself relieved the tension of the situation, fairly startling the young man by going straight to the heart of things. Without preface or warning, lifting her gaze to his, "My name is really Dorothy Calendar," she observed. And then, noting his astonishment, "You would be privileged to doubt, under the circumstances," she added. "Please let us be frank."
"Well," he stammered, "if I didn't doubt, let's say I was unprejudiced."
His awkward, well-meant pleasantry, perhaps not conceived in the best of taste, sounded in his own ears wretchedly flat and vapid. He regretted it spontaneously; the girl ignored it.
"You are very kind," she iterated the first words he had heard from her lips. "I wish you to understand that I, for one, appreciate it."
"Not kind; I have done nothing. I am glad.... One is apt to become interested when Romance is injected into a prosaic existence." Kirkwood allowed himself a keen but cheerful glance.
She nodded, with a shadowy smile. He continued, purposefully, to distract her, holding her with his honest, friendly eyes.
"Since it is to be confidences" (this she questioned with an all but imperceptible lifting of the eyebrows), "I don't mind telling you my own name is really Philip Kirkwood."
"And you are an old friend of my father's?"
He opened his lips, but only to close them without speaking. The girl moved her shoulders with a shiver of disdain.
"I knew it wasn't so."
"You know it would be hard for a young man like myself to be a very old friend," he countered lamely.
"How long, then, have you known each other?"
"Must I answer?"
"Between three and four hours."
"I thought as much." She stared past him, troubled. Abruptly she said: "Please smoke."
"Shall I? If you wish it, of course...."
She repeated: "Please."
"We were to wait ten minutes or so," she continued.
He produced his cigarette-case.
"If you care to smoke it will seem an excuse." He lighted his cigarette. "And then, you may talk to me," she concluded calmly.
"I would, gladly, if I could guess what would interest you."
"Yourself. Tell me about yourself," she commanded.
"It would bore you," he responded tritely, confused.
"No; you interest me very much." She made the statement quietly, contemptuous of coquetry.
"Very well, then; I am Philip Kirkwood, an American."
"Little worth retailing."
"Why?" he demanded, piqued.
"Because you have merely indicated that you are a wealthy American."
"If not, you would have some aim in life—a calling or profession."
"And you think I have none?"
"Unless you consider it your vocation to be a wealthy American."
"I don't. Besides, I'm not wealthy. In point of fact, I ..." He pulled up short, on the verge of declaring himself a pauper. "I am a painter."
Her eyes lightened with interest. "An artist?"
"I hope so. I don't paint signs—or houses," he remarked.
Amused, she laughed softly. "I suspected it," she declared.
"It was your way of looking at—things, that made me guess it: the painter's way. I have often noticed it."
"As if mentally blending colors all the time?"
"Yes; that and—seeing flaws."
"I have discovered none," he told her brazenly.
But again her secret cares were claiming her thoughts, and the gay, inconsequential banter died upon her scarlet lips as a second time her glance ranged away, sounding mysterious depths of anxiety.
Provoked, he would have continued the chatter. "I have confessed," he persisted. "You know everything of material interest about me. And yourself?"
"I am merely Dorothy Calendar," she answered.
"Nothing more?" He laughed.
"That is all, if you please, for the present."
"I am to content myself with the promise of the future?"
"The future," she told him seriously, "is to-morrow; and to-morrow ..." She moved restlessly in her chair, eyes and lips pathetic in their distress. "Please, we will go now, if you are ready."
"I am quite ready, Miss Calendar."
He rose. A waiter brought the girl's cloak and put it in Kirkwood's hands. He held it until, smoothing the wrists of her long white gloves, she stood up, then placed the garment upon her white young shoulders, troubled by the indefinable sense of intimacy imparted by the privilege. She permitted him this personal service! He felt that she trusted him, that out of her gratitude had grown a simple and almost childish faith in his generosity and considerateness.
As she turned to go her eyes thanked him with an unfathomable glance. He was again conscious of that esoteric disturbance in his temples. Puzzled, hazily analyzing the sensation, he followed her to the lobby.
A page brought him his top-coat, hat and stick; tipping the child from sheer force of habit, he desired a gigantic porter, impressively ornate in hotel livery, to call a hansom. Together they passed out into the night, he and the girl.
Beneath a permanent awning of steel and glass she waited patiently, slender, erect, heedless of the attention she attracted from wayfarers.
The night was young, the air mild. Upon the sidewalk, muddied by a million feet, two streams of wayfarers flowed incessantly, bound west from Green Park or east toward Piccadilly Circus; a well-dressed throng for the most part, with here and there a man in evening dress. Between the carriages at the curb and the hotel doors moved others, escorting fluttering butterfly women in elaborate toilets, heads bare, skirts daintily gathered above their perishable slippers. Here and there meaner shapes slipped silently through the crowd, sinister shadows of the city's proletariat, blotting ominously the brilliance of the scene.
A cab drew in at the block. The porter clapped an arc of wickerwork over its wheel to protect the girl's skirts. She ascended to the seat.
Kirkwood, dropping sixpence in the porter's palm, prepared to follow; but a hand fell upon his arm, peremptory, inexorable. He faced about, frowning, to confront a slight, hatchet-faced man, somewhat under medium height, dressed in a sack suit and wearing a derby well forward over eyes that were hard and bright.
"Mr. Calendar?" said the man tensely. "I presume I needn't name my business. I'm from the Yard—"
"My name is not Calendar."
The detective smiled wearily. "Don't be a fool, Calendar," he began. But the porter's hand fell upon his shoulder and the giant bent low to bring his mouth close to the other's ear. Kirkwood heard indistinctly his own name followed by Calendar's, and the words: "Never fear. I'll point him out."
"But the woman?" argued the detective, unconvinced, staring into the cab.
"Am I not at liberty to have a lady dine with me in a public restaurant?" interposed Kirkwood, without raising his voice.
The hard eyes looked him up and down without favor. Then: "Beg pardon, sir. I see my mistake," said the detective brusquely.
"I am glad you do," returned Kirkwood grimly. "I fancy it will bear investigation."
He mounted the step. "Imperial Theater," he told the driver, giving the first address that occurred to him; it could be changed. For the moment the main issue was to get the girl out of the range of the detective's interest.
He slipped into his place as the hansom wheeled into the turgid tide of west-bound traffic.
So Calendar had escaped, after all! Moreover, he had told the truth to Kirkwood.
By his side the girl moved uneasily. "Who was that man?" she inquired.
Kirkwood sought her eyes, and found them wholly ingenuous. It seemed that Calendar had not taken her into his confidence, after all. She was, therefore, in no way implicated in her father's affairs. Inexplicably the young man's heart felt lighter. "A mistake; the fellow took me for some one he knew," he told her carelessly.
The assurance satisfied her. She rested quietly, wrapped up in personal concerns. Her companion pensively contemplated an infinity of arid and hansom-less to-morrows. About them the city throbbed in a web of misty twilight, the humid farewell of a dismal day. In the air a faint haze swam, rendering the distances opalescent. Athwart the western sky the after-glow of a drenched sunset lay like a wash of rose-madder. Piccadilly's asphalt shone like watered silk, black and lustrous, reflecting a myriad lights in vibrant ribbons of party-colored radiance. On every hand cab-lamps danced like fire-flies; the rumble of wheels blended with the hollow pounding of uncounted hoofs, merging insensibly into the deep and solemn roar of London-town.
Suddenly Kirkwood was recalled to a sense of duty by a glimpse of Hyde Park Corner. He turned to the girl. "I didn't know where you wished to go—?"
She seemed to realize his meaning with surprise, as one, whose thoughts have strayed afar, recalled to an imperative world.
"Oh, did I forget? Tell him please to drive to Number Nine, Frognall Street, Bloomsbury."
Kirkwood poked his cane through the trap, repeating the address. The cab wheeled smartly across Piccadilly, swung into Half Moon Street, and thereafter made better time, darting briskly down abrupt vistas of shining pavement, walled in by blank-visaged houses, or round two sides of one of London's innumerable private parks, wherein spring foliage glowed a tender green in artificial light; now and again it crossed brilliant main arteries of travel, and eventually emerged from a maze of backways into Oxford Street, to hammer eastwards to Tottenham Court Road.
Constraint hung like a curtain between the two; a silence which the young man forbore to moderate, finding more delight that he had cared (or dared) confess to, in contemplation of the pure girlish profile so close to him.
She seemed quite unaware of him, lost in thought, large eyes sober, lips serious that were fashioned for laughter, round little chin firm with some occult resolution. It was not hard to fancy her nerves keyed to a high pitch of courage and determination, nor easy to guess for what reason. Watching always, keenly sensitive to the beauty of each salient line betrayed by the flying lights, Kirkwood's own consciousness lost itself in a profitless, even a perilous labyrinth of conjecture.
The cab stopped. Both occupants came to their senses with a little start. The girl leaned out over; the apron, recognized the house she sought in one swift glance, testified to the recognition with a hushed exclamation, and began to arrange her skirts. Kirkwood, unheeding her faint-hearted protests, jumped out, interposing his cane between her skirts and the wheel. Simultaneously he received a vivid mental photograph of the locality.
Frognall Street proved to be one of those by-ways, a short block in length, which, hemmed in on all sides by a meaner purlieu, has (even in Bloomsbury!) escaped the sordid commercial eye of the keeper of furnished lodgings, retaining jealously something of the old-time dignity and reserve that were its pride in the days before Society swarmed upon Mayfair and Belgravia.
Its houses loomed tall, with many windows, mostly lightless—materially aggravating that air of isolate, cold dignity which distinguishes the Englishman's castle. Here and there stood one less bedraggled than its neighbors, though all, without exception, spoke assertively of respectability down-at-the-heel but fighting tenaciously for existence. Some, vanguards of that imminent day when the boarding-house should reign supreme, wore with shamefaced air placards of estate-agents, advertising their susceptibility to sale or lease. In the company of the latter was Number 9.
The American noted the circumstance subconsciously, at a moment when Miss Calendar's hand, small as a child's, warm and compact in its white glove, lay in his own. And then she was on the sidewalk, her face, upturned to his, vivacious with excitement.
"You have been so kind," she told him warmly, "that one hardly knows how to thank you, Mr. Kirkwood."
"I have done nothing—nothing at all," he mumbled, disturbed by a sudden, unreasoning alarm for her.
She passed quickly to the shelter of the pillared portico. He followed clumsily. On the door-step she turned, offering her hand. He took and retained it.
"Good night," she said.
"I'm to understand that I'm dismissed, then?" he stammered ruefully.
She evaded his eyes. "I—thank you—I have no further need—"
"You are quite sure? Won't you believe me at your service?"
She laughed uneasily. "I'm all right now."
"I can do nothing more? Sure?"
"Nothing. But you—you make me almost sorry I can't impose still further upon your good nature."
"Please don't hesitate ..."
"Aren't you very persistent, Mr. Kirkwood?" Her fingers moved in his; burning with the reproof, he released them, and turned to her so woebegone a countenance that she repented of her severity. "Don't worry about me, please. I am truly safe now. Some day I hope to be able to thank you adequately. Good night!"
Her pass-key grated in the lock. Opening, the door disclosed a dark and uninviting entry-hall, through which there breathed an air heavy with the dank and dusty odor of untenanted rooms. Hesitating on the threshold, over her shoulder the girl smiled kindly upon her commandeered esquire; and stepped within.
He lifted his hat automatically. The door closed with an echoing slam. He turned to the waiting cab, fumbling for change.
"I'll walk," he told the cabby, paying him off.
The hansom swept away to a tune of hammering hoofs; and quiet rested upon the street as Kirkwood turned the nearest corner, in an unpleasant temper, puzzled and discontented. It seemed hardly fair that he should have been dragged into so promising an adventure, by his ears (so to put it), only to be thus summarily called upon to write "Finis" beneath the incident.
He rounded the corner and walked half-way to the next street, coming to an abrupt and rebellious pause by the entrance to a covered alleyway, of two minds as to his proper course of action.
In the background of his thoughts Number 9, Frognall Street, reared its five-story facade, sinister and forbidding. He reminded himself of its unlighted windows; of its sign, "To be let"; of the effluvia of desolation that had saluted him when the door swung wide. A deserted house; and the girl alone in it!—was it right for him to leave her so?
9 FROGNALL STREET, W. C.
The covered alleyway gave upon Quadrant Mews; or so declared a notice painted on the dead wall of the passage.
Overhead, complaining as it swayed in the wind, hung the smirched and weather-worn sign-board of the Hog-in-the-Pound public house; wherefrom escaped sounds of such revelry by night as is indulged in by the British working-man in hours of ease. At the curb in front of the house of entertainment, dejected animals drooping between their shafts, two hansoms stood in waiting, until such time as the lords of their destinies should see fit to sally forth and inflict themselves upon a cab-hungry populace. As Kirkwood turned, a third vehicle rumbled up out of the mews.
Kirkwood can close his eyes, even at this late day, and both see and hear it all again—even as he can see the unbroken row of dingy dwellings that lined his way back from Quadrant Mews to Frognall Street corner: all drab and unkempt, all sporting in their fan-lights the legend and lure, "Furnished Apartments."
For, between his curiosity about and his concern for the girl, he was being led back to Number 9, by the nose, as it were,—hardly willingly, at best. Profoundly stupefied by the contemplation of his own temerity, he yet returned unfaltering. He who had for so long plumed himself upon his strict supervision of his personal affairs and equally steadfast unconsciousness of his neighbor's businesses, now found himself in the very act of pushing in where he was not wanted: as he had been advised in well-nigh as many words. He experienced an effect of standing to one side, a witness of his own folly, with rising wonder, unable to credit the strength of the infatuation which was placing him so conspicuously in the way of a snubbing.
If perchance he were to meet the girl again as she was leaving Number 9,—what then? The contingency dismayed him incredibly, in view of the fact that it did not avail to make him pause. To the contrary he disregarded it resolutely; mad, impertinent, justified of his unnamed apprehensions, or simply addled,—he held on his way.
He turned up Frognall Street with the manner of one out for a leisurely evening stroll. Simultaneously, from the farther corner, another pedestrian debouched, into the thoroughfare—a mere moving shadow at that distance, brother to blacker shadows that skulked in the fenced areas and unlively entries of that poorly lighted block. The hush was something beyond belief, when one remembered the nearness of blatant Tottenham Court Road.
Kirkwood conceived a wholly senseless curiosity about the other wayfarer. The man was walking rapidly, heels ringing with uncouth loudness, cane tapping the flagging at brief intervals. Both sounds ceased abruptly as their cause turned in beneath one of the porticos. In the emphatic and unnatural quiet that followed, Kirkwood, stepping more lightly, fancied that another shadow followed the first, noiselessly and with furtive stealth.
Could it be Number 9 into which they had passed? The American's heart beat a livelier tempo at the suggestion. If it had not been Number 9—he was still too far away to tell—it was certainly one of the dwellings adjacent thereunto. The improbable possibility (But why improbable?) that the girl was being joined by her father, or by friends, annoyed him with illogical intensity. He mended his own pace, designing to pass whichever house it might be before the door should be closed; thought better of this, and slowed up again, anathematizing himself with much excuse for being the inquisitive dolt that he was.
Approaching Number 9 with laggard feet, he manufactured a desire to light a cigarette, as a cover for his design, were he spied upon by unsuspected eyes. Cane under arm, hands cupped to shield a vesta's flame, he stopped directly before the portico, turning his eyes askance to the shadowed doorway; and made a discovery sufficiently startling to hold him spellbound and, incidentally, to scorch his gloves before he thought to drop the match.
The door of Number 9 stood ajar, a black interval an inch or so in width showing between its edge and the jamb.
Suspicion and alarm set his wits a-tingle. More distinctly he recalled the jarring bang, accompanied by the metallic click of the latch, when the girl had shut herself in—and him out. Now, some person or persons had followed her, neglecting the most obvious precaution of a householder. And why? Why but because the intruders did not wish the sound of closing to be audible to her—or those—within?
He reminded himself that it was all none of his affair, decided to pass on and go his ways in peace, and impulsively, swinging about, marched straight away for the unclosed door.
Kirkwood halted on the cry, faltering in indecision. Should he take the plunge, or withdraw? Synchronously he was conscious that a man's figure had detached itself from the shadows beneath the nearest portico and was drawing nearer, with every indication of haste, to intercept him.
"'Ere now, guvner, yer mykin' a mistyke. You don't live 'ere."
"How do you know?" demanded Kirkwood crisply, tightening his grip on his stick.
Was this the second shadow he had seemed to see—the confederate of him who had entered Number 9; a sentry to forestall interruption? If so, the fellow lacked discretion, though his determination that the American should not interfere was undeniable. It was with an ugly and truculent manner, if more warily, that the man closed in.
"I knows. You clear hout, or—"
He flung out a hand with the plausible design of grasping Kirkwood by the collar. The latter lifted his stick, deflecting the arm, and incontinently landed his other fist forcibly on the fellow's chest. The man reeled back, cursing. Before he could recover Kirkwood calmly crossed the threshold, closed the door and put his shoulder to it. In another instant, fumbling in the darkness, he found the bolts and drove them home.
And it was done, the transformation accomplished; his inability to refrain from interfering had encompassed his downfall, had changed a peaceable and law-abiding alien within British shores into a busybody, a trespasser, a misdemeanant, a—yes, for all he knew to the contrary, in the estimation of the Law, a burglar, prime candidate for a convict's stripes!
Breathing hard with excitement he turned and laid his back against the panels, trembling in every muscle, terrified by the result of his impulsive audacity, thunder-struck by a lightning-like foreglimpse of its possible consequences. Of what colossal imprudence had he not been guilty?
"The devil!" he whispered. "What an ass, what an utter ass I am!"
Behind him the knob was rattled urgently, to an accompaniment of feet shuffling on the stone; and immediately—if he were to make a logical deduction from the rasping and scraping sound within the door-casing—the bell-pull was violently agitated, without, however, educing any response from the bell itself, wherever that might be situate. After which, as if in despair, the outsider again rattled and jerked the knob.
Be his status what it might, whether servant of the household, its caretaker, or a night watchman, the man was palpably determined both to get himself in and Kirkwood out, and yet (curious to consider) determined to gain his end without attracting undue attention. Kirkwood had expected to hear the knocker's thunder, as soon as the bell failed to give tongue; but it did not sound although there was a knocker,—Kirkwood himself had remarked that antiquated and rusty bit of ironmongery affixed to the middle panel of the door. And it made him feel sure that something surreptitious and lawless was in process within those walls, that the confederate without, having failed to prevent a stranger from entering, left unemployed a means so certain-sure to rouse the occupants.
But his inferential analysis of this phase of the proceedings was summarily abrupted by that identical alarm. In a trice the house was filled with flying echoes, wakened to sonorous riot by the crash and clamor of the knocker; and Kirkwood stood fully two yards away, his heart hammering wildly, his nerves a-jingle, much as if the resounding blows had landed upon his own person rather than on stout oaken planking.
Ere he had time to wonder, the racket ceased, and from the street filtered voices in altercation. Listening, Kirkwood's pulses quickened, and he laughed uncertainly for pure relief, retreating to the door and putting an ear to a crack.
The accents of one speaker were new in his hearing, stern, crisp, quick with the spirit of authority which animates that most austere and dignified limb of the law to be encountered the world over, a London bobby.
"Now then, my man, what do you want there? Come now, speak up, and step out into the light, where I can see you."
The response came in the sniffling snarl of the London ne'er-do-well, the unemployable rogue whose chiefest occupation seems to be to march in the ranks of The Unemployed on the occasion of its annual demonstrations.
"Le' me alone, carntcher? Ah'm doin' no 'arm, officer,—"
"Didn't you hear me? Step out here. Ah, that's better.... No harm, eh? Perhaps you'll explain how there's no harm breakin' into unoccupied 'ouses?"
"Gorblimy, 'ow was I to know? 'Ere's a toff 'ands me sixpence fer hopenin' 'is cab door to-dye, an', sezee, 'My man,' 'e sez, 'yer've got a 'onest fyce. W'y don'cher work?' sezee. ''Ow can I?' sez I. ''Ere'm I hout of a job these six months, lookin' fer work every dye an' carn't find it.' Sezee, 'Come an' see me this hevenin' at me home, Noine, Frognall Stryte,' 'e sez, an'—"
"That'll do for now. You borrow a pencil and paper and write it down and I'll read it when I've got more time; I never heard the like of it. This 'ouse hasn't been lived in these two years. Move on, and don't let me find you round 'ere again. March, I say!"
There was more of it—more whining explanations artfully tinctured with abuse, more terse commands to depart, the whole concluding with scraping footsteps, diminuendo, and another perfunctory, rattle of the knob as the bobby, having shoo'd the putative evil-doer off, assured himself that no damage had actually been done. Then he, too, departed, satisfied and self-righteous, leaving a badly frightened but very grateful amateur criminal to pursue his self-appointed career of crime.
He had no choice other than to continue; in point of fact, it had been insanity just then to back out, and run the risk of apprehension at the hands of that ubiquitous bobby, who (for all he knew) might be lurking not a dozen yards distant, watchful for just such a sequel. Still, Kirkwood hesitated with the best of excuses. Reassuring as he had found the sentinel's extemporized yarn,—proof positive that the fellow had had no more right to prohibit a trespass than Kirkwood to commit one,—at the same time he found himself pardonably a prey to emotions of the utmost consternation and alarm. If he feared to leave the house he had no warrant whatever to assume that he would be permitted to remain many minutes unharmed within its walls of mystery.
The silence of it discomfited him beyond measure; it was, in a word, uncanny.
Before him, as he lingered at the door, vaguely disclosed by a wan illumination penetrating a dusty and begrimed fan-light, a broad hall stretched indefinitely towards the rear of the building, losing itself in blackness beyond the foot of a flight of stairs. Save for a few articles of furniture,—a hall table, an umbrella-stand, a tall dumb clock flanked by high-backed chairs,—it was empty. Other than Kirkwood's own restrained respiration not a sound throughout the house advertised its inhabitation; not a board creaked beneath the pressure of a foot, not a mouse rustled in the wainscoting or beneath the floors, not a breath of air stirred sighing in the stillness.
And yet, a tremendous racket had been raised at the front door, within the sixty seconds past! And yet, within twenty minutes two persons, at least, had preceded Kirkwood into the building! Had they not heard? The speculation seemed ridiculous. Or had they heard and, alarmed, been too effectually hobbled by the coils of their nefarious designs to dare reveal themselves, to investigate the cause of that thunderous summons? Or were they, perhaps, aware of Kirkwood's entrance, and lying perdui, in some dark corner, to ambush him as he passed?
True, that were hardly like the girl. True, on the other hand, it were possible that she had stolen away while Kirkwood was hanging in irresolution by the passage to Quadrant Mews. Again, the space of time between Kirkwood's dismissal and his return had been exceedingly brief; whatever her errand, she could hardly have fulfilled it and escaped. At that moment she might be in the power and at the mercy of him who had followed her; providing he were not friendly. And in that case, what torment and what peril might not be hers?
Spurred by solicitude, the young man put personal apprehensions in his pocket and forgot them, cautiously picking his way through the gloom to the foot of the stairs. There, by the newel-post, he paused. Darkness walled him about. Overhead the steps vanished in a well of blackness; he could not even see the ceiling; his eyes ached with futile effort to fathom the unknown; his ears rang with unrewarded strain of listening. The silence hung inviolate, profound.
Slowly he began to ascend, a hand following the balusters, the other with his cane exploring the obscurity before him. On the steps, a carpet, thick and heavy, muffled his footfalls. He moved noiselessly. Towards the top the staircase curved, and presently a foot that groped for a higher level failed to find it. Again he halted, acutely distrustful.
He went on, guided by the balustrade, passing three doors, all open, through which the undefined proportions of a drawing-room and boudoir were barely suggested in a ghostly dusk. By each he paused, listening, hearing nothing.
His foot struck with a deadened thud against the bottom step of the second flight, and his pulses fluttered wildly for a moment. Two minutes—three—he waited in suspense. From above came no sound. He went on, as before, save that twice a step yielded, complaining, to his weight. Toward the top the close air, like the darkness, seemed to weigh more heavily upon his consciousness; little drops of perspiration started out on his forehead, his scalp tingled, his mouth was hot and dry, he felt as if stifled.
Again the raised foot found no level higher than its fellows. He stopped and held his breath, oppressed by a conviction that some one was near him. Confirmation of this came startlingly—an eerie whisper in the night, so close to him that he fancied he could feel the disturbed air fanning his face.
"Is it you, Eccles?"
He had no answer ready. The voice was masculine, if he analyzed it correctly. Dumb and stupid he stood poised upon the point of panic.
"Eccles, is it you?"
The whisper was both shrill and shaky. As it ceased Kirkwood was half blinded by a flash of light, striking him squarely in the eyes. Involuntarily he shrank back a pace, to the first step from the top. Instantaneously the light was eclipsed.
"Halt or—or I fire!"
By now he realized that he had been scrutinized by the aid of an electric hand-lamp. The tremulous whisper told him something else—that the speaker suffered from nerves as high-strung as his own. The knowledge gave him inspiration. He cried at a venture, in a guarded voice, "Hands up!"—and struck out smartly with his stick. Its ferrule impinged upon something soft but heavy. Simultaneously he heard a low, frightened cry, the cane was swept aside, a blow landed glancingly on his shoulder, and he was carried fairly off his feet by the weight of a man hurled bodily upon him with staggering force and passion. Reeling, he was borne back and down a step or two, and then,—choking on an oath,—dropped his cane and with one hand caught the balusters, while the other tore ineffectually at wrists of hands that clutched his throat. So, for a space, the two hung, panting and struggling.
Then endeavoring to swing his shoulders over against the wall, Kirkwood released his grip on the hand-rail and stumbled on the stairs, throwing his antagonist out of balance. The latter plunged downward, dragging Kirkwood with him. Clawing, kicking, grappling, they went to the bottom, jolted violently by each step; but long before the last was reached, Kirkwood's throat was free.
Throwing himself off, he got to his feet and grasped the railing for support; then waited, panting, trying to get his bearings. Himself painfully shaken and bruised, he shrewdly surmised that his assailant had fared as ill, if not worse. And, in point of fact, the man lay with neither move nor moan, still as death at the American's feet.
And once more silence had folded its wings over Number 9, Frognall Street.
More conscious of that terrifying, motionless presence beneath him, than able to distinguish it by power of vision, he endured interminable minutes of trembling horror, in a witless daze, before he thought of his match-box. Immediately he found it and struck a light. As the wood caught and the bright small flame leaped in the pent air, he leaned forward, over the body, breathlessly dreading what he must discover.
The man lay quiet, head upon the floor, legs and hips on the stairs. One arm had fallen over his face, hiding the upper half. The hand gleamed white and delicate as a woman's. His chin was smooth and round, his lips thin and petulant. Beneath his top-coat, evening dress clothed a short and slender figure. Nothing whatever of his appearance suggested the burly ruffian, the midnight marauder; he seemed little more than a boy old enough to dress for dinner. In his attitude there was something pitifully suggestive of a beaten child, thrown into a corner.
Conscience-smitten and amazed Kirkwood stared on until, without warning, the match flickered and went out. Then, straightening up with an exclamation at once of annoyance and concern, he rattled the box; it made no sound,—was empty. In disgust he swore it was the devil's own luck, that he should run out of vestas at a time so critical. He could not even say whether the fellow was dead, unconscious, or simply shamming. He had little idea of his looks; and to be able to identify him might save a deal of trouble at some future time,—since he, Kirkwood, seemed so little able to disengage himself from the clutches of this insane adventure! And the girl—. what had become of her? How could he continue to search for her, without lights or guide, through all those silent rooms, whose walls might inclose a hundred hidden dangers in that house of mystery?
But he debated only briefly. His blood was young, and it was hot; it was quite plain to him that he could not withdraw and retain his self-respect. If the girl was there to be found, most assuredly, he must find her. The hand-lamp that had dazzled him at the head of the stairs should be his aid, now that he thought of it,—and providing he was able to find it.
In the scramble on the stairs he had lost his hat, but he remembered that the vesta's short-lived light had discovered this on the floor beyond the man's body. Carefully stepping across the latter he recovered his head-gear, and then, kneeling, listened with an ear close to the fellow's face. A softly regular beat of breathing reassured him. Half rising, he caught the body beneath the armpits, lifting and dragging it off the staircase; and knelt again, to feel of each pocket in the man's clothing, partly as an obvious precaution, to relieve him of his advertised revolver against an untimely wakening, partly to see if he had the lamp about him.
The search proved fruitless. Kirkwood suspected that the weapon, like his own, had existed only in his victim's ready imagination. As for the lamp, in the act of rising he struck it with his foot, and picked it up.
It felt like a metal tube a couple of inches in diameter, a foot or so in length, passably heavy. He fumbled with it impatiently. "However the dickens," he wondered audibly, "does the infernal machine work?" As it happened, the thing worked with disconcerting abruptness as his untrained fingers fell hapchance on the spring. A sudden glare again smote him in the face, and at the same instant, from a point not a yard away, apparently, an inarticulate cry rang out upon the stillness.
Heart in his mouth, he stepped back, lowering the lamp (which impishly went out) and lifting a protecting forearm.
"Who's that?" he demanded harshly.
A strangled sob of terror answered him, blurred by a swift rush of skirts, and in a breath his shattered nerves quieted and a glimmer of common sense penetrated the murk anger and fear had bred in his brain. He understood, and stepped forward, catching blindly at the darkness with eager hands.
"Miss Calendar!" he cried guardedly. "Miss Calendar, it is I—Philip Kirkwood!"
There was a second sob, of another caliber than the first; timid fingers brushed his, and a hand, warm and fragile, closed upon his own in a passion of relief and gratitude.
"Oh, I am so g-glad!" It was Dorothy Calendar's voice, beyond mistake. "I—I didn't know what t-to t-think.... When the light struck your face I was sure it was you, but when I called, you answered in a voice so strange,—not like yours at all! ... Tell me," she pleaded, with palpable effort to steady herself; "what has happened?"
"I think, perhaps," said Kirkwood uneasily, again troubled by his racing pulses, "perhaps you can do that better than I."
"Oh!" said the voice guiltily; her fingers trembled on his, and were gently withdrawn. "I was so frightened," she confessed after a little pause, "so frightened that I hardly understand ... But you? How did you—?"
"I worried about you," he replied, in a tone absurdly apologetic. "Somehow it didn't seem right. It was none of my business, of course, but ... I couldn't help coming back. This fellow, whoever he is—don't worry; he's unconscious—slipped into the house in a manner that seemed to me suspicious. I hardly know why I followed, except that he left the door an open invitation to interference ..."
"I can't be thankful enough," she told him warmly, "that you did interfere. You have indeed saved me from ..."
"I don't know what. If I knew the man—"
"You don't know him?"
"I can't even guess. The light—?"
She paused inquiringly. Kirkwood fumbled with the lamp, but, whether its rude handling had impaired some vital part of the mechanism, or whether the batteries through much use were worn out, he was able to elicit only one feeble glow, which was instantly smothered by the darkness.
"It's no use," he confessed. "The thing's gone wrong."
"Have you a match?"
"I used my last before I got hold of this."
"Oh," she commented, discouraged. "Have you any notion what he looks like?"
Kirkwood thought briefly. "Raffles," he replied with a chuckle. "He looks like an amateurish and very callow Raffles. He's in dress clothes, you know."
"I wonder!" There was a nuance of profound bewilderment in her exclamation. Then: "He knocked against something in the hall—a chair, I presume; at all events, I heard that and put out the light. I was ... in the room above the drawing-room, you see. I stole down to this floor—was there, in the corner by the stairs when he passed within six inches, and never guessed it. Then, when he got on the next floor, I started on; but you came in. I slipped into the drawing-room and crouched behind a chair. You went on, but I dared not move until ... And then I heard some one cry out, and you fell down the stairs together. I hope you were not hurt—?"
"Nothing worth mention; but he must have got a pretty stiff knock, to lay him out so completely." Kirkwood stirred the body with his toe, but the man made no sign. "Dead to the world ... And now, Miss Calendar?"
If she answered, he did not hear; for on the heels of his query banged the knocker down below; and thereafter crash followed crash, brewing a deep and sullen thundering to rouse the echoes and send them rolling, like voices of enraged ghosts, through the lonely rooms.
THE MYSTERY OF A FOUR-WHEELER
"What's that?" At the first alarm the girl had caught convulsively at Kirkwood's arm. Now, when a pause came in the growling of the knocker, she made him hear her voice; and it was broken and vibrant with a threat of hysteria. "Oh, what can it mean?"
"I don't know." He laid a hand reassuringly over that which trembled on his forearm. "The police, possibly."
"Police!" she iterated, aghast. "What makes you think—?"
"A man tried to stop me at the door," he answered quickly. "I got in before he could. When he tried the knocker, a bobby came along and stopped him. The latter may have been watching the house since then,—it'd be only his duty to keep an eye on it; and Heaven knows we raised a racket, coming head-first down those stairs! Now we are up against it," he added brightly.
But the girl was tugging at his hand. "Come!" she begged breathlessly. "Come! There is a way! Before they break in—"
"But this man—?" Kirkwood hung back, troubled.
"They—the police are sure to find and care for him."
"So they will." He chuckled, "And serve him right! He'd have choked me to death, with all the good will in the world!"
"Oh, do hurry!"
Turning, she sped light-footed down the staircase to the lower hall, he at her elbow. Here the uproar was loudest—deep enough to drown whatever sounds might have been made by two pairs of flying feet. For all that they fled on tiptoe, stealthily, guilty shadows in the night; and at the newel-post swung back into the unbroken blackness which shrouded the fastnesses backward of the dwelling. A sudden access of fury on the part of the alarmist at the knocker, spurred them on with quaking hearts. In half a dozen strides, Kirkwood, guided only by instinct and the frou-frou of the girl's skirts as she ran invisible before him, stumbled on the uppermost steps of a steep staircase; only a hand-rail saved him, and that at the last moment. He stopped short, shocked into caution. From below came a contrite whisper: "I'm so sorry! I should have warned you."
He pulled himself together, glaring wildly at nothing. "It's all right—"
"You're not hurt, truly? Oh, do come quickly."
She waited for him at the bottom of the flight;—happily for him, for he was all at sea.
"Here—your hand—let me guide you. This darkness is dreadful ..."
He found her hand, somehow, and tucked his into it, confidingly, and not without an uncertain thrill of satisfaction.
"Come!" she panted. "Come! If they break in—"
Stifled by apprehension, her voice failed her.
They went forward, now less impetuously, for it was very black; and the knocker had fallen still.
"No fear of that," he remarked after a time. "They wouldn't dare break in."
A fluttering whisper answered him: "I don't know. We dare risk nothing."
They seemed to explore, to penetrate acres of labyrinthine chambers and passages, delving deep into the bowels of the earth, like rabbits burrowing in a warren, hounded by beagles.
Above stairs the hush continued unbroken; as if the dumb Genius of the Place had cast a spell of silence on the knocker, or else, outraged, had smitten the noisy disturber with a palsy.
The girl seemed to know her way; whether guided by familiarity or by intuition, she led on without hesitation, Kirkwood blundering in her wake, between confusion of impression, and dawning dismay conscious of but one tangible thing, to which he clung as to his hope of salvation: those firm, friendly fingers that clasped his own.
It was as if they wandered on for an hour; probably from start to finish their flight took up three minutes, no more. Eventually the girl stopped, releasing his hand. He could hear her syncopated breathing before him, and gathered that something was wrong. He took a step forward.
"What is it?"
Her full voice broke out of the obscurity startlingly close, in his very ear.
"The door—the bolts—I can't budge them."
"Let me ..."
He pressed forward, brushing her shoulder. She did not draw away, but willingly yielded place to his hands at the fastenings; and what had proved impossible to her, to his strong fingers was a matter of comparative ease. Yet, not entirely consciously, he was not quick. As he tugged at the bolts he was poignantly sensitive to the subtle warmth of her at his side; he could hear her soft dry sobs of excitement and suspense, punctuating the quiet; and was frightened, absolutely, by an impulse, too strong for ridicule, to take her in his arms and comfort her with the assurance that, whatever her trouble, he would stand by her and protect her.... It were futile to try to laugh it off; he gave over the endeavor. Even at this critical moment he found himself repeating over and over to his heart the question: "Can this be love? Can this be love? ..."
Could it be love at an hour's acquaintance? Absurd! But he could not laugh—nor render himself insensible to the suggestion.
He found that he had drawn the bolts. The girl tugged and rattled at the knob. Reluctantly the door opened inwards. Beyond its threshold stretched ten feet or more of covered passageway, whose entrance framed an oblong glimmering with light. A draught of fresh air smote their faces. Behind them a door banged.
"Where does this open?"
"On the mews," she informed him.
"The mews!" He stared in consternation at the pallid oval that stood for her face. "The mews! But you, in your evening gown, and I—"
"There's no other way. We must chance it. Are you afraid?"
Afraid? ... He stepped aside. She slipped by him and on. He closed the door, carefully removing the key and locking it on the outside; then joined the girl at the entrance to the mews, where they paused perforce, she as much disconcerted as he, his primary objection momentarily waxing in force as they surveyed the conditions circumscribing their escape.
Quadrant Mews was busily engaged in enjoying itself. Night had fallen sultry and humid, and the walls and doorsteps were well fringed and clustered with representatives of that class of London's population which infests mews through habit, taste, or force of circumstance.
On the stoops men sprawled at easy length, discussing short, foul cutties loaded with that rank and odoriferous compound which, under the name and in the fame of tobacco, is widely retailed at tuppence the ounce. Their women-folk more commonly squatted on the thresholds, cheerfully squabbling; from opposing second-story windows, two leaned perilously forth, slanging one another across the square briskly in the purest billingsgate; and were impartially applauded from below by an audience whose appreciation seemed faintly tinged with envy. Squawking and yelling children swarmed over the flags and rude cobblestones that paved the ways. Like incense, heavy and pungent, the rich effluvia of stable-yards swirled in air made visible by its faint burden of mist.
Over against the entrance wherein Kirkwood and the girl lurked, confounded by the problem of escaping undetected through this vivacious scene, a stable-door stood wide, exposing a dimly illumined interior. Before it waited a four-wheeler, horse already hitched in between the shafts, while its driver, a man of leisurely turn of mind, made lingering inspection of straps and buckles, and, while Kirkwood watched him, turned attention to the carriage lamps.
The match which he raked spiritedly down his thigh, flared ruddily; the succeeding paler glow of the lamp threw into relief a heavy beefy mask, with shining bosses for cheeks and nose and chin; through narrow slits two cunning eyes glittered like dull gems. Kirkwood appraised him with attention, as one in whose gross carcass was embodied their only hope of unannoyed return to the streets and normal surroundings of their world. The difficulty lay in attracting the man's attention and engaging him without arousing his suspicions or bringing the population about their ears. Though he hesitated long, no favorable opportunity presented itself; and in time the Jehu approached the box with the ostensible purpose of mounting and driving off. In this critical situation the American, forced to recognize that boldness must mark his course, took the girl's fate and his own in his hands, and with a quick word to his companion, stepped out of hiding.
The cabby had a foot upon the step when Kirkwood tapped his shoulder.
"Lor, lumme!" cried the fellow in amaze, pivoting on his heel. Cupidity and quick understanding enlivened the eyes which in two glances looked Kirkwood up and down, comprehending at once both his badly rumpled hat and patent-leather shoes. "S'help me,"—thickly,—"where'd you drop from, guvner?"
"That's my affair," said Kirkwood briskly. "Are you engaged?"
"If you mykes yerself my fare," returned the cabby shrewdly, "I ham."
"Ten shillings, then, if you get us out of here in one minute and to—say—Hyde Park Corner in fifteen."
"Us?" demanded the fellow aggressively.
Kirkwood motioned toward the passageway. "There's a lady with me—there. Quick now!"
Still the man did not move. "Ten bob," he bargained; "an' you runnin' awye with th' stuffy ol' gent's fair darter? Come now, guvner, is it gen'rous? Myke it a quid an'—"
"A pound then. Will you hurry?"
By way of answer the fellow scrambled hastily up to the box and snatched at the reins. "Ck! Gee-e hup!" he cried sonorously.
By now the mews had wakened to the fact of the presence of a "toff" in its midst. His light topcoat and silk hat-rendered him as conspicuous as a red Indian in war-paint would have been on Rotten Row. A cry of surprise was raised, and drowned in a volley of ribald inquiry and chaff.
Fortunately, the cabby was instant to rein in skilfully before the passageway, and Kirkwood had the door open before the four-wheeler stopped. The girl, hugging her cloak about her, broke cover (whereat the hue and cry redoubled), and sprang into the body of the vehicle. Kirkwood followed, shutting the door. As the cab lurched forward he leaned over and drew down the window-shade, shielding the girl from half a hundred prying eyes. At the same time they gathered momentum, banging swiftly, if loudly out of the mews.