The House by the Lock
by C. N. Williamson
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Co-author of "The Lightning Conductor," "My Lady Cinderella," etc.







The Lady in the Stage Box

"Hullo, old chap! Who would ever have thought of seeing you here to-night? What's brought you back to civilisation again?"

I turned suddenly, surprised by the sound of a familiar voice in my ear. It was the night of Christmas Eve, and I was just entering the lobby of the St. James's, the first time, as it happened, I had seen the inside of a theatre for two years.

For the fraction of a moment I could not remember where I had known the man who addressed me so jovially. My way of knocking about the world brought me into contact with so many people that it was difficult to sort my gallery of faces, and keep each one mentally ticketed. But after a second or two of staring through that convenient medium, my monocle, I was able to place the man who had accosted me. He was a rich mining king from Colorado, by the name of Harvey Farnham, whom I had met in Denver, when I had been dawdling through America three or four years ago.

I pronounced his name with a certain self-satisfaction in having so readily recalled it, and we shook each other by the hand.

"What's brought me back to civilisation?" I echoed, lazily. "I really don't know—unless it was because I'd got tired of the other thing. Adventure—change—that's what I am in search of, my dear Farnham."

"And you come back here from service as war correspondent in Egypt (where I last read of you in the papers as having been carried down a cataract for twenty-six miles before a launch ran out and saved you) in the hope of finding 'adventure' in this workaday close of the nineteenth century? That's too good."

I laughed and shrugged my shoulders. "Yes; why not? Why should there not be as great a possibility of obtaining new sensations, or at least old ones in different form, in London as anywhere else?"

It did not occur to me, as I idly spoke the words, that I was uttering a prophecy.

"How is it," I went on rather curiously, "that you remembered me, 'honouring my draft on sight,' so to speak? It must be four years since that very jolly supper you gave me in Denver one night, and I fancy I have changed considerably since then."

Farnham smiled in his comical American way, which was a humorous sentence in itself.

"Well, I guess it's not so easy to forget a face like yours. You are a little browner, your eyes rather keener perhaps, your head held a bit higher, your shoulders broader and drawn back more like a soldier's than ever; but, so far as I can see, those are the only changes. You might easily have forgotten me, and I'm immensely flattered that you haven't. But the fact is, my dear boy, you are simply the most interesting man I ever came across, in my own country or any other. You've always seemed like a sort of hero of a tale of adventure to me; and, you see, one don't let a chap like that drop out of one's recollection. I've always eagerly followed your doings, so far as one could follow them in the newspapers, and I read your African book with the greatest interest; but somehow I never got to hear much personal gossip about you. Say, are you married or anything?"

"Many things, but not married," I returned. "I haven't had time to think of women. Besides, if I had, who would take me? No money, no prospects, a man who can't be happy for a fortnight in one place! What a life I should lead a woman!"

"Ah, that's one side of the picture, of course; but here's the other, as the world sees it. You're a sort of popular hero—African traveller, war correspondent, writer of books. Polar explorer, and I don't know what besides, though you can't yet be anywhere near thirty-five. You've got the figure of a soldier, and just the sort of dark, unreadable face that women rave about. What does money matter with a chap like that? Nothing. I wonder you've managed to escape the matchmaking mammas so long. They're quite as keen on a celebrity, in my country at least, as they are on a millionaire."

"Nevertheless, they have not given me much trouble," I said, smiling a little, however, at the remembrance of one or two amusing episodes which I had not the slightest intention of relating. "There, the way to the box-office is clear at last. Once that fat old man is out of the way, it will be my turn. Shall I get your stall for you, and so save time?"

"Yes, by all means, thank you. Are you alone, Stanton?"

"Quite alone. I'd almost forgotten what the theatre was like, and determined to come and refresh my memory."

"I'm by myself, too. Say, old man, would it be a liberty if I asked you to try and get stalls for us together?"

"Delighted, I'm sure," I answered, though, as a matter of fact, I was not quite certain whether I was telling the truth or not. Farnham had been well enough in Denver, but I did not know whether I should care to pass in his society a whole evening, which I had meant to be one of solitary enjoyment. However, he had left me nothing else to say, and I responded with what alacrity I could, little dreaming that my whole future was hanging on my words, and the result of my confab with the man in the box-office.

The play was a popular one, and perhaps on no night of the year, save Christmas Eve or some Lenten fast, could we have obtained two stalls side by side a few minutes before the ringing-up of the curtain. As it was, we were successful, and I walked into the theatre by the side of the tall, thin, smooth-faced American.

We sat down, in the third or fourth row of the stalls, and, as the orchestra had not yet come in, began to talk.

Farnham explained to me that he had "run over" to England on business, intending to sell a certain mine of his, which, though vastly profitable, was the one thing in which he had lost interest. The other mines in which he was part owner were situated in his own state, Colorado, while this particular one, the "Miss Cunningham," was in California, and he was tired of journeying to and fro.

"I've had a good offer," he said; "indeed, I'm visiting in the house of the man who has made it—a wonderful fellow, only one degree less interesting, perhaps, than you. His name is Carson Wildred. Did you ever hear of him?"

"No," I answered, though possibly not to know Mr. Carson Wildred was to argue myself unknown.

"He seems to have plenty of money," explained Farnham, "and though he's a newcomer in London, has got in with a number of good people. He has two houses, one in Sloane Street and one up the Thames, a queer, lonely old place, near Purley Lock, if you know where that is. I'm staying out there with him now, as it happens, though I can't say I'm as fond of the river as he is at this season. But when a few papers and a good round sum of money have changed hands, a couple of days or so from now, I shall bid Wildred and England au revoir. I expect to sail for America at the end of the week, and jolly lucky I think myself to have run up against you to-night."

Somehow, as he rattled on about his own affairs, my heart began to warm towards Farnham. He was not a particularly brilliant fellow, though a good business man; but he had such a whimsical face, with its bright eyes, its good-natured mouth, and its laughable, upturned nose! He was so frankly interested in life, so enthusiastic, so outspoken, so boyish in many of his ways, despite his forty years! I found myself almost inclined to be sorry that he was leaving England so soon.

"I should like you to meet Wildred," he went on. "I don't know whether you'd fancy him, but you couldn't help thinking his a remarkable personality. It would be interesting to see you two chaps together. He's at the theatre to-night, by the way, with some friends of his—rather swells. It was an old engagement, made before I went out to his house, but he had to keep it, of course. They'll be in that stage box over there, and as Wildred has been industriously raising my curiosity about the beauty of one of the ladies for the past few days, I concluded to drop in and take the only chance I was likely to get of a look at her. And mighty glad I am that I did so make up my mind, or I should have left England without clapping eyes on someone I'd rather see than all the professional beauties in London."

As he finished speaking the overture, which had now been on for some time, ceased, and the curtain went up on a very pretty bit of stage setting.

There was no curtain-raiser, and the first act was well constructed and interesting from the commencement. It was delightful to me to feel, as I did, that I was no longer blase of town life, or the mimic life of the theatre, and I was inclined to resent the interruption when Farnham nudged me, whispering—

"There's Wildred and his friends just coming into the stage box. By Jove! what a pretty girl!"

I looked up, because I was sure the volatile American would give me no peace until I had done so; and then, having looked up, I promptly forgot the play and its dramatis personae.

Two years I had spent in Africa and Egypt, and I had not seen many fair faces during that time of travel and campaigning. I was in a mood, therefore, to appreciate the delicate loveliness of English women; but, even had I been surfeited with beauty, my eyes would have lingered in a species of wonder on the girl just seating herself in a corner of the stage box. It is possible that I have seen other women as beautiful, many more classically perfect of feature, but never have I looked upon a face so radiant, so bewildering.

For the moment I scarcely glanced at the girl's companions, though I was vaguely conscious that there was an older woman, and that two men were taking chairs in the darker background of the box.

All the other figures on the stage and in the auditorium became meaningless for me. There was the dazzling girl in white, and, so far as I was concerned, no one else in the theatre.

The simple, snowy frock, without jewels or ornamentation of any kind, was the most becoming frame which could have been chosen for the picture. The oval face, with its pearly skin, its curved red lips, its starry, long-lashed eyes (which might have been brown or violet, so far as I could tell), and the aureole of waving, ruddy gold hair were all so vivid in their marvelous effect of colour, that the dead white gown set them off far more artistically than the most carefully-chosen tints could have done.

The girl could not, I thought, have been more than twenty, and every turn of the beautifully-poised little head, every dimpling smile, told that she was full of the joy of life.

"What do you think of Wildred?" whispered Farnham, his lazy American drawl waking me out of a dream.

I did not wish him to see how completely I had been absorbed, how foolishly I had lost my head, and therefore I turned my attention to the two men in the back of the box.


The Man with the Pale Eyes

En passant, my eyes dwelt for an instant upon a stout woman of a certain age, whose figure was encased in a sort of armour of steel-grey satin and beads, and whose carefully-arranged head was adorned by a small tiara of diamonds, but they found no temptation to linger.

One of the men was old, grey-haired, and large of girth, with a huge expanse of snowy shirt, and a head guiltless of hair. The other was comparatively young, not many years past my own age, perhaps, and a curious thrill, which I could not myself have explained, passed through me as I looked, through half-shut eyes, at his face. Where had I seen it before? Or did it bear but a haunting resemblance to some other, painted on my memory's retina in lurid, yet partially obliterated, colours?

I had no doubt which of the two was Carson Wildred, Farnham's friend and host. What he had said of the man's personality assured me of his identity.

It was passing strange to me that I should be so strongly impressed by the feeling that I had seen the face before, under startling and disagreeable circumstances, and yet be unable to identify it. Something seemed to be lacking, or changed, which broke the chain of evidence in my mind. Surely I should have been able to remember that peculiar nose, with the flattened bridge, now presented to me in profile.

It would be a sign of a lacking bump of observation to have forgotten the angle of that protruding lower jaw, and the strong contrast between the almost copper-coloured skin, jet black hair, and large, brilliant blue eyes—so light as to appear almost white.

It was impossible, I told myself, that I had met the man before. His remarkable and uncommon cast of features had no niche in my recollection, and yet I knew that in some crucial moment I had looked into those pale and scintillating eyes.

A wave of repulsion swept over me. I could not remember when I had experienced two such keen emotions as my surprised admiration for the girl, and the dislike, almost amounting to disgust, which I felt for Farnham's friend, Carson Wildred. Something deeper than mere annoyance surged in my breast, that that dark personality should lurk so near to the spotless whiteness of the gauzy drapery, which vaguely seemed to me a part of the girl's self.

"Eh? What did you say? How do you like his looks? Peculiar face, isn't it?" queried Farnham, close to my ear.

"Yes, it is peculiar," I answered, mechanically, snatching at the phrase.

"And the girl! Isn't she something rather choice?"

"Very lovely. Who is she?"

"A Miss Karine Cunningham. Same name as the mine that Wildred is going to take off my hands. Merely a coincidence, but I fancy it influenced him in his wish to buy the property, perhaps. He is very much in love with the girl, and rich as he apparently is, she can more than match him, I should say. She's an orphan, whose father, though he came of what you English call a 'good family,' made his pile in trade; and Sir Walter Tressidy, who is in the box with his wife, was her guardian until she came of age, about a year ago. She still lives with them, and Lady Tressidy takes her about. All these things Wildred, who is never so happy as when he is talking of Miss Cunningham, has told me; so you see, I'm pretty well primed as to her antecedents, means, and so on. The girl has thirty thousand pounds a year if she has a penny. Whew! Only think what that means in American money. She could buy and sell me."

I might have truthfully replied that the young lady could have had me without either buying or selling, since—for the first time since my callow days—these few moments had taught me what it was to experience a wild quickening of the pulses under the casual glance of a woman's eyes.

She had seen me. So much satisfaction at least was mine. Wildred had doubtless pointed out his friend, and her gaze had passed on to me—drawn, perhaps, by the compelling magnetism of the strange new feeling which dominated me.

Wishing to avoid the appearance of rudeness, I would have looked away, but I found myself for an instant unable to do so. It was ridiculous to fancy it, and yet I could not help imagining that the girl's exquisite face lighted up with an expression akin to interest as her eyes rested upon mine.

It was for me a moment of intoxication, as I felt that those twin violet lakes received, full in their depths, the involuntary outpouring of my soul. A sensation as of being wrenched away from some safe mooring passed through me as she withdrew her gaze, and, turning her head, whispered to Lady Tressidy, who sat beside her. The latter then looked at me, and unhesitatingly put up her sparkling lorgnettes.

Farnham had not failed to observe this little pantomime, and was vastly amused thereby.

"This is what comes of being a celebrity!" he chuckled. "They've recognised you from the pictures that were in all the papers a couple of months ago, or perhaps by the photos that were published when your book came out."

"Nonsense!" I said, rather irritably. "They're only annoyed, perhaps, at our staring. Let's turn our attention to the stage."

I set the example which I recommended, but before doing so I gave myself the indulgence of one more lingering glance, and saw that Carson Wildred was eyeing me with undisguised interest.

Was I mistaken—was it only the faint emotion awakened by the mention of a name not quite unknown to the public—or did the man share in my half-recognition of him?

Whatever the feeling excited by the sound of my name or the sight of my face, it was certainly not a pleasant one. The one look I ventured showed me the pale eyes shadowed by a frown, and the gleam of white teeth as they gnawed the lower lip under the slight dark line of the moustache.

He had glanced from me to Farnham, and something in his look told me that, for a reason to me unfathomable, he was displeased at seeing us together.

At the end of the act we went out for a smoke and a breath of fresh air, and as we were returning we met Wildred near the stairway which, at the St. James's, leads to the boxes on one side of the house.

"I was looking for you," he said to Farnham, and the tones of the voice roused the same vague, unpleasant memories that the eyes had stirred.

"And we were just talking of you," Farnham annoyed me by retorting. "I should like to be the means of making you two known to each other. Of course, Wildred, you have heard all about Noel Stanton. This is actually he in the flesh, and he has been telling me that he believes he must have seen you somewhere before."

Mr. Wildred tossed away a cigarette, and followed it with his brilliant eyes. He was smiling, but his lips were tense, as his gaze came back to me.

"It is my misfortune," he said, "to be obliged to assure you that Mr. Stanton is mistaken. I know him as well as one can do without having met him, through his book, and a world-wide reputation, but beyond that I have not till now had the pleasure."

We looked into each other's eyes, and I knew the man lied, and that he hated me. But the mystery of his personality and my share in his past was as profound a mystery as before.

"Lady Tressidy sent me out particularly," he continued, "in quest of you both, having recognised Mr. Stanton from his numerous counterfeit presentments, and she hopes that you will come and be introduced to her and to Miss Cunningham in their box."

Farnham looked at me doubtfully, fearing perhaps that I would refuse. But, grudgingly as the message was evidently delivered by Wildred, I grasped at the opportunity it gave.

I should speak to Miss Cunningham. I should know her. I might dare to look at her, and I might touch her hand.

I have gone through some queer experiences in rather an eventful life, and have generally managed to keep a cool head in emergencies. But my head was not cool to-night. Everything was dark to me, except the one lovely face raised smilingly towards mine, as some murmured words of introduction were spoken in the box, a little later, giving me the right henceforth to claim Miss Cunningham as an acquaintance.

I suppose I answered coherently when Lady Tressidy addressed me, and talked without openly making an idiot of myself to Sir Walter. But I remember nothing of the conversation between the second and third acts, save the few words spoken by Miss Cunningham, and an invitation from Lady Tressidy to call on one of her "At Home" days.

After I had gratefully accepted, I turned to the girl.

"Lady Tressidy has said I may come and see her," I ventured. "Will you—may I hope to find you with her when I do?"

She looked up with a sudden, illumining smile that answered me. "Come soon," she returned. They were her last words for me that night, and they rang in my head as I left her, dizzy with the memory of her loveliness.


A Dead Man's Hand

I had taken rooms temporarily at the Savoy Hotel, not knowing how long it might be ere I should be moved in spirit to desert London; and that night, instead of looking in at the club as I had meant, I went from the theatre straight to the hotel.

There was a fire burning in my room, and I drew up a chair before it to smoke an unlimited number of cigarettes, and to think of Karine Cunningham.

I had parted from Farnham outside the theatre, and had made an appointment to meet him next day at dinner, which he was to eat with me at my hotel.

I felt no inclination for bed, nor was I in the least sleepy, and yet, before an hour had passed, I must have fallen into a doze.

Suddenly I was awakened by the impression of having heard a sound. I looked round me, half dazed still from my dreams. The fire had died down, and I had left myself with no other light. Only a ruddy glow lingered on the hearth, and a small clock on the mantelpiece just above lightly chimed out the hour of two.

I must have dreamed the sound, I told myself, for all was silent in the sleeping hotel, and even the rattle of cabs outside was dulled. Still, the impression lingered, and I could hardly persuade myself that I had not heard Harvey Farnham's voice calling my name, and finishing with a gurgling, despairing cry for help, the horror of which had chilled the blood in my veins, even in my sleep.

Though the fire was dead, the room was still warm, and I hardly knew why I should be so cold. Nevertheless, I felt chilled to the bone, and I was glad enough to get into bed as quickly as I could. Several times I was on the point of falling asleep again, but, at just the critical point between reflectiveness and sinking into the soft depths of slumber, I waked with an almost convulsive start, and a remembrance of the cry I had heard or dreamed. I was sure it must have been the latter, although, I told myself, there might actually have been some fracas in the street which, in my sleep, I had confused with a dream of Harvey Farnham.

Resigning myself to wakefulness at last, I began to plan out the programme of the next week, and wonder how soon I might avail myself of Lady Tressidy's invitation to call. She was at home on Sundays informally, she had said, whenever she happened to be in town during the winter, though Thursday was her "day" during the season.

Now, the Thursday following would be Christmas Day (this most eventful night being Christmas Eve of last year), but I did not see why I might not look in for a few moments on the ensuing Sunday. It had only been because Sir Walter's affairs rendered a short stay in town necessary, that they were spending Christmas in Park Lane. They would probably go away in a few days, and I could not afford to lose my chance; for, though I had admired many women in my time, I had never yet seen one whom I wished to make my wife, until Karine Cunningham's lovely face had risen—fair and sweet as a new moon that mingled its silver with the rose of sunset—over my horizon.

I had laughed at men who gravely discussed the possibility of love at first sight, but now I began to realise, half shamefacedly, that it was not a thing to be convinced of through argument, but by thrilling, magical experience. I would have staked my life that Karine Cunningham's heart and mind were all that her face presaged of them, and I resolved that, if she were to be won, I would put my very life into the attempt to win her.

So thinking, and so resolving, I fell at last from waking dreams to sleeping ones, hoping dimly, as I slipped over the edge of realities, that they might be of Karine Cunningham. But they were not of her. Hardly had slumber got its hold upon me, when I saw myself by the river, looking down into a swiftly rushing tide. It seemed to be somewhere in the country, though I had little thought for my surroundings; and I was conscious that I was watching anxiously for the appearance of some object, whose nature I did not accurately know. It had been daylight in my vision at first—a cold, grey, wintry daylight—but suddenly night fell, with the rapidity that all changes come and go in dreamland, and the only light was a spot of phosphorescent radiance that lay just under the surface of the water, floating gradually down towards me. I knew, in my sleep, that my eyes were destined to behold some sight of horror, yet I was bound, in a species of frozen fascination, to the spot where I stood, forced to wait for the oncoming of the light and its revelation of mystery.

Slowly it was borne along with the tide, until, having reached a bend in the river opposite the spot where I was standing, it ceased to move. I stooped down and saw that the pale light shone forth from a great white diamond on the finger of a dead man's hand. The body was faintly and darkly outlined; even the floating arm might also have been a floating mass of blackened river weed; but the hand was white as alabaster, and as I bent over it, staring down, one of the fingers moved and beckoned. Then I woke with a loud cry—"Harvey Farnham!"

I had gone through a good many dangers in my roving life, and had passed through many a queer adventure, believing that I could still boast unshaken nerves. Neither was I used to dreaming, and the hours of sleep were usually for me a long and peaceful interval of complete unconsciousness.

Now, however, my forehead was damp with a cold sweat, and I could hardly shake off the horror of the vision. It was ridiculous, I said to myself, and yet, even with my eyes open, I could see the white awfulness of that dead finger, as it beckoned me, shining palely in the light of the diamond ring.

Exactly why I had shouted the name of Harvey Farnham as I waked, I could not understand, unless—with the odd "hang togetherativeness" of dreams—it was because I had happened to notice during the evening at the theatre that he still wore on the last finger of his left hand a very remarkable ring, which he had also worn, and of which he had told me the history, when we had met four years previously in America. I had thought it perhaps the very finest diamond I had ever seen in the possession of a private person, and he had mentioned that it had been taken from the first mine of which he had ever been the owner. He had had it for some years, and, having grown stouter meanwhile, the gold setting had cut rather deeply into the flesh of his finger.

He had laughingly alluded to this in Denver, saying that he had promised a pretty girl that she should have the stone when he should be obliged to have the ring cut off, and he meant to stick to it as long as he could. Except for the fact of having remarked that he still wore the ring, and that his finger looked as pinched as a woman's waist beneath its clasp, I could not in any way have described Harvey Farnham's hand. I had doubtless a general impression of its shape and contour in my mind, but I did not now recall that there had been any recognisable likeness between it and the dead hand my dream had shown me. Still, though I was able to give myself a perfectly rational explanation of the dream, and even of the impression of Farnham's voice earlier in the night, I could not shake off a curious and unpleasant sensation of there being some duty connected with the vision which I had left unperformed, or which was yet to be exacted of me in the future.


The House by the Lock

I arose on Christmas morning with the same feeling. There was absolutely nothing arranged for me to do that day, as I had informed no one I knew of my presence in London, meaning to be for the present somewhat of a free-lance. I had wished not to be obliged to account to anyone as to my goings and comings. I had not wanted any invitations to family festivities on Christmas Day to "keep me from being lonely." My desire had been to go exactly where the whim of the moment might lead me, and without a moment's hesitation I had declined the invitation to "Christmas dinner" which poor Farnham had dragged for me from his friend, Carson Wildred. It might amuse me, Farnham had thought, as Wildred's house up the river was a queer old place, interesting to anyone who cared for that sort of thing, and they two were dining quite alone. Wildred and he had had some final arrangements to settle up, and as Christmas was such an "off day," so far as amusements were concerned, it had been Wildred's idea that they should utilise it in this manner. The other man took Farnham's hint, and civilly gave the required invitation, of course, but even had it been offered with enthusiasm I should not have been tempted to accept.

Now, however, I felt a curious inclination to call at the House by the Lock, as it was named. I would not dine there, I told myself, but there must be an inn in the neighbourhood, where I could obtain some slight Christmas cheer, if I chose to embark upon the rather mild adventure of going up the river on this wintry holiday.

It was years since I had been in England, and the thought of a solitary stroll by the Thames along a country towing-path was not so dismal as it might have been to those who had not tramped with the equanimity of custom through African jungles.

Once the idea had taken root in my mind, I was impatient to carry it out. I would go, I decided, almost immediately, lunching at the nearest decent inn to Purley Lock, and turning up at Wildred's house at four or five in the afternoon. I would spend an hour there, perhaps, and return to town in time for dinner.

I had not got up particularly early, had breakfasted late, and by the time I was inclined to start it was past one o'clock. I had over an hour's journey to Great Marlow, the nearest railway station, with a drive of some four miles to follow, before I could reach the Chimes Inn, which I was told was the only one within some distance of Purley Lock.

It was a quaint old hostelry I found, and an agreeable landlord, who had hardly expected guests at so out-of-the-way a place on Christmas Day, and having finished his own midday repast, was very ready for a gossip with me.

Oh, yes, he said, he knew the House by the Lock, quite well. It was in reality situated at some little distance from the Lock itself, quite a quarter-of-a-mile, but then it was the nearest house, and perhaps that was the reason it had got its name. It was a very old place, but Mr. Wildred, since taking it about two years before, had had a great many alterations and improvements made both outside and in. He was something of an architect himself, it seemed—this rich Mr. Wildred; at all events, it was believed that he had made the designs for the alterations, and having a great fad that way, had even helped the chaps he had had down from London to do the indoor work and decorating. There had only been two or three men, so that progress had been slow, and everyone had wondered that such a rich man as Mr. Wildred was reported to be should have had things done in so niggling a manner. But, since then, they had concluded that he must have known what he was about, for everyone who went there came away with great reports of the decorations.

I was not particularly interested in these details that my landlord had to tell me.

Though, after all, there was an indefinable curiosity in my mind regarding everything that concerned Carson Wildred.

I got away from the man's animated gossip in the course of half-an-hour or so. I had a walk of a mile to take, having dismissed my fly, and meaning, after I had paid my rather aimless visit, to tramp all the way back to Marlow again. As I started, a clock on the inn table struck four.

There was a long streak of gold along the horizon of the otherwise dull grey sky, and a rising wind moaned drearily among the bare lower branches of the trees.

The scene looked indescribably desolate, and yet there was a certain beauty in it, too. I had been told exactly how to reach the House by the Lock, and when, after passing the somewhat weedy-looking lock, I began skirting along a species of backwater, and came in sight of a long, low-browed house close to the river, I knew I had reached my journey's end.

The place had the appearance of being only a restored remnant of an ancient abbey fallen into decay.

Indeed, at one end of the house a ruined wall jutted out, with a row of stone window-frames, half filled in with sombre trails of ivy; then in the middle came the habitable part of the old house, with an imposing front door, which might have belonged to some big Gothic Church; magnificent windows, that reminded me of a certain dear old college at Oxford, well-known in younger days; and beyond, to the left, was the wing evidently added by Wildred. It was in wretched taste, I thought, with its pretentiousness and its huge round tower at the end, utterly out of keeping with the rest. Then, as I criticised, my eye was caught by a puff of fiery smoke that suddenly rose above the battlements of the hideous tall tower.

I could not quite understand this phenomenon, for the tower, so far as I could see, had been merely built with the mistaken idea of being ornamental. Though new, it was intended to present the effect of being ruinous, having little dark chinks in lieu of windows.

Still, the smoke was there, belching out sparks not only from the apex of the tower, but stealing in a belated puff or two from the chinks in the wall nearest the top.

I thought of fire, and quickened my steps, meaning to mention to the servant who should open the door what I had seen. The lawn stretched down to the river, which was here, as I said, a mere backwater, and having entered through a gate set in the side of a big brick wall, I walked briskly up the short gravelled path that led to the house.

At least Wildred had had the sense to let this door alone, with its carvings of oak, and its big ornamental hinges and knocker. The only modern innovation was an electric bell, which I touched, and then, grasping the huge knocker, I rapped out an additional summons, which echoed drearily, as though through an empty house.

So near was I to the river, while I stood waiting on the door-stone to be admitted, that I could hear the soft lapping of the water against the shore. Darkness had fallen now, and an ugly recollection of my dream suddenly sprang up in my brain. Just so, I remembered, had I heard the water whispering, as in that hateful vision I had bent over to see the dead man's beckoning hand.

It was long before my ring and knock were answered, so long that I had my finger on the bell again. But at that moment I heard footsteps walking somewhat uncertainly along an uncarpeted floor within. Still the door remained closed; but at a long narrow window, which was the duplicate of another on the opposite side of the door, I saw for an instant that a face was pressed against the latticework of the glass.

"What ill-trained servants this man keeps," was my thought; and then, somewhat impatiently, I rang again.

The door opened almost immediately into a dimly-lighted hall, when a respectable, middle-aged man, out of livery, evidently a butler, stood revealed. Yet I could have sworn that the face at the window, seen but a second ago, had been that of a woman, young, pallid, and darkly bright of eye!


Was It a Mystery?

"I should like to see Mr. Wildred and Mr. Farnham," I said, not feeling it necessary to ask if they were at home. I knew that they had definitely arranged to be so.

I glanced round me carelessly as I spoke. The hall was a huge one, dim in the corners, with a fine stairway that ran down in the centre, and was lighted by a great branching candelabrum held up by a bronze figure on either side.

Doors, hung with portieres of tapestry, opened here and there along the hall, and in a fireplace at one side slow flames crept along a freshly-heaped pile of logs.

"I am sorry, sir," said the servant, respectfully, "but both the gentlemen have gone out for the day."

He did not look me in the face as he delivered this piece of information, but allowed his narrow eyes to drop away shiftily.

"Oh, I am surprised at that," I returned, "for I have come by invitation."

I hardly know by what impulse I mentioned this, and as a matter of fact the invitation could hardly be supposed to stand, as I had last night refused it. Still, it seemed to me extremely improbable that the two men would have changed their minds about the day, after midnight, when I had parted from them. They had mentioned refusing one or two invitations, and there was really so little to do by way of amusement out of one's own house, or somebody else's, on Christmas Day. Somehow, too, I felt impressed that the man was lying. He had perhaps been told to say that his master and guest were away in case of an intrusion, which they might have had reason to fear; but this could hardly stand with me.

The fellow's smug face changed instantly.

"Oh, I see, sir, you are the gentleman Mr. Wildred was expecting. He—they—it is possible they will be in quite shortly. Perhaps you will walk into the room."

"The room," and with such a queer little emphasis on the former word, sounded rather odd. It was but a trifling peculiarity of expression, however, and I did not think much of it as I followed the butler along the hall, passing through a door, before which he swept the curtain aside with a flourish, and so into a passage which evidently led towards the new wing. We went on for some distance, and presently arrived at a closed door, which the butler threw open for me. "It is here that my master requested you should wait, sir," he said.

I walked in, and he left me, shutting the door. It then struck me that I had neither given him my name nor mentioned the mass of smoke and sparks which I had seen vomited from the tower. I sprang to the door again, meaning to call after the man a word of warning in regard to the fire, but he was already out of sight. He could not have gone back the way that he had come, or I should certainly have seen him walking down the dimly-lighted passage, there being no door save that at the extreme end, which he would not yet have had time to reach. I did not see how he could have disappeared so suddenly, but returning whence I had come, I looked about in vain for a bell.

I was sure now that this room must be situated in that part of the new wing which adjoined the tower. In glancing at the house from outside, I had fancied that the square, squat wall must be that of a studio, as there were no windows, but a high, domed skylight on top. Now I saw that though the outer building was square, the room within was octagon in shape. It was, perhaps, a studio, as I had fancied, but there was something of the free-and-easy negligence of an Oriental smoking-room about it.

The walls were hung with embroidered Indian materials, and a low divan ran down part way. Between the hangings were panels of sandal-wood, ornamented with bits of mirror in the Burmese fashion, and half hidden with curious foreign weapons, daggers, swords, and spears, and even a Zulu assegai or two. On the floor stood a hookah, and on a small inlaid table were a couple of curious little objects which I knew to be opium pipes. In one corner, as though it had been pushed aside, stood an easel with a canvas upon it, which was half covered with a piece of drapery. The skylight was partly concealed with red silk blinds, drawn across the staring glass, and from the centre of the dome was suspended a large jewelled lamp. It was from this that all the light in the studio proceeded at present, and though there was no fireplace, the room was warm—indeed, insufferably hot. This fact, taken together with the studio's proximity to the tower, made me feel more certain than before that some flue in this modern portion of the house had caught fire. I searched the panels for a bell, but found none, and at last lifted several of the curtains that draped the larger part of the octagonal walls. Under the first two that I raised only a blank space of dark wood was visible, but under the third I was surprised to find a small, secretive-looking door.

There was no knob or ring by way of handle, but close to the edge, and about half-way between top and bottom, I distinguished a diminutive keyhole, outlined with shining metal. I let the curtain drop again, though lingeringly. It could be only a cupboard, or a particularly secure wine cellar, perhaps, behind this dwarfish door, yet had I discovered it in a house not English, but of a country less conventionally civilised than our own, I should have told myself that I had chanced upon the clue to a secret.

There was still a fourth curtained space (the remaining half of the octagons being of the sandal-wood), and this, as it happened, was directly behind the draped easel.

I moved towards it, not intending to pry into Mr. Wildred's domestic economies, but still bent on unearthing an electric bell if I could do so, when my eyes fell upon the partially-covered picture.

It was but a pinky-white, uncovered shoulder that I could see, with a glimpse of red-gold hair at such a distance above as to suggest a massive knot at the back of a woman's head, seen in profile. There was a fraction of fluffy tulle sleeve as well, revealing the outline of a rounded, girlish arm, and though the face was hidden by the drapery, I was as sure as if I had seen it, that should I push aside the curtain my eyes would fall upon the counterfeit presentment of Karine Cunningham.

With half-extended hand I paused. The painting was so far covered, and it was in another man's house. Had I a right to assure myself whether my supposition were correct? As I hesitated my ears were startled by what I can only describe as the beginning of a sound.

It was low and inarticulate, yet it seemed to me that it was uttered by human lips. It commenced with a tremulous, vibrating noise, such as might have been made by a man groaning with closed mouth and between set teeth.

I started, and looked over my shoulder, so close did it seem, that I could almost fancy it had proceeded from a corner of the room behind me. Still it went on, monotonously, and then suddenly rose with ever-increasing volume to a yell of utmost agony.

Never had I heard such a shriek, not even in battle, when men were stabbed or shot, or blown to pieces. So horrible, so long-drawn was it, that I found myself strangely awe-struck and appalled.

"Great heaven!" I exclaimed aloud, sure now that close at hand fire must be raging, and have claimed some inmate of the house as its victim.

Though I knew not where to find the servant who had admitted me, or any other person, I flung open the door through which I had come, and ran down the passage leading towards the main part of the house. In through the second and wider one I went, opening a door here and there, but finding only darkness and emptiness beyond.

I reached the large entrance hall at last, and shouted loudly—"Here, you! John, James!"—not knowing in the absence of the master and his guest whom to call upon.

No one answered, and after the horror of the unearthly cry that I had heard, and now the sound of my own lusty voice, the silence that fell seemed curiously brooding and ominous.

I shouted a second time, and was then rewarded by the sight of the respectable-looking butler. His face appeared—or I imagined it,—even more smug than before in its expression, and there was something suggestive of injured dignity as well.

"Did you call, sir?" he inquired with an irritating meekness.

"I did, indeed," I returned rather sharply. "I've been looking everywhere for a bell, but couldn't find one. I have every reason to believe that this house is on fire, somewhere in the left wing, near the room into which you took me, and it is certain that someone has got caught in the flames. For heaven's sake, show me the entrance to the tower, and come with me to do what can be done!"

The smug look was gone, chased away by one of blank amazement, which did not, however, seem the sort of horrified surprise that might have been expected to follow on my startling announcement.

"I'm sure you must be entirely mistaken, sir," he said. "There is no fire, I'm quite certain of that. There—there may have been a cry, for as it happens there's just been an accident—in the kitchen."

"An accident in the kitchen?" I echoed, incredulously.

"Yes, sir. You see, it was this way, sir" (the fellow stammered and breathed hard between his words, as though he were anxious to gain time for himself, I thought): "The cook—an awkward woman—set some methylated spirit on fire, and upset the stuff over her foot. She—I'm afraid she did give a scream, sir. You know what women are at such times. But it's all right now. The flames were put out on the instant, sir, and one of the other servants is helping cook bind up her foot. Very kind of you to take this trouble and be anxious, sir, I'm sure."

He was glib enough now, but his shifty eyes were moving about, as though looking with a certain apprehension for someone to arrive.

"I saw smoke and sparks coming out of the tower as I came up to the door," I said, doubtful about accepting this halting explanation.

The fellow flushed to the roots of his black oiled hair as I watched him.

"Did you see that, sir?" he exclaimed, ingenuously. "It's master's laboratory up there, though you'd never think it from the outside, would you? Something's gone wrong with one of the—the apparatuses, sir—I don't know the name for it—and the fact is I did suppose you were the gentleman who had come to examine into the trouble. He was to have arrived to-day, and so I thought——But I see, sir, as you refer to the sparks, and seem not to understand what makes them, I must have been mistaken."

"Yes, you were mistaken," I returned, only half satisfied, yet not caring to allow myself morbidly to scent a mystery where mystery there was none.

"Would you step in here, sir, and wait for my master?" he went on hastily, drawing aside the portiere from a door close by. "I shouldn't have given you the bother of going so far before, only I thought you'd come on business which would take you to that part of the house. This is the drawing-room, sir, if you'll be pleased to walk in, and I'll fetch you your hat and stick from the studio."

I had no objections to make to this suggested course, though I was conscious of a vague desire to return to the octagon room.

The butler noiselessly preceded me, turning up the lights, which had been dim, and touching a match to four or five candles on the mantelpiece. I saw then that I was in a large, old-fashioned drawing-room, with plenty of ancient blue and white china, Sheraton furniture, and a fireplace suggesting a design of Adams'.

I sat down beside it to finish my time of waiting, not quite sure whether to be crestfallen over having made an unnecessary sensation, or to be distrustful of the butler, with his shifty face. I scarcely heard his decorous footsteps, as he moved away over the polished oak floor of the great hall, but he had not been gone more than a moment or two, when the sound of voices whispering together reached my ears.

I had always particularly sensitive ones, and no doubt my somewhat precarious, wandering life had done much to sharpen them. At all events, I was able to hear that which did not reach the ears of other men less favoured in this regard, and now I caught a word or two spoken outside in the hall.

"In the drawing-room ... 'tisn't he, after all ... confound your stupidity! ... fool you are.... Well, it can't be helped now ... story will have to do."

An instant later Mr. Carson Wildred had appeared at the door. I got up as he showed himself, and advanced towards him, keenly watching his face. It had been alert at first, as though he were anxious to ascertain who the visitor could be; then, as he identified me, for the fraction of a second a fire of fierce anger blazed in his pale eyes. Before I could more than convince myself that it had actually been there, however, it was gone. He came towards me, smiling cordially, and holding out his hand.

"How do you do, Mr. Stanton?" he said. "This is an unexpected pleasure, after your refusal of our invitation last night, but none the less delightful. I suppose I'm rather late in wishing you a merry Christmas? But better late than never, you know!"

"Thank you," I returned, grudging the necessity for taking the man's hand. It was cold as ice, and he remarked upon it, laughing.

"Rather a chilly welcome that," he exclaimed; "but I've just come in from a walk, and we've very seasonable weather, as they call it, to-day. My butler—the best and most methodical of chaps, by the way—is in a frightful state because you have been annoyed, it seems, while you have been waiting for me. So sorry to have kept you. Accident in the kitchen, it seems. Hope it won't interfere with our getting a decent dinner to-night, for of course you'll stay?"

I fabricated an engagement for the evening on the spot, and explained how I had felt like spending an afternoon in the country, and seeing what the river looked like at Christmas time.

"I've only a few minutes to stay, really," I said, "for I've set my heart on walking back to Marlow. Farnham knows I'm here, I suppose?"

"Oh, that's the pity of it," he ejaculated. "Farnham's away, after all. You know what an erratic fellow he is? Well, he got tired of business, and not dreaming you would come, ran into town to dine with some people who had asked him the other day. The fact is, I fancy there's a fair lady in the case. But he did say something about looking you up at the Savoy, if he had time, and as trains are bad to-day, he meant to spend the night in town."

As Wildred went volubly on with his apologies and explanations, I did not take my eyes from his face. It was as open and candid in expression as a face of his peculiar type could be, and yet, though there was no earthly reason why I should disbelieve anything he had said, there was a vague doubt in my mind as uncomfortable to bear as a haunting sense of guilt.


An Adventure in the Park

"Farnham promised," I said, "to dine with me to-morrow night, you know. It is very much to be regretted that you have an engagement, but I hope that you will remind him of his to me."

"I will do so, certainly," Wildred returned. "Not that any reminder could be needed, for Farnham is one of your most enthusiastic admirers, I should say."

We were vastly polite to each other during what remained of the conversation, far more ceremoniously so than we should have been likely to be had there been any solid liking on either side under the thin veneer of friendliness.

In a few moments I had got away, despite Wildred's repeated request that I should remain and share his lonely Christmas dinner with him. Somehow, a mouthful of food taken in that house would have choked me, and I left with the echo of the awful cry I had heard still seemingly ringing in my ears.

I half expected that Farnham might look in upon me, as Wildred had suggested, and therefore spent what remained of the evening after my return to town at the hotel. But he did not come, and shortly after midnight I threw down the book in which I had been able to retain no great interest, and went to bed.

It was ridiculously early when I woke, and my first conscious thought was a joyous one, that now only one day intervened between me and the call I promised myself to make at Lady Tressidy's.

I had endeavoured to explain to my own satisfaction the presence of a portrait which I believed to represent Miss Cunningham at the House by the Lock. There were many ways in which it might have found a place there, without betokening any great intimacy between the original of the picture and Carson Wildred. It might have been an Academy success which he had purchased; it might be even that the resemblance was merely one of chance.

Still, try as I might to settle the doubts which, no matter how often discarded, invariably came crowding back to my brain, I was already far too deeply plunged into love to remember with calmness my glimpse of the canvas under the drapery.

Of course it would be impossible for me to refer to it in talking with Lady Tressidy or Miss Cunningham, if I were lucky enough to see them on Sunday; but in some indirect way I might be able to induce one of them to mention it. I could refer to my visit to the House by the Lock perhaps, touching lightly upon my impression of the striking decorations in the studio, or smoking-room, and then, if there were nothing to conceal, and Miss Cunningham were aware that Mr. Wildred possessed her portrait, it would be very natural that a word or two in regard to it might pass her lips.

As I was on my way down to breakfast a little after ten, I met one of the bell boys with a telegram, which he had been on the way to bring to my door.

It was a long and elaborate message, and glancing down to the end of the seven or eight lines I read Farnham's name. I then went back to the beginning again.

"So sorry not to have seen you yesterday," the words ran. "Wildred has come to town, bringing my luggage, on receipt of a wire from me saying I have just heard of important financial business calling me to America at once. Has told me of your visit. Very vexed can't keep engagement with you to-night, and that this must after all be farewell, as am leaving immediately for Southampton by boat train. Good-bye and good luck to you. Will write you soon from other side, addressing Savoy Hotel. Yours, HARVEY FARNHAM."

I cannot say I felt any very deep disappointment at the thought that I should not see my friend from the States again. I liked him, and had found him a pleasant companion, but had it not been for the strange and unpleasant dream which had somehow gifted him with an artificial importance in my mind, I should have cherished few regrets at his sudden flitting. As it was, I had a curious sense of uneasiness, and an inexplicable impression that in some undefined way I had done him an injustice, or been careless of his interests, though in reality I was very sure I had done nothing of the kind.

Still, I could not shake off the feeling, and with an odd restlessness upon me I started almost immediately after breakfast for a long walk.

For some time I went on without paying very much attention to the direction I had taken, but mechanically I had passed along the Embankment, so on through crowded Piccadilly, and thus to the Park.

The dreary stretch of sodden grass, with stripped trees, and here and there a patch of dingy London snow, did not look particularly inviting, but I went in, wondering a little at my own aimlessness of mood.

I had intended to do a good deal of writing during the morning and early afternoon, but I knew that, even had I stayed at home, it would have been impossible for me to put pen to paper.

The ubiquitous cyclist was to be seen in great numbers and to the best advantage. At this time of year the "smart set" was for the most part conspicuous by its absence, but there were some pretty and neatly costumed young women, and as I pursued my way slowly, idly looking at those who passed, there was a flash of red-gold hair as a slender figure in dark grey cloth shot by, and I knew, with a quickening of my heart throbs, that I had seen Miss Cunningham.

She was going very well, and I was admiring the pretty back with its girlish shoulders and slim tapering waist, when suddenly a woman, riding in the opposite direction, swerved across the road on her wheel, before Miss Cunningham had been given either time to slacken her speed or to turn out of the way.

A collision was inevitable, and without waiting for it to happen, as I knew it must, in another instant I ran forward with great springing strides.

It was all over before I could reach the place. Both had fallen, and several passers-by on wheels had stopped and collected in so close a group that I could not see whether one or both had been seriously injured.

In less time than is taken in the telling, however, I had elbowed my way through the well-meaning crowd to find Miss Cunningham sitting on the edge of the grass nursing a twisted ankle, her lovely face looking white and troubled.

The cause of the accident was already on her feet, and in the midst of such voluble apologies and explanations that I could only conclude she, at least, had suffered slightly.

"Miss Cunningham," I said, warning the girl of my presence; and she looked up with a tremulous little cry of surprise and perhaps relief.

"Oh, I am so thankful!" she exclaimed. "I was just wondering what I should do. But—but you will help me, I know."

"If you will let me," I responded, rather too eagerly. "I saw the accident from a distance. I hope you are not much hurt."

"I don't quite know," she said, ruefully.

By this time we had been practically left alone. Seeing that an acquaintance of the young lady's had opportunely appeared upon the scene, the others, whose proffered assistance could now be dispensed with, had one by one moved away.

"Is it your ankle?" I asked, stooping down over the dainty foot which showed beneath the short bicycling dress.

"Yes; it seemed to turn under me as I fell, somehow. And my poor machine! I know it must have had a terrible smash. I feel far worse about it than I do about myself. But the whole thing is a punishment, I suppose. I oughtn't to have come out alone. Lady Tressidy never allows it, and will be very cross with me when she hears what has happened, I'm afraid. I shan't have a bit more sympathy than I deserve, when it comes out. I hadn't meant her to know at all, you see."

I could not imagine how even a woman could find it in her heart to reproach the owner of those beautiful appealing eyes and exquisite lips, quivering now, between smiles and tears, like those of a mutinous child.

If I had dared tell her how deep was the sympathy I felt! But I was only afraid lest she might read it, and more, in my eyes.

Sympathetic though I was, however, I could not control my joy that, since the accident had happened, I—and no other—had been on the spot to offer aid which she might deign to accept.

"Don't mind about your bicycle," I said. "I'm sure it's all right, or can easily be made so again; and if you'll let me enter into the plot, perhaps between us we can think of a road out of the difficulty with Lady Tressidy. But the first thing to do is to get you safely away from this."

"I'm afraid I can't walk!" she warned me, laughing nervously.

"Of course not. A cab's the thing, with the invalided bike on top. But may I be with you? I don't see how it is possible to let you go by yourself."

"It will be very—unconventional, won't it?" she smiled. "But there are times when conventionalities must be thrown aside, and I shall be grateful if you'll take care of me, and do all the planning, please." Then, womanlike, contradicting her own last sentence, she went on, "But I don't see how we can manage about a cab. Of course there won't be any here, and—I don't very much want to be left sitting here all alone."

"And you shall not be, for a moment," I said, joyful even at this small sign that my presence was not actually disagreeable to her. "There are plenty of people who will call a cab for us."

And I proceeded to put my statement to the proof.

Within five minutes an unusually presentable four-wheeler had appeared upon the scene, the unfortunate bicycle had been handed up on top, and the young lady had been tenderly helped inside.

"Tell him just to go on slowly for a few minutes while we talk things over," she commanded, more cheerfully. "Do you know, Mr. Stanton, after all I begin to hope my ankle is not so badly hurt; and though, as I told you, I shall be in a sad scrape when I get home, and have to confess, still—there's a spice of adventure in all this that appeals to me, rather. It's a very long time since I have had an adventure of any kind."

Poor child, she little guessed how many awaited her behind the lowered curtain of the future!

"Never have I had one which would be so wholly delightful," I boldly said, "if I had not to think that you were in pain."

"Oh, it is really not so dreadful." She blushed brightly, but when the lovely rose tint faded it left her pale even to the lips. "Suppose we talk," she went on more sedately, "about the way in which you are to get me out of my difficulty—for I think you've promised to do that."

I adopted her tone at once. "Let us begin with judicial questioning then. Was Lady Tressidy at home when you came out?"

"No"—laughing—"or I couldn't have come—on my bicycle. She'd gone to an anti-something meeting (Lady Tressidy is very fond of anti-something meetings, as you'll discover for yourself when you know her). She won't be at home to lunch either, and she need never find me out in my iniquity, except that—even though my foot is not so very bad—I shall be sure to limp. She will enquire what has happened, and, of course, though my conscience would not reproach me much for silence, if that were possible, I couldn't tell a fib."

I would have been ready to swear that she was not one of the young women who could rattle off what they might call "harmless evasions" with a candidly smiling face.

"Suppose, then," I suggested, "that you allow me to take you at once to a doctor, who will examine your ankle, and perhaps be able to anoint it with some healing lotion, which may prevent the limping you so dread. There used to be a man in this neighbourhood whom I knew by reputation when I was in England last. I remember street and number, and it's not very likely that he's moved away."

"A grand idea," she exclaimed; but though she tried to speak brightly, even merrily, it was plain to see that she was suffering a good deal, whether more physically or mentally I could not tell.

I put out my head and gave directions to the cabman, and when I drew it in again to glance anxiously at the face which already I so passionately loved, I saw that it was even whiter than before. The eyes were drooping and the dark curling lashes almost swept the colourless cheeks. As though she felt my gaze upon her, she looked up instantly, and made an effort to smile; but the mischievous light which had danced in her eyes when she first sank restfully back upon the shabby cushions of the cab had been suddenly and utterly quenched.

"Miss Cunningham!" I exclaimed. "You have made nothing of your pain, but I know that you are ill—that you are suffering."

"I am very foolish," she answered, in a low, unsteady voice. "It isn't my ankle—though, of course, that hurts a little—but I think It must be the shock, which I didn't realise at first. I felt quite bright until a moment ago, but suddenly I am all weak and trembling. The truth is, Mr. Stanton, I wasn't fit to be out this morning, especially alone, and I didn't come simply from sheer bravado, as you might think, and for the sake of doing what I'd been told not to do. I—I felt as though I must be out in the air, and in motion. I didn't sleep last night, and I didn't eat any breakfast this morning, which may partly account for this silliness of mine, perhaps. I thought I should feel better out of doors, but it seems that nothing in the world can do me any good. Everything I attempt must always end in disaster, and—oh, Mr. Stanton, I am so very, very unhappy and miserable!"

To my amazement and distress, she covered her face with her little gloved hands, and broke into a storm of sobbing.



It was all I could do to resist the impulse to take the small trembling hands in my own, to touch the bowed head with its glory of shimmering ripples, to break into passionate words which must have alarmed her, and put an end to my chance of winning her, perhaps for ever.

But to a certain extent I was able to control myself.

"What can I say—what can I do?" I stammered. "If there was only some way in which it might be possible for me to help you."

"Ah, if—if!" she echoed, desolately. "Don't you think it strange that, though we scarcely know each other—though this is only our second meeting, and quite by chance, I turn to you with such a confession? I am ashamed now"—and she impetuously dashed her tears away with a toy of a handkerchief. "But the words spoke themselves before I could stop them. You see, I have no one to talk to—no one to advise me. I think I must be the loneliest girl in all this big preoccupied world."

"I should have thought you would have more friends than you could keep within bounds," I said, hotly.

"Friends? Has anyone many friends? I have plenty of acquaintances, but I think no friends. Let us not talk of this any more, though, Mr. Stanton. I have forgotten myself."

"Forgive me—I can't obey you," I protested. "Just one word. As you said, this is only our second meeting, and I have no right to ask a favour of you, yet I am going to do it. I beg of you, as I never begged anything before, that you will forget how short a time we have known each other, and that you will take me for a friend—a friend in the truest and best sense of that good, much-abused word. I swear to you that you would find me loyal."

She looked up at me in the sweetest way, with eyes that glistened through a sheen of tears.

"I believe that I should find you so," she answered, falteringly. "And, oh, how I do need a friend—though you may think me disloyal to say that, when I have a home with those who—have meant to be kind to me." Her eyes had dropped, but now she raised them again and met mine earnestly. "Yes," she exclaimed—"yes, I will have you for a friend."

"Then won't you begin by making use of me at once?" I pleaded with an eagerness I could no longer disguise.

"I—am I not making use of you now? Ah, I know what you mean! You mean I am to tell you the things which I have let you see are troubling me? But much as I need help and advice, could I do that now, so soon? You must already think me a very strange girl—half mad perhaps. Well, I have had almost enough of late to drive me mad. Some time, in a few days maybe, when we know each other a little better, I——But the man is stopping. We have come to the doctor's you spoke of, I suppose?"

I neither blessed the cabman nor the doctor at that moment. Still less did I do so afterwards, knowing that, if we had not been interrupted then, it might well have happened that the whole course of our two lives had been changed.

However, there was nothing to be done but ascertain if the eminent man was at home, and able to give his attention to a somewhat urgent case.

The poor girl, too, was evidently suffering, and in a highly nervous state, and it would have been cruel, now that the opportunity had presented itself, to keep her for a single instant from the restoratives doubtless at hand.

Dr. Byrnes was to be seen. I introduced Miss Cunningham to him, described the accident, and left him to do what he could for the injured ankle. Afterwards I had still the joy of driving to Park Lane with her in anticipation.

I was only called when Dr. Byrnes was ready to send his patient away.

"Do you know what was the first thing that this young lady did before I had time to begin my ministrations?" he jocularly enquired, and though the girl looked up at him with imploring eyes, he persisted. "Why, she fainted away, and if she had to do it, she couldn't have chosen a more proper occasion. There I was, with all the known remedies at hand, and I proceeded to use them, with the most satisfactory results, as you may see. I don't think you will have any further trouble in going home; and now that she has been well dosed and well bandaged, the best thing she can do is to eat a hearty luncheon."

Once again settled in the cab, we were but a few moments' drive from Sir Walter Tressidy's house in Park Lane, as I knew to my intense regret. With wily forethought, however, I suggested going somewhat out of our way to the establishment of a certain bicycle manufacturer and mender, who would send for Miss Cunningham's machine, and repair it before the accident it had met with could be conjectured by those not supposed to know.

Try as I would I could not induce her to continue the conversation which had been broken short. The brief interval that had passed since then had severed the threads of intense emotion which had for the moment united us, and she, evidently repenting her frankness, was visibly ill at ease. It was only at the door that her manner warmed a little towards me again.

"Yes, I believe I am quite all right," she said, in answer to a question. "I shall not even have a suspicion of a limp." She held out her hand to me, and did not try to draw it away, though I grasped it rather longer and more tightly than conventionality might have approved. "You will come—soon—to see Lady Tressidy and—me?" she asked, softly.

"I thought of calling to-morrow afternoon. May I?"

"I shall be glad—very glad. Never shall I forget your kindness to me to-day. Don't think me any more—odd—than you can help. Good-bye."

Before I could begin to tell her how impossible it would be to think any save the most reverent thoughts of her she was gone, and a cloud seemed suddenly to darken my sky.


An Announcement

I would have given a year of my life to know what was the trouble and anxiety which so wrought upon Karine Cunningham. She was young, and it might be that her youth and her sex caused her mentally to exaggerate what was in reality a trifle; yet, even with my slight knowledge of her, I could not believe this to be the case.

Many conjectures passed in review before me, but that which seemed to carry with it most weight of reason was the idea that her guardian and his wife were attempting to coerce her into some course which was distasteful to her. Naturally, the thought of an objectionable lover occurred to me, and made my blood run the faster through my veins. I could not forgive the unknown and possible for being a lover, even though he were to her an objectionable one.

I longed for the next day to come that I might see the beautiful girl again, but scarcely in the same way that I had longed for it before. There could be no repetition of the half confidences of to-day, the suggestions of friendship (friendship—what a mockery!), the adorable glances which meant trust, and a gratitude which I had not deserved.

Lady Tressidy would unfortunately be present. My visit would ostensibly be paid to her. Already I began to dislike her and fancy that her conduct towards the young girl entrusted to her care must have been mysteriously atrocious.

No, I could not expect much from the call, having been blessed with an unexpected glimpse of heaven which it could not give back to me again. Still, I thought of little else until the coming of the very earliest hour at which I could show myself in Park Lane on the following day.

Yes, Lady Tressidy was at home, vouchsafed a solemn footman. My name was announced, and I scarcely ventured to lift my eyes on entering the drawing-room, lest they should tell me that Karine was not there. Perhaps she was ill. Indeed, it seemed only too likely that she should be so. I wondered I had not mentally confronted that probability before.

There were a number of guests assembled in the room, it seemed to me, despite the fact that everybody who was anybody was supposed to be spending the Christmas season far away in other people's country houses.

At length, when I had had a few words with my hostess, the crowd resolved itself into a dozen persons at most, and seeing Karine at a far end of the room surrounded by three or four vacuous-looking young men, I desperately resolved to outstay everybody.

I had scarcely more than a glance and a smile from Miss Cunningham, and then I found myself obliged to talk with simulated amiability to a semi-young woman who was anxious I should know how often she had heard of me and my "travels," and that she had read the two or three books I had been idiot enough to write. Half an hour went by. I had been passed on to other ladies, who seemed to my prejudiced eyes to bear an astonishing family likeness, both in mind and face, to the first of the series. Three or four people had gone. One or two new ones had come in, but at last I had had the good fortune to escape from the latest on my list of acquaintances.

I could still see Karine. She had got rid of one of her adorers, but had a couple yet in hand, and it appeared to me that she would not be sorry to bid them adieu.

At all events, her face was pale as a lily petal held against the light, her sweet lips drooped wistfully at the corners, and I thought she spoke but seldom. The smile with which she had greeted me had been fleeting, and even as it lingered there had been an expression in her large soft eyes which it galled me that I should be too dull to read. It had seemed to say, "Something has happened since I saw you last. Why did you offer me your friendship, when it was too late to give me any help?"

No doubt, I told myself, this was but a morbid fancy of mine. If I could have known the true motive of the glance I should have interpreted what appeared like unutterable sadness as mere boredom.

Instead of the earnest appeal or reproach, I imagined at most the eyes intended to say, "I have talked long enough with these stupid men, none of whom have minds above cricket or football. Relieve me of them, please."

But I had not even been able to do that, though I had tried, for as I attempted to oust the boldest of the group in my own favour, Lady Tressidy had swept across the room, with sharp rustling of silken linings and satin skirts, to claim me for an introduction to "an old friend who had longed for years to know me."

At length, however, as I said, I had contrived an escape, and was finding my way towards Karine, when, before I had reached her, I saw her start, staring past me with a white, frozen look on her face that for the moment blotted out much of its innocent youthfulness and beauty.

She was gazing in the direction of the door, with dark, dilated eyes, and lips tightly closed in a line of scarlet that faded to palest pink.

It was as though into the midst of the gossip and laughter and brilliant light had crept a spectre which she alone could see. Some such look I had seen in the eyes of a dove which had been offered up as food for a constrictor. Involuntarily I turned and glanced behind me.

No name had been announced, though I had heard the opening and closing of the door, and now, as I faced round in that direction, I saw that Sir Walter Tressidy and Carson Wildred had come in together.

Evidently this was not Wildred's first entrance, for like Sir Walter, he had neither hat nor stick. He moved forward by his companion's side with the unmistakably-assured air of the friend of the house, and I instinctively understood that he had lunched with the Tressidys, and since that time had been closeted on some business of importance with his host.

Unreasoningly, I hated him for his privileges. With more of reason, I hated him because I believed the look I had seen for a single instant on Karine Cunningham's face was connected with his presence.

That look was gone now. When I removed my eyes from Wildred, and turned again to her, her delicate, spiritual profile only was visible. Her head was graciously inclined towards the monocled youth who stood nearest her. She appeared no longer to see Wildred or Sir Walter Tressidy.

I was determined that the former should not approach her (as he seemed inclined to do) if I could prevent it.

I hurried to her accordingly, and shut her away from the room, with a pair of broad shoulders, and with an air of monopolising her which I should not have dared at any other time to assume. But was I not her friend? Had I not the right to protect her, if I could, from all that I believed to be distasteful to her?

Presently, the callow youths, whose claims I had hardly considered, seemed to melt away, and I was left alone with her. People were going, and it was getting late, no doubt, but I did not yet mean to follow their example. After all—despite my dismal presages—it did appear that I was to have her for at least a moment or two to myself.

I had kept my word. I had outstayed them all—all but Carson Wildred.

"Have you quite recovered from yesterday's accident?" I asked, glad to share even so insignificant a secret with her.

"Yes, oh, yes!" She spoke hurriedly, and her eyes had moved to the distant group near the fireside—Lady Tressidy, Carson and Sir Walter.

"You haven't reconsidered your promise that I should be your friend?"

She turned to me quickly, and her eyes brimmed with unshed tears. "So many things in my life, though it is not so very long as yet, have come to me too late. Even—my friends—sometimes."

Before I could beg her to tell me what she meant, Lady Tressidy had called her name, and she sprang up obediently. I followed suit, of course.

"Come here, my dear girl. Mr. Stanton, this is quite a momentous day for us, and I can't resist the temptation to take you into our circle and our confidence," said the elder woman, graciously. "It is just settled that this sweet adopted child of ours is to leave us—and at short notice too. She and Mr. Wildred are going to be married."


Too Late!

"Too late!" the words that Karine had just spoken echoed in my ears like a knell of doom.

For a few tremendous seconds that seemed endless I stood paralysed by Lady Tressidy's announcement, unable to speak. Then I turned and looked at Karine. Her eyes seemed to have been waiting for mine, and for an instant I held them with my gaze, until they fell, and veiled the answer mine had asked, with long shadowy lashes.

Never, I thought, as my thirsty eyes drank in the beauty that was not for me, could there have been another woman so wholly lovely, so altogether desirable. I could have fallen on my knees before her, to touch the hem of her dainty gown with my lips, and cry out my love and longing for her. But instead I was called upon to say something civil, and therefore hypocritical, to the newly-engaged pair, and then, as soon as decency would permit my escape, to go out from her presence for ever, and face the black loneliness of my darkened life.

Only a few days had passed since first I had seen the beauty of her face, but already she dominated my every thought, and I knew that there was no hope of surcease from the aching pain of having lost her.

Had I been obliged to stand by and see her give herself to any other man than Carson Wildred, it seemed to me that the blow would have been more bearable. But with my almost unreasoning aversion for and distrust of him, the thought of a marriage between these two was like the sacrifice of fair virgins to the foul, blood-dripping jaws of the mythical Minotaur.

Slight as was our actual acquaintance, when measured by mere time, it appeared the maddest conceit on my part to believe for a moment that had I come earlier into her life I might have made a difference. But, mad as it was, I did so believe. Some voice within me, which would not be stilled or brook contradiction, cried aloud that I might have won her love, that she might have been mine, that only some devilish tangle of circumstances had circumvented the fate which originally had meant that we two should be all in all to one another.

It was perhaps the hardest task I had ever been forced to perform when after that ominous pause, which doubtless seemed far more prolonged to me than to the others, I held out my hand, as I was expected to do, taking Miss Cunningham's ice-cold fingers in mine, and wishing her happiness.

Then I was obliged to turn to Wildred, in whose eyes I saw, or fancied I saw, a malicious light of comprehension and triumphant defiance. But his hand I would not take.

"It is hardly necessary to congratulate you," I said haltingly. "You are one of the most fortunate men in the world."

"And the most undeserving?" It was he who added the words, as though he had read them in my own mind; and there was a slight, sarcastic rising inflection of the voice at the end of the sentence, as if he put it to me as a question.

Of course, I vouchsafed him no answer, unless he found it in my eyes, which have ever been telltales. But in that moment I would have laid down my life could I have wrenched from my memory that episode of his history, the secret of which it mercilessly withheld from me.

I have a dim recollection of saying something more or less conventional to Sir Walter and Lady Tressidy, and then, at last, I got away.

I had fancied that not to have her face before my eyes, that not to endure the pang of seeing them together, and to escape into the open air, would relieve the tension of my feelings. But it was not so. The moment the door had closed behind me the agony of the thought that I had seen her perhaps for the last time, and the poignancy of my regret that I had not been able to put to her one question which rang in my brain, became well-nigh unendurable.

I walked rapidly away from the house, telling myself that the best thing for me would be to leave England again at once. I had been a fool to fancy myself homesick, and to come back—to this. So far my life had been lived contentedly enough apart from the influence or love of women. What strange weakness of the soul had seized me that I should thus have yielded without a struggle to a single glance from a pair of violet eyes?

Yes, assuredly the sooner I got away the better. There had been nothing save a restless desire for home to bring me to my native land. There was less than nothing to keep me there.

Never to see her again—never again! I believed that my mind was made up, and yet I think I would have cut off my hand for the chance of one more moment with her—one more glimpse of her face to take away across the sea, even though she neither saw nor spoke to me.

I walked aimlessly in the darkness, knowing not and caring not where I went. I heard a clock strike eight, realising suddenly that I was far from my hotel, and that I had wearied myself uselessly.

I must write some letters that night, crying off two or three engagements that I had been foolish enough to make, and explaining that I had been suddenly and unexpectedly called away. As I had walked I had made up my mind whither I would go. India would be rather good at this time of year, I thought, and I had always promised myself, when I should find the leisure, to make certain explorations. There had also been an idea smouldering in my mind for a year or two that with my knowledge of the language, and a proper disguise, it might be possible for me to push my way into the jealously guarded Thibet. Now was the very moment for some such experiments as these.

I hailed a cab and drove back to the Savoy, from a distant and more or less (to me) unknown region of London. Try as I might to keep my thoughts from the one absorbing topic by dwelling upon the plans for the future, the effort was useless. Karine's face was before me, and again and again I heard her words, which might have meant so much or so little, "Many things in my life—even my friends sometimes—have come to me too late."

As I entered the hotel, my eyes dazzled by the sudden brilliant light, I could hardly for an instant believe that it was not an optical illusion when I saw in the flesh the face which had been haunting me.

But it was indeed she; there was no doubting that. People were coming into the Savoy for dinner, now so fashionable a way of passing the deadly dull London Sunday evening, and in a moment I had guessed that she and her party were of the number. I had even an impression of a sentence begun by Lady Tressidy that afternoon, which would doubtless have ended with the information that she and the others were dining at my hotel in the evening, had she not been interrupted, and so forgotten, as I had done.

There had been a dreary drizzle of rain outside, and I was conscious that my long wanderings through muddy streets had rendered me unpresentable. Still, my wish had been granted me. There stood Karine Cunningham, in white from head to foot; a long soft evening cloak, with shining silver threads straying over its snowy surface, hung loosely about her, for she had fastened it at the throat, and I could see a gleam of bare neck, hung with a rope of pearls, and the delicate folds of chiffon belted in with jewels at her girlish waist.

Her head was turned aside and slightly bent, a light from above streaming down on her uncovered hair, and transforming the copper into gold.

Sir Walter and Lady Tressidy were close by—not six feet away—and all were evidently waiting for someone—Carson Wildred, no doubt, I bitterly told myself.

None of the party had as yet seen me. Sir Walter and his wife were talking very earnestly together, and had perhaps moved a few steps from the young girl that their words might not be overheard by her.

I knew that, if I were wise, I would at once take myself off without announcing my presence, but a sudden impulse seized and overmastered me. It was a desperate one, doubtless, but none the less alluring and powerful because of that.


"If He Had Committed a Crime"

Karine stood, as I said, perhaps a couple of yards distant from her friends, and their backs, at the present moment, were more than half turned to her. It would be just possible for me to speak to her, without being observed by them, if I were both extraordinarily cautious and lucky. At any moment Wildred, who had perhaps gone to rectify some vexatious mistake about a table, might return. If I meant to take the step at all there was no time to be lost in doing so.

Without giving myself a second for further reflection, and with the blood surging to my temples, I found myself, with a few strides, beside her. Mud-stained boots and trousers were forgotten. I would waste no time in apologising for my appearance.

What she must have thought of my pale and eager face, suddenly bent over her, I do not know. I felt that a great crisis in my life, perhaps in hers as well, had arrived, and my eyes must have shown something of that which stirred so passionately in mind and heart, for she started with a look almost of fear as she saw and recognised me.

She uttered no exclamation, however. If she had, Sir Walter and Lady Tressidy would have heard and looked round, and my one chance, so desperately snatched from Fate, would have been gone like a bubble that bursts ere it has fairly expanded.

Without one spoken word I made her see that she must come with me, and the quick realisation of my power over her, as she laid her hand upon my arm unhesitatingly, thrilled me to the very core of my being.

Most women would have refused to come, or at least questioned my sudden appearance and intention, but not so with her. She knew that I had something to say to her which must be said, and it was her will to hear it.

She had been pale as a statue of marble, as she stood leaning listlessly against the wall in her white dress, but as she moved away with me life and colour came back to her face. I led her down the hall to a small public drawing-room, and not once did she hesitate or look back, unconventional as was the adventure in which she was engaged.

Luckily, the place was empty, save for two elderly French women, who gossiped and gabbled with their heads close together on a sofa in a corner.

"What is it—oh, what is it?" questioned Karine. "Quick! there will only be a moment, I know, for they will see that I have gone, and will soon find me here."

Without any preface I came straight to the asking of the bald, crude question which was in my mind to ask.

"For the sake of—our friendship, Miss Cunningham, forgive me, and tell me whether you love Carson Wildred?"

She started and quivered almost as though I had struck her a blow, and her large, frightened eyes studied mine for a long second without answering. Then she said, simply, "No, my friend, I do not—love him."

"Yet you have promised to marry him?"


"And you mean to carry out that promise?"

"Yes, unless——"

"Unless what?"

"Something—happens to prevent me."

"If you do not love him something shall prevent. Let me help you. For heaven's sake, let me! Only give me an idea how it can best be done—I ask no more. I will teach you what such a—friendship as mine can have the power to do."

I hoped to give her courage by the passion and force of my words, but, strangely enough, the bright eagerness died out of her face as I spoke. In some way I had missed saying the thing which might have comforted her. If I had only known—if I had only known!

"You are very kind," she said, gently and sadly. "I am not looking forward to any great degree of happiness in my life, but I daresay, after all, I shall get on as well as most women. I don't think anything will happen to prevent—what we were speaking of."

"Why, is it to come so soon, then?" I questioned, impetuously.

"In six weeks. It was all arranged to-day"—with a soft little sigh at the end of her sentence.

"Tell me this: Are you in any way being forced into the marriage?"

"Not by people—exactly. Only by circumstances. I—I can't tell you any more, though, believe me, I am grateful for all you mean, and all you would do for friendship's sake." There seemed a faint ring of stifled bitterness in the last three words, though wherefore it should come I knew not. If she had resented the warmth of my "friendship" after our brief acquaintance, what would she feel, I dimly wondered, should I forget myself, and be coward and fool enough to tell her of my mad love on the very day of her betrothal to another man?

With all my strength I held my tongue under control, and heaven knows it was no easy victory, with those sweet eyes looking into mine!

"Tell me what could prevent it?" I persisted imploringly. "If you found that he was unworthy, would that——"

She half smiled, though without any mirthfulness. "There are so many degrees of unworthiness, aren't there? And I am not near enough to perfection to believe myself a judge."

"If he had committed a crime?" I went desperately on. And the words on my own lips made me start as though with a sudden revelation. I seemed to have assured myself of a fact which had actually taken place, rather than uttered a mere suggestion. The conviction grew within me that if Carson Wildred had not successfully altered his face and each characteristic of his personality, I should at once be able not only to remember, but to prove that my haunting half-recollection was intimately connected with some criminal deed done by him.

"Ah, then! But it is wrong to wish that he should have been guilty of any wickedness. I think, Mr. Stanton, that as I have promised to be his wife we must talk no more of this—you and I. I have always had a horror of disloyalty."

"I know," I said, "that I have done an unheard-of thing in thus stealing you away from your friends to ask you questions which only the most intimate friends could claim the right to ask, but——"

"Oh," she cried, impulsively. "Somehow you and I have bridged over years. You are good to me—don't think I will misunderstand. I shall always remember you, and—what you would have done for me."

"What I shall try yet to do, in spite of all," I amended. "I meant to leave England soon, but now—I shall stay."

"Yes—stay," she faintly echoed; "though you must leave me now. I—I would rather anything than that you were with me when they come to me. I will make them some excuse for having separated myself from them. Only go now—please go."

As she spoke, outside in the hall we heard voices and footsteps coming nearer.


Wildred Scores

Karine's face grew paler than before.

Throwing up her head with a proud, spirited little gesture, she walked quickly to the door, and passed into the hall.

I knew that this was to prevent her friends from entering and finding us together, as they must otherwise have done; and there was nothing for me to do (cowardly as this seemed) but obey her, and passively submit to the carrying out of her scheme.

It had indeed been Sir Walter and Lady Tressidy and Carson Wildred whose voices we had heard.

"Why did you run away? We have been looking for you everywhere, and wasting so much time!" I heard Lady Tressidy say fretfully.

"I was very tired of standing," the girl promptly returned, "and of waiting, too"—with a certain imperiousness in her tone. "I wandered away to fill up the time till Mr. Wildred should have straightened matters in the dining-room."

She had contrived to satisfy their curiosity without telling an actual falsehood, of which I knew instinctively she would greatly dislike making herself guilty.

It did not seem to occur to them to enter the drawing-room where she had left me; and when I was sure that they had passed out of sight and hearing I came forth from the ignominious hiding-place to which her command had condemned me.

In the exalted mood which had possession of me the thought of dinner would have been abhorrent. For the rest of the evening I kept my room, meditating many things, and becoming more and more desirous of learning Carson Wildred's secret, if secret indeed he had.

At all events, I still had six weeks in which to work, with the hope ever before me of saving Karine Cunningham from the man whom, by her own confession, she did not love.

Strange and desperate expedients passed in review before me. How was I to accomplish my object? The man had denied ever having met me in old days when it had been mentioned to him that I fancied a previous acquaintance had somewhere existed; and if I were to learn anything satisfactory in regard to his antecedents I felt that it must be from others.

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