THE SECOND LATCHKEY
C. N. & A. M. WILLIAMSON
Frontispiece by Rudolph Tandler
Garden City New York Doubleday, Page & Company 1920
I. A White Rose
II. Smiths and Smiths
III. Why She Came
IV. The Great Moment
V. The Second Latchkey
VI. The Beginning—or the End?
VII. The Countess de Santiago
VIII. The Blue Diamond Ring
IX. The Thing Knight Wanted
X. Beginning of the Series
XI. Annesley Remembers
XII. The Crystal
XIII. The Series Goes On
XIV. The Test
XV. Nelson Smith at Home
XVI. Why Ruthven Smith Went
XVII. Ruthven Smith's Eyeglasses
XVIII. The Star Sapphire
XIX. The Secret
XX. The Plan
XXI. The Devil's Rosary
XXII. Destiny and the Waldos
XXIII. The Thin Wall
XXIV. The Anniversary
XXV. The Allegory
XXVI. The Three Words
THE SECOND LATCHKEY
A WHITE ROSE
Even when Annesley Grayle turned out of the Strand toward the Savoy she was uncertain whether she would have courage to walk into the hotel. With each step the thing, the dreadful thing, that she had come to do, loomed blacker. It was monstrous, impossible, like opening the door of the lions' cage at the Zoo and stepping inside.
There was time still to change her mind. She had only to turn now ... jump into an omnibus ... jump out again at the familiar corner, and everything would be as it had been. Life for the next five, ten, maybe twenty years, would be what the last five had been.
At the thought of the Savoy and the adventure waiting there, the girl's skin had tingled and grown hot, as if a wind laden with grains of heated sand had blown over her. But at the thought of turning back, of going "home"—oh, misused word!—a leaden coldness shut her spirit into a tomb.
She had walked fast, after descending at Bedford Street from a fierce motor-bus with a party of comfortable people, bound for the Adelphi Theatre. Never before had she been in a motor-omnibus, and she was not sure whether the great hurtling thing would deign to stop, except at trysting-places of its own; so it had seemed wise to bundle out rather than risk a snub from the conductor, who looked like pictures of the Duke of Wellington.
But in the lighted Strand she had been stared at as well as jostled: a girl alone at eight o'clock on a winter evening, bare-headed, conspicuously tall if conspicuous in no other way; dressed for dinner or the theatre in a pale gray, sequined gown under a mauve chiffon cloak meant for warm nights of summer.
Of course, as Mrs. Ellsworth (giver of dress and wrap) often pointed out, "beggars mustn't be choosers"; and Annesley Grayle was worse off than a beggar, because beggars needn't keep up appearances. She should have thanked Heaven for good clothes, and so she did in chastened moods; but it was a costume to make a girl hurry through the Strand, and just for an instant she had been glad to turn from the white glare into comparative dimness.
That was because offensive eyes had made her forget the almost immediate future in the quite immediate present. But the hotel, with light-hearted taxis tearing up to it, brought remembrance with a shock. She envied everyone else who was bound for the Savoy, even old women, and fat gentlemen with large noses. They were going there because they wanted to go, for their pleasure. Nobody in the world could be in such an appalling situation as she was.
It was then that Annesley's feet began to drag, and she slowed her steps to gain more time to think. Could she—could she do the thing?
For days her soul had been rushing toward this moment with thousand-horsepower speed, like a lonely comet tearing through space. But then it had been distant, the terrible goal. She had not had to gasp among her heart-throbs: "Now! It is now!"
Creep as she might, three minutes' brought her from the turning out of the Strand close to the welcoming entrance where revolving doors of glass received radiant visions dazzling as moonlight on snow.
"No, I can't!" the girl told herself, desperately. She wheeled more quickly than the whirling door, hoping that no one would think her mad. "All the same, I was mad," she admitted, "to fancy I could do it. I ought to have known I couldn't, when the time came. I'm the last person to—well, I'm sane again now, anyway!"
A few long steps carried the girl in the sparkling dress and transparent cloak into the Strand again. But something queer was happening there. People were shouting and running. A man with a raucous, alcoholic voice, yelled words Annesley could not catch. A woman gave a squeaking scream that sounded both ridiculous and dreadful. Breaking glass crashed. A growl of human anger mingled with the roar of motor-omnibuses, and Miss Grayle fell back from it as from a slammed door in a high wall.
As she stood hesitating what to do and wondering if there were a fire or a murder, two women, laughing hysterically, rushed past into the hotel court.
"Hurry up," panted one of them. "They'll think we belong to the gang. Let's go into the hotel and stay until it's over."
"Oh, what is it?" Annesley entreated, running after the couple.
"Burglars at a jeweller's window close by—there are women—they're being arrested," one of the pair flung over her shoulder, as both hurried on.
"'Women ... being arrested ...'" That meant that if she plunged into the fray she might be mistaken for a woman burglar, and arrested with the guilty. Even if she lurked where she was, a prowling policeman might suppose she sought concealment, and bag her as a militant.
Imagine what Mrs. Ellsworth would say—and do—if she were taken off to jail!
Annesley's heart seemed to drop out of its place, to go "crossways," as her old Irish nurse used to say a million years ago.
Without stopping to think again, or even to breathe, she flew back to the hotel entrance, as a migrating bird follows its leader, and slipped through the revolving door behind the fugitives.
"It's fate," she thought. "This must be a sign coming just when I'd made up my mind."
Suddenly she was no longer afraid, though her heart was pounding under the thin cloak. Fragrance of hot-house flowers and expensive perfume from women's dresses intoxicated the girl as a glass of champagne forced upon one who has never tasted wine flies to the head. She felt herself on the tide of adventure, moving because she must; the soul which would have fled, to return to Mrs. Ellsworth, was a coward not worthy to live in her body.
She had room in her crowded mind to think how queer it was—and how queer it would seem all the rest of her life in looking back—that she should have the course of her existence changed because burglars had broken some panes of glass in the Strand.
"Just because of them—creatures I'll never meet—I'm going to see this through to the end," she said, flinging up her chin and looking entirely unlike the Annesley Grayle Mrs. Ellsworth knew. "To the end!"
She thrilled at the word, which had as much of the unknown in it as though it were the world's end she referred to, and she were jumping off.
"Will you please tell me where to leave my wrap?" she heard herself inquiring of a footman as magnificent as, and far better dressed than, the Apollo Belvedere. Her voice sounded natural. She was glad. This added to her courage. It was wonderful to feel brave. Life was so deadly, worse—so stuffy—at Mrs. Ellsworth's, that if she had ever been normally brave like other girls, she had had the young splendour of her courage crushed out.
The statue in gray plush and dark blue cloth came to life, and showed her the cloak-room.
Other women were there, taking last, affectionate peeps at themselves in the long mirrors. Annesley took a last peep at herself also, not an affectionate but an anxious one. Compared with these visions, was she (in Mrs. Ellsworth's cast-off clothes, made over in odd moments by the wearer) so dowdy and second-hand that—that—a stranger would be ashamed to——?
The question feared to finish itself.
"I do look like a lady, anyhow," the girl thought with defiance. "That's what he—that seems to be the test."
Now she was in a hurry to get the ordeal over. Instead of hanging back she walked briskly out of the cloak-room before those who had entered ahead of her finished patting their hair or putting powder on their noses.
It was worse in the large vestibule, where men sat or stood, waiting for their feminine belongings; and she was the only woman alone. But her boat was launched on the wild sea. There was no returning.
The rendezvous arranged was in what he had called in his letter "the foyer."
Annesley went slowly down the steps, trying not to look aimless. She decided to steer for one of the high-back brocaded chairs which had little satellite tables. Better settle on one in the middle of the hall.
This would give him a chance to see and recognize her from the description she had written of the dress she would wear (she had not mentioned that she'd be spared all trouble in choosing, as it was her only real evening frock), and to notice that she wore, according to arrangement, a white rose tucked into the neck of her bodice.
She felt conscious of her hands, and especially of her feet and ankles, for she had not been able to make Mrs. Ellsworth's dress quite long enough. Luckily it was the fashion of the moment to wear the skirt short, and she had painted her old white suede slippers silver.
She believed that she had pretty feet. But oh! what if the darn running up the heel of the pearl-gray silk stocking should show, or have burst again into a hole as she jumped out of the omnibus? She could have laughed hysterically, as the escaping women had laughed, when she realized that the fear of such a catastrophe was overcoming graver horrors.
Perhaps it was well to have a counter-irritant.
Though Annesley Grayle was the only manless woman in the foyer, the people who sat there—with one exception—did not stare. Though she had five feet eight inches of height, and was graceful despite self-consciousness, her appearance was distinguished rather than striking. Yes, "distinguished" was the word for it, decided the one exception who gazed with particular interest at that tall, slight figure in gray-sequined chiffon too old-looking for the young face.
He was sitting in a corner against the wall, and had in his hands a copy of the Sphere, which was so large when held high and wide open that the reader could hide behind it. He had been in his corner for fifteen or twenty minutes when Annesley Grayle arrived, glancing over the top of his paper with a sort of jaunty carelessness every few minutes at the crowd moving toward the restaurant, picking out some individual, then dropping his eyes to the Sphere.
For the girl in gray he had a long, appraising look, studying her every point; but he did the thing so well that, even had she turned her head his way, she need not have been embarrassed. All she would have seen was a man's forehead and a rim of smooth black hair showing over the top of an illustrated paper.
What he saw was a clear profile with a delicate nose slightly tilting upward in a proud rather than impertinent way; an arch of eyebrow daintily sketched; a large eye which might be gray or violet; a drooping mouth with a short upper lip; a really charming chin, and a long white throat; skin softly pale, like white velvet; thick, ash-blond hair parted in the middle and worn Madonna fashion—there seemed to be a lot of it in the coil at the nape of her neck.
The creature looked too simple, too—not dowdy, but too unsophisticated, to have anything false about her. Figure too thin, hardly to be called a "figure" at all, but agreeably girlish; and its owner might be anywhere from twenty to five or six years older. Not beautiful: just an average, lady-like English girl—or perhaps more of Irish type; but certainly with possibilities. If she were a princess or a millionairess, she might be glorified by newspapers as a beauty.
Annesley forced her nervous limbs to slow movement, because she hoped, or dreaded—anyhow, expected—that one of the dozen or so unattached men would spring up and say, constrainedly, "Miss Grayle, I believe?—er—how do you do?" If only he might not be fat or very bald-headed!
He had not described himself at all. Everything was to depend on her gray dress and the white rose. That seemed, now one came face to face with the fear, rather ominous.
But no one sprang up. No one wanted to know if she were Miss Grayle; and this, although she was ten minutes late.
Her instructions as to what to do at the Savoy were clear. If she were not met in the foyer, she was to go into the restaurant and ask for a table reserved for Mr. N. Smith. There she was to sit and wait to be joined by him. She had never contemplated having to carry out the latter clause, however; and when she had loitered for a few seconds, the thought rushed over her that here was a loop-hole through which to slip, if she wanted a loop-hole.
One side of her did want it: the side she knew best and longest as herself, Annesley Grayle, a timid girl brought up conventionally, and taught that to rely on others older and wiser than she was the right way for a well-born, sheltered woman to go through life. The other side, the new, desperate side that Mrs. Ellsworth's "stuffiness" had developed, was not looking for any means of escape; and this side had seized the upper hand since the alarm of the burglars in the Strand.
Annesley marched into the restaurant with the air of a soldier facing his first battle, and asked a waiter where was Mr. Smith's table.
The youth dashed off and produced a duke-like personage, his chief. A list was consulted with care; and Annesley was respectfully informed that no table had been engaged by a Mr. N. Smith for dinner that evening.
"Are you sure?" persisted Annesley, bewildered and disappointed.
"Yes, miss—madame, I am sure we have not the name on our list," said the head-waiter.
The blankness of the girl's disappointment looked out appealingly from wistful, wide-apart eyes. The man was sorry.
"There may be some misunderstanding," he consoled her. "Perhaps Mr. Smith has telephoned, and we have not received the message. I hope it is not the fault of the hotel. We do not often make mistakes; yet it is possible. We have had a few early dinners before the theatre and there is one small table disengaged. Would madame care to take it—it is here, close to the door—and watch for the gentleman when he comes?"
"When he comes!" The head-waiter comfortably took it for granted that Mr. Smith had been delayed, that he would come, and that it would be a pity to miss him. The polite person might be right, though with a sinking heart Annesley began to suspect herself played with, abandoned, as she deserved, for her dreadful boldness.
Perhaps Mr. Smith had been in communication with someone else more suitable than she, and had thrown over the appointment without troubling to let her know. Or perhaps he had been waiting in the foyer, had inspected her as she passed, and hadn't liked her looks.
This latter supposition seemed probable; but the head-waiter was so confident of what she ought to do that the girl could think of no excuse. After all, it would do little harm to wait and "see what happened." As Mr. Smith was apparently not living at the Savoy (he had merely asked her to meet him there), he might have had an accident in train or taxi. Annesley had made her plans to be away from home for two hours, so she could give him the benefit of the doubt.
A moment of hesitation, and she was seating herself in a chair offered by the head-waiter. It was one of a couple drawn up at a small table for two. Sitting thus, Annesley could see everybody who came in, and—what was more important—could be seen. By what struck her as an odd coincidence, the table was decorated with a vase of white roses whose hearts blushed faintly in the light of a pink-shaded electric lamp.
A quarter of an hour, twenty minutes, dragged along, and no Mr. Smith. Annesley could follow the passing moments on her wrist-watch in its silver bracelet, the only present Mrs. Ellsworth had ever given her, with the exception of cast-off clothes, and a pocket handkerchief each Christmas.
Every nerve in the girl's body seemed to prickle with embarrassment. She played with a dinner roll, changed the places of the flowers and the lamp, trying to appear at ease, and not daring to look up lest she should meet eyes curious or pitying.
"What if they make me pay for dinner after I've kept the table so long?" she thought in her ignorance of hotel customs. "And I've got only a shilling!"
Half an hour now, all but two minutes! There was nothing more to hope or fear. But there was the ordeal of getting away.
"I'll sit out the two minutes," she told herself. "Then I'll go. Ought I to tip the waiter?" Horrible doubt! And she must have been dreaming to touch that roll! Better sneak away while the waiter was busy at a distance.
Frightened, miserable, she was counting her chances when a man, whose coming into the room her dilemma had caused her to miss, marched unhesitatingly to her table.
SMITHS AND SMITHS
Annesley glanced up, her face aflame, like a fanned coal. The man was tall, dark, lean, square-jawed, handsome in just that thrilling way which magazine illustrators and women love; the ideal story-hero to look at, even to the clothes which any female serial writer would certainly have described as "immaculate evening dress."
It was too good—oh, far too wonderfully good!—to be true that this man should be Mr. Smith. Yet if he were not Mr. Smith why should he——Annesley got no farther in the thought, though it flashed through her mind quick as light. Before she had time to seek an answer for her question the man—who was young, or youngish, not more than thirty-three or four—had bent over her as if greeting a friend, and had begun to speak in a low voice blurred by haste or some excitement.
"You will do me an immense service," he said, "if you'll pretend to know me and let me sit down here. You sha'n't regret it, and it may save my life."
"Sit down," answered something in Annesley that was newly awake. She found her hand being warmly shaken. Then the man took the chair reserved for Mr. Smith, just as she realized fully that he wasn't Mr. Smith. Her heart was beating fast, her eyes—fixed on the man's face, waiting for some explanation—were dilated.
"Thank you," he said, leaning toward her, in his hand a menu which the waiter had placed before the girl while she was still alone. She noticed that the hand was brown and nervous-looking, the hand of a man who might be a musician or an artist. He was pretending to read the menu, and to consult her about it. "You're a true woman, the right sort—brave. I swear I'm not here for any impertinence. Now, will you go on helping me? Can you keep your wits and not give me away, whatever happens?"
"I think so," answered the new Annesley. "What do you want me to do?" She took the pitch of her tone from his, speaking quietly, and wondering if she would not wake up in her ugly brown bedroom at Mrs. Ellsworth's, as she had done a dozen times when dreaming in advance of her rendezvous at the Savoy.
"It will be a shock when I tell you," he answered. "But for Heaven's sake, don't misunderstand. I shouldn't ask this if it weren't absolutely necessary. In case a man comes to this table and questions you, you must let him suppose that you are my wife."
"Oh!" gasped Annesley. Her eyes met the eyes that seemed to have been waiting for her look, and they answered with an appeal which she could not refuse.
She did not stop to think that if the dark eyes had not been so handsome they might have been easier to resist. She—the suppressed and timid girl, never allowed to make up her mind—let herself go with the wave of strong emotion carrying her along, and reached a resolve.
"It means trusting you a great deal," she answered. "But you say you're in danger, so I'll do what you ask. I think you can't be wicked enough to pay me back by trying to hurt me."
"You think right," the man said, and it struck her that his accent was not quite English. She wondered if he were Canadian or American. Not that she knew much about either. "A woman like you would think right!" he went on. "Only one woman out of ten thousand would have the nerve and presence of mind and the humanity to do what you're doing. When I came into this room and saw your face I counted on you."
Annesley blushed again in a rush of happiness. She had always longed to do something which would really matter to another soul. She had even prayed for it. Now the moment seemed to have come. God would not let her be the victim of an ignoble trick!
"I'm glad," she said, her face lit by a light from within. And at that moment, bending toward each other, they were a beautiful couple. A seeker of romance would have taken them for lovers.
"Tell me what you want me to do," Annesley said once more.
"The worst of it is, I can't tell you exactly. Two men may come into this restaurant looking for me. One or both will speak to me. They'll call me a certain name, and I shall say they've made a mistake. You must say so, too. You must tell them I'm your husband, and stick to that no matter what the man, or men, may tell you about me. The principal thing now is to choose a name. But—by Jove—I forgot it in my hurry! Are you expecting any one to join you? If you are, it's awkward."
"I was expecting someone, but I've given him up."
"Was this table taken in his name or yours? Or, perhaps—but no, I'm sure you're not!"
"Sure I'm not what?"
"Married. You're a girl. Your eyes haven't got any experience of life in them."
Annesley looked down; and when she looked down her face was very sweet. She had long, curved brown lashes a shade or two darker than her hair.
"I'm not married," she said, rather stiffly. "I thought a table had been engaged in the name of Mr. Smith, but there was a misunderstanding. The head waiter put me at this table in case Mr. Smith should come. I've given him up now, and was going away when——"
"When you took pity on a nameless man. But it seems indicated that he should be Mr. Smith, unless you have any objection!"
"No, I have none. You'd better take the name, as I mentioned it to the waiter."
"And the first name?"
"I don't know. The initial I gave was N."
"Very well, I choose Nelson. Where do we live?"
Annesley stared, frightened.
"Forgive me," the man said. "I ought to have explained what I meant before asking you that, or put the question another way. Will you go on as you've begun, and trust me farther, by letting me drive with you to your home, if necessary, in case of being followed? At worst, I'll need to beg no more than to stand inside your front door for a few minutes if we're watched, and—but I see that this time I have passed the limit. I'm expecting too much! How do you know but I may be a thief or a murderer?"
"I hadn't thought of such a thing," Annesley stammered. "I was only thinking—it isn't my house. It doesn't even belong to my people. I live with an old lady, Mrs. Ellsworth. I hope she'll be in bed when I get back, and the servants, too. I have a key because—because I told a fib about the place where I was going, and consequently Mrs. Ellsworth approved. If she hadn't approved, I shouldn't have been allowed out. I could let you stand inside the door. But if any one followed us to the house, and saw the number, he could look in the directory, and find out that it belonged to Mrs. Ellsworth, not Mr. Smith."
"He couldn't have a directory in his pocket! By the time he got hold of one and could make any use of his knowledge, I'd be far away."
"Yes, I suppose you would," Annesley thought aloud, and a little voice seemed to add sharply in her ear: "Far away out of my life."
This brought to her memory what she had in her excitement forgotten: the adventure she had come out to meet had faded into thin air! The unexpected one which had so startlingly taken its place would end to-night, and she would be left to the dreary existence from which she had tried to break free.
She was like a pebble that had succeeded in riding out to sea on a wave, only to be washed back into its old place on the shore. The thought that, after all, she had no change to look forward to, gave the girl a passionate desire to make the most of this one living hour among many that were born dead.
"Mrs. Ellsworth's house," she said, "is 22-A, Torrington Square."
"Thank you." Only these two words he spoke, but the eager dark eyes seemed to add praise and blessings for her confidence.
"My name is Annesley Grayle," she volunteered, as if to prove to the man and to herself how far she trusted him; also perhaps as a bid for his name in payment of that trust. So at least he must have understood, for he said: "If I don't tell you mine, it's for your own protection. I'm not ashamed of it; but it's better that you shouldn't know—that if you heard it suddenly, it should be strange to you, just like any other name. Don't you see I'm right?"
"I dare say you are."
"Then we'll leave it at that. But we can't go on pretending to study this menu for ever! You came to dine with Mr. Smith. You'll dine with his understudy instead. You'll let me order dinner? It's part of the programme."
"Very well," Annesley agreed.
The man nodded to the head-waiter, who had been interested in the little drama indirectly stage-managed by him. Instead of sending a subordinate, he came himself to take the order. With wonderful promptness, considering that Mr. Smith's thoughts had not been near the menu under his eyes, several dishes were chosen and a wine selected.
"Madame is glad now that I persuaded her not to go?" the waiter could not resist, and Annesley replied that she was glad. As the man turned away, "Mr. Smith" raised his eyebrows with rather a wistful smile.
"I'm afraid you're sorry, really," he said. "If I'd come a minute later than I did, you'd have been safe and happy at home by this time."
"Not happy," amended the girl. "Because it isn't home. If it were, I shouldn't have told fibs to Mrs. Ellsworth to-night."
"That sounds interesting," remarked her companion.
"It's not interesting!" she assured him. "Nothing in my life is. I don't want to bore you by talking about my affairs, but if you think we may be—interrupted, perhaps, I'd better explain one or two things while there's time. I wanted to come here this evening to keep an engagement I'd made, but it's difficult for me to get out alone. Mrs. Ellsworth doesn't like to be left, and she never lets me go anywhere without her except to the house of some friends of mine, the only real friends I have. It's odd, but their name is Smith, and that saved my telling a direct lie. Not that a half-lie isn't worse, it's so cowardly!
"Mrs. Ellsworth likes me to go to Archdeacon and Mrs. Smith's because—I'm afraid because she thinks they're 'swells.' Mrs. Smith has a duke for an uncle! Mrs. Ellsworth said 'yes' at once, when I asked, and gave me her key and permission to stop out till half-past ten, though everyone in the house is supposed to be in bed by ten. She's almost sure to be in bed herself, but if she gets interested in one of the books I brought from the library to-day, it's possible she may be sitting up to read, and to ask about my evening.
"Our bedrooms are on the ground floor at the back of an addition to the house. What if she should hear the latchkey (it's old fashioned and hard to work), and what if she should come to the swing door at the end of the corridor where she'd see you with me? What would you say or do?"
"H'm! It would be awkward. But—isn't there a young Smith in your Archdeacon's family?"
"There is one, but I haven't seen him since I was a little girl. He's a sailor. He's away now on an Arctic expedition."
"Then it wasn't that Mr. Smith you came to meet at the Savoy?"
"No. They're not related." As Annesley returned in thought to the Mr. Smith who had thrown her over, she took from her bodice the white rose which was to have identified her for him, and found it a place in the vase with the other white roses. She had a special reason for doing this. The real Mr. Smith, if by any chance he appeared now, would be a complication. Without the rose he could not claim her acquaintance.
"Why do you do that?" her companion broke the thread of his questioning to ask.
The girl was tempted to tell some easy fib that the rose was faded, or too fragrant; but somehow she could not. They both seemed so close to the deep-down things of life at this moment that to speak the truth was the one possible thing.
"I arranged to wear a white rose for Mr. Smith to recognize me. We—have never seen each other," she confessed.
"Yet you say there's nothing interesting in your life!"
"It's true! This thing was—was dreadful. It could happen only to a girl whose life was not interesting."
"Now I understand why you put away the rose—for my sake, in case Mr. Smith should turn up, after all. Will you give it to me? I won't flaunt it in my buttonhole. I'll hide it sacredly, in memory of this evening—and of you. Not that I shall need to be reminded of anything which concerns this night—you especially, and your generosity, your courage. But it may be that the men I spoke of won't find me here. If they don't, the worst of your ordeal is over. It will only be to finish dinner, and let me put you into a taxi. To-morrow you can think that you dreamed the wretch who appealed to you, and be glad that you will never see him again."
Annesley selected her white rose from its fellows, dried its stem daintily with her napkin, and gave the flower to "Mr. Smith." Already it looked refreshed, as she herself felt refreshed, after five years of "stuffiness," by these few throbbing moments.
Their hands touched, and through Annesley's darted a little tingle of electricity that flashed up her arm to her heart, where it caught like a hooked wire. She was surprised, almost frightened by the sensation, and ashamed because she didn't find it disagreeable.
"It must be that people who're really alive, as he is, give out magnetism," she thought. And the thrill lingered as the man thanked her with eyes and voice.
When he had looked at the rose curiously, as if expecting to learn from it the secret of its wearer, he put the flower away in a letter-case in an inner breast pocket of his coat.
For once Annesley was face to face with romance, and even though she would presently go back to the old round (since the adventure she came out to meet had failed), she was stirred to a wild gladness in this other adventure. The hors d'oeuvres appeared; then soup, and wine, which Mr. Smith begged her to taste.
"Drink luck for me," he insisted. "You and you alone can bring it."
Annesley drank. And the champagne filliped colour to her cheeks.
"Now we'll go on and think out the problem of what may happen at your door—if Fate takes me there," the man said. "Your old friend's sailor son is no use to me. He can't be whisked back from the North Pole to London for my benefit. Perhaps I may be an acquaintance of Archdeacon Smith's, mayn't I, if worst comes to worst? I've been dining there, and brought you back in a taxi. Will that do? If there are fibs to tell, I'll tell them myself and spare you if possible."
"After all I've told to-night, one or two more can't matter," said Annesley. "They won't hurt Mrs. Ellsworth. It's the other danger that's more worrying—the danger from those men. I've thought of something that may help if they follow us to Torrington Square. They may ask a policeman whose house we've gone into, and find out it's Mrs. Ellsworth's, before you can get away. So it will be better not to tell them it's yours. You can be visiting. There is a Mr. Smith who comes sometimes from America, where he lives, though he's not American. Even the policemen who have that beat may have heard of him from Mrs. Ellsworth's servants. There's a room kept always ready for him, and called 'Mr. Smith's room.'"
"That does help," said the man. "It's clever and kind of you to rack your brains for me. A Mr. Smith from America! It's easy for me to play that part, I'm from America. Perhaps you've guessed that?"
"But you're very different from Mrs. Ellsworth's Mr. Smith," Annesley warned him, hastily. "He's middle-aged, eccentric, and not good-looking. He comes to England for his 'nerves' when he has worked too hard and tired himself out. I think he's rich; and once he was robbed in some big hotel, so he likes to stay at a plain sort of house where there's no danger. He has a horror of burglars, and won't even stop at the Archdeacon's since they had a burglary a few years ago. He pays Mrs. Ellsworth for his room, I believe. A funny arrangement!—it came about through me. But that's not of importance to you."
"It may be. We can't tell. Better let me know as much as possible about these Smiths. There's Mrs. Ellsworth's Smith, and the Smith you came to meet——"
"We needn't talk of him, anyway!"
There was a hint of anger in the girl's protest; but her resentment was for the man who had humiliated her by breaking his appointment—such an appointment!
She hurried on, trying to hide all signs of agitation. "You see, Mrs. Ellsworth once hoped to have Archdeacon Smith and his wife for friends. They didn't care for her, but they loved my father—oh, long ago in the country, where we lived. When he died and I hadn't any money or training for work, they were nice to Mrs. Ellsworth for my sake—or, rather, for my father's sake—and persuaded her to take me as her companion. She was glad to do it to please them; but soon she realized that they didn't mean to reward her by being intimate.
"Poor woman, I was almost sorry for her disappointment! You see, she's a snob at heart, and though 'Smith' sounds a common name, both the Archdeacon and his wife have titled relations. So have I—and that was another reason for taking me. She adores a title. Doesn't that sound pitiful? But she has few interests and no real friends, so she's never given up hope of 'collecting' the Smiths.
"That's why she lets me visit them. And when I happened to mention, for something to say, that the Archdeacon had an eccentric cousin in America who was afraid of hotels and even of visiting at their house because of a fad about burglars, she offered to give him the better of her two spare rooms whenever he came to England. I never thought he'd accept, but he did, only he would insist on paying.
"That's the story, if you can call it a story, for Mr. Ruthven Smith isn't a bit exciting nor interesting. When he appears—generally quite suddenly—he finds his room ready. He has his breakfast sent up, and lunches out at his club or somewhere. He mostly dines out, too, but he has a standing invitation to dine with Mrs. Ellsworth, and we always have good dinners when he is staying, to be ready in case of the worst."
The man smiled, rather a charming smile, Annesley could not help noticing.
"In case of the worst!" he repeated. "He must be deadly if his society bores you more than that of an old lady on whom, I suppose, you dance attendance morning, noon, and night. Now, my situation is so—er—peculiar that I ought to be thankful to exchange identities with any man. But I wouldn't with Mr. Ruthven Smith for all his money and jewels."
Annesley opened her eyes. "Did I say anything about jewels?" she asked.
"No, you didn't," the man assured her, "except in mentioning the name of Ruthven Smith. Anybody who has lived in America as long as I have, associates jewels with the name of Ruthven Smith. His 'Ruthven' lifts him far above the ruck of a mere Smith—like myself, for instance"; and he smiled again.
Annesley began curiously to feel as if she knew him well. This made her more anxious to give him help—for it would not be helping a stranger: it would be helping a friend.
"I've heard, of course, that he's something—I'm not sure what—in a firm of jewellers," she said. "But I'd no idea of his being so important."
"He's third partner with Van Vreck & Co.," her companion explained. "I've heard he joined at first because of his great knowledge of jewels and because he's been able to revive the lost art of making certain transparent enamels. The Van Vrecks sent for him from England years ago. He buys jewels for the firm now, I believe. No doubt that's why he's in such a funk about burglars."
"Fancy your knowing more about Mr. Smith than I know! Perhaps more than Mrs. Ellsworth knows!" exclaimed Annesley, forgetting the strain of expectation—the dread that a pair of mysterious, nightmare men might break up the dreamlike dinner-party for two.
"I don't know more about him than half America and Europe knows," laughed the man. "It's lucky I do know something, though, as I may have to be mistaken for Ruthven Smith, and add an 'N' to his initials. I suppose he's not in England now by any chance?"
"No. It must be six or seven months since he was here last," said Annesley. "I don't think Mrs. Ellsworth has heard from him. She hardly ever does until a day or two before he's due to arrive; neither do his cousins."
"A peculiar fellow, it would seem," remarked her companion. And then, out of a plunge into thought, "You say you've never seen the Mr. Smith you came to meet at the Savoy? How can you be sure it isn't old 'R. S.' as they call him at Van Vreck's, wanting to play you a trick—give you a surprise?"
Annesley shook her head. "If you knew Mr. Ruthven Smith, you'd know that would be impossible. Why, I don't believe he remembers when I'm out of sight that I exist."
"Still more peculiar! Miss Grayle, I haven't any right to ask you questions. But I shouldn't be a man if I weren't forgetting my own affairs—in—in curiosity, if you want to call it that (I don't!), about yours. No! I won't let it pass for ordinary curiosity. Can't you understand you're doing for me more than any woman ever has done, or any man would do? That does make a bond between us. You can't deny it. Tell me about this Mr. Smith whom you don't know and never saw, yet came to the Savoy Hotel to meet."
WHY SHE CAME
Surprised by the abruptness of his question, Annesley's eyes dropped from the eyes of her host, which tried to hold them. She felt that she ought to be angry with him for taking advantage of her generosity—for it amounted to that! Yet anger would not come, only shame and the desire to hide a thing which would change his gratitude to contempt.
"Don't let's waste time talking about me," she said. "We haven't arranged——"
"We've arranged everything as well as we can. For the rest, I must trust to luck—and you. Do tell me why you came here, why you thought you came here, I mean; for I'm convinced you were sent for my sake by any higher powers there may be. I felt that, the minute I saw you. I feel it ten times more strongly now. I know that whatever your reason was, it's nothing to be ashamed of."
"I am ashamed," Annesley was led on to confess. "You'd despise me if I told you, for you can't realize what my life's been for five years. And that's my one excuse."
"Only a fool would want a woman like you to excuse herself for anything. I swear I wouldn't despise you. I couldn't. If you should tell me—knowing you as little, or as well, as I do, that you'd been plotting a murder, I'd be certain you were justified, and my first thought would be to save you, as you're saving me now."
Annesley felt again the man's intense magnetism. Suddenly she wanted to tell him everything. It would be a relief. She would watch his face and see how it changed. It would be like having the verdict of the world on what she had done—or meant to do.
"I saw an advertisement in the Morning Post," she said with a kind of breathless violence, "from a man who—who wanted to meet a girl with—a 'view to marriage.'"
The words brought a blush so painful that the mounting blood forced tears to her eyes. But she looked her vis-a-vis unwaveringly in the face.
That did not change at all, unless the interest in his eyes grew warmer. The sympathy she saw there gave Annesley a new and passionate desire to defend herself. If he had shown disgust, she would not have cared to try, she thought.
"I told you it was horrid, and not interesting or romantic," she dashed on. "But I was desperate. Mrs. Ellsworth is awful! I don't suppose you ever met such a woman. She's not cruel about starving my body. It's only my soul she starves. What business have I with a soul, except in church, where it's proper to think about such things? But she nags—nags! She makes my hair feel as if it were turning gray at the roots, and my face drying up—like an apple.
"I wasn't nineteen when I came to her. I'm twenty-three now, and I feel old—desiccated, thanks to those piling-up hundreds of days with her. They've killed my spirit. I used to be different. I can feel it. I can see it in the mirror. It isn't only the passing days, but having nothing better to look forward to. I'm too cowardly—or too religious or something, to kill myself, even if I knew how to, decently. But the deadliness of it all, the airlessness of her house and her heart!
"A man couldn't imagine it. She's made me forget not only my own youth, but that there's youth in the world. Why, at first I was so wild I should have loved to say dreadful things, or strike her. But now I haven't the spirit left to feel like that. My blood's turning white. The other day when I was reading aloud to Mrs. Ellsworth (I read a lot: the stupidest parts of the papers and the silliest books, that turn my brain to fluff) I caught sight of an advertisement in the Personal Column.
"I stopped just in time and didn't read it out. Only a glimpse I had, for I was in the midst of something else when my eyes wandered. But when Mrs. Ellsworth was taking her nap after luncheon I got the Post again and read the advertisement through carefully. The reason I was interested was because even the glance I took showed that the girl who was 'wanted' seemed in some ways rather like me. The advertisement said she must be from twenty-one to twenty-six; needn't be a beauty, but of pleasant appearance; money no object; the essentials were that she must have a fair education and be of good birth and manners, so as to command a certain position in society.
"I believe those were the very words. And it didn't seem too conceited to think that I answered the description. I'm not bad-looking, and my mother's father was an earl—an Irish one. I couldn't get the advertisement out of my head. It fascinated me."
"No wonder!" exclaimed Mr. Smith. He had been listening intently, and though she had paused, panting a little, more than once, he had not broken in with a word.
"Do you honestly think it no wonder?" Annesley flashed at him.
"It was like a prisoner seeing a key sticking in a door that has always been locked," he said.
"How strange you should think of that!" she cried. "It was the thought which came into my mind, and seemed to excuse me if anything could." Annesley felt grateful to the man. She was sure she could never have explained herself in this way or pleaded her own cause with the real Mr. Smith. A man cold-blooded enough to advertise for a wife "well-born and able to command a certain position in society" would have frozen her into an ice-block of reserve.
She might possibly have accepted his "proposition" (one couldn't speak of it in the ordinary way as a "proposal"), provided that, on seeing her, he had judged her suitable for the place; but she could never have talked her heart out to him as she was led on to do by this other man, equally a stranger, yet sympathetic because of his own trouble and the mystery which made of him a figure of romance.
"It isn't strange I should think of the prison door and the key," her companion said. "That was the situation. 'N. Smith' was rather clever in his way. There must be many girls of good family and good looks who are in prison, pining to escape. He must have had a lot of answers, that fellow; but none of the girls could have come within a mile of you. I'm selfish! I bless my lucky stars he didn't turn up here."
"I dare say it's the best thing that could happen," Annesley agreed with a sigh. "Probably he's horrible. But there was one thing: I thought, though he must be a snob and vulgar, advertising as he did for a wife of good birth, that very thing looked as if he were no worse than a snob. Not a villain, I mean. Otherwise, I shouldn't have dared answer. But I did answer the same day, while I had the courage. I posted a letter with some of Mrs. Ellsworth's, which she sent me out to drop into the box. His address was 'N. S., the Morning Post'; and I told him to send a reply, if he wrote, to the stationery shop and library where Mrs. Ellsworth makes me go every day to change her books."
"And the answer? What was it like? What impression did it give you?" questioned the man who sat in Mr. Smith's place.
"Oh, it was written in a good hand. But it was a stiff, commonplace sort of letter, except that it asked me to wear a white rose. White roses happen to be the ones I like best."
"So do I," said Mr. Smith. "Did he tell you to come to a table here and wait for him?"
"Not exactly. He was to meet me in the foyer. But if he did not, I was to understand he'd been delayed; and in that case I must come to the restaurant and inquire for a table engaged by Mr. N. Smith. Lots of times I decided not to do anything. But you see I came, and this is my reward."
"A poor one," her companion finished.
"I don't mean that! I mean he hasn't come at all. Maybe he never meant to. Maybe he got some letter he liked better than mine, and arranged to meet the girl somewhere else. A man of that sort wouldn't write to tell the straight truth in time, and save the unwanted one from humiliation."
"Are you very sorry he didn't?"
"No," Annesley said, frankly. "I'm not sorry. It's good to be able to help someone. I'm glad I came."
"So am I," Mr. Smith answered with a sudden change in his voice from calm to excitement. "And now the moment isn't far off, I think, for the help to be given. The men I spoke of are here. They're in the restaurant. You can't see them without turning your head, which would not be wise. They're speaking to a waiter. They haven't seen me yet, but they're sure to look soon. They're pointing to a table near us. It's free. The waiter's leading them to it. In an instant you'll have a better view of them than I shall. Now ... but don't look up yet."
From under her lashes Annesley saw—in the way women do see without seeming to use their eyes—two men conducted to a table directly in front of her. As she sat on her host's right, at the end of the table, not opposite to him, this gave her the advantage—or disadvantage—of facing the newcomers fully, while Mr. Smith, who had faced them as they entered, would have his profile turned toward their table.
The pair seated themselves in the same way that Annesley and her companion were placed, one at the right hand of the other. This caused the first man to face the girl fully and gave her the second in profile. One table only intervened between Mr. Smith's and that selected by the late arrivals, and the latter had hardly sat down when the party of four at the intermediate table rose to go.
Under cover of their departure, bowing of waiters and readjustment of ladies' sable or ermine stoles, Annesley ventured a lightning glance at the men. She saw that both were black-haired and black-bearded, with dark skins and long noses. There was a slight suggestion of resemblance between them. They might be brothers. They were in evening dress, but did not look, Annesley thought, like gentlemen.
Mr. Smith was eating blennes au caviar apparently with enjoyment. He called a waiter and told him to put more whipped cream on the caviare as yet untouched in the middle of Annesley's pancake.
"That's better, I think," he said, genially. And as the waiter went away, "What are they doing now?"
Annesley lifted her champagne glass as an excuse to raise her eyes. "I'm afraid they've seen us and are talking about you. Can't we—hadn't we better go?"
"Certainly not," replied Mr. Smith. "At least, I can't. But if you repent——"
"I don't," Annesley broke in. "I was thinking of you, of course."
"Bless you!" said her host. His tone was suddenly gay. She glanced at him and saw that his face was gay also, his eyes bright and challenging, his look almost boyish. She had taken him for thirty-three or four; now she would have guessed him younger.
Annesley could not help admiring his pluck, for he had said that the arrival of these men meant danger. She ought to be sorry as well as frightened because they had come, but at that moment she was neither. Her companion's example was contagious. Her spirits rose. And the thought flashed through her head, "This adventure won't end here!" If she had had time she would have been ashamed of her gladness; but there was no time. Smith was talking again in a suppressed yet cheerful tone.
"You won't forget that we're Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Smith?"
"No—no. I sha'n't forget."
"You may have to call me Nelson, and I—to call you Annesley. It's a pretty name, odd for a woman to have. How did you get it?"
"Oh, you don't want to hear that now!"
"Why not?—unless you'd rather not tell me. We can't do anything more till the blow falls, except enjoy ourselves and go on with our dinner. How did you come to be Annesley?"
"It was part of my mother's maiden name. She was an Annesley-Seton."
"There's a Lord Annesley-Seton, isn't there?"
"Related to you?"
"A cousin. But Grayle isn't a name in their set. He and his wife have forgotten my existence. I'm not likely to remind them of it."
"His wife was an American girl, wasn't she?"
"How odd that you should know!"
"Not very. I remember there being a lot in the papers about the wedding six or seven years ago. The girl was very rich—a Miss Haverstall. Her father's lost his money since then."
"How can you keep such uninteresting things in your mind—just now?"
"They're not uninteresting. They concern you!"
"Lord Annesley-Seton's affairs don't concern me, and never will."
"I wonder?" said Smith, looking thoughtful; and the girl wondered, too: not about her future or her relatives, but what the next few minutes would do with this strange young man, and how at such a time he could bear to talk commonplaces.
"If you're trying to keep me from being nervous," she whispered, "it's not a bit of use! I can't think of anything or any one except those men. They've stopped whispering. But they're looking at you. Now—they're getting up. They're coming toward us!"
THE GREAT MOMENT
The men were staring so keenly at "Mr. N. Smith" that it seemed to Annesley he must feel the stab of eyes, sharp as pin-pricks, in his back. He had the self-control, however, not to look round, not even to change expression. No man in the restaurant appeared more calmly at ease than he.
The couple had accompanied their stare with eager whisperings. Then, as if on some hasty decision, they pushed back their chairs and got up. Taking a few steps they separated, approaching Smith on right and left. One, therefore, stood between him and Annesley as if to prevent an exchange of words or glances. There was something Eastern and oddly alien about them in spite of their conventional clothes.
"Mr. Michael Varcoe!" said the bigger and older, he who stood on the left of Smith. The other kept in the background, not to crowd with conspicuous rudeness between Annesley and her host. The man who spoke had a thick voice and a curious accent which the girl, with her small experience, was unable to place.
"No," answered "Smith," in a puzzled tone. "You mistake me for someone else."
"I think not," insisted the bearded man, in a hostile drawl. "I think not!"
"I'm sure not," echoed the other. "You are Michael Varcoe. There's no getting away from that."
The emphasis seemed to add, "And no getting away from us."
Excitement stirred Annesley to courage. "Why, how horrid!" she exclaimed, bending past the human obstacle; "people taking you for some foreigner! I'm sure you can't be like a man with such a name as—Michael Varcoe! Tell them who we are."
"My name is Nelson Smith," said her official husband. "My wife is not——"
"Your wife!" repeated the man standing opposite Annesley. He stared with insolent incredulity. "'Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Smith.' A good name to take."
"It happens to have been given me." Slight sharpness broke the tolerance of Smith's tone.
"I don't believe you!" exclaimed the other.
Smith's black brows drew together. "It doesn't matter whether you believe or not," he said. "What does matter is that you should annoy us. I tell you I'm not Michael Varcoe, and never heard the name. If you're not satisfied, and if you don't go back to your dinner and let us finish ours in peace, I'll appeal to the management."
"Well!" grumbled the taller of the pair. "If you're not the man I want, you're his image—minus moustache and beard. You must be Varcoe!"
"Of course he's Varcoe," insisted the other.
"Of course he's not!" said Annesley, with just the right amount of irritation. "Our name is Smith. Nelson, do tell this—person to ask the head-waiter who engaged the table, and not stay here making a fuss."
"Anybody can engage a table in the name of Smith!" sneered the first speaker. "That is nothing. We go by something more convincing than a name. There are countries where men have been arrested on less resemblance—or put out of the way."
"Oh, Nelson, he's frightening me," faltered Annesley. "He must have lost his senses."
"You think that, do you?" The fierce eyes fixed her with a stare. "You tell me—you, madame, that you are this man's wife?"
"I do tell you so," the girl replied, firmly, "though I don't see that it's your affair! Now go away."
"Very well, we take your word," returned the man, in a tone which said that he did nothing of the sort. "And we go—back to our table, to let you finish your meal, Mr. and Mrs. Smith."
His black glance sprang like a tarantula from her face to her companion's, then to his friend's. The latter accepted the ultimatum and followed in sulky silence; but when the pair were seated at their own table, though they ordered food and wine, their attention was still for the alleged Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
Annesley tried to ignore the fact that they stared without ceasing, but she could not help being aware of their eyes. She felt faint, and everything in the room whirled giddily.
"Drink some champagne," said Smith's quiet voice.
The girl obeyed, and the ice-cold wine cooled the fire in blood and nerves.
"You have been splendid," Smith encouraged her. "I know you won't fail me now."
"I promise you I will not!" returned Annesley. "The worst is over. I feel ready for anything."
"How can I thank you?" he murmured. "If I had all the rest of my life to do it in, instead of a few minutes, it wouldn't be too much. You were perfect in your manner, not anxious, only annoyed; just the right air for a self-respecting Mrs. Smith."
They both laughed, and Annesley was surprised that she could laugh naturally and gaily. Presently she laughed again, when Mr. Smith remarked that she had missed her vocation in not being an actress—she, the country mouse, who had hardly been inside a theatre.
The two lingered over their dinner, watched with impatience by the men at the other table, who had ordered only one dish and paid for it immediately, that they might be ready for anything at an instant's notice. They had also a small bottle of wine, which they sipped abstemiously as an excuse to remain after their food had been eaten.
When at last Mr. and Mrs. Smith had finished their bombe surprise, and trifled with some fruit, Annesley said: "Evidently they don't care how long they have to wait! I suppose there's nothing for us to do but to go?"
"Oh, yes, there's still something," said Smith. "We'll have coffee in the foyer, and see what the enemy's next move is. It would be a mistake to let the brutes believe they're frightening us."
Annesley agreed in silence; but in her heart she was glad to lengthen out the adventure. Soon she would have to creep back to her dull modern substitute for a moated grange, and after that—not "the deluge"; nothing so exciting: extinction.
As they walked out of the restaurant together the girl glanced up at the dark profile, mysterious as a stranger's, yet familiar as a friend's. The man had told her nothing about himself except that he was in danger, and had given no hint as to what that danger was; but the girl's heart was warm with belief in him. If there were a question of crime, the crime was not his. His superiority over those creatures must be moral as well as physical and social.
By an odd coincidence, Mr. Smith steered for the sofa in the corner whence a man had stared from behind an open newspaper at a tall, lonely girl in gray, earlier in the evening. Annesley knew nothing of this coincidence, because she had not noticed the man; but even if she had, she would have forgotten him. She had been thinking of herself when she first trailed her gray dress over the red carpet of the foyer; now, returning, she thought of the man who was with her and the two who were certain to follow.
Scarcely were she and Smith seated before the others appeared. The men sat down in chairs drawn up at a little table; and not only must those in the corner pass by them in escaping, but every word spoken above a whisper must be overheard.
This fact did not embarrass Smith. He ordered coffee and cigarettes, and talked to Annesley in an ordinary tone about a motor trip which it would be pleasant to take. The watchers also demanded coffee. But the waiter they summoned was slow in fulfilling their order. When it was obeyed, before the pair had time to lift cup to lip, Mr. Smith took impish pleasure in getting to his feet.
"Come, dear," he said, "we'd better be off."
He laid on the table money for the coffee and cigarettes, with a satisfactory tip. Then without looking at their neighbours he and Annesley passed, walking shoulder to shoulder with a leisurely step toward the entrance.
"I suppose there's no chance of shaking them off?" the girl whispered.
"None whatever," said Smith. "But we've had the fun of cheating them out of their coffee, because they won't chance our stopping to pick up our wraps. They'll be on our heels till the end of the journey, so there's nothing for it except to stick to the original plan of my going home with you. I hope you don't mind? I hope you're not afraid of me now?"
"I'm not at all afraid," said Annesley.
"Thank you for that. If our taxi outruns theirs, I sha'n't need to trespass on your kindness beyond the doorstep. But if they overtake us, and are on the spot before you can vanish into the house and I can disappear in some other direction, are you still game to keep your promise—the promise to let me go indoors with you?"
"Yes, I am 'game' to the end—whatever the end may be," the girl answered; and she wondered at herself, because her heart was as brave as her words.
Five minutes later Annesley, wrapped in her thin cloak, was stepping into a taxi. As Smith followed and told the chauffeur where to drive, the two watchers shot through the revolving door in time to overhear, and also to order a taxi.
Annesley wondered for one dismayed instant why her companion should have given the real address. He might have mentioned some other street, and thus have gained time; but a second thought told her that, with the pursuing taxi so close upon their heels, an attempt to deceive would have been useless. The policy of defiance was the only one.
For a few moments neither the girl nor the man spoke, although Annesley felt that there were a thousand things to say. Every second was taking them nearer to Torrington Square; and their parting must come soon. After that, all would be blankness for her, as before this wonderful night.
Such thoughts made the girl a prisoner of silence; and "Mr. Smith" was also tongue-tied. Was he concentrating his mind upon some plan of escape from these mysterious enemies? She told herself this must be so; yet his first words proved that he had been thinking of the risk she ran.
"If the dragon comes out of her den and catches us at the door, will that mean a catastrophe for you, or can I be explained away?" he inquired.
"I don't know," said Annesley. "And somehow I don't care!"
"I care," the man replied. "I can't have harm come to you through me. But tell me, before we go farther—does it matter to you, Miss Grayle, that in a little while you and I may see the last of each other? I feel I have a sort of right to ask that question, because it matters such a lot to me. I've got to know you better in this one evening than I could in a year in a commonplace way. I don't want you to go out of my life, because you're the best thing that ever came into it. And if I dared hope that I might mean to you some day half what you've begun to mean for me already, why, I wouldn't let you go!"
Annesley clasped her hands under her cloak. They were cold yet tingling. Her blood was leaping; but she could not speak. She was afraid of saying too much.
"Can't you give me a grain of hope?" he went on. His voice was wistful. "We have so little time."
"What—do you want me to say?" Annesley stammered.
"I want you to say—that you don't wish to see the last of me to-night."
"I shouldn't be human if I could wish that!" the words seemed to speak themselves; and she, who had been taught to repress and hide emotion as if it were a vice, was glad that the truth was out. After all they had gone through together she couldn't send this man away believing her indifferent. "I—it doesn't seem as if we were strangers," she faltered on.
"Strangers! I should think not," he echoed. "We mayn't know much about each other's tastes, but we do know about each other's souls, which is more than can be said of most men and women acquainted for half a lifetime. As for our pasts, you haven't had one, and I—well, if I swear to you that I've never murdered anybody, or been in prison, or committed an unforgivable crime, will you take my word?"
"If you told me you were a murderer, or had committed some unforgivable crime, I—I don't feel as if I could believe it," Annesley assured him. "It—would hurt me to think evil of you. I'm sure it isn't you who are evil, but these men."
"You're an angel to feel like that and speak like that!" exclaimed Smith. "I don't deserve your goodness, but I appreciate it. I'd like to take your hand and kiss it when I thank you, but I won't, because you're alone with me, under my protection. To save me from trouble you've risked danger and put yourself in my power. I may be bad in some ways—most men are, or would be in women's eyes if women saw them as they are; but I'm not a brute. The worst I've ever done is to try to pay back a great injury, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Do you blame me for that?"
"I have no right—I don't know what the injury was," said the girl; and, hesitating a little, "still—I don't think I could find happiness in revenge."
"I could, or anyhow, satisfaction: I confess that. About 'happiness,' I don't know much. But you could teach me."
"Yes. Do you believe there can be such a thing as love at first sight?"
"I can't tell. Books say so. Perhaps——"
"There's no 'perhaps.' I've found that out to-night. I believe love that comes at sight must be the only real love—a sort of electric call from soul to soul. The thing that's happened is just this: I've met the one woman—my help-mate. If I come out of this trouble, and can ask a girl like you to give herself to me, will you do it?"
"Oh, you say this because you think you ought to be grateful!" cried Annesley. "But I don't want gratitude. This is the first time I've ever lived. I owe that to you. And it's more than you can owe to me."
The man laughed, a happy laugh, as though danger were miles away instead of on his heels. "You know almost as much about men as a child knows, Miss Grayle," he said, "if you think I'm one of the sort—if there is such a sort—who would tie himself to a woman for gratitude. I've just one motive in wanting you to marry me. I love you and need you. I couldn't feel more if I'd known you months instead of hours."
The wonder of it swept over Annesley in a flood. Even in her dreams—and she had had wild dreams sometimes—she had never pictured a man such as this loving her and wanting her. To the girl's mind he was so attractive that it seemed impossible his choice of her could be from the heart. She would wake up to a stale, flat to-morrow and find that none of these things had really happened.
Still, she might as well live up to the dream while it lasted, and have the more to remember.
"It's a fairy story, surely!" she said, trying to laugh. "There are so many beautiful girls in the world for a man like you, that I——"
"A man like me! What am I like?"
"Oh, it's hard to put into words. But—well, you're brave; I'm sure of that."
"I hope I'm not a coward. All normal men are brave. That's nothing. What else am I—to you?"
"Interesting. More interesting than—than any one I ever saw."
"If you feel that, you don't want to send me out of your life, do you?—after you've stood by and sheltered me from danger?"
"No-o. I don't want to send you out of my life. But——"
"There's only one way in which you can keep me and I can keep you—circumstanced as we are. We must be husband and wife."
"Oh!" The girl covered her face with both hands. The world was on fire around her.
"I frighten you. Yet you might have consented to marry that other Smith. You went to meet him, to decide whether he was possible."
"I know. But I see now, if he'd kept his appointment, it would have ended in nothing, even if—if he had been pleased with me. I couldn't have brought myself to say 'yes'."
"How can you be certain?"
"Because"—Annesley spoke almost in a whisper—"because he wasn't you."
Smith snatched her clasped hands and kissed them. The warm touch of the man's lips gave the girl a new, mysterious sensation. No man had ever kissed even her hands. Suddenly she felt sure that what she felt must be love—love at first sight, which, according to him, was an electric call from soul to soul. His kiss told her that they belonged to each other for good or evil.
"Darling!" he said. "You are mine. I sha'n't let you go. For love of you I'll free myself from this temporary trouble I'm in, and come back to claim you soon. When I ask you to be my wife you'll say to me what you wouldn't have said to the other Smith?"
"If I can escape to hear you. But—you don't know Mrs. Ellsworth."
"St. George rescued the princess from the dragon: so will I, though I've warned you I'm no saint. When we meet again I'll tell you what I am, and perhaps my real name, which is better than Smith, though it mayn't be as safe. Now, there are other things to say——"
But there was no time to say them, for the taxi stopped. The time seemed so short since the Savoy that Annesley couldn't believe they were in Torrington Square. Perhaps the chauffeur had made a mistake? She looked out, hoping that it might be so; but before her were the darkened windows of the dull, familiar house, 22-A. The great moment was upon them.
THE SECOND LATCHKEY
Without another word Smith opened the door and sprang out. As Annesley put her hand into his to descend she gave him the latchkey. It had been inside the neck of her dress, and the metal was warm from the warmth of her heart.
"Take this," she whispered. "If they are watching, it will be best for you to have the key."
Mr. Smith bestowed a generous tip on the driver, and was rewarded with a loud, cheerful "Thank you, sir!" which must have reached the ears of a chauffeur in the act of stopping before a house near by. Annesley, glancing sidewise at the other taxi, thought that it drew up with suspicious suddenness, as if it had awaited a "cue."
There was little doubt in her mind as to who the occupants were, and her heart beat fast, though she controlled herself to walk with calmness across the strip of pavement. On the doorstep she turned to wait for her companion, and, without seeming to look past him, saw that no one got out from the neighbouring taxi.
"They don't care whether we guess who they are or not," was her thought. "They mean to find out whether we have a latchkey and can let ourselves into a house in this square. When they see us go in, will they believe the story and drive away, or—will they stay on?"
What would happen if the watchers persisted Annesley dared not think; but she knew that she would sacrifice herself in any way rather than send the man she loved (yes, she did love him!) out to face peril.
Having paid the chauffeur, Mr. N. Smith joined the figure on the doorstep, and fitted into the lock Annesley's latchkey. Then he opened the door for the girl, and followed her in with a cool air of proprietorship which ought to have impressed the watchers. A minute later, if another proof had been needed that Mr. and Mrs. Smith were actually at home, it was given by a sudden glow of red curtains in the two front windows of the ground floor.
This touch of realism meant extra risk for Annesley in case Mrs. Ellsworth were awake; but she took it with scarcely a qualm of fear. The house was quiet, and there were ten chances to one against its mistress being on the alert at this hour, so long past her bedtime.
When the girl had switched on the lights of the two-branched chandelier over the dining table she beckoned to her companion, who noiselessly followed her from the dark corridor into the room. There, with one sweeping glance at the dull red walls, the oil-painted landscapes in sprawling gilt frames, the heavy plush curtains, the furniture with its "saddle-bag" upholstery, the common Turkish carpet, and the mantel mirror with tasteless, tasselled draperies, "Nelson Smith" seemed to comprehend the deadly "stuffiness" of Annesley Grayle's existence.
The look of Mrs. Ellsworth's middle-class dining room, and the atmosphere whence oxygen had been excluded, were enough to tell him, if he had not realized already, why the lady's companion had gone out to meet a strange man "with a view to marriage."
To Annesley, however, for the first time, this room was neither hideous nor depressing. It seemed years since she had seen it. She was a different girl from the spiritless slave who had crept out after luncheon, in the wake of her mistress: that short, shapeless form with a large head set on a short neck, and a trailing, old-fashioned dress of black.
Now, with a man holding her hands and calling her an angel—a "dear, brave angel!"—it looked to the girl a beautiful room. There was glamour upon it, and upon the rest of the world. Surely life could never seem commonplace again!
"Ssh!" Annesley whispered. "We mustn't wake Mrs. Ellsworth, or she'll run to the front door in her dressing gown and call 'Police!' She's old, but her ears are sharp as a cat's. She can almost hear one thinking. But I'm glad she can't quite. How frightful if she could!"
"Nothing about her need be frightful to you any more," said the man. "You have saved me. Soon it will be my turn to rescue you."
"I haven't saved you yet," the girl reminded him. "They are sure to be waiting to see whether you come out. But I've thought of one more thing to make them believe that you live here. I can steal softly upstairs to the front room on the second floor, above the drawing room—the one we call 'Mr. Smith's'—to turn on the lights, and then those hateful creatures will think——". She hesitated, and the colour sprang to her cheeks.
"That Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Smith have gone to their room," the man finished her sentence. His eyes beamed love and gratitude, a glorious reward. "You're wonderful! You forget nothing that can help. Do you know, your trust, your faith in me, in spite of appearances, are the best things that have come into my life? You call those fellows 'hateful creatures,' because they're my enemies. Yet, for all you know, they may be injured innocents and I the 'hateful' one. This may be my way of getting into a rich old woman's house to steal her jewels and money—making you a cat's paw."
"Don't!" Annesley cut him short. "I can't bear to hear you say such things. I trust you because—surely a woman can tell by instinct which men to trust. I don't need proof."
"By Jove!" he exclaimed, his eyes fixed upon her face. "You are the kind of girl whose faith could turn Lucifer back from devil into archangel. I—you're a million times too good for me. I didn't even want to meet a white saint like you. But now I have met you, nothing on earth is going to make me give you up, if you'll stand by me. I'm unworthy, and I don't expect to be much better. But there's one thing: I can give you a gayer life than here. Perhaps I can even make you happy, if you don't ask for a saint to match yourself. You shall have my love and worship, and I'll be true as steel——"
"Oh, listen!" Annesley broke in. "Don't you hear a sound?"
"Yes," he said. "A door creaked somewhere."
"Mrs. Ellsworth's bedroom door. What shall we do? There's just the short passage at the back, and then she'll be at the baize door that opens into the front corridor. Quick! You, not I, must go upstairs—to that second-floor front room I spoke of. Hurry! Before she gets to the swing door——"
Without a word he obeyed, remembering his hat, which he had laid on the table. One step took him out of the lighted dining room into the dimness beyond. Another step and he was on the stairs. There, for the moment at least, he was safe from detection; for the staircase faced the front door, and Mrs. Ellsworth must approach from the back. She would come to the door of the dining room, and, expecting only the girl, would not think of spying at the foot of the stairs.
Besides, there was no light in the corridor except that which streamed through the reddish globes of the chandelier above the dining table. If only the man did not stumble on his way up, the situation might be saved.
He was alert, deft, quick-witted, and light of foot as a panther. Who but he would have remembered at such a moment to snatch up a compromising hat and take it with him?
Annesley stood still, rigid in every muscle, fighting to control her heart-throbs, that she might be ready to answer a flood of questions. She dared not even let her thoughts rush ahead. It was all she could do to face the present. The rest must take care of itself.
He had said that she would "make a good actress." Now was the moment to prove that he had judged her truly! She began to unfasten one of her long gray gloves. A button was loose. She must give it a few stitches to-morrow. Strange that there should be room for such a thought in her mind. But she caught at it gladly.
It calmed her as she heard a shuffling tread of slippered feet along the corridor; and she forced herself not to look up until she was conscious that a shapeless figure in a dressing gown filled the doorway, like a badly painted portrait too large for its frame.
"A nice time of night for you to be back!" barked the bronchitic voice hoarsened by years of shut windows. "Give you an inch and you take an ell! I told you half-past ten. Here it is eleven!"
Annesley looked up as if surprised. "Oh, Mrs. Ellsworth, you frightened me!" she exclaimed. "I was delayed. But it won't be eleven for ten minutes. This dining-room clock keeps such good time, you know. And I've been in the house for a few moments. I thought I came so softly! I'm sorry I waked you up."
"Waked me up!" repeated Mrs. Ellsworth. "I have not been to sleep. I never can close my eyes when I know anybody is out and has got to come back, especially a careless creature as likely as not to leave the front door unlatched. That's why I said half-past ten at latest! If I don't fall asleep before eleven I get nervous and lose my night's rest. You've heard me say that twenty times, yet you have no consideration!"
"This is the first time I've been out late," Annesley defended herself. As she spoke she looked at Mrs. Ellsworth as she might have looked at a stranger.
This fat old woman, with hard eyes, low, unintelligent forehead, and sneering yet self-indulgent mouth, had been for five years the mistress of her fate. The slave had feared to speak lest she should say the wrong thing, had hesitated before taking the most insignificant step, knowing that Mrs. Ellsworth's sharp tongue would accuse her of foolishness or worse. But now Annesley wondered at her bondage. If only the man upstairs could escape, never again would she be afraid of this old tyrant.
"You don't need to tell me how long you have been in," said Mrs. Ellsworth, blissfully ignorant that the iron chain was broken, and enjoying her power to wound. "I've been sitting up watching the clock. My fire's nearly out, and no more coals in the scuttle, the servants all three snoring while I am kept up. If I'm in bed with a cold to-morrow I shall have you to thank, Miss Grayle."
"I'll get you some more coal if you want it," said Annesley. "Hadn't you better go to bed now I am back?"
"Not till I've made you understand that this must never occur again," insisted the old woman. (Annesley was shocked at herself for daring to think that the unwieldy bulk in the gray flannel dressing gown looked like a hippopotamus.) "You don't seem to realize that you've done anything out of the way. You're as calm as if it was eight o'clock. Not a word of regret! Not a question as to my evening, you're so taken up with yourself and your smart clothes—clothes I gave you."
"I haven't had much chance to ask questions, have I?" Annesley ventured to remind her mistress. "Won't you tell me about your evening when you are in bed and I have made up your fire? You say it is bad for you to stand."
"I say so because it is the truth, and doctor's orders," rapped out Mrs. Ellsworth. "I thought I had been upset enough for one evening, but this last straw had to be added to my burden."
"Why, what can have upset you?" Annesley inquired, more for the sake of appearing interested than because she was so. But the look on her mistress's face told her that something really had happened.
"I don't care to be kept out of my bed, to be catechized by you," returned Mrs. Ellsworth, pleased that she had aroused curiosity and determined not to gratify it. "Turn on the light in the corridor and give me your arm. My rheumatism is very bad, owing to the chill I have caught, and if I stumble I may be laid up for a week."
The girl proffered a slender arm, hoping that the pounding of her heart might not be detected by Mrs. Ellsworth's hand. She wished that she could have slipped it under her right arm instead of the left, but owing to Mrs. Ellsworth's position in the doorway it was impossible to do so, except by pushing her aside.
She rejoiced, however, in the order to put on the light in the corridor, for this meant that after settling her mistress in bed and transferring the dining-room coal scuttle to the bedroom she must return to switch the electricity off. Then, with Mrs. Ellsworth out of the way, she could help the man upstairs to escape, if the watchers had abandoned the game.
The tyrant, shuffling along in heelless woollen slippers, made the most of her infirmity, and hung on the arm of her tall companion. In silence they passed through the baize door at the end of the corridor, so into the addition at the back of the house, which contained Mrs. Ellsworth's room and bath, with another small room suitable for a maid, and occupied by Annesley. This addition had been built a year or two before Annesley's arrival, and saved Mrs. Ellsworth the necessity of mounting and descending the stairs, as she used the dining room to sit in and seldom went into the drawing room on the floor above. Annesley was not surprised to see that the fire in her mistress's room was still a bank of glowing coals, for one of Mrs. Ellsworth's pleasures was to represent herself in the light of a martyr. The girl made no remark, however: she was far too experienced for such mistakes in tact.
Still in silence, she peeled the stout figure of its dressing gown and helped it into a short, knitted bed-jacket.
"When you get the dining-room scuttle, put out the light there and in the corridor," Mrs. Ellsworth said. "If you leave this door open you can see your way with the coals. No use your creaking back and forth just as I've settled down to rest. Besides, there's somebody else to think of. I hope he hasn't been disturbed already!"
"Somebody else?" echoed the girl with a gasp. There was no longer any fear that her curiosity had not caught fire. Mrs. Ellsworth was satisfied.
"Yes, somebody else," she condescended to repeat. "A certain person has come since you went out. I suppose, in the circumstances, you do not need to be told who."
"I—I don't know what you mean by 'in the circumstances'," Annesley stammered.
"That's not intelligent of you, considering where you have spent the evening," sneered Mrs. Ellsworth.
Annesley's ears tingled as if they had been boxed. Could it be that Mrs. Ellsworth knew of the trick played on her—knew that her companion had not been to the Smiths'?
"I'm afraid I don't understand," she deprecated.
Mrs. Ellsworth sat in bed staring up at her. "Either you are a fool," she said, "or else I have caught you or him in a lie. I don't know which yet. But I soon shall. Perhaps you were not the only person in this house who went out to-night with a latchkey. Now do you guess?"
"No, I don't," the girl had to answer, though a dreadful idea was whirring an alarm in her brain.
"I dare say he is back before this, being more considerate of my feelings than you, and less noisy," went on the old woman, anxious to prove that Annesley Grayle and nobody else was responsible for keeping her from rest. "Anyhow, what a man does is not my business. What you do, is. Now, did or did not a certain person walk in and surprise you at the Archdeacon's? Don't stand there blinking like an owl. Speak out. Yes or no?"
"No," Annesley breathed.
"Then you haven't been to the Smiths'. I can more easily believe you are lying than he. Hark! There he comes. Isn't that a latchkey in the front door?"
"It—sounds like it. But—perhaps it's a mouse in the wall. Mice—make such strange noises."
"They're not making this one. He never could manage that key properly. Nobody with ears could mistake the sound, with both my door and the baize door open between, as they are now.
"No! You aren't to run and let him in. I don't want him to think we spy on him. He's free to come and go as he pleases, but I wish he wasn't so fond of surprises. It's not fair to me, at my time of life. As I was sitting down to dinner he walked in. Of course I had to ask him to dine, though there wasn't enough food for two. However, he refused, saying he would drop in at the Archdeacon's——"
"Mr. Smith has come!" Annesley cried out, wildly, interrupting her mistress for the first time in all their years together. "Oh, he will go upstairs! I must stop him—I mean, speak to him! I——"
"You will do nothing of the kind!" Mrs. Ellsworth leaned out of bed and seized the girl's dress. Careless of any consequence save one, Annesley struggled to free herself. But the old hand with its lumpy knuckles was strong in spite of fat and rheumatism. It clung leechlike to chiffon of cloak and gown, and though Annesley tore at the yellow fingers, she could not loosen them.
Desperate, she cried out in a choked voice, "Mr. Smith! Mr. Smith!" then checked herself lest the wrong Mr. Smith should answer.
But her voice was like the voice of one who tries to scream in a nightmare. It was muffled; and though the two intervening doors were ajar—the door of Mrs. Ellsworth's bedroom and the baize door dividing the corridors old and new—her call did not reach even the real Mr. Smith. To be sure, he was slightly deaf, and had to use an electric apparatus if he went to the theatre or opera; still, Annesley hoped that her choked cry might arrest him, that he might stop and listen for it to come again, thus giving time for the man upstairs to change his quarters after the grating of the latchkey in its lock.
"Wicked, wicked girl!" Mrs. Ellsworth was shrilling. "How dare you hurt my hand? Have you lost your senses? Out of my house you go to-morrow!"
But Annesley did not hear. Her mind, her whole self, had escaped from her body and rushed out into the hall to intercept Mr. Ruthven Smith. It seemed that he must feel the influence and stop. If he did not, some terrible thing would happen—unless, indeed, the other man had heard and heeded the warning sound at the front door. What if those two met on the stairs, or in the room on the second floor? Her lover would believe that she had betrayed him!
"Mrs. Ellsworth," she said in a fierce, low voice utterly unlike her own, "you must let me go, or you will regret it. I don't want to hurt you, but—there's only one thing that matters. If——"
The words seemed to be beaten back against her lips with a blow. From somewhere above a sharp, dry explosion struck the girl's brain and shattered her thoughts like breaking glass.
Mrs. Ellsworth let go the chiffon cloak and dress so suddenly that Annesley almost lost her balance. The noise had dazed the girl. The world seemed full and echoing with it. She did not know what it was until she heard Mrs. Ellsworth gasp, "A pistol shot! In my house! Thieves! Murder!"
THE BEGINNING—OR THE END?
For one confused instant the girl stood statue-still, then, realizing that she was free, without a thought for Mrs. Ellsworth she ran out of the room. In the front corridor and in the dining room the electric light was still on; and as she reached the stairs Annesley saw Ruthven Smith standing near the top with a small pistol in his hand.
She feared that he would fire a second shot, and there was no time to reach him. Somehow, he must be stopped with a word—but what word? Everything depended on that. Sheer desperation inspired her.
"Stop! He's my lover!" she cried. "Don't shoot!"
Ruthven Smith—a tall, lanky figure in a long over-coat—kept his weapon aimed at someone out of the girl's sight, but he jerked his head aside for a glance down at her. It was a brief glance, for the man who dreaded burglars would not be caught napping. He turned again instantly to face a possible antagonist, eyes as well as weapon ready.
But the light from below had lit up his features for a second; and Annesley realized that disgust and astonishment were the emotions her "confession" had inspired.
The fact that he was inclined to believe her statement showed how low was his opinion of women. Annesley knew that he did not think highly of her sex, but he had liked her and she had liked him despite his eccentricities. His look said: "So you are the same as the rest! But in case you're lying, I sha'n't be thrown off guard."
The girl felt physically sick as she understood the irrevocability of what she had just said, and the way in which her words were construed. If she could have waited, "Nelson Smith" might have saved himself without compromising her, for he was above all things resourceful. In announcing that he was her "lover," she had committed him as well as herself. He would have to make the best of a situation she had recklessly created.
This she realized, but had no time to wonder how he would do it before he spoke.
"Mr. Ruthven Smith, what Miss Grayle says is the truth. We're engaged to be married. All I want is a chance to explain why you find me where I am. I'm not armed, so you can safely give me that chance."
"You know my name?" exclaimed Ruthven Smith, suspiciously. He still covered the other with his pistol, as Annesley could see now, because "Nelson Smith" had coolly advanced within a yard of the Browning's small black muzzle, and, finding the electric switch, had flooded the upper corridor with light.
"I've heard your name from Miss Grayle," said the younger man. "I know it must be you, because no other person has a right to make himself at home in this house as you are doing. I certainly haven't. But bringing her home a few minutes ago, after dining out, we saw a light in what she said was your room. She was afraid some thief had got in, and I proposed to her that I should take a quiet look round while she went to see if Mrs. Ellsworth was safe. No doubt she was all right, because I heard them talking together while I examined your premises. The next thing I knew, as I was coming down with the news that everything was quiet, you blazed away. It was quite a surprise."
"I fired in the air, not at you," Ruthven Smith excused himself, more or less convinced. Annesley clutched the banisters in the sudden weakness of a great revulsion from panic to relief. She might have known that he would somehow rescue her, even from her own blundering.
The shamed red which had stained Annesley's cheeks at Ruthven Smith's contempt died away. Her "lover"—he was openly that now—had miraculously made his presence in the other Smith's room, after eleven o'clock at night in this early bed-going household, the most natural thing in the world. At least, Ruthven Smith's almost apologetic tone in answering proved that he had been persuaded to think it so.