THE WHARF BY THE DOCKS
Author of "The Mystery of the Inn by the Shore," etc.
Everybody knows Canterbury, with its Old-World charms and its ostentatious air of being content to be rather behind the times, of looking down upon the hurrying Americans who dash through its cathedral and take snap-shots at its slums, and at all those busy moderns who cannot afford to take life at its own jog-trot pace.
But everybody does not know the charming old halls and comfortable, old-fashioned mansions which are dotted about the neighboring country, either nestling in secluded nooks of the Kentish valleys or holding a stately stand on the wooded hills.
Of this latter category was The Beeches, a pretty house of warm, red brick, with a dignified Jacobean front, which stood upon the highest ground of a prettily wooded park, and commanded one of those soft, undulating, sleepy landscapes which are so characteristically English, and of which grazing sheep and ruminating cows form so important a feature. A little tame, perhaps, but very pleasant, very homely, very sweet to look upon by the tired eyes that have seen enough of the active, bustling world.
Mr. George Wedmore, of the firm of Wedmore, Parkinson and Bishop, merchants of the city of London, had bought back the place, which had formerly belonged to his family, from the Jews into whose hands it had fallen, and had settled there to spend in retirement the latter end of his life, surrounded by a family who were not too well pleased to exchange busy Bayswater for what they were flippant enough to call a wilderness.
Dinner was over; and Mr. Wedmore, in a snug easy-chair by the dining-room fire, was waiting for Doctor Haselden, who often looked in for a smoke and a game of chess with the owner of The Beeches.
A lean, fidgety man, with thin hair and grayish whiskers, Mr. Wedmore looked less at home in the velveteen suit and gaiters which he persisted in wearing even in the evening, less like the country gentleman it was his ambition to be, than like the care-laden city merchant he at heart still was.
On the other side of the table sat his better half, in whom it was easy to see he must have found all the charm of contrast to his own personality. A cheery, buxom woman, still handsome, full of life and fun, she had held for the whole of her married life a sway over her lord and master all the greater that neither of them was conscious of the fact. A most devoted and submissive wife, a most indulgent and affectionate mother, Mrs. Wedmore occupied the not unenviable position of being half slave, half idol in her own household.
The clock struck eight, and the bell rang.
"There he is! There's the doctor!" cried Mrs. Wedmore, with a beaming nod. Her husband sat up in his chair, and the troubled frown which he had worn all the evening grew a little deeper.
"I should like you, my dear, to leave us together this evening," said he.
Mrs. Wedmore jumped up at once, gathering her balls of wool and big knitting-needles together with one quick sweep of the arm.
"All right, dear," said she, with another nod, giving him an anxious look.
Mr. Wedmore perceived the look and smiled. He stretched out his hand to lay it gently on his wife's arm as she passed him.
"Nothing about me. Nothing for you to be alarmed about," said he.
Mrs. Wedmore hesitated a moment. She had her suspicions, and she would dearly have liked to know more. But she was the best trained of wives; and after a moment's pause, seeing that she was to hear nothing further, she said, good-humoredly: "All right, dear," and left the room, just in time to shake hands with Doctor Haselden as she went out.
Now, while the host found it impossible to shake off the signs of his old calling, the doctor was a man who had never been able to assume them. From head to foot there was no trace of the doctor in his appearance; he looked all over what at heart he was—the burly, good-humored, home-loving, land-loving country gentleman, who looked upon Great Datton, where his home was, as the pivot of the world.
However he was dressed, he always looked shabby, and he could never have been mistaken for anything but an English gentleman.
He shook hands with Mr. Wedmore, with a smile. These poor Londoners, trying to acclimatize themselves, amused him greatly. He looked upon them much as the Londoner looks upon the Polish Jew immigrants—with pity, a little jealousy, and no little scorn.
"Where's Carlo?" asked he.
"Oh, Carlo was a nuisance, so I've sent him to the stable," said Mr. Wedmore, with the slightly colder manner which he instantly assumed if any grievance of his, however small, was touched upon.
Carlo was a young retriever, which Mr. Wedmore, in the stern belief that it was the proper thing in a country house, had encouraged about the house until his habits of getting between everybody's legs and helping himself to the contents of everybody's plate had so roused the ire of the rest of the household that Mr. Wedmore had had to give way to the universal prejudice against him.
The doctor shook his head. Lack of capacity for managing a dog was just what one might have expected from these new-comers.
Mr. Wedmore turned his chair to face that of the doctor, and spoke in the sharp, incisive tones of a man who has serious business on hand.
"I've been hoping you would drop in every night for the last fortnight," said he, "and as you didn't come, I was at last obliged to send for you. I have a very important matter to consult you about. You've brought your pipe?" The doctor produced it from his pocket. "Well, fill it, and listen. It's about young Horne—Dudley Horne—that I want to speak to you, to consult you, in fact."
The doctor nodded as he filled his pipe.
"The young barrister I've met here, who's engaged to your elder daughter?"
"Well, she was all but engaged to him," admitted Mr. Wedmore, in a grudging tone. "But I'm going to put a stop to it, and I'll tell you why." Here he got up, as if unable to keep still in the state of excitement into which he was falling, and stood with his hands behind him and his back to the fire. "I have a strong suspicion that the young man's not quite right here." And lowering his voice, Mr. Wedmore touched his forehead.
"Good gracious! You surprise me!" cried the doctor. "He always seemed to me such a clever young fellow. Indeed, you said so to me yourself."
"So he is. Very clever," said Mr. Wedmore, shortly. "I don't suppose there are many young chaps of his age—for he's barely thirty—at the Bar whose prospects are as good as his. But, for all that, I have a strong suspicion that he's got a tile loose, and that's why I wanted to speak to you. Now his father was in a lunatic asylum no less than three times, and was in one when he died."
The doctor looked grave.
"That's a bad history, certainly. Do you know how the father's malady started?"
"Why, yes. It was the effect of a wound in the head received when he was a young man out in America, in the war with Mexico in '46."
"That isn't the sort of mania that is likely to come down from father to son," said the doctor, "if his brain was perfectly sound before, and the recurrent mania the result of an accident."
"Well, so I've understood. And the matter has never troubled me at all until lately, when I have begun to detect certain morbid tendencies in Dudley, and a general change which makes me hesitate to trust him with the happiness of my daughter."
"Can you give me instances?" asked the doctor, although he began to feel sure that whatever opinion he might express on the matter, Mr. Wedmore would pay little attention to any but his own.
"Well, for you to understand the case, I must tell you a little more about the lad's father. He and I were very old friends—chums from boyhood, in fact. When he came back from America—where he went from a lad's love of adventure—he made a good marriage from a monetary point of view; married a wharf on the Thames, in fact, somewhere Limehouse way, and settled down as a wharfinger. He was a steady fellow, and did very well, until one fine morning he was found trying to cut his throat, and had to be locked up. Well, he was soon out again that time, and things went on straight enough for eight or nine years, by which time he had done very well—made a lot of money by speculation—and was thinking of retiring from business altogether. Then, perhaps it was the extra pressure of his increased business, but, at any rate, he broke out again, tried to murder his wife that time, and did, in fact, injure her so much that she died shortly afterward. Of course, he had to be shut up again; and a man named Edward Jacobs, a shrewd Jew, who was his confidential clerk, carried on the business in his absence. Now, both Horne and his wife had had the fullest confidence in this Jacobs, but he turned out all wrong. As soon as he learned, at the end of about twelve months, that Horne was coming out again, he decamped with everything he could lay his hands on; and from the position of affairs you may guess that he made a very good haul. Well, poor Horne found himself in a maze of difficulties; in fact, his clerk's fraud ruined him. Everything that could be sold or mortgaged had to go to the settlement, and when his affairs had been finally put straight, there was only a little bit left, that had been so settled upon his wife that no one could touch it. He made a good fight of it for a little while, with the help of a few old friends, but, in the end, he broke down again for the third time. But he escaped out of the asylum and went abroad, without seeing his friends or his child, and a few months afterward the announcement of his death in an American asylum was sent by a correspondent out there. Happily there were no difficulties about securing the mother's money for the son, and it was enough to educate the boy and to give him a start; but, of course, he had to begin the world as a poor man instead of a rich one. Perhaps that was all the better for him—or so I thought until lately."
"And what are these signs of a morbid tendency that you spoke of?" asked the doctor.
"Well, in the first place, after being almost extravagant in his devotion to my daughter, Doreen, he now neglects her outrageously—comes down very seldom, writes short letters or none. Now, my daughter is not the sort of girl that a sane man would neglect," added Doctor Wedmore, proudly.
"Certainly not," assented the doctor, inwardly thinking that it was much less surprising than it would have been in the case of one of his own girls.
"In the second place, he is always harping upon the subject of Jacobs and his peculations—an old subject, which he might well let rest. And, in the third place, he has become moody, morose and absent-minded; and my son, Max, who often visits him at his chambers in Lincoln's Inn, has noticed the change even more than I, who have fewer opportunities of seeing him."
The doctor was puffing stolidly at his pipe and looking at the fire.
"It is very difficult to form an opinion upon report only," said he. "Frankly, I can see nothing in what you have told me about the young man which could not be explained in other and likelier ways. He may have got entangled, for instance, with some woman in London."
Mr. Wedmore took fire at this suggestion.
"In that case, the sooner Doreen forgets all about him the better."
"Mind, I'm only suggesting!" put in the doctor, hastily. "There may be a dozen more reasons—"
"I shall not wait to find them out," said Mr. Wedmore, decisively. "He and Max are coming down together this evening. My wife would have them to help in organizing some affair they're getting up for Christmas. I'll send him to the right-about without any more nonsense."
"But surely that is hardly—"
"Hardly what?" snapped out Mr. Wedmore, as he poked the fire viciously.
"Well, hardly fair to either of the young people. Put a few questions to him yourself, or better still, let your wife do it. It may be only a storm in a teacup, after all. Remember, he is the son of your old friend. And you wouldn't like to have it on your conscience that you had treated him harshly."
The doctor's advice was sane and sound enough, but Mr. Wedmore was not in the mood to listen to it. That notion of an entanglement with another woman rankled in his proud mind, and made him still less inclined to be patient and forbearing.
"I shall give Doreen warning of what I am going to do at once," said he, "before Horne turns up."
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. He was obstinate himself.
Mr. Wedmore crossed the long room to the door, and opened it sharply.
The hall was full of people and of great bales of goods, which were piled upon the center-table and heaped up all around it.
"Doreen!" he called, sharply.
Out of the crowd there rushed a girl—such a girl! One of those radiant creatures who explain the cult of womanhood; who make it difficult even for sober-minded, middle-aged men and matrons to realize that this is nothing but flesh and blood like themselves; one of those beautiful creatures who claim worship as a right and who repay it with kindness and brightness and sweetness and laughter.
No house was ever dull that held Doreen Wedmore.
She was a tall girl, brown-haired, brown-eyed, made to laugh and to live in the sunshine. Nobody could resist her, and nobody ever tried to.
She sprang across the hall to her father and whirled him back into the dining-room, and put her back against it.
"Dudley's come!" said she. "He's in the hall—among the blankets!"
"Yes." She was crossing the room by this time to the doctor, whom she had quickly perceived, and was holding out her hand to him. "You must know, doctor, that we are up to our eyes in blankets just now, and in bundles of red flannel, and in soup and coals. Papa has been reading up Christmas in the country in the olden time, and he finds that to be correct you must deluge the neighborhood with those articles. They are not at all what the people want, as far as I can make out. But that doesn't matter. It pleases papa to demoralize the neighborhood; so we're doing it. And mamma helps him. She dates from the prehistoric period when a wife really swore to obey her husband; so she does it through thick and thin. Of course, she knows better all the time. She could always set papa right if she chose. Whatever happens, papa must be obeyed. So when he wants to run his dear old head into a noose, she dutifully holds it open for him, when all the time she knows how uncomfortable he'll be till he gets out."
"You're a saucy puss, Miss!" cried her father, trying to frown, but betraying his delight in his daughter's merry tongue by the twinkle in his eyes.
"And that's the right sort of woman for a wife," said the old doctor, enthusiastically. "I must say I think it's a bad sign when young girls think they can improve upon their own mothers."
"She doesn't mean half she says," said her father, indulgently.
"Oh, yes, she does," retorted Doreen. "And she wants to know, please, what it is you have to say to Dudley."
The doctor rose from his chair, and Mr. Wedmore frowned.
"And it's no use putting me off by telling me not to ask questions. I'm not mamma, you know."
"I intend to ask him—something about you."
It was the girl's turn to frown now.
"Please don't, papa," said she, in a lower voice. "I know you're going to worry him, and to put your hands behind your back and ask him conundrums, and to make all sorts of mischief, under the impression that you are putting things right. And if you only just wouldn't, everything would soon be as right as possible. While if you persist—"
But Mr. Wedmore interrupted her, not harshly, as he would have done anybody else, but with decision.
"You must trust me to know best, my dear. It is better for you both that we should come to some understanding. Haselden, you'll excuse me for half an hour, won't you? And you, Doreen," and he turned again to his daughter, "stay with the doctor here, and try to talk sense till I come back again."
And Mr. Wedmore went quickly out of the room, without giving the girl a chance of saying anything more.
MAX MAKES A DISCOVERY.
Doreen's bright face lost a little of its color and much of its gayety as her father disappeared. The doctor felt sorry for her.
"Come, come; cheer up, my dear," he said. "If he loves you honestly, and I don't know how he can fail to do so, a few words with your father will put matters all right. There is nothing to look so sad about, I think."
But Doreen gave him one earnest, questioning look, and then her eyelids fell again.
"You don't know," she said, in a low voice. "Papa doesn't understand Dudley; but I think I do. He is very sensitive and rather reserved about himself. If papa interferes now, he will offend him, and Dudley may very likely go off at once, and perhaps never come near me again. He is proud—very proud."
"But if he could behave like that," replied the doctor, quickly, "if he could throw over such a nice girl as you for no reason worth speaking of, I should call him a nasty-tempered fellow, whom you ought to be glad to be rid of."
"Ah, but you would be wrong," retorted Doreen, with a little flush in her face. "It is quite true that he has neglected me a little lately, written short letters, and not been down to see me so often. But I am sure there was some better reason for his conduct than papa thinks. And if I feel so sure, and if I am ready to trust him, why shouldn't papa be?"
The doctor smiled at her ingenuousness.
"Your father is right in claiming that he ought to be made acquainted with the young man's reason for conduct which looks quite unwarrantable on the face of it," said he.
But Doreen gave a little sigh.
"I don't think that a man has a right to turn inquisitor over another man, just because the second man is ready to marry the first man's daughter," said she. "And I'm sure papa wouldn't have stood it when he was young."
The doctor laughed.
"He ought to put up with any amount of questioning rather than lose the girl of his choice," said he decisively. "And if he has the stuff of a man in him he will do so."
"But he is unhappy. I know it," said Doreen.
"Unhappy!" cried the doctor, indignantly. "And what's he got to be unhappy about, I should like to know? He ought to be thanking Heaven on his knees all day long for getting such a nice girl to promise to marry him. That's the attitude a young man used to take when I was young."
"Did you go down on your knees all day long when Mrs. Haselden promised to marry you?" asked Doreen, recovering her sauciness at the notion. "And why should he do it till he knows what sort of a wife I am going to make? And why should he go down on his knees more than I on mine? When there are more women in the world than men, too!"
The doctor shook his head.
"Ah, there is no arguing with you saucy girls," said he. "But I know that I, for my part, don't know of a man in the whole world who is worthy to marry one of my daughters."
As the doctor finished speaking, the door was opened quickly, and Mr. Wedmore came in, looking white and worried.
Doreen ran to him with an anxious face.
"What have you done, papa, what have you done? Did you see him? What did you say? What did you say?"
Mr. Wedmore put his arm around his daughter, and kissed her tenderly.
"Don't trouble your head about him any more, my dear child," said he in a husky voice. "He isn't worth it. He isn't worthy of you."
Doreen drew away from her father, looking into his face with searching eyes and with an expression full of fear.
"Papa, what do you mean? You have sent him away?"
Mr. Wedmore answered in a loud and angry voice; but it was clear enough that the anger was not directed against his daughter.
"I did not send him away. He took himself off. I had hardly begun to speak to him—and I began quite quietly, mind—when he made the excuse of a letter which he found waiting for him, to go back to town. Without any ceremony, he rushed out of the study into the hall, and snatched up his hat and coat to go."
"And is he gone?" asked Doreen, in a low voice, as she staggered back a step.
"Oh, yes, I suppose so. And a good riddance, too. There was no letter at all for him, I suppose."
"Yes, there was a letter!" faltered Doreen.
She gave a glance round her; seemed to remember suddenly the presence of a third person, for she blushed deeply on meeting the doctor's eyes; then, without another word, she sprang across the room to the door.
"Where are you going?" cried her father, as he followed her into the hall.
But she did not answer. The hall-door was closing with a loud clang.
Doreen was not the girl to lose her lover for want of a little energy. She was fonder of Dudley than people imagined. There is always an inclination in the general mind to consider that a person of lively temperament is incapable of a deep feeling. And Mr. Wedmore had only shown a common tendency in believing that his beautiful and brilliant daughter would easily give up the lover whom he considered unworthy of her. But he was wrong. Much too high-spirited and too happy in her temperament and surroundings to brood over her lover's late negligence, she was perhaps too vain to believe that she had lost her hold upon his heart. At any rate, she liked him too well to give him up in this off-hand fashion without making an effort to discover the reason of his present mysterious conduct.
That letter which he had used as an excuse for his sudden departure had arrived at The Beeches by the afternoon post. Doreen had seen it with her own eyes; had noted with some natural curiosity that the direction was ill-spelled, ill-written; that the chirography was that of an almost illiterate female correspondent; and that the post-mark showed that it came from the East End of London. Rather a strange letter for the smart young barrister to receive, perhaps. And the thought of it made Doreen pause when she had got outside the door on the broad drive between the lawns.
Only for the moment. The next she was flying across the rougher grass outside the garden among the oaks and the beeches of the park. She saw no one in front of her, and for a few seconds her heart beat very fast. She thought she had missed him.
There was no lodge at the park entrance; only a modest wooden gate in the middle of the fence. Doreen was hesitating whether to go through or to go back, when she saw the figure of Dudley Horne coming toward the gate from the stables.
So she waited.
As he came nearer, she, hidden from his sight by the trunk of an old oak-tree, grew uneasy and shy. Dark though it was, dimly as she could see him, Doreen felt convinced, from the rapid, steady pace at which he walked, that he was intent upon some set purpose, that he was not driven by pique at her father's words.
He came quite close to her, so that she saw his face. A dark-complexioned, strong face it was, clean-shaven, not handsome at all. But, on the other hand, it was just such a face as women admire; full of character, of ambition, of virility. Doreen had been debating with herself whether she dared speak to him; but the moment she got a full look at his face, her courage died away.
It was plain to her that, whatever might be the subject of the thoughts which were agitating his mind, she had no share in them.
So she let him pass out, and then crept back, downcast, shocked, ashamed, up the slope to the house.
She got in by the billiard-room, at the window of which she knocked. Max, her brother, who was playing a game with Queenie, his younger sister, let her in, and cried out at sight of her white face:
"Hello! Doreen, what's up? Had a row with Dudley? Or what?"
"I have had no 'row' with any one," answered the girl, very quietly. "But—you must all know all about it presently, so you may as well hear it at once—Dudley has gone away."
Max stopped in the act of trying for a carom, and stared at his sister.
"Why, he only came when I did, ten minutes ago!"
"He's gone, I tell you!" repeated Doreen, stamping her foot. "And—and listen, Max, I'm frightened about him! He's got something on his mind. When he went away, I saw him; I was standing by the gate; he looked so—so dreadful that I didn't dare to speak to him. I! Think of that!"
"Had papa been speaking to him?" put in the shrewd younger sister, who was chalking her cue at the other end of the room.
The younger sister always sees most of the game.
"Ye—es, but—I don't know—I hardly think it was that," answered Doreen quickly. "At any rate, Max, I want you to do this for me; I want you to go up to town to-morrow and see him. I shan't rest until I know he's—he's all right—after what I saw of his face and the look on it. Now, you will do this, won't you, won't you? Without saying anything to anybody, mind. Queenie, you can hold your tongue, too. Now, Max, there's a dear, you'll do it, won't you?"
Max told her that she was "off her head," that he could do no good, and so on. But he ended in giving way to the will of his handsome sister, whom he adored.
Max Wedmore was a good-looking fellow of five-and-twenty, with a reputation as a ne'er-do-weel, which, perhaps, he hardly deserved. His father had a great idea of bringing the young man up to some useful calling to keep him out of mischief. Not very terrible mischief, for the most part: only the result of too much leisure and too much money in inexperienced hands. The upshot of this difference of opinion between father and son was that while Mr. Wedmore was always finding mercantile situations for his son, Max was always taking care to be thrown out of them after a few weeks, and taking a rest which was by no means well earned.
This errand of his sister's was by no means unwelcome to him, since it took him back to town, where he could amuse himself better than he could in the country.
So, on the following morning, he found some sort of excuse to take him up, and started on his journey with the blessings of Doreen, and with very little opposition from his father, who was subdued and thankful to have got rid of Dudley with so little trouble.
It was soon after three when Max arrived at Dudley Horne's chambers in Lincoln's Inn. Of course, Dudley was out; so Max scribbled a note for his friend and left it on the table while he went to the Law Courts to look for him. Not finding him anywhere about, Max filled up the day in his own fashion, and returned to Dudley's room at about seven o'clock, when he supposed that his friend would either return to dinner or look in on his way to dine elsewhere.
He waited an hour, then went away and filled up his time at a music-hall, and returned once more at a quarter to eleven. Dudley, so he was told by the old woman who gave him the information, had not, as far as she knew, been in his rooms since the morning.
Max, who was a great friend of Dudley's, and could take any liberty he pleased in his precincts, lit the gas and the sitting-room fire, and installed himself in an arm-chair with a book. He could not read, however, for he was oppressed by some of Doreen's own fears. He was well acquainted with all his friend's ways, and he knew that for him to be away both from his chambers and from the neighborhood of the Courts for a whole day was most unusual with that particularly steady, plodding young man. He began to worry himself with the remembrance that Dudley had not been himself of late, that he had been moody, restless and unsettled without apparent cause.
Finally, Max worked himself into such a state of anxiety about his friend that when he at last heard the key turned in the lock of the outer door, he jumped up excitedly and made a rush for the door.
Before he reached it, however, he heard footsteps in the adjoining bedroom, the heavy tread of a man stumbling about in the dark, the overthrowing of some of the furniture.
Surely that could not be Dudley!
Max stood still at the door, listening. He thought it might be a thief who had got hold of the key of the chambers.
As he stood still, close by the wall, the door which led from the one room to the other was thrown open from the bedroom, almost touching him as it fell back; and there staggered into the sitting-room, into the light thrown by the gas and the fire, a figure which Max could scarcely recognize as Dudley Horne. His face was the grayish white of the dead; his eyes were glassy; his lips were parted; while the grime of a London fog had left its black marks round his mouth and eyes, giving him an appearance altogether diabolical. He was shaking like a leaf as he stumbled against a chair and suddenly wheeled round to the light.
Then, unbuttoning his overcoat quickly, he looked down at his clothes underneath. He passed his hand over them and held it in the light, with a shudder.
Max uttered a sharp cry.
The stain on Dudley's hand, the wet patches which glistened on his dark clothes, were stains of blood.
As the cry of horror escaped the lips of Max, Dudley wheeled quickly round and met his eyes.
For a moment the two men stood staring at each other without uttering a word. It seemed to Max that his friend did not recognize him; that he looked like a hunted man brought to bay by his pursuer, with the furtive expression in his eyes of a creature trying to devise some means of escape.
It was the most shocking experience that Max had ever known, and the blood seemed to freeze in his veins as he stood by the table watching his friend, trying to conjure back a smile to his own face and look of welcome into his own eyes.
He found his voice at last.
"Why, Horne," cried he, and he was angry with himself as he noted that his voice was hoarse and tremulous, and that he could not manage to bring out his natural tones, "what have you been doing with yourself? I—I've been backward and forward here all day long, and now I've been waiting for you ever so long!"
There was a pause. Dudley was still staring at him, but there was gradually coming over his face a change which showed recognition, followed by annoyance. He drew himself up, and, after a pause, asked, stiffly:
"What did you want with me?"
He spoke more naturally than Max had managed to do, and as the latter replied, he took out his pocket-handkerchief very calmly and began to wipe the stain off his right hand.
"Why, is it such a very unusual thing for me to drop in upon you and to want to see you?" he asked, with another attempt at his ordinary manner, which failed almost as completely as the first had done.
There was another short pause. Dudley, without looking again at his friend, examined his hand, saw that it was now clean, and replaced the soiled handkerchief in his pocket. He seemed by this time to be thoroughly at his ease, but Max was not deceived.
"Of course not," said Dudley, quickly. "I only meant that—considering"—he paused, and seemed to be trying to recollect something—"considering what took place down at Datton yesterday and how anxious your father seemed to be rid of me—"
"But what has my father got to do with me, as far as you are concerned, Dudley, eh?" said Max.
There had come upon him suddenly such a strong impression that his friend was in some awful difficulty, some scrape so terrible as to make him lonely beyond the reach of help, that Max, who was a good-hearted fellow and a stanch friend, spoke with something which might almost be called tenderness:
"We've always been chums, now, haven't we? And a row between you and Doreen, or between you and my father, wouldn't make any difference to me. I—I suppose you don't mean to give me the cold shoulder for the future, eh?"
Dudley had turned his back upon him, and was standing on the hearth-rug, looking down at the fire, in an attitude which betrayed to his friend the uneasiness from which he was suffering. It was an attitude of constraint, as different as possible from any in which Max had ever seen him.
Another pause. Dudley seemed unable on this occasion to give a simple answer to a simple question without taking thought first. At last he laughed awkwardly and half turned toward Max.
"Why, of course not," said he, but without heartiness. "Of course not. Though it will be rather awkward, mind, for us to see much of each other just at first, after my having got kicked out like that, won't it?"
The tone in which Max answered betrayed considerable surprise and perplexity.
"Kicked out!" he exclaimed. "My father said he hardly got a word out before you took yourself off in a huff."
Dudley turned round quickly and faced him this time, with a sullen look of defiance on his dark face.
"Well, the wise man doesn't wait to be kicked out," said he. "He removes himself upon the slightest hint that such a proceeding on his part would be well received."
"You were a little too quick on this occasion," replied Max, dryly, "for my father has got himself into hot water, and mother had a fit of crying, while Doreen—"
Something made Max hesitate to tell his friend how Doreen had taken his desertion. Max himself was ready to stand by his friend, whatever difficulties the latter might be in. But Doreen, his lovely sister, must have a lover without reproach.
At the mention of the girl's name there came a slight change over Dudley's face—a change which struck the sensitive Max and touched him deeply. Dudley took a step in the direction of his bedroom, and pulled out his watch. As he did so a railroad ticket jerked out of his pocket with the watch and fell to the ground.
Max saw it fall, but before he could pick it up or draw attention to it his ideas were diverted by Dudley's next words:
"Well, you '11 excuse me, old chap. I've got to see a friend off by the midnight train to Liverpool."
As he spoke Dudley turned, with his hand on the door, to cast a glance at Max. He seemed to be asking himself what he should tell the other. And then he took a step toward his friend and began an explanation, which, as his shrewd eyes told him, Max required.
"The fact is that I got into the way of a beastly accident at Charing Cross just now. Woman run over—badly hurt. Got myself covered with blood. Ugh!"
Max was convinced that the shudder was genuine, although he had doubts—of which he was ashamed—about the tale itself.
And how did that explain the proposed journey?
Dudley went on:
"I've only just got time to change my clothes and make myself decent. See you in a day or two. Sorry I can't stay and have a pipe with you and one of our 'hard-times' suppers."
He was on the point of disappearing into the inner room, when Max stopped him.
"Oh, but you can," said he. "I have something particular to say to you, and I can wait till you come back, if it's two o'clock, and I can bring in the supper myself."
Dudley frowned impatiently, and again he cast at Max the horrible, furtive look which had been his first greeting.
"That's impossible," said he, quickly. "I may have to go on to Liverpool myself. Good-night."
And he shut himself into the bedroom.
Max felt cold all over. After a few minutes' hesitation, he went out of the chambers, down the stairs and out of the house.
At the door a cab was waiting. The driver spoke to him the moment he stepped out on the pavement. Evidently he took him for Dudley, his late fare.
"The lady's got out an' gone off, sir. I hollered after her, but she wouldn't wait. Oh, beg pardon, sir," and the man touched his hat, perceiving his mistake; "I took you for the gentleman I brought here with the lady."
"Oh, he'll be down in a minute or two," answered Max.
And then he thought he would wait and see what new developments the disappearance of the lady would lead to. He was getting sick with alarm about his friend. These instances of the blood-stained clothes, the possible journey to Liverpool, and the flight of the mysterious lady, were so suspicious, taken in conjunction with each other, that Max found it impossible to rest until he knew more. He walked a little way along the pavement, and then returned slowly in the middle of the road. He had done this for the third time when Dudley dashed out of the house with rapid steps, and had reached the step of the hansom before he discovered that the vehicle was empty.
An exclamation of dismay escaped his lips, and to the cabman's statement of the lady's disappearance he replied by asking sharply in which direction she had gone. On receiving the information he wanted, he gave the man his fare, and walked rapidly away in the direction the cabman had indicated.
Every moment increased his belief that some appalling circumstance had occurred by which Dudley's mind had for the time lost its balance. Every word, look and movement on the part of his friend betrayed the fact. Now he was evidently setting off in feverish haste in pursuit of this woman whom he had left in the cab; and Max, who believed that his friend was on the brink of an attack of the insanity which old Mr. Wedmore feared, resolved to dog his footsteps, and not to let his friend go out of his sight until the latter got safely back to his chambers.
Dudley went at a great pace into Holborn, and then he stopped. The traffic had dwindled down to an occasional hansom and to a thin line of foot-passengers on the pavements. He looked to right, to left, and then he turned suddenly and came face to face with Max.
"Hello!" cried he. "Where are you going to? Where are you putting up?"
"At the Arundel," answered Max, taken aback, and stammering a little.
Dudley had recovered his usual tones.
"Come to my club," said he. "We can get some supper there and have that pipe."
"But how about Liverpool and the friend you had to see off?" asked Max.
Dudley hesitated ever so slightly.
"Oh, he's given me the slip," he answered, in a tone which sounded careless enough. "Gone off without waiting for me. So my conscience is free on his score."
Max said nothing for a moment. Then he thought himself justified in setting a trap for his friend.
"Who is he?" asked he. "Anybody I know?"
"No," replied Dudley. "A man I met in the country, who showed me a good deal of kindness. From Yorkshire. Man named Browning. Very good fellow, but erratic. Said he'd wait for me in the cab, and disappeared before I could come down. Had an idea I should make him lose his train, I suppose. Well, never mind him. Come along."
Max went with him in silence. Dudley had not only got back his usual spirits, but seemed to be in a mood of loquacity and liveliness unusual with him. When they got to the club, he ordered oysters and a bottle of champagne, and drank much more freely than was his custom.
It was Max, the ne'er-do-weel, the extravagant one, who drank little and did the listening. Dudley had cast off altogether the gravity and taciturnity which sometimes got him looked upon as a bit of a prig, and chatted and told his friend stories, with a tone and manner of irresponsible gayety which became him ill.
And Max, who was usually the talker, listened as badly as the other told his stories. For all the time he was weighed down with the fear, so strong that it seemed to amount to absolute knowledge, of some horrible danger hanging over his friend.
Abruptly, before he made the expected comment on the last of Dudley's stories, Max rose from his chair and said he must go home.
"I'll see you as far as your diggings first," said he. "It's not much out of way, you know."
At these words Dudley's high spirits suddenly left him, and the furtive look came again into his face.
"Oh," said he, "oh, very well. And on the way I can tell you the whole story of the accident that I saw at Charing Cross, this evening, just before I met you."
So they went out together, and Dudley, as he had suggested, gave his friend a long and extremely circumstantial account of the way in which the wheel went over the woman, and of the difficulty he and the policeman had experienced in getting her from between the wheels of the van by which she had been crushed.
Max heard him in silence, but did not believe a word. Whatever had reduced Dudley to the plight in which he had returned to his chambers, Max was convinced that it differed in some important details from the version of the affair which he chose to give.
"We won't talk any more about it," he went on, without seeming to remark his friend's silence. "It's a thing I want to forget. It has quite upset me for a time; you could see that yourself when you met me. I—I don't know quite what to do to get the thing out of my mind. I think I shall run down to Datton with you, and see what that will do. What do you think?"
Now, although he had drunk more wine than usual, Dudley knew perfectly well what he was saying, and Max stared at him in astonishment.
"What?" he exclaimed. "After what you told me? About my father?"
"Oh, yes, yes. But I can explain everything. I can, and I will," returned Dudley, quickly. "I have not been myself lately. I have had certain business worries. But they are all settled now, and I feel more like myself than I have done for weeks."
Max stopped short and stared at his friend by the light of a gas-lamp.
"Well, you don't look it," said he, shortly.
Dudley laughed loudly, but rather uneasily.
"Don't you think I could give an explanation which would satisfy your father, if I wished?" he asked, with a sudden relapse into gravity.
"I'm hanged if I know," retorted Max, energetically. "You haven't given any explanation which would satisfy me."
Dudley stared into his face for a few seconds inquiringly, and then quietly hooked his arm and led him along the Strand.
"You don't want to be satisfied, old chap," said he, in a low voice. "You know me."
Again Max was deeply touched. This was a sudden and unexpected peep under the surface of deception into the real heart of his old chum. He replied only by a slight twitching of the arm Dudley had taken.
They walked on at a quicker pace, and ran up the stairs to the door of Dudley's rooms in silence.
Dudley went first into the sitting-room and turned up the gas. It did not escape Max that he shot a hurried glance around the room, taking in every corner, as he entered. Talking all the time about the cold and the fog, Dudley went into the adjoining room, and Max saw him pull aside the bed-curtains and look behind them.
Then Max, not wishing to play the spy on his friend, turned his back; and as he did so he caught sight of the railway ticket which had fallen to the floor from Dudley's pocket before they went out.
Max picked it up, and noted that it was the return half of a first-class return ticket from Fenchurch Street to Limehouse, and that it was dated that very day.
He had scarcely noted this, mechanically rather than with any set purpose, when he was startled to find Dudley at his elbow.
Max turned round quickly, but Dudley's eyes were fixed upon the railway ticket.
"You dropped this when you—" began Max, handing it to his friend.
It was not until then, when Dudley took the ticket from him and tossed it into the fireplace with a careless nod, that it flashed into the mind of Max that the incident had some significance.
What on earth had Dudley been doing at Limehouse? His parents had had property there, certainly, many years ago. But not a square foot of the grimy, slimy, auriferous Thames-side land, not a brick or a beam of the warehouses and sheds which had been theirs in the old days, had descended to Dudley. Owing to the fraudulent action of Edward Jacobs, all had had to go.
A PARAGRAPH IN "THE STANDARD."
Max did not stay long with his friend, but made the excuse that he was half asleep, after a few minutes' rather desultory conversation, to go back to his hotel.
It was with the greatest reluctance that he left his friend alone; but Dudley had given him intimations, in every look and tone and movement, that he wished to be by himself; and this fact increased the heaviness of heart with which Max, full of forebodings on his friend's account, had gone reluctantly down the creaking stairs.
Again and again Max asked himself, during his short walk from Lincoln's Inn to Arundel Street, why he had not had the courage to put a question or two straightforwardly to Dudley. As a matter of fact, however, the reason was simple enough. The relative positions of the two men had been suddenly reversed, and neither of them, as yet, felt easy under the new conditions.
Dudley, the hard-working student, the rising barrister, the abstemious, thoughtful, rather silent man to whom Max had looked up with respect and affection, had suddenly sunk, during the last few hours, by some unaccountable and mysterious means, to far below Max's own modest level. It was he, the careless fellow whom Dudley had formerly admonished, who had that evening been the sober, the temperate, the taciturn one; it was he who had watched the other, been solicitous for him, trembled for him.
Max could not understand. He lay awake worrying himself about his friend, feeling Dudley's fall more acutely than he would have felt his own, and did not fall asleep until it was nearly daylight.
In these circumstances he overslept himself, and it was eleven o'clock before he found himself in the hotel coffee-room, waiting for his breakfast.
He was in the act of pouring out his coffee, when his name, uttered behind him in a familiar voice, made him start. The next moment Dudley Horne stood by his side, and holding out his hand with a smile, seated himself on the chair beside him.
"I—I—I overslept myself this morning," stammered Max.
He was in a state of absolute bewilderment. Not only had the new Dudley of the previous night disappeared, with his alternate depression and feverish high spirits, his furtive glances, his hoarse and altered voice, but the old Dudley, who had returned, seemed happier and livelier than usual.
"Town and its wicked ways don't agree with you, my boy, nor do they with me. If I were in your shoes, I shouldn't tread the streets of Babylon more than once a twelvemonth."
"You think that now," returned Max, "because you see more than enough of town."
"Well, I'm not going to see much more of it at present," retorted Dudley. "This afternoon I'm off again down to Datton, and I came to ask whether you were coming down with me."
"I thought you had had a row, at least a misunderstanding of some sort, with—with my father?"
"Why, yes, so I had," replied Dudley, serenely, as he took a newspaper out of his pocket and folded it for reading. "But I've written to him already this morning, explaining things, and telling him that I propose to come down to The Beeches this evening. He'll get it before I turn up, I should think, for I posted it at six o'clock this morning."
"Why, what were you doing at six o'clock in the morning?" said Max, in a tone of bewilderment, as before. "Didn't you go to bed at all last night?"
"No," answered Dudley, calmly. "I had some worrying things to think about, and so I took the night to do it in."
A slight frown passed over his face as he spoke, but it disappeared quickly, leaving him as placid as before.
"About one of the things I can consult you, Max. You know something about it, I suppose. Do you think I have any chance with Doreen?"
Max stared at him again.
"You must be blind if you haven't seen that you have," he said, at last, in a sort of muffled voice, grudgingly. He moved uneasily in his seat, and added, in a hurried manner: "But, I say, you know, Dudley, after last night, I—I want to ask you something myself. I'm Doreen's brother, though I'm not much of a brother for such a nice girl as she is. And—and—what on earth did you think of going to Liverpool for with a woman? I've a right to ask that now, haven't I?"
Max blurted out these words in a dogged tone, not deterred from finishing his sentence by the fact that Dudley's face had grown white and hard, and that over his whole attitude there had come a rapid change.
There was a pause when the younger man had finished. Dudley kept his eyes down, and traced a pattern on the table-cloth with a fork, while Max looked at him furtively. At last Dudley looked up quickly and asked, in a tone which admitted of no prevarication in the answer he demanded:
"You have been playing the spy upon me, I see. Tell me just how much you saw."
It was such a straightforward way of coming to the point that Max, taken aback, but rather thankful that the ground was to be cleared a little, answered at once without reserve:
"I did play the spy. It was enough to make me. I saw the hansom waiting outside your door last night; the cabman mistook me for you, and told me the lady had walked away. I couldn't help putting that together with what you had told me about seeing a friend off to Liverpool, and, perhaps, going there yourself. Now, who could have helped it?"
Dudley did not at once answer. He just glanced inquiringly at the face of Max while he went on tracing the pattern on the cloth.
"You didn't see the lady," he said at last, not in a questioning tone, but with conviction.
"Well, if you had seen her you would have been satisfied that it was not her charms which were leading me astray," said he, with a faint smile. "Are you satisfied now, or do you still consider," he went on with a slight tone of mockery in his voice, "that my character requires further investigation before you can accept me for a brother-in-law?"
Max moved uneasily again.
"What rot, Horne!" said he, impatiently. "You know very well I've always wanted you to marry Doreen. I've said so, lots of times. I still say it was natural I should want to understand your queer goings-on last night. And now—and now—"
"And now that you don't understand them any better than before, you are ready to take it for granted it's all right?" broke in Dudley, with the same scoffing tone as before.
Max grew very red, began to speak, glanced at Dudley, and got up.
"Yes, I suppose that's about the size of it," said he, stiffly.
"And are you going down with me to-night? I can catch the seven o'clock train."
"Oh, yes, I suppose so. I'll meet you at Charing Cross."
Max's enthusiasm on his friend's behalf had been much damped by his behavior, and he gave him a nod, turned on his heel and left him without another word. He gave up trying to understand the mystery which hung about Dudley, and left it to Doreen and to his father to unravel.
The two young men did not meet again, therefore, until seven that evening, when they took their seats in the same smoking-carriage. Max felt quite glad that the presence of a couple of strangers prevented any talk of a confidential sort between himself and Dudley, who on his side seemed perfectly contented to puff at his pipe in silence.
Dudley's letter had evidently been received, and well received, for at the station the two friends found the dog-cart waiting to take them the mile and a half which lay between the station and The Beeches.
At the house itself, too, the front door flew open at their approach, and Mr. Wedmore himself stood in the hall to welcome them.
Queenie was there. Mr. Wedmore was there. But there was never a glimpse of Doreen.
"I got your letter, my dear boy," began Mr. Wedmore, holding out his hand with so much heartiness that it was plain he was delighted to be able to forgive his old friend's son, "and I am very glad, indeed, that you have found your way back to us so soon. I am heartily glad to hear that the worries which have been making you depressed lately are over—heartily glad. And so, I am sure," added he, with a significant smile, "Doreen will be."
"Thank you, sir," said Dudley. "You are very kind, very indulgent. I am not ungrateful, I assure you."
Max, behind them, was listening with attentive ears. He did not feel so sure as his father seemed to be that all was now well with Dudley.
"Where's Doreen?" he asked his younger sister.
"Don't know, I'm sure. She's taken herself off somewhere. Probably somebody else will find her quicker than you will."
The younger sister was right. The younger sister always is on these occasions.
Within five minutes of his arrival, Dudley found his way into the breakfast room, where Doreen, a pug dog and a raven were sitting together on the floor, surrounded by a frightful litter of paper and shavings and string, wooden boxes, hampers, and odds and ends of cotton wool.
She just looked up when Dudley came in, gave him a glance and a little cool nod, and then, as he attempted to advance, uttered a shrill little scream.
"One step farther, and my wax cupids will be ruined!"
"Wax cupids!" repeated Dudley, feebly.
"Yes, for my Christmas tree. It's to be the greatest success ever known in these parts, or the greatest failure. Nothing between. That's what I must always have—something sensational—something to make people howl at me, or to make them want to light bonfires in my honor. That's characteristic, isn't it?"
And Doreen, who was dressed in a black skirt, with a scarlet velvet bodice which did justice to her brilliant complexion and soft, dark hair, paused in the act of turning out a number of glittering glass balls into her lap.
"Very," said Dudley, as he made his way carefully to the nearest chair and sat down to look at her.
He was up to his knees in brown-paper parcels, over which barricade he stretched out his hand.
Doreen affected not to see it. She began to tie bits of fancy string into the little rings in the glass balls, cutting off the ends with a pair of scissors.
"Aren't you going to shake hands with me?" asked Dudley, impatiently.
Doreen answered without looking tip.
"No. Not yet."
"What's the matter now?"
"Oh, I am offended."
"What have I done now?"
Doreen threw up her head.
"What have you not done? We have all of us—I among the others—had a good deal to put up with from you, lately, in the matter of what I will call general neglect. And you put a climax to it the day before yesterday by rushing out of the house without a word of good-bye to anybody."
"There was a reason for it," interrupted Dudley, quickly.
"I suppose so. But I'm not going to take the reason on trust, Mr. Horne."
"Not if you're satisfied that you will meet with no more neglect in the future? That my conduct shall be in every respect what you—and the others—can desire?"
"Not even then," replied Doreen decisively.
"But if your father is satisfied?"
"Then go and talk to my father."
There was a pause and their eyes met. Dudley, who had acknowledged to himself the patience with which Doreen had put up with his recent neglect, was astonished by the resolution which he saw in her eyes.
"What is it you want to know?" he asked, in a condescending and indulgent tone.
"A great deal more than you will tell me," answered Doreen, promptly.
Whereat there was another pause. Dudley took up one of the brown-paper parcels and turned it over in his hands. Perhaps it was to hide the fact that an irrepressible tremor was running through his limbs.
If he had looked at her at that moment he would have seen in her eyes a touching look of sympathy and distress. The girl knew that something had been amiss with him—that something was amiss still. She cared for him. She wanted his confidence, or at least so much of it as would allow her to pour out upon him the tender sympathy with which her innocent heart was overflowing. And he would have none of it. He wanted to treat her like a beautiful doll, to be left in its cotton wool when his spirits were too low for playthings, and to be taken out and admired when things went better with him.
This was what Doreen mutinously thought and what her lips were on the point of uttering, when the door was opened by Mr. Wedmore, who came into the room with a copy of the Evening Standard in his hand.
"Look here, Horne, did you see this?" said he, as he folded the paper and handed it to Dudley. "Here's an odd thing. Of course it may be only a coincidence. But doesn't it seem to refer to the rascal who ruined your prospects—Edward Jacobs?"
"A middle-aged Jewish woman, who found some difficulty in making herself understood, from an impediment in her speech, applied to Mr. ——, of —— Street Police Court, for advice in the following circumstances: She and her husband had returned to England in reduced circumstances, after a long residence abroad, and her husband was in search of employment. He had received a letter from Limehouse, offering him employment and giving him an appointment for yesterday afternoon, which he started to keep. He had not returned; she had been to Limehouse police station to make inquiries, but could learn nothing of her husband. She seemed to be under the impression that he had met with foul play, and made a rambling statement to the effect that he had 'enemies.' It was only after much persuasion, and the assurance that the press could not help her without the knowledge, that she gave her name as Jacobs, and her husband's first name as Edward. She described him as of the middle height, thin, with gray hair and a short gray beard. The magistrate said he had no doubt the press would do what they could to help her, and the woman withdrew."
Dudley Horne read this account, and gave the paper back to Mr. Wedmore.
He tried to speak as he did so, but, though his mouth opened, the voice refused to come.
ONE MAN'S LOSS is ANOTHER MAN'S GAIN.
"Confound the Christmas tree!" grumbled Mr. Wedmore, as he stumbled over a parcel of fluffy rabbits, whose heads screwed off to permit the insertion of sweets.
"Oh, papa, you'll be saying 'Confound Christmas' next!"
And Doreen, with one watchful eye on Dudley all the time, made a lane through her boxes and her hampers to admit the passage of her father to a chair.
By this time Dudley had recovered himself a little, and was able to answer the question Mr. Wedmore now put to him.
"What do you think of that, Horne?"
"I think, sir, that it must be more than a coincidence; that Mrs. Jacobs must be the wife of the man who was my father's manager."
"Well, I think so, too. I know Jacobs's wife had an impediment in her speech. The odd part of the business is that he should have disappeared at Limehouse, the very place where one would have thought he would have an objection to turning up at all, connected as it was with his old peculations. I suppose he thought they were forgotten by this time."
"I suppose so."
Dudley still looked very white. He took up the paper again, as if to re-read the paragraph. But Doreen, from her post of vantage on the floor, saw that he held it before him with eyes fixed. Mr. Wedmore, after a little hesitation, and after vainly trying to get another look at the face of the younger man, went on again:
"I thought you would be struck by this; the subject turning up again in this odd way, just when you've been interesting yourself so much in the old story!"
Down went the paper, and Dudley looked into the face of Mr. Wedmore.
"Interesting myself in it! Have I? How do you mean?"
"Well, you've asked a good many questions about this Jacobs, and wondered what had become of him. I fancy you have the answer in that paragraph."
There was a pause, and Dudley seemed to recollect something. Then he said:
"Oh, yes, I think I have. The man has fallen upon bad times, evidently. I—I—I'm sorry for his wife."
"And the man himself—haven't you forgiven him yet?"
Dudley started, and glanced quickly round, as if the simple words had been an accusation.
"Forgiven him? Oh, yes, long ago. At least—" He paused a moment, and then added, inquiringly: "What had I to forgive?"
"Well, to tell the truth, Horne, that's just what I have often asked myself, when you have insisted upon raking up all the details of poor Jacobs's misdeeds! Why, your poor father, who was ruined by his dishonesty, never showed half the animosity you do. I could have understood it if you had suffered by his frauds. But have you? You have been well educated; you have started well in life. And on the whole, no man who has arrived at your age can honestly say that it would have been better for him to start life with a fortune at his back, eh?"
Dudley got up from his chair. He seemed agitated and uneasy, and soon took advantage of Mr. Wedmore's suggestion, somewhat dryly made, that he was tired after his journey and would like to go to bed.
When he had left the room, Mr. Wedmore turned angrily to his daughter.
"Now, Doreen, I will have no more of this nonsense. Dudley is beginning all the old tricks over again—absence of mind, indifference to you—did he even look at you as he said good night?—and morbid interest in this old, forgotten business of Jacobs and his misdoings. I won't have any more of it, and I shall tell him plainly that we don't care to have him down here until he can bring a livelier face and manner with him!"
Doreen had risen from her humble seat on the floor and had crawled on her knees to the side of his chair, where she slid a coaxing, caressing hand under his arm and put her pretty head gently down on his shoulder.
"No, you won't, papa dear. You won't do anything of the kind," she whispered in his ear very softly, very humbly. "You would not do anything to give pain to your old friend's son if you could help it, and you would not do anything to hurt your own child, your little Doreen, for a hundred thousand pounds, now would you?"
"Yes, I would, if it was for her good," replied Mr. Wedmore, in a very loud and determined voice, which was supposed to have the effect of frightening her into submission. "And it's all rubbish to think to get around me by calling yourself 'little Doreen,' when you're a great, big, overgrown lamp-post of a girl, who can take her own part against the whole county."
Doreen laughed, but still clung persistently to the arm which he pretended to try to release from her clutches.
"Well, I don't know about the county, but I think I can persuade my old father into doing what I want," she purred into his ear with gentle conviction. "You see, papa, it isn't as if Dudley and I were engaged. We—"
"Why, what else have you been but engaged ever since last Christmas?" said her father, irritably. "Everybody has looked upon it as an engagement, and Dudley was devoted enough until a couple of months ago; but now something has gone wrong with the lad, I'm certain, and it would be much better for you both to make an end of this."
"Why, there's nothing to make an end of," pleaded Doreen. "Just 'let things slide,' as Max says, and let Dudley come down or stay away as he likes, and the matter will come quite right one way or the other, and you will find there was really nothing for you to trouble your dear old head about, after all."
There was really some excellence in the girl's suggestion; and her father, after much grumbling, gave a half consent to it. He was forced to admit to himself that there was some grounds for Dudley's agitation on reading the paragraph concerning the disappearance of Edward Jacobs, since he had been interesting himself of late in that person's history. But it was the degree of the young man's agitation which had seemed morbid. Mr. Wedmore found it difficult to understand why a mere suggestion of the man's disappearance—if it were indeed the man—should affect Dudley so deeply. And the idea of incipient insanity in young Horne grew stronger than ever in Mr. Wedmore's mind.
Now, Doreen was by no means so sanguine as she pretended to be. She was one of those high-spirited, lively girls who find it easy to hide from others any troubles which may be gnawing at their heart. Such a nature has an elasticity which enables it to throw off its cares for a time, when in the society of others, only to brood over them in hours of loneliness.
Nobody in the house knew—what, however, shrewd Queenie half guessed that Doreen had many an anxious hour, many a secret fit of crying, on account of the change in Dudley's manner toward her. The brilliant, proud-hearted girl was more deeply attached to him than anybody suspected. If any remark was made by outsiders as to the comparative rarity of the young barrister's visits during the past two months, it was always accompanied by the comment that Miss Wedmore would not be long in consoling herself.
And everybody knew that the curate, the Rev. Lisle Lindsay, was hungering to step into Dudley's shoes.
He was not quite to be despised as a rival, this "snowy-banded, dilettant, delicate-handed priest." In the first place, he was a really nice, honorable young fellow, with no much worse faults than a pedantically correct pronunciation of the unaccented vowels; in the second place, he was considerably taller than the race of curates usually runs; and in the third place, he had a handsome allowance from his mother, and "expectations" on a very grand scale indeed. Miss Wedmore, if she were to decide in his favor, might well aspire to be the wife of a bishop some day. And what could woman wish for more?
He was no laggard in love either. On the very morning after the arrival of Max and Dudley, Mr. Lindsay called soon after breakfast to make inquiries about the amount of holly and evergreens which would be available for the decoration of the church, and was shown into the morning-room, where most of the great work of preparation for Christmas was taking place.
Mrs. Wedmore and all the young people were there, Max and Dudley having been pressed into the service of filling cardboard drums with sweets for what Max called "the everlasting tree." The tree itself stood in a corner of the room, a colossal but lop-sided plant with a lamentable tendency to straggle about the lower branches, and an inclination to run to weedy and unnecessary length about the top.
Max was a hopeless failure as an assistant. He was always possessed with a passionate desire to do something different from what he was asked to do; and when they gave way and indulged his fancy, the fancy disappeared, and he found that he wanted to do something else.
"It's always the way with a man!" was Queenie's scornful comment on her brother's failing.
Queenie herself looked upon the whole business of the tree as a piece of useless frivolity unworthy the time and attention of grown-up people. And she went about the share in it which she had been persuaded to undertake with a stolid and supercilious manner which went far to spoil the enjoyment of the rest.
Dudley entered, into the affair with some zest, but it was noticeable that he devoted himself to Queenie, and exchanged very few remarks with Doreen. There was a certain barrier of constraint springing up between him and Doreen which had risen to an uncomfortable height by the time the curate entered.
Doreen, whose cheeks were much flushed and whose eyes were unusually bright, was extremely gracious. She offered to take Mr. Lindsay into the grounds to interview the gardener, so that they might come to an understanding about the evergreens to be used. She glanced at Dudley as she made this proposal. He glanced back at her; and in his black eyes she fancied for a moment that she saw a mute protest, a plea.
For a moment she hesitated. Standing still in the middle of the room, not far from where he was busy helping Queenie to tie up a particularly limp and fragile box of chocolates, she seemed to wait for a single word, or even for another look, to turn her from her purpose.
But Dudley turned away, and either did not see or did not choose to notice the pause. Then the tears sprang to the girl's eyes, and she ran quickly to the door.
"Come, Mr. Lindsay," said she, "we must make haste. At this stage of things, every minute has to be weighed out like gold, I assure you."
She went quickly out into the large hall, and the curate followed with alacrity. Max and his mother were engaged in a wrangle over some soup and coal tickets which somebody had mislaid, and in the search for which the whole room, with its parcels and bundles, had to be overturned.
Queenie, who was at work at the end of the room, near the window, uttered a short laugh. Dudley, who was standing a little way off, drew nearer, and asked what she was laughing at.
"Oh, that misguided youth who has just gone out!"
"Yes," said Queenie, shortly. "If he hadn't been misguided, he would have devoted his attention to me, not to Doreen. By all the laws of society, curates' wives should be plain. They should also be simple in their dress, and devoted to good works. Doreen says so herself. Why, then, didn't he see that I was the wife for him and not the beauty?"
"Don't you think she will have him, then?" asked Dudley, very stiffly, after a short pause. "She seems to like him. There was no need, surely, for her to have been in such a hurry to take him into the grounds, if she had felt no particular pleasure in his society."
Queenie looked up rather slyly out of her little light eyes. She was distressed on account of her sister's trouble about this apparently vacillating lover, and irritated herself by his strange conduct. But at the bottom of her heart she believed in him and in his affection for Doreen, just as her sister herself did, and she would have given the world to make things right between two people whom she chose to believe intended by nature for each other.
"I think there are other people in the world whose society Doreen likes better," she said at last, below her breath.
The wrangle at the other end of the room was still going on, and nobody heard her but Dudley. He flushed slightly and looked as if he understood. But he instantly turned the talk to another subject.
"Would you have liked that sleek curate yourself, really?"
"Sleek? What do you mean by sleek? You wouldn't have a minister of the church go about with long hair and a velveteen coat and a pipe in his mouth, would you?"
"Not for worlds, I assure you. He is a most beautiful creature, and I admire him very much, though he is perhaps hardly the sort of man I should have expected both you girls to rave about. And as for you, I thought you were too good to rave about anybody! You are unlike yourself this morning, and more like Doreen."
Queenie laughed again that satirical little laugh which made a man wonder what her thoughts exactly were.
"You say that because you don't know anything about me. I don't talk when Doreen is talking, because then nobody would listen to me. I could talk, too, if anybody ever talked to me."
"But one sees so little of you," pleaded Dudley. "You are generally out district-visiting, or busy for Mrs. Wedmore, so that one hasn't a chance of knowing you well. And one has got an idea that you are too good to waste your time in idle conversation with a mere man!"
"Good!" cried Queenie contemptuously. "There's nothing good about my district-visiting. I like it, Doreen goes about telling people it is good of me. But that's only because she wouldn't care about it herself. I like fussing about and thinking I am making myself useful. It's like mamma's knitting, which gets her the reputation of being very industrious, while all the time she enjoys it very much."
"But you yourself said you were 'devoted to good works,' I quote your very words."
"That was only in fun. It's what Doreen says of me. You must have heard her. She is much better than I am—really much, more unselfish—much more amiable. Only because she's always bright and full of fun, she doesn't get the credit of any of her good qualities. People think she's only indulging her own inclination when she keeps us all amused and happy all day long. But they don't know that she can suffer just as much as anybody else, and that it costs her an effort to be lively for our sakes when she feels miserable."
Queenie spoke with a little feeling in her usually hard, dry voice. Dudley was silent for a long time when she had finished speaking. At last they looked up at the same moment and met each other's eyes. And the reserved, harassed man felt his heart go out to the girl, with her quiet shrewdness and undemonstrative affection for her brilliant sister.
"Your quiet eyes see a great deal more than one would think, Queenie," he said at last. "I suppose they have seen that there is something—something wrong—with—"
He spoke very slowly, and finally he stopped without finishing the sentence.
Queenie gravely took it up for him.
"Something wrong with you? Of course I have. Well?"
"I don't know why I am telling you this. I didn't mean to tell any one. But—but—well, I've begun; I may as well finish. You're not a person who would talk about anybody else's secrets more than about your own."
"A secret? Are you going to tell me a secret?"
Dudley smiled very faintly, and then his expression suddenly changed. Something like a spasm of fear and of pain shot quickly across his face, frightening her a little. Then he shook his head.
"No," said he. "I hardly think you will consider it a secret, after what you have just told me. I am only going to tell you this: I have had a great trouble, a great affliction, hanging over me for some time now. Sometimes I have thought it was going to clear away and leave me as I was before. Sometimes I have felt myself quite free from it, and able to go on in the old way. But with this consciousness, this knowledge hanging over me always, I have behaved in all sorts of strange ways, have hurt the feelings of my friends, have not been myself at all. You know that, Queenie."
Queenie slowly bowed her head. Mrs. Wedmore and Max, still occupied in their search for the missing soup tickets, had now extended their operations to the hall, and left the room in possession of the other two. Dudley went on with his confession.
"And now something has happened which has cut me off from my old self, as it were. I don't know how else to express what I mean. I came down last night with the intention of speaking to—to Doreen for the last time, of trying to explain myself, if not to—to justify myself to her. You know what I mean, don't you?"
Again Queenie bowed her head. Her father's suspicions as to Dudley's perfect sanity had, of course, reached her ears, and she felt so much pity for the poor fellow whose confession she was then hearing that she dared not even raise her eyes to his face again. He went on, hurrying his words, as if anxious to get his confession over:
"But I thought it all over last night, and I decided to say nothing to her, after all. I don't think I could, without making a fool of myself. For you know—you know my feelings about her; everybody knows. I had hoped—Oh, well, you know what I hoped—"
There was a pause. Dudley was afraid of breaking down.
"Oh, Dudley, is it really all over, then, between you? Oh, it is dreadful! For, you know, she cares, too!"
"Not as I do. I hope and think that is impossible," said Dudley, hoarsely.
There was another pause, a longer one. Then Queenie gave utterance to a little sob. Dudley, who was sitting on the table at which she was at work, got upon his feet with an impatient movement. His dark face looked hard and angry. As he paced once or twice up and down the small space available in the disordered room, the inward fight which was going on between his passion and his sense of right convulsed his face, and Queenie shuddered as, glancing at him, she fancied she could see in the glare of his black eyes the haunting madness at which he seemed so plainly to have hinted.
She rose in her turn.
"But, Dudley—" she began.
And then, unable to express what she felt, what she thought, any better than he had done, she turned abruptly away and sat down again.
There was silence for a few moments, and then she heard the door close. Looking round, she saw that he had left the room.
THE LITTLE STONE PASSAGE.
Queenie kept Dudley's half-confessed secret to herself for the whole of that day. She was hoping against hope that he would change his mind again and speak to Doreen himself. Since there must be a definite and final breach, she thought it would be better for the principals themselves to come to an understanding, without the intervention of outsiders. She would have told him so, but she got no further opportunity of speaking to him alone.
The day passed uncomfortably for everybody, although the only person who gave vent to his feelings by open ill-temper was Mr. Wedmore, who was waiting for the promised explanation which Dudley never attempted to give. And before dinner-time that evening the young barrister returned to town.
Mr. Wedmore, who had been out shooting with Doctor Haselden, was furious, on returning home, to learn of Dudley's departure.
"He has left a note for you, papa, in the study," said Doreen, who was, perhaps, a little paler than usual, but who gave no other outward sign of her feelings.
Her father went into the study, after a glance at his daughter, and read the letter. It was not a very long one. Following the lines of his guarded confession to Queenie, Dudley expressed the sorrow he felt at having to give up the hopes he had had of being something more than the mere old friend he had been for so many years. He had thought it better, at the last, to say this on paper instead of by word of mouth, and he ended by expressing the deep gratitude he should always feel for the kindness shown to him by Mr. Wedmore and all his family during the happiest period of his life.
Mr. Wedmore read this letter with little astonishment. It was, in fact, what he had been prepared to hear. He read it to his wife, who cried a great deal, but acquiesced in her husband's desire that Dudley should drop not only out of the ranks of their intimate friends, but even, as much as possible, out of their conversation.
"Let us do our best," said he, "to make Doreen forget him."
Mr. Wedmore showed the letter also to Doctor Haselden, who, perhaps, from pure love of contradiction, persisted in maintaining that the letter confessed nothing, and that the cause of the young man's withdrawal was, in all probability, quite different from what Mr. Wedmore supposed. The two gentlemen had quite a wrangle over the matter, at the end of which each was settled more firmly in his own opinion than before.
When they went upstairs for the night, Doreen came to Queenie's room and demanded to know what her younger sister and Dudley had been talking about so earnestly in the breakfast-room that morning.
"What do you mean by talking earnestly?" said Queenie, in the calm, dry manner which would have made any one but her sister think she was really surprised.
"Max told me," said Doreen, "and I mean to stay here until I know."
It needed very little reflection to tell Queenie that it was better for her sister to hear the truth at once. So she told her.
Doreen listened very quietly, and then got up and wished her sister good night.
"Well," said Queenie, "you take it very quietly. What do you think about it?"
"I'll tell you—when I know myself," answered Doreen, briefly, as she left the room. The first result of the talks, however, was a conversation, not with Queenie, but with her brother, Max. Doreen ran after him next morning as he was on his way to the stables and made him take a walk through the park with her instead of going for a ride.
"Max," she said, coaxingly, when they had gone out of sight of the house, "you have been my confidant about this unhappy affair of Dudley's—"
But her brother interrupted her, and tried to draw away the arm she had taken.
"Look here, Doreen," said he earnestly, "you'd better not think any more about him—much better not. I do really think the poor fellow's right in what he hinted to my father, and that he's going off his head; or, rather, I know enough to be sure that he's not always perfectly sane. Surely you must see that, in the circumstances, the less you think about him the better."
"There I disagree with you altogether," said Doreen, firmly. "Max, papa and mamma can't understand; they've forgotten how they felt when they were first fond of each other. Queenie's not old enough, and she's too good besides. Now, you do know, you do understand what it is to be head over ears in love."
"Good heavens, Doreen, don't talk like that! You mustn't, you know!"
"Don't talk nonsense," interrupted his sister, sharply. "I tell you I love Dudley, and ever so much more since I've found out he is in great trouble; as any decent woman would do. Now I don't feel nearly so sure as everybody else as to what his trouble is, but I want you to find out, and to help me if you can."
"What, play detective—spy? Not me. It's ridiculous, unheard of. I've done it once on your account, and I never felt such a sneak in my life. I won't do it again, even for you, and that's flat."
And Max thrust his hands deep into his pockets.
"Won't you?" said Doreen, with a quiet smile. "Then I must, and I will."
Her brother started and stared at her.
"You! You! What nonsense!"
"It's not nonsense, as you will find when you hear me get permission to go up to town to stay with Aunt Betty."
Max grew sincerely alarmed.
"Look here, Doreen, be reasonable," said he. "You can do no good to Dudley, believe me. He has got into some dreadful mess or other; but it's nothing that you or I or any earthly creature can help him out of. I confess I didn't tell you all I found out when I went up to town. I couldn't. I can't now. But if you will persist, and if nothing else will keep you quietly here, I—well, I promise to go up again. And I'll warrant if I do I shall learn something which will convince even you that you must give up every thought of him."
"Will you promise," said Doreen, solemnly, "to tell me all you find out?"
"No," replied Max, promptly, "I won't promise that. I can't. But I think you can trust me to tell you as much as you ought to know."
With this promise Doreen was obliged to be content. And when, at luncheon time, it was discovered that certain things were wanted from town, and Max offered to go up for them, Doreen and her brother exchanged a look from which she gathered that he would not forget her errand.
Max had plenty of time, while he was being jolted from Datton to Cannon Street, to decide on the best means of carrying out his promise. He decided that a visit to Limehouse, to the neighborhood where the property of the late Mr. Horne had been situated, would be better than another visit to Dudley.
Plumtree Wharf was, he knew, the name of the most important part of the property which had belonged to Dudley's father. Putting together the two facts of the discovery of a ticket for Limehouse in Dudley's possession, and of the disappearance of Edward Jacobs after a visit to that locality on the same day, Max saw that there was something to be gleaned in that neighborhood, if he should have the luck to light upon it.
It was late in the afternoon, and already dark, before he got out of the train at Limehouse station, and began the exploration of the unsavory district which fringes the docks.
Through street after street of dingy, squalid houses he passed; some broken up by dirty little shops, some presenting the dull uniformity of row after row of mean, stunted brick buildings, the broken windows of many of which were mended with brown paper, or else not mended at all. Here and there a grimy public house, each with its group of loafers about the doors, made, with the lights in its windows, a spot of comparative brightness.
Many of the streets were narrow and tortuous, roughly paved, and both difficult and dangerous to traverse by the unaccustomed foot passenger, who found himself now slipping on a piece of orange peel, the pale color of which was disguised by mud, now risking the soundness of his ankles among the uneven and slimy stones of the road.
Max had to ask his way more than once before he reached the Plumtree Wharf, the entrance to which was through a door in a high wooden fence. Rather to his surprise, he found the door unfastened and unguarded. And when he had got through he looked round and asked himself what on earth he had expected to find there.
There was nothing going on at this late hour, and Max was able to take stock of the place and of the outlook generally. Piles of timber to the right of him, the dead wall at the side of a warehouse on the left, gave him but a narrow space in which to pursue his investigations. And these only amounted to the discovery that the troubled waters of the Thames looked very dark and very cold from this spot; that the opposite bank, with little specks of light, offered a gloomy and depressing prospect, and that the lapping of the water among the black barges which were moored at his feet in a dense mass was the dreariest sound he had ever heard. He turned away with a shudder, and walked quickly up the narrow lane left by the timber, calling himself a fool for his journey.
And just as he was reaching the narrow street by which he had come he was startled to find a girl's face peering down at him from the top of a pile of timber.
Max stopped, with an exclamation. In an instant the girl withdrew the head, which was all he had seen of her, and he heard her crawling back quickly over the timber, out of his sight.
Although he had seen her for a moment only, Max had been chilled to the bone by the expression of the girl's face. Ghastly white it had looked in the feeble light of a solitary gas lamp some distance away, and wearing an expression of fear and horror such as he had never seen on any countenance before. He felt that he must find out where she had gone, his first belief being that she was a lunatic. Else why should she have disappeared in that stealthy manner, with the look of fear stamped upon her face? There was nothing in the look or manner of Max himself to alarm her; and if she had been in need of help, why had she not called to him?
He got a footing upon the timber and looked over it. But he could see nothing more of the girl. Beyond the stacks were some low-roofed outbuildings and the back of a shut-up warehouse. Reluctantly he got down, and passed into the narrow street. Not willing to leave at once a neighborhood which he had come so far to investigate, he turned, after going some dozen yards down the street, into a narrow passage on his left hand which led back to the river.
The width between the high walls and the warehouses on either side was only some five feet. It was flagged with stone, very dark. About ten yards from the entrance there was a small warehouse, on the left hand, on which hung an old board, announcing that the building was "To Let." And next door to this was a dingy shop, with grimy and broken windows, the door of which was boarded up. This shop, also, was "To Be Let," and the board in this case had been up so long that the announcement had to be divined rather than read.
Rather struck by the dilapidated appearance of these two buildings in a place where he supposed land must be valuable, Max paused for an instant. And as he did so, he became aware that there was some one by his side.
Looking down quickly, he saw the young girl of whom he had caught a glimpse a few minutes before.
She looked up at him, and, still with the same look of stereotyped horror on her thin, white face, whispered, in a hoarse voice, as she pointed to the boarded-up shop-door with a shaking forefinger:
"You daren't go in there, do you? There's a dead man in there!"
A QUESTIONABLE GUIDE.
Max started violently at the girl's voice.
"A dead man? In there? How do you know?"
In a hoarse voice the girl answered:
"How do I know? The best way possible. I saw it done!"
There was an awful silence. Max was so deeply impressed by the girl's words, her looks, her manner, by the gloom of the cold, dark passage, by the desolate appearance of the two deserted buildings before which they stood, that his first impulse was an overpowering desire to run away. Acting upon it he even took a couple of rapid steps in the direction of the street he had left, passing the girl and getting clear of the uncanny boarded-up front of the shop.
A moan from the girl made him stop and look around at her. Emboldened by this, she came close to him again and whispered: