THE YELLOW GOD
AN IDOL OF AFRICA
By H. Rider Haggard
Sir Robert Aylward, Bart., M.P., sat in his office in the City of London. It was a very magnificent office, quite one of the finest that could be found within half a mile of the Mansion House. Its exterior was built of Aberdeen granite, a material calculated to impress the prospective investor with a comfortable sense of security. Other stucco, or even brick-built, offices might crumble and fall in an actual or a financial sense, but this rock-like edifice of granite, surmounted by a life-sized statue of Justice with her scales, admired from either corner by pleasing effigies of Commerce and of Industry, would surely endure any shock. Earthquake could scarcely shake its strong foundations; panic and disaster would as soon affect the Bank of England. That at least was the impression which it had been designed to convey, and not without success.
"There is so much in externals," Mr. Champers-Haswell, Sir Robert's partner, would say in his cheerful voice. "We are all of us influenced by them, however unconsciously. Impress the public, my dear Aylward. Let solemnity without suggest opulence within, and the bread, or rather the granite, which you throw upon the waters will come back to you after many days."
Mr. Aylward, for this conversation occurred before his merits or the depth of his purse had been rewarded by a baronetcy, looked at his partner in the impassive fashion for which he was famous, and answered:
"You mix your metaphors, Haswell, but if you mean that the public are fools who must be caught by advertisement, I agree with you. Only this particular advertisement is expensive and I do not want to wait many days for my reward. However, L20,000 one way or the other is a small matter, so tell that architect to do the thing in granite."
Sir Robert Aylward sat in his own quiet room at the back of this enduring building, a very splendid room that any Secretary of State might have envied, but arranged in excellent taste. Its walls were panelled with figured teak, a rich carpet made the footfall noiseless, an antique Venus stood upon a marble pedestal in the corner, and over the mantelpiece hung a fine portrait by Gainsborough, that of a certain Miss Aylward, a famous beauty in her day, with whom, be it added, its present owner could boast no connection whatsoever.
Sir Robert was seated at his ebony desk playing with a pencil, and the light from a cheerful fire fell upon his face.
In its own way it was a remarkable face, as he appeared then in his fourth and fortieth year; very pale but with a natural pallor, very well cut and on the whole impressive. His eyes were dark, matching his black hair and pointed beard, and his nose was straight and rather prominent. Perhaps the mouth was his weakest feature, for there was a certain shiftiness about it, also the lips were thick and slightly sensuous. Sir Robert knew this, and therefore he grew a moustache to veil them somewhat. To a careful observer the general impression given by this face was such as is left by the sudden sight of a waxen mask. "How strong! How lifelike!" he would have said, "but of course it isn't real. There may be a man behind, or there may be wood, but that's only a mask." Many people of perception had felt like this about Sir Robert Aylward, namely, that under the mask of his pale countenance dwelt a different being whom they did not know or appreciate.
If these had seen him at this moment of the opening of our story, they might have held that Wisdom was justified of her children. For now in the solitude of his splendid office, of a sudden Sir Robert's mask seemed to fall from him. His face broke up like ice beneath a thaw. He rose from his table and began to walk up and down the room. He talked to himself aloud.
"Great Heavens!" he muttered, "what a game to have played, and it will go through. I believe that it will go through."
He stopped at the table, switched on an electric light and made a rapid calculation on the back of a letter with a blue pencil.
"Yes," he said, "that's my share, a million and seventeen thousand pounds in cash, and two million in ordinary shares which can be worked off at a discount—let us say another seven hundred and fifty thousand, plus what I have got already—put that at only two hundred and fifty thousand net. Two millions in all, which of course may or may not be added to, probably not, unless the ordinaries boom, for I don't mean to speculate any more. That's the end of twenty years' work, Robert Aylward. And to think of it, eighteen months ago, although I seemed so rich, I was on the verge of bankruptcy—the very verge, not worth five thousand pounds. Now what did the trick? I wonder what did the trick?"
He walked down the room and stopped opposite the ancient marble, staring at it—
"Not Venus, I think," he said, with a laugh, "Venus never made any man rich." He turned and retraced his steps to the other end of the room, which was veiled in shadow. Here upon a second marble pedestal stood an object that gleamed dimly through the gloom. It was about ten inches or a foot high, but in that place nothing more could be seen of it, except that it was yellow and had the general appearance of a toad. For some reason it seemed to attract Sir Robert Aylward, for he halted to stare at it, then stretched out his hand and switched on another lamp, in the hard brilliance of which the thing upon the pedestal suddenly declared itself, leaping out of the darkness into light. It was a terrible object, a monstrosity of indeterminate sex and nature, but surmounted by a woman's head and face of extraordinary, if devilish loveliness, sunk back between high but grotesquely small shoulders, like to those of a lizard, so that it glared upwards. The workmanship of the thing was rude yet strangely powerful. Whatever there is cruel, whatever there is devilish, whatever there is inhuman in the dark places of the world, shone out of the jewelled eyes which were set in that yellow female face, yellow because its substance was of gold, a face which seemed not to belong to the embryonic legs beneath, for body there was none, but to float above them. A hollow, life-sized mask with two tiny frog-like legs, that was the fashion of it.
"You are an ugly brute," muttered Sir Robert, contemplating this effigy, "but although I believe in nothing in heaven above or earth below, except the abysmal folly of the British public, I am bothered if I don't believe in you. At any rate from the day when Vernon brought you into my office, my luck turned, and to judge from the smile on your sweet countenance, I don't think it is done with yet. I wonder what those stones are in your eyes. Opals, I suppose, from the way they change colour. They shine uncommonly to-day, I never remember them so bright. I——"
At this moment a knock came on the door. Sir Robert turned off the lamp and walked back to the fireplace.
"Come in," he said, and as he spoke once more his pale face grew impassive and expressionless.
The door opened and a clerk entered, an imposing-looking clerk with iron-grey hair, who wore an irreproachable frock coat and patent leather boots. Advancing to his master, he stood respectfully silent, waiting to be addressed. For quite a long while Sir Robert looked over his head as though he did not see him; it was a way of his. Then his eyes rested on the man dreamily and he remarked in his cold, clear voice:
"I don't think I rang, Jeffreys."
"No, Sir Robert," answered the clerk, bowing as though he spoke to Royalty, "but there is a little matter about that article in The Cynic."
"Press business," said Sir Robert, lifting his eyebrows; "you should know by this time that I do not attend to such details. See Mr. Champers-Haswell, or Major Vernon."
"They are both out at the moment, Sir Robert."
"Go on, then, Jeffreys," replied the head of the firm with a resigned sigh, "only be brief. I am thinking."
The clerk bowed again.
"The Cynic people have just telephoned through about that article we sent them. I think you saw it, sir, and you may remember it begins——" and he read from a typewritten copy in his hand which was headed "Sahara Limited":
"'We are now privileged to announce that this mighty scheme which will turn a desert into a rolling sea bearing the commerce of nations and cause the waste places of the earth to teem with population and to blossom like the rose, has been completed in its necessary if dull financial details and will within a few days be submitted to investors among whom it has already caused so much excitement. These details we will deal with fully in succeeding articles, and therefore now need only pause to say that the basis of capitalization strikes us as wonderfully advantageous to the fortunate public who are asked to participate in its vast prospective prosperity. Our present object is to speak of its national and imperial aspects——'"
Sir Robert lifted his eyes in remonstrance:
"How much more of that exceedingly dull and commonplace puff do you propose to read, Jeffreys?" he asked.
"No more, Sir Robert. We are paying The Cynic thirty guineas to insert this article, and the point is that they say that if they have to put in the 'national and imperial' business they must have twenty more."
"Indeed, Jeffreys? Why?"
"Because, Sir Robert—I will tell you, as you always like to hear the truth—their advertisement-editor is of opinion that Sahara Limited is a national and imperial swindle. He says that he won't drag the nation and the empire into it in an editorial under fifty guineas."
A faint smile flickered on Sir Robert's face.
"Does he, indeed?" he asked. "I wonder at his moderation. Had I been in his place I should have asked more, for really the style is a little flamboyant. Well, we don't want to quarrel with them just now—feed the sharks. But surely, Jeffreys, you didn't come to disturb me about such a trifle?"
"Not altogether, Sir Robert. There is something more important. The Daily Judge not only declines to put any article whatsoever, but refuses our advertisement, and states that it means to criticize the prospectus trenchantly."
"Ah!" said his master after a moment's thought, "that is rather serious, since people believe in the Judge even when it is wrong. Offer them the advertisement at treble rates."
"It has been done, sir, and they still refuse."
Sir Robert walked to the corner of the room where the yellow object squatted on its pedestal, and contemplated it a while, as a man often studies one thing when he is thinking of another. It seemed to give him an idea, for he looked over his shoulder and said:
"That will do, Jeffreys. When Major Vernon comes in, give him my compliments and say that I should be obliged by a word or two with him."
The clerk bowed and went as noiselessly as he had entered.
"Let's see," added Sir Robert to himself. "Old Jackson, the editor of The Judge, was a great friend of Vernon's father, the late Sir William Vernon, G.C.B. I believe that he was engaged to be married to his sister years ago, only she died or something. So the Major ought to be able to get round him if anybody can. Only the worst of it is I don't altogether trust that young gentleman. It suited us to give him a share in the business because he is an engineer who knows the country, and this Sahara scheme was his notion, a very good one in a way, and for other reasons. Now he shows signs of kicking over the traces, wants to know too much, is developing a conscience, and so forth. As though the promoters of speculative companies had any business with consciences. Ah! here he comes."
Sir Robert seated himself at his desk and resumed his calculations upon a half-sheet of note-paper, and that moment a clear, hearty voice was heard speaking to the clerks in the outer office. Then came the sound of a strong, firm footstep, the door opened and Major Alan Vernon appeared.
He was still quite a young man, not more than thirty-two or three years of age, though he lacked the ultra robust and rubicund appearance which is typical of so many Englishmen of his class at this period of life. A heavy bout of blackwater fever acquired on service in West Africa, which would have killed anyone of weaker constitution, had robbed his face of its bloom and left it much sallower, if more interesting than once it had been. For in a way there was interest about the face; also a certain charm. It was a good and honest face with a rather eager, rather puzzled look, that of a man who has imagination and ideas and who searches for the truth but fails to find it. As for the charm, it lay for the most part in the pleasant, open smile and in the frank but rather round brown eyes overhung by a somewhat massive forehead which projected a little, or perhaps the severe illness already alluded to had caused the rest of the face to sink. Though thin, the man was bigly built, with broad shoulders and well-developed limbs, measuring a trifle under six feet in height.
Such was the outward appearance of Alan Vernon. As for his mind, it was able enough in certain fashions, for instance those of engineering, and the soldier-like faculties to which it had been trained; frank and kindly also, but in other respects not quick, perhaps from its unsuspiciousness. Alan Vernon was a man slow to discover ill and slower still to believe in it even when it seemed to be discovered, a weakness that may have gone far to account for his presence in the office of those eminent and brilliant financiers, Messrs. Aylward & Champers-Haswell. Just now he looked a little worried, like a fish out of water, or rather a fish which has begun to suspect the quality of the water, something in its smell or taste.
"Jeffreys tells me that you want to see me, Sir Robert," he said in his low and pleasant voice, looking at the baronet rather anxiously.
"Yes, my dear Vernon, I wish to ask you to do something, if you kindly will, although it is not quite in your line. Old Jackson, the editor of The Judge, is a friend of yours, isn't he?"
"He was a friend of my father's, and I used to know him slightly."
"Well, that's near enough. As I daresay you have heard, he is an unreasonable old beggar, and has taken a dislike to our Sahara scheme. Someone has set him against it and he refuses to receive advertisements, threatens criticisms, etc. Now the opposition of The Judge or any other paper won't kill us, and if necessary we can fight, but at the same time it is always wise to agree with your enemy while he is in the way, and in short—would you mind going down and explaining his mistake to him?"
Before answering Major Vernon walked to the window leisurely and looked out.
"I don't like asking favours from family friends," he replied at length, "and, as you said, I think it isn't quite my line. Though of course if it has anything to do with the engineering possibilities, I shall be most happy to see him," he added, brightening.
"I don't know what it has to do with; that is what I shall be obliged if you will find out," answered Sir Robert with some asperity. "One can't divide a matter of this sort into watertight compartments. It is true that in so important a concern each of us has charge of his own division, but the fact remains that we are jointly and severally responsible for the whole. I am not sure that you bear this sufficiently in mind, my dear Vernon," he added with slow emphasis.
His partner moved quickly; it might almost have been said that he shivered, though whether the movement, or the shiver, was produced by the argument of joint and several liability or by the familiarity of the "my dear Vernon," remains uncertain. Perhaps it was the latter, since although the elder man was a baronet and the younger only a retired Major of Engineers, the gulf between them, as any one of discernment could see, was wide. They were born, lived, and moved in different spheres unbridged by any common element or impulse.
"I think that I do bear it in mind, especially of late, Sir Robert," answered Alan Vernon slowly.
His partner threw a searching glance on him, for he felt that there was meaning in the words, but only said:
"That's all right. My motor is outside and will take you to Fleet Street in no time. Meanwhile you might tell them to telephone that you are coming, and perhaps you will just look in when you get back. I haven't got to go to the House to-night, so shall be here till dinner time, and so, I think, will your cousin Haswell. Muzzle that old bulldog, Jackson, somehow. No doubt he has his price like the rest of them, in meal or malt, and you needn't stick at the figure. We don't want him hanging on our throat for the next week or two."
Ten minutes later the splendid, two-thousand guinea motor brougham drew up at the offices of the Judge and the obsequious motor-footman bowed Major Vernon through its rather grimy doorway. Within, a small boy in a kind of box asked his business, and when he heard his name, said that the "Guvnor" had sent down word that he was go up at once—third floor, first to the right and second to the left. So up he went, and when he reached the indicated locality was taken possession of by a worried-looking clerk who had evidently been waiting for him, and almost thrust through a door to find himself in a big, worn, untidy room. At a huge desk in this room sat an elderly man, also big, worn, and untidy-looking, who waved a long slip of galley-proof in his hand, and was engaged in scolding a sub-editor.
"Who is that?" he said, wheeling round. "I'm busy, can't see anyone."
"I beg your pardon," answered the Major with humility, "your people told me to come up. My name is Alan Vernon."
"Oh! I remember. Sit down for a moment, will you, and—Mr. Thomas, oblige me by taking away this rot and rewriting it entirely in the sense I have outlined."
Mr. Thomas snatched his rejected copy and vanished through another door, whereon his chief remarked in an audible voice:
"That man is a perfect fool. Lucky I thought to look at his stuff. Well, he is no worse than the rest, in this weary world," and he burst into a hearty laugh and swung his chair round, adding, "Now then, Alan, what is it? I have a quarter of an hour at your service. Why, bless me! I was forgetting that it's more than a dozen years since we met; you were still a boy then, and now you have left the army with a D.S.O. and gratuity, and turned financier, which I think wouldn't have pleased your old father. Come, sit down here and let us talk."
"I didn't leave the army, Mr. Jackson," answered his visitor; "it left me; I was invalided out. They said I should never get my health back after that last go of fever, but I did."
"Ah! bad luck, very bad luck, just at the beginning of what should have been a big career, for I know they thought highly of you at the War Office, that is, if they can think. Well, you have grown into a fine-looking fellow, like your father, very, and someone else too," and he sighed, running his fingers through his grizzled hair. "But you don't remember her; she was before your time. Now let us get to business; there's no time for reminiscences in this office. What is it, Alan, for like other people I suppose that you want something?"
"It is about that Sahara flotation, Mr. Jackson," he began rather doubtfully.
The old editor's face darkened. "The Sahara flotation! That accursed——" and he ceased abruptly. "What have you, of all people in the world, got to do with it? Oh! I remember. Someone told me that you had gone into partnership with Aylward the company promoter, and that little beast, Champers-Haswell, who really is the clever one. Well, set it out, set it out."
"It seems, Mr. Jackson, that The Judge has refused not only our article, but also the advertisement of the company. I don't know much about this side of the affair myself, but Sir Robert asked me if I would come round and see if things couldn't be arranged."
"You mean that the man sent you to try and work on me because he knew that I used to be intimate with your family. Well, it is a poor errand and will have a poor end. You can't—no one on earth can, while I sit in this chair, not even my proprietors."
There was silence broken at last by Alan, who remarked awkwardly:
"If that is so, I must not take up your time any longer."
"I said that I would give you a quarter of an hour, and you have only been here four minutes. Now, Alan Vernon, tell me as your father's old friend, why you have gone to herd with these gilded swine?"
There was something so earnest about the man's question that it did not even occur to his visitor to resent its roughness.
"Of course it is not original," he answered, "but I had this idea about flooding the Desert; I spent a furlough up there a few years ago and employed my time in making some rough surveys. Then I was obliged to leave the Service and went down to Yarleys after my father's death—it's mine now, you know, but worth nothing except a shooting rent, which just pays for the repairs. There I met Champers-Haswell, who lives near and is a kind of distant cousin of mine—my mother was a Champers—and happened to mention the thing to him. He took it up at once and introduced me to Aylward, and the end of it was, that they offered me a partnership with a small share in the business, because they said I was just the man they wanted."
"Just the man they wanted," repeated the editor after him. "Yes, the last of the Vernons, an engineer with an old name in his county, a clean record and plenty of ability. Yes, you would be just the man they wanted. And you accepted?"
"Yes. I was on my beam ends with nothing to do; I wanted to make some money. You see Yarleys has been in the family for over five hundred years, and it seemed hard to have to sell it. Also—also——" and he paused.
"Ever meet Barbara Champers?" asked Mr. Jackson inconsequently. "I did once. Wonderfully nice girl, and very good-looking too. But of course you know her, and she is her uncle's ward, and their place isn't far off Yarleys, you say. Must be a connection of yours also."
Major Vernon started a little at the name and his face seemed to redden.
"Yes," he said, "I have met her and she is a connection."
"Will be a big heiress one day, I think," went on Mr. Jackson, "unless old Haswell makes off with her money. I think Aylward knows that; at any rate he was hanging about when I saw her."
Vernon started again, this time very perceptibly.
"Very natural—your going into the business, I mean, under all the circumstances," went on Mr. Jackson. "But now, if you will take my advice, you'll go out of it as soon as you can."
"Because, Alan Vernon, I am sure you don't want to see your name dragged in the dirt, any more than I do." He fumbled in a drawer and produced a typewritten document. "Take that," he said, "and study it at your leisure. It's a sketch of the financial career of Messrs. Aylward and Champers-Haswell, also of the companies which they have promoted and been connected with, and what has happened to them and to those who invested in them. A man got it out for me yesterday and I'm going to use it. As regards this Sahara business, you think it all right, and so it may be from an engineering point of view, but you will never live to sail upon that sea which the British public is going to be asked to find so many millions to make. Look here. We have only three minutes more, so I will come to the point at once. It's Turkish territory, isn't it, and putting aside everything else, the security for the whole thing is a Firman from the Sultan?"
"Yes, Sir Robert Aylward and Haswell procured it in Constantinople. I have seen the document."
"Indeed, and are you well acquainted with the Sultan's signature? I know when they were there last autumn that potentate was very ill——"
"You mean——" said Major Vernon, looking up.
"I mean, Alan, that I like not the security. I won't say any more, as there is a law of libel in this land. But The Judge has certain sources of information. It may be that no protest will be made at once, for baksheesh can stop it for a while, but sooner or later the protest or repudiation will come, and perhaps some international bother; also much scandal. As to the scheme itself, it is shamelessly over-capitalized for the benefit of the promoters—of whom, remember, Alan, you will appear as one. Now time's up. Perhaps you will take my advice, and perhaps you won't, but there it is for what it's worth as that of a man of the world and an old friend of your family. As for your puff article and your prospectus, I wouldn't put them in The Judge if you paid me a thousand pounds, which I daresay your friend, Aylward, would be quite ready to do. Good-bye. Come and see me again sometime, and tell me what has happened—and, I say"—this last was shouted through the closing door,—"give my kind regards to Miss Barbara, for wherever she happens to live, she is an honest woman."
THE YELLOW GOD
Alan Vernon walked thoughtfully down the lead-covered stairs, hustled by eager gentlemen hurrying up to see the great editor, whose bell was already ringing furiously, and was duly ushered by the obsequious assistant-chauffeur back into the luxurious motor. There was an electric lamp in this motor, and by the light of it, his mind being perplexed, he began to read the typewritten document given to him by Mr. Jackson, which he still held in his hand.
As it chanced they were blocked for a quarter of an hour near the Mansion House, so that he found time, if not to master it, at least to gather enough of its contents to make him open his brown eyes very wide before the motor pulled up at the granite doorway of his office. Alan descended from the machine, which departed silently, and stood for a moment wondering what he should do. His impulse was to jump into a bus and go straight to his rooms or his club, to which Sir Robert did not belong, but being no coward, he dismissed it from his mind.
His fate hung in the balance, of that he was well aware. Either he must disregard Mr. Jackson's warning, confirmed as it was by many secret fears and instincts of his own, and say nothing except that he had failed in his mission, or he must take the bull by the horns and break with the firm. To do the latter meant not only a good deal of moral courage, but practical ruin, whereas if he chose the former course, probably within a fortnight he would find himself a rich man. Whatever Jackson and a few others might say in its depreciation, he was certain that the Sahara flotation would go through, for it was underwritten, of course upon terms, by responsible people, moreover the unissued preferred shares had already been dealt in at a heavy premium. Now to say nothing of the allotment to which he was entitled upon his holding in the parent Syndicate, the proportion of cash due to him as a partner, would amount to quite a hundred thousand pounds. In other words, he, who had so many reasons for desiring money, would be wealthy. After working so hard and undergoing so much that he felt to be humiliating and even degrading, why should he not take his reward and clear out afterwards?
This he remembered he could do, since probably by some oversight of Aylward's, who left such matters to his lawyers, his deed of partnership did not bind him to a fixed term. It could be broken at any moment. To this argument there was only one possible answer, that of his conscience. If once he were convinced that things were not right, it would be dishonest to participate in their profits. And he was convinced. Mr. Jackson's arguments and his damning document had thrown a flood of light upon many matters which he had suspected but never quite understood. He was the partner of, well, adventurers, and the money which he received would in fact be filched from the pockets of unsuspecting persons. He would vouch for that of which he was doubtful and receive the price of sharp practice. In other words he, Alan Vernon, who had never uttered a wilful untruth or taken a halfpenny that was not his own, would before the tribunal of his own mind, stand convicted as a liar and a thief. The thing was not to be borne. At whatever cost it must be ended. If he were fated to be a beggar, at least he would be an honest beggar.
With a firm step and a high head he walked straight into Sir Robert's room, without even going through the formality of knocking, to find Mr. Champers-Haswell seated at the ebony desk by his partner's side examining some document through a reading-glass, which on his appearance, was folded over and presently thrust away into a drawer. It seemed, Alan noticed, to be of an unusual shape and written in some strange character.
Mr. Haswell, a stout, jovial-looking, little man with a florid complexion and white hair, rose at once to greet him.
"How do you do, Alan," he said in a cheerful voice, for as a cousin by marriage he called him by his Christian name. "I am just this minute back from Paris, and you will be glad to learn that they are going to support us very well there; in fact I may say that the Government has taken up the scheme, of course under the rose. You know the French have possessions all along that coast and they won't be sorry to find an opportunity of stretching out their hand a little further. Our difficulties as to capital are at an end, for a full third of it is guaranteed in Paris, and I expect that small investors and speculators for the rise will gobble a lot more. We shall plant L10,000,000 worth of Sahara scrip in sunny France, my boy, and foggy England has underwritten the rest. It will be a case of 'letters of Allotment and regret,' and regret, Alan, financially the most successful issue of the last dozen years. What do you say to that?" and in his elation the little man puffed out his chest and pursing up his lips, blew through them, making a sound like that of wind among wires.
"I don't know, Mr. Haswell. If we are all alive I would prefer to answer the question twelve months hence, or later, when we see whether the company is going to be a practical success as well, or not."
Again Mr. Haswell made the sound of wind among wires, only this time there was a shriller note in it; its mellowness was gone, it was as though the air had suddenly been filled with frost.
"A practical success!" he repeated after him. "That is scarcely our affair, is it? Promoters should not bother themselves with long views, Alan. These may be left to the investing public, the speculative parson and the maiden lady who likes a flutter—those props of modern enterprise. But what do you mean? You originated this idea and always said that the profits should be great."
"Yes, Mr. Haswell, on a moderate capitalization and provided that we are sure of the co-operation of the Porte."
Mr. Haswell looked at him very searchingly and Sir Robert, who had been listening, said in his cold voice:
"I think that we thrashed out these points long ago, and to tell you the truth I am rather tired of them, especially as it is too late to change anything. How did you get on with Jackson, Vernon?"
"I did not get on at all, Sir Robert. He will not touch the thing on any terms, and indeed means to oppose it tooth and nail."
"Then he will find himself in a minority when the articles come out to-morrow. Of course it is a bore, but we are strong enough to snap our fingers at him. You see they don't read The Judge in France, and no one has ever heard of it in Constantinople. Therefore we have nothing to fear—so long as we stick together," he added meaningly.
Alan felt that the crisis had come. He must speak now or for ever hold his peace; indeed Aylward was already looking round for his hat.
"Sir Robert and Mr. Haswell," he broke in rather nervously, "I have something to say to you, something unpleasant," and he paused.
"Then please say it at once, Vernon. I want to dress for dinner, I am going to the theatre to-night and must dine early," replied Aylward in a voice of the utmost unconcern.
"It is, Sir Robert," went on Alan with a rush, "that I do not like the lines upon which this business is being worked, and I wish to give up my interest in it and retire from the firm, as I have a right to do under our deed of partnership."
"Have you?" said Aylward. "Really, I forget. But, my dear fellow, do not think that we should wish to keep you for one moment against your will. Only, might I ask, has that old puritan, Jackson, hypnotized you, or is it a case of sudden madness after influenza?"
"Neither," answered Alan sternly, for although he might be diffident on matters that he did not thoroughly understand, he was not a man to brook trifling or impertinence. "It is what I have said, no more nor less. I am not satisfied either as to the capitalization or as to the guarantee that the enterprise can be really carried out. Further"—and he paused,—"Further, I should like what I have never yet been able to obtain, more information as to that Firman under which the concession is granted."
For one moment a sort of tremor passed over Sir Robert's impassive countenance, while Mr. Haswell uttered his windy whistle, this time in a tone of plaintive remonstrance.
"As you have formally resigned your membership of the firm, I do not see that any useful purpose can be served by discussing such matters. The fullest explanations, of course, we should have been willing to give——"
"My dear Alan," broke in Mr. Champers-Haswell, who was quite upset, "I do implore you to reflect for one moment, for your own sake. In a single week you would have been a wealthy man; do you really mean to throw away everything for a whim?"
"Perhaps Vernon remembers that he holds over 1700 of the Syndicate shares which we have worked up to L18, and thinks it wiser to capture the profit in sight, generally speaking a very sound principle," interrupted Aylward sarcastically.
"You are mistaken, Sir Robert," replied Alan, flushing. "The way that those shares have been artificially put up is one of the things to which I most object. I shall only ask for mine the face value which I paid for them."
Now notwithstanding their experience, both of the senior partners did for a moment look rather scared. Such folly, or such honesty, was absolutely incredible to them. They felt that there must be much behind. Sir Robert, however, recovered instantly.
"Very well," he said; "it is not for us to dictate to you; you must make your own bed and lie on it. To argue or remonstrate would only be rude." He put out his hand and pushed the button of an electric bell, adding as he did so, "Of course we understand one thing, Vernon, namely, that as a gentleman and a man of honour you will make no public use of the information which you have acquired during your stay in this office, either to our detriment, personal or financial, or to your own advantage."
"Certainly you may understand that," replied Vernon. "Unless my character is attacked and it becomes necessary for me to defend myself, my lips are sealed."
"That will never happen—why should it?" said Sir Robert with a polite bow.
The door opened and the head clerk, Jeffreys, appeared.
"Mr. Jeffreys," said Sir Robert, "please find us the deed of partnership between Major Vernon and ourselves, and bring it here. One moment. Please make out also a transfer of Major Vernon's parcel of Sahara Syndicate shares to Mr. Champers-Haswell and myself at par value, and fill in a cheque for the amount. Please remove also Major Vernon's name wherever it appears in the proof prospectus, and—yes—one thing more. Telephone to Specton—the Right Honourable the Earl of Specton, I mean, and say that after all I have been able to arrange that he shall have a seat on the Board and a block of shares at a very moderate figure, and that if he will wire his assent, his name shall be put into the prospectus. You approve, don't you, Haswell?—yes—then that is all, I think, Jeffreys, only please be as quick as you can, for I want to get away."
Jeffreys, the immaculate and the impassive, bowed, and casting one swift glance at Vernon out of the corner of his eye, departed.
What is called an awkward pause ensued; in fact it was a very awkward pause. The die was cast, the matter ended, and what were the principals to do until the ratifications had been exchanged or, a better simile perhaps, the decree nisi pronounced absolute. Mr. Champers-Haswell remarked that the weather was very cold for April, and Alan agreed with him, while Sir Robert found his hat and brushed it with his sleeve. Then Mr. Haswell, in desperation, for in minor matters he was a kindly sort of man who disliked scenes and unpleasantness, muttered something as to seeing him—Alan—at his house, The Court, in Hertfordshire, from Saturday to Monday.
"That was the arrangement," answered Alan bluntly, "but possibly after what has happened you will not wish that it should be kept."
"Oh! why not, why not?" said Mr. Haswell. "Sunday is a day of rest when we make it a rule not to talk business, and if we did, perhaps we might all change our minds about these matters. Sir Robert is coming, and I am sure that your cousin Barbara will be very disappointed if you do not turn up, for she understands nothing about these city things which are Greek to her."
At the mention of the name of Barbara Sir Robert Aylward looked up from the papers which he affected to be tidying, and Alan thought that there was a kind of challenge in his eyes. A moment before he had made up his mind that no power on earth would induce him to spend a Sunday with his late partners at The Court. Now, acting upon some instinct or impulse, he reversed his opinion.
"Thanks," he said, "if that is understood, I shall be happy to come. I will drive over from Yarleys in time for dinner to-morrow. Perhaps you will say so to Barbara."
"She will be glad, I am sure," answered Mr. Haswell, "for she told me the other day that she wants to consult you about some outdoor theatricals that she means to get up in July."
"In July!" answered Alan with a little laugh. "I wonder where I shall be in July."
Then came another pause, which seemed to affect even Sir Robert's nerves, for abandoning the papers, he walked down the room till he came to the golden object that has been described, and for the second time that day stood there contemplating it.
"This thing is yours, Vernon," he said, "and now that our relations are at an end, I suppose that you will want to take it away. What is its history? You never told me."
"Oh! that's a long story," answered Alan in an absent voice. "My uncle, who was a missionary, brought it from West Africa. I rather forget the facts, but Jeekie, my negro servant, knows them all, for as a lad my uncle saved him from sacrifice, or something, in a place where they worship these things, and he has been with us ever since. It is a fetish with magical powers and all the rest of it. I believe they call it the Swimming Head and other names. If you look at it, you will see that it seems to swim between the shoulders, doesn't it?"
"Yes," said Sir Robert, "and I admire the beautiful beast. She is cruel and artistic, like—like finance. Look here, Vernon, we have quarrelled, and of course henceforth are enemies, for it is no use mincing matters, only fools do that. But in a way you are being hardly treated. You could get L10 apiece to-day for those shares of yours in a block on the market, and I am paying you L1. I understand your scruples, but there is no reason why we should not square things. This fetish of yours has brought me luck, so let's do a deal. Leave it here, and instead of a check for L1700, I will make you one out for L17,000."
"That's a very liberal offer," said Vernon. "Give me a moment to think it over."
Then he also walked into the corner of the room and contemplated the golden mask that seemed to float between the frog-like shoulders. The shimmering eyes drew his eyes, though what he saw in them does not matter. Indeed he could never remember. Only when he straightened himself again there was left on his mind a determination that not for seventeen or for seventy thousand pounds would he part with his ownership in this very unique fetish.
"No, thank you," he said presently. "I don't think I will sell the Yellow God, as Jeekie calls it. Perhaps you will kindly keep her here for a week or so, until I make up my mind where to stow her."
Again Mr. Champers-Haswell uttered his windy whistle. That a man should refuse L17,000 for a bit of African gold worth L100 or so, struck him as miraculous. But Sir Robert did not seem in the least surprised, only very disappointed.
"I quite understand your dislike to selling," he said. "Thank you for leaving it here for the present to see us through the flotation," and he laughed.
At that moment Jeffreys entered the room with the documents. Sir Robert handed the deed of partnership to Alan, and when he had identified it, took it from him again and threw it on the fire, saying that of course the formal letter of release would be posted and the dissolution notified in the Gazette. Then the transfer was signed and the cheque delivered.
"Well, good-bye till Saturday," said Alan when he had received the latter, and nodding to them both, he turned and left the room.
The passage ran past the little room in which Mr. Jeffreys, the head clerk, sat alone. Catching sight of him through the open door, Alan entered, shutting it behind him. Finding his key ring he removed from it the keys of his desk and of the office strongroom, and handed them to the clerk who, methodical in everything, proceeded to write a formal receipt.
"You are leaving us, Major Vernon?" he said interrogatively as he signed the paper.
"Yes, Jeffreys," answered Alan, then prompted by some impulse, added, "Are you sorry?"
Mr. Jeffreys looked up and there were traces of unwonted emotion upon his hard, regulated face.
"For myself, yes, Major—for you, on the whole, no."
"What do you mean, Jeffreys? I do not quite understand."
"I mean, Major, that I am sorry because you have never tried to shuffle off any shady business on to my back and leave me to bear the brunt of it; also because you have always treated me as a gentleman should, not as a machine to be used until a better can be found, and kicked aside when it goes out of order."
"It is very kind of you to say so, Jeffreys, but I can't remember having done anything particular."
"No, Major, you can't remember what comes natural to you. But I and the others remember, and that's why I am sorry. But for yourself I am glad, since although Aylward and Haswell have put a big thing through and are going to make a pot of money, this is no place for the likes of you, and now that you are going I will make bold to tell you that I always wondered what you were doing here. By and by, Major, the row will come, as it has come more than once in the past, before your time."
"And then?" said Alan, for he was anxious to get to the bottom of this man's mind, which hitherto he had always found so secret.
"And then, Major, it won't matter much to Messrs. Aylward and Champers-Haswell, who are used to that kind of thing and will probably dissolve partnership and lie quiet for a bit, and still less to folk like myself, who are only servants. But if you were still here it would have mattered a great deal to you, for it would blacken your name and break your heart, and then what's the good of the money? I tell you, Major," the clerk went on with quiet intensity, "though I am nobody and nothing, if I could afford it I would follow your example. But I can't, for I have a sick wife and a family of delicate children who have to live half the year on the south coast, to say nothing of my old mother, and—I was fool enough to be taken in and back Sir Robert's last little venture, which cost me all I had saved. So you see I must make a bit before the machine is scrapped, Major. But I tell you this, that if I can get L5000 together, as I hope to do out of Saharas before I am a month older, for they had to give me a look-in, as I knew too much, I am off to the country, where I was born, to take a farm there. No more of Messrs. Aylward and Haswell for Thomas Jeffreys. That's my bell. Good-bye, Major, I'll take the liberty to write you a line sometimes, for I know you won't give me away. Good-bye and God bless you, as I am sure He will in the long run," and stretching out his hand, he took that of the astonished Alan and wrung it warmly.
When he was gone Alan went also, noticing that the clerks, whom some rumour of these events seemed to have reached, eyed him curiously through the glass screens behind which they sat at their desks, as he thought not without regret and a kind of admiration. Even the magnificent be-medalled porter at the door emerged from the carved teak box where he dwelt and touching his cap asked if he should call a cab.
"No, thank you, Sergeant," answered Alan, "I will take a bus, and, Sergeant, I think I forgot to give you a present last Xmas. Will you accept this?—I wish I could make it more," and he presented him with ten shillings.
The Sergeant drew himself up and saluted.
"Thank you kindly, Major," he said. "I'd rather take that from you than L10 from the other gentlemen. But, Major, I wish we were out on the West Coast again together. It's a stinking, barbarous hole, but not so bad as this 'ere city."
For once these two had served as comrades, and it was through Alan that the sergeant obtained his present lucrative but somewhat uncongenial post.
He was outside at last. The massive granite portal vanished behind him in the evening mists, much as a nightmare vanishes. He, Alan Vernon, who for a year or more had been in bondage, was a free man again. All his dreams of wealth had departed; indeed if anything, save in experience, he was poorer than when first the shadow of yonder doorway fell upon him. But at least he was safe, safe. The deed of partnership which had been as a chain about his neck, was now white ashes; his name was erased from that fearful prospectus of Sahara Limited, wherein millions which someone would provide were spoken of like silver in the days of Solomon, as things of no account. The bitterest critic could not say that he had made a halfpenny out of the venture, in fact, if trouble came, his voluntary abandonment of the profits due to him must go to his credit. He had plunged into the icy waters of renunciation and come up clean if naked. Never since he was a boy could Alan remember feeling so utterly light-hearted and free from anxiety. Not for a million pounds would he have returned to gather gold in that mausoleum of reputations. As for the future, he did not in the least care what happened. There was no one dependent on him, and in this way or in that he could always earn a crust, a nice, honest crust.
He ran down the street and danced for joy like a child, yes, and presented a crossing-sweeper against whom he butted with a whole sixpence in compensation. Thus he reached the Mansion House, not unsuspected of inebriety by the police, and clambered to the top of a bus crowded with weary and anxious-looking City clerks returning home after a long day's labour at starvation wage. In that cold company and a chilling atmosphere some of his enthusiasm evaporated. He remembered that this step of his meant that sooner or later, within a year or two at most, Yarleys, where his family had dwelt for centuries, must go to the hammer. Why had he not accepted Aylward's offer and sold that old fetish to him for L17,000? There was no question of share-dealing there, and if a very wealthy man chose to give a fancy price for a curiosity, he could take it without doubt or shame. At least it would have sufficed to save Yarleys, which after all was only mortgaged for L20,000. For the life of him he could not tell. He had acted on impulse, a very curious impulse, and there was an end of it perhaps; it might be because his uncle had told him as a boy that the thing was unique, or perhaps because old Jeekie, his negro servant, venerated it so much and swore that it was "lucky." At any rate he had declined and there was an end.
But another and a graver matter remained. He had desired wealth to save Yarleys, but he desired it still more for a different purpose. Above everything on earth he loved Barbara, his distant cousin and the niece of Mr. Champers-Haswell, who until an hour ago had been his partner. Now she was a great heiress, and without fortune he could not marry her, even if she would marry him, which remained in doubt. For one thing her uncle and guardian Haswell, under her father's will, had absolute discretion in this matter until she reached the age of twenty-five, and for another he was too proud. Therefore it would seem that in abandoning his business, he had abandoned his chance of Barbara also, which was a truly dreadful thought.
Well, it was in order that he might see her, that he had agreed to visit The Court on the morrow, even though it meant a meeting with his late partners, who were the last people with whom he desired to foregather again so soon. Then and there he made up his mind that before he bade Barbara farewell, he would tell her the whole story, so that she might not misjudge him. After that he would go off somewhere—to Africa perhaps. Meanwhile he was quite tired out, as tired as though he had lain a week in the grip of fever. He must eat some food and get to bed. Sufficient unto the day was the evil thereof, yet on the whole he blessed the name of Jackson, editor of The Judge and his father's old friend.
When Alan had left the office Sir Robert turned to Mr. Champers-Haswell and asked him abruptly, "What the devil does this mean?"
Mr. Haswell looked up at the ceiling and whistled in his own peculiar fashion, then answered:
"I cannot say for certain, but our young friend's strange conduct seems to suggest that he has smelt a rat, possibly even that Jackson, the old beast, has shown him a rat—of a large Turkish breed."
Sir Robert nodded.
"Vernon is a fellow who doesn't like rats; they seem to haunt his sleep," he said; "but do you think that having seen it, he will keep it in the bag?"
"Oh! certainly, certainly," answered Mr. Haswell with cheerfulness; "the man is the soul of honour; he will never give us away. Look how he behaved about those shares. Still, I think that perhaps we are well rid of him. Too much honour, like too much zeal, is a very dangerous quality in any business."
"I don't know that I agree with you," answered Sir Robert. "I am not sure that in the long run we should not do better for a little more of the article. For my part, although it will not hurt us publicly, for the thing will never be noticed, I am sorry that we have lost Vernon, very sorry indeed. I don't think him a fool, and awkward as they may be, I respect his qualities."
"So do I, so do I," answered Mr. Haswell, "and of course we have acted against his advice throughout, which must have been annoying to him. The scheme as he suggested it was a fair business proposition that might have paid ten per cent. on a small capital, but what is the good of ten per cent. to you and me? We want millions and we are going to get them. Well, he is coming to The Court to-morrow, and perhaps after all we shall be able to arrange matters. I'll give Barbara a hint; she has great influence with him, and you might do the same, Aylward."
"Miss Champers has great influence with everyone who is fortunate enough to know her," answered Sir Robert courteously. "But even if she chooses to use it, I doubt if it will avail in this case. Vernon has been making up his mind for a long while. I have watched him and am sure of that. To-night he determined to take the plunge and I do not think that we shall see any more of him in this office. Haswell," he added with sudden energy, "I tell you that of late our luck has been too good to last. The boom, the real boom, came in with Vernon, and with Vernon I think that it will go."
"At any rate it must leave something pretty substantial behind it this time, Aylward, my friend. Whatever happens, within a week we shall be rich, really rich for life."
"For life, Haswell, yes, for life. But what is life? A bubble that any pin may prick. Oh! I know that you do not like the subject, but it is as well to look it in the face sometimes. I'm no church-goer, but if I remember right we were taught to pray the good Lord to deliver us especially 'in all times of our wealth,' which is followed by something about tribulation and sudden death, for when they wrote that prayer the wheel of human fortune went round just as it does to-day. There, let's get out of this before I grow superstitious, as men who believe in nothing sometimes do, because after all they must believe in something, I suppose. Got your hat and coat? So have I, come on," and he switched off the light, so that the room was left in darkness except for the faint glimmering of the fire.
His partner grumbled audibly, for in turning he had knocked his hand against the desk.
"Leave me my only economy, Haswell," he answered with a hard little laugh. "Electricity is strength and I hate to see strength burning to waste. Why do you mind?" he went on as he stepped towards the door. "Is it the contrast? In all times of our wealth, in all times of our tribulation, from sickness and from sudden death——"
"Good Lord deliver us," chimed in Mr. Haswell in a shaking voice behind him. "What the devil's that?"
Sir Robert looked round and saw, or thought that he saw, something very strange. From the pillar on which it stood the golden fetish with a woman's face, appeared to have floated. The firelight showed it gliding towards them across, but a few inches above the floor of the great room. It came very slowly, but it came. Now it reached them and paused, and now it rose into the air until it attained the height of Mr. Champers-Haswell and stayed there, staring into his face and not a hand's breadth away, just as though it were a real woman glaring at him.
He uttered a sound, half whistle and half groan, and fell back, as it chanced on to a morocco-covered seat behind him. For a moment or two the gleaming, golden mask floated in the air. Then it turned very deliberately, rose a little way, and moving sidelong to where Sir Robert stood, hung in front of his face.
Presently Aylward staggered to the mantelpiece and began to fumble for the switch; in the silence his nails scratching at the panelling made a sound like to that of a gnawing mouse. He found it at last, and next instant the office broke into a blaze of light, showing Mr. Haswell, his rubicund face quite pale, his hat and umbrella on the floor, gasping like a dying man upon the couch, and Sir Robert himself clinging to the mantel-shelf as a person might do who had received a mortal wound, while the golden fetish reposed calmly on its pillar, to all appearance as immovable and undisturbed as the antique Venus which matched it at the other end of the room. For a while there was silence. Then Sir Robert, recovering himself, asked:
"Did you notice anything unusual just now, Haswell?"
"Yes," whispered his partner. "I thought that hideous African thing which Vernon brought here, came sliding across the floor and stared into my face with its glittering eyes, and in the eyes——"
"Well, what was in the eyes?"
"I can't remember. It was a kind of picture and the meaning of it was Sudden Death—oh Lord! Sudden Death. Tell me it was a fancy bred of that ill-omened talk of yours?"
"I can't tell you anything of the sort," answered Aylward in a hollow voice, "for I saw something also."
"What?" asked his partner.
"Death that wasn't sudden, and other things."
Again the silence fell till it was broken by Aylward.
"Come," he said, "we have been over-working—too much strain, and now the reaction. Keep this rubbish to yourself, or they will lock you up in an asylum."
"Certainly, Aylward, certainly. But can't you get rid of that beastly image?"
"Not on any account, Haswell, even if it haunts us all day. Here it shall stop until the Saharas are floated on Monday, if I have to lock it in the strongroom and throw the keys into the Thames. Afterwards Vernon can take it, as he has a right to do, and I am sure that with it will go our luck."
"Then the sooner our luck goes, the better," replied Haswell, with a mere ghost of his former whistle. "Life is better than luck, and—Aylward, that Yellow God you are so fond of means to murder us. We are being fatted for the sacrifice, that is all. I remember now, that was one of the things I saw written in its eyes!"
JEEKIE TELLS A TALE
The Court, Mr. Champers-Haswell's place, was a very fine house indeed, of a sort. That is, it contained twenty-nine bedrooms, each of them with a bathroom attached, a large number of sitting-rooms, ample garages, stables, and offices, the whole surrounded by several acres of newly-planted gardens. Incidentally it may be mentioned that it was built in the most atrocious taste and looked like a suburban villa seen through a magnifying glass.
It was in this matter of taste that it differed from Sir Robert Aylward's home, Old Hall, a few miles away. Not that this was old either, for the original house had fallen down or been burnt a hundred years before. But Sir Robert, being gifted with artistic perception, had reared up in place of it a smaller but really beautiful dwelling of soft grey stone, long and low, and built in the Tudor style with many gables.
This house, charming as it was, could not of course compare with Yarleys, the ancient seat of the Vernons in the same neighbourhood. Yarleys was pure Elizabethan, although it contained an oak-roofed hall which was said to date back to the time of King John, a remnant of a former house. There was no electric light or other modern convenience at Yarleys, yet it was a place that everyone went to see because of its exceeding beauty and its historical associations. The moat by which it was surrounded, the grass court within, for it was built on three sides of a square, the mullioned windows, the towered gateway of red brick, the low-panelled rooms hung with the portraits of departed Vernons, the sloping park and the splendid oaks that stood about, singly or in groups, were all of them perfect in their way. It was one of the most lovely of English homes, and oddly enough its neglected gardens and the air of decay that pervaded it, added to rather than decreased its charm.
But it is with The Court that we have to do at present, not with Yarleys. Mr. Champers-Haswell had a week-end party. There were ten guests, all men, and with the exception of Alan, who it will be remembered was one of them, all rich and in business. They included two French bankers and three Jews, everyone a prop of the original Sahara Syndicate and deeply interested in the forthcoming flotation. To describe them is unnecessary, for they have no part in our story, being only financiers of a certain class, remarkable for the riches they had acquired by means that for the most part would not bear examination. The riches were evident enough. Ever since the morning the owners of this wealth had arrived by ones or twos in their costly motorcars, attended by smart chauffeurs and valets. Their fur coats, their jewelled studs and rings, something in their very faces suggested money, which indeed was the bond that brought and held them together.
Alan did not come until it was time to dress for dinner, for he knew that Barbara would not appear before that meal, and it was her society he sought, not that of his host or fellow guests. Accompanied by his negro servant, Jeekie, for in a house like this it was necessary to have someone to wait upon him, he drove over from Yarleys, a distance of ten miles, arriving about eight o'clock.
"Mr. Haswell as gone up to dress, Major, and so have the other gentlemen," said the head butler, Mr. Smith, "but Miss Champers told me to give you this note and to say that dinner is at half-past eight."
Alan took the note and asked to be shown to his room. Once there, although he had only five and twenty minutes, he opened it eagerly, while Jeekie unpacked his bag.
"Dear Alan," it ran: "Don't be late for dinner, or I may not be able to keep a place next to me. Of course Sir Robert takes me in. They are a worse lot than usual this time, odious—odious!—and I can't stand one on the left hand as well as on the right. Yours,
"P.S. What have you been doing? Our distinguished guests, to say nothing of my uncle, seem to be in a great fuss about you. I overheard them talking when I was pretending to arrange some flowers. One of them called you a sanctimonious prig and an obstinate donkey, and another answered—I think it was Sir Robert —'No doubt, but obstinate donkeys can kick and have been known to upset other people's applecarts ere now.' Is the Sahara Syndicate the applecart? If so, I'll forgive you.
"P.P.S. Remember that we will walk to church together to-morrow, but come down to breakfast in knickerbockers or something to put them off, and I'll do the same—I mean I'll dress as if I were going to golf. We can turn into Christians later. If we don't—dress like that, I mean—they'll guess and all want to come to church, except the Jews, which would bring the judgment of Heaven on us.
"P.P.P.S. Don't be careless and leave this note lying about, for the under-footman who waits upon you reads all the letters. He steams them over a kettle. Smith the butler is the only respectable man in this house."
Alan laughed outright as he finished this peculiar and outspoken epistle, which somehow revived his spirits, that since the previous day had been low enough. It refreshed him. It was like a breath of frosty air from an open window blowing clean and cold into a scented, overheated room. He would have liked to keep it, but remembering Barbara's injunctions and the under-footman, threw it onto the fire and watched it burn. Jeekie coughed to intimate that it was time for his master to dress, and Alan turned and looked at him in an absent-minded fashion.
He was worth looking at, was Jeekie. Let the reader imagine a very tall and powerfully-built negro with a skin as black as a well-polished boot, woolly hair as white as snow, a little tufted beard also white, a hand like a leg of mutton, but with long delicate fingers and pink, filbert-shaped nails, an immovable countenance, but set in it beneath a massive brow, two extraordinary humorous and eloquent black eyes which expressed every emotion passing through the brain behind them, that is when their owner chose to allow them to do so. Such was Jeekie.
"Shall I unlace your boots, Major?" he said in his full, melodious voice and speaking the most perfect English. "I expect that the gong will sound in nine and a half minutes."
"Then let it sound and be hanged to it," answered Alan; "no, I forgot—I must hurry. Jeekie, put that fire out and open all the windows as soon as I go down. This room is like a hot-house."
"Yes, Major, the fire shall be extinguished and the sleeping-chamber ventilated. The other boot, if you please, Major."
"Jeekie," said Alan, "who is stopping in this place? Have you heard?"
"I collected some names on my way upstairs, Major. Three of the gentlemen you have never met before, but," he added suddenly breaking away from his high-flown book-learned English, as was his custom when in earnest, "Jeekie think they just black niggers like the rest, thief people. There ain't a white man in this house, except you and Miss Barbara and me, Major. Jeekie learnt all that in servant's hall palaver. No, not now, other time. Everyone tell everything to Jeekie, poor old African fool, and he look up an answer, 'O law! you don't say so?' but keep his eyes and ears open all the same."
"I'll be bound you do, Jeekie," replied Alan, laughing again. "Well, go on keeping them open, and give me those trousers."
"Yes, Major," answered Jeekie, reassuming his grand manner, "I shall continue to collect information which may prove to your advantage, but personally I wish that you were clear of the whole caboodle, except Miss Barbara."
"Hear, hear," ejaculated Alan, "there goes the gong. Mind you come in and help to wait," and hurrying into his coat he departed downstairs.
The guests were gathered in the hall drinking sherry and bitters, a proceeding that to Alan's mind set a stamp upon the house. His host, Mr. Champers-Haswell, came forward and greeted him with much affectionate enthusiasm, and Alan noticed that he looked very pale, also that his thoughts seemed to be wandering, for he introduced a French banker to him as a noted Jew, and the noted Jew as the French banker, although the distinction between them was obvious and the gentlemen concerned evidently resented the mistake. Sir Robert Aylward, catching sight of him, came across the hall in his usual, direct fashion, and shook him by the hand.
"Glad to see you, Vernon," he said, fixing his piercing eyes upon Alan as though he were trying to read his thoughts. "Pleasant change this from the City and all that eternal business, isn't it? Ah! you are thinking that one is not quite clear of business after all," and he glanced round at the company. "That's one of your cousin Haswell's faults; he can never shake himself free of the thing, never get any real recreation. I'd bet you a sovereign that he has a stenographer waiting by a telephone in the next room, just in case any opportunity should arise in the course of conversation. That is magnificent, but it is not wise. His heart can't stand it; it will wear him out before his time. Listen, they are all talking about the Sahara. I wish I were there; it must be quiet at any rate. The sands beneath, the eternal stars above. Yes, I wish I were there," he repeated with a sigh, and Alan noted that although his face could not be more pallid than its natural colour, it looked quite worn and old.
"So do I," he answered with enthusiasm.
Then a French gentleman on his left, having discovered that he was the engineer who had formulated the great flooding scheme, began to address him as "Cher maitre," speaking so rapidly his own language that Alan, whose French was none of the best, struggled after him in vain. Whilst he was trying to answer a question which he did not understand, the door at the end of the hall opened, and through it appeared Barbara Champers.
It was a large hall and she was a long way off, which caused her to look small, who indeed was only of middle height. Yet even at that distance it was impossible to mistake the dignity of her appearance. A slim woman with brown hair, cheerful brown eyes, a well-modelled face, a rounded figure and an excellent complexion, such was Barbara. Ten thousand young ladies could be found as good, or even better looking, yet something about her differentiated her from the majority of her sex. There was determination in her step, and overflowing health and vigour in her every movement. Her eyes had a trick of looking straight into any other eyes they met, not boldly, but with a kind of virginal fearlessness and enterprise that people often found embarrassing. Indeed she was extremely virginal and devoid of the usual fringe of feminine airs and graces, a nymph of the woods and waters, who although she was three and twenty, as yet recked little of men save as companions whom she liked or disliked according to her instincts. For the rest she was sweetly dressed in a white robe with silver on it, and wore no ornaments save a row of small pearls about her throat and some lilies of the valley at her breast.
Barbara came straight onwards, looking neither to the right or to the left, till she reached her uncle, to whom she nodded. Then she walked to Alan and, offering him her hand, said:
"How do you do! Why did you not come over at lunch time? I wanted to play a round of golf with you this afternoon."
Alan answered something about being busy at Yarleys.
"Yarleys!" she replied. "I thought that you lived in the City now, making money out of speculations, like everyone else that I know."
"Why, Miss Champers," broke in Sir Robert reproachfully, "I asked you to play a round of golf before tea and you would not."
"No," she answered, "because I was waiting for my cousin. We are better matched, Sir Robert."
There was something in her voice, usually so soft and pleasant, as she spoke these words, something of steeliness and defiance that caused Alan to feel at once happy and uncomfortable. Apparently also it caused Aylward to feel angry, for he flashed a glance at Alan over her head of which the purport could not be mistaken, though his pale face remained as immovable as ever. "We are enemies. I hate you," said that glance. Probably Barbara saw it; at any rate before either of them could speak again, she said:
"Thank goodness, there is dinner at last. Sir Robert, will you take me in, and, Alan, will you sit on the other side of me? My uncle will show the rest their places."
The meal was long and magnificent; the price of each dish of it would have kept a poor family for a month, and on the cost of the exquisite wines they might have lived for a year or two. Also the last were well patronized by everyone except Barbara, who drank water, and Alan, who since his severe fever took nothing but weak whiskey and soda and a little claret. Even Aylward, a temperate person, absorbed a good deal of champagne. As a consequence the conversation grew animated, and under cover of it, while Sir Robert was arguing with his neighbour on the left, Barbara asked in a low voice:
"What is the row, Alan? Tell me, I can't wait any longer."
"I have quarrelled with them," he answered, staring at his mutton as though he were criticizing it. "I mean, I have left the firm and have nothing more to do with the business."
Barbara's eyes lit up as she whispered back:
"Glad of it. Best news I have heard for many a day. But then, may I ask why you are here?"
"I came to see you," he replied humbly—"thought perhaps you wouldn't mind," and in his confusion he let his knife fall into the mutton, whence it rebounded, staining his shirt front.
Barbara laughed, that happy, delightful little laugh of hers, presumably at the accident with the knife. Whether or no she "minded" did not appear, only she handed her handkerchief, a costly, last-fringed trifle, to Alan to wipe the gravy off his shirt, which he took thinking it was a napkin, and as she did so, touched his hand with a little caressing movement of her fingers. Whether this was done by chance or on purpose did not appear either. At least it made Alan feel extremely happy. Also when he discovered what it was, he kept that gravy-stained handkerchief, nor did she ever ask for it back again. Only once in after days when she happened to come across it stuffed away in the corner of a despatch-box, she blushed all over, and said that she had no idea that any man could be so foolish out of a book.
"Now that you are really clear of it, I am going for them," she said presently when the wiping process was finished. "I have only restrained myself for your sake," and leaning back in her chair she stared at the ceiling, lost in meditation.
Presently there came one of those silences which will fall upon dinner-parties at times, however excellent and plentiful the champagne.
"Sir Robert Aylward," said Barbara in that clear, carrying voice of hers, "will you, as an expert, instruct a very ignorant person? I want a little information."
"Miss Champers," he answered, "am I not always at your service?" and all listened to hear upon what point their hostess desired to be enlightened.
"Sir Robert," she went on calmly, "everyone here is, I believe, what is called a financier, that is except myself and Major Vernon, who only tries to be and will, I am sure, fail, since Nature made him something else, a soldier and—what else did Nature make you, Alan?"
As he vouchsafed no answer to question, although Sir Robert muttered an uncomplimentary one between his lips which Barbara heard, or read, she continued:
"And you are all very rich and successful, are you not, and are going to be much richer and much more successful—next week. Now what I want to ask you is—how is it done?"
"Accepting the premises for the sake of argument, Miss Champers," replied Sir Robert, who felt that he could not refuse the challenge, "the answer is that it is done by finance."
"I am still in the dark," she said. "Finance, as I have heard of it, means floating companies, and companies are floated to earn money for those who invest in them. Now this afternoon as I was dull, I got hold of a book called the Directory of Directors, and looked up all your names in it, except those of the gentlemen from Paris, and the companies that you direct—I found out about those in another book. Well, I could not make out that any of these companies have ever earned any money, a dividend, don't you call it? Therefore how do you all grow so rich, and why do people invest in them?"
Now Sir Robert frowned, Alan coloured, two or three of the company laughed outright, and one of the French gentlemen who understood English and had already drunk as much as was good for him, remarked loudly to his neighbour, "Ah! she is charming. She do touch the spot, like that ointment you give me to-day. How do we grow rich and why do the people invest? Mon Dieu! why do they invest? That is the great mystery. I say that cette belle demoiselle, votre niece, est ravissante. Elle a d'esprit, mon ami Haswell."
Apparently her uncle did not share these sentiments, for he turned as red as any turkey-cock, and said across the great round table:
"My dear Barbara, I wish that you would leave matters which you do not understand alone. We are here to dine, not to talk about finance."
"Certainly, Uncle," she answered sweetly. "I stand, or rather sit, reproved. I suppose that I have put my foot into it as usual, and the worst of it is," she added, turning to Sir Robert, "that I am just as ignorant as I was before."
"If you want to master these matters, Miss Champers," said Aylward with a rather forced laugh, "you must go into training and worship at the shrine of"—he meant to say Mammon, then thinking that the word sounded unpleasant, substituted—"the Yellow God as we do."
At these words Alan, who had been studying his plate, looked up quickly, and her uncle's face turned from red to white. But the irrepressible Barbara seized upon them.
"The Yellow God," she repeated. "Do you mean money or that fetish thing of Major Vernon's with the terrible woman's face that I saw at the office in the City. Well, to change the subject, tell us, Alan, what is that yellow god of yours and where did it come from?"
"My uncle Austin, who was my mother's brother and a missionary, brought it from West Africa a great many years ago. He was the first to visit the tribe who worship it; in fact I do not think that anyone has ever visited them since. But really I do not know all the story. Jeekie can tell you about it if you want to know, for he is one of that people and escaped with my uncle."
Now Jeekie having left the room, some of the guests wished to send for him, but Mr. Champers-Haswell objected. The end of it was that a compromise was effected, Alan undertaking to produce his retainer afterwards when they went to play billiards or cards.
Dinner was over at length and the diners, who had dined well, were gathered in the billiard room to smoke and amuse themselves as they wished. It was a very large room, sixty feet long indeed, with a wide space in the centre between the two tables, which was furnished as a lounge. When the gentlemen entered it they found Barbara standing by the great fireplace in this central space, a little shape of white and silver in its emptiness.
"Forgive me for intruding on you," she said, "and please do not stop smoking, for I like the smell. I have sat up expressly to hear Jeekie's story of the Yellow God. Alan, produce Jeekie, or I shall go to bed at once."
Her uncle made a movement as though to interfere, but Sir Robert said something to him which appeared to cause him to change his mind, while the rest in some way or another signified an enthusiastic assent. All of them were anxious to see this Jeekie and hear his tale, if he had one to tell. So Jeekie was sent for and presently arrived clad in the dress clothes which are common to all classes in England and America. There he stood before them white-headed, ebony-faced, gigantic, imperturbable. There is no doubt that his appearance produced an effect, for it was unusual and indeed striking.
"You sent for me, Major?" he said, addressing his master, to whom he gave a military salute, for he had been Alan's servant when he was in the Army.
"Yes, Jeekie. Miss Barbara here and these gentlemen, wish you to tell them all that you know about the Yellow God."
The negro started and rolled his round eyes upwards till the whites of them showed, then began in his school-book English:
"That is a private subject, Major, upon which I should prefer not to discourse before this very public company."
A chorus of remonstrance arose and one of the Jewish gentlemen approaching Jeekie, slipped a couple of sovereigns into his great hand, which he promptly transferred to his pocket without seeming to notice them.
"Jeekie," said Barbara, "don't disappoint me."
"Very well, miss, I fall in with your wishes. The Yellow God that all these gentlemen worship, quite another god to that of which you desire that I should tell you. You know all about him. My god is of female sex."
At this statement his audience burst into laughter while Jeekie rolled his eyes again and waited till they had finished. "My god," he went on presently, "I mean, gentlemen, the god I used to pray to, for I am a good Christian now, has so much gold that she does not care for any more," and he paused.
"Then what does she care for?" asked someone.
"Blood," answered Jeekie. "She is god of Death. Her name is Little Bonsa or Small Swimming Head; she is wife of Big Bonsa or Great Swimming Head."
Again there was laughter, though less general—for instance, neither Sir Robert nor Mr. Champers-Haswell laughed. This merriment seemed to excite Jeekie. At any rate it caused him to cease his stilted talk and relapse into the strange vernacular that is common to all negroes, tinctured with a racy slang that was all his own.
"You want to hear Yellow God palaver?" he said rapidly. "Very well, I tell you, you cocksure white men who think you know everything, but know nothing at all. My people, people of the Asiki, that mean people of Spirits, what you call ghosts and say you no believe in, but always look for behind door, they worship Yellow God, Bonsa Big and Bonsa Little, worship both and call them one; only Little Bonsa on trip to this country just now and sit and think in City office. Yellow God live long way up a great river, then turn to the left and walk six days through big forest where dwarf people shoot you with poisoned arrow. Then turn to the right, walk up stream where many wild beasts. Then turn to the left again and go in canoe through swamp where you die of fever, and across lake. Then walk over grassland and mountains. Then in kloof of the mountains where big black trees make a roof and river fall like thunder, find Asiki and gold house of the Yellow God. All that mountain gold, full of gold and beneath gold house Yellow God afloat in water. She what you call Queen, priestess, live there also, always there, very beautiful woman called Asika with face like Yellow God, cruel, cruel. She take a husband every year, and every year he die because she always hunt for right man but never find him."
"Does she kill him then?" asked Barbara.
"Oh! no, she no kill him, Miss, he kill himself at end of year, glad to get away from Asika and go to spirits. While he live he have a very good time, plenty to eat, plenty wives, fine house, much gold as he like, only nothing to spend it on, pretty necklace, nice paint for face. But Asika, little bit by little bit she eat up his spirit. He see too many ghosts. The house where he sleep with dead men who once have his billet, full of ghosts and every night there come more and sit with him, sit all round him, look at him with great eyes, just like you look at me, till at last when Asika finish eating up his spirit, he go crazy, he howl like man in hell, he throw away all the gold they give him, and then, sometimes after one week, sometimes after one month, sometimes after one year if he be strong but never more, he run out at night and jump into canal where Yellow God float and god get him, while Asika sit on the bank and laugh, 'cause she hungry for new man to eat up his spirit too."
Jeekie's big voice died away to a whisper and ceased. There was a silence in the room, for even in the shine of the electric light and through the fumes of champagne, in more than one imagination there rose a vision of that haunted water in which floated the great Yellow God, and of some mad being casting himself to his death beneath the moon, while his beautiful witch wife who was "hungry for more spirits" sat upon its edge and laughed. Although his language was now commonplace enough, even ludicrous at times, the negro had undoubtedly the art of narration. His auditors felt that he spoke of what he knew, or had seen, that the very recollection of it frightened him, therefore he frightened them.
Again Barbara broke the silence which she felt to be awkward.
"Why do more ghosts come very night to sit with the queen's husband, Jeekie?" she asked. "Where do they come from?"
"Out of the dead, miss, dead husbands of Asika from beginning of the world; what they call Munganas. Also always they make sacrifice to Yellow God. From far, far away them poor niggers send people to be sacrifice that their house or tribe get luck. Sometimes they send kings, sometimes great men, sometimes doctors, sometimes women what have twin babies. Also the Asiki bring people what is witches, or have drunk poison stuff which blacks call muavi and have not been sick, or perhaps son they love best to take curse off their roof. All these come to Yellow God. Then Asiki doctor, they have Death-palaver. On night of full moon they beat drum, and drum go Wow! Wow! Wow! and doctors pick out those to die that month. Once they pick out Jeekie, oh! good Lord, they pick out me," and as he said the words he gasped and with his great hand wiped off the sweat that started from his brow. "But Yellow God no take Jeekie that time, no want him and I escape."
"How?" asked Sir Robert.
"With my master, Major's uncle, Reverend Austin, he who come try to make Asiki Christian. He snap his fingers, put on small mask of Yellow God which he prig, Little Bonsa herself, that same face which sit in your office now," and he pointed to Sir Robert, "like one toad upon a stone. Priests think that god make herself into man, want holiday, take me out into forest to kill me and eat my life. So they let us go by and we go just as though devil kick us—fast, fast, and never see the Asiki any more. But Little Bonsa I bring with me for luck, tell truth I no dare leave her behind, she not stand that; and now she sit in your office and think and think and make magic there. That why you grow rich, because she know you worship her."
"That's a nice way for a baptized Christian to talk," said Barbara, adding, "But Jeekie, what do you mean when you say that the god did not take you?"
"I mean this, miss; when victim offered to Big Yellow God, priest-men bring him to edge of canal where the great god float. Then if Yellow God want him, it turn and swim across water."
"Swim across water! I thought you said it was only a mask of gold?"
"I don't know, miss, perhaps man inside the mask, perhaps spirit. I say it swim across water in the night, always in the night, and lift itself up and look in victim's face. Then priest take him and kill him, sometimes one way—sometimes another. Or if he escape and they not kill him, all same for that Johnnie, he die in about one year, always die, no one ever live long if Yellow God swim to him in dark and rise up and smile in his face. No matter if it Big Bonsa or Little Bonsa, for they man and wife joined in holy matrimony and either do trick."
As these words left Jeekie's lips Alan became aware of some unusual movement on his left and looking round, saw that Mr. Champers-Haswell, who stood by him, had dropped the cigar which he held and, white as a sheet, was swaying to and fro. Indeed in another instant he would have fallen had not Alan caught him in his arms and supported him till others came to his assistance, when between them they carried him to a sofa. On their way they passed a table where spirits and soda water were set out, and to his astonishment Alan noticed that Sir Robert Aylward, looking little if at all better than his partner, had helped himself to half a tumbler of cognac, which he was swallowing in great gulps. Then there was confusion and someone went to telephone the doctor, while the deep voice of Jeekie was heard exclaiming:
"That Yellow God at work—oh yes, Little Bonsa on the job. Jeekie Christian man but no doubt she very powerful fetish and can do anything she like to them that worship her, and you see, she sit in office of these gentlemen. 'Spect she make Reverend Austin and me bring her to England because she got eye on firm of Messrs. Aylward & Haswell, London, E.C. Oh, shouldn't wonder at all, for Bonsa know everything."
"Oh, confound you and your fetish! Be off, you old donkey," almost shouted Alan.
"Major," replied the offended Jeekie, assuming his grand manner and language, "it was not I who wished to narrate this history of blood-stained superstitions of poor African. Mustn't blame old Jeekie if they make Christian gents sick as Channel steamer."
"Be off," repeated Alan, stamping his foot.
So Jeekie went, but outside the door, as it chanced, he encountered one of the Jew gentlemen who also appeared to be a little "sick." An idea striking him, he touched his white hair with his finger and said:
"You like Jeekie's pretty story, sir? Well, Jeekie think that if you make little present to him, like your brother in there, it please Yellow God very much, and bring you plenty luck."
Then acting upon some unaccustomed impulse, that Jew became exceedingly generous. In his pocket was a handful of sovereigns which he had been prepared to stake at bridge. He grasped them all and thrust them into Jeekie's outstretched palm, where they seemed to melt.
"Thank you, sir," said Jeekie. "Now I sure you have plenty luck, just like your grandpa Jacob in Book when he do his brudder in eye."
ALAN AND BARBARA
There was no bridge or billiards at the Court that night, where ordinarily the play ran high enough. After Mr. Haswell had been carried to his room, some of the guests, among them Sir Robert Aylward, went to bed, remarking that they could do no good by sitting up, while others, more concerned, waited to hear the verdict of the doctor, who must drive from six miles away. He came, and half an hour later Barbara entered the billiard room and told Alan, who was sitting there smoking, that her uncle had recovered from his faint, and that the doctor, who was to stay all night, said that he was in no danger, only suffering from a heart attack brought on apparently by over-work or excitement.
When Alan woke next morning the first thing that he heard through his open window was the sound of the doctor's departing dogcart. Then Jeekie appeared and told him that Mr. Haswell was all right again, but that all night he had shaken "like one jelly." Alan asked what had been the matter with him, but Jeekie only shrugged his shoulders and said that he did not know—"perhaps Yellow God touch him up."
At breakfast, as in her note she had said she would, Barbara appeared wearing a short skirt. Sir Robert, who was there, also looked extremely pale even for him and with black rims round his eyes, asked her if she were going to golf, to which she answered that she would think it over. It was a somewhat melancholy meal, and as though by common consent no mention was made of Jeekie's tale of the Yellow God, and beyond the usual polite inquiries, very little of their host's seizure.
As Barbara went out she whispered to Alan, who opened the door for her, "Meet me at half-past ten in the kitchen garden."
Accordingly, having changed his clothes surreptitiously, Alan, avoiding the others, made his way by a circuitous route to this kitchen garden, which after the fashion of modern places was hidden behind a belt of trees nearly a quarter of a mile from the house. Here he wandered about till presently he heard Barbara's pleasant voice behind him saying:
"Don't dawdle so, we shall be late for church."
So they started, somewhat furtively like runaway children. As they went Alan asked how her uncle was.
"All right now," she answered, "but he has had a bad shake. It was that Yellow God story which did it. I know, for I was there when he was coming to, with Sir Robert. He kept talking about it in a confused manner, saying that it was swimming to him across the floor, till at last Sir Robert bent over him and told him to be quiet quite sternly. Do you know, Alan, I believe that your pet fetish has been manifesting itself in some unpleasant fashion up there in the office?"
"Indeed. If so, it must be since I left, for I never heard of anything of the sort, nor are Aylward and your uncle likely people to see ghosts. In fact Sir Robert wished to give me about L17,000 for the thing only the day before yesterday, which doesn't look as though it had been frightening him."
"Well, he won't repeat the offer, Alan, for I heard him promise my uncle only this morning that it should be sent back to Yarleys at once. But why did he want to buy it for such a lot of money? Tell me quickly, Alan, I am dying to hear the whole story."
So he began and told her, omitting nothing, while she listened eagerly to every word, hardly interrupting him at all. As he finished his tale they reached the door of the quaint old village church just as the clock was striking eleven.
"Come in, Alan," she said gently, "and thank Heaven for all its mercies, for you should be a grateful man to-day."
Then without giving him time to answer she entered the church and they took their places in the great square pew that for generations had been occupied by the owners of the ancient house which Mr. Haswell pulled down when he built The Court. There were their monuments upon the wall and their gravestones in the chancel floor. But now no one except Barbara ever sat in their pew; even the benches set aside for the servants were empty, for those who frequented The Court were not church-goers and "like master, like man." Indeed the gentle-faced old clergyman looked quite pleased and surprised when he saw two inhabitants of that palatial residence amongst his congregation, although it is true that Barbara was his friend and helper.
The simple service went on; the first lesson was read. It cried woe upon them that joined house to house and field to field, that draw iniquity with cords of vanity and sin as it were with a cart rope; that call evil good and good evil, that put darkness for light and light for darkness, that justify the wicked for reward; that feast full but regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of His hand, for of such it prophesied that their houses great and fair should be without inhabitant and desolate.