The Heart of Miranda (Collection)/En Route

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pp. 271-298

V

En Route

John Corfield reached Southampton very early. The boat was advertised to sail at ten o'clock, and close upon five empty hours lay still before him. And yet it was some relief to be here; in a way his spirit took new sensations from the idle, desultory air and the fresh liberty of exercise. In those last days London had come to crowd upon his courage. He breathed hard within those black walls; the dark skies confined him; the air of a prison surrounded him. There was the theatre of his folly and his crime, in which he was still a figure upon the stage. Westward and eastward, day by day, he must carry the private burden of his peril. The situation wore upon his nerve, and at last constrained him to flight. He was in a fret to depose these past and irremediable episodes from their proximity. The terror of suspense held him captive. And as the time of his departure approached this panic grew upon him into a fever. He urged the cab that took him to Waterloo into a faster pace; he stamped restlessly about the platform; he trembled with impatience for the guard's signal. But once at Southampton, and remote from the immediate centre of his troubles, he drew freer breath. The sea wind flew over the Water, cool and sweet; the town lay secure in its fine warm shelter. From the windows of the hotel he could watch far off the heavens darkling upon the Solent; a score of small sails were scattered upon the horizon; and in the distance, as the sun went down, a South African liner was tramping for the Heads. A little low, sad sound of water breaking upon stones rose from below and filled the rooms with murmur.

Corfield leaned forth of his window and inspired the strong flavour of the sea. He was a lithe, spare man, with a firm, wide jaw and sharp, fine eyes above a nest of deep lines. His fingers tapped upon the sill as he hummed very softly a plaintive Italian air. The details of the panorama pre-occupied him. The sun fell; the western sky flushed with gold; the Water flared with the shadow of the sunset; tiny sails, struck red as blood, gleamed from a dozen points about the harbour. Corfield watched the progress of this pageantry; swiftly the colours died, and slowly the pale, cold greys of the September night crept over the prospect, and slim, yellow points of light sprang up along the quays. His eyes wandered from the bleak water to the bright foreshore; the town hummed in his ears. He listened very idly. Far away upon a distant spit of land a great flash rose and died. It drew his incurious gaze. A noise of hammering echoed from the streets; voices lifted in laughter and passed by. The great silence of the evening closed upon the port; the sea-wind dropped; and only the little waves curling on the pebbles below made a sound in his ears.

Corfield withdrew his head, and shutting the window, rang the bell. "Let my things be taken to the boat at nine," he said to the waiter, "and give me some dinner in this room at seven."

"Yes, Sir," said the man. "Table d'hôte, Sir?"

Corfield paused a second. "No," he said, slowly. "Bring me a menu and I'll arrange the courses myself. A wine list too."

He turned again to the window and looked forth. The prospect lay dark and quiet, but the desolation did not affect his complacence. Upon the waiter's reappearance he examined the bill of fare with deliberate attention, ticking off the dishes with a pencil. "Bring me a magnum of No. 35," he said, curtly.

He looked at his watch, rose, and putting on his hat, descended the stairs. The town was in comfortable warmth and brightness; streams of passengers flowed along the footways; and the roads ran brisk with traffic. For an hour he strolled about the streets surveying the scenes with indolent interest, and then he returned to the hotel. He was met upon the staircase by the waiter, deferential and apologetic.

"A lady has called, Sir. She says you expect her. She is in your room."

Corfield started, his eyes contracted swiftly, and he moistened his lips. "Whom did she ask for?" he inquired.

"No one by name, Sir. She described you, and said you were sailing to-night."

"Very well," said Corfield; "that is right. I was expecting her."

He walked upstairs quietly, and opened the door of his room without hesitation.

"Well, Nina, it is you?" he said.

The woman turned quickly in her chair, the colour ran into her pale face suddenly, and with her joyous smile of welcome a dimple shone out upon either cheek.

"Oh, Jack!" she cried, "oh, Jack!"

She burst into tears and clung about him sobbing; the rich cloak dropped from her shoulders and fell to the floor. Corfield patted her head without emotion, and stooping, picked it from the ground.

"How did you find me?" he asked.

"George told me," she answered between her sobs; "I begged him. He knew he could trust me. Oh, why didn't you tell me?"

"He should not have told you," said Corfield, frowning. He stared at the floor reflectively. "Why have you come?"

She put her arms about him with a pretty motion. "How can you ask?" she cried. "Oh, Jack! how can you ask me such a question? I am coming with you."

Corfield examined her with care, scrutinising her stained face with cold curiosity. "I think you do love me, Nina," he said at length. "But do you understand what it means? Women rarely understand."

"Oh, yes," said Nina, earnestly; "you are a fugitive, I know. You must go abroad. I am going with you."

"I am a criminal," he said. "To-morrow the town will be shouting for my blood. I have robbed hundreds of people. This escape of mine is a tacit confession. You see, it's no use making pretences. If you are to come with me, we must be frank."

"Yes, yes," she said, weeping afresh; "I don't care what you are. I don't care for anything but you."

"I cannot even marry you," said Corfield, thoughtfully.

She used a gesture of impatience. "Have I ever thought of that before?" she asked.

"No; but this is a public matter," he said. "It stands upon another footing. Do you realise that to-morrow you will be in all the papers, a notorious woman, associated with a notorious thief?"

He spoke brusquely, holding her at the length of his arm, his eyes studiously upon her face. She broke into a ripple of laughter, and the dimples ran into her cheeks again. She strove to reach him with her arms, but his grasp held her in a vice.

"Once more listen," he went on, in his slow, even tones. "Do not buoy yourself up with false sentiments about me. I am what I seem to be. See!" He left her, and crossing the room, touched with his foot a heavy box which lay in a corner. "There are twenty thousand pounds here. I am a thief," he said, calmly.

Again she laughed; and following after, flung out her arms upon him, drawing his face to hers. "Jack! Jack!" she cried.

Corfield's eyes met hers, which besought him from their great deeps. He kissed her.

"Yes, you do love me, Nina," he said; "I always thought so."

He gently disengaged her fingers from his neck. "Sit down," he said, persuasively; "you must be very tired. Did you find it a dull journey? I hate trains myself; and there was a baby in my compartment. It got in at the last moment. They ought not to allow women in smoking carriages upon any emergency. Won't you sit? Oh, by the way, I've ordered dinner at seven, and it will be here immediately. I must tell them to lay for two."

His voice was placid; he spoke more deliberately than accorded with his use; and his face showed like a blank face in marble. It was cold and grey in colour. Only his eyes made any display of life, and it seemed to the woman that they moved and suffered behind a veil. There was no appearance of discomfort save in her own agitation, and for all the anxiety he wore they might well have been prepared and settled for an ordinary dinner in the sober round of the year.

It was this very passivity of his manner that frightened her.

"Oh, don't Jack; don't be like this!" she entreated, catching his hand. "Be yourself. Tell me. Oh, speak to me properly! Oh, Jack, Jack, will they catch you?"

She ended with a gulp of emotion, hiding her face upon his breast.

"Nina, you are a goose," said he, lightly; "don't be silly. Of course, I don't expect them to catch me. Do you think I should be here, if I did? How am I to talk to you, if you're——? There, don't go off in a flurry. It was very good and sweet of you to come. Let me ring the bell."

She fluttered into a chair as the noise of the waiter came up the stairs, and, with her chin in one palm, stared without observation through the window.

"Ah, yes, that's a pretty view, isn't it?" said Corfield, with a glance at her and then to the waiter: "Lay for two, please. My wife will dine with me."

When the door had closed Nina rose to her feet and approached him swiftly with her arms out. Her eyes were full of tragedy, her attitude was designed for appeal. He anticipated the outbreak of tears and the tumultuous pleadings, and he winced.

"For heaven's sake don't make scenes, my dear girl!" he urged, meeting her on the way. "Come, you shall have a glass of wine now to put you right."

"No, no!" she cried; "I am all right. I——"

"Well, cry then, and get it over," he said, with a sigh of resignation. "There's a bedroom in there."

"Oh, for God's sake, pity me!" she broke forth.

Corfield stared at her, and then the wrinkles grew into bunches beneath his eyes, and his lips curled. The situation stirred a forgotten sense of humour in him.

"Well," said he, smiling, "and won't you pity me?"

Nina lifted her head from her hands sharply. She started as though quickened by a new idea. "Yes, yes," she said. "Oh, how selfish of me! I didn't look at it like that, Jack; believe me I didn't, or I would sooner have cut off my hand than worried you. Oh, my poor Jack! Yes, yes, I know—there's the waiter. I'll just run in the other room and wash my face."

She hurried away in confusion, and Corfield sat down to the table and picked up a paper. When she returned the dishes were set. Corfield looked up from his reading. "I sent the waiter away," he explained; "I thought you wouldn't want him here."

"No, no: thank you, Jack," she assented, hastily; and then, glancing at him, put out a finger and touched him timidly. "Have I spoiled myself crying?" she asked, with a little laugh of embarrassment. "Won't you kiss me, Jack?"

He looked up at the tall, slight figure that stood beside him; the grey eyes pleaded with him from the handsome face. They touched him for a moment with their memories; he put his arm round her suddenly. "Why, certainly," he said, softly; "you could never spoil your looks, Nina. You will be handsome in your grave."

She laughed gently and bent to his caress. "Oh, yes, in my grave!" she said, in mock reproach. "That might be to-night."

She hung over, smoothing his hair and laying her cheek upon his shoulder. He moved slightly beneath her touch, and she withdrew and took her seat at the table. "And now, Jack," she said, gaily, "what are you going to give me?"

"Hors d'œuvres for a start," he answered; "and we must make the best of this champagne, such as it is. However, we'll manage, I daresay."

She laughed again and nodded with a manner of liveliness; but the laugh and the liveliness was too clearly dictated by a resolution. Corfield picked over the dishes with his fork, eating sparingly and maintaining a fluent conversation. He spoke of irrelevant matters—of the races at the Goodwood Meeting, of the newest play, of the great cause that was proceeding; and finally fixed his eyes upon her.

"That is a very pretty dress, Nina," he said. "Didn't I give you that? Yes; I thought so. I haven't bad taste. It suits your svelte figure." And he surveyed her critically.

Her pale face flushed and she smiled tremulously. "Jack, how you stare!" said she; and the next second her jaw fell and she gazed blankly at her plate; the colour receded, leaving her face wan and haggard. The courses passed untouched, she moved her fork upon them and laid it down. She heard Corfield talking in his smooth, soft voice, but had no sense of his words. It was like the sea grumbling upon the pebbles. Suddenly he looked up, and there was a silence of which she was vaguely conscious. She started and her glance met his.

"Nina," he said, sharply, "why don't you eat?" Her lips trembled as he held her eyes. She opened her mouth as if to speak, gaped, and was silent.

"Nina!" said Corfield.

"I can't," she stammered.

"Nonsense," he returned. "Drink your wine, and don't be foolish. It will do you good."

"I—it would choke me," she gasped, with a sob.

Corfield frowned, but his voice was soft and grave as he answered:

"You must do as I tell you. We have a long journey. You must keep yourself up."

She glanced at him fearfully, and with a whimper set the glass to her lips. It rattled against her teeth. Corfield watched her, and then filling his own glass anew, put back his head and drank the wine at a gulp.

"There!" said he; "it's warming, and one needs warming to-night." The champagne stirred the pulse of his heart, and he smiled at her affectionately. "I'll ring for the next course. You must remember I've had no lunch."

"Oh, Jack!" she cried, spasmodically.

"I wonder how we shall fare to-night. I don't think it will be rough. Are you a good sailor, Nina? I forget. However, there'll be plenty of time to get your legs. We mustn't moon, Nina. We must have a good time. You must be gay. Do you think you can ever be gay again?"

"Where are we going?" she asked, breathlessly.

He laughed and drank again. "That depends if we get there. Fill up your glass, child."

"Oh!" she said, tersely, and fixing her troubled eyes on him, "and you have lost so much. Everything is gone—your position, your reputation, your home, and your wife——"

"You pity me that?" he asked, lifting his eyebrows.

"No, no; but men do. Everything is gone!" she cried, passionately.

"Well," he replied slowly, "I have twenty thousand pounds—and you, I suppose; and I have escaped gaol. Do you mind a cigarette at this stage?"

"There's no chance of——," she inquired in a voice of terror.

He shrugged his shoulders and struck a match.

"Well, if they do, I'm not a fool, my dear. I have my plans. I have my—preparations. Let us have another course: there's a bird of some kind."

He got up and rang the bell as he spoke, and the woman rose with him.

"What do you mean, Jack?" she cried. "What are you hinting at? Preparations! My God! what do you mean? Jack! Jack!" He turned from the bell-rope and confronted her, placidly. "Ah!" she screamed, pointing a finger at the bulging pocket of his coat. "Ah, Jack! what is that? Give it up to me, Jack—do you hear?" she called fiercely, and threw herself upon him.

"Don't be a fool, Nina!" he said, a little roughly, and strove to fling her off. But she clung to him the closer, wreathing her arms about him and fumbling at his breast.

"You shall give it to me," she cried, fighting with her fingers—"you shall, Jack! You coward! You——"

"Hush, Nina, hush! There's the waiter coming. Oh, damnation, take it then!" he cried, angrily, and pushing her from him took his seat at the table quickly.

The woman, clutching the revolver quickly in both hands, swayed and staggered across the room.

"Sit down, sit down!" said Corfield, sharply, as a rap sounded on the door. "Sit down and have some wine. Quick!"

Hiding the weapon in the bosom of her dress, she fell into her chair and put her face in her hands, trembling with emotion.

"Come in," said Corfield, in his suave voice. The door opened. Corfield paused with his glass half-way to his lips; his eyes measured the man; and then, concluding the movement of his hands with deliberation, he drank the champagne slowly. He set the empty glass upon the table. Nina's head was hidden in her hands.

"Ah! it's you," said Corfield, quietly. Nina lifted her face in wonder, and the man came a step forward.

"I hold a warrant for your arrest, Mr. Corfield," he said, in a level voice.

At the words a short sharp cry started from the woman; she rose, like a spectre, pallid and dishevelled from her struggle.

"What are you doing here? she cried, facing the stranger. "Oh, my God, what are you——"

Her shivering jaw fell and she stared at him.

"Hush, Nina!" said Corfield, interposing softly. "Sit down. You will alarm the hotel. You are alone?" he inquired, politely of the man.

The fellow shook his head with a smile. "The job's too big for that, Mr. Corfield. But I thought you'd like it better this way. They think I'm a friend come to see you off; there's no bother in the hotel."

"Quite right," said Corfield, suavely. "Very considerate of you. Sit down, Mr.——"

He lingered over the designation and interrogated the newcomer. The detective shook his head. "I'm afraid it's impossible, Sir. Better make up your mind. The sooner we get it over the better. I'm sorry to disturb you."

He spoke shortly, but with studious civility; lithe and alert, he watched Corfield with restless eyes.

"It's a fact that you do," said Corfield with a smile; "and the lady, as you see, is not very well. You might give me a few minutes, at any rate."

The detective glanced for a moment at Nina, who, shrunk in her chair, was regarding him with wide eyes of fear.

"Sorry to put you about. Madam," he said, "but——"

"What have you got there?" interrupted Nina, with a shrill cry, stretching a tremulous hand towards his coat. "Take it away! Oh, take it away!"

The detective touched his pocket. "Oh, I don't think we need use 'em, Madam. Come, better take it easily. Mr. Corfield knows."

She broke out suddenly into a fit of laughter, lying back in her chair and shaking in all her body.

"Nina," said Corfield, smoothly, "your nerves are all on edge, poor girl. Let her compose herself a little," he said, turning on the officer. "I can't leave her like this."

The man hesitated. "Well," he said, presently, "we might spare a minute or two."

There was a momentary silence, through which the rustling of the bay was heard, and then Corfield pushed the bottle towards him. "Have a glass while you wait," he said, persuasively. "You're a friend, you know."

He smiled pleasantly. Nina giggled softly to herself. The detective glanced at the champagne, then at his prisoner, and he too smiled.

"I don't mind, Sir," he said, and sat down to the table with his eyes upon Corfield. Corfield filled a glass with care. "How did you find me?" he asked.

The detective smiled more grimly. "It's a pity you let this lady here follow you," said he, lifting the glass to his mouth. Corfield turned his glance on Nina. Suddenly the laughter left her, and she rose to her feet, silent and motionless for a second. Then with a scream she rose and flung her arms about Corfield.

"Oh, Jack, Jack!" she cried. "Oh, my God! Oh, Jack, Jack!"

She fell a dead lump across Corfield's arms. The detective pushed back his chair and came round the table; his features advertised a certain compassion. Corfield's eyes flashed suddenly upon him and back again to Nina.

"Get some water, quick," he said, hastily; and he moved his champagne glass nearer as though for handy use. The detective sprang back and reached for the decanter. Corfield loosened his grip of the woman, and deftly slipped two fingers into his waistcoat pocket. …

When the man was at his side with the tumbler the wine was singing loudly in Corfield's glass. He sprinkled Nina's hands with water and set the tumbler to her teeth.

"You see," he said, "it would have been cruel to have left her like this. She is much affected, but will be better presently."

The detective nodded, but a frown collected on his forehead. The circumstances of the job distracted him. Corfield carefully spread his burden on the floor and opened her bodice.

"She is coming to," he said, after a pause. "Sit down, please, for a moment, and finish your glass. I am sorry you have been interrupted."

As if to set an example, he lifted his own glass, and gently and slowly drank the wine. He wiped his moustache, and sat looking at Nina's body. The officer was silent, but he sipped his wine uneasily, keeping his furtive eyes on Corfield.

"It's a bad case," he said, presently; "but you played for a big game, Mr. Corfield."

"I've always done that, my friend," said Corfield, still watching Nina.

The body stirred upon the carpet; the eyes opened.

"Come, Nina," said Corfield. "Better?" Stooping, he picked her up, and carrying her to her chair settled her comfortably in the seat. "Drink this," he said, putting a glass to her lips. She drank mechanically, and, leaning back, stared upon him. Then her eyes wandered to the detective, and remained upon his face, wide and vacant.

"Silly girl to faint," said Corfield, patting her cheek. He returned to his chair. The detective rose.

"We must go now, Mr. Corfield," he said.

Corfield bit his lip. "Come," he said, "You have seen how ill she is. You can't expect me to leave her just now. Give me—four minutes."

"It's very unusual," muttered the man, undecidedly.

"The case is unusual," responded Corfield, with a little smile. "Nina, are you better?"

She made no answer, but continued her steadfast gaze upon the detective. He rose, and she rose with him. Corfield settled his elbows on the table and leaned his face in his hands.

"Come, sir," said the detective, briskly. Corfield made no sign. The man walked up and tapped him on the shoulder. "Come, Sir," he said, more sharply.

Corfield lifted his eyes apathetically; they moved vacantly across the detective's face, and then passed beyond. Suddenly he flinched and shivered; an expression of horror and surprise started into his face.

"Nina! Nina!" he gasped in a hoarse whisper.

The detective, startled by the tones, whirled rapidly upon his heels; a sharp report rang in the room, and he fell struggling in a heap upon the floor.

Nina stood with the smoking revolver, her eyes following the movements of the body in a shifting stare.

There was absolute silence upon the room for some moments. Then Corfield stirred in his chair and parted his lips. He strove to rise. "Nina!" he cried, in a remote whisper. The woman's eyes turned upon him and she started.

He shook his head. "Too late!" he cried, in that thin whisper. A laugh choked itself in his throat. He shut his eyes and opened them, tossing his head as though to keep his senses. His features were gathered into a deep grimace of thought. "Give it—give it to me!" he murmured, thrusting out a hand aimlessly. "They will think—for God's sake——"

His head dropped upon the table. The fixed look melted in the woman's eyes; terror gathered swiftly in its place; and, with a shriek of anguish, she leapt across the body, and, still holding the revolver, flung herself upon Corfield.