The Little Grey Lady
THE LITTLE GREY LADY.
By E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM.
STOURTON forgot at once the gloomy, half-lit appearance of the house, the cold, uninhabited air of the hall and passages, the sombre bearing of the solitary manservant who had ushered him in. This grey-headed old lady, with the delightful face and quaint air of having stepped out of some mediæval picture, but whose unfortunate deformity was only too apparent, charmed him at first sight. She sat in a great chair before a fire heaped with logs of wood, whose pleasant heat seemed to strike a reassuring note after the draughts and general chilliness through which he had passed. Her smile of welcome lent her features a sweetness which was more than sufficient compensation for those misshapen shoulders. A cloud of vague misgivings vanished as he bent over her outstretched hands.
"It is Mr. Ronald Stourton, I am sure!" she murmured. "You've done me so great a kindness that I scarcely know how to welcome you."
He laughed good-humouredly and began to unfasten his travelling coat.
"You expected me, then?"
"Max, my nephew, telegraphed that you would bring me the letter. I cannot tell you how important it is to me, how thankful I am to you."
He produced a long, leather case, and taking a letter from it, carefully replaced the portfolio in his pocket.
"It is a very small matter, this, for gratitude," he said. "Only I am afraid that I must ask you to excuse my remaining here, even for a moment. Technically I believe that I am guilty of a misdemeanour in paying even this hurried call. I have to be in Downing Street as quickly as possible."
She poured out a cup of coffee from an arrangement of wonderful appearance which stood by her side.
"Do not stay for a moment longer than you wish," she murmured: "but you must positively have something to warm you before you go. I am sure that you are cold. I know what crossing is like in such weather. Ah! I see that you are smiling at my machine. Well, coffee is one of my hobbies. I always make it myself, and my friends are so good-natured as to pretend that they like it. You must give me your honest opinion. Will you pardon me if I just glance through this letter? There is a question, then, which I want to ask you about Max."
He accepted the cup of coffee, as he would have accepted almost anything from such a delightful old lady. He sipped it first. It was strong and of a delicious flavour. He drank it off and set down the cup. Suddenly, as he stood upright again, a queer giddiness assailed him. His hand went up to his head and he staggered back. The floor rose beneath his feet. Strange sounds throbbed in his ears. He clutched at the air with outstretched hands. He tried in vain to drag his limbs towards the door.
"Good Heavens!" he cried. "Let me out! I am ill! Let me out! Send—for a cab! Eighteen—Downing Street!"
He collapsed and lay stretched upon the floor. The little old lady sat and watched him over the top of her letter. The smile which parted her lips now was of altogether another order.
"For your muscles," the girl said, looking up at his averted face with a quiet smile, "I must always entertain a most profound respect. But as for your manners, I think that they are abominable!"
The man was a little startled. He looked at her quickly, and meeting the laughter in her eyes, drew himself up stiffly.
"I am sorry if I have given offence," he said. "May I ask in what way I have laid myself open to such a rebuke?"
She leaned a little forward, as though to look into his face, but his broad-brimmed hat was pulled well over his forehead, and his profile was as expressionless as though carved out of stone. She raised her eyebrows in humorous self-expostulation. The man was impossible, but so tantalising.
"Well," she said, "your first appearance upon the scene was opportune enough. I came round the corner running for my life, and after me the tramp. I was so overjoyed to see you that I forgot to look where I was going, caught my foot in the root of a tree, or something horrid, and over I went."
"I trust," he said, "that you are not going to attribute your sprained ankle to my appearance."
"Don't be foolish!" she answered. "It is your manners I am attacking now. There I lay stretched upon the ground—a pretty object I must have looked—waiting for someone to help me up, and you, well, you ignored me in favour of the tramp. It was detestable!"
He bit his lip-it might have been to check a smile.
"I had an idea," he said, "that you were in no hurry. The tramp was!"
"In no hurry!" she repeated. "Heavens! have you ever tried lying on your face, with half of you in a furze bush, your skirts all disarranged, and no positive assurance that your leg wasn't broken?"
"I have never tried it," he answered "but I was very anxious to make acquaintance of your tramp."
"So anxious that you ignored me!" she remarked.
"I felt," he said, "that you would wait."
The girl leaned right forward this time, She meant to look into her companion's face. What she saw to some extent satisfied her.
"You took a great deal for granted," she remarked. "and I think you were very brutal to the tramp."
The man's lip curled slightly.
"Shall I go back and apologise?" he asked. "As for being brutal to him, that is nonsense. He deserved a thrashing, and he got it."
"And I had to pick myself up!"
"My dear young lady," he exclaimed testily, "the other affair was more important."
The girl frowned slightly. After all, there was something of the boor about this man.
"My name," she said, "is Esther Stanmore. My father will wish to add his thanks to mine. Will you let me know your name, and where he will find you when he returns?"
Then the man really smiled. He seemed for the first time to find a grim humour in the situation.
"My name is John Paulton," he said. "I am a friend of your father's gamekeeper, Heggs, and he has lent me his cottage for the summer. I believe your father has taken him up to Scotland for a few months."
If he had expected to surprise her, he was disappointed. She accepted his information as the most natural in the world.
"I remember hearing about your coming, Mr. Paulton," she said, "and I have seen you in the woods. I am ever so grateful to you, of course, but I wish you would notice that I am limping."
He slackened his pace at once.
"I am very sorry," he said. "Is there anything I can do to relieve you? Will you rest here while I go up to the house for a pony?"
"How can you think of such a thing," she exclaimed, "after the fright I have had?"
"Then I really don't see——" he began.
"You might offer me your arm," she suggested. "I don't think that I can walk any further alone."
He did as she asked in silence. She leaned heavily upon him, and they moved slowly along the path. He seemed determined not to encourage any conversation. She, however, was of another mind.
"Are you quite alone in Heggs's cottage?" she asked.
"I have a friend with me," he answered.
"A dark, clean-shaven man, rather pale?" she inquired.
"He was standing at the gate when I came by," she remarked.
"And I recognised him," she continued.
"He used to be my cousin's servant," she remarked. "The best man he ever had, I have heard him say."
He bit his lip.
"It is quite probable," he answered shortly. "I believe that he used to be in service, before—before he saved some money."
They emerged from the wood. The footpath which crossed the field in front of them led past a cottage built of grey stone, and with an ancient, red-tiled roof. A man was leaning over the gate, smoking a pipe. Directly he saw them, he thrust the pipe in his pocket and disappeared. The girl smiled.
"Your friend," she remarked, "is shy."
The man muttered something underneath his breath. The girl's smile deepened. She pointed to the cottage.
"I shall not try to walk any further," she said. "I am going to beg the hospitality of your porch. Do you think that if we asked your friend very nicely, he would go up to the Hall for me, and tell them to send a groom down with a pony and a side-saddle?"
He opened the gate and motioned her to enter, with a gesture of grave politeness.
"I will find you a chair," he said, "and then, if you will permit me, I will go myself to the Hall."
His anxiety to escape was a little too obvious. She answered him coldly.
"That must be altogether as you wish," she declared. "I am only sorry to give you so much trouble. If my foot were not very painful, I would struggle on somehow or other; but I am sure that I could not manage the stiles."
"If you will excuse me for a moment," he answered, "I will fetch you a chair. There is not the slightest necessity for you to walk any further."
She heard his voice inside—quick, imperative, alert, the other man's smooth and respectfully acquiescent. The girl smiled to herself. This was so like the conversation of two friends! Did he really think that she was to be so easily hoodwinked?
Presently he came out, carrying a chair, which he placed carefully in a corner of the tiny lawn overgrown with wild flowers.
"You will excuse my not asking you in," he said shortly. "The rooms are small and stuffy. It is much pleasanter out here."
"I have no wish at all," she answered stiffly, "to intrude upon your hospitality. Thanks very much for the chair, though."
"Is there anything I can do for your—ankle?" he asked uncomfortably. "Would you like some—er—some hot water?"
She looked down at her foot gravely.
"You might feel whether it seems to you very much swollen," she answered, lifting it a few inches from the ground.
He stooped down and took it carefully into his hand. It was a long, slender foot, very soundly but daintily shod, and there was a faint silken rustle as she moved carefully backwards and forwards. He held it for a moment very lightly—perhaps for a little more than a moment. Then he rose abruptly to his feet.
"I cannot feel any swelling at all," he announced.
She was much relieved.
"I dare say, then, that it is nothing serious," she declared cheerfully. "I am so glad. If there is anything I detest, it is having to stay indoors."
"It is certainly tedious," he admitted. "I do not think that you n^ed fear anything of the sort in this case, though."
"I am so fond of walking—in the woods," she murmured.
Left rather abruptly alone, the girl found herself confronted with a moral problem. Mr. John Paulton, as he had called himself, had excited her curiosity. The means of gratifying it were close at hand. Was she justified in using them? The man inside the cottage was, of course, his servant. He had stayed once at the Hall with her cousin, and would doubtless answer any of her questions. It was not, she admitted to herself reluctantly, a nice thing to do; but, on the other hand, Heggs had no right to lend his cottage to mysterious strangers who might be hiding from their creditors, or from even worse things. It was inconsiderate of Heggs, especially as she was alone at the Hall. She decided that she had the right to investigate the matter thoroughly. and of course she did nothing of the sort. Even when the man came out a few minutes later to once more offer her some tea, she let him go without a single question. It was not possible.
He was back in in less than half an hour, followed by the groom with a pony. He helped her into the saddle and stood bareheaded to see her go.
"I feel," she said, looking down at him with a very expressive light in her soft, grey eyes, "that I haven't thanked you half enough."
"Please do not think any more of such a trifle," he protested. "Your gamekeeper would have done all that I did just as effectually."
"But my gamekeeper was not there," she objected.
"It was my good fortune," he answered gravely. "Nothing more."
She gathered up the reins and smiled down at him. The men whom Esther Stanmore smiled upon seldom forgot it.
"I shall have to confine my afternoon walks to the home woods," she remarked. "They are just as pretty, really. Good afternoon, Mr, Paulton. We are such close neighbours that we are certain to come across one another again soon, I hope."
But Paulton, though he bowed, did not echo her wish.
And yet in less than three weeks they had reached the end, the last barrier through which one looks into Paradise. They were seated on the trunk of a fallen tree, the sunshine distorted into queer, zigzag stripes and gleams playing away from their feet into the heart of the silent wood. A squirrel had just scampered across the path. From the hidden places beyond, a pigeon was calling softly to his mate, a woodpecker was busy amongst the branches of a beech-tree, and all the while the west wind sang in the rustling canopy above their heads. They alone of all the living things were silent.
"I think," he said, at last, "that up to now I have dreamed, not lived. The commencement of life is here."
She looked at him a little wonderingly.
"You are losing your sense of proportion," she remarked, smiling. "It is here, if you will, that one may dream of life and be happy. Yet it can be nothing save an interlude. Life is not in these woods—no, not the commencement or the end of life. It is the Paradise of dumb beasts, this. We, alas! have to seek for our Paradise in different places."
"A month ago," he said slowly, keeping his eye fixed upon the ground, "I should have needed no one to have told me where Paradise lay. If I were the Ronald Stourton of a month ago, I should not hesitate for a single second to grasp it—now."
"Ronald Stourton!" she repeated softly. "So you are Ronald Stourton!"
"Yes," he answered. "I have heard you speak of my people."
"I thought you were in Paris."
"I was. I came to England on an important mission from the chief to the Prime Minister a month ago. I bungled it hopelessly. I was taken in by a trick which should not have deceived a child. There isn't any particular secret about it now. I brought across a draft of the proposed understanding between France and England as to their neutrality in the Russo-Japanese war. The draft was stolen from me by an agent of the Russian Government or by someone who means to dispose of it to the Russian Government. I am suspended for the present. Immediately the draft is transferred to the Russian Ambassador, and the thing comes out, I shall be dismissed the service."
She looked at him—as a woman knows how to look at such times. Her hand rested lightly upon his shoulder.
"Oh, I am so sorry," she said softly. "I felt all the time that you were in trouble. But can nothing be done? Can't the person be found who stole the paper?"
"The cleverest detective in England has the matter in hand," he answered, "and it was at his particular request that I disappeared. The person whom he strongly suspects is being watched day and night, and it is supposed that he has not yet had an opportunity of disposing of the papers. That is why I am still merely on leave. It is a sickening story, but I am glad that you know the truth. You will understand now why I must go away."
"I understand nothing of the sort," she answered decisively. "Of course, it is shocking bad luck; but even if you have to give up your profession, there is plenty of other work in the world for a man, isn't there? How old are you?"
He smiled. He thought her manner charming, but it was certainly original.
"I am thirty-four next birthday. Too old, you see, for any of the services. I might go abroad, of course; but it is a far cry from diplomacy to ranching."
She looked at him thoughtfully.
"You are well off, aren't you?" she remarked. "Most of your family are."
"Yes," he answered drily, "I am well off. I am spared the luxury of having to work for a living, at any rate. But I am a sorry idler."
"Quite right!" she assented. "I detest men who do nothing. It always ends in their dabbling in things which they don't understand at all."
"Don't!" he begged, digging his stick savagely into the ground. "I can see myself—a J. P., perhaps a county councillor, a director of City companies—Heaven knows what!"
"Aren't you a little premature?" she said, smiling. "You are not sure yet that you have finished with diplomacy."
"I am perfectly certain that diplomacy has finished with me," he answered ruefully. "Pardon me!"
He picked up the letter which had slipped from her waistband and handed it to her. His eyes by chance fell upon the address, and he started.
"Miss de Poulgasky!" he repeated. "Forgive me, but I could not help seeing. It seems strange to see that name here."
She nodded sympathetically.
"It is her father, of course, to whom those papers will be sent," she remarked. "I was at school with Corona, and we write to one another now and then. My uncle, who came down last night, seems very friendly with them. This letter is really from him. and that reminds me. I am no longer without a chaperon. I want you to come and dine with us to-night."
He shook his head.
"Don't ask me! I am not in a fit humour to meet people."
"There is only my uncle, and I think that perhaps he may amuse you. He is such a thorough cosmopolitan. I believe that he is equally at home in every capital of Europe, and he has the most marvellous collection of anecdotes. Come and dine, and afterwards I will show you my rose-garden."
"If you will——" their heads came very close together. He seemed to have a good deal to say, and she was very well content to listen. In the end he forgot for a brief space of time all his troubles. and she forgot to post her letter.
He was watching the sunset from the terrace. Behind him was the empty drawing-room. He had arrived, after all, a little early; eight o'clock was only just striking by the stable clock. She could scarcely be down yet. He had left her barely an hour ago, and he was in no humour for a tête-à-tête with this wonderful uncle. So he leaned over the worn, grey balustrade and wondered which way the rose-garden might he. Were other men so much the sport of Fate as this, he asked himself bitterly, that the greatest joy of life should shine down upon him whose feet were fast set in the quagmires—a tantalising dream—an impossible—yes, an impossible——?
Then the chain of bis thoughts was snapped. Every pulse of his body seemed to cease beating. He was listening. Behind, in the drawing-room, someone was talking to Esther, and the voice—what folly! He turned slowly round as one who expects to confront a ghost. Esther was standing in the window, and by her side a smooth, clean-shaven old gentleman in glasses, who smiled benevolently upon him and went on talking. What folly! He dragged himself to meet them. He was ill at ease, scarcely conscious of where he was. But he watched Esther's uncle. His manner was certainly queer, but he watched. He saw things which sent the blood rushing through his veins at fever heat.
Dinner was served at a small, round table drawn close up to the open window. The Stanmore cook was famous, and Esther's uncle had had a word or two with the butler about the wines. Nevertheless, it was an ill-balanced trio, and Stourton especially was talking all the time at random. Mr. Heslop Stanmore was quietly entertaining, but Esther was too worried at her guest's strange demeanour to find much pleasure in her uncle's conversation. She made several attempts to establish more natural relations between the two men, but without the least success. She felt all the time that there was nothing they both of them desired so much as her absence. At last she got up and left them.
"I shall give you a quarter of an hour, no more," she said, glancing at Stourton. "You can smoke where you choose here."
The butler with great care set the Château Yguem and port upon the table and withdrew. Then Mr. Heslop Stanmore leaned back in his chair and laughed softly.
"My dear fellow," he exclaimed, "you have my sympathy. You have indeed. All the time you have been getting surer and surer, longing to get up and take me by the throat; and instead you have had to swallow your dinner and make polite speeches. Come, you can relieve yourself now. All your suspicions are connect. I am the little, hunchbacked lady of Hyde Park Terrace. I stole those papers—it is my profession, you see. I am very sorry indeed to have inconvenienced you; but one must live, and I am a younger son."
"Where are they?" Stourton asked between his teeth.
Mr. Heslop Stanmore shrugged his shoulders.
"My young friend," he said, "I am thankful that you did not ask me that question a few hours ago, or I might have been compelled to have resorted to subterfuge. I have had the utmost difficulty—by the by, you really ought to try this Château Yguem. No?—the utmost difficulty in disposing of them. I have been watched day and night, and so has Poulgasky's house. However, I have managed it at last. My niece Esther, with whom, by the by, you seem to be on remarkably good terms, is an old school-friend of Corona Poulgasky's, and I got her to enclose my papers this morning in a letter to her. The post went out, I believe," he continued, raising his wineglass and looking critically at its contents, "at four o'clock. A delivery is made in London to-night. It is just a question—rather a near thing, I should imagine—whether those papers are not already in Poulgasky's hands."
"Did Es—Miss Stanmore know what she was doing?" Stourton groaned.
"My dear fellow," her uncle remonstrated, "do you think that I should dare to give away my secrets to a child? She has not the slightest idea!"
Esther stepped suddenly in through the window. Her forehead was slightly wrinkled. She held something in her hand.
"My dear uncle, will you ever forgive me?" she exclaimed. "I started for the post, but I forgot all about my letter."
What followed was probably the most amazing thing Esther had ever witnessed. Her uncle made a spring for the letter which she held in her hand, only to find himself caught by the throat and flung back into his chair. Stourton stood over him, grim and threatening. Just in time he saw the glint of steel. The revolver fell harmlessly upon the floor; a strong hand held him like a vice. Then Ronald turned to the girl.
"Esther," he said, "will you give me that letter?"
She was very pale, but she did not hesitate for a moment.
"I do not understand why," she answered; "but if you ask for it, of course I will."
Mr. Heslop Stanmore, with Stourton's knuckles very near his throat, did not find speech easy. But he said one word!
They opened his wedding present a little dubiously. It was a copy of Harrison's "First Steps in Diplomacy." They looked at one another and laughed.
"I am afraid," she said, wiping the tears from her eyes, "that my uncle is a very black sheep, but he certainly has a sense of humour."
Stourton put the book carefully on one side.
"We will treasure this volume," he remarked. "Some day, when your uncle has a birthday, I will send him a little text-book I have on the art of 'Making Up.'"