The Message (Louis Tracy)/Chapter 7
Mr. Isidore David Baumgartner was in a state of high good humor. After wasting many hundreds of cartridges he had actually shot a driven grouse. True, the method of slaughter amounted almost to a crime. Traveling fast and low before the wind, the doomed bird flew straight toward the butts. Baumgartner closed his eyes, fired both barrels—the first intentionally, the second from sheer nervousness—and a cloud of feathers, out of which fell all that was left of legs, wings, and body, showed how a gallant moorcock had met his fate. “There’s a clean hit for you, Sandy,” cried the little man delightedly. “It’s all knack. I knew I could do it, once I got the hang of it.”
“Man, but ye stoppit him,” replied Sandy, who doled out encouragement with a sour grin. The shattered carcass lay in full view on a tuft of heather. Two ounces of shot had riddled it at a distance of ten feet.
“I suppose the second barrel was hardly necessary,” said Baumgartner, more critically.
“It’s best to mak’ sure,” said the sardonic gillie, “but now ye’ve got yer ‘ee in, as the sayin’ is, mebbe ye’ll be droppin’ ithers, Mr. Baumgartner.”
He held forth the spare gun as a hint. Grouse were plentiful at Lochmerig, and three other men in the line of shelters were busy. Baumgartner forthwith excelled himself. Just as a novice at Monte Carlo may achieve several winning coups in succession, so did fortune favor one whom nature had not designed as a sportsman. He shot with blind confidence, and brought down half a dozen birds while they came sailing over the crest of the hill before a strong breeze that brought them to close range. That he rendered them for the most part uneatable did not trouble him in the least. Sport was merely slaying to him; his only trophies previously were some tame pigeons secured for practice.
So Baumgartner was well content. As he trudged down the brae to Lochmerig Lodge, discoursing learnedly to his companions anent the “stopping” qualities of his eighty–guinea pair of guns, his eyes roved over the beauties of loch and glen, and the day–dream that it would be well to pass the remainder of his days in this quiet haven cast its spell on his soul. Rich as he was, he owned no home except a garish mansion in New York. His career had been meteoric, full of lurid energy. Beginning with the lust of money, he had followed the beaten track of his order, and became obsessed with the lust of power. Yet his ambition needed spurring. Already the tremendous issues involved in the project which procured him the condescending patronage of an emperor were revealing their dangers. Here, in Scotland, surrounded by subservient friends and well–trained servants, he longed for rest. Lairdship was proving a subtle rival to West African adventure.
Moreover, he was married, and Mrs. Baumgartner was endowed with a will of her own and a tongue to bear witness thereto. She was learning to appreciate the easy tolerance of English society, which proved itself far more accessible than the Four Hundred of New York. Men and women of recognized social rank and pleasant manners were quite willing to shoot over the Lochmerig moors, play bridge in the Lodge, cruise on the Sans Souci, and generally live and amuse themselves at the millionaire’s expense. Mrs. Baumgartner was shrewd enough to see that the gain of a big slice of British territory in West Africa would offer poor compensation for the loss of the new career which was opening up an alluring vista to her dazzled gaze. For once, therefore, discord threatened in the household. In her daughter, too, she found a powerful ally. A month of close companionship with Evelyn Dane had completely changed the life–theories of a spoiled and affected girl of eighteen. Too young as yet to be jealous of Evelyn’s greater attractions, Beryl Baumgartner was alert enough to see that vulgar pertness was ludicrously inadequate as a means of winning male regard. Luckily, she became enthusiastically attached to Evelyn from the first hour. The wonderful faculty of hero–worship had survived the precocity of a too–indulgent rearing. It was stronger now than mere counsel. Beryl began to copy her new friend, and at once she began to improve. It was, therefore, a very dark cloud that lowered over the Baumgartner sky when a family coach which brought visitors from the ten miles distant railway deposited at the hospitable door of Lochmerig Lodge, at one and the same moment, Mrs. Laing, Miguel Figuero, and Count von Rippenbach. As it happened, the three already knew each other slightly. They had met in Madeira during the previous winter. Figuero then acted as bear–leader to the count before he started on the hunting trip in the Tuburi hinterland which had come to the Under Secretary’s knowledge.
It was a surprise to both men when they encountered Mrs. Laing at Perth Junction. They passed several interesting hours in her company, and von Rippenbach, who spoke English better than Figuero, was a skilled cross–examiner. Thus, he soon hit upon a plausible explanation of the lady’s appearance in Inverness–shire. She was one of Mrs. Baumgartner’s social links with England. On his part, as a “distinguished foreigner,” he would be acceptable in a higher circle than that occupied by his host, but, when it came to Figuero, Mrs. Laing was puzzled—indeed, somewhat amused.
The man’s record was no secret. Tolerant Madeira did not ask how he had risen to seeming affluence. It helped him to spend his money, and was graciously blind to the darker pages of his history—nevertheless, those pages were an open book to local gossips.
Figuero, a shrewd and level–headed scoundrel, was the most taken aback of the trio at this unlooked–for meeting. He was aware of the love passages between Warden and Rosamund Laing; he feared Warden; and here was the woman whom Warden had once loved crossing his path at an awkward hour.
The situation might have provided harmless interest for a number of unimportant people at Lochmerig if Figuero had not recognized Evelyn Dane the instant he set eyes on her. Straightway the tiny rills of intrigue and suspicion flowing through the adventurer’s brain united into a torrent.
Seizing the first opportunity that presented itself, he drew Baumgartner into an unoccupied room, and closed and locked the door. Before the surprised millionaire could utter a word of protest, the West African fire–brand began to question him in his own tongue, since Baumgartner, despite his Teutonic label and semblance, had a Portuguese mother.
“Why did you fail to recognize the girl I described to you in Cowes?” he demanded fiercely. “Malediction! Are you mad, that you would risk our enterprise in this fashion?”
“You must neither address me in that manner nor talk in riddles,” growled Baumgartner. “What girl? How am I to know one among the ten thousand girls of a regatta week?”
“Riddles! It is you who are the conundrum, senhor. I tell you that this Englishman, Captain Warden, a Deputy Commissioner in Nigeria, is the man we have most to fear, yet you permit one who is probably his fiancée, and surely in league with him, to live in your house and spy on the actions of yourself and your friends. What will Count von Rippenbach think when I tell him? What will the Emperor say, after all the precautions we took that none should know——”
“Silence!” roared Baumgartner, who could hold his own in matters that demanded clear thinking and careful guidance. “You are too ready with some names, Senhor Figuero, yet too sparing of others that may explain your folly. Of whom are you speaking?”
“Of the young Englishwoman I have just met, of course. I am not good at catching these strange words, but I mean the good–looking one, the tall slim girl in white muslin, she with brown hair and Madonna eyes——”
“Do you mean Miss Dane?”
“Yes—that is she. I remember now.”
“My daughter’s companion! Nonsense!”
“It is true, I tell you. Am I likely to forget a face—and such a face! Did I not describe her dress? She must have left your yacht just before Warden met her. And they are lovers. How can I be mistaken? They went away from Cowes in the same train. I told you her destination. What was it? I have it written here,” and he hurriedly turned over the leaves of a note–book.
Baumgartner was undoubtedly impressed. Figuero’s earnestness was not to be gainsaid, and he had an unpleasant belief, now he came to recall the incidents of a busy day, that Evelyn Dane was dressed exactly as Warden’s unknown acquaintance was pictured. Meanwhile, the Portuguese found the memorandum he sought.
“Here it is,” he snapped, all a–quiver with the doubts that threatened the destruction of his pet scheme of vengeance on the British power which had stopped the supply of slaves to the Sultan of Bogota. “Langton in Oxfordshire—that is the place. The railway official spelt it for me. A boatman told me he knew the girl, and gave me some outlandish name as being hers. Now I see he was fooling me. What was his motive? Was he also an emissary of Warden’s? Let me assure you, senhor, this thing begins to look ugly.”
Baumgartner’s heavy jowl lost some of the ruddy hue of the moors. Count von Rippenbach had been ready enough to apply the screw when his quondam confederate showed a degree of hesitancy in falling in with the proposal he came from London to make, and this latest complication would strengthen von Rippenbach’s hands beyond resistance. Already the lairdship of Lochmerig was becoming visionary, and the far–off hills of interior Africa grew more substantial in their dim outlines. But the millionaire, though he might toady to a Scottish gillie for a crumb of recognition as a marksman, had not attained his present position by displaying weakness in face of a crisis.
“I believe you are the victim of a delusion,” he said, with some show of dignity, “but, even if you are right, we gain nothing by yielding to panic. What if Miss Dane is, as you say, Warden’s belle amie? Why should that be harmful? Does it not explain his visit to Cowes? Indeed, once we are convinced that they know each other, we can turn the circumstance to our own purpose. I am far from crediting an insignificant official of the Niger Company with the importance you seem to attach to him, but, granted he is a hostile influence to be feared, why not stalk him through an unsuspecting agent?”
“You don’t rate him high enough,” muttered Figuero. “He can sway those stupid niggers like no other man in Nigeria. He talks Arabic, and Hausa, and krooboy palaver as well as I do. He broke the Oku ju–ju when it was worth a thousand lives to touch a stick or a feather. If Warden gets wind of our project before we are ready, we will fail, and you realize what that means to all of us.”
A dinner gong came to Baumgartner’s aid. He wished to avoid any discussion on the last point raised by the Portuguese. It bristled with thorns. Von Rippenbach revealed some of its cactus–like properties earlier in the evening.
“You and I and the Count will go into other matters fully to–morrow,” he said. “As for Miss Dane, I shall clear up that difficulty without delay. Act as though you had never seen her before, and keep your ears open during dinner.”
So it came to pass that Evelyn, who was mightily astonished and perplexed by the arrival of the two men concerning whom Warden had told her so much, was still more bewildered when Mr. Baumgartner availed himself of a lull in the conversation at the dinner–table to say casually:
“By the way, Miss Dane, is Langton, in Oxfordshire, near your people’s place?”
“Yes,” she said, wondering what the question signified.
“I suppose, then, you passed through it on your way home after quitting the Sans Souci at Cowes?”
“Oh, yes. Langton is our station.”
“Ah! What a small world it is! A friend of mine, Mr. James G. Hertz, of Boston, is staying there now. I suppose you did not chance to meet him?”
“No. Our village is three miles away, and that is a long distance in the country.”
And, in truth, Mr. James G. Hertz, of Boston, who was buried in Boston, could tell of yet more impassable gulfs.
Rosamund Laing was sitting next to Figuero. She noticed the eager attention with which he followed this trivial bit of talk, though his limited knowledge of English rendered most of the lively chatter at the table unintelligible.
“Were you in Cowes during the regatta week, Senhor Figuero?” she asked.
It was a reasonable deduction from his presence at Lochmerig, but she little guessed the devilish purpose engendered in that alert brain by her aimless inquiry. The Portuguese felt that he was at a disadvantage among the gay throng gathered under Baumgartner’s roof. His nimble wits were dulled by the barrier of language. It put him outside the pale. Things might be occurring which he ought to know, but which were hidden from him owing to this drawback. In the beautiful woman by his side he might find an excellent go–between if only he could command her interest. Was that old flame quite quenched in her heart, he mused? She had married a rich man, but had she forgotten—did any woman ever forget—her first love? He thought not. At any rate, here was an opening provided by the gods.
“I lib for Cowes one–time, senora,” he murmured, “an’ I see somet’ing dere dat I tell you if you not vexed.”
“Why should I be vexed?” she said, smiling at the odd expressions, though she was quite conversant with the lingua franca of the coast.
“You ‘member dem Captain Warden?”
“Of course I do.”
“An’ you keep secret dem t’ing I tell you?”
“Where Captain Warden’s affairs are concerned, I shall certainly not discuss him or them.”
Figuero paid no heed to the intentional snub.
“You understan’ better w’en I tole you dem secret. You promise not speak ‘im any one?”
“He fit for marry dem Mees Dane.”
“Don’t be idiotic.”
Mrs. Laing could not help it. She was so startled that she raised her voice, and more than one of her neighbors wondered what the sallow–faced stranger had said that evoked the outburst. Figuero looked annoyed. He was not prepared for such vehement repudiation of his news. Fortunately, the Honorable Billy Thring was giving a realistic account of his failure to secure an heiress during a recent wife–hunting tour in America—he tried lots of ‘em, he explained, but they all said he must kill off at least one brother and two healthy nephews before they would risk marryin’ a prize dude like him—so Rosamund’s emphatic cry passed almost unheeded amidst the laughter evoked by Thring’s exploits.
“You fit for chop,” muttered the Portuguese sarcastically. “You fit for fool palaver. You plenty–much silly woman.”
“But what you say cannot be true,” she half whispered, and the man’s astute senses warned him that it was dread, not contempt, that drew the protest from her lips.
“I fit for tell you Warden make wife palaver wid dem girl at Cowes. If you no b’lieve me, make sof’ mouf an’ ax Mees Dane.” Then the woman remembered Warden’s anxiety to return to the Isle of Wight. He had not written to her or to Lady Hilbury during the past month, and this fact, trivial as a pin–prick before, now became a rankling wound.
“You keep dem secret?” went on Figuero, watching her closely.
“Why did you tell me?” she retorted.
“Coss I no want Warden marry dem girl. Savvy?”
“Do you want to marry her yourself?” she asked, with a bitterness that showed how deeply she was hurt.
He grinned, and wetted his thin lips with his tongue.
“You t’ink I tired goin’ by lone?” he said.
“What is your motive? Why do you choose me as a confidant?”
Figuero suddenly became dense.
“I tell you leetle bit news,” he said. “Dat is English custom. W’en we chop one–time palaver set. But you no say Figuero tole you dem t’ing.”
Rosamund did not reply. She endeavored to eat, and entered into conversation with a man near her. The Honorable Billy was ending his story.
“So I am still eligible,” he was saying. “I went to America full of hot air, and came back with cold feet. But I learned the language—eh, what?”
That night, in the drawing–room, Mrs. Laing carried out the opening move in a campaign she had mapped out for herself. If Figuero’s story were true, she would smite and spare not. If it were untrue, Evelyn would be the first to deny it, and Rosamund trusted to her own intuition to discover how far such denial might be credited.
A man who was talking to Evelyn was summoned to a bridge table, and Rosamund took his place unobtrusively.
“Then you really were on board the Sans Souci at Cowes, Miss Dane?” she began, with a friendly smile.
“Yes,” said Evelyn, at a loss to determine why her brief sojourn in the Solent should attract such widespread attention.
“And you met Captain Warden there?”
The attack was so direct and unexpected that the younger woman blushed and flinched from it. Still, she was not to be drawn into admissions like a frightened child.
“I met several people on the island,” she said. “Cowes is a crowded place during regatta week.”
“Oh, come now,” purred the smiling Rosamund, “one does not forget a man of Arthur Warden’s type so readily—and after a violent flirtation, too! You see, I know all about it. Little birds whisper these things. Arthur did not tell me when he came to see me in town. Of course, he wouldn’t, but there are always kind–hearted people willing enough to gossip if they think they are annoying one.”
There was sufficient innuendo in this brief speech to justify Mrs. Laing’s worst estimate of scandal–mongers. Not one barbed shaft missed its mark. If words could wound, then Evelyn must have succumbed, but the injuries they inflict are not always visible, and she kept a stiff upper lip, though her heart raced in wild tumult.
“The inference is that you are far more interested in Captain Warden’s visits to Cowes than I or any other person can pretend to be,” she said slowly.
She meant the cold–drawn phrase to hurt, and in that she succeeded, though her own voice sounded in her ears as if it had come from afar.
“Well, perhaps you ought to be told that he and I are engaged,” said Rosamund, stung to a sudden fury of lying. “Don’t imagine I bear malice. You are sweetly pretty, and Arthur is so susceptible! But he is also rather thoughtless. We were pledged to each other years ago, but were kept apart by—by a mother’s folly. Now I am free, and he came back to me, though I had to insist that at least a year should elapse between my husband’s death and the announcement of our engagement. All our friends know our sad story, and would forgive some measure of haste, but one has to consider the larger circle of the public.”
Then, indeed, Evelyn’s blood seemed to chill in her veins. The room and its occupants swam before her eyes, and the pain of repression became almost unbearable, yet she was resolved to carry off the honors in this duel unless she fainted.
“I gather that you are warning me against Captain Warden’s thoughtlessness, as you term it?” she said, compelling each word at the bayonet’s point, as it were.
“Oh, I was not speaking seriously, but we can let it go at that.”
“And you wish me to understand that you are his promised wife?”
“There, at least, I am most emphatic,” and Rosamund laughed, a trifle shrilly, perhaps, for a woman so well equipped with the armor of self–conceit.
“I suppose, then, that the late Mr. Laing has been dead a year, as I form one of that larger circle whose favorable opinion you court?”
For an instant Rosamund’s black eyes flashed angrily. She had expected tears and faltering, not resistance.
“I only meant to do you a good turn, yet on the raw,” she sneered.
“Pray do not consider me at all. By your own showing, I have no grievance—no locus standi, as the lawyers say—but, since you have gone out of your way to give a mere stranger this interesting information, I wish to be quite sure of the facts. For instance, let us suppose that I have the honor of Captain Warden’s acquaintance—am I at liberty to write and congratulate him?”
“That would place me in a false position.”
“Ah. Is there nothing to be said for me? You spoke of a ‘violent flirtation,’ I think. If I may guess at the meaning of a somewhat crude phrase, it seems to imply a possible exchange of lovers’ vows, and one of the parties might be misled—and suffer.”
“We women are the sinners most frequently.”
“I do not dispute your authority, Mrs. Laing. I only wish to ascertain exactly what I am free to say to Captain Warden?”
“Tell him you met me, and that I am well posted in everything that occurred at Cowes. And, for goodness’ sake, let me see his reply. It will be too killing to read Arthur’s verbal wrigglings, because he is really clever, don’t you think?”
Somehow, despite the steely tension of every nerve, Evelyn caught an undertone of anxiety in the jesting words. Her rival was playing a bold game. It might end in complete disaster, but, once committed to it, there was no drawing back.
“The proceedings at Cowes were open to all the world,” Evelyn could not help saying. “Even you, with your long experience, might fail to detect in them any trace of the thoughtlessness you deplore.”
“Then you have met him elsewhere?”
Evelyn, conscious of a tactical blunder, colored even more deeply with annoyance, though again she felt that her tormentor was not so sure of her ground as she professed to be. Every woman is a born actress, and Evelyn precipitated a helpful crisis with histrionic skill.
“The whole story is yours, not mine, Mrs. Laing,” she said quietly. “Perhaps, if you apply to your half–caste informant, he may fill in further details to please you.”
At that moment the Honorable Billy Thring intervened. He was one of those privileged persons who can say anything to anybody without giving offense, and he broke into the conversation now with his usual frank inanity.
“I find I’ve bin lookin’ for a faithful spouse in the wrong direction, Mrs. Laing,” he chortled. “Barkin’ up the wrong tree, a Chicago girl called it. What a thorough ass I was to spin that yarn at dinner with you in the room. Will you be good, an’ forget it? Don’t say I haven’t got an earthly before the flag falls.”
“What in the world are you talking about?” cried Rosamund, turning on him with the sourest of society smiles.
“It sounds like the beginning of a violent flirtation,” said Evelyn, yielding to the impulse that demanded some redress for the torture she had endured.
“Right you are, Miss Dane,” said Billy. “By gad, that clears the course quicker than a line of policemen. You see, Mrs. Laing, I really must marry somebody with sufficient means for both of us. I have expensive tastes, and my noble dad gave me neither a profession nor an income. So what is a fellow to do?”
“You flatter me,” said Rosamund tartly. “Unfortunately I have just been telling Miss Dane that I am hors de concours, as they put it in the Paris exhibitions.”
“That is the French for ‘you never know your luck,’ Mr. Thring,” cried Evelyn, with a well–assumed laugh. “Mrs. Laing may change her mind, too, not for the first time.”
Without giving her adversary a chance to retaliate, she darted away to join Beryl Baumgartner, and soon seized an opportunity to retreat to her own room. Once safely barricaded behind a locked door, she bowed before the storm. Flinging herself on her knees by the bedside, she wept as though her heart would break. It was her first taste of the bitter cup that is held out to many a girl in her position, and its gall was not diminished because she still believed that Arthur Warden loved her. How could she doubt him, when each passing week brought her a letter couched in the most endearing terms? Only that morning had she heard from him at Ostend, whither the Nancy had flown after making a round of the Norfolk Broads. He described his chances of speedy promotion once the threatened disturbance in West Africa had spent itself, and, oddly enough, reminded her of his intention to curtail his furlough so as to permit of a visit to Rabat in a coasting steamer before going to Madeira on his way to the Protectorate.
Not a word did he say of the Baumgartners, or their queer acquaintances of the Isle of Wight. It was tacitly agreed between them that Evelyn should not play the rôle of spy on her employers, and, indeed, until that very day there was little to report save the utmost kindness at their hands.
Why, then, it may be urged, did she weep so unrestrainedly? and only the virgin heart of a woman who loves can answer. She feared that Rosamund Laing was telling the truth when she spoke of a prior engagement. She knew that Warden had said nothing at Plymouth of meeting Rosamund in London, and she was hardly to be blamed for drawing the most sinister inference from his silence. Did he dread that earlier entanglement? He was poor, and she was poor; how could he resist the pleading of one so rich and beautiful as her rival? In short, poor Evelyn passed a grievous and needlessly tortured hour before she endeavored to compose herself for sleep, and she was denied the consolation of knowing that the woman who destroyed her happiness was pacing another room like a caged tigress, and striving to devise some means of extricating herself from the morass into which Figuero’s tidings and her own rashness had plunged her.