The Message (Louis Tracy)/Chapter 8

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Next day, her mind restored to its customary equipoise, Evelyn thought she would be acting wisely if she gave Warden some hint of recent developments. Too proud to ask for an explicit denial of Rosamund Laing’s claim, she saw the absurdity of letting affairs drift until the hoped–for meeting at Madeira. At first, she thought of resigning her post as Beryl’s companion, and returning to Oxfordshire, but she set the notion aside as unreasonable and unnecessary. Most certainly Warden should not be condemned unheard. Without pressing him for a definite statement with regard to Mrs. Laing, it was a simple matter to put the present situation before him in such guise that he could not choose but refer to it. So, after drafting a few sentences, and weighing them seriously, she incorporated the following in a letter of general import:

“Yesterday we had three new arrivals whose names must appeal to you powerfully. First, a Mrs. Rosamund Laing came here from London, and she lost no time in telling me, among other things, that she was aware of our meeting at Cowes. Her informant, I am sure, was Miguel Figuero, and you will be even more astonished to learn that he and Count von Rippenbach turned up by the same train as Mrs. Laing. The latter, by the way, said that you called on her at Lady Hilbury’s when in London. Is that true? There are some hidden forces in motion at Lochmerig which I do not understand. Mr. Baumgartner tackled me openly at dinner with regard to my journey from Cowes to Oxfordshire. We know from Peter that Figuero saw us together that morning, and your Portuguese friend evidently recognized me at once. But Mr. Baumgartner’s pointed reference to Langton as my destination was rather puzzling. How does it strike you? I expect my news will prove rather in the nature of a thunderbolt, and that is usually a very striking article. I assure you I am somewhat shaken myself. Mrs. Laing’s personal attributes remind one of those galvanic batteries you see at fairs in the country—the more you try to endure her magnetic influence, the greater your collapse.”

Before sealing the envelope, she re–read Warden’s latest letter. She even read it aloud, and the straightforward, honest, loving words assumed a new significance. Then she turned to her own effusion, and viewed it critically. To her surprise, she detected a jarring, somewhat cynical, note in those passages which she regarded as all–important. To her judgment, events in the near future would follow a well–defined course. Her lover would say whether or not he had met Mrs. Laing in London, and give the clearest reasons for his omission of her name from the subsequent recital of his adventures. Evelyn would count the hours until that reply reached her hands. Perhaps Mrs. Laing’s curiosity anent Warden’s skill in “wriggling” would then be sated. She might even give an exhibition of the wriggler’s art in her own behalf.

Evelyn refused to admit now that she had ever yielded to doubt or anxiety. The hysterical outburst of last night was natural, perhaps, under the circumstances, but quite nonsensical. Even Warden himself must be made to believe that Mrs. Laing was only indulging an exuberant sense of humor in claiming his fealty. Meaning, therefore, to tone down any apparent asperity in the paragraph referring to the three newcomers, she added a few lines beneath her signature.

“The Men of Oku have not yet appeared. I am longing to see them. They are really the most picturesque villains in the piece. I am just going for a stroll by the side of the loch, and I shall not be a little bit alarmed if I find a decorated calabash sailing in with the tide.”

There is nothing new in the fact that the most important item in a woman’s letter is often contained in a postscript, but never did the writer of a harmless and gossipy missive achieve such amazing results as Evelyn Dane brought to pass by the words she scribbled hurriedly after the magic letters “P.S.”

For others than Evelyn Dane were taking thought that morning. Baumgartner, von Rippenbach, and Figuero—locked in the library, and seated round a small table drawn well away from the door—were settling the final details of a scheme that aimed at nothing less than a very grave alteration in the political map of the world, while Rosamund Laing was planning an enterprise which should have an equally marked effect in the minor sphere of her own affairs.

Yet the fortunes of these five people gathered at Lochmerig, and of many millions in other parts of the earth, were absolutely controlled by one of those trivial conditions which appear to be so ludicrously out of proportion with ultimate achievement.

Baumgartner, being a rich man, objected to delay where his interests were concerned. Refusing to await the tardy coming of a country postman, he kept a groom in the village to which the mails were brought by train, and it was this man’s duty to ride in each day with the post–bag for Lochmerig Lodge and return some hours later with the first out–going budget. The house letters were dropped into a box in the entrance hall, and a notice intimated that the time of clearance was at noon. To an unscrupulous woman, such an arrangement offered the means to do ill deeds that makes ill deeds done. Rosamund, ready to dare anything now to save herself from contumely, actually set out to find Evelyn and taunt her into an admission that she had written to Warden.

“Miss Dane is not in the house, madam,” said the London footman on duty at the door. “She went out some time since—in that direction,” and he pointed toward the glistening firth that brought the North Sea into the heart of Inverness.

Mrs. Laing pouted prettily.

“Oh, dear!” she sighed. “I do hope she has not forgotten to write. I shall never find her in time. Did you happen to notice if she posted a letter?”

The footman sought inspiration by stroking his chin.

“Yes, madam,” he announced, after a pause. “I’m almost certain Miss Dane went to the box. Yes, I’m sure of it.”

Madam was very much obliged, and tipped him half–a–crown, informing him with a most charming smile that she did not on any account wish Miss Dane to believe that she was suspected of forgetfulness. It was then some few minutes after eleven, and this gracious lady was sympathetic enough to inquire if the footman did not become very tired of remaining on duty so many hours in one place.

“Oh, it’s nothing compared with London, ma’am,” said he. “Here we have sunshine—if the weather is fine—an’ fresh air all the time. I only came on duty at nine o’clock, an’ I go off at 11.30 for the first servants’ dinner.”

Mrs. Laing was talking to Billy Thring in the hall when the postman groom came to clear the letter–box. She darted forward with that irresistible smile of hers.

“I’m so glad I happened to be standing here,” she exclaimed. “I have just remembered that I have stupidly left out of a letter the very thing I most wanted to say. It would never have occurred to me if I hadn’t seen you. The letter is addressed to Captain Warden. May I have it?”

The man was Baumgartner’s servant. He had never before set eyes on Mrs. Laing, but he knew the Honorable Billy quite well, so he raised no objection to this smartly dressed lady’s eager search for her incomplete letter. Though her hands fumbled somewhat, she soon picked it out.

“Here it is!” she cried delightedly, “this one—Captain Arthur Warden, Poste Restante, Ostend. Now, that will save me a heap of trouble. It was so nice of you to come in at the right moment. You have saved me a lot of trouble.”

The groom grinned as he pocketed half–a–crown. Some ladies were easy pleased, to be sure. Even Billy Thring, experienced hunter of gilded brides, was bewildered by Mrs. Laing’s excited manner.

“Seems to me I’ve made a killin’,” he mused when she gushed herself away. “I s’pose old Baumgartner can be relied on. He is all there as a rule when he talks dollars an’ cents, but he’s a perfect rotter every other way. By gad, I’ll kid him into wearin’ kilts before the end of the month.”

The notion tickled him. He lit a cigarette and strolled out through the open door. A glorious sweep of moorland and forest spread beyond the loch, whose wavelets lapped the verges of the sloping lawn and gardens. A little to the left the Sans Souci lay at her moorings. A steam launch was tied to a neat landing–stage. A string of horses and moor ponies returning from exercise crossed a level pasture at the head of the loch. The letter–carrying groom was clattering down the broad carriage drive toward the distant station, and a couple of gardeners were cutting and rolling the green carpet of grass in front of the house.

“He talks of buyin’ this property,” communed the Honorable Billy, who was thirty–five and had never earned a penny in his life. “Can’t be ten years older than me, though he looks sixty, bein’ podgy. Now, why can’t I have a stroke of luck an’ rake in a stack? Then I might have a cut–in for the giddy widow.”

Evelyn’s trim figure emerged from a tree–shrouded path. She walked with a lithe elegance that pleased Mr. Thring’s sporting eye.

“Or marry a girl like that,” he added. The wild improbability of ever achieving any part of this fascinating programme brought a petulant frown to his handsome, vacuous face.

He strode up to one of the gardeners, a red–whiskered Caledonian, stern and wild.

“Where the devil is everybody?” he yawned. “No shootin’, no yachtin’, not a soul in the billiard–room—where’s the bloomin’ crowd?”

The dour Scot looked at him pityingly.

“Aiblins some are i’ bed,” he said, “an’ there’s ithers wha ocht to be i’ bed.”

“Bully for you, Rob Roy,” cried Thring, who never objected to being scored off. “Aiblins some people are cuttin’ grass wha ocht to be under it, because they don’t know they’re alive, eh what?”

“Man, but ye’re shairp the day,” retorted the gardener. “Whiles I’m thinkin’ there’s a guid pig–jobber lost in you, Maister Thring.”

“Pig–jobber, you cateran! Why pigs?”

“Have ye no heerd tell that fowk a bit saft i’ the heid have a wonderfu’ way wi’ animals, an’ pigs are always a fine mairket.”

“A bit heavy, McToddy. Trem yer whuskers an’ change yer trousies for a kelt, an’ mebbe ye’ll crack a joke wi’ less deeficulty.”

The under–gardener chortled, for the Honorable Billy could imitate the Scots dialect with an unction that was decidedly mirth–provoking.

“Ma name’s no McToddy,” began the other.

“Well, then, McWhusky. I ken the noo from yer rid neb that there’s michty little watter in yer composition.”

Snorting defiance, but not daring to pour forth the wrath that boiled up in him, the man pushed a mowing–machine savagely across the lawn.

“Routed!” smiled Billy. “Bannockburn is avenged!”

“What is amusing you, Mr. Thring?” asked Evelyn, who had walked over the grass unheard.

“I have just discovered my lost vocation,” he said. “I am a buffoon, Miss Dane, an idle jester. The only difference between me and a music–hall comedian is that my humor is not remunerative.”

“Why, when I left you last night you were on the verge of proposing to Mrs. Laing, a most serious undertaking.”

“Jolly nice woman, Mrs. Laing. No nonsense about her. We’ve bin together the last half hour, an’ I’m under the starter’s orders, at any rate.”

“Why not go in and win?” demanded Evelyn, taking a kindly interest in the Honorable one’s matrimonial prospects. If he and Mrs. Laing made a match of it, that would provide a very agreeable close to a disquieting incident.

“I’m afraid it’ll only be to make the runnin’ for some other Johnny,” sighed he. “I was gettin’ along like a house a–fire, when all at once she remembered she hadn’t said what she wanted to say in a letter to a Captain somebody at Ostend, an’ off she waltzed to her room. She’s probably writin’ sweet nothings to him now. Same old story—Billy Thring left at the post. Gad, that’s funny! See it, eh, what?”

Thring was so amused by his own wit that he did not notice the expression of pain and fear that drove the brightness from Evelyn’s face. But she herself was conscious of it, and looked away lest he should peer into her eyes, and wonder. So Mrs. Laing was writing to Arthur! She knew his address! How strange, how unutterably strange, that he had not once mentioned her name! The girl, as in a dream, affected to be watching a boy, the son of the village post–mistress, coming up the avenue. For the sake of hearing her own voice in such commonplace words as she might dare to utter, she drew her companion’s attention.

“Here is our telegraph messenger,” she said.

Thring glanced at his watch.

“It’s for me,” he announced. “There’s a chap at Newmarket who is the champion loser–finder of the world, an’ I’m one of his victims. This is Leger day, an’ if you wait a moment I’ll put you onto a stiff ‘un, sure thing. Then you must turn bookmaker at lunch, and win gloves right and left—in pairs, in fact. I’ll stand your losses if my prophet has gone mad an’ sent a winner.”

The boy made straight for him, and commenced to unfasten the pouch slung to his belt.

“See? I told you,” laughed Billy, opening the message.

Evelyn hardly understood him. She was grateful for the high spirits that prevented him from paying any heed to the tears trembling under her drooping eyelashes. Despite her brave resolve to disregard Rosamund Laing’s unbelievable story, a whole legion of doubts and terrors now trooped in on her. She asked herself how she could endure to live in the same house as her rival, for five long days, until Arthur’s answer came. Would he receive the two letters by the same post? Could there be any real foundation for her rival’s boast? The thought made her sick at heart. Fighting down her dread, she turned to Thring hoping to find a momentary oblivion in listening to his cheerful nonsense.

She found oblivion, indeed, but not in the shape she anticipated. Shading his eyes with one hand and holding the telegram in the other, her companion was gazing at it in a dazed way. His cheeks were bloodless, the hand gripping the scrap of flimsy paper shook as though he were seized with ague, his whole attitude was that of a man who had received an overwhelming shock.

“Mr. Thring!” she cried, startled beyond measure, “what has happened?”

“My God!” he wailed, with the tingling note of agony in his voice that comes most clearly from one whose lips are formed for laughter. “My God! And I was jesting about them only last night!”

“Oh, what is it?” she cried again, catching his arm because he swayed like one about to faint.

“Read!” he murmured. “Fairholme an’ the two boys! May Heaven forgive me! To think that I should have said it last night of all nights!”

Evelyn took the telegram from his palsied fingers, and this is what she read:

“With deepest regret I have to inform you that the Earl of Fairholme and his two sons were killed in the collision at Beckminster Junction last evening. Their private saloon was being shunted when the down express crashed into it. Letters found on his lordship’s body gave me your address. Every one here joins in profound sympathy. Please wire instructions. James Thwaite.”

Scarce knowing what she said, and still clinging desperately to the stricken man at her side, Evelyn whispered:

“Are they your relatives?”

And the answer came brokenly.

“Don’t you know? That’s Ferdy and my nephews! And two such boys! Straight an’ tall an’ handsome. Good Lord! was that the only way?”

Then she realized the horror of it. The crushed society butterfly, who was like to fall to the ground but for her support, was now Earl of Fairholme. Calling Brown to her aid, they led him inside the house. The butler, impelled to disobey his master’s strict injunctions, knocked at the library door, and told Baumgartner what had happened.

Von Rippenbach heard. He was a callous person, to whom the death of three Englishmen was of very slight consideration.

“The very thing!” he murmured. “Now you have your excuse. You can empty the place in twenty–four hours.”

Rosamund Laing, whose white brows wore unseemly furrows, was writing and thinking in her own room when a maid brought her the news. Before her on the table was Evelyn’s letter, and the sharp–eyed Scotch lassie saw that the lady nearly upset the inkstand in her haste to cover something with the blotting–pad. Rosamund was shocked, of course. Finding that Thring was leaving for the south almost immediately, she then and there wrote a sweetly sympathetic note, and had it taken to him.

“By the way,” she said before the maid went out, “have you seen Mr. Figuero recently? I mean the dark–skinned man who came here yesterday.”

Yes, he had just left the library with the master and another gentleman. Rosamund rose at once. If she were not greatly mistaken, Evelyn’s harmless–looking postscript had given her a clue to the mystery of Figuero’s presence in Baumgartner’s house. She knew her West Africa, and the bad repute of Oku was one of her clearest memories. Yet she turned back at the door, took Evelyn’s letter from her pocket, copied a portion of it, and locked the original in her jewel case.

The luncheon–gong sounded as she descended the stairs, so perforce she postponed the interview she promised herself with the Portuguese. And, for the success of her deep–laid schemes, it was as well. Sometimes there comes to the aid of evil–doers a fiend who contrives opportunities where human forethought would fail. Rosamund, embarked on a well–nigh desperate enterprise, suddenly found the way smoothed by Baumgartner’s wholly unexpected announcement that business considerations compelled him to leave Lochmerig forthwith.

“My wife and I would have tried to arrange matters satisfactorily for our guests,” he said, “but the gloom cast on our pleasant party by the unhappy tidings received this morning by one of our number renders it almost impossible for any of us to enjoy the remainder of a most memorable and delightful sojourn in Scotland.”

He delivered himself of other platitudes, but Mrs. Baumgartner’s dejected air and Beryl’s sulky silence showed plainly enough that the millionaire’s fiat was unalterable. Polite murmurs of agreement veiled the chagrin of people who had a fortnight or more thrown on their hands without any prior arrangements. The meal was a solemn function. Everybody was glad when it ended.

Rosamund met Figuero in the hall.

“I am going to the village,” she said. “Will you walk there with me?”

He caught the veiled meaning of the glance, and agreed instantly. When they were clear of the house, she commenced the attack.

“Why are you and Count von Rippenbach and three men of Oku in England?” she asked.

She did not look at Figuero. There was no need. He waited a few seconds too long before he laughed.

“You make joke,” he said.

“Do I? It will be no joke for you when Captain Warden informs the Government, if he has not done that already.”

“Why you say dem t’ing?” he growled, and she was fully aware of the menace in his voice.

“You told me what you were pleased to consider a secret last night. Very well, I am willing to trade. Captain Warden knows what you are doing. He probably guesses every item of the business you and the Count were discussing so long and earnestly with Mr. Baumgartner in the library before lunch. Oh, please don’t interrupt”—for Figuero, driven beyond the bounds of self–control, was using words better left to the Portuguese tongue in which they were uttered—“I am not concerned with your plots. They never come to anything, you know. If either Count von Rippenbach or Mr. Baumgartner had your history at their finger’s ends as I have, they would drop you like a hot cinder. Yet, I am ready to bargain. Help me, and I will keep my information to myself.”

“What you want, den?”

She glanced at him, and was surprised to see that his face was livid, almost green with rage and perplexity. It must be a grave matter—this jumble of hints in Evelyn’s letter.

“Can you read English?” she asked, after a pause.

“Yes, leetle piece—better as I can make palaver.”

“Read that then.”

She handed him the copy of that part of the fateful letter that alluded to himself and his affairs. He puzzled it out, word by word.

“Where him lib for?” he demanded.

“That was written by Miss Dane and intended for Captain Warden. I came by it, no matter how, and I mean to make use of it in some way.”

With a rapid movement, he stuffed the sheet of note–paper into a pocket.

“I keep dem letter,” he announced.

“Certainly. It is only a copy. Savvy? I have the real one safely put away.”

Figuero swallowed something. His thin lips were bloodless, and his tongue moistened them with the quick darting action of a snake. Rosamund, who was really somewhat afraid, trusted to the daylight and the fact that they were traversing an open road, with cottages scattered through the glen.

“You cannot humbug me,” she went on, “but I want to assure you again that I am no enemy of yours. Now, listen. I mean to marry Captain Warden, but I have reason to believe that he is engaged, promised, to Miss Dane. I am trying to stop that, to break it off. Can you help?”

“You ask hard t’ing—in dis place. In Africa, we get Oku man make ju–ju.”

She shuddered. The cold malevolence in his words recalled stories she had heard of those who had died with unaccountable suddenness when “Oku man make ju–ju.”

“I don’t mean that,” she cried vehemently. “Tell me what is taking place, and how it will affect Captain Warden. Then I can twist events to my own purpose. I can warn him, perhaps prove myself his friend. Above all—where are you going to–morrow? Mr. Baumgartner sails in the Sans Souci, I hear. Does Miss Dane go with him, or is she to be sent away because she is aware of your plans?”

Figuero did not answer during a whole minute.

He saw light, dimly, but growing more distinct each instant. Warden was a deadly personality in the field against him, and his active interference was now assured beyond cavil. But, with two women as foils, both beautiful, and one exceedingly well equipped with money, there was still a chance of circumventing the only man he feared.

“You steal dem letter?” he said unexpectedly.

“At any rate, it has not gone to Captain Warden,” was the acid reply.

“An’ you write 'im. What you say?”

“Oh, nothing that affects the case.”

“You tole him me here?”

“No. That can wait,” which statement, as shall be seen, was strictly untrue.

“Well, den, dem yacht lib for—for somewheres to–morrow. Dem girl, Mees Dane, go wid me. You tole him dat t’ing as you say las’ night. I make wife palaver to dem girl.”

“What good will that do?” she said. “In a week, ten days, he will hear from her again.”

“No. I take dem letter. You gib me Captain Warden writin’, an’ I keep eye for dat. Savvy?”

“But can you carry out what you promised?”

“Two, t’ree months, yes. After dem yacht lib for Madeira, no. P’raps dem girl be wife den.”

Rosamund’s dark eyes narrowed to two tiny slits. If Figuero could really keep Warden and Evelyn apart during so long a period, the utterly hopeless project on which she had embarked in a moment of jealous rage might become feasible. Of course, the suggestion that he would marry Evelyn was preposterous, but there was no reason why she should hurt his pride by telling him so. Her heart throbbed madly, while her active brain debated the pros and cons of the all–important question—should she post the letter already written? Yes. It was the outcome of her earliest thought. She would follow it up with another in different strain. The two would be vastly more convincing than one, and the dates would have a significance that no mere contriving could impart.

By this time they were at the post–office, from which mails were dispatched by a later train than that caught by the groom. Rosamund dropped her letter in the box. She was quite pale with suppressed excitement. Her boats were burnt. She heard the fall of the envelope into the receptacle, and the appalling notion possessed her that the sound resembled the fall of earth on a coffin. She breathed heavily, and pressed a hand to her bosom. Figuero was watching her.

“Now you done dem t’ing,” he said, “you dash me some money.”

She started. Did he mean to levy blackmail for his services?

“Why?” she asked, summoning all her strength of character to meet his gaze without flinching.

“Me buy present for dem girl. If I make wife palaver dat cost many dollar.”

“I am not buying your help. You trade with me one thing for the other. If you refuse, I write to the Government about the men of Oku.”

The Portuguese laughed more naturally than she had yet heard him. If his arch–enemy, Arthur Warden, was well acquainted with the mission he and the chiefs had undertaken, this pretty and passionate woman counted for very little in the scale against him.

“You dash me one hunner’ poun’,” he said cheerfully. “Jus’ dat, no mo’. If you say ‘no,’ dem girl no lib for yacht. Mr. Baumgartner say go one–time. Me tell 'im take dem girl—savvy?”

Mrs. Laing savvied. She gave him thirty pounds—all she could spare from her purse—and promised to send the balance to an address in London. He was fully satisfied. He was sure she would not fail him. When he needed further supplies she would pay willingly. In an intrigue based on such lines Miguel Figuero was an adept.