By E. R. PUNSHON
PRIDE made a brave stand, but at last it gave way, and Veronica slipped from the drawing-room to the head of the stairs.
"Andrews," she called softly, and then more loudly: "Andrews," and then with a distinct tremor of anxiety: "Oh, Andrews, are you there?"
"Eh, Miss, is that you?" came a sleepy voice. "Lor! I believe I should have been asleep in another moment."
Veronica gave a little gasp at this. That anyone should sleep under such conditions—they two alone in the house and a storm howling outside—appeared to her very marvellous.
"I'm not frightened either, Andrews," she remarked presently.
"Bless your heart, Miss, that's right!" said Andrews, approvingly. "I think I'll go to bed, Miss."
"Oh, will you?" said Veronica in a dismayed tone. "Er—er—Andrews."
"If you are at all nervous, Andrews, you can come and sit with me in the drawing-room."
"Lor, Miss, if you like," said Andrews, cheerfully, and Veronica, hearing her heavy step on the stair, slipped away back to the drawing-room and began reading the paper with a fine appearance of unconcern, though it is true that she did not as a rule show so much interest in the market reports. In a moment or two the smiling Andrews appeared in the doorway.
"It was just sich a night as this," she remarked cheerfully, as a particularly wild gust of wind drove the rain rattling against the window panes, "as I remember my Aunt Jessica Elizabeth telling how two poor lone women—as it might be you and me. Miss—had their throats cut by"
"Oh! Andrews," screamed Veronica. Don't!"
"It is quite true. Miss," said Andrews in an injured tone; "my Aunt Jessica Elizabeth saw the blood——"
"Andrews," said Veronica, desperately, as she tried in vain to keep her teeth from chattering, "how is your rheumatism?"
"Which it is bad enough," said Andrews, gloomily, if a little surprised at the change of subject, quite willing to give all the details Miss Veronica would listen to; "and that there shooting pain in my left arm." And Andrews went on in full flood till all of a sudden she was stricken into palsied fear, as in a momentary lull in the gusty wind they heard quite distinctly a heavy footstep on the gravel path just below the window.
Veronica sat trembling but upright, while Andrews slid to the floor and endeavoured to crawl beneath the sofa. Then Veronica hastily extinguished the lamp as they heard the footsteps pause for a moment and then go on. again.
"Oh, Miss, Miss," said Andrews, weeping, "what did you do that for? If we are to be killed and murdered, let it be in the light, Miss."
"Father told me once," explained Veronica, surprised to find that now her teeth no longer chattered, "that was the best thing to do, because then the burglar can't see you, and you can see him if he has a lantern."
But this was too subtle a precaution for Andrews, who, abandoning in despair the project of concealing her substantial person beneath the sofa, was now hopefully examining the chimney. But as a closer view proved that certainly too small, she crept behind the piano, and audibly bargained with Heaven on the basis of living an absolutely perfect life for the future in consideration of not being murdered that night.
"Andrews," said Veronica, "don't be silly."
"Hide in the china closet, Miss," said Andrews, "and dripping I will never touch again—perhaps they won't look there—which it was me, Miss, as I freely confess, what broke that there best teapot, black and blue though I swore it was the cat. Oh-h-h! I can hear them at the back door." And Andrews collapsed in a heap, too terrified even now to weep.
Gathering up her skirts and slipping off her shoes, Veronica crept silently down the passage to the head of the short flight of stairs that led to the kitchen. Andrews had left the lamp burning, and by its dim light Veronica with horror and choking fear saw a man crawling in through the window. She held her breath in deadly terror while the intruder wriggled his way on to a table, and thence to the ground. She wondered whether he would go away quietly if she offered him everything of value in the house, but she had a conviction that if she opened her mouth to speak she would begin to scream and not be able to stop. Meanwhile the intruder turned up the lamp, so that she had a good look at him.
She was surprised, and a little relieved, to perceive that he was both young and good-looking, with crisp, curly hair, frank grey eyes, and an open, pleasant countenance. He looked, however, pale and tired, and his rough cycling costume was plentifully bespattered with mud, while the drenching rain had soaked him through and through, till now the water ran from him in streams, making a puddle in the centre of the floor.
"He looks very desperate," said Veronica, with a shudder; "but I hardly think he will murder us," she added, more hopefully, "for he does not look wholly bad."
"Now, the first thing," observed the stranger, aloud, "is to get something to eat. By Jove! won't they stare in the morning!"
He laughed—rather a pleasant laugh he had, Veronica thought—and then she observed with some surprise that he walked straight to the pantry. He opened its door and went in, and with a sudden leap of the heart, Veronica saw that he was fairly inside, and that the key was in the lock on the outside.
"Dare I?" she thought. "Oh! I daren't—I daren't—I know I daren't!"
But, none the less, she darted swiftly across the kitchen, going silently in her stockinged-feet. Just as she reached the pantry the stranger, hearing the slight noise she made, turned sharply and faced her, with open eyes and dropped jaw, in his amazement letting fall the half of a cold chicken he had just picked up. Thus for one wild, palpitating moment they faced each other. Then with desperate fingers Veronica clutched the door handle, endured a lifetime's agony as the key seemed to evade her grasp, saw herself pleading for mercy with a glittering knife held to her throat, then breathed again as she banged the door, turned the key, and, tearing it out, flung it far away.
"Oh! Andrews," she screamed, as she fell sobbing on the nearest chair, "I've got him—I've got him!"
From within the pantry came a low whistle of dismay. Then silence, broke only by Veronica's sobbing.
"Andrews!" called Veronica again, as she endeavoured to check her sobs; "Andrews, it's all right now."
"Has he gone, Miss?" inquired a very shaken and cautious voice from above.
"I've locked him up in the pantry. Come down, and bring father's big—loaded—gun with you," called Veronica, pronouncing the last few words very loudly and distinctly, and at the same time making desperate faces at Andrews for fear she should proclaim that there was no such thing in the house.
"Excuse me," said a meek voice through the keyhole of the pantry door. "May I explain?"
"Certainly not!" said Veronica. "Not on any account."
"But if you will just listen for one moment," pleaded the meek voice.
But Veronica was firm. She picked up a broom and pushed the end of the handle against the door.
"If you just say a word," she announced, "I'll fire this big gun through the keyhole."
"You are a formidable young person," said the voice, with a sigh. "I surrender; my hands are up."
"Very likely, now you're caught," said Veronica, wisely. "But you stay where you are till the police come."
"You're jolly rough on a fellow," said the voice, and Veronica almost thought she heard a sound remotely like a chuckle "May I have something to eat?"
Veronica considered this question, and the chuckle that had accompanied it, rather impertinent. She made no reply, and presently sounds that reached her showed the prisoner was making good use of his opportunities. She saw, too, that he had got a candle lighted. Presently he tapped at the door again.
"Are you there?" he inquired.
"Certainly," said Veronica, in deepest voice she could summon. "I am here with my gun across my knee."
And she again pushed the broom-handle against the door.
"Is not Mr. Copping living here now?" inquired the prisoner.
"It's no business of yours," said Veronica, with severity, "who is here. I am expecting the police moment now."
"May I not try to explain?"
"Don't you listen to him, Miss," said Andrews. "He'll talk us over and bamboozle us into letting him out, and then he'll cut both our throats."
"He stays there," said Veronica, firmly, "till the police come to take him away."
But in spite of the firmness with which she spoke, she began to entertain a feeling of some compunction as she saw a little trickle of water issuing from beneath the door, and remembered how extremely wet his clothes had been.
"He'll catch his death of cold," she said to Andrews, "locked up in that cold pantry all night in his wet things."
"A good job too," said Andrews, with an audible sniff.
"He had rather a nice face," observed Veronica. "I daresay he wouldn't really have hurt us."
Andrews sniffed again. She was not in the least inclined to share in her young mistress's compassionate feelings.
"Are you very wet?" inquired Veronica, tapping on the pantry door.
"It's not what I call exactly a dry night," observed the prisoner.
"Well, I am going to give you a change of things," announced Veronica. "We will put them through the little square window in the wall."
"I say, that's awfully good of you!" said the captive prisoner.
"Only mind," said Veronica, in her deep voice, "I have still got my loaded gun."
"Don't let it go off by accident," urged the prisoner, and Veronica was much disturbed at something in his voice which seemed to suggest the mention of the gun had not properly impressed him.
Grumbling, Andrews departed to obtain the necessary apparel from the room of Veronica's father, but had scarcely gone when she was back again, trembling in every limb, her face ashen.
"Dear Lord, have mercy on our souls," she said, looking wildly round, "there's two more of 'em in the dining room."
"What do you mean?" stammered Veronica, an awful fear assailing her.
"There's two more burglars in the dining-room," groaned Andrews, "for the lamp is lit, and I hear 'em talking and plannin' how to murder us. Oh-h-h! Our throat's as good as cut already," and with this reflection the unhappy Andrews subsided into a huddled heap in a corner, emitting muffled groans at irregular intervals.
Veronica crept to the foot of the stairs, and heard indeed a low murmur of voices and saw a gleam of light from the dining-room. She stood still, paralysed with fear at this accumulation of horrors. Her heart almost stopped beating, and her tongue literally clung to the roof of her mouth, till a persistent knocking at the pantry door forced itself on her attention.
"Excuse me," said the captive's voice, "is anything wrong?"
"Oh, I had forgotten you," said Veronica, despairingly; "it's only some more burglars."
"What?" said the prisoner in a new voice.
"Two more burglars," said Veronica, with a hard, dry sob. "Oh, what will become of us?"
"Under those circumstances," said the captive, with a low whistle, "I think I had better come out, if you don't mind," and, putting his shoulder to the door, he burst it open with a vigorous push.
Veronica gave a little cry, but after all things could not be any worse than they were already. And now she came to look at him again, this burglar really had a very nice face. Moreover, his grey eyes were shining in an oddly comforting way.
"Could you always have done that?" she asked, looking in rather an awed way at the broken door.
"Well, it's not very strong," he remarked, apologetically, "only I didn't want to frighten you. Where are those burglars?"
"In the dining-room," she answered.
"Then may I trouble you for the poker?" he asked, and, taking it, he ran swiftly up the stairs with Veronica hard at his heels.
They burst together into the dining-room, where two mild-faced, elderly people were having some wine and biscuits.
"Father! Mother!" screamed Veronica wildly from the background.
"Dear me!" said the elderly gentleman. "We thought you had gone to bed, Veronica. Captain Forestier, is that you? This is an unexpected pleasure; but why are you endeavouring to hide that poker behind you?"
"Captain Forestier!" gasped Veronica. "It's not; it's a burglar I have had locked up in the pantry, and I thought you were burglars, too. Oh, mother!"
Then she burst into tears, while her father looked in mild inquiry at Captain Forestier, whose face was now extremely red. But he recognised Veronica's father as a Mr. Lathom whom he had several times met in the company of his uncle, and for this slight acquaintance he blessed his lucky stars as he began his story.
"You see," he said, "my uncle, Mr. Copping, used to live here."
"I took the cottage over from him three months back," said Mr. Lathom.
"I was coming down to pay him a visit," continued Captain Forestier; "but my bicycle broke down, and I was late getting here. Just as I arrived, I saw the light go out in the room uncle used to use as a bedroom, so I thought that instead of knocking him up on such a wild night, I would just camp out in the kitchen. I was in the pantry getting something to eat, when Miss Lathom appeared and locked me in. Of course, I guessed at once how badly I had put my foot in it—uncle has played this trick of suddenly rushing away without a word to anyone before now—and as Miss Lathom evidently did not believe my explanations, I thought the fairest thing I could do was to stay where I was, and not frighten her any more than I could help."
"Dear me!" said Mr. Lathom. "We ourselves returned rather unexpectedly, as my wife thought Veronica might be nervous at being alone so much. So she locked you in the pantry, eh?" Then he began to chuckle. "Well, you must stay the night now, Captain," he continued. "And, Veronica, you will have to try and make amends to your prisoner."
"It was my fault," said Forestier, hastily.
"He never was my prisoner," said Veronica, hastily, "for he could have got out any time he liked."
"But I didn't like," said Forestier in a low tone, under cover of the laughter that Mr. and Mrs. Lathom had been politely endeavouring to repress. "I am quite content to remain your captive all my life, for you are the pluckiest girl I ever knew."
"Oh! but you are set free," said Veronica, blushing.
"But I won't be set free," retorted Forestier.
And he and his wife appear so happy together that there is no reason to suppose he has ever regretted his determination to surrender his liberty, and remain permanently "Veronica's Captive."