Beaumaroy Home from the Warsскачать книгу бесплатно
"Then – well, we've got to find the stuff, and when we've found it, you've got to carry it, Neddy. Don't mind if it's a bit heavy, do you?"
"I don't want to overstrain myself," said Neddy jocularly, "but I'll do my best with it – only hope it's there!"
"It must be there. Hasn't got wings, has it? At any rate, not till you put it in your pocket, and go out for an evening with the ladies!"
Neddy paid this pleasantry the tribute of a laugh, but he had one more business question to ask:
"Where are we to stow the car? How far off?"
"The Sergeant has picked out a big clump of trees, a hundred yards from the cottage on the Sprotsfield side, and about thirty yards from the road. Pretty clear going to it, bar the bracken – she'll do it easily. There she'll lie, snug as you like. As we go by Sprotsfield, the car won't have to pass the cottage at all – that's an advantage – and yet it's not over far to carry the stuff."
"Sounds all right," said Neddy placidly, and with a yawn. "Have a drop?"
"No, I won't – and I wish you wouldn't, Neddy. It makes you bad-tempered, and a man doesn't want to be bad-tempered on these jobs."
"Take the wheel a second while I have a drop," said Neddy, just for all the world as if his friend had not spoken. He unscrewed the top of a large flask and took a very considerable "drop." It was only after he had done this with great deliberation that he observed good-naturedly, "And you go to hell, Mike! It's dark, ain't it? That's a bit of all right."
He did not speak again till they were near Sprotsfield. "This Beaumaroy – queer name, ain't it? – he's a big chap, ain't he, Mike?"
"Pretty fair; but, Lord love you, a baby beside yourself."
"Well, now, you told me something the Sergeant said about a man as was" (Neddy, unlike his friend, occasionally tripped in his English) "really big."
"Oh, that's Naylor – Captain Naylor. But he's not at the cottage; we're not likely to meet him, praise be!"
"Rather wish we were! I want a little bit of exercise," said Neddy.
"Well, I don't know but what Beaumaroy might give you that. The Sergeant's got tales about him at the war."
"Oh, blast these soldiers – they ain't no good." In what he himself regarded as his spare hours, that is to say, the daytime hours wherein the ordinary man labours, Neddy was a highly skilled craftsman, whose only failing was a tendency to be late in the morning and to fall ill about the festive seasons of the year. He made lenses, and, in spite of the failing, his work had been deemed to be of National Importance, as indeed it was. But that did not excuse his prejudice against soldiers.
They passed through the outskirts of Sprotsfield; Mike – to use his more familiar name – had made a thorough exploration of the place, and his directions enabled his chauffeur to avoid the central and populous parts of the town. Then they came out on to the open heath, passed Old Place, and presently – about half a mile from Tower Cottage – found Sergeant Hooper waiting for them by the roadside.
It was then hard on midnight – a dark cloudy night, very apt for their purpose. With a nod, but without a word, the Sergeant got into the car, and in cautious whispers directed its course to the shelter of the clump of trees; they reached it after a few hundred yards of smooth road and some thirty of bumping over the heath. It afforded a perfect screen from the road, and on the other side there was only untrodden heath, no path or track being visible near it.
Neddy got out of the car, but he did not forget his faithful flask. He offered it to the Sergeant in token of approval. "Good place, Sergeant," he said; "does credit to you, as a beginner. Here, mate, hold on, though. It's evident you ain't accustomed to liqueur glasses!"
"When I sits up so late, I gets a kind of a sinking," the Sergeant explained apologetically.
Mike flashed a torch on him for a minute; there was a very uncomfortable look in his little squinty eyes. "Sergeant," he said suavely but gravely, "my friend here relies on you. He's not a safe man to disappoint." He shifted the light suddenly on to Neddy, whose proportions seemed to loom out prodigious from the surrounding darkness. "Are you, Neddy?"
"No, I'm a sensitive chap, I am," said Neddy, smiling. "Don't you go and hurt my pride in you by any sign of weakness, Sergeant."
The Sergeant shivered a little. "I'm game – I'll stick it," he protested valorously.
"You'd better!" Neddy advised.
"All quiet at the cottage as you came by?" asked Mike.
"Quiet as the grave, for what I see," the Sergeant answered.
"All right. Mike, where are them sandwiches? I feel like a bite. One for the Sergeant too! But no more flask – no, you don't, Sergeant! When'll we start, Mike?"
"In about half an hour."
"Just nice time for a snack – oysters and stout for you, my darling?" said jovial Neddy. Then – with a change of voice – "Just as well that didn't pass us!"
For the sound of a car came from the road they had just left. It was going in the direction of the cottage and of Inkston. Captain Alec was taking his betrothed home after a joyful evening of congratulation and welcome.
THE SECRET OF THE TOWER
The scene presented by the interior of the Tower, when Beaumaroy softly opened the door and signed to Doctor Mary to step forward and look, was indeed a strange one, a ridiculous yet pathetic mockery of grandeur.
The building was a circular one, rising to a height of some thirty-five feet and having a diameter of about ten. Up to about twelve feet from the floor its walls were draped with red and purple stuffs of coarse material; above them the bare bricks and the rafters of the roof showed naked. In the middle of the floor – with their backs to the door at which Mary and her companion stood – were set two small arm-chairs of plain and cheap make. Facing them, on a rough dais about three feet high and with two steps leading up to it, stood a large and deep carved oaken arm-chair. It too was upholstered in purple, and above and around it were a canopy and curtains of the same colour. This strange erection was set with its back to the one window – that which Mr. Saffron had caused to be boarded up, soon after he entered into occupation. The place was lighted by candles – two tall standards of an ecclesiastical pattern, one on either side of the great chair or throne, and each holding six large candles, all of which were now alight and about half consumed. On the throne, his spare wasted figure set far back in the recesses of its deep cushioned seat and his feet resting on a high hassock, sat old Mr. Saffron; in his right hand he grasped a sceptre, obviously a theatrical "property," but a handsome one, of black wood with gilt ornamentation; his left arm he held close against his side. His eyes were turned up towards the roof; his lips were moving as though he were talking, but no sound came.
Such was Doctor Mary's first impression of the scene; but the next moment she took in another feature of it, not less remarkable. To the left of the throne, to her right as she stood in the doorway facing it, there was a fireplace; an empty grate, though the night was cold. Immediately in front of it was – unmistakably – the excavation in the floor which Mr. Penrose had described at the Christmas dinner-party at Old Place – six feet in length by three in breadth, and about four feet deep. Against the wall, close by, stood a sheet of cast iron, which evidently served to cover and conceal the aperture; by it was thrown down, in careless disorder, a strip of the same dull red baize as covered the rest of the floor of the Tower. By the side of the sheet and the piece of carpet there was an old brown leather bag.
Tradition – and Mr. Penrose – had told the truth. Here without doubt was Captain Duggle's grave, the grave he had caused to be dug for himself, but which – be the reason what it might – his body had never occupied. Yet the tomb was not entirely empty. The floor of it was strewn with gold – to what depth Mary could not tell, but it was covered with golden sovereigns; there must be thousands of them. They gleamed under the light of the candles.
Mary turned startled, inquiring, apprehensive eyes on Beaumaroy. He pressed her arm gently, and whispered:
"I'll tell you presently. Come in. He'll notice us, I expect, in a minute. Mind you curtsey when he sees you!" He led her in, pulling the door to after him, and placed her and himself in front of the two small arm-chairs opposite Mr. Saffron's throne.
Beaumaroy removed his hand from her arm but she caught his wrist in one of hers and stood there, holding on to him, breathing quickly, her eyes now set on the figure on the throne.
The old man's lips had ceased to move; his eyes had closed; he lay back in the deep seat, inert, looking half dead, very pale and waxen in the face. For what seemed a long time he sat thus, motionless and almost without signs of life, while the two stood side by side before him. Mary glanced once at Beaumaroy; his lips were apart in that half-humorous, half-compassionate smile; there was no hint of impatience in his bearing.
At last Mr. Saffron opened his eyes and saw them; there was intelligence in his look, though his body did not move. Mary was conscious of a low bow from Beaumaroy; she remembered the caution he had given her, and herself made a deep curtsey; the old man made a slight inclination of his handsome white head. Then, after another long pause, a movement passed over his body – excepting his left arm. She saw that he was trying to rise from his seat, but that he had barely the strength to achieve his purpose. But he persisted in his effort, and in the end rose slowly and tremulously to his feet.
Then, utterly without warning, in a sudden and shocking burst of that high, voluble, metallic speech which Captain Alec had heard through the ceiling of the parlour, he began to address them – if indeed it were they whom he addressed, and not some phantom audience of princes, marshal's admirals, or trembling sheep-like recruits. It was difficult to hear the words, hopeless to make out the sense. It was a farrago of nonsense, part of his own inventing, part (as it seemed) wild and confused reminiscences of the published speeches of the man he aped, all strung together on some invisible thread of insane reasoning, delivered with a mad vehemence and intensity that shook and seemed to rend his feeble frame.
"We must stop him, we must stop him," Mary suddenly whispered. "He'll kill himself if he goes on like this!"
"I've never been able to stop him," Beaumaroy whispered back. "Hush! If he hears us speaking, he'll be furious and carry on worse."
The old man's blue eyes fixed themselves on Beaumaroy – of Mary he took no heed. He pointed at Beaumaroy with his sceptre, and from him to the gleaming gold in Captain Duggle's grave. A streak of coherency, a strand of mad logic, now ran through his hurtling words; the money was there, Beaumaroy was to take it – to-day, to-day! – to take it to Morocco, to raise the tribes, to set Africa aflame. He was to scatter it – broadcast, broadcast! There was no end to it – don't spare it! "There's millions, millions of it!" he shouted, and achieved a weird wild majesty in a final cry, "God with us!"
Then he fell – tumbled back in utter collapse into the recesses of the great chair. His sceptre fell from his nerveless hand and rolled down the steps of the dais; the impetus it gathered carried it, rolling still, across the floor to the edge of the open pit; for an instant it lay poised on the edge, and then fell with a jangle of sound on the carpet of golden coins that lined Captain Duggle's grave.
"Quick! Get my bag – I left it in the passage," whispered Mary, as she started forward, up the dais, to the old man's side. "And brandy, if you've got it," she called after Beaumaroy, as he turned to the door to do her bidding.
Beaumaroy was gone no more than a minute. When he came back, with the bag hitched under his arm, a decanter of brandy in one hand and a glass in the other, Mary was leaning over the throne, with her arm round the old man. His eyes were open, but he was inert and motionless. Beaumaroy poured out some brandy, and gave it into Mary's free hand. But when Mr. Saffron saw Beaumaroy by his side, he gave a sudden twist of his body, wrenched himself away from Mary's arm, and flung himself on his trusted friend. "Hector, I'm in danger! They're after me! They'll shut me up!"
Beaumaroy put his strong arms about the frail old body. "Oh no, sir, oh no!" he said in low, comforting, half-bantering tones. "That's the old foolishness, sir, if I may say so. You're perfectly safe with me. You ought to trust me by now, sir, really you ought."
"You'll swear – you'll swear it's all right, Hector?"
"Right as rain, sir," Beaumaroy assured him cheerfully.
Very feebly the old man moved his right hand towards the open grave. "Plenty – plenty! All yours, Hector! For – for the Cause – God's with us!" His head fell forward on Beaumaroy's breast; for an instant again he raised it, and looked in the face of his friend. A smile came on his lips. "I know I can trust you. I'm safe with you, Hector." His head fell forward again; his whole body was relaxed; he gave a sigh of peace. Beaumaroy lifted him in his arms and very gently set him back in his great chair, placing his feet again on the high footstool.
"I think it's all over," he said, and Mary saw tears in his eyes.
Then Mary herself collapsed; she sank down on the dais and broke into weeping. It had all been so pitiful – and somehow so terrible. Her quick tumultuous sobbing sounded through the place which the vibrations of the old man's voice had lately filled.
She felt Beaumaroy's hand on her shoulder. "You must make sure," he said, in a low voice. "You must make your examination."
With trembling hands she did it – she forced herself to it, Beaumaroy aiding her. There was no doubt. Life had left the body which reason had left long before. His weakened heart had not endured the last strain of mad excitement. The old man was dead.
Her face showed Beaumaroy the result of her examination, if he had ever doubted of it. She looked at him, then made a motion of her hand towards the body. "We must – we must – " she stammered, the tears still rolling down her cheeks.
"Presently," he said. "There's plenty of time. You're not fit to do that now – and no more am I, to tell the truth. We'll rest for half an hour, and then get him upstairs, and – and do the rest. Come with me!" He put his hand lightly within her arm. "He will rest quietly on his throne for a little while. He's not afraid any more. He's at rest."
Still with his arm in Mary's, he bent forward and kissed the old man on the forehead. "I shall miss you, old friend," he said. Then, with gentle insistence, he led Mary away. They left the old man, propped up by the high stool on which his feet rested, seated far back in the great chair, hard by Captain Duggle's grave, where the sceptre lay on a carpet of gold. The tall candles burnt on either side of his throne, imparting a far-off semblance of ceremonial state.
Thus died, unmarried, in the seventy-first year of his age, Aloysius William Saffron, formerly of Exeter, Surveyor and Auctioneer. He had run, on the whole, a creditable course; starting from small beginnings, and belonging to a family more remarkable for eccentricity than for any solid merit, he had built up a good practice; he had made money and put it by; he enjoyed a good name for financial probity. But he was held to be a vain, fussy, self-important, peacocky fellow; very self-centred also and (as Beaumaroy had indicated) impatient of the family and social obligations which most men recognize, even though often unwillingly. As the years gathered upon his head, these characteristics were intensified. On the occasion of some trifling set-back in business – a rival cut him out in a certain negotiation – he threw up everything and disappeared from his native town. Thenceforward nothing was heard of him there, save that he wrote occasionally to his cousin, Sophia Radbolt, and her husband, both of whom he most cordially hated, whose claims to his notice, regard, or assistance he had, of late years at least, hotly resented. Yet he wrote to them – wrote them vaunting and magniloquent letters, hinting darkly of great doings and great riches. In spite of their opinion of him, the Radbolts came to believe perhaps half of what he said; he was old and without other ties; their thirst for his money was greedy. Undoubtedly the Radbolts would dearly have loved to get hold of him and – somehow – hold him fast.
When he came to Tower Cottage – it was in the first year of the war – he was precariously sane; it was only gradually that his fundamental and constitutional vices and foibles turned to a morbid growth. First came intensified hatred and suspicion of the Radbolts – they were after him and his money! Then, through hidden processes of mental distortion, there grew the conviction that he was of high importance, a great man, the object of great conspiracies, in which the odious Radbolts were but instruments. It was, no doubt, the course of public events, culminating in the Great War, which gave to his mania its special turn, to his delusion its monstrous (but, as Doctor Mary was aware, by no means unprecedented) character. By the time of his meeting with Beaumaroy the delusion was complete; through all the second half of 1918 he followed – so far as his mind could now follow anything rationally – in his own person and fortunes the fate of the man whom he believed himself to be, appropriating the hopes, the fears, the imagined ambitions, the physical infirmity, of that self-created other self.
But he wrapped it all in deep secrecy, for, as the conviction of his true identity grew complete, his fears were multiplied. Radbolts indeed! The whole of Christendom – Principalities and Powers – were on his track. They would shut him up – kill him perhaps! Cunningly he hid his secret – save what could not be entirely hidden, the physical deformity. But he hid it with his shawl; he never ate out of his own house; the combination knife-and-fork was kept sedulously hidden. Only to Beaumaroy did he reveal the hidden thing; and later, on Beaumaroy's persuasion, he let into the portentous secret one faithful servant – Beaumaroy's unsavoury retainer, Sergeant Hooper.
He never accepted Hooper as more than a distasteful necessity – somebody must wait on him and do him menial service – not feared indeed, for surely such a dog would not dare to be false, but cordially disliked. Beaumaroy won him from the beginning. Whom he conceived him to be Beaumaroy himself never knew, but he opened his heart to him unreservedly. Of him he had no suspicion; to him he looked for safety and for the realization of his cherished dreams. Beaumaroy soothed his terrors and humoured him in all things – what was the good of doing anything else? asked Beaumaroy's philosophy. He loved Beaumaroy far more than he had loved anybody except himself in all his life. At the end, through the wild tangle of mad imaginings, there ran this golden thread of human affection; it gave the old man hours of peace, sometimes almost of sanity.
So he came to his death, directly indeed of a long-standing organic disease, yet veritably self-destroyed. And so he sat now dead, amidst his shabby parody of splendour. He had done with thrones; he had even done with Tower Cottage – unless indeed his pale shade were to hold nocturnal converse with the robust and flamboyant ghost of Captain Duggle; the one vaunting his unreal vanished greatness, mouthing orations and mimicking pomp; the other telling, in language garnished with strange and horrible oaths, of those dark and lurid terrors which once had driven him from this very place, leaving it ablaze behind. A strange couple they would make, and strange would be their conversation!
Yet the tenement which had housed the old man's deranged spirit, empty as now it was – aye, emptier than Duggle's tomb – was still to be witness of one more earthly scene and unwittingly bear part in it.
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