Dangerous Ground: or, The Rival Detectivesñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
They are robbing him. First his watch; his pocket-book next; then shirt studs, sleeve buttons, even his handkerchief.
And still no word is spoken.
He writhes in impotent anger. His brain seems seized with a sudden madness. These swift, despoiling hands, the darkness, the horrible silence, appall him – fill him with a sort of supernatural terror.
The hands have ceased their search, and he knows that the two robbers have risen. He feels the near presence of one; the footsteps of the other go from him, toward the street.
A scraping sound; a soft rustle. They are gathering up the rags from the floor. The closet again: this time it is opened, entered. A moment’s stillness; then a sharp sound, which he knows to be the striking of a match. Another long silent moment. What are they doing?
Ah! the footsteps retreat. They go toward the outer room; creeping, creeping stealthily.
Now they have crossed the outer room. They go out, and the door is softly closed.
What does this mystery mean? Have they returned to rob him, and then to leave him? Will they come back yet again?
A moment passes; another, and another. Then a sickening odor penetrates to his nostrils, like the burning of some foul-smelling thing.
Crackle, crackle, crackle!
Ah! he comprehends now! The fiends have fired the closet! They have left him there to perish in the flames – the hungry flames that will wipe out all traces of their guilt!
Oh, the unutterable horror that sweeps over him! To die thus: fettered, blinded, powerless to cry for aid! A frenzied madness courses through his veins.
Crackle, hiss, roar!
The flames rise and spread. The door of the closet has fallen in, and now he feels their hot breath. They are closing around him; he is suffocating. He tugs at his fetters with the strength of despair. All is in vain.
Hiss! hiss! hiss!
His brain reels. He is falling, falling, falling. There is a horrible sound in his ears; his eyes see hideous visions; his breath is strangled; he shudders convulsively, and resigns his hold upon life!
“A BRAND FROM THE BURNING.”
There is a cry of alarm in the street below. The fire has broken through the roof, and so revealed itself to some late passer-by.
“Fire! fire! fire!”
Soon the space before the doomed building is swarming with people running, vociferating, cursing, jesting. Drunken men are there, haggard women, dirty, ragged children, who clap their hands and shout excitedly at this splendid spectacle.
It is useless to attempt to save the old tenement; they realize that. But its occupants – They have heard the alarm, and they come out hurriedly, en deshabille, pushing and dragging the children, screaming, and cursing each other and the world.
All on the lower floor are then safe. But the upper floor, and its occupants?
“Fire! fire! fire!”
No signs of life above stairs.
No terrified faces at the windows. No flying forms down the rickety stairway. No cries for help from among the fast-spreading flames.
“Fire! fire! fire!”
They hear the tinkle of bells, the gallop of speeding hoofs upon the pavement.
“Ah!” cries an on-looker, “the fire boys are coming!”
“Too late, they are,” growls another; “too late, as usual.”
The engine approaches; and from the opposite direction comes a man, running swiftly, panting heavily, almost breathless.
The roof is all ablaze now; in a moment the rafters will have fallen in.
The panting new-comer stops suddenly before the door of the burning tenement, and glances sharply about. Near him is a half-dazed woman who has rushed to the rescue, as frightened women will, with a pail of water in her unsteady hand. The man leaps toward her, seizes the pail, dashes its contents over his head and shoulders, and plunging through the doorway, disappears up the stairs.
“Stop! Come back!”
“What a fool!”
“That’s the end of him!”
The on-lookers shout and scream. Exclamations, remonstrance, pity, ridicule – all find voice, and are all lost upon the daring adventurer among the flames.
The engine rushes up; the firemen spring to their work: useless effort. Nobody thinks of them, or what they do; all eyes are on the blazing upper story, all thoughts for the man who is braving the flames.
A crash from aloft; a cry from the multitude. The roof is falling in, and the gallant rescuer – ah! he is doomed.
But no; a form comes reeling out from among the smoke and fire tongues, comes staggering and swaying beneath a burden which is almost too much for his strength.
Then a triumphant yell rises from the multitude. They seize upon rescued and rescuer, and bear them away from the heat and danger. How they scream and crowd; how they elbow and curse; how they exclaim, as they bend over these two refugees from a fiery death!
The rescuer has sunk upon the ground, half suffocated and almost insensible; but all eyes are fixed upon the rescued, for he is bound, gagged and blindfolded!
What is he? Who is he? Why is he thus? They are filled with curiosity; here is a mystery to solve. For the moment the gallant rescuer is forgotten, or only remembered as they seek to avoid trampling upon him in their eagerness to obtain a view of the greater curiosity.
They tear off the fetters of the late prisoner. They wrest the bandage from his eyes. They remove the gag from his mouth. Then curiosity receives a fresh stimulus; exclamations break out anew.
“It’s a nigger!”
“No; look here!”
“Hello, he’s been playin’ moke!”
“He’s been blacked!”
“Look at his clothes, boys.”
“Jerusalem! he’s been robbed.”
Then they begin their efforts to bring him to his senses; partly for humanity’s sake, quite as much that they may gratify their curiosity.
“He’s dead, I reckon.”
“No; only smothered.”
“Stand back there; give us air.”
“Let’s have some water.”
“Look; he’s coming to.”
He is “coming to”. He shudders convulsively, gropes about with his hands and feebly raises his head. Then respiration becomes freer; he draws in a deep breath, sits up and looks about him. He is bewildered at first; then memory reasserts herself. He sees the now almost-demolished tenement, the crowd of eager faces, and notes the fact that he is free, unfettered. He rises to his feet, and unmindful of the questions eagerly poured upon him, gazes slowly about him.
At last two or three policemen have appeared upon the scene. He shakes himself loose from the people about him, and strides toward one of these functionaries; Van Vernet is himself again.
The eyes of the crowd follow his movements in amazement. They see him speak a few words in the ear of one of the officers; see that worthy beckon to a second, and whisper to him in turn. And then, leaning upon the arm of officer number one, and following in the wake of officer number two, who clears the way with authoritative waves of his magic club, he passes them by without a word or glance, and soon, with his double escort, is lost in the darkness, leaving the throng baffled, dissatisfied and, more than all, astounded.
“And he never stops to ask who saved him!” cries a woman’s shrill voice.
“Oh, the wretch!”
“What shameful ingratitude!”
And now their thoughts return to the rescuer, the gallant fellow who has risked his life to save an ingrate.
But he, too, is gone. In the moment when their eyes and their thoughts were following Vernet, he has disappeared.
IN THE CONSERVATORY
Several days have passed since the visit of Mamma Francoise to the Warburton mansion, with all its attendant circumstances; since the flight from the Francoise tenement, and Van Vernet’s rescue from a fiery death.
The Warburton Mansion is closed and gloomy. The splendid drawing-rooms are darkened and tenantless. The music-room is silent and shut from any ray of light. The library, where a dull fire glows in the grate, looks stately and somber. Only in the conservatory – where the flowers bloom and send out breaths of fragrance, and where the birds chirp and carol as if there were no sorrow nor death in the world – is there any light and look of cheer.
Yesterday, the stately doors opened for the last exit of the master of all that splendor. He went out in state, and was followed by an imposing cortege. There was all the solemn pomp, all the grandeur of an aristocratic funeral. But when it was over, what was Archibald Warburton more than the poorest pauper who dies in a hospital and is buried by the coroner?
To-day the doors are closed, the house is silent. The servants go about with solemn faces and hushed voices. Alan Warburton has kept his own room since early morning, and Leslie has been visible only to her maid and to Winnie French.
She is alone in her dressing-room, at this moment, standing erect before the daintily-tiled fire-place, a look of hopeless despair upon her countenance.
A moment since, she was sitting before the fire, so sad, so weary, that it seemed to her that death had left the taint of his presence over everything. Now, that which she held in her hand had brought her back to life, and face to face with her future, with fearful suddenness.
It was a note coarsely written and odorous of tobacco, and it contained these words:
We have waited for you five days. If you do not come to us before two more, they shall know at police headquarters that you can tell them who killed Josef Siebel. You see we have changed our residence.
Then followed the street and number of the Francoises’ new abode. There was no date, no address, no signature. But Leslie knew too well all that it did not say; comprehended to the full its hidden meaning.
She had not anticipated this blow; had never dreamed that they would dare so much. Standing there, with her lips compressed and her fingers clutching the dirty bit of paper, she looked the future full in the face.
Stanhope had bidden her ignore their commands and fear nothing. But then he never could have anticipated this. If she could see him; could consult him once again. But that was impossible; he had told her so.
For many moments she stood moveless and silent, her brow contracted, the desperate look in her eyes growing deeper, her lips compressing themselves into fixed firm lines.
Then she thrust the note into her pocket, and turned from the grate.
“It is the last straw!” she muttered, in a low monotone. “But there shall be no more hesitation; we have had enough of that. They may do their worst now, and – ” she shut her teeth with a sharp sound – “and I will frustrate them, at the cost of my honor or my life!”
There was no timidity, no tremor of hesitation in her movements, as she crossed the room and opened the door. Her hand was firm, her step steady, her face as fixed as marble; but it looked, in its white immobility, like a face that was dead.
She crossed the hall and entered the chamber occupied by her friend. A maid was there, engaged in sewing.
Miss French had just left the room, she said. Miss French felt oppressed by the loneliness and gloom. She had gone below, probably to the conservatory.
Winnie was in the conservatory, holding a book in one listless hand, idly fingering a trailing vine with the other. Her eyes, usually so merry and sparkling, were tear-dimmed and fixed on vacancy. Her pretty face was unnaturally woeful; her piquant mouth, sad and drooping.
She sprang up, however, with a quick exclamation, when Leslie’s hand parted the clustering vines, and Leslie’s self glided in among the exotics.
“Sit where you are, Winnie,” said Leslie, in a voice which struck her listener as strangely chill and monotonous. “Let me sit beside you. It’s not quite so dreary here, and I’ve something to say to you.”
Casting a look of startled inquiry upon her, Winnie resumed her seat among the flowery vines, and Leslie sank down beside her, resuming, as she did so, and in the same even, icy tone:
“Dear, I want you to promise me, first of all, to keep what I am about to say a secret.”
Winnie lifted two inquiring eyes to the face of her friend, but said no word.
“I know, Winnie, that you have ever been my truest, dearest friend,” pursued Leslie. “But now – ah! I must put your friendship to a new, strange test. I feel as if my secret would be less a burden if shared by a true friend, and you are that friend. Winnie, I have a sad, sad secret.”
The young girl turned her face slowly away from Leslie’s gaze, and when it was completely hidden among the leaves and blossoms, she breathed, in a scarcely audible whisper:
“I know it, Leslie; I guessed.”
“What!” queried Leslie, a look of sad surprise crossing her face, “you, too, have guessed it? And I thought it so closely hidden! Oh,” with a sudden burst of passion, “did my husband suspect it, too, then?”
“No, dear,” replied Winnie, turning her face toward Leslie but keeping her eyes averted; “no, I do not believe that Archibald guessed. He was too true and frank himself to suspect any form of falsity in another.”
“Falsity!” Leslie rose slowly to her feet, her face fairly livid.
Winnie also arose, and seizing one of Leslie’s hands began, in a broken voice:
“Leslie, forgive the word! Oh, from the very first, I have known your secret, and pitied you. I knew it because – because I, too, am a woman, and can read a woman’s heart. But Archibald never guessed it, and Alan – ”
She broke off abruptly, wringing her hands as if tortured by her own words.
But Leslie coldly completed the sentence. “Alan! He knows it?”
“Oh, yes. It began by his doubting your love for his brother, and then – the knowledge – that you cared – for him – ”
Across Leslie’s pallid face the red blood came surging, and a bitter cry broke from her lips; a cry that bore with it all her constrained calmness.
“That I cared!” she repeated wildly. “Winnifred French, what are you saying! God of Heaven! is that madness known, too?”
She flung herself upon the divan, her form shaken by a passion of voiceless sobs.
“Oh, Leslie, don’t!” cried Winnie, flinging herself down beside her friend. “We cannot always control our hearts; and indeed, dear, I do not blame you for loving him. Leslie,” lowering her voice softly, “it is no sin for you to love him, now.”
“No sin!” Leslie’s voice was regaining its calmness, but not its icy tone. “Winnie, you can say that? Ah! a woman can read a woman’s heart, and I have read yours: you love Alan Warburton.”
“I? no, no!”
“I say yes; and but for your Quixotic notions of loyalty and friendship, you would be his promised wife to-day. Winnie, listen; having begun another confession I will make my confidence entire. I never dreamed that you or – or Alan, guessed my horrible folly. I did not come to intrust to your keeping that dead secret. You tell me that it is no sin to love Alan now. Winnie, the greatest sin of my life has been that I promised to marry Archibald Warburton without loving him. But, at least, I was heart-free then; I cared for no other. We were betrothed three months before Alan came home, and I – . But let that pass; it is the crowning-point of my humiliation. I did love Alan Warburton. If I loved him still, I could not say this so calmly. Winnie, believe me; that madness is over. To-day Alan Warburton is to me – my husband’s brother, nothing more; just as I am nothing, in his eyes, save a woman who wears with ill grace the proud name of Warburton. This may seem strange to you. It will not appear so strange when you hear what I am about to tell. Alan Warburton’s egotism has cured me effectually. I am free from that folly, thank Heaven, but I shall never cease to hate myself for it. And my humiliation is now complete, since you tell me that Alan knew of my madness. But, Winnie, this is not what I came to tell you. I have another secret, dear, but this one is not like the other, a sin of my own making. It is a story of the craftiness of others, and of my weakness – yes, wickedness.”
“Hush, Leslie,” said Winnie impetuously, “I won’t hear you talk of wickedness. I am glad you no longer care for Alan; and as for me, I just hate him; the detestable, stiff-necked – pshaw, don’t talk as if you had wronged him!”
There is a movement of the heavy curtains that separate this bower from the library. Some one is approaching, but Leslie, unaware of this near presence, answers sadly:
“Ah, Winnie, you don’t know all. I have dared to unite myself to the haughty house of Warburton; to take upon myself a name old, honored and unsullied, and to drag that name – ”
A sound close at hand causes them both to start. They lift their eyes to see, pale and erect among the roses and lilies and trailing vines, wearing upon his handsome face a look of mingled sadness and scorn – Alan Warburton.
FLINT TO STEEL
There was a long moment of silence, and then Alan Warburton spoke.
“Much as I desire to hear that sentence completed, Mrs. Warburton, I could do no less than interrupt.”
Leslie dropped Winnie’s hand and rose slowly, moving with a stately grace toward the entrance before which Alan stood. And Winnie, with a wrathful glance at the intruder, flung aside a handful of loose leaves with an impatient motion, and followed her friend.
But Alan, making no effort to conceal his hostile feelings, still stood before the entrance, and again addressed Leslie.
“May I detain you for a moment, Mrs. Warburton?”
Leslie paused before him with a face as haughty as his own, and bowed her assent. Then she drew back and looked at Winnie, who, with a gesture meant to be imperious, commanded Alan to stand aside.
“Will you remain, Miss French?” asked Alan, but moving aside with a courtly bow.
“No; I won’t,” retorted the irate little lady. “I don’t like the change of climate. I’m going up stairs for my furs and a foot-warmer – ugh!”
And casting upon him a final glance of scorn, she dashed aside the curtains, and they heard the door of the library close sharply behind her.
For a moment they regarded each other silently. Since the night of that fateful masquerade they had not exchanged words, except such commonplaces as were made necessary by the presence of a third person. Now they were both prepared for a final reckoning: he with stern resolve stamped upon every feature; she with desperate defiance in look and manner.
“I think,” she said, with a movement toward the portierie, “that our conversation had better be continued there.”
He bowed a stately assent, and held back the curtains while she passed into the library.
She crossed the room with slow, graceful movements, and pausing before the hearth, turned her face toward him.
Feeling to her heart’s core the humiliation brought by the knowledge that this man, her accuser, had fathomed the secret of her past love for him; with the thought of the Francoises’ threat ever before her – Leslie Warburton stood there hopeless, desolate, desperate. She had ceased to struggle with her fate. She had resolved to meet the worst, and to brave it. She was the woman without hope, but she was every inch a queen, her head haughtily poised, her face once more frozen into pallid tranquility.
Standing thus, she was calm, believing that she had drained her bitter cup to its very dregs; that Fate could have no more poisoned arrows in store for her.
Ah, if she had known that her bitterest draught was yet to be quaffed; that the deadliest wound was yet to be inflicted!
She made no effort to break the silence that fell between them; she would not aid him by a word.
Comprehending this, after a moment of waiting, he said:
“Madam, believe me, I have no desire to do you an injustice. I have purposely avoided this interview, wishing, while my dead brother remained among us, to spare you for his sake. Now, however, it is my duty to fathom the mystery in which you have chosen to envelop yourself. What have you to say?”
“That, knowing his duty so well, Mr. Alan Warburton will do it, undoubtedly.” And she bowed with ironical courtesy.
“And you still persist in your refusal to explain?”
“On the contrary, I am quite at your service.”
She smiled as she said these words. At least she could humble the pride of this superior being, and she would have this small morsel of revenge. Her answer astonished him. His surprise was manifest. And she favored him with a frosty smile as she asked:
“What is it that my brother-in-law desires to know?”
“The truth,” he replied sternly. “What took you to that vile den on the night of your masquerade? Are those Francoises the people you have so frequently visited by stealth? Are they your clandestine correspondents?”
“Your questions come too fast,” she retorted calmly. “I will reverse the order of my answers. The Francoises are my clandestine correspondents. My visits by stealth, have all been paid to them. It was a threat that took me there that eventful night.”
“Then you are in their power?”
“And their sway has ceased?”
“It has ceased.”
“Since the receipt of this.”
She took from her pocket the crumpled note, and held it out to him.
He read it with his face blanching.
“Then it was you!” he gasped, with a recoil of horror.
“It was a blow in my defence,” she said, with a glance full of meaning. “It would not become me to save myself at the expense of the one who dealt it.”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî