Dangerous Ground: or, The Rival Detectivesñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
All the long night that followed Leslie’s appearance among the Francoises, Mamma was alert and watchful.
Often she crept to the door of the inner room, where Leslie slumbered heavily. Often she glanced, with a grin of satisfaction, toward the couch where Franz lay breathing regularly, and scarcely stirring the whole night through. Often she turned her face, with varying expressions, toward the corner where Papa slumbered uneasily, muttering vaguely from time to time. But never once did her eyes close. All the night she watched and listened, pondered and planned.
As morning dawned, the stillness of the inner room was pierced by a burst of shrill laughter, followed by words swiftly uttered but indistinct. Mamma hastened at once to the bedside of her new charge.
Leslie had broken her heavy slumber, but the fire of fever burned in her cheeks, the light of insanity blazed from her eyes; and for many days it mattered little to her that she was a fugitive from home, a woman under suspicion, and helpless in the hands of her enemies. Nature, indulging in a kindly freak, had taken her back to her girlhood’s days, before her first trouble came. She was Leslie Uliman again; watched over by loving parents, care-free and happy.
It was a crushing blow to Mamma’s hopes and ambitions, and she faced a difficult problem, there by that couch in the grey of morning. Leslie was very ill. This she saw at a glance, and then came the thought: What if she were to die, and just at a time when so much depended upon her? It roused Mamma to instant action. Leslie must not die – not yet.
Papa and Franz were at once awakened, and the situation made known to them. Whereupon Papa fell into a state of helpless, hopeless dejection, and Franz flew into a fury.
“It’s all up with us now,” moaned Papa. “Luck’s turned aginst us.”
“It’s up, sure enough, with your fine plans,” sneered Franz. “I’m goin’ ter take myself out of yer muddle, while my way’s clear.”
“If I wasn’t dealin’ with a pair of fools,” snapped Mamma, “I’d come out all right. The gal ain’t dead yet, is she?”
And then, while Leslie laughed and chattered, alone in the inner room, the three resolved themselves into a council, wrangled and disputed, and at last compromised and settled upon a plan – Papa yielding sullenly, Franz protesting to the last and making sundry reservations, and Mamma carrying the day.
Leslie must have a physician; it would never do to trust her fever to unskilled hands; she must have a physician, and a good one. So said Mamma.
“It ain’t so risky as you might think,” she argued. “A good doctor’s what we want – one whose time’s valuable. Then he won’t be running here when he ain’t wanted. He’ll come an’ see the gal, an’ then he’ll be satisfied to take my reports and send her the medicine. Oh, I know these city doctors. They come every day if you’ve got a marble door-step, but they won’t be any too anxious about poor folks.
A doctor can’t make nothin’ out of the kind of talk she is at now, and by the time she gits her senses, we’ll hit on somethin’ new.”
This plan was opposed stoutly by Franz, feebly by Papa; but the old woman carried the point at last.
“I know who we want,” said Mamma confidently. “It’s Doctor Bayless. He’s a good doctor, an’ he don’t live any too near.”
At the mention of Doctor Bayless, Papa’s countenance took on an expression of relief, which was noted by Franz, who turned away, saying:
“Wal, git your doctor, then, an’ the quicker the better. But mind this: I don’t appear till I’m sure it’s safe. Ye kin git yer doctor, but when he’s here, I’ll happen ter be out.”
It was Mamma who summoned Doctor Bayless, and he came once, twice, and again.
His patient passed, under his care, from delirium to stupor, from fever to coolness and calm, and then to returning consciousness. As he turned from her bedside, at the termination of his third visit, he said:
“I think she will get on, now. Keep her quiet, avoid excitement, and if she does not improve steadily, let me know.”
He had verified Mamma’s good opinion of him by manifesting not the slightest concern in the personality of his patient. If he were, for the moment, interested in Leslie, it was as a fever patient, not as a woman strangely superior to her surroundings. And on this occasion he dropped his interest in her case at the very door of the sick-room.
At the corner of the dingy street, a voice close behind him arrested his footsteps: “Doctor Bayless.”
The man of medicine turned quickly to face the speaker.
“This is Doctor Bayless?” the owner of the intrusive voice queried.
Doctor Bayless bowed stiffly.
“Bayless, formerly of the R – street Insane Asylum?” persisted the questioner.
The doctor reddened and a startled look crossed his face, but he said, after a moment’s silence: “The same.”
“I want a few words with you, sir.”
“Excuse me;” – the doctor was growing haughty; – “my time is not my own.”
“Neither is mine, sir. I am a public benefactor, same as yourself.”
“Ah, a physician?”
“Oh, not at all; a detective.”
“A detective!” Doctor Bayless did not look reassured. He glanced at the detective, and then up and down the street, his uneasiness evident.
“I am a detective; yes, sir,” said the stranger cheerily, “and you are in a position to do me a favor without in any way discommoding yourself. Don’t be alarmed, sir; its nothing that affects you or touches upon that asylum business. You are safe with me, my word for it, and here’s my card. Now, sir, just take my arm and come this way.”
Doctor Bayless glanced down at the card, and then up at the speaker; and a look of relief crossed his face as he accepted the proffered arm, and walked slowly along at the side of his new acquaintance.
DELAYS ARE DANGEROUS
Doctor Bayless had predicted aright. Leslie continued to gain slowly, and in the third week of her illness, she could sit erect in her bed for an hour or two each day, listening to Mamma’s congratulations, and recalling, one by one, her woes of the past. Not recalling them poignantly, with the sharp pain that would torture her when she should have gained fuller strength, but vaguely, with a haunting pang, as one remembers an unhappy dream.
Day by day, as strength came back, her listlessness gave place to painful thought. One day, sitting for the first time in a lounging-chair, procured at second-hand for her comfort, she felt that the time had come to break the silence which, since her first full awakening to consciousness, she had imposed upon herself.
Mamma was bustling about the room, inwardly longing to begin the passage-at-arms which she knew must soon ensue, and outwardly seeming solicitous for nothing save the comfort of her “dear girl.” As Leslie’s eyes followed her about, each seemed suddenly to have formed a like resolve.
“How many days have I been ill?” asked Leslie slowly, and languidly resting her head upon her hand.
Mamma turned toward her and seemed to meditate.
“How many days, my child? Ah, let us see. Why, it’s weeks since you came to us – two, yes, three weeks; three weeks and a day.”
Leslie was silent for a moment. Then she asked:
“And you have nursed me through my illness; you alone?”
“Surely; who else would there be?” replied Mamma in an injured tone.
“Who, indeed!” repeated Leslie bitterly. “Sit down, Madam; I want to talk with you.”
Mamma drew forward a chair, and sank upon it with a gratified sigh. It had come at last, the opportunity for which she had planned and waited. She could scarcely conceal her satisfaction.
“You have nursed me,” began Leslie slowly, “through a tedious illness, and I have learned that you do nothing gratuitously. What do you expect of me?”
“Oh, my child – ”
“Stop!” lifting her head, and fixing her eyes upon the old woman; “no evasions; I want the plain truth. I have no money. My husband’s fortune I will never claim. I have told you this; I repeat it. So what do you expect of me? Why was I not permitted to die in my delirium?”
Among her other talents, Mamma Francoise numbered that power, as useful off the stage as it is profitable behind the footlights – the power to play a part. And now, bringing this power into active use, she bowed her head upon her breast and sighed heavily.
“Ah, Leschen, you break my heart. We wanted you to live; we thought you had something to live for.”
The acting was excellent, but the words were ill-chosen.
“Something to live for!” Leslie’s hands met in a passionate clasp. “Something to live for! Right, woman; I have. Tell me, since you have brought me back to myself, how, how can I ransom Daisy Warburton?”
Mamma’s time has come. Slowly she wipes away an imaginary tear, softly she draws her chair yet nearer Leslie, gently she begins.
“Leschen, my poor girl, don’t think us guilty of stealing your little one; don’t. When you came here that night, I thought you were wild. But now, – since you have been sick – something has happened.”
She paused to note the effect of her words, but Leslie sat quite still, with her hands tightly locked together.
“Something has happened?” she echoed coldly. “I felt sure it would; go on.”
“It isn’t what you think, my girl. We haven’t found your little dear; but there is a person – ”
“Go on,” commanded Leslie: “straight to the point. Go on!”
“A person who might find the child, if – ”
“If he or she were sufficiently rewarded,” supplied Leslie. “Quick; tell me, what must Daisy’s ransom be?”
Mamma’s pulse beats high, her breath comes fast and loud. It is not in her nature to trifle with words now. She leans forward and breathes one word into Leslie’s ear.
“Myself!” Leslie gasps and her brain reels. “Myself!” she controls her agitation, and asks fiercely: “Woman, what do you dare to say?”
“Only this,” Mamma continues, very firmly and with the tiger look dawning in her eye. “You have no money, but you have beauty, and that is much to a man. Will you marry the man who will find your little girl?”
In spite of her weakness, Leslie springs up and stands above Mamma, a fierce light blazing in her eyes.
“Woman, answer me!” she cries fiercely; “do you know where that child is?”
“I? Oh, no, my dear.”
“Is there another, a man, who knows?”
Slowly Mamma rises, and the two face each other with set features.
“There is a man,” says Mamma, swaying her body slightly as she speaks, and almost intoning her words – “There is a man who swears he can find the child, but he will not make any other terms than these. He will not see you at all until you have agreed to his demands. You will marry him, and sign a paper giving him a right to a portion of your fortune, in case you should make up your mind to claim it. You may leave him after the ceremony, if you will; you need not see him again; but you must swear never to betray him or us, and never to tell how you found the child.”
Into Leslie’s face creeps a look of intense loathing. All her courageous soul seems aroused into fearless action. Her scornful eyes fairly burn into the old woman’s face.
“So,” she says, low and slowly, “I have found you out at last.” And then the weak body refuses to support the dauntless spirit.
She sinks back upon her chair, her form shaking, her face ghastly, her hands falling weakly as they will. But as Mamma comes forward, the strong spirit for a moment masters the weak body.
“Don’t touch me,” she almost hisses, “or, weak as I am, I might murder you! wait.”
And Mamma stands aloof, waiting. Not while Leslie thinks – there is no confusion of mind – only until the bodily tremor ceases, until the nerves grow calmer, until she has herself once more under control. She does not attempt to rise again. She reclines in her easy chair, and looks at her adversary unflinchingly.
“At last,” she says, after favoring Mamma with a long look of scorn; “at last you show yourself in your true character. Your own hand pulls off your hypocrite’s mask. Woman, you were never so acceptable to me as at this moment. It simplifies everything.”
“You must not think – ” begins Mamma. But Leslie checks her.
“Stop!” she says imperiously. “Don’t waste words. We have wasted too many, and too much time. I desire you to repeat your proposition, to name your terms again. No more whining, no more lies, if you want me to listen. You are my enemy; speak as my enemy. Once more, your terms for Daisy’s ransom.”
And Mamma, too wise to err in this particular, abandons her role of injured affection. Dropping her mantle of hypocrisy, not without a sense of relief, she repeats her former proposal, clearly, curtly, brutally, leaving no room for doubt as to her precise meaning.
Leslie listens in cold silence and desperate calm. Then, as Mamma ceases, she sits, still calm, cold and silent, looking straight before her. At last she speaks.
“This person,” she says slowly; “this man who can find Daisy if he will – may I not see him?”
“When you have given your promise; not before.”
“He will accept no other terms?”
“And this transaction, this infamy – he leaves all details to you?”
“Then there is no more to be said. I might hope for mercy from the beasts of the field, but not from you.”
“If I refuse, what will be the consequences to Daisy?”
“You had better not refuse!” retorts Mamma, with a glare of rage.
Before Leslie’s mind comes the picture of little Daisy, and following it a panorama of horrors. Again she feels her strength deserting her.
“Wait,” she whispers with her last fragment of self-command. “Leave me to myself. Before sunset you shall have my answer.”
Further words are useless. Mamma, seeing this, turns slowly away, saying only, as she pauses at the door:
“Don’t waste your time; delays are dangerous.”
A PROMISE RETRACTED
Left alone, Leslie Warburton faced her problem, and found herself mastered by it. She had believed herself already overwhelmed with misery – had fancied that in coming among these people who claimed her, she had taken the last step down into the valley of humiliation, of shame, of utter wretchedness. But they had shown her a lower depth still, and bidden her descend into it.
Should she obey them? Her pulses were throbbing violently, a fierce flame burned in either cheek, a shade of the old delirium lurked in her eye. Should she crown her list of miseries with this culminating horror? Why should she not? What had she to lose? She, who had already lost husband, home and happiness; she, who was already an outcast, accused of treachery, of child-stealing, of murder; she, who was only a waif at best, and who could claim no kindred unless she accepted those whose roof then sheltered her? What had she to lose? Only her life, and that must end soon. Why not make this last sacrifice, then let it end.
Her calmness, that before had been at best but the calmness of despair, had forsaken her; had changed to the recklessness of desperation. Faster and faster throbbed her pulses, hotter surged the blood through her fevered veins, wilder gleamed the light of her eyes.
Born of her weakness, her misery, her growing delirium, came a fierce, unreasoning rebellion; a longing to thrust upon the shoulders of Alan Warburton, who, more than any other, had been the cause of her present woe, a portion of this weight that dragged her down. Had she not suffered enough for the “Warburton honor?” Why not force him to tread with her this valley of humiliation?
Then followed other thoughts – better thoughts, humbler thoughts, but all morbid, all tinged by her half delirious fancy, all reckless of self.
And now every moment adds to her torture, increases the fever in her blood, the frenzy of her brain.
“I must end it!” she cries wildly. “I must save Daisy! And after that what matter how my day goes out?”
She walks swiftly to the door and attempts to open it. Useless; it is fastened from the outer side. She seizes the handle and shakes it fiercely. It seems an hour, it is really a moment, when Mamma unlocks the door and appears before her.
“You – ”
“I have decided,” breaks in Leslie. “I shall make the sacrifice.”
“You will marry this worthy man?”
“I will save Daisy from your clutches, and his.”
“In his own way?”
“In his own way, and yours. Let it be over as soon as possible. Where is this man?”
“Gently, gently; he is not far away.”
“So much the better. I cannot rest now till all is done. I must take Daisy back to her home; the rest is nothing.”
Mamma looks at her craftily.
“You agree to all the terms?” she asks. “Will you swear to keep your word?”
“I will do anything, when I am assured that I shall have Daisy safely back.”
“Ah!” ejaculates Mamma, indulging in a long sigh of relieved anxiety, “I will go tell Franz. He is as anxious to have the business settled as you are.”
“Yes; it is Franz that you will marry.”
“Franz!” the word comes in a breathless whisper. “Your son – the convict?”
“You needn’t put so much force upon that. Yes; Franzy’s the man.”
A new look dawns upon Leslie’s face. A new light gleams from her eyes. She presses her palms to her forehead, then slowly approaches Mamma, with the uncertain movements of one groping in the dark.
“You told – ” she articulates, as if struggling for self-mastery. “Woman, you told me that Franz Francoise was your son.”
“So he is. I ain’t ashamed of him,” Mamma answers sullenly.
“Then,” – Leslie clutches at the nearest support and fairly gasps the words – “then —who am I?”
“Well, it can’t be kept back any longer, it seems. You are – ”
“Not your child?” cries Leslie. “Not yours?”
“No; you ain’t ours by birth, but you’re ours by adoption. We’ve reared ye, and we’ve made ye what ye are.”
But Leslie pays no heed to this latter statement. She has fallen upon her knees with hands uplifted, and streaming eyes.
“Not her child; not hers! Oh, God, I thank thee! Oh, God, forgive me for what I was about to do!”
Long, shivering sighs follow this outburst; then moments of silence, during which Mamma stands irresolute, puzzled as to Leslie’s manner, uncertain how to act.
A sound behind her breaks the uncomfortable stillness, and Mamma turns quickly, to see Franz standing in the open doorway.
“Franz, – ” begins the old woman.
The word arouses Leslie, she rises to her feet so swiftly, with such sudden strength of movement, and such a new light upon her face, that Mamma breaks off abruptly and stands staring from one to the other.
“Woman,” says Leslie slowly and with strange calm, “those are the first welcome words you ever uttered for my hearing. Say them again. Say that I am not your child.”
“I don’t see what it matters,” mutters Mamma sullenly. “You will be our’n fast enough when you’re married to Franz.”
“Eh!” Franz utters only this syllable, and advances step by step into the room.
A moment Leslie stands gazing from one to the other. Then her form grows more erect, the new hope brighter in her eyes, she seems growing stronger each moment.
“Half an hour ago,” she says, “I had not one thing to hope for, or to live for, save the restoration of Daisy Warburton, for I believed myself accursed. Rebel as my soul would, while your lips repeated your claim upon me I could not escape you. While you persisted in your lies, I was helpless. Now – ”
Mamma’s hands work convulsively; her eyes glitter dangerously; she looks like a cat about to spring upon its prey. As Leslie pauses thus abruptly, her lips emit a sharp hiss, but before words can follow, a heavy hand grasps her arm.
“Go on,” says Franz coolly; “now?”
“Do you know the proposition that woman has just made me?” asks Leslie abruptly.
“‘Twon’t be good for her, if she has made ye a proposition I don’t know on,” says Franz grimly, and tightening his clutch upon Mamma’s arm. “An’ fer fear of any hocus-pocus, suppose you jest go over it fer my benefit.”
“She has told me that you can, if you will, restore Daisy Warburton to her home.”
“No? has she?”
“That you, and you only, know where to look for the child.”
“And that you will restore the child only on one condition.”
“And wot’s that?”
“That I consent to marry you.”
“Wal,” says Franz, turning a facetious look upon Mamma, and giving her arm a gentle shake; “the old un may have trifled with the truth, here and there, but she’s right in the main. How did the proposition strike ye?”
Leslie turns from him and fixes her gaze upon the old woman.
“And this,” she says, “is the man you would mate me with! Woman, you have overreached yourself. Believing, or fearing, myself to be your child, I might have been driven to any act of desperation. You have lifted that burden of horror from off my heart. I am not your child! No blood of yours poisons my veins! Do you think in the moment when I find the taint removed, I would doubly defile myself by taking the step you have proposed? Never! Your power over me is gone!”
“Do ye mean,” queries Franz quite coolly, “that you won’t take up with the old woman’s bargain?”
“She has done it!” cries Mamma fiercely. “She’s given her promise!”
“And I now retract it!”
“What!” Mamma suddenly wrenches herself free and springs toward Leslie. “You won’t marry Franz?”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî