Dangerous Ground: or, The Rival Detectivesñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“I shall; I am sure of it. It’s an admirable feature of our best society. If we are heiresses, we are surrounded with lovers who are fascinated by our bank account. If we are poor, we are all in search of a bank account; and many of us have to do some sharp angling.”
“My sister-in-law angled very successfully.”
“So she did, if you will put it so. And she did not land her last chance; she might have married as wealthy a man as Mr. Warburton, or as handsome a man as his brother. But then,” with a provoking little gesture of disdain, “Leslie and I never did admire handsome men.”
There was just a shade of annoyance in the voice that answered her:
“Pray go on, Miss French; doubtless yourself and Mrs. Warburton have other tastes in common.”
“So we have,” retorted the girl, rising and standing directly before him, “but I won’t favor you with a list of them. You don’t like Leslie, and I do; but let me tell you, Mr. Alan Warburton, if the day ever comes when you know Leslie Warburton as I know her, you will go down into the dust, ashamed that you have so misjudged, so wronged, so slandered one who is as high as the stars above you. And now I am going to join the dancers; you can come – or stay.”
The last words were flung at him over her shoulder, and before he could rise to follow, she had vanished in the throng that was surging to and fro without the alcove.
He starts forward as if about to pursue her, and then sinks back upon the couch.
“I won’t be a greater fool than nature made me,” he mutters in scornful self-contempt. “If I go, she’ll flirt outrageously under my very nose; if I stay – she’ll flirt all the same, of course. Ah! if a man would have a foretaste of purgatory let him live under the same roof with the woman he loves and the woman he hates!”
A shadow comes between his vision and the gleam of light from without, and, lifting his eyes, he encounters two steady orbs gazing out from behind a yellow mask.
“Ah!” He half rises again, then sinks back and motions the mask to the seat beside him.
“I recognize your costume,” he says, as the British officer seats himself. “How long since you came?”
“Only a few moments. I have been waiting for your interview with the lady to end.”
“Ah!” with an air of abstraction; then, recalling himself: “Do you know the nature of the work required of you?”
Under his mask, Van Vernet’s face flamed and he bit his lip with vexation. This man in black and scarlet, this aristocrat, addressed him, not as one man to another, but loftily as a king to a subject. But there was no sign of annoyance in his voice as he replied:
“Um – I suppose so. Delicate bit of a shadowing, I was told; no particulars given.”
“There need be no particulars. I will point you out the person to be shadowed. I want you to see her, and be yourself unseen. You are simply to discover, – find out where she goes, who she sees, what she does.
Don’t disturb yourself about motives; I only want the facts
“Ah!” thought Van Vernet; “it’s a she, then.” Aloud, he said: “You have not given the lady’s name?”
“You would find it out, of course?”
“Of course; necessarily.”
“The lady is my – is Mrs. Warburton, the mistress of the house.”
“Ah!” thought the detective; “the old Turk wants me to shadow his wife!”
By a very natural blunder he had fancied himself in communication with Archibald, instead of Alan, Warburton.
“Have you any suspicions? Can you give me any hint upon which to act?” he asked.
“I might say this much,” ventured Alan, after a moment’s hesitation: “The lady has made, I believe, a mercenary marriage and she is hiding something from her husband and friends.”
“I see,” said Vernet. And then, laughing inwardly, he thought: “A case of jealousy!”
In a few words Alan Warburton described to Vernet the “Sunlight,” costume worn by Leslie, and then they separated, Vernet going, not in search of “Sunlight,” but of the Goddess of Liberty.
What he found was this:
In the almost deserted music room stood the Goddess of Liberty, gazing down into the face of a woman in the robes of Sunlight, and both of them engaged in earnest conversation.
He watched them until he saw the Goddess lift the hand of Sunlight with a gesture of graceful reverence, bow over it, and turn away. Then he went back to the place where he had left his patron. He found the object of his quest still seated in the alcove, alone and absorbed in thought.
“I beg your pardon for intruding upon your solitude,” began the detective hastily, at the same time seating himself close beside Alan; “but there is a lady here whose conduct is, to say the least, mysterious. As a detective, it becomes my duty to look after her a little, to see that she does not leave this house until I can follow her.”
“Well?” with marked indifference in his tone.
“If she could be detained,” went on Vernet, “by – say, by keeping some one constantly beside her, so that she cannot leave the house without being observed – ”
Alan Warburton threw back his head.
“Pardon me,” he said, “but I object to thus persecuting a lady, and a guest.”
“But if I tell you that this lady is a man in silken petticoats?”
“And that he seems on very free and friendly terms with your wife.”
“With my wi – ”
Alan Warburton stopped short and looked sharply at the eyes gazing out from behind the yellow mask.
Did this detective think himself conversing with Archibald? If so – well, what then? He shrank from anything like familiarity with this man before him. Why not leave the mistake as it stood? There could be no harm in it, and he, Alan, would thus be free from future annoyance.
“I will not remove my mask,” thought Alan. “He is not likely to see Archibald, and no harm can come of it. In fact it will be better so. It would seem more natural for him to be investigating his wife’s secrets than for me.”
So the mistake was not corrected – the mistake that was almost providential for Alan Warburton, but that proved a very false move in the game that Van Vernet was about to play.
There was but one flaw in the plan of the proposed incognito.
Alan’s voice was a peculiarly mellow tenor, and Van Vernet never forgot a voice once heard.
“Did you say that this disguised person knows – Mrs. Warburton?”
“Who is the fellow, and what disguise does he wear?”
“I am unable to give his name. He is costumed as the Goddess of Liberty.”
Van Vernet had his own reasons for withholding Richard Stanhope’s name.
“So!” he thought, while he waited for Alan’s next words. “I’ll spoil your plans for this night, Dick Stanhope! I wonder how our Chief will like to hear that ‘Stanhope the reliable,’ neglects his duty to go masquerading in petticoats, the better to make love to another man’s wife.”
For Van Vernet, judging Stanhope as a man of the world judges men, had leaped to the hasty, but natural, conclusion, that his masquerade in the garb of the mother of his country, was in the character of a lover.
“Vernet,” said Alan at last, “you are a clever fellow! Let me see; there are half a dozen young men here who are ripe for novelty – set the whisper afloat that behind that blue and white mask is concealed a beautiful and mysterious intruder, and they will hang like leeches about her, hoping to discover her identity, or see her unmask.”
“It’s a capital plan!” cried Vernet, “and it can’t be put into execution too soon.”
“I AM YOUR SHADOW.”
It is not a pleasing task to Alan Warburton, but, spurred on by Vernet, and acting according to his suggestions, it is undertaken and accomplished. Within twenty minutes, two gay, fun-loving young fellows, one habited in the garb of a Celestial, the other dressed as a Troubador, are hastening from room to room in search of the mysterious Goddess of Liberty.
“Who was the Mask that posted us about this mysterious lady?” queries the Celestial, as he lifts a portierie for his comrade to pass.
“If I am not mistaken, it was Warburton.”
“Isn’t that a queer move for His Dignity?”
“Well, I don’t know. Presuming the fair Mystery to be an intruder, he may think it the easiest way of putting her to rout. At any rate there’s a little spice in it.”
And there is spice in it. Before the evening closes, the festive Celestial is willing to vote this meeting with a veiled mystery an occasion full of flavor, and worthy to be remembered.
Leaving the pair in full chase after the luckless, petticoat-encumbered Stanhope, we follow Van Vernet, who, having set this trap for the feet of his unconscious comrade, is about to play his next card.
Gliding among the maskers, he makes his way to a side entrance, and passing the liveried servant on guard at the door with a careless jest, he leaves the house, and hastens where, a few rods distant, a solitary figure is standing.
“How long have you been here, Harvey?” he asks hurriedly, but with noticeable affability.
“About half an hour.”
“Good; now listen, for you are to begin your business. Throw on that domino and follow me; the servants have seen me in conversation with the master of the house and they will not require your credentials. Keep near me, and follow me to the dressing-rooms; by-and-by we will exchange costumes there, after which, you will personate me.”
“But, – ”
“There will be no trouble; just mingle with the throng, saying nothing to anyone. No one will address you who could doubt your identity; I will arrange all that. You comprehend?”
“I think so. You are wanted, or you want to be, in two places at once. This being the least important, you place me here as figure-head, while you fill the bill at the other place.”
“You have grasped the situation, Harvey. Let us go in, and be sure you do justice, in my stead, to the banquet – and the Warburton champagne.”
Van Vernet had planned well. Knowing the importance of the Raid in hand for that night, he had determined to be present and share with Stanhope the honors of the occasion, while he seemed to be devoting all his energies to the solution of the mystery that was evidently troubling his wealthy patron, the master of Warburton Place.
Vernet was a man of many resources, and trying, indeed, must be the situation which his fertile brain could not master.
Having successfully introduced his double into the house, he made his way, once more, to the side of his patron, and, drawing him away from the vicinity of possible listeners, said:
“Mr. Warburton, if you have anything further to say to me, please make use of the present moment. After this it will be best for us to hold no further conversation to-night.”
Alan Warburton turned his eyes toward the detective with a cold, scrutinizing stare.
“Why such caution?”
“Because it seems to me necessary; and, if I may be permitted to suggest, you may make some slight discoveries by keeping an eye, more or less, upon Mrs. Warburton.”
With these words Van Vernet turns upon his heel, and strides away with the air of a man who can do all that he essays.
“He is cool to the verge of impudence!” mutters Alan, as he gazes after the receding figure in the British uniform. “But I will act upon his advice; I will watch Mrs. Warburton.”
It is some moments before he catches sight of her glimmering robes, and then he sees them receding, gliding swiftly, and, as he thinks, with a nervous, hurried movement unusual to his stately sister-in-law.
She is going through the drawing-room, away from the dancers, and he hastens after, wondering a little as to her destination.
From a flower-adorned recess, a fairy form springs out, interrupting the lady in the glimmering robes.
“Mamma!” cries little Daisy, “oh Mamma, I have found Mother Goose —real, live Mother Goose!”
And she points with childish delight to a quaintly dressed personation of that old woman of nursery fame, who sits within the alcove, leaning upon her oaken staff, and peering out from beneath the broad frill of her cap, her gaze eagerly following the movements of the animated child.
“Oh Mamma!” continues the little one, “can’t I stay with Mother Goose? Millie says I must go to bed.”
At another time Leslie Warburton would have listened more attentively, have answered more thoughtfully, and have noted more closely the manner of guest that was thus absorbing the attention of the little one. Now she only says hurriedly:
“Yes, yes, Daisy; you may stay a little longer, – only,” with a hasty glance toward the alcove, “you must not trouble the lady too much.”
“The lady wants me, mamma.”
“Then go, dear.”
And Leslie gathers up her glimmering train and hastens on without once glancing backward.
Pausing a few paces behind her, Alan Warburton has noted each word that has passed between the lady and the child. And now, as the little one bounds back to Mother Goose, who receives her with evident pleasure, he moves on, still following Leslie.
She glides past the dancers, through the drawing rooms, across the music room, and then, giving a hasty glance at the few who linger there, she pulls aside a silken curtain, and looks into the library. The lights are toned to the softness of moonlight; there is silence there, and solitude.
With a long, weary sigh, Leslie enters the library and lets the curtain fall behind her.
Alan Warburton pauses, hesitates for a moment, and then, seeing that the little group of maskers near him seem wholly absorbed in their own merriment, he moves boldly forward, parts the curtain a little way, and peers within.
He sees a woman wearing the garments of Sunlight and the face of despair. She has torn off her mask, and it lies on the floor at her feet. In her hand is a crumpled scrap of paper, and, as she holds it nearer the light and reads what is written thereon, a low moan escapes her lips.
“Again!” she murmurs; “how can I obey them? – and yet I must go.” Then, suddenly, a light of fierce resolve flames in her eyes. “I will go,” she says, speaking aloud in her self-forgetfulness; “I will go, – but it shall be for the last time!”
She thrusts the crumpled bit of paper into her bosom, goes to the window and looks out. Then she crosses to a door opposite the curtained entrance, opens it softly, and glides away.
In another moment, Alan Warburton is in the library. Tearing off the black and scarlet domino he flings it into a corner, and, glancing down at his nautical costume mutters:
“Sailors of this description are not uncommon. Wherever she goes, I can follow her – in this.”
Ten minutes later, while Leslie Warburton’s guests are dancing and making merry, Leslie Warburton, with sombre garments replacing the robes of Sunlight, glides stealthily out from her stately home, and creeps like a hunted creature through the darkness and away!
But not alone. Silently, with the tread of an Indian, a man follows after; a man in the garments of a sailor, who pulls a glazed cap low down across his eyes, and mutters as he goes:
“So, Madam Intrigue, Van Vernet advised me well. Glide on, plotter; from this moment until I shall have unmasked you, I am your shadow!”
“DEAR MRS FOLLINGSBEE.”
While the previously related scenes of this fateful night are transpiring Richard Stanhope finds his silken-trained disguise a snare in which his own feet become entangled, both literally and figuratively.
Moving with slow and stately steps through the vista of splendid rooms, taking note of all that he sees from behind his white and blue mask, he suddenly becomes the object of too much attention. A dashing Troubador presents himself, and will not be denied the pleasure of a waltz with “the stately and graceful Miss Columbia.”
The detective’s feet are encased in satin shoes that, if not small, are at least shapely. He has yet nearly an hour to spare to the masquerade, and his actual business is done. Why not yield to the temptation? He dances with the grace and abandon of the true music worshipper; he loves brightness and gayety, laughter and all sweet sounds; above all, he takes such delight in a jest as only healthy natures can.
“It would be a pity to disappoint such a pretty Troubador,” muses Richard while he seems to hesitate; “he may never have another opportunity to dance with a lady like me.”
And then, bowing a stately consent, he moves away on the arm of the Troubador, who, chuckling at his success, mentally resolves to make a good impression on this mysterious uninvited lady.
Van Vernet’s plot works famously. The Troubador is enchanted with the dancing of the mysterious Goddess, who looks at him with the handsomest, most languid and melting of brown, brown eyes, letting these orbs speak volumes, but saying never a word. And when his fellow-plotter claims the next dance, he yields his place reluctantly, and sees the waist of the Goddess encircled by the arm of the Celestial, with a sigh of regret.
Richard Stanhope, now fully given over to the spirit of mischief, leans confidingly upon the arm of this second admirer, looking unutterable things with his big brown eyes.
They hover about him after this second dance, and he dances again with each. If the Troubador is overflowing with flattery, the Celestial is more obsequious still. Stanhope finds the moments flying, and the attention of the two gallants cease to amuse, and begin to annoy. In vain he tries to shake them off. If one goes, the other remains.
After many futile efforts to free himself from his tormentors, he sees Mr. Follingsbee approach, and beckons him forward with a sigh of relief.
The two maskers, recognizing Uncle Sam as a fitting companion for Miss Columbia, reluctantly yield their ground and withdraw.
“Have those fellows been pestering you?” queries the lawyer, with a laugh.
“Only as they bade fair to prove a hindrance,” with an answering chuckle. “They’re such nice little lady killers: but I must get away from this in a very few minutes. My disguise has been very successful.”
“I should think so! Why, my boy, half the people here, at least those who have recognized me through my costume, think you are – ha! ha! – my wife!”
“So much the better.”
“Why, little Winnie French – she found me out at once – has been looking all through the card rooms for “Dear Mrs. Follingsbee.”” And the jolly lawyer laughs anew.
“Mr. Follingsbee,” – Stanhope has ceased to jest, and speaks with his usual business brusqueness – “Mrs. Warburton, I don’t know for what reason, wished to be informed when I left the house. Will you tell her I am about to go, and that I will let her hear from me further through you? I will go up to the dressing room floor, and wait in the boudoir until you have seen her.”
The boudoir opening upon the ladies’ dressing rooms, is untenanted. But from the inner room, Stanhope catches the hum of feminine voices, and in a moment a quartette of ladies come forth, adjusting their masks as they move toward the stairway.
Suddenly there is a little exclamation of delight, and our detective, standing near the open window, with his face turned from the group, feels himself clasped by a pair of pretty dimpled arms, while a gay voice says in his ear:
“Oh! you dear old thing! Have I found you at last? Follingsbee, you look stunning in that costume. Oh! – ” as Stanhope draws back with a deprecating gesture – “you needn’t deny your identity: isn’t Mr. Follingsbee here as Uncle Sam? I found him out at once, and didn’t Leslie and I see you enter together?”
Stanhope quakes inwardly, and the perspiration starts out under his mask. It is very delightful, under most circumstances, to be embraced by a pair of soft feminine arms, but just now it is very embarrassing and – very ridiculous.
Divided between his desire to laugh and his wish to run away, the detective stands hesitating, while Winnie French, for she it is, begins a critical examination of his costume.
“Don’t you think the dress muffles your figure a little too much, Follingsbee? If it were snugger here,” – giving him a little poke underneath his elbows, – “and not so straight from the shoulders. Why didn’t you shorten it in front, and wear pointed shoes?”
And she seizes the flowing drapery, and draws it back to illustrate her suggestion.
Again Stanhope recoils with a gesture which the gay girl misinterprets, and, quite ignoring the persistent silence of the supposed Mrs. Follingsbee, she chatters on:
“I hope you don’t resent my criticisms, Follingsbee; you’ve picked me to pieces often enough. Or are you still vexed because I won’t fall in love with your favorite Alan? There, now,” – as Stanhope, grown desperate, seems about to speak, – “I know just what you want to say, and you need not say it. Follingsbee,” lowering her voice to a more confidential tone, “if I ever had a scrap of a notion of that sort, I have been cured of it since I came into this house to live. Oh! I know he’s your prime favorite, but you can’t tell me anything about Alan; I’ve got him all catalogued on my ten fingers. Here he is pro and con; pro’s your idea of him, you know. You say he is rich. Well, that’s something in these days! He’s handsome. Bah! a man has no business with beauty; it’s woman’s special prerogative. He came of a splendid blue-blooded family. Fudge! American aristocracy is American rubbish. He’s talented. Well, that’s only an accident for which he deserves no credit. He’s thoroughly upright and honorable. Well, he’s too bolt upright for me.”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî