ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“Why should there not be some devil’s brew where such men as Figuero and Baumgartner foregather?” he asked himself. “It exists, as I well know, and Rosamund Laing is just the woman to sip it. I wish now that I had insisted more firmly on Evelyn’s removal from the Baumgartner gang. I was mad not to ask her to marry me at once. We could have managed somehow, and she would have borne the separation for a year or more.”
Then it occurred to him that the two hundred pounds’ worth of diamonds in his pocket would almost have furnished a country cottage, and, to crown all, there was the exquisite folly of the bet on a horse that his sporting friend described as a hopeless outsider. His misery was not complete till the memory of another jewel intruded itself – a ruby that had waited two hundred and fifty years for an owner. Certainly, Arthur Warden experienced a most perplexed and soul–tortured journey to London.
He drove straight to his flat. Two telegrams awaited him. One must be from Evelyn, of course. She had chosen to send a message there, rather than risk missing him at Ostend. But he was wrong. The first he opened read: “Baumgartner and everybody else have gone. I am coming to London. Staying at Savoy. Rosamund.”
His brain was still confused by this strange substitution of one woman for another, when his eyes fell on the contents of the second telegram:
“Black Mask won. Took you forties. Congratulations, Dick.”
The perplexity in his face attracted the sympathy of the hall porter.
“I ‘ope you’ve had no bad news, sir,” said the man.
Warden laughed with a harshness that was not good to hear.
“No,” he said, “just the reverse. I backed a horse and he has won, at forty to one.”
The hall porter, like most of his class, was a sportsman.
“Lord love a duck!” he cried, “that’s the sort you read about but seldom see, sir. Where did he run – at Newmarket?”
“No, at Ostend.”
The man’s hopes of obtaining good “information” diminished, but he was supremely interested.
“Wot a price!” he exclaimed. “Did you have much on, sir?”
“Forty pounds! Then you’ve won sixteen hundred quid!” and each syllable was a crescendo of admiration.
Warden threw the telegram on the floor. Though the last twenty–four hours had enriched him by nearly five years’ pay, he was in no mood to greet his good fortune as it deserved.
“Yes,” he sighed, “I suppose you are right. Unpack my traps, there’s a good fellow. I am going out, and I want to change my clothes.”
The hall porter obeyed, but he would have choked if speech were forbidden. He wanted to know the horse’s name, how the gentleman had come to hear of him, was the money “safe,” and other kindred items that goaded Warden to hidden frenzy. Yet the forced attention thus demanded was good for him. He described “Black Mask” as “a Tartar of the Ukraine breed,” and drew such a darksome picture of the precautions taken by the “stable” to conceal the animal’s true form that the man regarded him as a veritable fount of racing lore.
Such a reputation, once earned, is not easily shaken off.When he went out, the hall porter and the driver of a hansom were in deep converse. He paid the cabman at the Colonial Office, and his mind was busy with other things when he was brought back to earth again.
“Beg pardon, sir,” said cabby, “but would you mind tellin’ me the best thing for the Cup.”
“What Cup?” demanded Warden testily.
“The Liverpool Cup, sir.”
“Beer, of course.”
He escaped. But the cabman took thought. An eminent brewer’s horse figured in the betting lists, so he drove back at once to interview the hall porter. A joint speculation followed, and two men mourned for many a day that they had not begged or borrowed more money wherewith to win a competence on that amazingly lucky tip.
Warden did not expect to find any one at the Colonial Office who would attend to him. The hour was nearly seven, and it is a popular theory that at four o’clock all secretaries and civil servants throw aside the newspapers and other light literature with which they beguile the tedium of official routine. He meant to report his arrival in London, and learn from a door–keeper what time it would be advisable to call next day.
He was hardly prepared, therefore, to be received forthwith by a silver–haired, smooth–spoken gentleman, who asked him to recapitulate the main points of his conversation with the Under Secretary at the Foreign Office.
Somewhat mystified, Warden began his recital. After the first two sentences, the official nodded.
“Thank you, Captain Warden, I need not trouble you further,” he said. “You see, we are not personally known to each other, and in such an exceedingly delicate matter as this threatened difficulty in Nigeria – wherein knowledge is confined to a very small circle – one has to be careful that one is speaking to the right man.”
“Did you think it possible, then, that some stranger might have impersonated me?” demanded Warden, his eyes twinkling at the suggestion.
“Quite possible. I have done it myself twice, the first time successfully, the second to the complete satisfaction of our Minister abroad, but hardly to my own, as I had two fingers of my left hand shot off while making a dash for safety.”
Certainly, reflected Warden, there were elements in the life of Whitehall that escaped public notice.
“We have sent for you because you are wanted at once in West Africa,” went on the other. “Letters to and from the Governor of Northern Nigeria have culminated in a cablegram from the Governor asking that you should be recalled from furlough. Though you are attached to the southern portion of the Protectorate, his Excellency has the highest appreciation of your tact and ability. He thinks you are the man best fitted to deal with the natives of the disturbed region. It is not proposed that you should return by the ordinary mail service. We assume that the departure of officers and others for Lagos is closely watched at the present crisis. A passage has been secured on a coasting steamer for a mythical personage named Alfred Williams. Initials on baggage or linen, therefore, cannot cause inquiry. Now, the Water Witch sails from Cardiff by Saturday afternoon’s tide, and we would like Mr. Alfred Williams to go on board that morning.”
Warden looked blankly at the speaker. It was then Thursday. It left him little more than a day in which to unravel the mystery that enveloped Evelyn and her whereabouts. A bitter rage welled up in his breast, but he controlled his face, and the official attributed his silence to the suddenness of his suggested departure.
“I am sorry that your leave should be spoiled in this fashion,” continued the quiet voice. “But it is unavoidable. The thing presses. And I need scarcely tell you that when Government wants a man’s service it is good for the man.”
“I shall be on board the Water Witch on Saturday,” said Warden.
Perhaps the lack of enthusiasm in his manner was puzzling, but the suave official paid no heed.
“And now for your instructions,” he said. “The vessel touches at Cape Coast Castle before going on to Lagos. You will be met there by some officer whom you are acquainted with. He will tell you the exact position of affairs, and what, if any, developments have taken place in the meantime. He will also give you the Governor’s views as to the way in which your experience of the natives can best be utilized. I leave it to you to take the necessary precautions to conceal your movements and identity, and I am authorized to hand you ?250 to meet any expenses incidental to your mission. Your passage on the Water Witch is paid for, by the way.”
Again the older man failed to understand why the young officer should laugh with the grim humor of one who bids fate do her worst. Certainly, the situation had in it some element of comedy. Gold was being showered on Warden from the skies – promotion and distinction were thrust upon him – yet he was miserable as any man in England that day.
“Something on his mind – is it a woman?” mused the shrewd official, and the time came when he remembered the idle fancy.
In the freedom of the street Warden soon recovered himself. Not even an all–absorbing passion – rendered more intense by reason of his self–contained nature – could deprive him of the habit of years. In the Colonial Office at the moment lay a letter from the Governor of Southern Nigeria commending him in the highest terms for his cool judgment, resourcefulness, and decision. He showed these qualities now. He hurried to Charing Cross, and despatched three telegrams, one to Evelyn, begging her to communicate with him instantly, a second to his friend in Ostend, thanking him for his kindly offices and requesting that the money should be paid into a named bank, and the third to the Harbor Master at Dover, asking him to inform Peter Evans, of the pilot–cutter Nancy, that he must travel to London by the earliest train after arriving from Ostend.
Then he went to the Savoy.
Rosamund’s telegram had been handed in at Lochmerig the previous night. It occurred to Warden that she must have written it about the time his message to Evelyn was delivered. If so, and it was true that the Baumgartner household had already departed on board the Sans Souci, there was an obvious question to be answered.
As he anticipated, Mrs. Laing was in the hotel. In fact, she was about to dine in her own room when Warden’s card was brought to her. She hastened to meet him, all smiles and blushes.
“How awfully good of you to come so soon!” she cried. “And at just the right hour! I hate eating alone, but I dislike still more being at a table by myself in a big hotel. You can’t have dined. Let us go to the caf?, and then it doesn’t matter about one’s toilette.”
“I don’t wish to disturb your arrangements” – he began, but she was not to be forced into a serious discussion at once.
“Who said anything about disturbance?” she rattled on. “You could not have met my wishes better if you had guessed them. Now, don’t look so glum. It is not my fault that your pretty governess was ready to flirt with other men, is it? Come and eat, and I shall tell you all about it.”
He fell in with her mood. A woman will dare anything when she loves or hates, and he credited Rosamund with excess in both directions. Yet it would be strange, he thought, were she playing some deep game not immediately discernible, if he did not unravel the tangled skein of her deceit.
“I got your letter, of course,” he said when they were seated.
“Ah, then I guessed correctly. That is why you are disconsolate,” she said, looking at him frankly.
“It may be. At present I am chiefly curious. How did you obtain my London address?”
“Didn’t you telegraph it?”
“To Miss Dane – yes.”
“You dear man, what would you have done if a telegram were brought to a remote place in the Highlands for a lady whom you knew was gone goodness knows where in a yacht?”
“Surely it might have been forwarded to her?”
“Yes, if you or I, or any other reasonable being, were the addressee. But the Baumgartners gave instructions that everything was to be sent to their London house, which is closed, except for a caretaker. Mrs. Baumgartner herself told me they did not expect to be in town under a month or six weeks.”
“Have they vanished into thin air?”
“Something of the kind. They spoke vaguely of a cruise round the Shetlands, but I am sure that was meant as a blind. They wouldn’t take Figuero and von Rippenbach as their sailing companions for the mere fun of the thing, would they?”
“Did they offer no excuse to their guests?”
“Oh, yes. Billy Thring – sorry, but I must mention him – well, his brother’s death was the ostensible reason. I don’t believe a word of it. I. D. B. is not the man to break up a pleasant house party because one of its members has suffered a bereavement. There is something else going on. I am honestly feminine enough to want to know what it is. I was simply dying of curiosity yesterday when I saw Figuero and the dainty Evelyn in the garden, discussing things with bated breath.”
Warden frowned. He could keep a tight rein on his emotions, but this was trying him high.
“Would you mind telling me how a man who is dining with a lady can best express polite incredulity at her statements?” he asked.
“Very neat,” she retorted, “but in this instance you are the water and I the duck. If you think I am deliberately telling you untruths, why not choose some less exciting topic? How did you like Ostend? I adore it. The people amuse me – they are so na?vely shocking, or shocked, as the case may be. Did you see that fat Frenchman who struts about in a ridiculously tight and glaring bathing suit?”
“Of course you want to talk about Lochmerig,” he said quietly. “Now, Mrs. Laing, it will be wiser to speak in plain language. Evelyn Dane is my promised wife. If possible, I would marry her to–morrow. That is no figure of speech. If she were here now, and the law permitted, I would marry her within the hour. You know me well enough to believe that once my mind is made up I do not change. Well, then, why are you endeavoring to create discord between me and the woman I love?”
Rosamund flushed. She had expected him to say something of the kind, but it was none the less disagreeable in the hearing. The fury that convulsed her found a ready outlet in the tears that stood in her beautiful eyes.
“It is very unkind of you to blame me,” she half sobbed. “How could I make up all these wicked inventions? I had never even heard the girl’s name before I went to Lochmerig. It was her own foolish tongue that revealed things – about you – and the men of Oku – and – and – what you saw that night at Cowes. She is either very wicked or very thoughtless, Arthur. If you are engaged in some secret business for the Government, and she were really true to you, would she ever have spoken of it to Billy – to Lord Fairholme?”
Warden was beaten. He poured out a glass of wine and drank it. He felt that if he spoke at once his voice might betray the agony of his soul. Ah, if only he might see Evelyn for five precious minutes! Better go to Africa with his dear idol shattered than carry with him the lingering torture of doubt.
“I think you were right when you switched our talk off to Ostend,” he muttered at last. “May I give you a word of advice? Forget what you have just said. It is a dangerous problem – one not to be settled by women’s tongues.”
So they left it at that, and when they parted, not without a tacit understanding that they would meet again at the earliest opportunity – for Warden was obliged to be ambiguous in that respect – Rosamund was sure that she had gained some ground in a pitiless struggle. Warden was desperately unhappy. That was her second success. She had won the first move when the Sans Souci carried Evelyn off the field.
Early next morning Warden went to a shipping office, and the people there advised him to send a reply–paid telegram to the coast–guard station nearest Lochmerig. He soon received an answer. “The Sans Souci sailed Wednesday, 3 p. m. Destination believed Shetlands, but headed southeast by east.”
He passed many hours in writing a full statement of everything that had taken place – including copies of Rosamund’s letter and telegram, and a literal record of their conversation in the hotel – and enclosed the ring and the manuscript in a stout linen envelope. When Peter Evans came to him in the evening, he gave him the package and fifty pounds, with explicit details as to its safeguarding and the reasons which governed his present decision.
“You are to find Miss Dane, no matter what the cost,” he said. “You may hear of her at her home in Oxfordshire, or at this address, where you have my permission to open any letters that arrive during my absence. If you run short of money, or are compelled to take an expensive journey, apply to my bankers. I shall leave full instructions that your requirements are to be met when you explain them. The one thing I want you to do is to deliver this letter into Miss Dane’s own hands.”
Peter, somewhat awestricken by Warden’s gravity, yet proud of the trust placed in him, promised obedience.
“Never fear, sir,” he said. “If the Sans Souci is afloat on the seven seas I’ll get her bearin’s one way or another. Sink me! if I don’t find that gal afore a month, I’ll unship my prop, sell the Nancy, an’ go to the wokkus.”
In disposing of his belongings, Warden packed the gourd and the parchment among some heavy clothing which was useless in Africa. He told the hall porter exactly which portmanteaus he meant to take with him, but on arriving at Paddington Station at 4.30 a. m. on a cold morning, he found the bag containing the gourd and parchment piled with the rest of his goods on the platform.
He eyed it resentfully, but yielded.
“So you mean to stick to me!” he growled. “You mesmerized that sleepy scoundrel into carrying you downstairs and depositing you on the roof of my cab. Very well. Let us see the adventure through in company.”
He was chatting with the skipper of the Water Witch one day while the ship’s position was being pricked off on the chart.
“You are keeping close in to the Spanish coast, Captain,” said the passenger.
“Not particularly, Mr. Williams,” was the reply.
“But I have always been under the impression that vessels bound for the West Coast headed for the Canaries?”
“So they do, if they’re logged for a straight run. It happens this time, however, that my ole tub has to call in at Rabat and Mogador.”
“At Rabat!” repeated Mr. Williams, seemingly staggered at the mere mention of the place.
“Yes, funny little hole. Ever bin there?”
“Well, p’raps you’ll go ashore. If you do you’ll see the queerest collection of humans you’ve ever set eyes on.”
Mr. Williams turned and gazed at the horizon.
“I think I’m bewitched,” he muttered.
“Odd thing. I’ve been dreaming of Rabat!”
The captain grinned.
“When you’ve seen it you’ll fancy it’s a nightmare,” he said.