“Yes, yes, he has told me that.”
“Well, w’en ‘e gives me that there packidge, ‘e forks out fifty quid, an’ says, ‘Peter, if you want more, go to my bank.’ But fifty golden suvrins is a small fortin to a sailorman – I’ve known the time it ‘ud keep me an’ my missus an’ Chris for a year – an’ I wasn’t flingin’ it about for bookin’ clerks an’ pursers to pick up, neether. We ‘ad to dig a bit out o’ the bank w’en this trip showed up, but afore that Chris an’ me worked our passidge to Scotland, an’ Hamburg, an’ as far south as Bordeaux.”
“You went to Scotland? Why?”
“Afore the Cap’n left Lunnon ‘e ‘ad a telegram from the coas–tguard to say the San Sowsy headed sou’east by east from Lochmerig, an’ them ain’t the sailin’ directions for the Shetlands, or they wasn’t w’en I was at sea. It seemed to me some old salt thereabouts might help a bit – fishermen keep a pretty close eye on passin’ craft, miss – so off we goes. I shipped as extra hand on the Inverkeld, bound from London to Aberdeen, an’ Chris was stooard in the engineers’ mess. Sure enough, I lights on a Montrose herrin’–boat as ‘ad seen the yacht bearin’ away in the line for Hamburg, I follered, on a tramp from Newcastle, but I was a week late. You see, my orders was ‘into her own ‘ands, Peter.’”
“Oh, you are a dear!”
“Well, mebbe. I’ve bin called most things in me time, miss. But it’s spinnin’ a tremenjous long yarn to go over all the ground. Wot I want to ax you now is this – wot stopped Cap’n Warden from gettin’ your letters?”
“Ah, Peter! a wicked woman, I am afraid.”
“D’ye ‘ear, Chris?” and Peter turned solemnly to his son. “Wot did I tell yer? You see, miss,” he went on, “I looked in at the Lodge, an’ med friends with a servant or two, an’ it kem out that Mrs. Laing collared a telegram addressed to you. ‘Was it himportant?’ sez one chap. ‘Reel himportant,’ sez I, ‘it was from ‘er young man.’ Beg pardon, miss, but that’s the way we talks among ourselves. ‘Oo is he?’ sez the other fellow. ‘Captain Warden,’ sez I. ‘Not Captain Arthur Warden, of Ostend?’ sez ‘e. ‘The very man,’ sez I. ‘Dash my eyes,’ sez ‘e, ‘that’s queer. Mrs. Laing wanted a letter out of the box one day w’en I was goin’ to the post, an’ that’s the very name as was on it. Wot’s ‘is little game? Is ‘e a–playin’ up to both of ‘em?’ ‘Young man,’ sez I, ‘you don’t know ‘im. ‘E’s the straightest gentleman as ever wore shoe–leather.’ I axed ‘im w’en the incident occurred, as they say in the noospapers, an’ ‘e tole me it was just arter Mrs. Laing kem to Lochmerig. In fact, ‘e wouldn’t ha’ known ‘oo she was if she ‘adn’t bin standin’ in the ‘all talkin’ to – to – wot’s ‘is name, Chris?”
“Lord Fairholme?” broke in Evelyn.
“No, miss, that wasn’t it – not in the same street.”
“Tally! I’ve got it all logged up in my cabin. I wasn’t sartin I’d see you to–night, or I’d ha’ brought the book. That’s ‘im – Billy Thring – it sounds familiar like, if he’s a swell, but that’s wot they called ‘im at Lochmerig.”
“Peter, you are a wonder.
“Excuse me, miss, but you’re a bit of a wonder yourself. If that was the on’y missin’ link, w’y didn’t you write to me, care o’ the Pilots’ Office, Cardiff? I could ha’ put you straight within a week. Any ship’s skipper would ha’ guessed my address, if you tole ‘im about the Nancy an’ gev ‘im my name.”
“I fear I am very much to blame,” said Evelyn contritely. “But you hardly realize yet how I have been victimized. Now I must go. It is very late. Where are you staying?”
“Chris an’ me will turn in with our engineer friend on board the Cid. At least that’s wot I call the old tub, but these Spanish jokers make it into Thith. Did y’ ever ‘ear anythink funnier’n that?”
She laughed blithely, arranged an early hour to meet the two at the mole next day, and sped back to the hotel. She wanted to read that thrice–precious letter again. Seen in the moonlight, it seemed to be fantastic, unreal. The words danced before her eyes. Her brain had only half grasped its extraordinary meanings.
In the privacy of her own room she should go through it slowly, weighing its bewildering revelations, taking to her very heart the outspoken, manly sentences that assured her of Warden’s devotion, and planning with new zest the means whereby she might circumvent her enemies and his. Warden had been deceived even more grossly than she herself. His faithful record of Rosamund’s malicious innuendoes during the dinner at the Savoy Hotel gave ample proof of that. It was quite true she had talked with Figuero in the garden at Lochmerig. The man naturally interested her; his manner of speech was quaint, and he told her strange things about the country in which the whole of her lover’s active career might be passed. Was that a crime? And how shameful that any woman should write such a wicked untruth as to say that she had gossiped to Thring and others about the men of Oku! Of course, Mrs. Laing had obtained her information from the stolen letter. Evelyn remembered perfectly well the unfortunate postscript in which she alluded to the negroes and the calabash. She meant only to soften the harshness of her comments on Rosamund and the two foreigners, but it was obvious now that she could have written nothing more harmful to Warden’s mission.
And then, with a sudden horror that made her white to the lips, she realized what it meant – that Warden had never received her letter, that Rosamund had adroitly availed herself of the details it contained, and that her lover had gone to Africa with a lurking doubt in his heart of the one woman in the world whom he trusted. Did he think her really the base creature she was depicted? Oh, it was intolerable! She would never forgive Mrs. Laing – no, never! Her rival had stooped to a meanness that could not be borne – she must be punished, with a vengeance at once swift and merciless.
All this was very un–Christian, and wholly unlike the delightfully shy yet lovable girl to whom Warden lost his heart during the midsummer madness of Cowes and Plymouth, but Evelyn was stirred to the depths of a passionate nature; not for the first time in Las Palmas, she cried herself to sleep.
She awoke in a better frame of mind, though still determined to bring Mrs. Laing to her knees at the first opportunity. Keeping the tryst with Peter, she took him fully into her confidence. He was able to supply many minor items of information that fitted the pieces of the puzzle more accurately together. He did not know what had become of Warden, but Evelyn made no scruple of telling him the facts within her knowledge.
She recked little of Government secrets and the byways of Imperial politics. The ex–pilot and his sturdy offspring were now the only witnesses of her good faith. Perhaps they might meet Warden in England before he was able to communicate with her. In that event, she wanted Peter to be in a position to do for her lover what he had done for her, and disabuse Warden’s mind of the cloud of lies by which it had been darkened.
Father and son were returning at once by the out–going mail steamer. She pressed Peter to accept what little money she could spare, but he would not take a penny.
“No, miss,” he said, with emphatic head–shaking. “There’s some shot left in the locker yet, an’ me an’ the Cap’n will ‘ave a reckonin’ w’en he comes ‘ome. If I’m short of a pound or two afore I get the Nancy in commission this spring, I’ll ax that gentleman at the bank for it. P’raps you’ll write ‘im a line, an’ say I’ve kep’ me contract.”
She had to be content with that. Were it practicable, she would have gone back to England in the same steamer. Here, in Las Palmas, she felt so utterly unbefriended. Though thousands of miles nearer Africa than in England, she seemed to be more thousands of miles removed from the chance of receiving a letter or a cablegram. True, she possessed a very useful acquaintance in the commander of the Valiant, but she could hardly expect one of His Majesty’s cruisers to fly to and fro in the East Atlantic in order to keep her conversant with developments in Nigeria. Peter, however, undertook to call at the Colonial Office, while she would cable him her address after the lapse of a fortnight. Then, if there was any news of Warden, he would communicate with her.
At luncheon she had her first meeting with Mrs. Laing since the arrival of that epoch–marking letter. A special menu was ordered, and the table was gay with flowers, for the Baumgartners dearly loved a lord, and were resolved to make the most of their friendly relations with the Earl of Fairholme.
Mr. Baumgartner looked worried and preoccupied. The coming of the mail which meant so much to Evelyn perhaps had its importance for him also. At any rate, he left the entertainment of his guests largely to his wife, until a sharp clash of wits rudely dispelled his reverie.
Beryl Baumgartner was the unconscious agent that brought about an unforeseen crisis. Her restless eyes speedily caught the glint of diamonds on Evelyn’s left hand, and she cried ecstatically:
“Oh, Evelyn, what a lovely ring! Where did you get it?”
Each woman at the table was on the qui vive instantly. In a place like Las Palmas the mere mention of a diamond ring in connection with a young and pretty girl suggests that one more infatuated male has voluntarily removed his name from the list of eligibles.
Evelyn, having stilled the volcano that raged over night, might have allowed the opportunity to pass if she had not happened to catch the mocking smile on Rosamund’s face when the nature of the ring became self–evident. That steeled her intent.
“It is my engagement ring,” she said quietly.
“What?” shrieked Beryl, to whom this was news indeed. “Who is he?”
“You do not know him, dear, but his name is Captain Warden. He is at present in West Africa, somewhere near the Benu? River.”
“And did he send it to you?”
“Yes. I received it only last night. It would have reached me four months ago, had not Mrs. Laing stolen one of my letters – perhaps others as well – and that naturally led to some confusion.”
There was a moment of stupefied silence at the table. Everybody seemed to be stricken dumb. Rosamund, crimson with anger, could only mutter:
“It is an unpleasant thing to say, but it is true,” said Evelyn, discussing her rival’s transgression in the most matter–of–fact tone, though she was conscious of a queer tingling at the roots of her hair, and she hardly recognized the sound of her own voice.
Baumgartner felt it imperative to stop what threatened to develop into a scandal.
“Miss Dane, you are making a serious charge against a lady of the highest repute,” he said, in his best chairman–of–the–company style.
“I mean it, every word,” cried Evelyn, a trifle more vehemently. “Lord Fairholme, am I speaking the truth or not?” she demanded, suddenly wheeling round on the inoffensive peer.
“Really – er – really – ” he spluttered, for once too bewildered to grin.
“Please tell Mr. Baumgartner what happened in the hall at Lochmerig when Mrs. Laing asked the postman to give her a letter addressed to Captain Arthur Warden, at Ostend. You were present. It was my letter she obtained. Perhaps she has it yet if her boxes were searched.”
Here was no timid girl striving vainly to bolster up a false accusation, but a fiery young goddess impeaching an erring mortal. The atmosphere was electrical; Beryl Baumgartner said afterwards that she felt pins and needles attacking her at all points!
“I’m awfully sorry, Miss Dane, but I gave very little attention to the incident,” said Fairholme, partly recovering himself.
“But you remembered Captain Warden’s name last night? Was it not at Lochmerig that you heard it, and from Mrs. Laing?”
“Well – yes, but, you know, Mrs. Laing might have written to him.”
“She did, after obtaining the address from my letter and reading what I wrote.”
Then she turned on Rosamund with magnificent disdain.
“Shall I give you a copy of your letter? Captain Warden has sent it to me.”
Sheer fury enabled Rosamund to regain her self–control.
“Your foolish attack on me is disproved out of your own mouth,” she said, striving desperately to speak with her accustomed nonchalance. “Captain Warden has not written to you since I saw him in London. He is in Africa, it is true, but he has never been heard of after going ashore at Rabat fully three months ago. How can you pretend that you received a letter from him last night? My authority is an Under Secretary of State. Pray, who is yours?”
Under other conditions, Evelyn might have been warned by the imperious command to “hold her tongue” that Baumgartner telegraphed to his wife when that good lady was minded to interfere. But no consideration would stop her now. The memory of all she had suffered through the machinations of one evilly disposed woman upset her calm judgment. In other respects, she acted with a restraint that was worthy of a first–rate actress; people at the next table might have thought she was discussing the weather. Taking Warden’s letter from her pocket, she handed it to Lord Fairholme.
“I cited you as a witness,” she said. “Will you now act as a judge? Read that, and tell my friends which of us two is speaking truly.”
Despite his self–supposed shortcomings, Fairholme was a gentleman. Instinctively he believed Evelyn, but he shrank from the duty she entrusted to him.
“Oh, I say,” he bleated, “hasn’t this thing gone a bit too far already? Is it worth all the beastly fuss? There may be a mistake somewhere, you know. I’m sure, Miss Dane, nobody doubts your statement where this lucky chap Warden is concerned, an’, on the other hand, don’t you know, Mrs. Laing may have a perfectly fair explanation of the other business. So let it go at that, eh, what?”
“May I act as arbitrator?” said Baumgartner. “If I glance through your letter, Miss Dane, I may discover a means of settlement.”
Something in his tone, some hint of a crafty purpose behind the smooth–spoken words, beat through the haze of wrath and grief that clouded Evelyn’s mind. She could trust Fairholme with her lover’s letter, but not Baumgartner. To reveal to him what Warden had said about Mrs. Laing’s extraordinarily accurate knowledge of proceedings in the Solent and affairs in Nigeria would be tantamount to betraying her lover’s faith.
With splendid calmness she took the letter from the table and replaced it in her pocket.
“No, thank you, Mr. Baumgartner,” she said, “if Lord Fairholme declines to help me, nobody else can take his place. I appealed to him because he is aware that Mrs. Laing induced your groom to unlock the post–box and hand her my letter. The proof of my words lies here. It is for him to say whether or not he is satisfied he saw Mrs. Laing commit a theft.”
Fairholme shook his head. He was not lacking in pluck, and his artificial humor was only the veneer of an honest nature, but he surprised a look in Rosamund’s eyes that startled him. She was pale now, ashen pale. She uttered no word, but continued to glower at Evelyn with a suppressed malevolence that was more threatening than the mere rage of a detected trickster.
His lordship evidently thought it high time Baumgartner or his wife exercised their authority.
“Don’t you think this matter has gone quite far enough?” he asked, glancing from one to the other, and avoiding the eyes of either Evelyn or Mrs. Laing.
“Yes,” said Baumgartner, speaking with a pomposity that contrasted sharply with his prompt offer to supplant Fairholme as judge. “This absurd dispute about a purely private affair must end at once. I and my family are going to Europe by the next mail steamer – ”
“Isadore!” gasped his wife.
“Father, you can’t mean it!” cried Beryl, who, at the lowest calculation, had made arrangements for a good three weeks’ further frivolity at Las Palmas.
“Unfortunately, I am quite in earnest.”
The financier looked it. Despite his magisterial air, his puffy face was drawn and haggard, and he had the aspect of a man who needed rest and sleep.
“You will accompany us, of course, Miss Dane,” he went on, speaking slowly, as though he were groping for the best way out of a difficulty. “Your quarrel with Mrs. Laing can be much more easily adjusted in England than here. I hope, therefore, we shall be spared further bickering during our brief stay in the Canaries.”
“But, father dear,” put in his daughter, “you said we were going home on the yacht, and calling at Gibraltar and Algiers.”
“I have changed my plans,” he retorted curtly, and that was all he would say on the subject.
Evelyn left the table at the earliest moment. When too late, she regretted the impulse that led her to declare open war against Mrs. Laing. But it was done now. Those words “theft” and “steal” were irrevocable. She had retreated to a nook in the garden where a dense clump of tropical trees and shrubs gave shelter from the sun, and was trying to discover if she had imperilled the success of Warden’s mission by any unguarded phrase, when Lord Fairholme came to her.
“May I sit down here a few minutes?” he asked. “I want to try to understand things.”
“I should be sorry to test your lordship’s capacity so greatly,” she said. She had not yet forgiven him for not taking her part. She was young; her world was tumbling about her ears; she believed that everybody ought to stand aghast at Rosamund’s wickedness.
“Oh, come now, that’s a bit severe, isn’t it?” grinned Fairholme. “You don’t make allowances for the ruffled feelin’s of a poor fellow who has just had his image battered – ”
“Will you please tell me what you are talking about?”
“Eh – beg pardon, I meant idol shattered. Silly mistake, eh, what?”
Evelyn’s lips relaxed in a smile. There was no resisting “Billy” when (in his own phrase) he was goin’ strong.
“I fear you all thought me very rude,” she said, with a pathetic little gesture of helplessness. “But what was I to do? – listen in silence to fresh insults?”
“I think you did the only possible thing.”
“Then why did you refuse to bear out my statement?”
“There were reasons. May I see that letter now?”
“Have you come of your own accord?” she asked.
Evelyn fighting for the man she loved was a very different girl from the proud, disdainful Evelyn who, twenty–four hours earlier, would have endured almost any infliction rather than flout her adversary in a public dining–room. She credited Rosamund with the adoption of any petty device to gain her ends, and felt that Fairholme was just the man to be used as a stalking–horse.
“No,” he said, “or rather, yes – and no. I am anxious to know the truth, but Baumgartner suggested that I ought to accept your offer of reading the evidence. Don’t you see, he has to consider the future a bit.”
“In what way?”
“Well, if Mrs. Laing stole a letter in his house, she – it’s a jolly hard thing to say – but she must be warned off.”
Baumgartner as a guardian of morals was a new conception. Evelyn felt that a more powerful foe than Rosamund was in the field. Her unimportant romance had suddenly widened out into the world–domain of politics. She must decide quickly and decide right. In that vital moment she realized that her postscript to the Lochmerig letter might have consequences far beyond their effect on Warden’s fortunes and her own.
“Lord Fairholme,” she said, turning so that she could watch the slightest change in the expression of his face, “does Mr. Baumgartner strike you as a man who would go out of his way to interfere in a dispute between two women?”
“Not unless there was money in it,” said Fairholme cheerfully.
“Then why is he showing such interest now in a matter which he deliberately closed at luncheon?”
“I gave you his explanation. Even Baumgartner likes to associate with people of good character.”
“No, that is not the reason. Mr. Baumgartner is engaged at this moment in a plot against British dominion in West Africa. You see that cruiser in the harbor? Well, she is here to watch the Sans Souci. You yourself heard to–day that our party is going to Europe by the mail steamer. Why, when the Sans Souci is at our disposal? I will tell you. The British authorities believe that the yacht will help, or further in some way, a native rising in Southern Nigeria. Now, the letter in my possession, read by any one who could extract its inner meaning, would yield a valuable clue to the amount of information at the disposal of the home government. If you, without knowing this, answered Mr. Baumgartner’s questions as to its contents, you would be doing the gravest injury to Great Britain.”
“By gad!” exclaimed Fairholme.
“You can easily assure yourself that I am not exaggerating the facts. Here is the letter. Read it, and remember what I have told you.”
Fairholme pursed his lips and bent his brows in deep mental effort. He held the letter in his hand unopened during this unusual and seemingly painful process. Then he gave it back to Evelyn.
“No, Miss Dane,” he said emphatically. “I’m far too candid an ass to be laden with state secrets. Now, if you wouldn’t mind just pickin’ out the bits that refer to Mrs. Laing, an’ skippin’ all the political part, I’ll be able to bounce old Baumgartner for all he’s worth.”