The MessageŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ
Somehow, despite the steely tension of every nerve, Evelyn caught an undertone of anxiety in the jesting words. Her rival was playing a bold game. It might end in complete disaster, but, once committed to it, there was no drawing back.
ďThe proceedings at Cowes were open to all the world,Ē Evelyn could not help saying. ďEven you, with your long experience, might fail to detect in them any trace of the thoughtlessness you deplore.Ē
ďThen you have met him elsewhere?Ē
Evelyn, conscious of a tactical blunder, colored even more deeply with annoyance, though again she felt that her tormentor was not so sure of her ground as she professed to be. Every woman is a born actress, and Evelyn precipitated a helpful crisis with histrionic skill.
ďThe whole story is yours, not mine, Mrs. Laing,Ē she said quietly. ďPerhaps, if you apply to your halfĖcaste informant, he may fill in further details to please you.Ē
At that moment the Honorable Billy Thring intervened. He was one of those privileged persons who can say anything to anybody without giving offense, and he broke into the conversation now with his usual frank inanity.
ďI find Iíve bin lookiní for a faithful spouse in the wrong direction, Mrs. Laing,Ē he chortled. ďBarkiní up the wrong tree, a Chicago girl called it. What a thorough ass I was to spin that yarn at dinner with you in the room. Will you be good, aní forget it? Donít say I havenít got an earthly before the flag falls.Ē
ďWhat in the world are you talking about?Ē cried Rosamund, turning on him with the sourest of society smiles.
ďIt sounds like the beginning of a violent flirtation,Ē said Evelyn, yielding to the impulse that demanded some redress for the torture she had endured.
ďRight you are, Miss Dane,Ē said Billy. ďBy gad, that clears the course quicker than a line of policemen. You see, Mrs. Laing, I really must marry somebody with sufficient means for both of us. I have expensive tastes, and my noble dad gave me neither a profession nor an income. So what is a fellow to do?Ē
ďYou flatter me,Ē said Rosamund tartly. ďUnfortunately I have just been telling Miss Dane that I am hors de concours, as they put it in the Paris exhibitions.Ē
ďThat is the French for Ďyou never know your luck,í Mr. Thring,Ē cried Evelyn, with a wellĖassumed laugh. ďMrs. Laing may change her mind, too, not for the first time.Ē
Without giving her adversary a chance to retaliate, she darted away to join Beryl Baumgartner, and soon seized an opportunity to retreat to her own room. Once safely barricaded behind a locked door, she bowed before the storm. Flinging herself on her knees by the bedside, she wept as though her heart would break. It was her first taste of the bitter cup that is held out to many a girl in her position, and its gall was not diminished because she still believed that Arthur Warden loved her. How could she doubt him, when each passing week brought her a letter couched in the most endearing terms? Only that morning had she heard from him at Ostend, whither the Nancy had flown after making a round of the Norfolk Broads.
He described his chances of speedy promotion once the threatened disturbance in West Africa had spent itself, and, oddly enough, reminded her of his intention to curtail his furlough so as to permit of a visit to Rabat in a coasting steamer before going to Madeira on his way to the Protectorate.
Not a word did he say of the Baumgartners, or their queer acquaintances of the Isle of Wight. It was tacitly agreed between them that Evelyn should not play the r?le of spy on her employers, and, indeed, until that very day there was little to report save the utmost kindness at their hands.
Why, then, it may be urged, did she weep so unrestrainedly? and only the virgin heart of a woman who loves can answer. She feared that Rosamund Laing was telling the truth when she spoke of a prior engagement. She knew that Warden had said nothing at Plymouth of meeting Rosamund in London, and she was hardly to be blamed for drawing the most sinister inference from his silence. Did he dread that earlier entanglement? He was poor, and she was poor; how could he resist the pleading of one so rich and beautiful as her rival?
In short, poor Evelyn passed a grievous and needlessly tortured hour before she endeavored to compose herself for sleep, and she was denied the consolation of knowing that the woman who destroyed her happiness was pacing another room like a caged tigress, and striving to devise some means of extricating herself from the morass into which Figueroís tidings and her own rashness had plunged her.
SHOWING HOW MANY ROADS LEAD THE SAME WAY
Next day, her mind restored to its customary equipoise, Evelyn thought she would be acting wisely if she gave Warden some hint of recent developments. Too proud to ask for an explicit denial of Rosamund Laingís claim, she saw the absurdity of letting affairs drift until the hopedĖfor meeting at Madeira. At first, she thought of resigning her post as Berylís companion, and returning to Oxfordshire, but she set the notion aside as unreasonable and unnecessary. Most certainly Warden should not be condemned unheard. Without pressing him for a definite statement with regard to Mrs. Laing, it was a simple matter to put the present situation before him in such guise that he could not choose but refer to it. So, after drafting a few sentences, and weighing them seriously, she incorporated the following in a letter of general import:
ďYesterday we had three new arrivals whose names must appeal to you powerfully. First, a Mrs. Rosamund Laing came here from London, and she lost no time in telling me, among other things, that she was aware of our meeting at Cowes. Her informant, I am sure, was Miguel Figuero, and you will be even more astonished to learn that he and Count von Rippenbach turned up by the same train as Mrs. Laing. The latter, by the way, said that you called on her at Lady Hilburyís when in London. Is that true? There are some hidden forces in motion at Lochmerig which I do not understand. Mr. Baumgartner tackled me openly at dinner with regard to my journey from Cowes to Oxfordshire. We know from Peter that Figuero saw us together that morning, and your Portuguese friend evidently recognized me at once. But Mr. Baumgartnerís pointed reference to Langton as my destination was rather puzzling. How does it strike you? I expect my news will prove rather in the nature of a thunderbolt, and that is usually a very striking article. I assure you I am somewhat shaken myself. Mrs. Laingís personal attributes remind one of those galvanic batteries you see at fairs in the country Ė the more you try to endure her magnetic influence, the greater your collapse.Ē
Before sealing the envelope, she reĖread Wardenís latest letter. She even read it aloud, and the straightforward, honest, loving words assumed a new significance. Then she turned to her own effusion, and viewed it critically. To her surprise, she detected a jarring, somewhat cynical, note in those passages which she regarded as allĖimportant. To her judgment, events in the near future would follow a wellĖdefined course. Her lover would say whether or not he had met Mrs. Laing in London, and give the clearest reasons for his omission of her name from the subsequent recital of his adventures. Evelyn would count the hours until that reply reached her hands. Perhaps Mrs. Laingís curiosity anent Wardenís skill in ďwrigglingĒ would then be sated. She might even give an exhibition of the wrigglerís art in her own behalf.
Evelyn refused to admit now that she had ever yielded to doubt or anxiety. The hysterical outburst of last night was natural, perhaps, under the circumstances, but quite nonsensical. Even Warden himself must be made to believe that Mrs. Laing was only indulging an exuberant sense of humor in claiming his fealty. Meaning, therefore, to tone down any apparent asperity in the paragraph referring to the three newcomers, she added a few lines beneath her signature.
ďThe Men of Oku have not yet appeared. I am longing to see them. They are really the most picturesque villains in the piece. I am just going for a stroll by the side of the loch, and I shall not be a little bit alarmed if I find a decorated calabash sailing in with the tide.Ē
There is nothing new in the fact that the most important item in a womanís letter is often contained in a postscript, but never did the writer of a harmless and gossipy missive achieve such amazing results as Evelyn Dane brought to pass by the words she scribbled hurriedly after the magic letters ďP.S.Ē
For others than Evelyn Dane were taking thought that morning. Baumgartner, von Rippenbach, and Figuero Ė locked in the library, and seated round a small table drawn well away from the door Ė were settling the final details of a scheme that aimed at nothing less than a very grave alteration in the political map of the world, while Rosamund Laing was planning an enterprise which should have an equally marked effect in the minor sphere of her own affairs.
Yet the fortunes of these five people gathered at Lochmerig, and of many millions in other parts of the earth, were absolutely controlled by one of those trivial conditions which appear to be so ludicrously out of proportion with ultimate achievement.
Baumgartner, being a rich man, objected to delay where his interests were concerned. Refusing to await the tardy coming of a country postman, he kept a groom in the village to which the mails were brought by train, and it was this manís duty to ride in each day with the postĖbag for Lochmerig Lodge and return some hours later with the first outĖgoing budget. The house letters were dropped into a box in the entrance hall, and a notice intimated that the time of clearance was at noon. To an unscrupulous woman, such an arrangement offered the means to do ill deeds that makes ill deeds done. Rosamund, ready to dare anything now to save herself from contumely, actually set out to find Evelyn and taunt her into an admission that she had written to Warden.
ďMiss Dane is not in the house, madam,Ē said the London footman on duty at the door. ďShe went out some time since Ė in that direction,Ē and he pointed toward the glistening firth that brought the North Sea into the heart of Inverness.
Mrs. Laing pouted prettily.
ďOh, dear!Ē she sighed. ďI do hope she has not forgotten to write. I shall never find her in time. Did you happen to notice if she posted a letter?Ē
The footman sought inspiration by stroking his chin.
ďYes, madam,Ē he announced, after a pause. ďIím almost certain Miss Dane went to the box. Yes, Iím sure of it.Ē
Madam was very much obliged, and tipped him halfĖaĖcrown, informing him with a most charming smile that she did not on any account wish Miss Dane to believe that she was suspected of forgetfulness. It was then some few minutes after eleven, and this gracious lady was sympathetic enough to inquire if the footman did not become very tired of remaining on duty so many hours in one place.
ďOh, itís nothing compared with London, maíam,Ē said he. ďHere we have sunshine Ė if the weather is fine Ė aní fresh air all the time. I only came on duty at nine oíclock, aní I go off at 11.30 for the first servantsí dinner.Ē
Mrs. Laing was talking to Billy Thring in the hall when the postman groom came to clear the letterĖbox. She darted forward with that irresistible smile of hers.
ďIím so glad I happened to be standing here,Ē she exclaimed. ďI have just remembered that I have stupidly left out of a letter the very thing I most wanted to say. It would never have occurred to me if I hadnít seen you. The letter is addressed to Captain Warden. May I have it?Ē
The man was Baumgartnerís servant. He had never before set eyes on Mrs. Laing, but he knew the Honorable Billy quite well, so he raised no objection to this smartly dressed ladyís eager search for her incomplete letter. Though her hands fumbled somewhat, she soon picked it out.
ďHere it is!Ē she cried delightedly, ďthis one Ė Captain Arthur Warden, Poste Restante, Ostend. Now, that will save me a heap of trouble. It was so nice of you to come in at the right moment. You have saved me a lot of trouble.Ē
The groom grinned as he pocketed halfĖaĖcrown. Some ladies were easy pleased, to be sure. Even Billy Thring, experienced hunter of gilded brides, was bewildered by Mrs. Laingís excited manner.
ďSeems to me Iíve made a killiní,Ē he mused when she gushed herself away. ďI sípose old Baumgartner can be relied on. He is all there as a rule when he talks dollars aní cents, but heís a perfect rotter every other way. By gad, Iíll kid him into weariní kilts before the end of the month.Ē
The notion tickled him. He lit a cigarette and strolled out through the open door. A glorious sweep of moorland and forest spread beyond the loch, whose wavelets lapped the verges of the sloping lawn and gardens. A little to the left the Sans Souci lay at her moorings. A steam launch was tied to a neat landingĖstage. A string of horses and moor ponies returning from exercise crossed a level pasture at the head of the loch. The letterĖcarrying groom was clattering down the broad carriage drive toward the distant station, and a couple of gardeners were cutting and rolling the green carpet of grass in front of the house.
ďHe talks of buyiní this property,Ē communed the Honorable Billy, who was thirtyĖfive and had never earned a penny in his life. ďCanít be ten years older than me, though he looks sixty, beiní podgy. Now, why canít I have a stroke of luck aní rake in a stack? Then I might have a cutĖin for the giddy widow.Ē
Evelynís trim figure emerged from a treeĖshrouded path. She walked with a lithe elegance that pleased Mr. Thringís sporting eye.
ďOr marry a girl like that,Ē he added. The wild improbability of ever achieving any part of this fascinating programme brought a petulant frown to his handsome, vacuous face.
He strode up to one of the gardeners, a redĖwhiskered Caledonian, stern and wild.
ďWhere the devil is everybody?Ē he yawned. ďNo shootiní, no yachtiní, not a soul in the billiardĖroom Ė whereís the bloominí crowd?Ē
The dour Scot looked at him pityingly.
ďAiblins some are ií bed,Ē he said, ďaní thereís ithers wha ocht to be ií bed.Ē
ďBully for you, Rob Roy,Ē cried Thring, who never objected to being scored off. ďAiblins some people are cuttiní grass wha ocht to be under it, because they donít know theyíre alive, eh what?Ē
ďMan, but yeíre shairp the day,Ē retorted the gardener. ďWhiles Iím thinkiní thereís a guid pigĖjobber lost in you, Maister Thring.Ē
ďPigĖjobber, you cateran! Why pigs?Ē
ďHave ye no heerd tell that fowk a bit saft ií the heid have a wonderfuí way wií animals, aní pigs are always a fine mairket.Ē
ďA bit heavy, McToddy. Trem yer whuskers aní change yer trousies for a kelt, aní mebbe yeíll crack a joke wií less deeficulty.Ē
The underĖgardener chortled, for the Honorable Billy could imitate the Scots dialect with an unction that was decidedly mirthĖprovoking.
ďMa nameís no McToddy,Ē began the other.
ďWell, then, McWhusky. I ken the noo from yer rid neb that thereís michty little watter in yer composition.Ē
Snorting defiance, but not daring to pour forth the wrath that boiled up in him, the man pushed a mowingĖmachine savagely across the lawn.
ďRouted!Ē smiled Billy. ďBannockburn is avenged!Ē
ďWhat is amusing you, Mr. Thring?Ē asked Evelyn, who had walked over the grass unheard.
ďI have just discovered my lost vocation,Ē he said. ďI am a buffoon, Miss Dane, an idle jester. The only difference between me and a musicĖhall comedian is that my humor is not remunerative.Ē
ďWhy, when I left you last night you were on the verge of proposing to Mrs. Laing, a most serious undertaking.Ē
ďJolly nice woman, Mrs. Laing. No nonsense about her. Weíve bin together the last half hour, aní Iím under the starterís orders, at any rate.Ē
ďWhy not go in and win?Ē demanded Evelyn, taking a kindly interest in the Honorable oneís matrimonial prospects. If he and Mrs. Laing made a match of it, that would provide a very agreeable close to a disquieting incident.
ďIím afraid itíll only be to make the runniní for some other Johnny,Ē sighed he. ďI was gettiní along like a house aĖfire, when all at once she remembered she hadnít said what she wanted to say in a letter to a Captain somebody at Ostend, aní off she waltzed to her room. Sheís probably writiní sweet nothings to him now. Same old story Ė Billy Thring left at the post. Gad, thatís funny! See it, eh, what?Ē
Thring was so amused by his own wit that he did not notice the expression of pain and fear that drove the brightness from Evelynís face. But she herself was conscious of it, and looked away lest he should peer into her eyes, and wonder. So Mrs. Laing was writing to Arthur! She knew his address! How strange, how unutterably strange, that he had not once mentioned her name! The girl, as in a dream, affected to be watching a boy, the son of the village postĖmistress, coming up the avenue. For the sake of hearing her own voice in such commonplace words as she might dare to utter, she drew her companionís attention.
ďHere is our telegraph messenger,Ē she said.
Thring glanced at his watch.
ďItís for me,Ē he announced. ďThereís a chap at Newmarket who is the champion loserĖfinder of the world, aní Iím one of his victims. This is Leger day, aní if you wait a moment Iíll put you onto a stiff Ďun, sure thing. Then you must turn bookmaker at lunch, and win gloves right and left Ė in pairs, in fact. Iíll stand your losses if my prophet has gone mad aní sent a winner.Ē
The boy made straight for him, and commenced to unfasten the pouch slung to his belt.
ďSee? I told you,Ē laughed Billy, opening the message.
Evelyn hardly understood him. She was grateful for the high spirits that prevented him from paying any heed to the tears trembling under her drooping eyelashes. Despite her brave resolve to disregard Rosamund Laingís unbelievable story, a whole legion of doubts and terrors now trooped in on her. She asked herself how she could endure to live in the same house as her rival, for five long days, until Arthurís answer came. Would he receive the two letters by the same post? Could there be any real foundation for her rivalís boast? The thought made her sick at heart. Fighting down her dread, she turned to Thring hoping to find a momentary oblivion in listening to his cheerful nonsense.
She found oblivion, indeed, but not in the shape she anticipated. Shading his eyes with one hand and holding the telegram in the other, her companion was gazing at it in a dazed way. His cheeks were bloodless, the hand gripping the scrap of flimsy paper shook as though he were seized with ague, his whole attitude was that of a man who had received an overwhelming shock.
ďMr. Thring!Ē she cried, startled beyond measure, ďwhat has happened?Ē
ďMy God!Ē he wailed, with the tingling note of agony in his voice that comes most clearly from one whose lips are formed for laughter. ďMy God! And I was jesting about them only last night!Ē
ďOh, what is it?Ē she cried again, catching his arm because he swayed like one about to faint.
ďRead!Ē he murmured. ďFairholme aní the two boys! May Heaven forgive me! To think that I should have said it last night of all nights!Ē
Evelyn took the telegram from his palsied fingers, and this is what she read:
ďWith deepest regret I have to inform you that the Earl of Fairholme and his two sons were killed in the collision at Beckminster Junction last evening. Their private saloon was being shunted when the down express crashed into it. Letters found on his lordshipís body gave me your address. Every one here joins in profound sympathy. Please wire instructions. James Thwaite.Ē
Scarce knowing what she said, and still clinging desperately to the stricken man at her side, Evelyn whispered:
ďAre they your relatives?Ē
And the answer came brokenly.
ďDonít you know? Thatís Ferdy and my nephews! And two such boys! Straight aní tall aní handsome. Good Lord! was that the only way?Ē
Then she realized the horror of it. The crushed society butterfly, who was like to fall to the ground but for her support, was now Earl of Fairholme. Calling Brown to her aid, they led him inside the house. The butler, impelled to disobey his masterís strict injunctions, knocked at the library door, and told Baumgartner what had happened.
Von Rippenbach heard. He was a callous person, to whom the death of three Englishmen was of very slight consideration.
ďThe very thing!Ē he murmured. ďNow you have your excuse. You can empty the place in twentyĖfour hours.Ē
Rosamund Laing, whose white brows wore unseemly furrows, was writing and thinking in her own room when a maid brought her the news. Before her on the table was Evelynís letter, and the sharpĖeyed Scotch lassie saw that the lady nearly upset the inkstand in her haste to cover something with the blottingĖpad. Rosamund was shocked, of course. Finding that Thring was leaving for the south almost immediately, she then and there wrote a sweetly sympathetic note, and had it taken to him.ŮÍŗųŗÚŁ ÍŪŤ„ů ŠŚŮÔŽŗÚŪÓ