Lucinda - Anthony Hope - ebook
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HIS “Business Ambassador” was the title which my old chief, Ezekiel Coldston, used to give me. I daresay that it served as well as any other to describe with a pleasant mixture of dignity and playfulness, the sort of glorified bag-man or drummer that I was. It was my job to go into all quarters of the earth where the old man had scented a concession or a contract—and what a nose he had for them!—and make it appear to powerful persons that the Coldston firm would pay more for the concession (more in the long run, at all events) or ask less for the contract (less in the first instance, at all events) than any other responsible firm, company, or corporation in the world. Sir Ezekiel (as in due course he became) took me from a very low rung of the regular diplomatic ladder into his service on the recommendation of my uncle, Sir Paget Rillington, who was then at the top of that same ladder. My employer was good enough to tell me more than once that I had justified the recommendation.

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Lucinda

By

Anthony Hope

CHAPTER I. THE FACE IN THE TAXI

HIS “Business Ambassador” was the title which my old chief, Ezekiel Coldston, used to give me. I daresay that it served as well as any other to describe with a pleasant mixture of dignity and playfulness, the sort of glorified bag-man or drummer that I was. It was my job to go into all quarters of the earth where the old man had scented a concession or a contract—and what a nose he had for them!—and make it appear to powerful persons that the Coldston firm would pay more for the concession (more in the long run, at all events) or ask less for the contract (less in the first instance, at all events) than any other responsible firm, company, or corporation in the world. Sir Ezekiel (as in due course he became) took me from a very low rung of the regular diplomatic ladder into his service on the recommendation of my uncle, Sir Paget Rillington, who was then at the top of that same ladder. My employer was good enough to tell me more than once that I had justified the recommendation.

“You’ve excellent manners, Julius,” he told me. “Indeed, quite engaging. Plenty of tact! You work—fairly hard; your gift for languages is of a great value, and, if you have no absolute genius for business—well, I’m at the other end of the cable. I’ve no cause to be dissatisfied.”

“As much as you could expect of the public school and varsity brand, sir?” I suggested.

“More,” said Ezekiel decisively.

I liked the job. I was very well paid. I saw the world; I met all sorts of people; and I was always royally treated, since, if I was always trying to get on the right side of my business or political friends, they were equally anxious to get on the right side of me—which meant, in their sanguine imaginations, the right side of Sir Ezekiel; a position which I believe to correspond rather to an abstract mathematical conception than to anything actually realizable in experience.

However, I do not want to talk about all that. I mention the few foregoing circumstances only to account for the fact that I found myself in town in the summer of 1914, back from a long and distant excursion, temporary occupant of a furnished flat (I was a homeless creature) in Buckingham Gate, enjoying the prospect of a few months’ holiday, and desirous of picking up the thread of my family and social connections—perhaps with an eye to country house visits and a bit of shooting or fishing by and by. First of all, though, after a short spell of London, I was due at Cragsfoot, to see Sir Paget, tell him about my last trip, and console him for the loss of Waldo’s society.

Not that anything tragic had happened to Waldo. On the contrary, he was going to be married. I had heard of the engagement a month before I sailed from Buenos Aires, and the news had sent my thoughts back to an autumn stay at Cragsfoot two years before, with Sir Paget and old Miss Fleming (we were great friends, she and I); the two boys, Waldo and Arsenio, just down from Oxford; respectable Mrs. Knyvett—oh, most indubitably respectable Mrs. Knyvett;—myself, older than the boys, younger than the seniors, and so with an agreeable alternation of atmosphere offered to me—and Lucinda! True that Nina Frost was a good deal there too, coming over from that atrocious big villa along the coast—Briarmount they called it—still, she was not of the house party; there was always a last talk, or frolic, after Nina had gone home, and after Mrs. Knyvett had gone to bed. Miss Fleming, “Aunt Bertha,” liked talks and frolics; and Sir Paget was popularly believed not to go to bed at all; he used to say that he had got out of the habit in Russia. So it was a merry time—a merry, thoughtless——!

Why, no, not the least thoughtless. I had nearly fallen into a cliché, a spurious commonplace. Youth may not count and calculate. It thinks like the deuce—and is not ashamed to talk its thoughts right out. You remember the Oxford talk, any of you who have been there, not (with submission to critics) all about football and the Gaiety, but through half the night about the Trinity, or the Nature of the Absolute, or Community of Goods, or why in Tennyson (this is my date rather than Waldo’s) Arthur had no children by Guinevere, or whether the working classes ought to limit—well, and so on. The boys brought us all that atmosphere, if not precisely those topics, and mighty were the discussions,—with Sir Paget to whet the blades, if ever they grew blunt, with one of his aphorisms, and Aunt Bertha to round up a discussion with an anecdote.

And now Lucinda had accepted Waldo! They were to be married now—directly. She had settled in practice the problem we had once debated through a moonlight evening on the terrace that looked out to sea. At what age should man and woman marry? He at thirty, she at twenty-five, said one side—in the interest of individual happiness. He at twenty-one, she at eighteen, said the other, in the interest of social wellbeing. (Mrs. Knyvett had gone to bed.) Lucinda was now twenty-one and Waldo twenty-six. It was a compromise—though, when I come to think of it, she had taken no part in discussing the problem. “I should do as I felt,” had been her one and only contribution; and she also went to bed in the early stages of the wordy battle. Incidentally I may observe that Lucinda’s exits were among the best things that she did—yes, even in those early days, when they were all instinct and no art. From Sir Paget downwards we men felt that, had the problem been set for present solution, we should all have felt poignantly interested in what Lucinda felt that she would do. No man of sensibility—as they used to say before we learnt really colloquial English—could have felt otherwise.

I will not run on with these recollections just now, but I was chuckling over them on the morning of Waldo’s and Lucinda’s wedding day—a very fine day in July, on which, after late and leisurely breakfast, I looked across the road on the easy and scattered activity of the barracks’ yard. That scene was soon to change—but the future wore its veil. With a mind vacant of foreboding, I was planning only how to spend the time till half-past two. I decided to dress myself, go to the club, read the papers, lunch, and so on to St. George’s. For, of course, St. George’s it was to be. Mrs. Knyvett had a temporary flat in Mount Street; Sir Paget had no town house, but put up at Claridge’s; he and Waldo—and Aunt Bertha—had been due to arrive there from Cragsfoot yesterday. Perhaps it was a little curious that Waldo had not been in town for the last week; but he had not, and I had seen none of the Cragsfoot folk since I got home. I had left a card on Mrs. Knyvett, but—well, I suppose that she and her daughter were much too busy to take any notice. I am afraid that I was rather glad of it; apprehensive visions of a partie carrée —the lovers mutually absorbed, and myself left to engross Mrs. Knyvett—faded harmlessly into the might-have-beens.

I walked along the Mall, making for my club in St. James’s Street. At the corner by Marlborough House I had to wait before crossing the road; a succession of motors and taxis held me up. I was still thinking of Lucinda; at least I told myself a moment later that I must have been still thinking of Lucinda, because only in that way could I account, on rational lines, for what happened to me. It was one o’clock—the Palace clock had just struck. The wedding was at half-past two, and the bride was, beyond reasonable doubt, now being decked out for it, or, perchance, taking necessary sustenance. But not driving straight away from the scene of operations, not looking out of the window of that last taxi which had just whisked by me! Yet the face at the taxi window—I could have sworn it was Lucinda’s. It wore her smile—and not many faces did that. Stranger still, it dazzled with that vivid flush which she herself—the real Lucinda—exhibited only on the rarest occasions, the moments of high feeling. It had come on the evening when Waldo and Arsenio Valdez quarreled at Cragsfoot.

The vision came and went, but left me strangely taken aback, in a way ashamed of myself, feeling a fool. I shrugged my shoulders angrily as I crossed Pall Mall. As I reached the pavement on the other tide, I took out my cigarette case; I wanted to be normal and reasonable; I would smoke.

“Take a light from mine, Julius,” said a smooth and dainty voice.

It may seem absurd—an affectation of language—to call a voice “dainty,” but the epithet is really appropriate to Arsenio Valdez’s way of talking, whether in Spanish, Italian, or English. As was natural, he spoke them all with equal ease and mastery, but he used none of them familiarly; each was treated as an art, not in the choice of words—that would be tedious in every-day life—but in articulation. We others used often to chaff him about it, but he always asserted that it was the “note of a Castilian.”

There he stood, at the bottom corner of St. James’s Street, neat, cool, and trim as usual—like myself, he was wearing a wedding garment—and looking his least romantic and his most monkeyish: he could do wonders in either direction.

“Hullo! What tree have you dropped from, Monkey?” I asked. But then I went on, without waiting for an answer. “I say, that taxi must have passed you too, didn’t it?”

“A lot of taxis have been passing. Which one?”

“The one with the girl in it—the girl like Lucinda. Didn’t you see her?”

“I never saw a girl like Lucinda—except Lucinda herself. Have you lunched? No, I mean the question quite innocently, old chap. Because, if you haven’t, we might together. Of course you’re bound for the wedding as I am? At least, I can just manage, if the bride’s punctual. I’ve got an appointment that I must keep at three-fifteen.”

“That gives you time enough. Come and have lunch with me at White’s.” I put my arm in his and we walked up the street. I forgot my little excitement over the girl in the cab.

Though he was a pure-blooded Spaniard, though he had been educated at Beaumont and Christ Church, Valdez was more at home in Italy than anywhere else. His parents had settled there, in the train of the exiled Don Carlos, and the son still owned a smallpalazzo at Venice and derived the bulk of his means (or so I understood) from letting the more eligible floors of it, keeping the attics for himself. Here he consorted with wits, poets, and “Futurists,” writing a bit himself—Italian was the language he employed for his verses—till he wanted a change, when he would shoot off to the Riviera, or Spain, or Paris, or London, as the mood took him. But he had not been to England for nearly two years now; he gave me to understand that the years of education had given him, for the time, a surfeit of my native land: not a surprising thing, perhaps.

“So I lit out soon after our stay at Cragsfoot, and didn’t come back again till a fortnight ago, when some business brought me over. And I’m off again directly, in a day or two at longest.”

“Lucky you’ve hit the wedding. I suppose you haven’t seen anything of my folks then—or of the Knyvetts?”

“I haven’t seen Waldo or Sir Paget, but I’ve been seeing something of Mrs. Knyvett and Lucinda since I got here. And they were out in Venice last autumn; and, as they took an apartment in my house, I saw a good deal of them there.”

“Oh, I didn’t know they’d been to Venice. Nobody ever writes to tell me anything when I’m away.”

“Poor old chap! Get a wife, and she’ll write to tell you she’s in debt. I say, oughtn’t we to be moving? It won’t look well to be late, you know.”

“Don’t be fidgety. We’ve got half an hour, and it’s not above ten minutes’ walk.”

“There’ll be a squash, and I want a good place. Come on, Julius.” He rose from the table rather abruptly; indeed, with an air of something like impatience or irritation.

“Hang it! You might be going to be married yourself, you’re in such a hurry,” I said, as I finished my glass of brandy.

As we walked, Valdez was silent. I looked at his profile; the delicate fine lines were of a poet’s, or what a poet’s should be to our fancy. Not so much as a touch of the monkey! That touch, indeed, when it did come, came on the lips; and it came seldom. It was the devastating acumen and the ruthless cruelty of boyhood that had winged the shaft of his school nickname. Yet it had followed him to the varsity; it followed him now; I myself often called him by it. “Monkey Valdez”! Not pretty, you know. It did not annoy him in the least. He thought it just insular; possibly that is all it was. But such persistence is some evidence of a truthfulness in it.

“Have you been trying a fall with Dame Fortune lately?” I asked.

He turned his face to me, smiling. “I’m a reformed character. At least, I was till a fortnight ago. I hadn’t touched a card or seen a table for above a year. Seemed not to want to! A great change, eh? But I didn’t miss it. Then when—when I decided to come over here, I thought I would go round by the Riviera, and just get out at Monte Carlo, and have a shot—between trains, you know. I wanted to see if my luck was in. So I got off, had lunch, and walked into the rooms. I backed my number everyway I could—en plein, impair, all the rest. I stood to win about two hundred louis.”

“Lost, of course?”

“Not a bit of it. I won.”

“And then lost?”

“No. I pouched the lot and caught my train. I wasn’t going to spoil the omen.” He was smiling now—very contentedly.

“What was the number?”

“Twenty-one.”

“This is the twenty-first of July,” I observed.

“Gamblers must be guided by something, some fancy, some omen,” he said. “I had just heard that Waldo and Lucinda were to be married on the twenty-first.”

The monkey did peep out for a moment then; but we were already in George Street; the church was in sight, and my attention was diverted. “Better for you if you’d lost,” I murmured carelessly.

“Aye, aye, dull prudence!” he said mockingly. “But—the sensation! I can feel it now!”

We were on the other side of the road from the church, but almost opposite to it, as he spoke, and it was only then that I noticed anything peculiar. The first thing which I marked was an unusual animation in the usual small crowd of the “general public” clustered on either side of the steps: they were talking a lot to one another. Still more peculiar was the fact that all the people in carriages and cars seemed to have made a mistake; they drew up for a moment before the entrance; a beadle, or some official of that semi-ecclesiastical order, said something to them, and they moved on again—nobody got out! To crown it, a royal brougham drove up—every Londoner can tell one yards away, if it were only by the horses—and stopped. My uncle, Sir Paget himself, came down the steps, took off his tall hat, and put his head in at the carriage window for a moment; then he signed, and no doubt spoke, to the footman, who had not even jumped down from the box or taken off his hat. And the royal brougham drove on.

“Well, I’m damned!” said I.

Valdez jerked his head in a quick sideways nod. “Something wrong? Looks like it!”

I crossed the road quickly, and he kept pace with me. My intention was to join Sir Paget, but that beadle intercepted us.

“Wedding’s unavoidably postponed, gentlemen,” he said. “Sudden indisposition of the bride.”

There it was! I turned to Valdez in dismay—with a sudden, almost comical, sense of being let down, choused, made a fool of. “Well, twenty-one’s not been a lucky number for poor Lucinda, at all events!” I said—rather pointlessly; but his story had been running in my head.

He made no direct reply; a little shrug seemed at once to accuse and to accept destiny. “Sir Paget’s beckoning to you,” he said. “Do you think I might come too?”

“Why, of course, my dear fellow. We both want to know what’s wrong, don’t we?”

CHAPTER II. THE SIGNAL

BY now it was past the half-hour; the arrivals dwindled to a few late stragglers, who were promptly turned away by the beadle; the crowd of onlookers dispersed with smiles, shrugs, and a whistle or two: only a group of reporters stood on the lowest step, talking to one another and glancing at Sir Paget, as though they would like to tackle him but were doubtful of their reception. One did quietly detach himself from the group and walked up to where my uncle stood on the top step. I saw Sir Paget raise his hat, bow slightly, and speak one sentence. The man bowed in return, and rejoined his fellows with a rueful smile; then all of them made off together down the street.

My uncle was a little below middle height, but very upright and spare, so that he looked taller than he was. He had large features—a big, high-peaked nose, wide, thin-lipped mouth, bushy eyebrows, and very keen blue eyes. He bore himself with marked dignity—even with some stiffness towards the world at large, although among intimates he was the most urbane and accessible of men. His long experience in affairs had given him imperturbable composure; even at this moment he did not look the least put out. His manner and speech were modeled on the old school of public men—formal and elaborate when the occasion demanded, but easy, offhand, and familiar in private: to hear him was sometimes like listening to behind-the-scenes utterances of, say, Lord Melbourne or the great Duke which have come down to us in memoirs of their period.

When we went up to him, he nodded to me and gave his hand to Valdez. He had not seen him for two years, but he only said, “Ah, you here, Arsenio?” and went on, “Well, boys, here’s a damned kettle of fish! The girl’s cut and run, by Gad, she has!”

Valdez muttered “Good Lord!” or “Good Heavens!” or something of that kind. I found nothing to say, but the face I had seen at the taxi window flashed before my eyes again.

“Went out at ten this morning—for a walk, she said, before dressing. And she never came back. Half an hour ago a boy-messenger left a note for her mother. ‘I can’t do it, Mother. So I’ve gone.’—That was all. Aunt Bertha had been called in to assist at the dressing-up, and she sent word to me. Mrs. Knyvett collapsed, of course.”

“And—and Waldo? Is he here?” asked Valdez. “I’d like to see him and—and say what I could.”

“I got him away by the back door—to avoid those press fellows: he consented to go back to the hotel and wait for me there.”

“It’s a most extraordinary thing,” said Valdez, who wore an air of embarrassment quite natural under the circumstances. He was—or had been—an intimate of the family; but this was an extremely intimate family affair. “I called in Mount Street three days ago,” he went on, “and she seemed quite—well, normal, you know; very bright and happy, and all that.”

Sir Paget did not speak. Valdez looked at his watch. “Well, you’ll want to be by yourselves, and I’ve got an appointment.”

“Good-by, my boy. You must come and see us presently. You’re looking very well, Arsenio. Good-by. Don’t you go, Julius, I want you.”

Arsenio walked down the steps very quickly—indeed, he nearly ran—and got into a taxi which was standing by the curb. He turned and waved his hand towards us as he got in. My uncle was frowning and pursing up his thin, supple lips. He took my arm and we came down the steps together.

“There’s the devil to pay with Waldo,” he said, pressing his hand on my sleeve. “It was all I could do to make him promise to wait till we’d talked it over.”

“What does he want to do?”

“He’s got one of his rages. You know ‘em? They don’t come often, but when they do—well, it’s damned squally weather! And he looks on her as as good as his wife, you see.” He glanced up at me—I am a good deal the taller—with a very unwonted look of distress and apprehension. “He’s not master of himself. It would never do for him to go after them in the state he’s in now.”

“After—them?”

“That’s his view; I incline to it myself, too.”

“She was alone in the taxi.” I blurted it out, more to myself than to him, and quite without thinking.

I told him of my encounter; it had seemed a delusion, but need not seem so now.

“Driving past Marlborough House into the Mall? Looks like Victoria, doesn’t it? Any luggage on the cab?”

“I didn’t notice, sir.”

“Then you’re an infernal fool, Julius,” said Sir Paget peevishly.

I was not annoyed, though I felt sure that my uncle himself would have thought no more about luggage than I had, if he had seen the face as I had seen it. But I felt shy about describing the flush on a girl’s face and the sparkle in her eyes; that was more Valdez’s line of country than mine. So I said nothing, and we fell into a dreary silence which lasted till we got to the hotel.

I went upstairs behind Sir Paget in some trepidation. I had, for years back, heard of Waldo’s “white rages”; I had seen only one, and I had not liked it. Waldo was not, to my thinking, a Rillington: we are a dark, spare race. He was a Fleming—stoutly built, florid and rather ruddy in the face. But the passion seemed to suck up his blood; it turned him white. It was rather curious and uncanny, while it lasted. The poor fellow used to be very much ashamed of himself when it was over; but while it was on—well, he did not seem to be ashamed of anything he did or said. He was dangerous—to himself and others. Really, that night at Cragsfoot, I had thought that he was going to knock Valdez’s head off, though the ostensible cause of quarrel was nothing more serious—or perhaps I should say nothing less abstract—than the Legitimist principle, of which Valdez, true to his paternal tradition, elected to pose as the champion and brought on himself a bitter personal attack, in which such words as hypocrites, parasites, flunkeys, toadeaters, etc., etc., figured vividly. And all this before the ladies, and in the presence of his father, whose absolute authority over him he was at all normal moments eager to acknowledge.

“I’m going to tell him that you think you saw her this morning,” said Sir Paget, pausing outside the door of the room. “He has a right to know; and it’s not enough really to give him any clew that might be—well, too easy!” My uncle gave me a very wry smile as he spoke.

Waldo was older now; perhaps he had greater self-control, perhaps the magnitude of his disaster forbade any fretful exhibition of fury. It was a white rage—indeed, he was pale as a ghost—but he was quiet; the lightning struck inwards. He received his father’s assurance that everything had been managed as smoothly as possible—with the minimum of publicity—without any show of interest; he was beyond caring about publicity or ridicule, I think. On the other hand, it may be that these things held too high a place in Sir Paget’s mind; he almost suggested that, if the thing could be successfully hushed up, it would be much the same as if it had never happened: perhaps the diplomatic instinct sets that way. Waldo’s concern stood rooted in the thing itself. This is not to say that his pride was not hit, as well as his love; but it was the blow that hurt him, not the noise that the blow might make.

Probably Sir Paget saw this for himself before many minutes had passed; for he turned to me, saying, “You’d better tell him your story, for what it’s worth, Julius.”

Waldo listened to me with a new look of alertness, but the story seemed to come to less than he had expected. His interest flickered out again, and he listened with an impatient frown to Sir Paget’s conjectures as to the fugitive’s destination. But he put two or three questions to me.

“Did she recognize you? See you, I mean—bow, or nod, or anything?”

“Nothing at all; I don’t think she saw me. She passed me in a second, of course.”

“It must have been Lucinda, of course. You couldn’t have been mistaken?”

“I thought I was at the time, because it seemed impossible. Of course, now—as things stand—there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have been Lucinda, and no doubt it was.”

“How was she looking?”

I had to attempt that description, after all! “Very animated; very—well, eager, you know. She was flushed; she looked—well, excited.”

“You’re dead sure that she was alone?”

“Oh, yes, I’m positive as to that.”

“Well, it doesn’t help us much,” observed Sir Paget. “Even if anything could help us! For the present I think I shouldn’t mention it to any one else—except, of course, Mrs. Knyvett and Aunt Bertha. No more talk of any kind than we can help!”

“Besides you two, I’ve only mentioned it to Valdez; and, when I did that, I didn’t believe that the girl was Lucinda.”

“Monkey Valdez! Did he come to the—to the church?” Waldo asked quickly. “I didn’t know he was in London, or even in England.”

“He’s been in town about a fortnight, I gathered. He’d seen the Knyvetts, he said, and I suppose they asked him to the wedding.”

“You met him there—and told him about this—this seeing Lucinda?”

“I didn’t meet him at the church. He lunched with me before and we walked there together.”

“What did he say?”

“Oh, only some half-joking remark that you couldn’t take any other girl for Lucinda. He didn’t seem to attach any importance to it.”

Waldo’s eyes were now set steadily on my face. “Did you tell him at lunch, or as you walked to the church, or at the church?”

“As a matter of fact, before lunch. I mentioned the matter—that was half in joke too—as soon as I met him in the street.”

Sir Paget was about to speak, but Waldo silenced him imperiously. “Half a minute, Father. I want to know about this. Where did you meet—and when?”

“As soon as the taxi—the one with the girl in it—had gone by. I had to wait for it to go by. I crossed over to St. James’s Street and stopped to light a cigarette. Just as I was getting out a match, he spoke to me.”

“Where did he come from?”

“I don’t know; I didn’t see him till he spoke to me.”

“He might have been standing at the corner there—or near it?”

“Yes, for all I know—or just have reached there, or just crossed from the other corner of St. James’s Street. I really don’t know. Why does it matter, Waldo?”

“You’re dense, man, you’re dense!”

“Gently, Waldo, old boy!” Sir Paget interposed softly. He was standing with his back to the fireplace, smoking cigarette after cigarette, but quite quietly, not in a fluster. It was plain that he had begun to follow the scent which Waldo was pursuing so keenly.

“I beg your pardon, Julius. But look here. If he was at either corner of the street, or on the refuge in the middle—there is one, I think—he may well have been there a moment before—standing there, waiting perhaps. The taxi that passed you would have passed him. He would have seen the girl just as you saw her.”

“By Jove, that’s true! But he’d have told me if he had.”

“He didn’t say he hadn’t?”

I searched my memory. “No, he didn’t say that. But if—well, if, as you seem to suggest, he was there in order to see her, and did see her——”

“It was funny enough your happening to see her. It would be a lot funnier coincidence if he just happened to be there, and just happened to see her too! And just as funny if he was there and didn’t see her, eh?”

“But how could he carry it off as he did?”

“My dear chap, the Monkey would carry off a load of bricks that hit him on the head! There’s nothing in that.”

“What’s your theory, Waldo?” Sir Paget asked quietly.

Waldo sat silent for a full minute. He seemed by now to be over the first fit of his rage; there was color in his cheeks again. But his eyes were bright, intent, and hard. He seemed to be piecing together the theory for which his father asked him—piecing it together so as to give it to us in a complete form. Waldo was not quick-witted, but he had a good brain. If he got hold of a problem, he would worry it to a solution.

“I’ve written to her every day,” he began slowly. “And she’s answered, quite affectionately—she’s never offensive; she’s given me no hint that she meant to go back on me like this. The day before yesterday I wired to her to know if I might come up; she wired: ‘For pity’s sake don’t. I am too busy. Wait till the day.’”

“Nothing much in that,” said his father. “She’d put it that way—playfully.”

“Nothing much if it stood alone,” Waldo agreed. “But suppose she was struggling between two influences—mine and his.” For a moment his voice faltered. “He’s always been against me—always—ever since that time at Cragsfoot.” I heard a swallow in his throat, and he went on again steadily. “Never mind that. Look at it as a case, a problem, impersonally. A girl is due to marry a man; another is besieging her. She can’t make up her mind—can’t make it up even on the very day before the wedding; or, if you like, won’t admit to herself that she has really resolved to break her promise, to be false to the man to whom she is already——” Again there was a falter in his voice—“already really a wife, so far as anything short of—short of the actual thing itself—can make her——”

He came to a sudden stop; he was unable to finish; he had invited us to a dispassionate consideration of the case as a case, as a problem; in the end he was not equal to laying it before us dispassionately. “Oh, you see, Father!” he groaned.

“Yes,” said Sir Paget. “I see the thing—on your hypothesis. She couldn’t make up her mind—or wouldn’t admit that she had. So she told the other man——”

“Valdez?”

“Yes, Julius. Arsenio Valdez. She told Arsenio to be at a certain spot at a certain time—a time when, if she were going to keep her promise, she would be getting ready for her wedding. ‘Be at the corner of St. James’s Street at one o’clock.’ That would be it, wouldn’t it? If I drive by in a taxi, alone, it means yes to you, no to him. If I don’t, it means the opposite.’ That’s what you mean, Waldo?”

Waldo nodded assent; but I could not readily accept the idea.

“You mean, when I saw her she’d just seen him, and when I saw him, he’d just seen her?”

“Wouldn’t that account for the animation and excitement you noticed in her face—for the flush that struck you? She had just given the signal; she’d just”—he smiled grimly—“crossed her Rubicon, Julius.”

“But why wasn’t he with her? Why didn’t he go with her? Why did he come to the wedding? Why did he go through that farce?”

Sir Paget shrugged his shoulders. “Some idea of throwing us off the scent and getting a clear start, probably.”

“Yes, it might have been that,” I admitted. “And it does account for—for the way she looked. But the idea never crossed my mind. There wasn’t a single thing in his manner to raise any suspicion of the sort. If you’re right, it was a wonderful bit of acting.”

Waldo turned to me—he had been looking intently at his father while Sir Paget expounded the case—with a sharp movement. “Did Monkey ask for me when he came to the church?”

“Yes, I think he did. Yes, he did. He said he’d like to see you and—and say something, you know.”

“I thought so! That would have been his moment! He wanted to see how I took it, damn him! Coming to the church was his idea. He may have persuaded her that it was a good ruse, a clever trick. But really he wanted to see me—in the dirt. Monkey Valdez all over!”

I believe that I positively shivered at the bitterness of his anger and hatred. They had been chums, pals, bosom friends. And I loved—I had loved—them both. Sir Paget, too, had made almost a son of Arsenio Valdez.

“And for that—he shall pay,” said Waldo, rising to his feet. “Doesn’t he deserve to pay for that, Father?”

“What do you propose to do, Waldo?”

“Catch him and—give him his deserts.”

“He’ll have left the country before you can catch him.”

“I can follow him. And I shall. I can find him, never fear!”

“You must think of her,” I ventured to suggest.

“Afterwards. As much as you like—afterwards.”

“But by the time you find them, they’ll have—I mean, they’ll be——”

“Hold your tongue, for God’s sake, Julius!”

I turned to Sir Paget. “If he insists on going, let me go with him, sir,” I said.

“Yes, that would be—wise,” he assented, but, as I thought, rather absently.

Waldo gave a laugh. “All right, Julius. If you fancy the job, come along and pick up the pieces! There’ll be one of us to bury, at all events.” I suppose that I made some instinctive gesture of protest, for he added: “She was mine—mine.”

Sir Paget looked from him to me, and back again from me to him.

“You must neither of you leave the country,” he said.

CHAPTER III. A HIGH EXPLOSIVE

I HAVE said so much about Waldo’s “rages” that I may have given quite a wrong impression of him. The “rages” were abnormal, rare and (if one may not use the word unnatural about a thing that certainly was in his nature) at least paradoxical. The normal—the all but invariable and the ultimately ruling—Waldo was a placid, good-tempered fellow; not very energetic mentally, yet very far from a fool; a moderate Conservative, a good sportsman, an ardent Territorial officer, and a crack rifle-shot. He had an independent fortune from his mother, and his “Occupation” would, I suppose, have to be entered on the Government forms as “None” or “Gentleman”; all the same, he led a full, active, and not altogether useless existence. Quite a type of his class, in fact, except for those sporadic rages, which came, I think, in the end from an extreme, an exaggerated, sense of justice. He would do no wrong, but neither would he suffer any; it seemed to him an outrage that any one should trench on his rights: among his rights he included fair, honorable and courteous treatment—and a very high standard of it. He asked what he gave. It seems odd that a delicacy of sensitiveness should result, even now and then, in a mad-bull rage, but it is not, when one thinks it over, unintelligible.

Sir Paget had spoken in his most authoritative tone; he had not proffered advice; he issued an order. I had never known Waldo to refuse, in the end, to obey an order from his father. Would he obey this one? It did not look probable. His retort was hot.

“I at least must judge this matter for myself.”

“So you shall then, when you’ve heard my reasons. Sit down, Waldo.”

“I can listen to you very well as I am, thank you.” “As he was” meant standing in the middle of the room, glowering at Sir Paget, who was still smoking in front of the fireplace. I was halfway between them, facing the door of the room. “And I can’t see what reasons there can be that I haven’t already considered.”

“There can be, though,” Sir Paget retorted calmly. “And when I tell you that I have to break my word in giving them to you, I’m sure that you won’t treat them lightly.”

Frowning formidably, Waldo gave an impatient and scornful toss of his head. He was very hostile, most unamenable to reason—or reasons.

At this moment in walked Miss Fleming—Aunt Bertha as we all called her, though I at least had no right to do so. She was actually aunt to Waldo’s mother, the girl much younger than himself whom Sir Paget had married in his fortieth year, and who had lived for only ten years after her marriage. When she fell sick, Aunt Bertha had come to Cragsfoot to nurse her; she had been there ever since, mistress of Sir Paget’s house, his locum tenens while he was serving abroad, guide of Waldo’s youth, now the closest friend in the world to father and son alike—and, looking back, I am not sure that there was then any one nearer to me either. I delighted in Aunt Bertha.

She was looking—as indeed she always did to me—like a preternaturally aged and wise sparrow, with her tiny figure, her short yet aquiline nose, her eyes sparkling and keen under the preposterous light-brown “front” which she had the audacity to wear. I hastened to wheel a chair forward for her, and she sank into it (it was an immense “saddlebag” affair and nearly swallowed her) with a sigh of weariness.

“How I hate big hotels, and lifts, and modern sumptuousness in general,” she observed.

None of us made any comment or reply. Her eyes twinkled quickly over the group we made, resting longest on Waldo’s stubborn face. But she spoke to me. “Put me up to date, Julius.”

That meant a long story. Well, perhaps it gave Waldo time to cool off a little; halfway through he even sat down, though with an angry flop.

“Yes,” said Aunt Bertha at the end. “And you may all imagine the morning I had! I got to Mount Street at half-past eleven. Lucinda still out for a walk—still! At twelve, no Lucinda! At half-past, anxiety—at one, consternation—and for Mrs. Knyvett, sherry and biscuits. At about a quarter to two, despair. And then—the note! I never went through such a morning! However, she’s in bed now—with a hot-water bottle. Oh, I don’t blame her! Paget, you’re smoking too many cigarettes!”

“Not, I think, for the occasion,” he replied suavely. “Was Mrs. Knyvett—she was upset, of course—but was she utterly surprised?”

“What makes you ask that, Paget?”

“Well, people generally show some signs of what they’re going to do. One may miss the signs at the time, but it’s usually possible to see them in retrospect, to interpret them after the event.”

“You mean that you can, or I can, or the Knyvett woman can?” Aunt Bertha asked rather sharply.

“Never mind me for the minute. Did it affect her—this occurrence—just as you might expect?”

“Why, yes, I should say so, Paget. The poor soul was completely knocked over, flabbergasted, shocked out of her senses. But—well now, upon my word, Paget! She did put one thing rather queerly.”

“Ah!” said Sir Paget. Waldo looked up with an awakened, though still sullen, animation. I was listening with a lively interest; somehow I felt sure that these two wise children of the world—what things must they not have seen between them?—would get at something.

“When her note came—that note, you know—what would you have said in her place? No, I don’t mean that. You’d have said: ‘Well, I’m damned!’ But what would you have expected her to say?”

“‘Great God!’ or perhaps ‘Good gracious!’” Sir Paget suggested doubtfully.

“She’s gone—gone!” I ventured to submit.

“Just so—just what I should have said,” Aunt Bertha agreed. “Something like that. What our friend Mrs. Knyvett did say to me was, ‘Miss Fleming, she’s done it!’”

“What did you say?” Sir Paget as nearly snapped this out as a man of his urbanity could snap.

“I don’t think I said anything. There seemed nothing to——”

“Then you knew what she meant?”

Aunt Bertha pouted her lips and looked, as it might be, apprehensively, at Sir Paget.

“Yes, I suppose I must have,” she concluded—with an obvious air of genuine surprise.

“We sometimes find that we have known—in a way—things that we never realized that we knew,” said Sir Paget—“much what I said before. But—well, you and Mrs. Knyvett both seem to have had somewhere in your minds the idea—the speculation—that Lucinda might possibly do what she has done. Can you tell us at all why? Because that sort of thing doesn’t generally happen.”

“By God, no!” Waldo grunted out. “And I don’t see much good in all this jaw about it.”

A slight, still pretty, flush showed itself on Aunt Bertha’s wrinkled cheeks—hers seemed happy wrinkles, folds that smiles had turned, not furrows plowed by sorrow—“I’ve never been married,” she said, “and I was only once in love. He was killed in the Zulu war—when you were no more than a boy, Paget. So perhaps I’m no judge. But—darling Waldo, can you forgive me? She’s never of late looked like—like a girl waiting for her lover. That’s all I’ve got to go upon, Paget, absolutely all.”

I saw Waldo’s hands clench; he sat where he was, but seemed to do it with an effort.

“And Mrs. Knyvett?”

“Nothing to be got out of her just now. But, of course, if she really had the idea, it must have been because of Arsenio Valdez!”

The name seemed a spur-prick to Waldo; he almost jumped to his feet. “Oh, we sit here talking while——!” he mumbled. Then he raised his voice, giving his words a clearer, a more decisive articulation. “I’ve told you what I’m going to do. Julius can come with me or not, as he likes.”

“No, Waldo, you’re not going to do it. I love—I have loved—Lucinda. I held my arms open to her. I thought I was to have what I have never had, what I have envied many men for having—a daughter. Well, now——” his voice, which had broken into tenderness, grew firm and indeed harsh again. “But now—what is she now?”

“Monkey Valdez’s woman!”

These words, from Waldo’s lips, were to me almost incredible. Not for their cruelty—I knew that he could be cruel in his rage—but for their coarse vulgarity. I did not understand how he could use them. A second later he so far repented—so far recovered his manners—as to say, “I beg your pardon for that, Aunt Bertha.”

“My poor boy!” was all the old lady said.

“Whatever she may be—even if she were really all that up to to-day you thought—you mustn’t go after her now, Waldo—neither you nor Julius with you.” He paused a moment, and then went on slowly. “In my deliberate judgment, based on certain facts which have reached me, and reënforced by my knowledge of certain persons in high positions, all Europe will be at war in a week, and this country will be in it—in a war to the death. You fellows will be wanted; we shall all be wanted. Is that the moment to find you two traipsing over the Continent on the track of a runaway couple, getting yourselves into prison, perhaps; anyhow quite uncertain of being able to get home and do your duty as gentlemen? And you, Waldo, are a soldier!”

Waldo sat down again; his eyes were set on his father’s face.

“You can’t suspect me of a trick—or a subterfuge. You know that I believe what I’m telling you, and you know that I shouldn’t believe it without weighty reasons?”

“Yes,” Waldo agreed in a low tone. His passion seemed to have left him; but his face and voice were full of despair. “This is pretty well a matter of life and death to me—to say nothing of honor.”

“Where does your honor really lie?” He threw away his cigarette, walked across to his son, and laid a hand on his shoulder. But he spoke first to me. “As I told you, I am breaking my word in mentioning this knowledge of mine. It is desirable to confine that breach of confidence to the narrowest possible limits. If I convince Waldo, will you, Julius, accept his decision?”

“Of course, Sir Paget. Besides, why should I go without him? Indeed, how could I—well, unless Mrs. Knyvett—”

“Mrs. Knyvett has nothing to do with our side of the matter. Waldo, will you come out with me for an hour?”

Waldo rose slowly. “Yes. I should like to change first.” He still wore his frock coat and still had a white flower in his buttonhole. Receiving a nod of assent from Sir Paget, he left the room. Sir Paget returned to the fireplace and lit a fresh cigarette.

“He will do what’s right,” he pronounced. “And I think we’d better get him to Cragsfoot to-morrow. You come too, Julius. We’ll wait developments there. I have done and said what I could in quarters to which I have access. There’s nothing to do now but wait for the storm.”

He broke away from the subject with an abrupt turn to Aunt Bertha. “It’s a damned queer affair. Have you any views?”

“The mother’s weak and foolish, and keeps some rather second-rate company,” said the old lady. “Surroundings of that sort have their effect even on a good girl. And she’s very charming—isn’t she?”

“You know her yourself,” Sir Paget observed with a smile.

“To men, I mean. In that particular way, Paget?”

“Well, Julius?”

“Oh, without a doubt of it. Just born to make trouble!”

“Well, she’s made it! We shall meet again at tea, Aunt Bertha? I’ll pick up Waldo at his room along the passage. And I’d better get rid of my wedding ornament too.” He took the rose out of the lapel of his coat, flung it into the fireplace, and went out of the room, leaving me with Aunt Bertha.

“On the face of it, she has just suddenly and very tardily changed her mind, hadn’t the courage to face it and own up, and so has made a bolt of it?” I suggested.

“From love—sudden love, apparently—of Arsenio Valdez, or just to avoid Waldo? For there seems no real doubt that Arsenio’s taken her. He’s only once been to the flat, but the girl’s been going out for walks every day—all alone; a thing that I understand from her mother she very seldom did before.”

“Oh, it’s the Monkey all right. But that only tells us the fact—it doesn’t explain it.”

“Very often there aren’t any explanations in love affairs—no reasonable ones, Julius. Waldo takes it very hard, I’m afraid.”

“She’s made an ass of him before all London. It can’t really be hushed up, you know.”

“Well,” Aunt Bertha admitted candidly, “if such an affair happened in any other family, I should certainly make it my business to find out all I could about it.” She gave a little sigh. “It’s a shock to me. I’ve seen a lot, and known a lot of people in my day. But when you grow old, your world narrows. It grows so small that a small thing can smash it. You Rillington men had become my world; and I had just opened it wide enough to let in Lucinda. Now it seems that I might just as well have let in a high explosive. In getting out again herself, she’s blown the whole thing—the whole little thing—to bits.”

“Love’s a mad and fierce master,” I said—with a reminiscence of my classics, I think. “He doesn’t care whom or what he breaks.”

“No! Poor Lucinda! I wish she’d a nice woman with her!”

I laughed at that. “The nice woman would feel singularly de trop, I think.”

“She could make her tea, and tell her that in the circumstances she could hardly be held responsible