The Bond of Black - William Le Queux - ebook

The Bond of Black ebook

William Le Queux

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Opis

In this story I have dealt with an extraordinary phase of modern life in London, which to the majority will come as a startling revelation. Some will, perhaps, declare that no such amazing state of things exists in this, the most enlightened age the world has known. To such, I can only assert that in this decadent civilisation of ours the things which I have described actually take place in secret, as certain facts in my possession indisputably show.

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Liczba stron: 361

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Contents

AUTHOR'S NOTE

I. LONDON'S DELIGHT

II. THIS CRUCIFIX

III. WOMAN'S WORLD

IV. NOT COUNTING THE COST

V. THE BONY-FACED MAN

VI. TWO MYSTERIES

VII. WHAT ASH KNEW

VIII. WITHIN GRASP

IX. MRS POPEJOY'S STATEMENT

X. IN DUDDINGTON

XI. PURELY CONFIDENTIAL

XII. "YOU! OF ALL MEN!"

XIII. THE OLD LOVE AND THE NEW

XIV. JACK YELVERTON'S CONFESSION

XV. A STRANGE ASSERTION

XVI. ROCKS AMONG PEBBLES

XVII. AFTER BUSINESS HOURS

XVIII. THE CHALICE

XIX. THE RESULT OF THE COMPACT

XX. ONE MAN'S HAND

XXI. SILENCE

XXII. TO SEEK THE TRUTH

XXIII. IN THE SHADOW

XXIV. THE EVIL-DOERS

XXV. CONCLUSION

I. LONDON’S DELIGHT

IT is a remarkable sequence of events, a story which in these days of high civilisation is so extraordinary as to almost stagger belief. Yet the higher the civilisation the more refined are its evil-doers, the more ingenious is the innate devilry of man, the more skilful are those who act with malice aforethought.

In replacing this strange drama of present-day life before the reader–a drama of love, of self-sacrifice, of evil passions, and of all uncharitableness–I, Clifton Cleeve, am compelled to speak of myself; to recount the strange adventures which befell me, and to expose to the public gaze the undercurrents of a curious phase of society, of the existence of which few dream. If, therefore, I am forced to the constant use of the first person singular, it is in no egotistical sense, but merely in order that my strange story should be properly understood, and that the blame which rightly attaches to me should not be borne by others. In this narrative of curious circumstances are facts that will astound, perhaps even terrify; nevertheless be it recollected that I myself was an unwilling actor in this drama, and that I only relate that which. I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears.

Even now, as I recall the past, there are scenes before me as vivid in every detail as though the events occurred but an hour ago; scenes which could not fail to leave a life-long impression upon the mind of any man, so unusual, so striking, so utterly extraordinary were they.

A little more than two years have now elapsed since that well-remembered night when the prologue was enacted. Yet the months that have gone by have seemed a veritable century of time, for have I not trodden the path of life overburdened by a weight of weariness, my youth sapped by vain longings and heart-sickening disappointment, my natural desire for existence blunted by an ever-recurring sorrow, and a constant, irritating, soul-maddening mystery, which lay unsolved, a barrier between myself and happiness. I am no faint-heart, yet as I live again those breathless months of anxiety, of fascination and of terror, I am again seized by that same fear which two years ago consumed me, and held me dumbfounded.

I was not feeling well. Having risen late after a dance, I had spent the afternoon over a book, dined at home in my chambers in Charing Cross Mansions, and had afterwards gone out for an idle stroll across Leicester Square and up Piccadilly. The night was moonless, but brilliant for October, yet the atmosphere was of that artificial clearness which in London renders the street-lamps unusually bright, and is always precursory of rain. At the corner of Park Lane I turned back, hesitating whether to turn into the Naval and Military for a gossip, or spend an hour at a theatre.

London had finished its long and toilsome day. Tired Hammersmith and jaded Notting Hill crowded into the omnibuses, eager to get to their homes without a moment’s delay, while gay Belgravia and Kensington were starting forth upon their night of delight, to be spent within that little area of half a mile around Charing Cross, wherein centres all the life and diversion of the giant metropolis. Gay London is very concentrated.

A brazen-lunged man pushed the special Standard under my nose, saying–

“‘Ere y’are, sir. All the winners!”

But I uttered one word, expressive though not polite, and strode on; for, truth to tell, I had read the paper an hour before, and by it discovered to my chagrin that I had been rather hard hit over a race. Therefore, a list of the winners being pushed into my face by this man was an unintentional insult. Yes, I was decidedly out of sorts.

Self-absorbed, a trifle melancholy, and undecided where to spend the evening, I was passing the corner of Bond Street, when I felt a hand upon my arm, as a voice exclaimed–

“Hullo, Clifton, old fellow! You in town? How long have you been back from Tixover?”

I looked up quickly and saw one of my oldest and closest friends, Roddy Morgan, or, to be more exact, the Honourable Roderick Morgan, a tall, smart, good-looking man about my own age, thirty, or perhaps a couple of years my senior, with dark eyes and hair, well-cut features and a merry, amused expression which did not belie his natural temperament. Roddy was a younger son who had gone the pace as rapidly as most men, until he had suddenly found himself with a sufficient quantity of writs and judgment summonses to paper his room with, and in a very fair way to becoming a bankrupt. But of judgment summonses the ever-merry Roddy had once laughingly declared that “no home was complete without them;” and at the critical juncture a generous maternal uncle, who was likewise a Duke, had very considerately placed the easy-going Roddy on his legs again. And not only this, but he had induced Roddy, who was an excellent speaker, to stand for a county constituency, and paid his election expenses, with the result that he now found himself representing the important division of South-West Sussex in the House.

We clasped hands heartily, and as I explained how three days ago I had come up from Tixover, my father’s place in the country, he strode on at my side, gossiping about our mutual friends, and telling me the latest amusing story from the House.

“Ah! my dear fellow,” he said, “a chap in Parliament has a pretty hard time of it in these days when the Opposition papers in his constituency keep their eye upon him, ready at any moment to fling mud, to charge him with negligence if he refuses to ask some ridiculous question of the Government, or to comment sarcastically if he chances to miss a division.”

“But you like it,” I said. “At Oxford you were always to the forefront at the Union. Everybody, from the `Honourable George Nathaniel’ downwards, prophesied that you’d some day place your silk hat on a bench in the House.”

“I know, I know,” he answered, rather impatiently, “but the truth is I only allowed myself to be put up because my old uncle pressed me. He made me a present of a neat ten thou’, so what could I do? I was simply led as a lamb to the slaughter, and nowadays I get deputations waiting upon me, headed by the butcher of Little Twaddlington, and consisting of the inn-keeper and the tinker of that rural centre of civilisation. I’m civil to them, of course, but hang it, old man, I can’t promise to ask all their foolish questions. I’m not built that way. When I make a promise, I keep it. Members nowadays, however, will promise anything on earth, from obtaining an autograph for the butcher’s wife’s collection to the bringing down of manna from above.”

I saw that Roddy was discontented, and was considerably surprised. His Parliamentary honours weighed heavily upon him. He had joined the St Stephen’s Club in the manner of all staunch Conservative members, and I attributed some of his dissatisfaction to the fact that he was nightly compelled to dine with the old fogies there, so as to be within reach for divisions. The Club is only across the road from the House, standing at the corner of the Embankment, and connected with Palace Yard by a subterranean passage. When the division-bell rings in the House it also rings in the club dining-room, and anxious members leave their soup, dash through the tunnel and vote, and come back to finish it. Indeed, it is no uncommon thing for this to be repeated several times in the course of dinner, causing much puffing and grumbling on the part of the stout and gouty members who, overtaken in this helter-skelter to vote, are very often shut out and find they have had their scramble for nothing. Then on returning to table they have to withstand the chaff of the younger and more active legislators, of whom Roddy was a very fair specimen.

“Going down to the House to-night?” I inquired.

“No. It’s Wednesday, thank Heaven! I’ve been down there this afternoon, but we rose at six. Where are you toddling?”

“Anywhere,” I answered. “I want to look in at the Naval and Military for a letter first.”

“From a charmer, eh?” he asked, with a merry twinkle.

“No,” I answered briefly.

“You’re a rum chap, Clifton,” he said. “You never seem to take girls up the river, to the theatre, or to the races, as other men do. I’m beginning to think that you don’t like womankind.”

“Well, I don’t know. I fancy I’ve had as many little affairs of the heart as most men,” I answered.

“Somebody was saying the other day that you were likely to be engaged to May Symonds. Is it true?”

“Whoever said so is certainly premature,” I laughed. “Then you don’t deny it, old chap?”

I shrugged my shoulders, smiled, and together we ascended the club steps.

After a drink we lit cigars and went forth again, strolling along to the Empire, where in the lounge we idled about, chatting with many men we knew, watching the acrobats, the conjurors, the eccentric singers, the ballet, and the other variety items which went to make up the attractive programme.

Leaning upon the plush-covered backs of the circle seats, we smoked and chatted as we watched the ballet, and subsequently entered the bar, where there had congregated about a dozen men all more or less known to me. We joined them, my friend the irrepressible young Tory Member being hailed by a youthful sprig of the Stock Exchange as “The Prime Minister,” whereat there was a round of hearty laughter.

We had chatted for some moments when suddenly Roddy started as if he had encountered some one whose presence was disagreeable in the extreme, and turning to me, said in a hurried half-whisper–

“I’m off, old chap. Forgot I have another engagement. Good night.”

And ere I could reply he had slipped away, and was lost in the chattering crowd.

At the time it struck me that this action was strange, for I felt sure he had seen somebody he did not wish to meet, and reflected that perhaps it was some unwelcome creditor or other. I continued chatting with the other men, until some twenty minutes later I left them and crossed to the little bar where cigars are sold, in order to get something to smoke. The lounge was then so crowded that locomotion was difficult. I was forced to elbow my way to the end of the promenade.

The curtain had fallen upon the ballet, the orchestra was playing the National Anthem, and the place was congested by people coming from their seats in the grand circle, and making their way to the exit. The air was heavy with tobacco-smoke mingled with the odour of a thousand perfumes, for the chiffons of each woman who passed seemed to exhale a different scent, from the nauseous patchouli to the latest patent of the ingenious Parisian perfumer.

Having bought my cigar and lit it, I stood chatting with another man I knew while the theatre emptied, then parting from him, I returned to the bar, only to find my group of friends had dispersed.

I wandered out to the vestibule, and as I stood glancing round, thinking it unusual that Roddy should have left in so mysterious a manner, my gaze encountered that of an extraordinarily pretty girl.

A pair of wistful blue eyes with a half-frightened expression gazed out of a face which was beautiful in its every line, a face saintly in its expression of innocence and youth. As far as I could judge she was about twenty, the paleness of her cheeks showing that no artificial colouring had been added to tinge them, like those of the women about her, while from beneath her hat a mass of fair hair strayed upon her brow, imparting an almost childlike softness to her face; her blue eyes were clear and wide-open, as if in wonder, and her mouth half-parted showed an even row of perfect teeth, while her dimpled chin was pointed and altogether charming.

About her figure was a grace of outline too seldom seen in London women, a suppleness of the hips that seemed almost foreign; yet the face was pure, sweet and winning, an altogether typical English face, refined, with a complexion perfect. In her dress was nothing startling, nothing calculated to arrest the attention of the sterner sex, nothing vulgar nor loud, for it was of dead black grenadine, relieved by a little white lace at the throat and cuffs–an almost funereal robe in contrast with the gay-coloured silks and daring ornamentation of the loud-tongued women who swept past her with inquiring glance and chattering gaily as they made their way out.

I looked at her a second time, for I confess to being attracted by her quietness of dress, her natural dignity, and the agitation within her which she was trying in vain to conceal. Demure and unaffected, she was so utterly out of place in that centre of, London gaiety that I could not help pausing to watch her. Those of her sex who passed looked somewhat askance at her and smiled among themselves, while more than one man ogled her through his monocle. But not a single glance did she bestow upon any in return save myself.

In dismay she looked slowly around the well-lit vestibule and out into the street, where cabs and carriages were driving off. Then she gazed about her, evidently hesitating how to act. There was a hard curl at the corners of her mouth, and a contraction of the eyelids which showed me that tears were ready to start. Yes, there was no doubt whatever that she was in distress, and needed assistance.

She was speaking earnestly with one of the uniformed doorkeepers, an elderly attendant whom I knew quite well, a highly-respectable pensioner in whom the management reposed the greatest confidence.

Noticing me standing there, he came forward with a military salute, saying–

“Excuse me, sir. But I have a lady here who’s in a rather curious difficulty. You know London well, sir?”

“I think so,” I answered, smiling.

“Well, will you speak with her a moment, sir?”

“What’s her trouble?” I inquired, somewhat surprised, nevertheless crossing with him to where she stood, and raising my hat. I confess that she was so eminently beautiful, her face so absolutely flawless in its contour and innocent in its expression, that she had fascinated me. I was beneath the spell of her marvellous beauty.

Many women had smiled upon me, women who were more than passing fair; but never had my eyes fallen upon one whose purity of soul was so mirrored in her eyes, or whose face was so childlike and so perfect. Those tendrils, soft as floss silk, were of that delicate gold which the majority of women lose with their teens; those eyes possessed the true clearness which innocence alone can impart.

“If I can render you any assistance I will do so with pleasure,” I said, addressing her, adding, “I noticed a moment ago that you appeared to be in distress.”

“You are extremely kind,” she answered, raising her eyes to mine for an instant. Her glance was steady and searching, and I saw that she was undecided whether to trust me. “You were quite correct in thinking I am in distress, and if you really could help me I should be so much obliged.”

“Then what troubles you?” I inquired, well satisfied with her answer, and anxious that she should make me her confidant.

“I have been separated from my friends, and am a stranger to London,” she replied. “You will laugh,” she added, “but I am really lost, for I don’t know my way back to my friends’ house.”

“You know the address, I suppose?” I laughed, for to me the idea of one being thus lost in London was amusing.

“Yes: Ellerdale Street.”

“Where?”

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