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"I say you're a bad lot!" "And I reply that you're a liar!" "Take that!" "Here's the repayment!" The man who had spoken first went down like a log. He was a red-headed creature, with a rasping voice and an aggressive manner, evidently one of those who bullied his way through the world, for want of a bold spirit to stand up to him. In this instance he found his match, for the handsome face of the young fellow he insulted was sternly set and considerably flushed. After the war of words came the blow from the bully. His fist passed harmlessly by the head of this antagonist, and a well-delivered return blow caught him fairly on the jaw. Then red-head lay down to consider the lesson he had been taught.
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REAPING THE WHIRLWIND
Lancaster was by way of being a journalist, and managed to struggle along on an inadequate income. He had no influence, and sweated freely for his money. A few far-seeing editors assured him of a brilliant future, but did not seem anxious to assist him to realise their prophecies. No one knew who Lancaster was, or where he came from, as he never spoke of his past. For five years he had been in town, and, unable to do anything else, had drifted into journalism. But in his heart he cherished the notion of startling London with an up-to-date novel. Pending the joy of waking up to find himself famous, he acted as theatrical critic for the _Daily Budget_, a paper which paid the lowest prices for the best procurable talent, and eked out his income with stray articles. Occasionally he wrote verses, and in this way had made the acquaintance of Fairy Fan, who had read some of his attempts in the papers and thought that he might compose words fit for her rosy mouth to sing.
She took a fancy to him, for he was handsome and well-bred. But even Miss Berry, pretty and astute woman as she was, could not learn anything of Lancaster's past, cleverly as she tried to find out. Her uncle, using coarser methods, tried also, but failed likewise. Only to one man had Frank unbosomed himself, and that was to Eustace Jarman, who had first extended to the lonely young man a helping hand. A memory of Starth's words made Lancaster wonder if Jarman had revealed anything, and he would have sought out his friend to ask him directly had not Jarman dwelt in Essex. However, Frank concluded that Starth had merely made the remarks about his parents in a casual way, and without any real knowledge, so he dismissed that matter easily from his mind.
But he could not so easily dismiss the memory of the quarrel, especially as the charming face of Miss Starth floated persistently before his mental vision. Jarman had introduced Frank to Starth three years before, and the two men had never got on well together. By mutual consent they avoided one another, until Miss Berry brought them together to quarrel over her beauty. Starth thereafter became more and more insulting, until his behaviour resulted in the row of the previous night. Had Frank not seen the beautiful sister he would not have cared much, having small regard for the brother. As it was, he felt depressed the next morning, seeing in that final quarrel an insurmountable barrier to making acquaintance with his divinity.
Being in this frame of mind he was both surprised and pleased to receive a note from Starth asking him to call that afternoon between four and five. It seemed that Starth wished to apologise as he had gone rather far--so he stated in his note--on the previous night. Lancaster was astonished that Starth should behave thus reasonably. The action was unlike him. But as the olive branch was held forth, and as there was a chance of meeting the sister, Lancaster decided to accept. No answer was required, so Starth evidently expected him to come. Frank finished his work for the day, and went to his rooms to dress himself more smartly. If Miss Starth were to be present he wanted to appear at his best, but if she were not--
It was at this point that Lancaster sat down to consider. How did he know that the note might not be a trap? He thought it strange that Starth should come forward in this way, and at a second meeting the man might try to revenge himself for his punishment. A black eye is not forgiven easily by any man, and Starth was the last person to let bygones be bygones. Then, again, if there was to be trouble Miss Starth would not be there, and the careful dressing would be wasted. Lancaster was no coward, but he did not wish to accentuate his bad relations with Starth. He had half a mind to send round stating that he could not come, but the hope that, after all, his divinity might be present, decided him to go. Having made up his mind he completed his toilet, and ended by stowing away a pistol in his hip pocket. It was a loaded Derringer, which Frank sometimes took with him when he went round the slums on dangerous business connected with his journalistic work. On the present occasion it was taken merely to intimidate Starth should he have arranged a trap.
"The man's a coward," thought Frank, as he issued forth into the July sunshine, "so if he threatens in any way I can show him the pistol if necessary. I'd rather use my fists as I did last night, but for all I know he may have a revolver handy. It's as well to be on the safe side."
All the same he rather despised himself for this precaution, and twice was on the point of returning to his room to discard the weapon. Still, Starth was a dangerous man, and might use something lethal only to be met with by a revolver; and if nothing happened no one would ever know that he--Lancaster was thinking of himself--carried a pistol. In spite of his experience of life, Frank was callow in many ways, else he would not have armed himself in so unnecessary a manner.
Starth lived in a South Kensington side street, a blind alley where the houses were small, and each was fronted by a weedy garden. Lancaster found himself after a brisk walk--he never took a cab unless forced to, and disliked a 'bus ride--facing a blank, dismal house of two storeys with green shutters. It had not been painted for years, and the front was blistered, weather-stained, discoloured, and generally dilapidated. Some attempt had been made to cultivate the patch of ground in front, but, beyond rearing a few marigolds and pansies, the attempt had not been successful. Up a path bordered by oyster shells, Frank advanced to a rustic porch of green latticework, entwined with dusty creepers, and rang a jingling little bell whose shrill summons he could hear. While waiting he casually noticed that the right-hand window was slightly open, although the blind was pulled down. Before he could observe further, the door opened so suddenly that it almost seemed as though the person behind had been waiting in the passage.
The person was a small sluttish servant, with gooseberry eyes and a pasty white face. She was attired in her best blue dress, and wore a large picture-hat trimmed with more flowers than adorned the garden. Also she had on gloves, and carried a yellow umbrella. As soon as she saw Frank she burst into voluble speech.
"Yer the gent as wishes to see Mr. Starth, and I am glad to see you, sir, for he said as you was goin' to be 'ere at four, it now bein' half-past, and I'm goin' out, my young man waiting for me. This way, sir, and please be quick, as I am in a hurry. Missus 'ave gone out too, but the tea's all ready and the kettle on the fire."
Almost before she finished this incoherent address, she conducted the astonished Frank up a stuffy staircase, and into a front room. Hastily shoving him into this, she banged the door, and hurried away, presumably to meet her young man. Lancaster, puzzled by this reception, and by the mean look of the room in which he found himself, halted at the door, waiting for his host to speak. Starth was sitting in an armchair by the window, with a book. He threw this down, and advanced to his visitor with outstretched hands.
"I'm glad you've come, Lancaster," he said, eagerly. "I am so ashamed of myself that I hardly know what to say."
"Say nothing more," said Frank, laying aside his hat and cane. "I am only too glad to come to an understanding. I can't comprehend why you quarrel with me."
"Jealousy," said Starth, quickly, and sat down.
"Of me and Miss Berry? Well, you needn't be. I don't love her."
Starth pulled down the blind so as to prevent his discoloured eye showing up too badly. "I thought you were to marry her?" he remarked.
"Certainly not. Such an idea never entered my head. Who said so?"
Frank looked puzzled, then laughed. "I should have thought Berry more ambitious for his niece. I haven't any money."
"That's just it," said Starth, slowly. "If you are poor, how did you come to give her those diamonds?"
"I never did. I heard you gave them to her."
Starth laughed, and glanced round the stuffy room. "Would I live in this dog's kennel if I could afford such stones?" he said. "My dear Lancaster, I'm desperately hard up. Between my sister and myself there is enough to live on, no more."
"I saw your sister last night," said Frank.
"Yes. She lives in Essex, but happened to be in town, so I got her a box. She went back this morning with Mrs. Perth."
"Is that the lady who was with her?"
Starth nodded. "She and my sister live together in a small cottage at Wargrove. But I needn't bore you with my family history. I want you to accept my apology."
"I do, Starth. But why did you mention my parents?"
"It was the only thing I could think of."
"To make me angry, I suppose? H'm! You know nothing about me."
"No. Is there anything interesting to know?"
"I fear not," said Lancaster. "My story is a dull one. Still, I thought that Jarman might have said something."
"He said nothing. I never asked about you," responded the other, quickly. "Fact is, Lancaster, I don't think you and I ever got on well together. My fault, I'm afraid, as I have such a bad temper. I am jealous, too, as I love Miss Berry and want to marry her."
"You can, for all I care," said Lancaster, quietly. "I did admire her greatly, but I never had any intention of marrying her. As to the diamonds, who told you that I gave them to her?"
"No one directly. But Berry hinted--"
"Why should he hint?" said Frank, thoughtfully. "He knows I'm as poor as the proverbial church mouse. Do you think he wants me, or expects me, to marry his niece?"
"Yes, I do," said Starth, promptly; "and that was why I grew jealous."
"Then I can't see his reason. I have no money, no position, and no influence. Miss Berry doesn't love me--"
"The Captain says she does," said Starth, quickly.
"Oh, that's rubbish! She likes me because I write her songs, and we get on well together. As for love--" Frank shrugged his shoulders.
"Have you never been in love, Lancaster?"
Frank grew red and shook his head, looking down meanwhile. Starth's jealous eyes followed his every movement, and he eagerly waited for an answer. But none came. Frank could not bring himself to say that he had fallen in love with a girl he had seen but once, and to say it to her brother. In place of gratifying Starth's curiosity he changed the subject. "What a queer servant that was who admitted me," he said. "She was quite angered because I had delayed her appointment with her young man. Had I known, I'd have been punctual."
"It's Tilly," said Starth, carelessly. "A queer creature, as you say--a London slavey of the regular type. I believe Mrs. Betts--that's my landlady--gets her cheap from a workhouse. I let her go to see her young man because Mrs. Betts, who keeps her well in hand, is away at the wedding of some cousin or another. I've got all the house to myself till nine o'clock. But, I say, let's have tea."
Frank made no objection, as he was thirsty, and Starth went down to get the hot water. Pending his return Lancaster strolled about the room, and looked at the photographs. There was one of the beautiful girl he had seen on the previous night, and he nearly stole it. Also he was taken with a gorgeous portrait of a tall, thick-lipped negress, which had an Arabic inscription written at the foot. "Who is this, Starth?" asked Frank, when his host returned with the tea-tray and a kettle of hot water.
Starth glanced at the photograph. "A girl called Balkis. I believe she comes from Zanzibar. I met her at the Docks when I was exploring an opium den."
"H'm! She looks as though she had a temper."
"She has. Took a fancy to me, and gave me her picture, with that writing. It's something about Allah and good luck, I believe. I saw her a good many times at that opium shop. She runs it, I believe."
Lancaster sat down while Starth made ready the tea. It struck him, from these remarks, and from a certain strange odour in the room, that Starth smoked opium. Perhaps the drug was accountable for his queer tempers and utter disregard of decency. Frank began to be rather sorry he had quarrelled with the man, since, if he smoked opium, he was to a certain extent not accountable for his actions. Starth, with his swollen face and discoloured eye, looked queer and grim, and had a haggard look about him which hinted at excess of some sort.
"Here you are," said Starth, passing along a cup. "Do you take sugar Or perhaps," he added, as he handed over the basin, "you would like a drink of whisky?"
"Tea's good enough for me," said Frank, sipping. "Well, Starth, I'm glad we've come to some sort of understanding. I hate rows."
"So do I, but jealousy always makes my blood boil."
"But, you see, you've no cause to be jealous."
"I can see that now. But Berry kept hinting that it was an arranged thing between you and Fan."
"H'm! I'll have a talk with him. He's no right to make false statements of that kind. I wonder what his game is. I'm certainly not a desirable match for his niece, putting aside the fact that she doesn't care two pins for anyone but herself."
"Are you sure of that, Lancaster?" said Starth, with rather an anxious look. "I'm mad about her, and want to marry her."
"I shouldn't like Banjo Berry for a connection myself," said Lancaster, setting down his cup. "What a strange taste that tea has."
"They never clean the kettles here," said Starth, hastily. "It's smoke or fur inside the kettle, or something. My tea tastes bad also."
Frank refused another cup, and smoked a cigarette while Starth related his feelings for Fairy Fan in detail. Also he mentioned that he hoped to see much of Lancaster, and that he should like to introduce him to his sister. This last remark made Frank's heart leap with joy, but somehow he could not find words to thank his host. Starth seemed to recede a long way, and his voice sounded like that of a phonograph. Lancaster tried to rise, but sank back in his chair drowsily. He felt sure that there was foul play, as he saw faintly the man lean forward to scrutinise him. But his brain was clouded, his speech was thick, and wave after wave of something deeper than sleep poured over him. His last thought was something about opium being in the tea, but he could not put this into words. After that last effort of the mind to overcome the lethargy his head fell back, and he became unconscious.
In after days Frank never could be got to tell his dreams. The mere memory of them would make him shudder. Far away in the land of sleep he wrestled with unknown foes, and passed a time of sheer agony not to be paralleled by any experience of the waking hours. He seemed to have slept for centuries when he came to himself on the sofa, with a furred tongue and an aching head. There was a faint light in the room as the blinds were up, and for a few minutes the young man, still half stupefied with the drug, could not grasp the idea of his whereabouts. Then after an effort or two at thought, his self-consciousness came back with a rush. He rose slowly and staggered into the centre of the room, only to stumble over a body.
It _was_ a body, for he fell on top of it. His memory became clearer with the horror of the discovery. He remembered his visit, the empty house, the drugged tea, and, recalling his dread of foul play on the part of Starth, he slipped his hand round to his hip-pocket. The Derringer was gone. When he made that discovery, Frank leaped to his feet with a strangled cry. By this time he had his wits about him; but still remained a vague fear of the thing on the floor.
His frock coat had been removed and cast on the carpet beside the sofa. He found it by the feel, and obtained a match out of the ticket-pocket. Striking this he bent over the dead. It _was_ Starth. "Great Heavens!" said Frank, under his breath. "Starth--dead--shot!"
Assuredly shot, for there was a small hole under the left eye. The bullet must have passed into the brain, killing the poor wretch instantaneously. As the match flickered out, Frank was left alone in the half-gloom beside this dead thing, trying to think how the poor wretch had come by his death. Then it dawned anew on him that his pistol was gone, that the man had been shot. Who had slain him? What revolver had been used? The first question he could not answer, but the second answered itself. Since his weapon was gone, it assuredly had been used to commit the murder.
But was it murder? What about suicide? Frank tried to argue the case. As he did so, the clock on the mantelpiece struck nine. The sudden tingle of the bell set his blood leaping. He recalled how Starth had expected Mrs. Betts and Tilly back at that hour, and making a dash for his coat, he hastily struggled into it. He must not be found here with the dead man. The row on the previous night, his foolish words, his weapon, his being alone in the house with a man with whom he was well known to be on bad terms--all these things would weave a rope to hang him. Realising his danger with a gasp, Frank lighted another match, and found cane and hat. But he had no more matches, although he desired to search for the Derringer. All he wanted now was to get away, and he hastened down the stairs in a state of agony, the perspiration standing on his brow, and his heart in his mouth.
There was no difficulty in opening the door. He closed it again, and went down the path, through the gate, and on to the road. Here a street-lamp threw a strong light. Under it stood a girl and a young man. "My, sir!" said Tilly, catching sight of his face, "you have been a time with Mr. Starth. I 'ope he ain't angered. He--"
Lancaster waited to hear no more, but walked rapidly down the lane, he knew not whither. All he wanted was to get away from the gallows, from the dead.
A FRIEND IN NEED
Popular prejudice regards Essex as a damp, marshy flat, inhabited by mosquitoes, rheumatic yokels, and children of the sea-mist. But Eustace Jarman dwelt on a far-extending plateau, whence from his study window he surveyed Tilbury, Gravesend, the mouth of Thames river, and vast tracts of meadow-lands divided into irregular squares by erratic hedges. His home was three miles from the nearest railway station as the crow flies, and, being cut off from civilisation, by acres of furze-grown common, was as isolated as his misanthropic soul could desire.
Jarman had the reputation of being a solitary man, and those who knew him in literary circles hinted at the destroying influences of the inevitable woman. But Eustace never explained. After a journalistic career in town he disappeared into the Essex wilds, and devoted himself to writing music-hall sketches, short tales, and articles on countries he had visited. As he had been round the world twice or thrice, and knew the manners and customs of various peoples, he was well paid for his contributions. The cost of living at Wargrove was nil, and Jarman was supposed to be saving money. At times he would vanish into the Far East, or seek South America when there was a chance of trouble between tin-pot republics, but he always returned to his Essex plateau, to live a hermit's life. Miss Cork waited on him, and looked after his simple needs, and Miss Cork mentioned frequently that he was the queerest gent she ever set eyes on.
"The Shanty," as he called his place, was an old farmhouse, buried amongst elm and oak trees, and surrounded by an orchard and a flower garden, all more or less in ruins. Jarman would not allow the place to be tidied up, as Miss Cork suggested, loving better the eccentric untrimmed look of his property. The hedges grew sprawling at their own sweet will, long grass flourished up to the very door, and poppies, sun-flowers, and straggling rose-trees showed above this miniature jungle. Eustace possessed three rooms, two of which were occupied by beds for himself and any chance friend, and a third apartment, large and airy, which served as a study, a dining-room, a smoking-room, and a parlour. In this last were collected trophies of Jarman's travels, ranging from Japanese curiosities to South Sea oddities. Books also--but these were everywhere, and overflowed from the study into the passages, into the hall, up the stairs, and in some degree into the bedrooms. Everywhere there was a scent of tobacco smoke, and Eustace loafed about in flannel bags with an old shooting jacket and a worn cricketing cap on the back of his head.
The house was not very large, and Jarman was over six feet. But he moved with a dexterity remarkable in so huge a man, and was as handy as a woman in looking after his housekeeping. Miss Cork lived at the back, and merely acted as lieutenant in carrying out her master's orders. When she wished to introduce feminine innovations Eustace protested. He loved his savage bachelor life and his hermit-crab shell too much to desire new-fangled customs. Extra civilisation, especially of the womanly kind, meant extra work, and Eustace was a lazy man.
It was a wet July night when Lancaster sought this refuge. All day it had been raining hard, and Jarman was just thinking of putting on his waders for his usual walk, when Miss Cork entered to announce a visitor. On her heels followed Frank, and Eustace stared when he saw him. The stare was excusable, for Lancaster appeared in a silk hat, a frock-coat, and patent-leather boots. He was mired with clay from the roads, torn by the furze of the common, and dripped like an insane river-god. Also, without invitation, he collapsed into the nearest chair, while Jarman's jaw fell still lower at the sight of his white face, his clenched mouth, and his glassy eyes. Miss Cork, half blind, saw few of these things, but she withdrew to the kitchen to soliloquise on the costume of the visitor, inappropriate alike to the weather and the country. Meanwhile Jarman, behind closed doors, continued to stare.
"What is the matter?" he asked at last.
"I caught the last train from Liverpool Street," explained Frank, in faint tones, "and walked across the Common. I'm dead beat. Give me a whisky and soda."
Jarman supplied this refreshment speedily, and again demanded explanations. "But you'd better get into a dry kit before you make 'em," said he, bustling about. "What a crazy rig to negotiate the country in. Been drinkin'?"
"Do I ever drink, you ass?"
"Not your style, I know, but that's the sort that generally goes a mucker in the end. Cut into my bedroom and I'll hand you out a few things. Hang it, man, hold up!"
Lancaster, who had lurched against the big man's shoulder, pulled himself straight, and tried to smile. Jarman could see that the poor young fellow was on the verge of hysterics, being overwrought, and quite broken down. Therefore he spoke roughly to brace the slack nerves. With a few choice expletives he chased Frank into the bedroom, made him strip to the skin, and after a thorough towelling, saw him inducted into a pair of flannel trousers and a faded blazer, together with a woollen shirt and a pair of old slippers. Then he demanded if Frank was hungry, and led him back to the parlour.
"No, I'm not hungry," said Frank, dropping into a chair near the fire, for Eustace approved of a fire when the rain fell; "but another whisky--"
"Not a bit of it. You'll get squiffy. You must eat!"
"But I want to tell you--"
"Later! Later! Meantime, bread and meat."
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