The Strand Magazine, April 1917
N the interesting land of India, where snakes abound and scorpions are common objects of the wayside, a native who has had the misfortune to be bitten by one of the latter pursues an admirably common-sense plan. He does not stop to lament, nor does he hang about analyzing his emotions. He runs and runs and runs, and keeps on running until he has worked the poison out of his system. Not until then does he attempt introspection.
Lord Dawlish, though ignorant of this fact, pursued almost identically the same policy. He did not run on leaving Lady Wetherby’s house, but he took a very long and very rapid walk, than which in times of stress there are few things of greater medicinal value to the human mind. To increase the similarity, he was conscious of a curious sense of being poisoned. He felt stifled—in want of air.
Bill was a simple young man, and he had a simple code of ethics. Above all things he prized and admired and demanded from his friends the quality of straightness. It was his one demand. The worst accusation that he could bring against a man was that he was not square, that he had not played the game.
Claire had not been square. It was that, more than the shock of surprise of Lady Wetherby’s news, that had sent him striding along the State Road at the rate of five miles an hour, staring before him with unseeing eyes. A sudden recollection of their last interview brought a dull flush to Bill’s face and accelerated his speed. He felt physically ill.
Little by little, walking swiftly the while, he began to make a rough inventory. He sorted out his injuries, catalogued them. It was perhaps his self-esteem that had suffered least of all, for he was by nature modest. He had a saving humility, valuable in a crisis of this sort.
But he looked up to Claire. He had thought her straight. And all the time that she had been saying those things to him that night of their last meeting she had been engaged to another man, a fat, bald, doddering, senile fool, whose only merit was his money. Scarcely a fair description of Mr. Pickering, but in a man in Bill’s position a little bias is excusable.
Bill walked on. He felt as if he could walk for ever. And then quite suddenly and unexpectedly the fever passed. Almost in mid-stride he became another man, a healed, sane man, keenly aware of a very vivid thirst and a desire to sit down and rest before attempting the ten miles of road that lay between him and home. Half an hour at a wayside inn completed the cure. It was a weary but clear-headed Bill who trudged back through the gathering dusk.
He found himself thinking of Claire as of someone he had known long ago, someone who had never touched his life. She seemed so far away that he wondered how she could ever have affected him for pain or pleasure. He looked at her across a chasm. This is the real difference between love and infatuation, that infatuation can be slain cleanly with a single blow. In the hour of clear vision which had come to him, Bill saw that he had never loved Claire. It was her beauty that had held him, that and the appeal which her circumstances had made to his pity. Their minds had not run smoothly together. Always there had been something that jarred, a subtle antagonism. And she was crooked.
Almost unconsciously his mind began to build up an image of the ideal girl, the girl he would have liked Claire to be, the girl who would conform to all that he demanded of woman. She would be brave. He realized now that, even though it had moved his pity, Claire’s querulousness had offended something in him.
He had made allowances for her, but the ideal girl would have had no need of allowances. The ideal girl would be plucky, cheerfully valiant, a fighter. She would not admit the existence of hard luck.
She would be honest. Here, too, she would have no need of allowances. No temptation would be strong enough to make her do a mean act or think a mean thought, for her courage would give her strength, and her strength would make her proof against temptation. She would be kind. That was because she would also be extremely intelligent, and, being extremely intelligent, would have need of kindness to enable her to bear with a not very intelligent man like himself. For the rest, she would be small and alert and pretty, and—fair-haired—and brown-eyed—and she would keep a bee farm and her name would be Elizabeth Boyd.
Having arrived with a sense of mild astonishment at this conclusion, Bill found, also to his surprise, that he had walked ten miles without knowing it and that he was turning in at the farm gate. Somebody came down the drive, and he saw that it was Elizabeth.
She hurried to meet him, small and shadowy in the uncertain light. James, the cat, stalked rheumatically at her side. She came up to Bill, and he saw that her face wore an anxious look. He gazed at her with a curious feeling that it was a very long time since he had seen her last.
“Where have you been?” she said, her voice troubled. “I couldn’t think what had become of you.”
“I went for a walk.”
“But you’ve been gone hours and hours.”
“I went to a place called Morrisville.”
“Morrisville!” Elizabeth’s eyes opened wide. “Have you walked twenty miles?”
“Why, I—I believe I have.”
It was the first time he had been really conscious of it. Elizabeth looked at him in consternation. Perhaps it was the association in her mind of unexpected walks with the newly-born activities of the repentant Nutty that gave her the feeling that there must be some mental upheaval on a large scale at the back of this sudden ebullition of long-distance pedestrianism. She remembered that the thought had come to her once or twice during the past week that all was not well with her visitor, and that he had seemed downcast and out of spirits.
“Is anything the matter, Mr. Chalmers?”
“No,” said Bill, decidedly. He would have found a difficulty in making that answer with any ring of conviction earlier in the day, but now it was different. There was nothing whatever the matter with him now. He had never felt happier.
“Absolutely. I feel fine.”
“I thought—I’ve been thinking for some days—that you might be in trouble of some sort.”
Bill swiftly added another to that list of qualities which he had been framing on his homeward journey. That girl of his would be angelically sympathetic.
“It’s awfully good of you,” he said, “but honestly I feel like—I feel great.”
The little troubled look passed from Elizabeth’s face. Her eyes twinkled.
“You’re really feeling happy?”
“Then let me damp you. We’re in an awful fix!”
“What! In what way?”
“About the monkey.”
“Has he escaped?”
“That’s the trouble—he hasn’t.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Come and sit down and I’ll tell you. It’s a shame to keep you standing after your walk.”
They made their way to the massive stone seat which Mr. Flack, the landlord, had bought at a sale and dumped in a moment of exuberance on the farm grounds.
“This is the most hideous thing on earth,” said Elizabeth, casually, “but it will do to sit on. Now tell me: why did you go to Lady Wetherby’s this afternoon?”
It was all so remote, it seemed so long ago that he had wanted to find an excuse for meeting Claire again, that for a moment Bill hesitated in actual perplexity, and before he could speak Elizabeth had answered the question for him.
“I suppose you went out of kindness of heart to relieve the poor lady’s mind,” she said. “But you certainly did the wrong thing. You started something!”
“I didn’t tell her the animal was here.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I said I had seen it, don’t you know.”
“That was enough.”
“I’m awfully sorry.”
“Oh, we shall pull through all right, but we must act at once. We must be swift and resolute. We must saddle our chargers and up and away, and all that sort of thing. Show a flash of speed,” she explained kindly, at the sight of Bill’s bewildered face.
“But what has happened?”
“The Press is on our trail. I’ve been interviewing reporters all the afternoon.”
“Millions of them. The place is alive with them. Keen, hatchet-faced young men, and every one of them was the man who really unravelled some murder mystery or other, though the police got the credit for it. They told me so.”
“But, I say, how on earth——”
“Did they get here? I suppose Lady Wetherby invited them.”
“She wants the advertisement, of course. I know it doesn’t sound sensational—a lost monkey; but when it’s a celebrity’s lost monkey it makes a difference. Suppose King George had lost a monkey: wouldn’t your London newspapers give it a good deal of space? Especially if it had thrown eggs at one of the ladies-in-waiting and bitten the Prince of Wales in the leg? That’s what our visitor has been doing, apparently. At least, he threw eggs at the scullery-maid and bit a millionaire. It’s practically the same thing. At any rate, there it is. The newspaper men are here, and they seem to regard this farm as their centre of operations. I had the greatest difficulty in inducing them to go home to their well-earned dinners. They wanted to camp out on the place. As it is, there may still be some of them round, hiding in the grass with notebooks, and telling one another in whispers that they were the men who really solved the murder mystery. What shall we do?”
Bill had no suggestions.
“You realize our position? I wonder if we could be arrested for kidnapping. The monkey is far more human than most of the millionaire children who get kidnapped. It’s an awful fix. Did you know that Lady Wetherby is going to offer a reward for the animal?”
“Five hundred dollars!”
“She is. I suppose she feels she can charge it up to necessary expenses for publicity and still be ahead of the game, taking into account the advertising she’s going to get.”
“She said nothing about that when I saw her.”
“No, because it won’t be offered until to-morrow or the day after. One of the newspaper men told me that. The idea is, of course, to make the thing exciting just when it would otherwise be dying as a news item. Cumulative interest. It’s a good scheme, too, but it makes it very awkward for me. I don’t want to be in the position of keeping a monkey locked up with the idea of waiting until somebody starts a bull market in monkeys. I consider that that sort of thing would stain the spotless escutcheon of the Boyds. It would be a low trick for that old-established family to play. Not but what poor, dear Nutty would do it like a shot,” she concluded meditatively.
Bill was impressed.
“It does make it awkward, what!”
“It makes it more than awkward, what! Take another aspect of the situation. The night before last my precious Nutty, while ruining his constitution with the demon rum, thought he saw a monkey that wasn’t there, and instantly resolved to lead a new and better life. He hates walking, but he has now begun to do his five miles a day. He loathes cold baths, but he now wallows in them. I don’t know his views on Indian clubs, but I should think that he has a strong prejudice against them, too, but now you can’t go near him without taking a chance of being brained. Are all these good things to stop as quickly as they began? If I know Nutty, he would drop them exactly one minute after he heard that it was a real monkey he saw that night. And how are we to prevent his hearing? By a merciful miracle he was out taking his walk when the newspaper men began to infest the place to-day, but that might not happen another time. What conclusion does all this suggest to you, Mr. Chalmers?”
“We ought to get rid of the animal.”
“We certainly ought. We must take it as near Lady Wetherby’s house as we can manage with safety, and then trust to its homing instincts.”
“We’d better do it to-night.”
“This very minute. But don’t you bother to come. You must be tired out, poor thing.”
“I never felt less tired,” said Bill, stoutly.
Elizabeth looked at him in silence for a moment.
“You’re rather splendid, you know, Mr. Chalmers. You make a great partner for an adventure of this kind. You’re nice and solid.”
The outhouse lay in the neighbourhood of the hives, a gaunt, wooden structure surrounded by bushes. Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder as she drew the key from her pocket.
“You can’t think how nervous I was this afternoon,” she said. “I thought every moment one of those newspaper men would look in here. I—James! James! I thought I heard James in those bushes—I kept heading them away. Once I thought it was all up.” She unlocked the door. “One of them was about a yard from the window, just going to look in. Thank goodness, a bee stung him at the psychological moment, and—— Oh!”
“What’s the matter?”
“Come and get a banana.”
They walked to the house. On the way Elizabeth stopped.
“Why, you haven’t had any dinner either!” she said.
“Never mind me,” said Bill; “I can wait. Let’s get this thing finished first.”
“You really are a sport, Mr. Chalmers,” said Elizabeth, gratefully. “It would kill me to wait a minute. I sha’n’t feel happy until I’ve got it over. Will you stay here while I go up and see that Nutty’s safe in his room?” she added as they entered the house.
She stopped abruptly. A feline howl had broken the stillness of the night, followed instantly by a sharp report.
“What was that?”
“It sounded like a car backfiring.”
“No, it was a shot. One of the neighbours, I expect. You can hear miles away on a night like this. I suppose a cat was after his chickens. Thank goodness James isn’t a pirate cat. Wait while I go up and see Nutty.”
She was gone only a moment.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I peeped in. He’s doing deep-breathing exercises at his window, which looks out the other way. Come along.”
When they reached the outhouse they found the door open.
“Did you do that?” said Elizabeth. “Did you leave it open?”
“I don’t remember doing it myself. It must have swung open. Well, this saves us a walk. He’ll have gone.”
“Better take a look round, what?”
“Yes, I suppose so; but he’s sure not to be there. Have you a match?”
Bill struck one and held it up.
The match went out.
“What is it? What has happened?”
Bill was fumbling for another match.
“There’s something on the floor. It looks like—I thought for a minute——” The small flame shot out of the gloom, flickered, then burned with a steady glow. Bill stooped, bending over something on the ground. The match burned down.
Bill’s voice came out of the darkness:
“I say, you were right about that noise. It was a shot. The poor little chap’s down there on the floor with a hole in him the size of my fist.”
Boyhood, like measles, is one of those complaints which a man should catch young and have done with, for when it comes in middle life it is apt to be serious. Dudley Pickering had escaped boyhood at the time when his contemporaries were contracting it. It is true that for a few years after leaving the cradle he had exhibited a certain immatureness, but as soon as he put on knickerbockers and began to go about a little he outgrew all that. He avoided altogether the chaotic period which usually lies between the years of ten and fourteen. At ten he was a thoughtful and sober-minded young man, at fourteen almost an old fogey.
And now—thirty-odd years overdue—boyhood had come upon him. As he examined the revolver in his bedroom wild and unfamiliar emotions seethed within him. He did not realize it, but they were the emotions which should have come to him thirty years before and driven him out to hunt Indians in the garden. An imagination which might well have become atrophied through disuse had him as thoroughly in its control as ever he had had his Pickering Giant.
He believed almost with devoutness in the plot which he had detected for the spoliation of Lord Wetherby’s summer home, that plot of which he held Lord Dawlish to be the mainspring. And it must be admitted that circumstances had combined to help his belief. If the atmosphere in which he was moving was not sinister, then there was no meaning in the word.
Summer homes had been burgled, there was no getting away from that—half-a-dozen at least in the past two months. He was a stranger in the locality, so had no means of knowing that summer homes were always burgled on Long Island every year, as regularly as the coming of the mosquito and the advent of the jelly-fish. It was one of the local industries. People left summer homes lying about loose in lonely spots, and you just naturally got in through the cellar window. Such was the Long Islander’s simple creed.
This created in Mr. Pickering’s mind an atmosphere of burglary, a receptiveness, as it were, toward burglars as phenomena, and the extremely peculiar behaviour of the person whom in his thoughts he always referred to as The Man crystallized it. He had seen The Man hanging about, peering in at windows. He had shouted “Hi!” and The Man had run. The Man had got into the house under the pretence of being a friend of Claire’s. At the suggestion that he should meet Claire he had dashed away in a panic. And Claire, both then and later, had denied absolutely any knowledge of him.
As for the apparently blameless beekeeping that was going on at the place where he lived, that was easily discounted. Mr. Pickering had heard somewhere or read somewhere—he rather thought that it was in those interesting but disturbing chronicles of Raffles—that the first thing an intelligent burglar did was to assume some open and innocent occupation to avert possible inquiry into his real mode of life. Mr. Pickering did not put it so to himself, for he was rarely slangy even in thought, but what he felt was that he had caught The Man and his confederate with the goods.
If Mr. Pickering had had his boyhood at the proper time and finished with it, he would no doubt have acted otherwise than he did. He would have contented himself with conducting a war of defence. He would have notified the police, and considered that all that remained for him personally to do was to stay in his room at night with his revolver. But boys will be boys. The only course that seemed to him in any way satisfactory in this his hour of rejuvenation was to visit the bee farm, the hotbed of crime, and keep an eye on it. He wanted to go there and prowl.
He did not anticipate any definite outcome of his visit. In his boyish, elemental way he just wanted to take a revolver and a pocketful of cartridges, and prowl.
It was a great night for prowling. An opportune belt of shrubs that ran from the gate adjoining the road to a point not far from the house gave Mr. Pickering just the cover he needed. He slipped into this belt of shrubs and began to work his way through them.
Like generals, authors, artists, and others who, after planning broad effects, have to get down to the detail work, he found that this was where his troubles began. He had conceived the journey through the shrubbery in rather an airy mood. He thought he would just go through the shrubbery. He had not taken into account the branches, the thorns, the occasional unexpected holes, and he was both warm and dishevelled when he reached the end of it and found himself out in the open within a short distance of what he recognized as beehives. It was not for some time that he was able to give that selfless attention to exterior objects which is the prowler’s chief asset. For quite a while the only thought of which he was conscious was that what he needed most was a cold drink and a cold bath. Then, with a return to clear-headedness, he realized that he was standing out in the open, visible from three sides to anyone who might be in the vicinity, and he withdrew into the shrubbery. He was not fond of the shrubbery, but it was a splendid place to withdraw into. It swallowed you up.
This was the last move of the first part of Mr. Pickering’s active campaign. He stayed where he was, in the middle of a bush, and waited for the enemy to do something. What he expected him to do he did not know. The subconscious thought that animated him was that on a night like this something was bound to happen sooner or later. He would have resented the suggestion profoundly, but the truth of the matter was that Dudley Pickering, after a late start, had begun to play Indians.
Away in the distance a dog began to howl. A motor passed in the road. For a few moments Mr. Pickering was able to occupy himself pleasantly with speculations as to its make; and then he became aware that something was walking down the back of his neck just beyond the point where his fingers could reach it. Discomfort enveloped Mr. Pickering. At various times by day he had seen long-winged black creatures with slim waists and unpleasant faces. Could it be one of these? Or a caterpillar? Or—and the maddening thing was that he did not dare to slap at it, for who knew what desperate characters the sound might not attract?
Well, it wasn’t stinging him; that was something.
A second howling dog joined the first one. A wave of sadness was apparently afflicting the canine population of the district to-night.
Mr. Pickering’s vitality began to ebb. He was ageing, and imagination slackened its grip. And then, just as he had begun to contemplate the possibility of abandoning the whole adventure and returning home, he was jerked back to boyhood again by the sound of voices.
He shrank farther back into the bushes. A man—The Man—was approaching, accompanied by his female associate. They passed so close to him that he could have stretched out a hand and touched them.
The female associate was speaking, and her first words set all Mr. Pickering’s suspicions dancing a dance of triumph. The girl gave herself away with her opening sentence.
“You can’t think how nervous I was this afternoon,” he heard her say. She had a soft, pleasant voice; but soft, pleasant voices may be the vehicles for conveying criminal thoughts. “I thought every moment one of those newspaper men would look in here.”
Where was here? Ah, that outhouse! Mr. Pickering had had his suspicions of that outhouse already. It was one of those structures that look at you furtively as if something were hiding in them.
“James! James! I thought I heard James in those bushes.”
The girl was looking straight at the spot occupied by Mr. Pickering, and it had been the start caused by her first words and the resultant rustle of branches that had directed her attention to him. He froze. The danger passed. She went on speaking. Mr. Pickering pondered on James. Who was James? Another of the gang, of course. How many of them were there?
“Once I thought it was all up. One of them was about a yard from the window, just going to look in.”
Mr. Pickering thrilled. There was something hidden in the outhouse, then! Swag?
“Thank goodness a bee stung him at the psychological moment, and—— Oh!”
She stopped, and The Man spoke:—
“What’s the matter?”
It interested Mr. Pickering that The Man retained his English accent even when talking privately with his associates. For practice, no doubt.
“Come and get a banana,” said the girl. And they went off together in the direction of the house, leaving Mr. Pickering bewildered. Why a banana? Was it a slang term of the underworld for a pistol? It must be that.
But he had no time for speculation. Now was his chance, the only chance he would ever get of looking into that outhouse and finding out its mysterious contents. He had seen the girl unlock the door. A few steps would take him there. All it needed was nerve. With a strong effort Mr. Pickering succeeded in obtaining the nerve. He burst from his bush and trotted to the outhouse door, opened it and looked in. And at that moment something touched his leg.
At the right time and in the right frame of mind man is capable of stoic endurances that excite wonder and admiration. Mr. Pickering was no weakling. He had once upset his motor-car in a ditch, and had waited for twenty minutes until help came to relieve a broken arm, and he had done it without a murmur. But on the present occasion there was a difference. His mind was not adjusted for the occurrence. There are times when it is unseasonable to touch a man on the leg. This was a moment when it was unseasonable in the case of Mr. Pickering. He bounded silently into the air, his whole being rent asunder as by a cataclysm.
He had been holding his revolver in his hand as a protection against nameless terrors, and as he leaped he pulled the trigger. Then with the automatic instinct for self-preservation, he sprang back into the bushes, and began to push his way through them until he had reached a safe distance from the danger zone.
James, the cat, meanwhile, hurt at the manner in which his friendly move had been received, had taken refuge on the outhouse roof. He mewed complainingly, a puzzled note in his voice. Mr. Pickering’s behaviour had been one of those things that no fellow can understand. The whole thing seemed inexplicable to James.
Lord Dawlish stood in the doorway of the outhouse, holding the body of Eustace gingerly by the tail. It was a solemn moment. There was no room for doubt as to the completeness of the extinction of Lady Wetherby’s pet.
Dudley Pickering’s bullet had done its lethal work. Eustace’s adventurous career was over. He was through.
Elizabeth’s mouth was trembling, and she looked very white in the moonlight. Being naturally soft-hearted, she deplored the tragedy for its own sake; and she was also, though not lacking in courage, decidedly upset by the discovery that some person unknown had been roaming her premises with a firearm.
“Oh, Bill!” she said. Then: “Poor little chap!” And then: “Who could have done it?”
Lord Dawlish did not answer. His whole mind was occupied at the moment with the contemplation of the fact that she had called him Bill. Then he realized that she had spoken three times and expected a reply.
“Who could have done it?”
Bill pondered. Never a quick thinker, the question found him unprepared.
“Some fellow, I expect,” he said at last, brightly. “Got in, don’t you know, and then his pistol went off by accident.”
“But what was he doing with a pistol?”
Bill looked a little puzzled at this.
“Why, he would have a pistol, wouldn’t he? I thought everybody had over here.”
Except for what he had been able to observe during the brief period of his present visit, Lord Dawlish’s knowledge of the United States had been derived from the American plays which he had seen in London, and in these chappies were producing revolvers all the time. He had got the impression that a revolver was as much a part of the ordinary well-dressed man’s equipment in the United States as a collar.
“I think it was a burglar,” said Elizabeth. “There have been a lot of burglaries down here this summer.”
“Would a burglar burgle the outhouse? Rummy idea, rather, what? Not much sense in it. I think it must have been a tramp. I expect tramps are always popping about and nosing into all sorts of extraordinary places, you know.”
“He must have been standing quite close to us while we were talking,” said Elizabeth, with a shiver.
Bill looked about him. Everywhere was peace. No sinister sounds competed with the croaking of the tree frogs. No alien figures infested the landscape. The only alien figure, that of Mr. Pickering, was wedged into a bush, invisible to the naked eye.
“He’s gone now, at any rate,” he said. “What are we going to do?”
Elizabeth gave another shiver as she glanced hurriedly at the deceased. After life’s fitful fever Eustace slept well, but he was not looking his best.
“With—it?” she said.
“I say,” advised Bill, “I shouldn’t call him ‘it,’ don’t you know. It sort of rubs it in. Why not ‘him’? I suppose we had better bury him. Have you a spade anywhere handy?”
“There isn’t a spade on the place.”
Bill looked thoughtful.
“It takes weeks to make a hole with anything else, you know,” he said. “When I was a kid a friend of mine bet me I wouldn’t dig my way through to China with a pocket knife. It was an awful frost. I tried for a couple of days, and broke the knife and didn’t get anywhere near China.” He laid the remains on the grass and surveyed them meditatively. “This is what fellows always run up against in the detective novels—What to Do With the Body. They manage the murder part of it all right, and then stub their toes on the body problem.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk as if we had done a murder.”
“I feel as if we had, don’t you?”
“I read a story once where a fellow slugged somebody and melted the corpse down in a bath tub with sulphuric——”
“Stop! You’re making me sick!”
“Only a suggestion, don’t you know,” said Bill, apologetically.
“Well, suggest something else, then.”
“How about leaving him on Lady Wetherby’s doorstep? See what I mean—let them take him in with the morning milk? Or, if you would rather, ring the bell and go away, and—you don’t think much of it?”
“I simply haven’t the nerve to do anything so risky.”
“Oh, I would do it. There would be no need for you to come.”
“I wouldn’t dream of deserting you.”
“That’s awfully good of you.”
“Besides, I’m not going to be left alone to-night until I can jump into my little white bed and pull the clothes over my head. I’m scared. I’m just boneless with fright. And I wouldn’t go anywhere near Lady Wetherby’s doorstep with it.”
“It’s no use, I can’t think of it as ‘him.’ It’s no good asking me to.”
Bill frowned thoughtfully.
“I read a story once where two chappies wanted to get rid of a body. They put it inside a fellow’s piano.”
“You do seem to have read the most horrible sort of books.”
“I rather like a bit of blood with my fiction,” said Bill. “What about this piano scheme I read about?”
“People only have talking machines in these parts.”
“I read a story——”
“Let’s try to forget the stories you’ve read. Suggest something of your own.”
“Well, could we dissect the little chap?”
“And bury him in the cellar, you know. Fellows do it to their wives.”
“Try again,” she said.
“Well, the only other thing I can think of is to take him into the woods and leave him there. It’s a pity we can’t let Lady Wetherby know where he is; she seems rather keen on him. But I suppose the main point is to get rid of him.”
“I know how we can do both. That’s a good idea of yours about the woods. They are part of Lady Wetherby’s property. I used to wander about there in the spring when the house was empty. There’s a sort of shack in the middle of them. I shouldn’t think anybody ever went there—it’s a deserted sort of place. We could leave him there, and then—well, we might write Lady Wetherby a letter or something. We could think out that part afterward.”
“It’s the best thing we’ve thought of. You really want to come?”
“If you attempt to leave here without me I shall scream. Let’s be starting.”
Bill picked Eustace up by his convenient tail.
“I read a story once,” he said, “where a fellow was lugging a corpse through a wood, when suddenly——”
“Stop right there,” said Elizabeth, firmly.
During the conversation just recorded Dudley Pickering had been keeping a watchful eye on Bill and Elizabeth from the interior of a bush. His was not the ideal position for espionage, for he was too far off to hear what they said, and the light was too dim to enable him to see what it was that Bill was holding. It looked to Mr. Pickering like a sack or bag of some sort. As time went by he became convinced that it was a sack, limp and empty at present, but destined later to receive and bulge with what he believed was technically known as the swag. When the two objects of vigilance concluded their lengthy consultation, and moved off in the direction of Lady Wetherby’s woods, any doubts he may have had as to whether they were the criminals he had suspected them of being were dispersed. The whole thing worked out logically.
The Man, having spied out the land in his two visits to Lady Wetherby’s house, was now about to break in. His accomplice would stand by with the sack. With a beating heart Mr. Pickering gripped his revolver and moved round in the shadow of the shrubbery till he came to the gate, when he was just in time to see the guilty couple disappear into the woods. He followed them. He was glad to get on the move again. While he had been wedged into the bush quite a lot of the bush had been wedged into him. Something sharp had pressed against the calf of his leg, and he had been pinched in a number of tender places. And he was convinced that one more of God’s unpleasant creatures had got down the back of his neck.
Dudley Pickering moved through the wood as snakily as he could. Nature had shaped him more for stability than for snakiness, but he did his best. He tingled with the excitement of the chase, and endeavoured to creep through the undergrowth like one of those intelligent Indians of whom he had read so many years before in the pages of Mr. Fenimore Cooper. In those days Dudley Pickering had not thought very highly of Fenimore Cooper, holding his work deficient in serious and scientific interest; but now it seemed to him that there had been something in the man after all, and he resolved to get some of his books and go over them again. He wished he had read them more carefully at the time, for they doubtless contained much information and many hints which would have come in handy just now. He seemed, for example, to recall characters in them who had the knack of going through forests without letting a single twig crack beneath their feet. Probably the author had told how this was done. In his unenlightened state it was beyond Mr. Pickering. The wood seemed carpeted with twigs. Whenever he stepped he trod on one, and whenever he trod on one it cracked beneath his feet. There were moments when he felt gloomily that he might just as well be firing a machine-gun.
Bill, meanwhile, Elizabeth following close behind him, was ploughing his way onward. From time to time he would turn to administer some encouraging remark, for it had come home to him by now that encouraging remarks were what she needed very much in the present crisis of her affairs. She was showing him a new and hitherto unsuspected side of her character. The Elizabeth whom he had known—the valiant, self-reliant Elizabeth—had gone, leaving in her stead someone softer, more appealing, more approachable. It was this that was filling him with strange emotions as he led the way to their destination.
He was becoming more and more conscious of a sense of being drawn very near to Elizabeth, of a desire to soothe, comfort, and protect her. It was as if to-night he had discovered the missing key to a puzzle or the missing element in some chemical combination. Like most big men, his mind was essentially a protective mind; weakness drew out the best that was in him. And it was only to-night that Elizabeth had given any sign of having any weakness in her composition. That clear vision which had come to him on his long walk came again now, that vivid conviction that she was the only girl in the world for him.
He was debating within himself the advisability of trying to find words to express this sentiment, when Mr. Pickering, the modern Chingachgook, trod on another twig in the background and Elizabeth stopped abruptly with a little cry.
“What was that?” she demanded.
Bill had heard a noise too. It was impossible to be within a dozen yards of Mr. Pickering, when on the trail, and not hear a noise. The suspicion that someone was following them did not come to him, for he was a man rather of common sense than of imagination, and common sense was asking him bluntly why the deuce anybody should want to tramp after them through a wood at that time of night. He caught the note of panic in Elizabeth’s voice, and was soothing her.
“It was just a branch breaking. You hear all sorts of rum noises in a wood.”
“I believe it’s the man with the pistol following us!”
“Nonsense. Why should he? Silly thing to do!” He spoke almost severely.
“Look!” cried Elizabeth.
“I saw someone dodge behind that tree.”
“You mustn’t let yourself imagine things. Buck up!”
“I can’t buck up. I’m scared.”
“Which tree did you think you saw someone dodge behind?”
“That big one there.”
“Well, listen: I’ll go back and——”
“If you leave me for an instant I shall die in agonies.” She gulped. “I never knew I was such a coward before. I’m just a worm.”
“Nonsense. This sort of thing might frighten anyone. I read a story once——”
Bill found that his heart had suddenly begun to beat with unaccustomed rapidity. The desire to soothe, comfort, and protect Elizabeth became the immediate ambition of his life. It was very dark where they stood. The moonlight, which fell in little patches round them, did not penetrate the thicket which they had entered. He could hardly see her. He was merely aware of her as a presence—an appealing and feminine presence. An excellent idea occurred to him.
“Hold my hand,” he said.
It was what he would have said to a frightened child, and there was much of the frightened child about Elizabeth then. The Eustace mystery had given her a shock which subsequent events had done nothing to dispel, and she had lost that jauntiness and self-confidence which was her natural armour against the more ordinary happenings of life.
Something small and soft slid gratefully into his palm, and there was silence for a space. Bill said nothing. Elizabeth said nothing. And Mr. Pickering had stopped treading on twigs. The faintest of night breezes ruffled the tree-tops above them. The moonbeams filtered through the branches. He held her hand tightly.
The breeze died away. Not a leaf stirred. The wood was very still. Somewhere on a bough a bird moved drowsily. “All right?”
And then something happened—something shattering, disintegrating. It was only a pheasant, but it sounded like the end of the world. It rose at their feet with a rattle that filled the universe, and for a moment all was black confusion. And when that moment had passed it became apparent to Bill that his arm was round Elizabeth, that she was sobbing helplessly and that he was kissing her. Somebody was talking very rapidly in a low voice.
He found that it was himself.
There was something wonderful about the name, a sort of music. This was odd, because the name, as a name, was far from being a favourite of his. Until that moment childish associations had prejudiced him against it. It had been inextricably involved in his mind with an atmosphere of stuffy schoolrooms and general misery, for it had been his misfortune that his budding mind was constitutionally incapable of remembering who had been Queen of England at the time of the Spanish Armada—a fact that had caused a good deal of friction with a rather sharp-tempered governess. But now it seemed the only possible name for a girl to have, the only label that could even remotely suggest those feminine charms which he found in this girl beside him. There was poetry in every syllable of it. It was like one of those deep chords which fill the hearer with vague yearnings for strange and beautiful things. He asked for nothing better than to stand here repeating it.
That sounded good too. There was music in “Bill” when properly spoken. The reason why all the other Bills in the world had got the impression that it was a prosaic sort of name was that there was only one girl in existence capable of speaking it properly, and she was not for them.
“Bill, are you really fond of me?”
“Fond of you!”
She gave a sigh. “You’re so splendid!”
Bill was staggered. These were strange words. He had never thought much of himself. He had always looked on himself as rather a chump—well-meaning, perhaps, but an awful ass. It seemed incredible that any one—and Elizabeth of all people—could look on him as splendid.
And yet the very fact that she had said it gave it a plausible sort of sound. It shook his convictions. Splendid! Was he? By jove, perhaps he was, what? Rum idea, but it grew on a chap. Filled with a novel feeling of exaltation he kissed Elizabeth eleven times in rapid succession.
He felt devilish fit. He would have liked to run a mile or two and jump a few gates. He wished five or six starving beggars would come along; it would be pleasant to give the poor blighters money. It was too much to expect at that time of night, of course, but it would be rather jolly if Jess Willard would roll up and try to pick a quarrel. He would show him something. He felt grand and strong and full of beans. What a ripping thing life was when you came to think of it.
“This,” he said, “is perfectly extraordinary!” And time stood still.