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Title: Witching Hill
Author: Hornung, E. W. (Ernest William), 1866-1921
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Witching Hill" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.

                             WITCHING HILL

                            BY E. W. HORNUNG

                           AUTHOR OF "RAFFLES"


    _Reprinted, 1914._

[Illustration: "You won't improve his chances by keeping anything




















Unhallowed Ground

The Witching Hill Estate Office was as new as the Queen Anne houses it
had to let, and about as worthy of its name. It was just a wooden box
with a veneer of rough-cast and a corrugated iron lid. Inside there was
a vast of varnish on three of the walls; but the one opposite my counter
consisted of plate-glass worth the rest of the structure put together.
It afforded a fine prospect of Witching Hill Road, from the level
crossing by the station to the second lamp-post round the curve.

Framed and glazed in the great window, this was not a picture calculated
to inspire a very young man; and yet there was little to distract a
brooding eye from its raw grass-plots and crude red bricks and tiles;
for one's chief duties were making out orders to view the still empty
houses, hearing the complaints of established tenants, and keeping such
an eye on painters and paperhangers as was compatible with "being on the
spot if anybody called." An elderly or a delicate man would have found
it nice light work; but for a hulking youth fresh from the breeziest
school in Great Britain, where they live in flannels and only work when
it is wet or dark, the post seemed death in life. My one consolation was
to watch the tenants hurrying to the same train every morning, in the
same silk hat and blacks, and crawling home with the same evening paper
every night. I at any rate enjoyed comparatively pure air all day. I had
not married and settled down in a pretentious jerry-building where
nothing interesting could possibly happen, and nothing worth doing be
ever done. For that was one's first feeling about the Witching Hill
Estate; it was a place for crabbed age and drab respectability, and a
black coat every day of the week. Then young Uvo Delavoye dropped into
the office from another hemisphere, in the white ducks and helmet of
the tropics. And life began again.

"Are you the new clerk to the Estate?" he asked if he might ask, and I
prepared myself for the usual grievance. I said I was, and he gave me
his name in exchange for mine, with his number in Mulcaster Park, which
was all but a continuation of Witching Hill Road. "There's an absolute
hole in our lawn," he complained--"and I'd just marked out a court. I do
wish you could come and have a look at it."

There was room for a full-size lawn-tennis court behind every house on
the Estate. That was one of our advertised attractions. But it was not
our business to keep the courts in order, and I rather itched to say so.

"It's early days," I ventured to suggest; "there's sure to be holes at
first, and I'm afraid there'll be nothing for it but just to fill them

"Fill them in!" cried the other young man, getting quite excited. "You
don't know what a hole this is; it would take a ton of earth to fill it

"You're not serious, Mr. Delavoye."

"Well, it would take a couple of barrow-loads. It's a regular depression
in the ground, and the funny thing is that it's come almost while my
back was turned. I finished marking out the court last night, and this
morning there's this huge hole bang in the middle of one of my
side-lines! If you filled it full of water it would take you over the

"Is the grass not broken at the edges?"

"Not a bit of it; the whole thing might have been done for years."

"And what like is this hole in shape?"

Delavoye met me eye to eye. "Well, I can only say I've seen the same
sort of thing in a village churchyard, and nowhere else," he said. "It's
like a churchyard starting to yawn!" he suddenly added, and looked in
better humour for the phrase.

I pulled out my watch. "I'll come at one, when I knock off in any case,
if you can wait till then."

"Rather!" he cried quite heartily; "and I'll wait here if you don't
mind, Mr. Gillon. I've just seen my mother and sister off to town, so
it fits in rather well. I don't want them to know if it's anything
beastly. May we smoke in here? Then have one of mine."

And he perched himself on my counter, lighting the whole place up with
his white suit and animated air; for he was a very pleasant fellow from
the moment he appeared to find me one. Not much my senior, he had none
of my rude health and strength, but was drawn and yellowed by some
tropical trouble (as I rightly guessed) which had left but little of his
outer youth beyond a vivid eye and tongue. Yet I would fain have added
these to my own animal advantages. It is difficult to recapture a first
impression; but I think I felt, from the beginning, that those
twinkling, sunken eyes looked on me and all things in a light of their

"Not an interesting place?" cried young Delavoye, in astonishment at a
chance remark of mine. "Why, it's one of the most interesting in
England! None of these fine old crusted country houses are half so
fascinating to me as the ones quite near London. Think of the varied
life they've seen, the bucks and bloods galore, the powder and patches,
the orgies begun in town and finished out here, the highwaymen waiting
for 'em on Turnham Green! Of course you know about the heinous Lord
Mulcaster who owned this place in the high old days? He committed every
crime in the Newgate Calendar, and now I'm just wondering whether you
and I aren't by way of bringing a fresh one home to him."

I remember feeling sorry he should talk like that, though it argued a
type of mind that rather reconciled me to my own. I was never one to
jump to gimcrack conclusions, and I said as much with perhaps more
candour than the occasion required. The statement was taken in such good
part, however, that I could not but own I had never even heard the name
of Mulcaster until the last few days, whereas Delavoye seemed to know
all about the family. Thereupon he told me he was really connected with
them, though not at all closely with the present peer. It had nothing to
do with his living on an Estate which had changed hands before it was
broken up. But I modified my remark about the ancestral acres--and made
a worse.

"I wasn't thinking of the place," I explained, "as it used to be before
half of it was built over. I was only thinking of that half and its
inhabitants--I mean--that is--the people who go up and down in top-hats
and frock-coats!"

And I was left clinging with both eyes to my companion's cool attire.

"But that's my very point," he laughed and said. "These City fellows are
the absolute salt of historic earth like this; they throw one back into
the good old days by sheer force of contrast. I never see them in their
office kit without thinking of that old rascal in his wig and ruffles,
carrying a rapier instead of an umbrella; he'd have fallen on it like
Brutus if he could have seen his grounds plastered with cheap red bricks
and mortar, and crawling with Stock Exchange ants!"

"You've got an imagination," said I, chuckling. I nearly told him he had
the gift of the gab as well.

"You must have something," he returned a little grimly, "when you're
stuck on the shelf at my age. Besides, it isn't all imagination, and you
needn't go back a hundred years for your romance. There's any amount
kicking about this Estate at the present moment; it's in the soil. These
business blokes are not all the dull dogs they look. There's a man up
our road--but he can wait. The first mystery to solve is the one that's
crying from our back garden."

I liked his way of putting things. It made one forget his yellow face,
and the broken career that his looks and hints suggested, or it made one
remember them and think the more of him. But the things themselves were
interesting, and Witching Hill had more possibilities when we sallied
forth together at one o'clock.

It was the height of such a June as the old century could produce up to
the last. The bald red houses, too young to show a shoot of creeper, or
a mellow tone from doorstep to chimney-pot, glowed like clowns' pokers
in the ruthless sun. The shade of some stately elms, on a bit of old
road between the two new ones of the Estate, appealed sharply to my
awakened sense of contrast. It was all familiar ground to me, of course,
but I had been over it hitherto with my eyes on nothing else and my
heart in the Lowlands. Now I found myself wondering what the elms had
seen in their day, and what might not be going on in the red houses even

"I hope you know the proper name of our road," said Delavoye as we
turned into it. "It's Mulcaster Park, as you see, and not Mulcaster Park
Road, as it was when we came here in the spring. Our neighbours have
risen in a body against the superfluous monosyllable, and it's been
painted out for ever."

In spite of that precaution Mulcaster Park was still suspiciously like a
road. It was very long and straight, and the desired illusion had not
been promoted by the great names emblazoned on some of the little wooden
gates. Thus there was Longleat, which had just been let for £70 on a
three-year tenancy, and Chatsworth with a C. P. card in the drawing-room
window. Plain No. 7, the Delavoyes' house, was near the far end on the
left-hand side, which had the advantage of a strip of unspoilt woodland
close behind the back gardens; and just through the wood was Witching
Hill House, scene of immemorial excesses, according to this descendant
of the soil.

"But now it's in very different hands," he remarked as we reached our
destination. "Sir Christopher Stainsby is apparently all that my ignoble
kinsman was not. They say he's no end of a saint. In winter we see his
holy fane from our back windows."

It was not visible through the giant hedge of horse-chestnuts now
heavily overhanging the split fence at the bottom of the garden. I had
come out through the dining-room with a fresh sense of interest in these
Delavoyes. Their furniture was at once too massive and too good for the
house. It stood for some old home of very different type. Large
oil-paintings and marble statuettes had not been acquired to receive the
light of day through windows whose upper sashes were filled with cheap
stained glass. A tigerskin with a man-eating head, over which I tripped,
had not always been in the way before a cast-iron mantelpiece. I felt
sorry, for the moment, that Mrs. and Miss Delavoye were not at home; but
I was not so sorry when I beheld the hole in the lawn behind the house.

It had the ugly shape and appearance which had reminded young Delavoye
himself of a churchyard. I was bound to admit its likeness to some
sunken grave, and the white line bisecting it was not the only evidence
that the subsidence was of recent occurrence; the grass was newly mown
and as short inside the hole as it was all over. No machine could have
made such a job of such a surface, said the son of the house, with a
light in his eyes, but a drop in his voice, which made me wonder whether
he desired or feared the worst.

"What do you want us to do, Mr. Delavoye?" I inquired in my official

"I want it dug up, if I can have it done now, while my mother's out of
the way."

That was all very well, but I had only limited powers. My instructions
were to attend promptly to the petty wants of tenants, but to refer any
matter of importance to our Mr. Muskett, who lived on the Estate but
spent his days at the London office. This appeared to me that kind of
matter, and little as I might like my place I could ill afford to risk
it by doing the wrong thing. I put all this as well as I could to my new
friend, but not without chafing his impetuous spirit.

"Then I'll do the thing myself!" said he, and fetched from the yard some
garden implements which struck me as further relics of more spacious
days. In his absence I had come to the same conclusion about a couple of
high-backed Dutch garden chairs and an umbrella tent; and the final bond
of fallen fortunes made me all the sorrier to have put him out. He was
not strong; no wonder he was irritable. He threw himself into his task
with a kind of feeble fury; it was more than I could stand by and watch.
He had not turned many sods when he paused to wipe his forehead, and I
seized the spade.

"If one of us is going to do this job," I cried, "it shan't be the one
who's unfit for it. You can take the responsibility, if you like, but
that's all you do between now and two o'clock!"

I should date our actual friendship from that moment. There was some
boyish bluster on his part, and on mine a dour display which he
eventually countenanced on my promising to stay to lunch. Already the
sweat was teeming off my face, but my ankles were buried in rich brown
mould. A few days before there had been a thunderstorm accompanied by
tropical rain, which had left the earth so moist underneath that one's
muscles were not taxed as much as one's skin. And I was really very glad
of the exercise, after the physical stagnation of office life.

Not that Delavoye left everything to me; he shifted the Dutch chairs and
the umbrella tent so as to screen my operations alike from the backyard
behind us and from the windows of the occupied house next door. Then he
hovered over me, with protests and apologies, until the noble
inspiration took him to inquire if I liked beer. I stood upright in my
pit, and my mouth must have watered as visibly as the rest of my
countenance. It appeared he was not allowed to touch it himself, but he
would fetch some in a jug from the Mulcaster Arms, and blow the wives of
the gentlemen who went to town!

I could no more dissuade him from this share of the proceedings than he
had been able to restrain me from mine; perhaps I did not try very hard;
but I did redouble my exertions when he was gone, burying my spade with
the enthusiasm of a golddigger working a rich claim, and yet depositing
each spadeful with some care under cover of the chairs. And I had hardly
been a minute by myself when I struck indubitable wood at the depth of
three or four feet. Decayed wood it was, too, which the first thrust of
the spade crushed in; and at that I must say the perspiration cooled
upon my skin. But I stood up and was a little comforted by the gay blue
sky and the bottle-green horse-chestnuts, if I looked rather longer at
the French window through which Delavoye had disappeared.

His wild idea had seemed to me the unwholesome fruit of a morbid
imagination, but now I prepared to find it hateful fact. Down I went on
my haunches, and groped with my hands in the mould, to learn the worst
with least delay. The spade I had left sticking in the rotten wood, and
now I ran reluctant fingers down its cold iron into the earth-warm
splinters. They were at the extreme edge of the shaft that I was
sinking, but I discovered more splinters at the same level on the
opposite side. These were not of my making; neither were they part of
any coffin, but rather of some buried floor or staging. My heart danced
as I seized the spade again. I dug another foot quickly; that brought me
to detached pieces of rotten wood of the same thickness as the jagged
edges above; evidently a flooring of some kind had fallen in--but fallen
upon what? Once more the spade struck wood, but sound wood this time.
The last foot of earth was soon taken out, and an oblong trap-door
disclosed, with a rusty ring-bolt at one end.

I tugged at the ring-bolt without stopping to think; but the trap-door
would not budge. Then I got out of the hole for a pickaxe that Delavoye
had produced with the spade, and with one point of the pick through the
ring I was able to get a little leverage. It was more difficult to
insert the spade where the old timbers had started, while still keeping
them apart, but this once done I could ply both implements together.
There was no key-hole to the trap, only the time-eaten ring and a pair
of hinges like prison bars; it could but be bolted underneath; and yet
how those old bolts and that wood of ages clung together! It was only by
getting the pick into the gap made by the spade, and prizing with each
in turn and both at once, that I eventually achieved my purpose. I heard
the bolt tinkle on hard ground beneath, and next moment saw it lying at
the bottom of a round bricked hole.

All this must have occupied far fewer minutes than it has taken to
describe; for Delavoye had not returned to peer with me into a well
which could never have been meant for water. It had neither the width
nor the depth of ordinary wells; an old ladder stood against one side,
and on the other the high sun shone clean down into the mouth of a
palpable tunnel. It opened in the direction of the horse-chestnuts, and
I was in it next moment. The air was intolerably stale without being
actually foul; a match burnt well enough to reveal a horseshoe passage
down which a man of medium stature might have walked upright. It was
bricked like the well, and spattered with some repulsive growth that
gave me a clammy daub before I realised the dimensions. I had struck a
second match on my trousers, and it had gone out as if by magic, when
Delavoye hailed me in high excitement from the lawn above.

He was less excited than I expected on hearing my experience; and he
only joined me for a minute before luncheon, which he insisted on our
still taking, to keep the servants in the dark. But it was a very
brilliant eye that he kept upon the Dutch chairs through the open
window, and he was full enough of plans and explanations. Of course we
must explore the passage, but we would give the bad air a chance of
getting out first. He spoke of some Turkish summer-house, or pavilion,
mentioned in certain annals of Witching Hill, that he had skimmed for
his amusement in the local Free Library. There was no such structure to
be seen from any point of vantage that he had discovered; possibly this
was its site; and the floor which had fallen in might have been a false
basement, purposely intended to conceal the trap-door, or else built
over it by some unworthy successor of the great gay lord.

"He was just the sort of old sportsman to have a way of his own out of
the house, Gillon! He might have wanted it at any moment; he must have
been ready for the worst most nights of his life; for I may tell you
they would have hanged him in the end if he hadn't been too quick for
them with his own horse-pistol. You didn't know he was as bad as that?
It's not a thing the family boasts about, and I don't suppose your
Estate people would hold it out as an attraction. But I've read a thing
or two about the bright old boy, and I do believe we've struck the site
of some of his brightest moments!"

"I should like to have explored that tunnel."

"So you shall."

"But when?"

We had gobbled our luncheon, and I had drained the jug that my
unconventional host had carried all the way from the Mulcaster Arms; but
already I was late for a most unlucky appointment with prospective
tenants, and it was only a last look that I could take at my not ignoble
handiwork. It was really rather a good hole for a beginner, and a
grave-digger could not have heaped his earth much more compactly. It
came hard to leave the next stage of the adventure even to as nice a
fellow as young Delavoye.

"When?" he repeated with an air of surprise. "Why to-night, of course;
you don't suppose I'm going to explore it without you, do you?"

I had already promised not to mention the matter to my Mr. Muskett when
he looked in at the office on his way from the station; but that was the
only undertaking which had passed between us.

"I thought you said you didn't want Mrs. Delavoye to see the pit's

It was his own expression, yet it made him smile, though it had not made

"I certainly don't mean either my mother or sister to see one end till
we've seen the other," said he. "They might have a word too many to say
about it. I must cover the place up somehow before they get back; but
I'll tell them you're coming in this evening, and when they go aloft we
shall very naturally come out here for a final pipe."

"Armed with a lantern?"

"No, a pocketful of candles. And don't you dress, Gillon, because I
don't, even when I'm not bound for the bowels of the globe."

I ran to my appointment after that; but the prospective tenants broke
theirs, and kept me waiting for nothing all that fiery afternoon. I can
shut my eyes and go through it all again, and see every inch of my
sticky little prison near the station. In the heat its copious varnish
developed an adhesive quality as fatal to flies as bird-lime, and there
they stuck in death to pay me out. It was not necessary to pin any
notice to the walls; one merely laid them on the varnish; and that
morning, when young Delavoye had leant against it in his whites, he had
to peel himself off like a plaster. That morning! It seemed days ago,
not because I had met with any great adventure yet, but the whole
atmosphere of the place was changed by the discovery of a kindred
spirit. Not that we were naturally akin in temperament, tastes, or
anything else but our common youth and the want in each of a companion
approaching his own type. We saw things at a different angle, and when
he smiled I often wondered why. We might have met in town or at college
and never sought each other again; but separate adversities had driven
us both into the same dull haven--one from the Egyptian Civil, which had
nearly been the death of him; the other on a sanguine voyage (before the
mast) from the best school in Scotland to Land Agency. We were bound to
make the most of each other, and I for one looked forward to renewing
our acquaintance even more than to the sequel of our interrupted

But I was by no means anxious to meet my new friend's womankind; never
anything of a lady's man, I was inclined rather to resent the existence
of these good ladies, partly from something he had said about them with
reference to our impending enterprise. Consequently it was rather late
in the evening when I turned out of one of the nominally empty houses,
where I had gone to lodge with a still humbler servant of the Estate,
and went down to No. 7 with some hope that its mistress at all events
might already have retired. Almost to my horror I learned that they were
all three in the back garden, whither I was again conducted through the
little dining-room with the massive furniture.

Mrs. Delavoye was a fragile woman with a kind but nervous manner; the
daughter put me more at my ease, but I could scarcely see either of them
by the dim light from the French window outside which they sat. I was
more eager, however, to see "the pit's mouth," and in the soft starlight
of a velvet night I made out the two Dutch chairs lying face downward
over the shaft.

"It's so tiresome of my brother," said Miss Delavoye, following my
glance with disconcerting celerity: "just when we want our garden
chairs he's varnished them, and there they lie unfit to use!"

I never had any difficulty in looking stolid, but for the moment I
avoided the impostor's eyes. It was trying enough to hear his impudent

"You've been at me about them all the summer, Amy, and I felt we were in
for a spell of real hot weather at last."

"I can't think why you've put them out there, Uvo," remarked his mother.
"They won't dry any better in the dew, my dear boy."

"They won't make a hopeless mess of the grass, at all events!" he
retorted. "But why varnish our dirty chairs in public? Mr. Gillon won't
be edified; he'd much rather listen to the nightingale, I'm sure."

Had they a nightingale? I had never heard one in my life. I was obliged
to say something, and this happened to be the truth; it led to a little
interchange about Scotland, in which the man Uvo assumed a Johnsonian
pose, as though he had known me as long as I felt I had known him, and
then prayed silence for the nightingale as if the suburban garden were a
banqueting hall. It was a concert hall, at any rate, and never was
sweeter solo than the invisible singer poured forth from the black and
jagged wood between glimmering lawn and starry sky. I see the picture
now, with the seated ladies dimly silhouetted against the French
windows, and our two cigarettes waxing and waning like revolving lights
seen leagues away. I hear the deep magic of those heavenly notes, as I
was to hear them more summers than one from that wild wood within a few
yards of our raw red bricks and mortar. It may be as the prelude of what
was to follow that I recall it all so clearly, down to the couplet that
Uvo could not quite remember and his sister did:

    "The voice I hear this passing night was heard
    In ancient days by emperor and clown."

"That's what I meant!" he cried. "By emperor, clown, and old man
Mulcaster in his cups! Think of him carrying on in there to such a tune,
and think of pious Christopher holding family prayers to it now!"

And the bare thought dashed from my lips a magic potion compounded of
milky lawn and ebony horse-chestnuts, of an amethyst sky twinkling with
precious stars, and the low voice of a girl trying not to drown the one
in the wood; the spell was broken, and I was glad when at last we had
the garden to ourselves.

"There are two things I must tell you for your comfort," said the
incorrigible Uvo as we lifted one Dutch chair from the hole it covered
like a hatchway, but left the other pressed down over the heap of earth.
"In the first place, both my mother and sister have front rooms, so they
won't hear or bother about us again. The other thing's only that I've
been back to the Free Library in what the simple inhabitants still
insist on calling the Village, and had another look into those annals of
old Witching Hill. I can find no mention whatever of any subterranean
passage. I shouldn't wonder if good Sir Chris had never heard of it in
his life. In that case we shall rush in where neither man nor beast has
trodden for a hundred and fifty years."

We lit our candles down the shaft, and then I drew the Dutch chair over
the hole again on Delavoye's suggestion; he was certainly full of
resource, and I was only too glad to play the practical man with my
reach and strength. If he had been less impetuous and headstrong, we
should have made a strong pair of adventurers. In the tunnel he would go
first, for instance, much against my wish; but, as he put it, if the
foul air knocked him down I could carry him out under one arm, whereas
he would have to leave me to die in my tracks. So he chattered as we
crept on and on, flinging monstrous shadows into the arch behind us, and
lighting up every patch of filth ahead; for the long-drawn vault was
bearded with stalactites of crusted slime; but no living creature fled
before us; we alone breathed the impure air, encouraged by our candles,
which lit us far beyond the place where my match had been extinguished
and deeper and deeper yet without a flicker.

Then in the same second they both went out, at a point where the
overhead excrescences made it difficult to stand upright. And there we
were, like motes in a tube of lamp-black; for it was a darkness as
palpable as fog. But my leader had a reassuring explanation on the tip
of his sanguine tongue.

"It's because we stooped down," said he. "Strike a match on the roof if
it's dry enough. There! What did I tell you? The dregs of the air settle
down like other dregs. Hold on a bit! I believe we're under the house,
and that's why the arch is dry."

We continued our advance with instinctive stealth, now blackening the
roof with our candles as we went, and soon and sure enough the old tube
ended in a wad of brick and timber.

In the brickwork was a recessed square, shrouded in cobwebs which
perished at a sweep of Delavoye's candle; a wooden shutter closed the
aperture, and I had just a glimpse of an oval knob, green with
verdigris, when my companion gave it a twist and the shutter sprang open
at the base. I held it up while he crept through with his candle, and
then I followed him with mine into the queerest chamber I had ever

It was some fifteen feet square, with a rough parquet floor and panelled
walls and ceiling. All the woodwork seemed to me old oak, and reflected
our naked lights on every side in a way that bespoke attention; and
there was a tell-tale set of folding steps under an ominous square in
the ceiling, but no visible break in the four walls, nor yet another
piece of movable furniture. In one corner, however, stood a great stack
of cigar boxes whose agreeable aroma was musk and frankincense after the
penetrating humours of the tunnel. This much we had noted when we made
our first startling discovery. The panel by which we had entered had
shut again behind us; the noise it must have made had escaped us in our
excitement; there was nothing to show which panel it had been--no
semblance of a knob on this side--and soon we were not even agreed as to
the wall.

Uvo Delavoye had enough to say at most moments, but now he was a man of
action only, and I copied his proceedings without a word. Panel after
panel he rapped and sounded like any doctor, even through his fingers
to make less noise! I took the next wall, and it was I who first
detected a hollow note. I whispered my suspicion; he joined me, and was
convinced; so there we stood cheek by jowl, each with a guttering candle
in one hand, while the other felt the panel and pressed the knots. And a
knot it was that yielded under my companion's thumb. But the panel that
opened inwards was not our panel at all; instead of our earthy tunnel,
we looked into a shallow cupboard, with a little old dirty bundle lying
alone in the dust of ages. Delavoye picked it up gingerly, but at once I
saw him weighing his handful in surprise, and with one accord we sat
down to examine it, sticking our candles on the floor between us in
their own grease.

"Lace," muttered Uvo, "and something in it."

The outer folds came to shreds in his fingers; a little deeper the lace
grew firmer, and presently he was paying it out to me in fragile hanks.
I believe it was a single flounce, though yards in length. Delavoye
afterwards looked up the subject, characteristically, and declared it
Point de Venise; from what I can remember of its exquisite workmanship,
in monogram, coronet, and imperial emblems, I can believe with him that
the diamond buckle to which he came at last was less precious than its
wrapping. But by that time we were not thinking of their value; we were
screwing up our faces over a dark coagulation which caused the last yard
or so to break off in bits.

"Lace and blood and diamonds!" said Delavoye, bending over the relics in
grim absorption. "Could the priceless old sinner have left us a more
delightful legacy?"

"What are you going to do with them?" I asked rather nervously at that.
They had not been left to us. They ought surely to be delivered to their
rightful owner.

"But who does own them?" asked Delavoye. "Is it the worthy plutocrat
who's bought the show and all that in it is, or is it my own venerable
kith and kin? They wouldn't thank us for taking these rather dirty coals
to Newcastle. They might refuse delivery, or this old boy might claim
his mining rights, and where should we come in then? No, Gillon, I'm
sorry to disappoint you, but as a twig of the old tree I mean to take
the law into my own hands"--I held my breath--"and put these things back
exactly where we found them. Then we'll leave everything in plumb order,
and finish up by filling in that hole in our lawn--if ever we get out of
this one."

But small doubt on the point was implied in his buoyant tone; the way
through the panel just broached argued a similar catch in the one we
sought; meanwhile we closed up the other with much relief on my side and
an honest groan from Delavoye. It was sufficiently obvious that Sir
Christopher Stainsby had discovered neither the secret subway nor the
secret repository which we had penetrated by pure chance; on the other
hand, he made use of the chamber leading to both as a cigar cellar, and
had it kept in better order than such a purpose required. Sooner or
later somebody would touch a spring, and one discovery would lead to
another. So we consoled each other as we resumed our search, almost
forgetting that we ourselves might be discovered first.

It was in a providential pause, broken only to my ear by our quiet
movements, that Delavoye dabbed a quick hand on my candle and doused his
own against the wall. Without a whisper he drew me downward, and there
we cowered in throbbing darkness, but still not a sound that I could
hear outside my skin. Then the floor above opened a lighted mouth with a
gilded roof; black legs swung before our noses, found the step-ladder
and came running down. The cigars were on the opposite side. The man
knew all about them, found the right box without a light, and turned to
go running up.

Now he must see us, as we saw him and his smooth, smug, flunkey's face
to the whites of its upturned eyes! My fists were clenched--and often I
wonder what I meant to do. What I did was to fall forward upon oozing
palms as the trap-door was let down with a bang.

"Didn't he see us, Delavoye? Are you sure he didn't?" I chattered as he
struck a match.

"Quite. I was watching his eyes--weren't you?"

"Yes--but they got all blurred at the finish."

"Well, pull yourself together; now's our time! It's an empty room
overhead; it wasn't half lit up. But we haven't done anything, remember,
if they do catch us."

He was on the steps already, but I had no desire to argue with him. I
was as ripe for a risk as Delavoye, as anxious to escape after the one
we had already run. The trap-door went up slowly, pushing something over
it into a kind of tent.

"It's only the rug," purred Delavoye. "I heard him take it up--thank
God--as well as put it down again. Now hold the candle; now the
trap-door, till I hold it up for you."

And we squirmed up into a vast apartment, not only empty as predicted,
but left in darkness made visible by the solitary light we carried now.
The little stray flame was mirrored in a floor like black ice, then
caught the sheen of the tumbled rug that Delavoye would stay to smooth,
then twinkled in the diamond panes of bookcases like church windows,
flickered over a high altar of a mantelpiece, and finally displayed our
stealthy selves in the window by which we left the house.

"Thank God!" said Delavoye as he shut it down again. "That's something
like a breath of air!"

"Hush!" I whispered with my back to him.

"What is it?"

"I thought I heard shouts of laughter."

"You're right. There they go again! I believe we've struck a heavy

In a dell behind the house, a spreading cedar caught the light of
windows that we could not see. Delavoye crept to the intermediate angle,
turned round, and beckoned in silhouette against the tree.

"High jinks and junketings!" he chuckled when I joined him. "The old
bloke must be away. Shall we risk a peep?"

My answer was to lead the way for once, and it was long before we
exchanged another syllable. But in a few seconds, and for more minutes,
we crouched together at an open window, seeing life with all our
innocent eyes.

It was a billiard-room into which we gazed, but it was not being used
for billiards. One end of the table was turned into a champagne bar; it
bristled with bottles in all stages of depletion, with still an unopened
magnum towering over pails of ice, silver dishes of bonbons, cut
decanters of wine and spirits. At the other end a cluster of flushed
faces hung over a spinning roulette wheel; nearly all young women and
men, smoking fiercely in a silver haze, for the moment terribly intent;
and as the ball ticked and rattled, the one pale face present, that of
the melancholy croupier, showed a dry zest as he intoned the customary
admonitions. They were new to me then; now I seem to recognise through
the years the Anglo-French of his "_rien ne va plus_" and all the rest.
There were notes and gold among the stakes. The old rogue raked in his
share without emotion; one of the ladies embraced him for hers; and one
had stuck a sprig of maidenhair in his venerable locks; but there he
sat, with the deferential dignity of a bygone school, the only very
sober member of the party it was his shame to serve.

The din they made before the next spin! It was worse when it died down
into plainer speech; playful buffets were exchanged as freely; but one
young blood left the table with a deadly dose of raw spirit, and sat
glowering over it on a raised settee while the wheel went round again. I
did not watch the play; the wild, attentive faces were enough for me;
and so it was that I saw a bedizened beauty go mad before my eyes. It
was the madness of utter ecstasy--wails of laughter and happy
maledictions--and then for that unopened magnum! By the neck she caught
it, whirled it about her like an Indian club, then down on the table
with all her might and the effect of a veritable shell. A ribbon of
blood ran down her dress as she recoiled, and the champagne flooded the
green board like bubbling ink; but the old croupier hardly looked up
from the pile of notes and gold that he was counting out with his sly,
wintry smile.

[Illustration: I saw a bedizened beauty go mad before my eyes.]

"You saw she had a fiver on the number? You may watch roulette many a
long night without seeing that again!"

It was Delavoye whispering as he dragged me away. He was the cool one
now. Too excitable for me in the early stages of our adventure, he was
not only the very man for all the rest, but a living lesson in just that
thing or two I felt at first I could have taught him. For I fear I
should have felled that butler if he had seen us in the cigar cellar,
and I know I shouted when the magnum burst; but fortunately so did
everybody else except Delavoye and the aged croupier.

"I suppose he was the butler?" I said when we had skirted the shallow
drive, avoiding a couple of hansoms that stood there with the cabmen
snug inside.

"What! The old fogey? Not he!" cried Delavoye as we reached the road. "I
say, don't those hansoms tell us all about his pals!"

"But who was he?"

"The man himself."

"Not Sir Christopher Stainsby?"

"I'm afraid so--the old sinner!"

"But you said he was an old saint?"

"So I thought he was; my lord warden of the Nonconformist conscience, I
always heard."

"Then how do you account for it?"

"I can't. I haven't thought about it. Wait a bit!"

He stood still in the road. It was his own road. There was that hole to
fill in before morning; meanwhile the sweet night air was sweeter far
than we had left it hours ago; and the little new suburban houses
surpassed all pleasures and palaces, behind their kindly lamps, with the
clean stars watching over them and us.

"I don't want you think the worse of me," said Delavoye, slipping his
arm through mine as he led me on: "but at this particular moment I
should somehow think less of myself if I didn't tell you, after all
we've been through together, that I was really quite severely tempted to
take that lace and those diamonds!"

I knew it.

"Well," I said, with the due deliberation of my normal Northern self,
"you'd have had a sort of right to them. But that's nothing! Why, man, I
was as near as a toucher to laying yon butler dead at our feet!"

"Then we're all three in the same boat, Gillon."

"Which three?"

It was my turn to stand still, outside his house. And now there was
excitement enough in his dark face to console me for all mine.

"You, and I, and poor old Sir Christopher."

"Poor old hypocrite! Didn't I hear that his wife died a while ago?"

"Only last year. That makes it sound worse. But in reality it's an
excuse, because of course he would fall a victim all the more easily."

"A victim to what?"

"My good Gillon, don't you see that he's up to the very same games on
the very same spot as my ignoble kinsman a hundred and fifty years ago?
Blood, liquor, and ladies as before! We admit that between us even you
and I had the makings of a thief and a murderer while we were under that
haunted roof. Don't you believe in influences?"

"Not of that kind," said I heartily. "I never did, and I doubt I never

Delavoye laughed in the starlight, but his lips were quivering, and his
eyes were like stars themselves. But I held up my hand: the nightingale
was singing in the wood exactly as when we plunged below the earth.
Somehow it brought us together again, and there we stood listening till
a clock struck twelve in the distant Village.

"''Tis now the very witching time of night,'" said Uvo Delavoye, "'when
church-yards yawn'--like our back garden!" I might have guessed his
favourite play, but his face lit up before my memory. "And shall I tell
you, Gillon, the real name of this whole infernal Hill and Estate? It's
Witching Hill, my man, it's Witching Hill from this night forth!"

And Witching Hill it still remains to me.


The House with Red Blinds

Uvo Delavoye had developed a theory to match his name for the Estate.
The baleful spirit of the notorious Lord Mulcaster still brooded over
Witching Hill, and the innocent occupiers of the Queen Anne houses were
one and all liable to the malign influence. Such was the modest
proposition, put as fairly as can be expected of one who resisted it
from the first; for both by temperament and training I was perhaps
unusually proof against this kind of thing. But then I always held that
Delavoye himself did not begin by believing in his own idea, that he
never thought of it before our subterranean adventure, and would have
forgotten all about it but for the house with red blinds.

That vermilion house with the brave blinds of quite another red! I can
still see them bleaching in the glare of those few August days.

It was so hot that the prematurely bronze leaves of the horse-chestnuts,
behind the odd numbers in Mulcaster Park, were as crisp as tinfoil,
while a tawny stubble defied the garden rollers of those tenants who had
not been driven to the real country or the seaside. Half our inhabited
houses were either locked up empty, or in the hands of servants who
spent their time gossiping at the gate. And I personally was not
surprised when the red blinds stayed down in their turn.

The Abercromby Royles were a young couple who might be expected to
mobilise at short notice, in spite of the wife's poor health, for they
had no other ties. The mere fact of their departure on Bank Holiday,
when the rest of the Estate were on the river, meant no more to me than
a sudden whim on the lady's part; but then I never liked the looks of
her or her very yellow hair, least of all in a bath chair drawn by her
indulgent husband after business hours. Mr. Royle was a little
solicitor, who himself flouted tradition with a flower in his coat and
a straw hat worn slightly on one side; but with him I had made friends
over an escape of gas which he treated as a joke rather than a
grievance. He seemed to me just the sort of man to humour his sort of
wife, even to the extent of packing off the servants on board wages, as
they were said to have done before leaving themselves. Certainly I never
thought of a sinister explanation until Uvo Delavoye put one into my
head, and then I had no patience with him.

"It's this heat," I declared; "it's hot enough to uproot anybody."

"I wonder," said he, "how many other places they've found too hot for

"But why should you wonder any such rot, when you say yourself that
you've never even nodded to Abercromby Royle?"

"Because I've had my eye on him all the same, Gillon, as obvious
material for the evil genius of the place."

"I see! I forgot you were spoiling for a second case."

"Case or no case," replied Uvo, "house-holds don't usually disperse at a
moment's notice, and their cook told our butcher that it was only
sprung on them this morning. I have it from our own old treasure, if you
want to know, so you may take it or leave it at that for what it's
worth. But if I had your job, Gilly, and my boss was away, I don't know
that I should feel altogether happy about my Michaelmas rent."

Nor was I quite so happy as I had been. I was spending the evening at my
friend's, but I cut it rather shorter than I had intended; and on my way
to the unlet house in which I lodged, I could not help stopping outside
the one with the drawn red blinds. They looked natural enough at this
time of night; but all the windows were shut as well; there was no sign
of life about the house. And then, as I went my way, I caught a sound
which I had just heard as I approached, but not while standing outside
the gate. It was the sound of furtive hammering--a few taps and then a
pause--but I retraced my steps too quietly to prolong the pause a second
time. It was some devil's tattoo on the very door of the empty house,
and as I reached up my hand to reply with the knocker, the door flew
open and the devil was Abercromby Royle himself.

He looked one, too, by the light of the lamp opposite, but only for a
moment. What impressed me most about our interview, even at the time,
was the clemency of my reception by an obviously startled man. He
interrupted my apologies to commend my zeal; as for explanations, it was
for him to explain to me, if I would be good enough to step inside. I
did so with a strange sense of impersonal fear or foreboding, due partly
to the stuffy darkness of the hall, partly to a quiver of the kindly
hand upon my shoulder. The dining-room, however, was all lit up, and
like an oven. Whisky was on the side-board, and I had to join Mr. Royle
in the glass that loosened his tongue.

It was quite true about the servants; they had gone first, and he was
the last to leave the ship. The metaphor did not strike me as
unfortunate until it was passed off with a hollow laugh. Mr. Royle no
longer disguised his nervous worry; he seemed particularly troubled
about his wife, who appeared to have followed the servants into the
country, and whom he could not possibly join. He mentioned that he had
taken her up to town and seen her off; then, that he was going up again
himself by the last train that night; finally--after a pause and between
ourselves--that he was sailing immediately for America. When I heard
this I thought of Delavoye; but Royle seemed so glad when he had told
me, and soon in such a stew about his train, that I felt certain there
could be nothing really wrong. It was a sudden call, and a great upset
to him; he made no secret of either fact or any of his plans. He had
left his baggage that morning at the club where he was going to sleep.
He even told me what had brought him back, and that led to an equally
voluntary explanation of the hammering I had heard in the road.

"Would you believe it? I'd forgotten all about our letters!" exclaimed
Abercromby Royle as we were about to leave the house together. "Having
the rest of the day on my hands, I thought I might as well come back
myself to give the necessary instructions. But it's no use simply
filling up the usual form; half your correspondence still finds its way
into your empty house; so I was just tacking this lid of an old cigar
box across the slot. I'll finish it, if you don't mind, and then we can
go so far together."

But we went together all the way, and I saw him off in a train laden
with Bank Holiday water-folk. I thought he scanned them somewhat closely
on the platform, and that some of my remarks fell on deaf ears. Among
other things, I said I would gladly have kept the empty house aired, had
he cared to trust me with his key. It was an office that I had
undertaken for more than one of our absentee tenants. But the lawyer's
only answer was a grip of the hand as the train began to move. And it
seemed to me a haunted face that dissolved into the night, despite the
drooping flower in the flannel coat and the hat worn a little on one

It would be difficult to define the impression left upon my mind by the
whole of this equivocal episode; enough that, for more than one obvious
reason, I said not a word about it to Uvo Delavoye. Once or twice I was
tempted by his own remarks about Abercromby Royle, but on each occasion
I set my teeth and defended the absent man as though we were both
equally in the dark. It seemed a duty, after blundering into his affairs
as I had done. But that very week brought forth developments which made
a necessary end of all such scruples.

I was interviewing one of our foremen in a house that had to be ready by
half-quarter-day, when Delavoye came in with a gleaming eye to tell me I
was wanted.

"It's about our friend Royle," he added, trying not to crow. "I was
perfectly right. They're on his tracks already!"

"Who are?" I demanded, when we were out of earshot of the men.

"Well, only one fellow so far, but he's breathing blood-hounds and
Scotland Yard! It's Coysh, the trick-bicycle inventor; you must know the
lunatic by name; but let me tell you that he sounds unpleasantly sane
about your limb of the law. A worse case----"

"Where is he?" I interrupted hotly. "And what the devil does he want
with me?"

"Thinks you can help him put salt on the bird that's flown, as sort of
clerk to the whole aviary! I found him pounding at your office door.
He'd been down to Royle's and found it all shut up, of course--like his
office in town, he says! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Gilly! It's
a clear case, I'm afraid, but you'd better have it from the
fountain-head. I said I thought I could unearth you, and he's waiting
outside for you now."

I looked through a window with a scroll of whitewash on the pane. In the
road a thick-set man was fanning his big head with a wide soft hat,
which I could not but notice that he wore with a morning coat and brown
boots. The now eminent engineer is not much more conventional than the
hot-headed patentee who in those days had still to find himself (and had
lately been looking in the wrong place, with a howling Press at his
heels). But even then the quality of the man outshone the eccentricities
of the super-crank. And I had a taste of it that August morning; a
foretaste, when I looked into the road and saw worry and distress where
I expected only righteous indignation.

I went down and asked him in, and his face lit up like a stormy sunbeam.
But the most level-headed man in England could not have come to the
point in fewer words or a more temperate tone.

"I'm glad your friend has told you what I've come about. I'm a plain
speaker, Mr. Gillon, and I shall be plainer with you than I've been with
him, because he tells me you know Abercromby Royle. In that case you
won't start a scandal--because to know the fellow is to like him--and I
only hope it may prove in your power to prevent one."

"I'll do anything I can, Mr. Coysh," I went so far as to say. But I was
already taken by surprise. And so, I could see, was Uvo Delavoye.

"I'll hold you to that," said Coysh frankly. "When did you see him last,
Mr. Gillon?"

"Do you mean Mr. Royle?" I stammered, turning away from Delavoye. If
only he had not been there!

"Of course I do; and let me tell you, Mr. Gillon, this is a serious
matter for the man, you know. You won't improve his chances by keeping
anything back. When did you see him last?"

"Monday night," I mumbled.

But Delavoye heard.

"Monday _night_?" he interjected densely. "Why, it was on Monday he went

"Exactly--by the last train."

"But we heard they'd gone hours before!"

"We heard wrong, so far as Royle was concerned. I came across him after
I left you, and I saw him off myself."

Coysh had a sharp eye on both of us, and Delavoye's astonishment was not
lost upon him. But it was at me that he looked last and longest.

"And you keep this to yourself from Monday night till now?"

"What's about it?" I demanded, falling into my own vernacular in my

"It only looks rather as though you were behind the scenes," replied
Coysh simply. And his honesty called to mine.

"Well, so I was, to a certain extent," I cried; "but I got there by
accident, I blundered in where I wasn't wanted, and yet the fellow
treated me like a gentleman! That's why I never gave it away. But," I
added with more guile, "there was really nothing to give away." And with
that I improvised a garbled version of my last little visit to the house
with red blinds, which I did not say I had discovered in utter darkness,
any more than I described the sound which had attracted my attention, or
the state of the householder's nerves.

"Very good," said Coysh, making notes on an envelope. "And then you saw
him off by the last train: did he say where he was going at that time of

"To sleep at some club, I understood."

"And next morning?"

But I was sorry I had gone so far.

"Mr. Coysh," I said, "I'm here to let the houses on this Estate, and to
look after odd jobs for the people who take them. It's not my business
to keep an eye on the tenants themselves, still less to report their
movements, and I must respectfully decline to say another word about Mr.
Abercromby Royle."

The engineer put away his envelope with a shrug.

"Oh, very well; then you force me to go into details which I on my side
would vastly prefer to keep to myself; but if you are sincere you will
treat them as even more confidential than your own relations with Mr.
Royle. You say you are hardly friends. I shall believe it if you stick
to your present attitude when you've heard my story. Royle and I,
however, have been only too friendly in the past, and I should not
forget it even now--if I could find him."

He made a meaning pause, of which I did not avail myself, though
Delavoye encouraged me with an eager eye.

"He was not only my solicitor," continued Coysh; "he has acted as my
agent in a good many matters which neither lawyers nor patent agents
will generally undertake. You've heard of my Mainspring bicycle, of
course? It was in his hands, and would have paid him well when it comes
off, which is only a question of time." His broad face lit with
irrelevant enthusiasm and glowed upon us each in turn. "When you think
that by the very act of pedalling on the level we might be winding
up--but there! It's going to revolutionise the most popular pastime of
the day, and make my fortune incidentally; but meanwhile I've one or two
pot-boilers that bring me in a living wage in royalties. One's an
appliance they use in every gold-mine in South Africa. It was taken up
by the biggest people in Johannesburg, and of course I've done very well
out of it, this last year or two; but ever since Christmas my little bit
has been getting more and more overdue. Royle had the whole thing in
hand. I spoke to him about it more than once. At last I told him that if
he couldn't cope with our paymasters out there, I'd have a go at them
myself; but what I really feared was that he was keeping the remittances
back, never for a moment that he was tampering with each one as it came.
That, however, is what has been going on all this year. I have the
certified accounts to prove it, and Royle must have bolted just when he
knew the mail would reach me where I've been abroad. I don't wonder,
either; he's been faking every statement for the last six months!"

"But not before?" cried Delavoye, as though it mattered.

Coysh turned to him with puzzled eyes.

"No; that's the funny part of it," said he. "You'd think a man who went
so wrong--hundreds, in these few months--could never have been quite
straight. But not a bit of it. I've got the accounts; they were as right
as rain till this last spring."

"I knew it!" exclaimed Delavoye in wild excitement.

"May I ask what you knew?"

Coysh was staring, as well he might.

"Only that the whole mischief must have happened since these people came
here to live!"

"Do you suggest that they've been living beyond their means?"

"I shouldn't be surprised," said Delavoye, as readily as though nothing
else had been in his mind.

"Well, and I should say you were right," rejoined the engineer, "if it
wasn't for the funniest part of all. When a straight man goes off the
rails, there's generally some tremendous cause; but one of the
surprises of this case, as my banker has managed to ascertain, is that
Abercromby Royle is in a position to repay every penny. He has more than
enough to do it, lying idle in his bank; so there was no apparent motive
for the crime, and I for my part am prepared to treat it as a sudden

"Exactly!" cried Delavoye, as though he were the missing man's oldest
friend and more eager than either of us to find excuses for him.

"Otherwise," continued Coysh, "I wouldn't have taken you gentlemen into
my confidence. But the plain fact is that I'm prepared to condone the
felony at my own risk in return for immediate and complete restitution."
He turned his attention entirely to me. "Now, Royle can't make good
unless you help him by helping me to find him. I won't be hard on him if
you do, I promise you! Not a dozen men in England shall ever know. But
if I have to hunt for him it'll be with detectives and a warrant, and
the fat'll be in the fire for all the world to smell!"

What could I do but give in after that? I had not promised to keep any
secrets, and it was clearly in the runaway's interests to disclose his
destination on the conditions laid down. Of his victim's good faith I
had not a moment's doubt; it was as patent as his magnanimous compassion
for Abercromby Royle. He blamed himself for not looking after his own
show; it was unfair to take a poor little pettifogging solicitor and
turn him by degrees into one's trusted business man; it was trying him
too high altogether. He spoke of the poor wretch as flying from a wrath
that existed chiefly in his own imagination, and even for that he blamed
himself. It appeared that Coysh had vowed to Royle that he would have no
mercy on anybody who was swindling him, no matter who it might be. He
had meant it as a veiled warning, but Royle might have known his bark
was worse than his bite, and have made a clean breast of the whole thing
there and then. If only he had! And yet I believe we all three thought
the better of him because he had not.

But it was not too late, thanks to me! I could not reveal the boat or
line by which Royle was travelling, because it had never occurred to me
to inquire, but Coysh seemed confident of finding out. His confidence
was of the childlike type which is the foible of some strong men. He
knew exactly what he was going to do, and it sounded the simplest thing
in the world. Royle would be met on the other side by a cable which
would bring him to his senses--and by one of Pinkerton's young men who
would shadow him until it did. Either he would cable back the uttermost
farthing through his bank, or that young man would tap him on the
shoulder without more ado. It was delightful to watch a powerful mind
clearing wire entanglements of detail in its leap to a picturesque
conclusion; and we had further displays for our benefit; for there was
no up-train for an hour and more, and that set the inventor off upon his
wonderful bicycle, which was to accumulate hill power by getting wound
up automatically on the level. Nothing is so foolish as the folly of
genius, and I shall never forget that great man's obstinate defence of
his one supreme fiasco, or the diagram that he drew on an unpapered
wall while Uvo Delavoye and I attended with insincere solemnity.

But Uvo was no better when we were at last alone. And his craze seemed
to me the crazier of the two.

"It's as plain as a pikestaff, my good Gillon! This fellow Royle comes
here an honest man, and instantly starts on a career of fraud--for no
earthly reason whatsoever!"

"So you want to find him an unearthly one?"

"I don't; it's there--and a worse case than the last. Old Sir
Christopher was the only sober man at his own orgy, but my satanic
ancestor seems to have made a mighty clean job of this poor brute!"

"I'm not so sure," said I gloomily. "I'm only sure of one thing--that
the dead can't lead the living astray--and you'll never convince me that
they can."

It was no use arguing, for we were oil and vinegar on this matter, and
were beginning to recognise the fact. But I was grateful to Uvo Delavoye
for his attitude on another point. I tried to explain why I had never
told him about my last meeting with Abercromby Royle. It was not
necessary; there he understood me in a moment; and so it was in almost
everything except this one perverse obsession, due in my opinion to a
morbid imagination, which in its turn I attributed to the wretched
muddle that the Egyptian climate had made of poor Uvo's inner man. While
not actually an invalid, there was little hope of his being fit for work
of any sort for a year or more; and I remember feeling glad when he told
me he had obtained a reader's ticket for the British Museum, but very
sorry when I found that his principal object was to pursue his Witching
Hill will-o'-the-wisp to an extent impossible in the local library.
Indeed, it was no weather for close confinement on even the healthiest
intellectual quest. Yet it was on his way home from the museum that Uvo
had picked up Coysh outside my office, and that was where he was when
Coysh came down again before the week was out.

This time I was in, and sweltering over the schedule of finishings for
the house in which he had found me before, when my glass door darkened
and the whole office shook beneath his ominous tread. With his back to
the light, the little round man looked perfectly black with rage; and if
he did not actually shake his fist in my face, that is the impression
that I still retain of his outward attitude.

His words came in a bitter torrent, but their meaning might have been
stated in one breath. Royle had not gone to America at all. Neither in
his own name nor any other had he booked his passage at the London
office of the Tuesday, or either of the Wednesday steamers, nor as yet
in any of those sailing on the following Saturday. So Coysh declared,
with characteristic conviction, as proof positive that a given being
could not possibly have sailed for the United States under any
conceivable disguise or alias. He had himself made a round of the said
London offices, armed with photographs of Abercromby Royle. That settled
the matter. It also branded me in my visitor's blazing eyes as accessory
before or after the flight, and the deliberate author of a false scent
which had wasted a couple of invaluable days.

It was no use trying to defend myself, and Coysh told me it was none. He
had no time to listen to a "jackanapes in office," as he called me to my
face. I could not help laughing in his. All he wanted and intended to
discover was the whereabouts of Mrs. Royle--the last thing I knew, or
had thought about before that moment--but in my indignation I referred
him to the post-office. By way of acknowledgment he nearly shivered my
glass door behind him.

I mopped my face and awaited Delavoye with little patience, which ran
out altogether when he entered with a radiant face, particularly full of
his own egregious researches in Bloomsbury.

"I can't do with that rot to-night!" I cried. "Here's this fat little
fool going to get on the tracks of Mrs. Royle, and all through me! The
woman's an invalid; this may finish her off. If it were the man himself
I wouldn't mind. Where the devil do you suppose he is?"

"I'll tell you later," said Uvo Delavoye, without moving a muscle of his
mobile face.

"You'll tell me----see here, Delavoye!" I spluttered. "This is a
serious matter to me; if you're going to rot about it I'd rather you
cleared out!"

"But I'm not rotting, Gilly," said he in a different tone, yet with a
superior twinkle that I never liked. "I never felt less like it in my
life. I really have a pretty shrewd idea of my own, but you're such an
unbelieving dog that you must give me time before I tell you what it is.
I should like first to know rather more about these alleged peculations
and this apparent flight, and whether Mrs. Royle's in it all. I'm rather
interested in the lady. But if you care to come in for supper you shall
hear my views."

Of course I cared. But across the solid mahogany of more spacious days,
though we had it to ourselves, we both seemed disinclined to resume the
topic. Delavoye had got up some choice remnant of his father's cellar,
grotesquely out of keeping with our homely meal, but avowedly in my
honour, and it seemed a time to talk about matters on which we were
agreed. I was afraid I knew the kind of idea he had described as
"shrewd"; what I dreaded was some fresh application of his ingenious
doctrine as to the local quick and dead, and a heated argument in our
extravagant cups. And yet I did want to know what was in my companion's
mind about the Royles; for my own was no longer free from presentiments
for which there was some ground in the facts of the case. But I was not
going to start the subject; and Delavoye steadily avoided it until we
strolled out afterward (with humble pipes on top of that Madeira!). Then
his arm slipped through mine, and it was with one accord that we drifted
up the road toward the house with the drawn blinds.

All these days, on my constant perambulations, it had stared me in the
face with its shut windows, its dirty step, its idle chimneys. Every
morning those odious blinds had greeted me like red eyelids hiding
dreadful eyes. And once I had remembered that the very letter-box was
set like teeth against the outer world. But this summer evening, as the
house came between us and a noble moon, all was so changed and chastened
that I thought no evil until Uvo spoke.

"I can't help feeling that there's something wrong!" he exclaimed below
his breath.

"If Coysh is not mistaken," I whispered back, "there's something very
wrong indeed."

He looked at me as though I had missed the point, and I awaited an
impatient intimation of the fact. But there had been something strange
about Uvo Delavoye all the evening; he had singularly little to say for
himself, and now he was saying it in so low a voice that I insensibly
lowered mine, though we had the whole road almost to ourselves.

"You said you found old Royle quite alone the other night?"

"Absolutely--so _he_ said."

"You've no reason to doubt it, have you?"

"No reason--none. Still, it did seem odd that he should hang on to the
end--the master of the house--without a soul to do anything for him."

"I quite agree with you," said Delavoye emphatically. "It's very odd. It
means something. I believe I know what, too!"

But he did not appear disposed to tell me, and I was not going to press
him on the point. Nor did I share his confidence in his own powers of
divination. What could he know of the case, that was unknown to
me--unless he had some outside source of information all the time?

That, however, I did not believe; at any rate he seemed bent upon
acquiring more. He pushed the gate open, and was on the doorstep before
I could say a word. I had to follow in order to remind him that his
proceedings might be misunderstood if they were seen.

"Not a bit of it!" he had the nerve to say as he bent over the tarnished
letter-box. "You're with me, Gillon, and isn't it your job to keep an
eye on these houses?"

"Yes, but----"

"What's the matter with this letter-box? It won't open."

"That's so that letters can't be shot into the empty hall. He nailed it
up on purpose before he went. I found him at it."

"And didn't it strike you as an extraordinary thing to do?" Uvo was
standing upright now. "Of course it did, or you'd have mentioned it to
Coysh and me the other day."

It was no use denying the fact.

"What's happening to their letters?" he went on, as though I could know.

"I expect they're being re-directed."

"To the wife?"

"I suppose so."

And my voice sank with my heart, and I felt ashamed, and repeated myself

"Exactly!" There was no supposing about Uvo. "The wife at some
mysterious address in the country--poor soul!"

"Where are you going now?"

He had dived under the front windows, muttering to himself as much as to
me. I caught him up at the high side gate into the back garden.

"Lend me a hand," said Delavoye when he had tried the latch.

"You're not going over?"

"That I am, and it'll be your duty to follow. Or I could let you
through. Well--if you won't!"

And in the angle between party-fence and gate he was struggling
manfully when I went to his aid as a lesser evil; in a few seconds we
were both in the back garden of the empty house, with the gate still
bolted behind us.

"Now, if it were ours," resumed Delavoye when he had taken breath, "I
should say the lavatory window was the vulnerable point. Lavatory
window, please!"

"But, Delavoye, look here!"

"I'm looking," said he, and we faced each other in the broad moonlight
that flooded the already ragged lawn.

"If you think I'm going to let you break into this house, you're very
much mistaken."

I had my back to the windows I meant to hold inviolate. No doubt the
moon revealed some resolution in my face and bearing, for I meant what I
said until Delavoye spoke again.

"Oh, very well! If it's coming to brute force I have no more to say. The
police will have to do it, that's all. It's their job, when you come to
think of it; but it'll be jolly difficult to get them to take it on,
whereas you and I----"

And he turned away with a shrug to point his admirable aposiopesis.

"Man Uvo," I said, catching him by the arm, "what's this job you're
jawing about?"

"You know well enough. You're in the whole mystery of these people far
deeper than I am. I only want to find the solution."

"And you think you'll find it in their house?"

"I know I should," said Uvo with quiet confidence. "But I don't say
it'll be a pleasant find. I shouldn't ask you to come in with me, but
merely to accept some responsibility afterwards--to-night, if we're
spotted. It will probably involve more kudos in the end. But I don't
want to let you in for more than you can stand meanwhile, Gillon."

That was enough for me. I myself led the way back to the windows,
angrily enough until he took my arm, and then suddenly more at one with
him than I had ever been before. I had seen his set lips in the
moonlight, and felt the uncontrollable tremor of the hand upon my

It so happened that it was not necessary to break in after all. I had
generally some keys about me and the variety of locks on our back doors
was not inexhaustible. It was the scullery door in this case that a
happy chance thus enabled me to open. But I was now more determined than
Delavoye himself, and would have stuck at no burglarious excess to test
his prescience, to say nothing of a secret foreboding which had been
forming in my own mind.

To one who went from house to house on the Estate as I did, and knew by
heart the five or six plans on which builder and architect had rung the
changes, darkness should have been no hindrance to the unwarrantable
exploration I was about to conduct. I knew the way through these
kitchens, and found it here without a false or noisy step. But in the
hall I had to contend with the furniture which makes one interior as
different from another as the houses themselves may be alike. The
Abercromby Royles had as much furniture as the Delavoyes, only of a
different type. It was not massive and unsuitable, but only too dainty
and multifarious, no doubt in accordance with the poor wife's taste. I
retained an impression of artful simplicity--an enamelled drain-pipe for
the umbrellas--painted tambourines and counterfeit milk-stools--which
rather charmed me in those days. But I had certainly forgotten a tall
flower-stand outside the kitchen door, and over it went crashing as I
set foot in the tessellated hall. I doubt if either of us drew breath
for some seconds after the last bit of broken plant-pot lay still upon
the tiles. Then I rubbed a match on my trousers, but it did not strike.
Uvo had me by the hand before I could do it again.

"Do you want to blow up the house?" he croaked. "Can't you smell it for

Then I realised that the breath which I had just drawn was acrid with
escaped gas.

"It's that asbestos stove again!" I exclaimed, recalling my first visit
to the house.

"Which asbestos stove?"

"It's in the dining-room. It was leaking as far back as June."

"Well, we'd better go in there first and open the window. Stop a bit!"

The dining-room was just opposite the kitchen, and I was on the
threshold when he pulled me back to tie my handkerchief across my nose
and mouth. I did the same for Delavoye, and thus we crept into the room
where I had been induced to drink with Royle on the night he went away.

The full moon made smouldering panels of the French window leading into
the garden, but little or no light filtered through the long red blind.
Delavoye went round to it on tip-toe, and I still say it was a natural
instinct that kept our voices down and our movements stealthy; that any
other empty house, where we had no business at dead of night, would have
had the same effect upon us. Delavoye speaks differently for himself;
and I certainly heard him fumbling unduly for the blind-cord while I
went over to the gas-stove. At least I was going when I stumbled against
a basket chair, which creaked without yielding to my weight, and creaked
again as though some one had stirred in it. I recoiled, panic-stricken,
and so stood until the blind flew up. Then the silence was sharply
broken by a voice that I can still hear but hardly recognise as my own.

It was Abercromby Royle who was sitting in the moonlight over the
escaping stove; and I shall not describe him; but a dead flower still
drooped from the lapel of a flannel jacket which the dead man had
horribly outgrown.

I drove Delavoye before me through the window he had just opened; it was
he who insisted on returning, ostensibly to turn off the gas, and I
could not let him go alone. But neither could I face the ghastly
occupant of the basket chair; and again it was Uvo Delavoye who was busy
disengaging something from the frozen fingers when a loud rat-tat
resounded through the house.

[Illustration: I drove Delavoye before me.]

It was grim to see how the corpse sat still and let us jump; but Uvo was
himself before the knock was repeated.

"You go, Gillon!" he said. "It's only somebody who's heard or seen us.
Don't you think we smelt the gas through the letter-box, and wasn't it
your duty----"

The second knock cut him short, and I answered it without more ado. The
night constable on the beat, who knew me well by sight, was standing on
the doorstep like a man, his right hand on his hip till he had blinded
me with his lantern. A grunt of relief assured me of his recognition,
while his timely arrival was as promptly explained by an insensate
volley in a more familiar voice.

"Don't raise the road, Mr. Coysh!" I implored. "The man you want has
been here all the time, and dead for the last five days!"

That was a heavy night for me. If Coysh could have made it something
worse, I think just at first he would; for he had been grossly deceived,
and I had unwittingly promoted the deception. But his good sense and
heart had brought him to reason before I accompanied the policeman to
the station, leaving the other two on guard over a house as hermetically
sealed as Delavoye and I had found it.

At the police station I was stiffly examined by the superintendent; but
the explanations that I now felt justified in giving, at Delavoye's
instigation, were received without demur and I was permitted to depart
in outward peace. Inwardly I was not so comfortable, for Delavoye had
not confined his hints to an excuse for entry, made the more convincing
by the evil record of the asbestos stove. We had done some more
whispering while the constable was locking up, and the impulsive Coysh
had lent himself to our final counsels. The upshot was that I said
nothing about my own farewell to Royle, though I dwelt upon my genuine
belief that he had actually gone abroad. And I did say I was convinced
that the whole affair had been an accident, due to the same loose
gas-stove tap which had caused an escape six weeks before.

That was my only actual lie, and on later consideration I began to
wonder whether even it was not the truth. This was in Delavoye's
sanctum, on the first-floor-back at No. 7, and after midnight; for I had
returned to find him in the clutches of excited neighbours, and had
waited about till they all deserted him to witness the immediate removal
of the remains.

"What is there, after all," I asked, "to show that it really was a
suicide? He might have come back for something he'd forgotten, and
kicked against the tap by accident, as somebody did in June. Why make a
point of doing the deed at home?"

"Because he didn't want his wife to know."

"But she was bound to know."

"Sooner or later, of course; but the later the better from his point of
view, and their own shut-up house was the one place where he might not
have been found for weeks. And that would have made all the
difference--in the circumstances."

"But what do you know about the circumstances, Uvo?" I could not help
asking a bit grimly; for his air of omniscience always prepared me for
some specious creation of his own fancy. But for once I was misled, and
I knew it from his altered face before I heard his unnatural voice.

"What do I know?" repeated Uvo Delavoye. "Only that one of the
neighbours has just had a wire from Mrs. Royle's people to say that
she's got a son! That's all," he added, seizing a pipe, "but if you
think a minute you'll see that it explains every other blessed thing."

And I saw that so it did, as far as the unfortunate Royle was concerned;
and there was silence between us while I ran through my brief relations
with the dead man and Delavoye filled his pipe.

"I never took to the fellow," he continued, in a callous tone that
almost imposed upon me. "I didn't like his eternal buttonhole, or the
hat on one side, or the awful shade of their beastly blinds, or the
colour of the good lady's hair for that matter! Just the wrong red and
yellow, unless you happen to wear blue spectacles; and if you'd ever
seen them saying good-bye of a morning you'd have wished you were
stone-blind. But if ever I marry--which God forbid--may I play the game
by my wife as he has done by his! Think of his feelings--with two such
things hanging over him--those African accounts on the way as well! Is
he to throw himself on his old friend's mercy? No; he's too much of a
man, or perhaps too big a villain--but I know which I think now. What
then? If there's a hue and cry the wife'll be the first to hear it; but
if he lays a strong false scent, through an honest chap like you, it may
just tide over the days that matter. So it has, in point of fact; but
for me, there'd have been days and days to spare. But imagine yourself
creeping back into your empty hole to die like a rat, and still thinking
of every little thing to prevent your being found!"

"And to keep it from looking like suicide when you were!" said I, with
yet a lingering doubt in my mind.

"Well, then I say you have the finest suicide ever!" declared Uvo
Delavoye. "I only wish I knew when he began to think it all out. Was it
before he called you in to see the tap that didn't turn off? Or was it
the defective tap that suggested the means of death? In either case,
when he nailed up his letter-box, it was not, of course, to keep the
postman from the door, but to keep the smell of gas inside if he or
anybody else did come. That, I think, is fairly plain."

"It's ingenious," I conceded, "whether the idea's your own or Royle's."

"It must have been his," said Delavoye with conviction. "You don't
engineer an elaborate fake and get in one of your best bits by accident.
No; there was only one mistake poor Royle made, and it _was_
unpremeditated. It was rather touching too. Do you remember my trying to
get something from his fingers, just when the knock came?"

I took a breath through my teeth.

"I wish I didn't. What was it?"

"A locket with yellow hair in it. And he'd broken the glass, and his
thumb was on the hair itself! I don't suppose," added Delavoye, "it
would have meant to anybody else what it must to you and me, Gillon; but
I'm not sorry I got it out of his clutches in time."

Yet now he could shudder in his turn.

"And to think," I said at last, recalling the secret and forgotten
foreboding with which I myself had entered the house of death; "only to
think that at the last I was more prepared for murder than suicide! I
almost suspected the poor chap of having killed his wife, and shut her
up there!"

"Did you?" said Delavoye, with an untimely touch of superiority. "That
never occurred to me."

"But you must have thought something was up?"

"I didn't think. I knew."

"Not what had happened?"

"More or less."

"I wish you'd tell me how!"

Uvo smiled darkly as he shook his head.

"It's no use telling certain people certain things. You shall see for
yourself with your own two eyes." He got up and crossed the room. "You
know what I'm up to at the British Museum; did I tell you they'd got a
fine old last-century plan of the original Estate? Well, for weeks I've
had a man in Holborn trying to get me a copy for love or money. He's
just succeeded. Here it is."

A massive hereditary desk, as mid-Victorian as all the Delavoye
possessions, stood before the open window that looked out into the
moonlight; on this desk was a reading gas-lamp, with a smelly rubber
tube, of the same maligned period; and there and thus was the plan
spread like a tablecloth, pinned down by ash-tray, inkpot, and the lamp
itself, and duly overhung by our two young heads. I carry it pretty
clearly still in my mind's eye. The Estate alone, or rather the whole
original property and nothing else, was outlined and filled in, and the
rest left as white as age permitted. It was like a map of India upside
down. The great house was curiously situated in the apex, but across the
road a clump of shrubberies stood for Ceylon. Our present Estate was at
the thick end, as Delavoye explained, and it was a thrilling moment when
he laid his nail upon the Turkish Pavilion, actually so marked, and we
looked out into the moonlit garden and beheld its indubitable site. The
tunnel was not marked. But Delavoye ran his finger to the left, and
stopped on an emblem illegibly inscribed in small faint ancient print.

"It's 'Steward's Lodge,'" said he as I peered in vain; "you shall have a
magnifying glass, if you like, to show there's no deception. But the
story I'm afraid you'll have to take on trust for the moment. If you
want to see chapter and verse, apply for a reader's ticket and I'll show
you both any day at the B.M. I only struck them myself this afternoon,
in a hairy tome called 'The Mulcaster Peerage'--and a whole page of
sub-titles. They're from one of the epistles of the dear old sinner
himself, written as though other people's money had never melted in his
noble fist. I won't spoil it by misquotation. But you'll find that there
was once an unjust steward, who robbed the wicked lord of this very
vineyard, and then locked himself into his lodge, and committed suicide
rather than face the fearful music!"

I did not look at Delavoye; but I felt his face glowing like a live coal
close to mine.

"This road isn't marked," I said as though I had been simply buried in
the plan.

"Naturally; it wasn't made. Would you like to see where it ran?"

"I shouldn't mind," I said with the same poor quality of indifference.

He took a bit of old picture-rod, which he kept for a ruler on his desk,
and ran a pair of parallel lines in blue pencil from west to east. The
top line came just under the factor's cottage.

"It's in this very road!" I exclaimed.

"Not only that," returned Delavoye, "but if you go by the scale, and
pace the distance, you'll find that the Steward's Lodge was on the
present site of the house with red blinds!"

And he turned away to fill another pipe, as though finely determined not
to crow or glow in my face. But I did not feel myself an object for

"I thought it was only your ignoble kinsman, as you call him," I said,
"who was to haunt and influence us all. If it's to be his man-servant,
his maid-servant----"

"Stop," cried Delavoye; "stop in time, my dear man, before you come to
one or other of us! Can you seriously think it a mere coincidence that a
thing like this should happen on the very spot where the very same thing
has happened before?"

"I don't see why not."

"I had only the opposite idea to go upon, Gilly, and yet I found exactly
what I expected to find. Was that a fluke?"

"Or a coincidence--call it what you like."

"Call it what _you_ like," retorted Delavoye with great good-humour.
"But if the same sort of thing happens again, will it still be a
coincidence or a fluke?"

"In my view, always," I replied, hardening my heart for ever.

"That's all right, then," said he with his schoolboy laugh. "You pays
your money and you takes your choice."


A Vicious Circle

The Berridges of Berylstow--a house near my office in the Witching Hill
Road--were perhaps the very worthiest family on the whole Estate.

Old Mr. Berridge, by a lifetime of faithful service, had risen to a fine
position in one of the oldest and most substantial assurance societies
in the City of London. Mrs. Berridge, herself a woman of energetic
character, devoted every minute that she could spare from household
duties, punctiliously fulfilled, to the glorification of the local Vicar
and the denunciation of modern ideas. There was a daughter, whose name
of Beryl had inspired that of the house; she was her mother's miniature
and echo, and had no desire to ride a bicycle or do anything else that
Mrs. Berridge had not done before her. An only son, Guy, completed the
_partie carrée_, and already made an admirable accountant under his
father's eagle eye. He was about thirty years of age, had a mild face
but a fierce moustache, was engaged to be married, and already picking
up books and pictures for the new home.

As a bookman Guy Berridge stood alone.

"There's nothing like them for furnishing a house," said he; "and
nowadays they're so cheap. There's that new series of Victorian
Classics--one-and-tenpence-halfpenny! And those Eighteenth Century
Masterpieces--I don't know when I shall get time to read them, but
they're worth the money for the binding alone--especially with
everything peculiar taken out!"

_Peculiar_ was a family epithet of the widest possible significance. It
was peculiar of Guy, in the eyes of the other three, to be in such a
hurry to leave their comfortable home for one of his own on a
necessarily much smaller scale. Miss Hemming, the future Mrs. Guy, was
by no means deficient in peculiarity from his people's point of view.
She affected flowing fabrics of peculiar shades, and she had still more
peculiar ideas of furnishing. On Saturday afternoons she would drag poor
Guy into all the second-hand furniture shops in the neighbourhood--not
even to save money, as Mrs. Berridge complained to her more intimate
friends--but just to be peculiar. It seemed like a judgment when Guy
fell so ill with influenza, obviously contracted in one of those highly
peculiar shops, that he had to mortgage his summer holiday by going away
for a complete change early in the New Year.

He went to country cousins of the suburban Hemmings; his own Miss
Hemming went with him, and it was on their return that a difference was
first noticed in the young couple. They no longer looked radiant
together, much less when apart. The good young accountant would pass my
window with a quite tragic face. And one morning, when we met outside,
he told me that he had not slept a wink.

That evening I went to smoke a pipe with Uvo Delavoye, who happened to
have brought me into these people's ken. And we were actually talking
about Guy Berridge and his affairs when the maid showed him up into
Uvo's room.

I never saw a man look quite so wretched. The mild face seemed to cower
behind the truculent moustache; the eyes, bright and bloodshot, winced
when one met them. I got up to go, feeling instinctively that he had
come to confide in Uvo. But Berridge read me as quickly as I read him.

"Don't you go on my account," said he gloomily. "I've nothing to tell
Delavoye that I can't tell you, especially after giving myself away to
you once already to-day. I daresay three heads will be better than two,
and I know I can trust you both."

"Is anything wrong?" asked Uvo, when preliminary solicitations had
reminded me that his visitor neither smoked nor drank.

"Everything!" was the reply.

"Not with your engagement, I hope?"

"That's it," said Berridge, with his eyes on the carpet.

"It isn't--off?"

"Not yet."

"I don't want to ask more than I ought," said Uvo, after a pause, "but I
always imagine that, between people who're engaged, the least little

"It isn't a little thing."

And the accountant shook his downcast head.

"I only meant, my dear chap, if you'd had some disagreement----"

"We've never had the least little word!"

"Has she changed?" asked Uvo Delavoye.

"Not that I know of," replied Berridge; but he looked up as though it
were a new idea; and there was more life in his voice.

"She'd tell you," said Uvo, "if I know her."

"Do people tell each other?" eagerly inquired our friend.

"They certainly ought, and I think Miss Hemming would."

"Ah! it's easy enough for them!" cried the miserable young man. "Women
are not liars and traitors because they happen to change their minds.
Nobody thinks the worse of them for that; it's their privilege, isn't
it? They can break off as many engagements as they like; but if I did
such a thing I should never hold up my head again!"

He buried his hot face in his hands, and Delavoye looked at me for the
first time. It was a sympathetic look enough; and yet there was
something in it, a lift of the eyebrow, a light in the eye, that
reminded me of the one point on which we always differed.

"Better hide your head than spoil her life," said he briskly. "But how
long have you felt like doing either? I used to look on you as an ideal

"So we were," said poor Berridge, readily. "It's most peculiar!"

I saw a twitch at the corners of Uvo's mouth; but he was not the man for
sly glances over a bowed head.

"How long have you been engaged?" he asked.

"Ever since last September."

"You were here then, if I remember?"

"Yes; it was just after my holiday."

"In fact you've been here all the time?"

"Up to these last few weeks."

Delavoye looked round his room as a cross-examining counsel surveys the
court to mark a point. I felt it about time to intervene on the other

"But you looked perfectly happy," said I, "all the autumn?"

"So I was, God knows!"

"Everything was all right until you went away?"


"Then," said I, "it looks to me like the mere mental effect of
influenza, and nothing else."

But that was not the sense of the glance I could not help shooting at
Delavoye. And my explanation was no comfort to Guy Berridge; he had
thought of it before; but then he had never felt better than the last
few days in the country, yet never had he been in such despair.

"I can't go through with it," he groaned in abject unreserve. "It's
making my life a hell--a living lie. I don't know how to bear it--from
one meeting to the next--I dread them so! Yet I've always a sort of hope
that next time everything will suddenly become as it was before
Christmas. Talk of forlorn hopes! Each time's worse than the last. I've
come straight from her now. I don't know what you must think of me! It's
not ten minutes since we said good-night." The big moustache trembled.
"I felt a Judas," he whispered--"an absolute Judas!"

"I believe it's all nerves," said Delavoye, but with so little
conviction that I loudly echoed the belief.

"But I don't go in for nerves," protested Berridge; "none of us do, in
our family. We don't believe in them. We think they're a modern excuse
for anything you like to do or say; that's what we think about nerves.
I'm not going to start them just to make myself out better than I am.
It's my heart that's rotten, not my nerves."

"I admire your attitude," said Delavoye, "but I don't agree with you.
It'll all come back to you in the end--everything you think you've
lost--and then you'll feel as though you'd awakened from a bad dream."

"But sometimes I do wake up, as it is!" cried Berridge, catching at the
idea. "Nearly every morning, when I'm dressing, things look different.
I feel my old self again--the luckiest fellow alive--engaged to the
sweetest girl! She's always that, you know; don't imagine for one moment
that I ever think less of Edith; she always was and would be a million
times too good for me. If only she'd see it for herself, and chuck me up
of her own accord! I've even tried to tell her what I feel; but she
won't meet me half-way; the real truth never seems to enter her head.
How to tell her outright I don't know. It would have been easy enough
last year, when her people wouldn't let us be properly engaged. But they
gave in at Christmas when I had my rise in screw; and now she's got her
ring, and given me this one--how on earth can I go and give it her

"May I see?" asked Delavoye, holding out his hand; and I for one was
grateful to him for the diversion of the few seconds we spent inspecting
an old enamelled ring with a white peacock on a crimson ground. Berridge
asked us if we thought it a very peculiar ring, as they all did at
Berylstow, and he babbled on about the circumstances of its purchase by
his dear, sweet, open-handed Edith. It did him good to talk. A tinge of
health returned to his cadaverous cheeks, and for a time his moustache
looked less out of keeping and proportion.

But it was the mere reactionary surcease of prolonged pain, and the fit
came on again in uglier guise before he left.

"It isn't so much that I don't want to marry her," declared the
accountant with startling abruptness, "as the awful thoughts I have as
to what may happen if I do. They're too awful to describe, even to you
two fellows. Of course nothing could make you think worse of me than you
must already, but you'd say I was mad if you could see inside my
horrible mind. I don't think she'd be safe; honestly I don't! I feel as
if I might do her some injury--or--or violence!"

He was swaying about the room with wild eyes staring from one to the
other of us and twitching fingers feeling in his pockets. I got up
myself and stood within reach of him, for now I felt certain that love
or illness had turned his brain. But it was only a very small scrap of
paper that he fished out of his waistcoat pocket, and handed first to
Delavoye and then to me.

"I cut it out of a review of such a peculiar poem in my evening paper,"
said Berridge. "I never read reviews, or poems, but those lines hit me

And I read:

    "Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
      By each let this be heard,
    Some do it with a bitter look,
      Some with a flattering word,
    The coward does it with a kiss,
      The brave man with a sword!"

"But you don't feel like that!" said Delavoye, laughing at him; and the
laughter rang as false as his earlier consolation; but this time I had
not the presence of mind to supplement it.

Guy Berridge nodded violently as he held out his hand for the verse. I
could see that his eyes had filled with tears. But Uvo rolled the scrap
of paper into a pellet, which he flung among the lumps of asbestos
glowing in his grate, and took the outstretched hand in his. I never saw
man so gentle with another. Hardly a word more passed. But the poor
devil squeezed my fingers before Uvo led him out to see him home. And it
was many minutes before he returned.

"I have had a time of it!" said he, putting his feet to the gas fire.
"Not with that poor old thing, but his people, all three of them! I got
him up straight to bed, and then they kept me when he thought I'd gone.
Of course they know there's something wrong, and of course they blame
the girl; one knew they would. It seems they've never really approved of
her; she's a shocking instance of all-round peculiarity. They little
know the apple of their own blind eyes--eh, Gilly?"

"I hardly knew him myself," said I. "He must be daft! I never thought to
hear a grown man go on like that."

"And such a man!" cried Uvo. "It's not the talk so much as the talker
that surprises me; and by the way, how well he talked, for him! He was
less of a bore than I've ever known him; there was passion in the
fellow, confound him! Red blood in that lump of road metal! He's not
only sorry for himself. He's simply heartbroken about the girl. But
this maggot of morbid introspection has got into his brain and----how
did it get there, Gilly? It's no place for the little brute. What brain
is there to feed it? What has he ever done, in all his dull days, to
make that harmless mind a breeding-ground for every sort of degenerate
idea? In mine they'd grow like mustard and cress. I'd feel just like
that if I were engaged to the very nicest girl; the nicer she was, the
worse I'd get; but then I'm a degenerate dog in any case. Oh, yes, I am,
Gilly. But here's as faithful a hound as ever licked his lady's hand.
Where's he got it from? Who's the poisoner?"

"I'm glad you ask," said I. "I was afraid you'd say you knew."

"Meaning my old man of the soil?"

"I made sure you'd put it on him."

Uvo laughed heartily.

"You don't know as much about him as I do, Gilly! He was the last old
scoundrel to worry because he didn't love a woman as much as she
deserved. It was quite the other way about, I can assure you."

"Yes; but what about those almost murderous inclinations?"

"I thought of them. But they only came on after our good friend had
shaken this demoralising dust off his feet. As long as he stuck to
Witching Hill he was as sound as a marriage bell! It's dead against my
doctrine, Gillon, but I'm delighted to find that you share my

"And I to hear you own it is one, Uvo!"

"There's another thing, now we're on the subject," he continued, for we
had not been on it for weeks and months. "It seems that over at Hampton
Court there's a portrait of my ignoble kinsman, by one Kneller. I only
heard of it the other day, and I was rather wondering if you could get
away to spin over with me and look him up. It needn't necessarily
involve contentious topics, and we might lunch at the Mitre in that
window looking down stream. But it ought to be to-morrow, if you could
manage it, because the galleries don't open on Friday, and on Saturdays
they're always crowded."

I could not manage it very well. I was supposed to spend my day on the
Estate, and, though there was little doing thus early in the year, it
might be the end of me if my Mr. Muskett came back before his usual time
and did not find me at my post. And I was no longer indifferent as to
the length of my days at Witching Hill. But I resolved to risk them for
the man who had made the place what it was to me--a garden of
friends--however otherwise he might people and spoil it for himself.

We started at my luncheon hour, which could not in any case count
against me, and quite early in the afternoon we reckoned to be back. It
was a very keen bright day, worthier of General January than his
chief-of-staff. Ruts and puddles were firmly frozen; our bicycle bells
rang out with a pleasing brilliance. In Bushey Park the black chestnuts
stamped their filigree tops against a windless radiance. Under the trees
a russet carpet still waited for March winds to take it up. The Diana
pond was skinned with ice; goddess and golden nymphs caught every
scintillation of cold sunlight as we trundled past. In a fine glow we
entered the palace and climbed to the grim old galleries.

"Talk about haunted houses!" said Uvo Delavoye. "If our patron sinner
takes such a fatherly interest in the humble material at his disposal,
what about that gay dog Henry and the good ladies in these apartments? I
should be sorry to trust living neck to what's left of the old
lady-killer." It was the famous Holbein which had set him off. "But I
say, Gilly, here's a far worse face than his. It may be my rude
forefather; by Jove, and so it is!"

And he took off his cap with unction to a handsome, sinister creature,
in a brown flowing wig and raiment as fine as any on the walls. There
was a staggering peacock-blue surtout, lined with silk of an orange
scarlet, the wide sleeves turned up with the same; and a creamy cascade
of lace fell from the throat over a long cinnamon waistcoat piped with
silk; for you could swear to the material at sight, and the colours
might have been laid on that week. They lit up the gloomy chamber, and
the eyes in the periwigged head lit them up. The dark eyes at my side
were not more live and liquid than the painted pair. Not that Uvo's were
cynical, voluptuous, or sly; but like these they reminded me of deep
waters hidden from the sun. I refrained from comment on a resemblance
that went no further. I was glad I alone had seen how far it went.

[Illustration: A handsome, sinister creature, in a brown flowing wig and
raiment as fine as any on the walls.]

"Thank goodness those lips and nostrils don't sprout on our branch!" Uvo
had put up his eyebrows in a humorous way of his. "We must keep a
weather eye open for the evil that they did living after them on
Witching Hill! You may well stare at his hands; they probably weren't
his at all, but done from a model. I hope the old Turk hadn't quite such
a ladylike----"

He stopped short, as I knew he would when he saw what I was pointing out
to him; for I had not been staring at the effeminate hand affectedly
composed on the corner of a table, but at the enamelled ring painted
like a miniature on the little finger.

"Good Lord!" cried Delavoye. "That's the very ring we saw last night!"

It was at least a perfect counterfeit; the narrow stem, the high,
projecting, oval bezel--the white peacock enamelled on a crimson
ground--one and all were there, as the painters of that period loved to
put such things in.

"It must be the same, Gilly! There couldn't be two such utter oddities!"

"It looks like it, certainly; but how did Miss Hemming get hold of it?"

"Easily enough; she ferrets out all the old curiosity shops in the
district, and didn't Berridge tell us she bought his ring in one?
Obviously it's been lying there for the last century and a bit. Bear in
mind that this bad old lot wasn't worth a bob towards the end; then you
must see the whole thing's so plain, there's only one thing plainer."

"What's that?"

"The entire cause and origin of Guy Berridge's pangs and fears about his
engagement. He never had one or the other before Christmas--when he got
his ring. They've made his life a Hades ever since, every day of it and
every hour of every day, except sometimes in the morning when he was
getting up. Why not then? Because he took off his ring when he went to
his bath! I'll go so far as to remind you that his only calm and
rational moments last night were while you and I were looking at this
ring and it was off his finger!"

Delavoye's strong excitement was attracting the attention of the old
soldierly attendant near the window, and in a vague way that veteran
attracted mine. I glanced past him, out and down into the formal
grounds. Yew and cedar seemed unreal to me in the wintry sunlight;
almost I wondered whether I was dreaming in my turn, and where on earth
I was. It was as though a touch of the fantastic had rested for a moment
even on my hard head. But I very soon shook it off, and mocked the
vanquished weakness with a laugh.

"Yes, my dear fellow, that's all very well. But----"

"None of your blooming 'buts'!" cried Uvo, with almost delirious levity.
"I should have thought this instance was concrete enough even for you.
But we'll talk about it at the Mitre and consider what to do."

In that talk I joined, into those considerations I entered, without
arguing at all. It did not commit me to a single article of a repugnant
creed, but neither on the other hand did it impair the excellence of
Delavoye's company at a hurried feast which still stands out in my
recollection. I remember the long red wall of Hampton Court as the one
warm feature of the hard-bitten landscape. I remember red wine in our
glasses, a tinge of colour in the dusky face that leant toward mine, and
a wondrous flow of eager talk, delightful as long as one did not take it
too seriously. My own attitude I recapture most securely in Uvo's
accusation that I smiled and smiled and was a sceptic. It was one of
those characteristic remarks that stick for no other reason. Uvo
Delavoye was not in those days at all widely read; but he had a large
circle of quotations which were not altogether unfamiliar to me, and I
eventually realised that he knew his _Hamlet_ almost off by heart.

But as yet poor Berridge's "pangs and fears" was original Delavoye to my
ruder culture; and the next time I saw him, on the Friday night, the
pangs seemed keener and the fears even more enervating than before.
Again he sat with us in Uvo's room; but he was oftener on his legs,
striding up and down, muttering and gesticulating as he strode. In the
end Uvo took a strong line with him. I was waiting for it. He had
conceived the scheme at Hampton Court, and I was curious to see how it
would be received.

"This can't go on, Berridge! I'll see you through--to the bitter end!"

Uvo was not an actor, yet here was a magnificent piece of acting,
because it was more than half sincere.

"Will you really, Delavoye?" cried the accountant, shrinking a little
from his luck.

"Rather! I'm not going to let you go stark mad under my nose. Give me
that ring."


"Of course; it's your engagement ring, isn't it? And it's your duty, to
yourself and her and everybody else, to break off that engagement with
as little further delay as possible."

"But are you sure, Delavoye?"

"Certain. Give it to me."

"It seems such a frightful thing to do!"

"We'll see about that. Thank you; now you're your own man again."

And now I really did begin to open my eyes; for no sooner had the
unfortunate accountant parted with his ring, than his ebbing affections
rushed back in a miraculous flood, and he was begging for it again in
five minutes, vowing that he had been mad but now was sane, and looking
more himself into the bargain. But Delavoye was adamant to these
hysterical entreaties. He plied Berridge with his own previous arguments
against the marriage, and once at least he struck a responsive chord
from those frayed nerves.

"Nobody but yourself," he pointed out, "ever said you didn't love her;
but see what love makes of you! Can you dream of marriage in such a
state? Is it fair to the girl, until you've really reconsidered the
whole matter and learnt your own mind once for all? Could she be happy?
Would she be--it was your own suggestion--but are you sure she would be
even safe?"

Berridge wrung his hands in new despair; yes, he had forgotten that!
Those awful instincts were the one unalterably awful feature. Not that
he felt them still; but to recollect them as genuine impulses, or at
best as irresistible thoughts, was to freeze his self-distrust into a
cureless cancer.

"I was forgetting all that," he moaned. "And yet here in my pocket is
the very book those hopeless lines are from. I bought it at Stoneham's
this morning. It's the most peculiar poem I ever read. I can't quite
make it out. But that bit was clear enough. Only hear how it goes on!"

And in a school-childish singsong, with no expression but that
involuntarily imparted by his quavering voice, he read twelve lines

    "Some kill their love when they are young,
      And some when they are old;
    Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
      Some with the hands of Gold:
    The kindest use a knife, because----"

He shuddered horribly--

      "The dead so soon grow cold.

    "Some love too little, some too long,
      Some sell, and others buy;
    Some do the deed with many tears,
      And some without a sigh:
    For each man kills the thing he loves,
      Yet each man does not die."

"It's all I'm fit for, death!" groaned Guy Berridge, trying to tug the
fierce moustache out of his mild face. "The sooner the better, for me!
And yet I did love her, God knows I did!" He turned upon Uvo Delavoye in
a sudden blaze. "And so I do still--do you hear me? Then give me back my
ring, I say, and don't encourage me in this madness--you--you devil!"

[Illustration: Trying to tug the fierce moustache out of his mild face.]

"Give it him back," I said. But Uvo set his teeth against us both,
looking almost what he had just been called--looking abominably like
that fine evil gentleman in Hampton Court--and I could stand the whole
thing no longer. I rammed my own hand into Delavoye's pocket. And down
and away out into the night, like a fiend let loose, went Guy Berridge
and the ring with the peacock enamelled in white on a blood-red ground.

I turned again to Delavoye. His shoulders were up to his ears in wry
good humour.

"You may be right, Gilly, but now I ought really to sit up with him all
night. In any case I shall have it back in the morning, and then neither
you nor he shall ever see that unclean bird again!"

But he went so far as to show it to me across my counter, not many
minutes after young Berridge had shambled past, with bent head and
unshaven cheeks, to catch his usual train next morning.

"I did sit up with him," said Uvo. "We sat up till he dropped off in his
chair, and eventually I got him to bed more asleep than awake. But he's
as bad as ever again this morning, and he has surrendered the infernal
ring this time of his own accord I'm to break matters to the girl by
giving it back to her."

"You're a perfect hero to take it on!"

"I feel much more of a humbug, Gilly."

"When do you tackle her?"

"Never, my dear fellow! Can't you see the point? This white peacock's at
the bottom of the whole thing. Neither of them shall ever set eyes on it
again, and then you see if they don't marry and live happy ever after!"

"But are you going to throw the thing away?"

"Not if I can help it, Gilly. I'll tell you what I thought of doing.
There's a little working jeweller, over at Richmond, who made me quite a
good pin out of some heavy old studs that belonged to my father. I'm
going to take him this ring to-day and see if he can turn out a
duplicate for love or money."

"I'll go with you," I said, "if you can wait till the afternoon."

"We must be gone before Berridge has a chance of getting back," replied
Uvo, doubtfully; "otherwise I shall have to begin all over again,
because of course he'll come back cured and roaring for his ring. I
haven't quite decided what to say to him, but I fancy my imagination
will prove equal to the strain."

This seemed to me a rather cynical attitude to take, even in the best of
causes, and it certainly was not like Uvo Delavoye. Only too capable, in
my opinion, of deceiving himself, he was no impostor, if I knew him, and
it was disappointing to see him take so kindly to the part. I preferred
not to talk about it on the road to Richmond, which we took on foot in
the small hours of the afternoon. A weeping thaw had reduced the frozen
ruts to mere mud piping, of that consistency which grips a tyre like
teeth. But it was impossible not to compare this heavy tramp with our
sparkling spin through Bushey Park. And the hot and cold fits of poor
Guy Berridge afforded an inevitable analogy.

"I can't understand him," I was saying. "I can understand a fellow
falling in love and even falling out again. But Berridge flies from one
extreme to the other like a ball in a hard rally."

"And it's not the way he's built, Gilly! That's what sticks with me. You
may be quite sure he's not the first breeder of sinners who began by
shivering on the brink of matrimony. It's a desperate plunge to take. I
should be terrified myself; but then I'm not one of nature's faithful
hounds. If it wasn't for the canine fidelity of this good Berridge, I
shouldn't mind his thinking and shrinking like many a better man."

We were cutting off the last corner before Richmond by following the
asphalt foot-path behind St. Stephen's Church. Here we escaped the mud
at last; the moist asphalt shone with a cleanly lustre; and our
footsteps threw an echo ahead, between the two long walls, until it
mixed with the tramp of approaching feet, and another couple advanced
into view. They were man and girl; but I did not at first identify the
radiant citizen in the glossy hat, with his arm thrust through the
lady's, as Guy Berridge homeward bound with his once beloved. It was a
groan from Uvo that made me look again, and next moment the four of us
blocked the narrow gangway.

"The very man we were talking about!" cried Berridge without looking at
me. His hat had been ironed, his weak chin burnished by a barber's
shave, the strong moustache clipped and curled. But a sporadic glow
marked either cheek-bone, and he had forgotten to return our salute.

"Yes, Mr. Delavoye!" said Miss Hemming with arch severity. "What have
you been doing with my white peacock?"

She had a brown fringe, very crisply curled as a rule; but the damp air
had softened and improved it; and perhaps her young gentleman's recovery
had carried the good work deeper, for she was a girl who sometimes gave
herself airs, but there seemed no room for any in her happy face.

"To tell you the truth," replied Uvo, unblushingly, "I was on my way to
show it to a bit of a connoisseur at Richmond." He turned to Berridge,
who met his glance eagerly. "That's really why I borrowed it, Guy. I
believe it's more valuable than either of you realise."

"Not to me!" cried the accountant readily. "I don't know what I was
doing to take it off. I hear it's a most unlucky thing to do."

It was easy to see from whom he had heard it. Miss Hemming said nothing,
but looked all the more decided with her mouth quite shut. And Delavoye
addressed his apologies to the proper quarter.

"I'm awfully sorry, Miss Hemming! Of course you're quite right; but I
hope you'll show it to my man yourselves----"

"If you don't mind," said Berridge, holding out his hand with a smile.

But Uvo had broken off of his own accord.

"I think you'll be glad"--he was feeling in all his pockets--"quite glad
if you do--" and his voice died away as he began feeling again.

"Lucky I wired to you to meet me at Richmond, wasn't it, Edie? Otherwise
we should have been too late," said the accountant densely.

"Perhaps you are!" poor Uvo had to cry outright. "I--the fact is
I--can't find it anywhere."

"You may have left it behind," suggested Berridge.

"We can call for it, if you did," said the girl.

There was something in his sudden worry that appealed to their common
fund of generosity.

"No, no! I told you why I was going to Richmond. I thought I had it in
my ticket pocket. In fact, I know I had; but I went with my sister this
morning to get some flowers at Kingston market, and I haven't had it out
since. It's been taken from me, and that was where! I wish you'd feel in
my pockets for me. I've had them picked--picked of the one thing that
wasn't mine, and was of value--and now you'll neither of you ever
forgive me, and I don't deserve to be forgiven!"

But they did forgive him, and that handsomely--so manifest was his
distress--so great their recovered happiness. It was only I who could
not follow their example, when they had gone on their way, and Delavoye
and I were hurrying on ours, ostensibly to get the Richmond police to
telephone at once to Kingston, as the first of all the energetic steps
that we were going to take. For we were still in that asphalt passage,
and the couple had scarcely quitted it at the other end, when Delavoye
drew off his glove and showed me the missing ring upon his little

I could hardly believe my eyes, or my ears either when he roundly
defended his conduct. I need not go into his defence; it was the only
one it could have been; but Uvo Delavoye was the only man in England who
could and would have made it with a serious face. It was no mere trinket
that he had "lifted," but a curse from two innocent heads. That end
justified any means, to his wild thinking. But, over and above the
ethical question, he had an inherited responsibility in the matter, and
had only performed a duty which had been thrust upon him.

"Nor shall they be a bit the worse off," said Uvo warmly. "I still mean
to have that duplicate made, off my own bat, and when I foist it on our
friends I shall simply say it turned up in the lining of my overcoat."

"Man Uvo," said I, "there are two professions waiting for you; but it
would take a judge of both to choose between your fiction and your

"Acting!" he cried. "Why, a blog like Guy Berridge can act when he's put
to it; he did just now, and took you in, evidently! It never struck you,
I suppose, that he'd wired to me this morning to say nothing to the
girl, probably at the same time that he wired to her to meet him? He
carried it all off like a born actor just now, and yet you curse me for
going and doing likewise to save the pair of them!"

It is always futile to try to slay the bee in another's bonnet; but for
once I broke my rule of never arguing with Uvo Delavoye, if I could help
it, on the particular point involved. I simply could not help it, on
this occasion; and when Uvo lost his temper, and said a great deal more
than I would have taken from anybody else, I would not have helped it if
I could. So hot had been our interchange that it was at its height when
we debouched from St. Stephen's Passage into the open cross-roads

At that unlucky moment, one small suburban Arab, in full flight from
another, dashed round the corner and butted into that part of Delavoye
which the Egyptian climate had specially demoralised. I saw his dark
face writhe with pain and fury. With one hand he caught the offending
urchin, and in the other I was horrified to see his stick, a heavy
blackthorn, held in murderous poise against the leaden sky, while the
child was thrust out at arm's length to receive the blow. I hurled
myself between them, and had such difficulty in wresting the blackthorn
from the madman's grasp that his hand was bleeding, and something had
tinkled on the pavement, when I tore it from him.

[Illustration: A heavy blackthorn held in murderous poise.]

Panting, I looked to see what had become of the small boy. He had taken
to his heels as though the foul fiend were at them; his late pursuer was
now his companion in flight, and I was thankful to find we had the scene
to ourselves. Delavoye was pointing to the little thing that had tinkled
as it fell, and as he pointed the blood dripped from his hand, and he
shuddered like a man recovering from a fit.

I had better admit plainly that the thing was that old ring with the
white peacock set in red, and that Uvo Delavoye was once more as I had
known him down to that hour.

"Don't touch the beastly thing!" he cried. "It's served me worse than it
served poor Berridge! I shall have to think of a fresh lie to tell
him--and it won't come so easy now--but I'd rather cut mine off than
trust this on another human hand!"

He picked it up between his finger-nails. And there was blood on the
white peacock when I saw it next on Richmond Bridge.

"Don't you worry about my hand," said Uvo as he glanced up and down the
grey old bridge. "It's only a scratch from the blackthorn spikes, but
I'd have given a finger to be shot of this devil!"

A flick of his wrist sent the old ring spinning; we saw it meet its own
reflection in the glassy flood, like a salmon-fly beautifully thrown;
and more rings came and widened on the waters, till they stirred the
mirrored branches of the trees on Richmond Hill.


The Local Colour

The Reverend Charles Brabazon, magnetic Vicar of the adjacent Village,
had as strong a personality as one could wish to encounter in real life.
He did what he liked with a congregation largely composed of the motley
worldlings of Witching Hill. Small solicitors and west-end tradesmen,
bank officials, outside brokers, first-class clerks in Government
offices, they had not a Sunday soul to call their own, these hard-headed
holders of season tickets to Waterloo.

Throughout the summer they flocked to church when their hearts were on
the river; in the depths of winter they got up for early celebration on
the one morning when they might have lain abed. Their most obsequious
devotions did not temper the preacher's truculence, any more than his
strongest onslaught discouraged their good works. They gave of their
substance at his every call, and were even more lavish on their own
initiative. Thus, in my second summer at Witching Hill, the Vicarage was
practically rebuilt out of the pockets of parishioners; and we had no
difficulty in providing a furnished substitute on the favourite woodland
side of Mulcaster Park.

Great was the jealousy in Witching Hill Road, but futile the fluttering
of our Queen Anne dovecots; for we saw very little more of the Vicar for
having him in our midst. He was always either immured in his study, or
else hurrying to or from some service or parochial engagement; and
although he had a delightful roadside manner, and the same fine smile
for high and low, he would stop to speak to neither on his way. Out of
church, in fact, Mr. Brabazon preserved a wise aloofness which only
served to emphasise the fierce intimacy of his pulpit utterances, and
combined with his contempt of popularity to render him by far the most
popular figure in the neighbourhood.

It goes without saying that this remarkable man was a High Churchman
and a celibate. His house was kept, and his social short-comings made
good, by two Misses Brabazon, each as unlike him as possible in her own
way. Miss Ruth, who was younger, added to her brother's energy a
sympathetic charm and a really good voice which made her the darling of
the Parish Hall and humbler edifices. Miss Julia's activities were more
sedentary and domestic, as perhaps became the least juvenile of the
trio, and so it was that I saw most of her. We had a whole day together
over the inventory, and it was Miss Julia who interviewed me about
everything else connected with the house. She was never short with me on
those occasions, never ungracious or (what is worse) unduly gracious,
but she had always a pleasant word, and nearly always an innocent little
joke as well. Innocence and jocosity were two of her leading
characteristics; another was a genuine but ingenuous literary faculty.
This she exercised in editing the _Parish Magazine_, and supplying it
with moral serials which occasionally reached volume form under the
auspices of the Religious Tract Society.

On an evening late in April, when the cuckoo was wound up in the wood
behind Mulcaster Park, and most of the beds in front were flowering for
the first time, a gaunt figure came to the gate of the temporary
vicarage and beckoned to me passing on the other side of the road. It
was Miss Julia, and I found her looking gently humorous and knowing
across the gate.

"The trees are coming out so beautifully," she began, "in the grounds
behind these gardens. I was wondering if it would be possible to procure
a permit to go over them, Mr. Gillon."

"Do you mean for yourself, Miss Brabazon?"

"Well, yes, as a matter of fact I do."

As she spoke I could not but notice that she glanced ever so slightly
towards the house behind her, and that her voice had fallen to a murmur,
while a mottled colouring appeared between the lines of her guileless

"I'm afraid I can't do anything," I said. "But the Vicar could, Miss
Brabazon!" I added with conviction. "A line from him to Sir Christopher

I stopped because Miss Julia shook her head so decidedly.

"That would never do, Mr. Gillon. Sir Christopher is such a very rabid

"So I have heard," I admitted, thinking rather of what I had seen. "But
I don't believe he's as narrow as you think."

"I couldn't trouble the Vicar about it, in any case," said Miss
Brabazon, hurriedly. "I shouldn't even like him to know that I had
troubled you, Mr. Gillon. He's such a severe critic that I never tell
him what I'm writing until it's finished."

"Then you are writing something about Witching Hill House, Miss

"I was thinking of it. I haven't begun. But I never saw any place that I
felt such a desire to write about. The old house in the old woods, say a
hundred years ago! Don't you think it an ideal scene for a story, Mr.

"It depends on the story you want to tell," said I, sententiously.

A strange light was burning in the weak eyes of Miss Julia. It might
almost have been a flicker of the divine fire. But now she dropped her
worn eyelids, and gazed into the road with the dreamy cunning of the
born creator.

"I should have quite a plot," she decided. "It would be ... yes, it
would be about some extraordinary person who lived in there, in the wood
and the house, only of course ages and ages ago. I think I should make
him--in fact I'm quite sure he would be--a very wicked person, though of
course he'd have to come all right in the end."

"You must be thinking of the man who really did live there."

"Who was that?"

"The infamous Lord Mulcaster."

"Really, Mr. Gillon? I don't think I ever heard of him. Of course I know
the present family by name; aren't these Delavoyes connected with them
in some way?"

I explained the connection as I knew it, which was not very thoroughly.
But I unfortunately said enough to cause a rapid fall in poor Miss
Julia's mottled countenance.

"Then I must give up the idea of that story. They would think I meant
their ancestor, and that would never do. I'm sorry, because I never felt
so inclined to write anything before. But I'm very glad you told me, Mr.

"But they wouldn't mind a bit, Miss Brabazon! They're not in the least
sensitive about him," I assured her.

"I couldn't think of it," replied Miss Julia, haughtily. "It would be in
the very worst of taste."

"But Uvo would love it. He's full of the old villain. He might help you
if you'd let him. He's at the British Museum at this moment, getting
deeper and deeper into what he calls the family mire."

"I happen to see him coming down the road," observed Miss Julia, dryly.
"I must really beg that you will not refer to the subject again, Mr.

But in her voice and manner there was a hesitating reluctance that
emboldened me to use my own judgment about that, especially when Uvo
Delavoye (whose mother and sister were keen Brabazonians) himself
introduced the topic on joining us, with a gratuitous remark about his
"unfilial excavations in Bloomsbury."

"I've opened up a new lazar-house this very day," he informed us, with
shining eyes, when Miss Julia had shown an interest in spite of herself.

"By the way," I cut in, "don't you think it would all make magnificent
material for a novel, Uvo?"

"If you could find anybody to publish it!" he answered, laughing.

"You wouldn't mind if he was put into a book--and the place as well?"

"_I_ wouldn't, if nobody else didn't! Why? Who's thinking of doing us
the honour?"

Dear Miss Julia coughed and laughed with delicious coyness. My liberty
had been condoned.

"Was it you, Miss Brabazon?" cried Uvo, straightening his face with the
nerve that never failed him at a climax.

"Well, it was and it wasn't," she replied, exceeding slyly. "I did think
I should like to write a little story about Witching Hill House, and put
in rather a bad character; at least he would begin by being rather
undesirable, perhaps. But I was forgetting that the place had been in
your family, Mr. Delavoye. I certainly never knew, until Mr. Gillon told
me, that one of the Lords Mulcaster had been--er--perhaps--no better
than he ought to have been."

"To put it mildly," said Delavoye, with smiling face and shrieking eyes.
"You may paint the bad old hat as black as mine, Miss Brabazon, and
still turn him out a saint compared with the villain of the case I've
been reading up to-day. So you really needn't worry about anybody's
susceptibilities. Lay on the local colour inches deep! You won't make
the place as red as the old gentleman painted it in blood and wine!"

"Really, Mr. Delavoye!" cried Miss Julia, jocosely shocked. "You mustn't
forget that my story would only appear in our _Parish Magazine_--unless
the R.T.S. took it afterwards."

"My rude forefather in a Religious Tract!"

"Of course I should quite reform him in the end."

"You'd have your work cut out, Miss Brabazon."

"I ought to begin with _you_, you know!" said Miss Julia, shaking a
facetious finger in Uvo's face. "I'm afraid you're rather an irreverent
young man, and I don't know what the Vicar would say if he heard us."
She threw another deliciously guilty glance towards the house. "But if
you really mean what you say, and you're sure Mrs. Delavoye and your
sister won't mind either----"

"Mind!" he interrupted. "Forgive me, Miss Brabazon, but how _could_ they
be sensitive about the last head but five of a branch of the family
which doesn't even recognise our existence?"

"Very well, then! I'll take you at your word, and the--the blood and
thunder," whispered Miss Julia, as though they were bad words, "be on
your own head, Mr. Delavoye!"

Thereafter, in a quivering silence, Uvo took me home with him, and
straight up into his own room, where he first shut door and window
without a word. Never since have I heard man laugh quite so loud and
long as he did then.

"But you don't see the point!" he arrogated through his tears, because I
made rather less noise.

"What is it, then?"

"I told you I'd opened up a new sink to-day?"

"You said something of the sort."

"It was a sink of fresh iniquity. I came across it in an old collection
of trials; it isn't as much as mentioned in any memoir of the old
reprobate, nor yet in the many annals of Witching Hill. Yet he once
figured in one of the most disgraceful cases on record."

The case was all that, as Delavoye summed it up for my benefit. The
arch-villain of the piece was of course his scandalous progenitor, aided
and abetted by a quite unspeakable crew. There was a sorely distressed
heroine in humble life--a poor little milliner from Shoreditch--but
because it was all too true, there had been no humble hero to wreak
poetic vengeance on the miscreant.

"Not a nursery story, I grant you! But there were some good touches in
the version I struck," said Delavoye, producing his museum note-book.
"One or two I couldn't help taking down. 'In obedience to the custom of
the times,' for instance, 'the young lord proceeded to perform the grand
tour; and it is reported that having sailed from Naples to
Constantinople, he there imbibed so great an admiration for the manners
of the Turks, that on his return to England in 1766, he caused an
outlying portion of his family mansion to be taken down, and to be
rebuilt in the form of a harem.'"


"I took it down word for word. I've often wondered how the Turkish
Pavilion got its name; now we know all about it, and why it had a tunnel
connecting it with the house."

"Poor little milliner!"

"I believe you, Gilly. Listen to this, when she was a prisoner in his
town house, before they spirited her out here--'Looking out of the
window at about eight o'clock, she observed a young woman passing, to
whom she threw out her handkerchief, which was then heavy with tears,
intending to attract her attention and send to her father for

"Because the handkerchief was marked?"

"And so heavy with her tears that she could throw it like a

The note-book was put away. There was an end also of our hilarity.

"And this dear old girl," said Uvo, with affectionate disrespect,
"thinks she's a fit and proper writer to cope with that immortal skunk!
False Sextus in a parish magazine! Proud Tarquin done really proud at

It was on the tip of my tongue to make it quite clear to Uvo that Miss
Julia had not wittingly proposed to write about his ancestor at all;
that apparently she had never heard of his existence before that
evening, and that it was her own original idea to make Witching Hill
House the haunt of some purely imaginary scoundrel. But I knew my Uvo
well enough by this time to hold my tongue, and at least postpone the
tiresome discussion of a rather stale point on which we were never
likely to agree.

But I stayed to supper at No. 7; and Uvo kept me till the small hours,
listening to further details of his last researches, and to the farrago
of acute conjecture, gay reminiscence and vivid hearsay which his
reading invariably inspired. It was base subject-metal that did not
gain a certain bright refinement in his fiery mind, or fall from his
lips with a lively ring; and that night he was at his best about things
which have an opposite effect on many young men. It must have been after
one when I left him. I saw the light go out behind the cheap stained
glass in the front door, and I heard Uvo going upstairs as I departed.
The next and only other light I passed, in the houses on that side of
the road, was at the top of the one which was now the Vicarage. Thence
also came an only sound; it was the continuous crackle of a typewriter,
through the open window of the room which I knew Miss Julia had
appropriated as her own.

That end of the Estate had by this time a full team of tenants, whereas
I had two sets of painters and paperhangers to keep up to the mark in
Witching Hill Road. This rather came between me and my friends in
Mulcaster Park, especially as my Mr. Muskett lived in their road, and
his house had eyes and a tongue. So it happened that I saw no more of
Miss Julia Brabazon until she paid me a queer little visit at my office
one afternoon about five o'clock. She was out of breath, and her
flurried manner quickened my ear to the sound of her brother's bells
ringing in the distance for week-day evensong.

"I thought I'd like to have one word with you, Mr. Gillon, about my
story," she panted, with a guilty shrinking from the sheet of glass
behind her. "It will be finished in a few days now, I'm thankful to say.
I've been so hard at work upon it, you can't think!"

"Oh, yes, I can," said I; for there seemed to be many more lines on the
simple, eager countenance; the drollery had gone out of it, and its
heightened colouring had an unhealthy, bluish tinge.

"I'm afraid I have been burning the midnight oil a little," she admitted
with a sort of coy bravado. "But there seems so much to do during the
day, and everything is so quiet at night, unless it's that wretched
typewriter of mine! But I muffle the bell, and luckily my brother and
sister are sound sleepers."

"You must be keen, Miss Brabazon, to turn night into day."

"Keen? I never enjoyed writing half so much. It's no effort; the story
simply writes itself. I don't feel as if it were a story at all, but
something that I see and hear and have just got to get down as fast as
ever I can! I feel as if I really knew that old monster we were talking
about the other day. Sometimes he quite frightens me. And that's why
I've come to you, Mr. Gillon. I almost fear I'm making him too great a
horror after all!"

It was impossible not to smile. "That would be a difficult matter, from
all I hear, Miss Brabazon."

"I meant from the point of view of his descendants in general, and these
dear Delavoyes in particular. Rather than hurt their feelings, Mr.
Gillon, I need hardly tell you I'd destroy my story in a minute."

"That would be a thousand pities," said I, honestly thinking of her
wasted time.

"I'm not so sure," said Miss Julia, doubtfully. "I sometimes think, when
I read the newspapers, that there are bad people enough in the world
without digging up more from their graves. Yet at other times I don't
feel as if I were doing that either. It's more as though this wicked old
wretch had come to life of his own accord and insisted on being written
about. I seem to feel him almost at my elbow, forcing me to write down I
don't know what."

"But that sounds like inspiration!" I exclaimed, impressed by the good
faith patent in the tired, ingenuous, serio-comic face.

"I don't know what it is," replied Miss Julia, "or whether I'm writing
sense or nonsense. I never like to look next day. I only know that at
the time I quite frighten myself and--make as big a fool of myself as
though I were in my poor heroine's shoes--which is so absurd!" She
laughed uneasily, her colour slightly heightened. "But I only meant to
ask you, Mr. Gillon, whether you honestly and truly think that the
Delavoyes won't mind? You see, he really was their ancestor, and I do
make him a most odious creature."

"But I don't suppose you give his real name?"

"Oh, dear, no. That would never do. I call him the Duke of Doehampton,
and the story is called 'His Graceless Grace.' Isn't it a good title,
Mr. Gillon?"

I lied like a man, but was still honest enough to add that I thought it
even better as a disguise. "I feel sure, Miss Brabazon, that you are
worrying yourself unnecessarily," I took it upon myself to assert; but
indeed her title alone would have reassured me, had I for a moment
shared her conscientious qualms.

"I am so glad you think so," said Miss Julia, visibly relieved. "Still,
I shall not offer the story anywhere until Mr. Delavoye has seen or
heard every word of it."

"I thought it was for your own _Parish Magazine_?"

Miss Julia at last obliged me with her most facetious and most
confidential smile.

"I am not tied down to the _Parish Magazine_," said she. "There are
higher fields. I am not certain that 'His Graceless Grace' is altogether
suited to the young--the young parishioner, Mr. Gillon! I must read it
over and see. And--yes--I shall invite Mr. Delavoye to come and hear it,
before I decide to send it anywhere at all."

The reading actually took place on an evening in May, when the Vicar had
accompanied his younger sister up to Exeter Hall; and at the last moment
I also received a verbal invitation, delivered and inspired by that
rascal Uvo, who declared that I had let him in for the infliction and
must bear my share. More justly, he argued that the pair of us might
succeed in keeping each other awake, whereas one alone would infallibly
disgrace himself; and we had solemnly agreed upon a system of
watch-and-watch, by the alternate quarter-of-an-hour, before we
presented ourselves at the temporary vicarage after supper.

Miss Julia received us in stiff silk that supplied a sort of sibilant
obbligato to a nervous welcome; and her voice maintained a secretive
pitch, even when the maid had served coffee and shut the door behind
her, lending a surreptitious air to the proceedings before they could be
said to have begun. It was impossible not to wonder what the Vicar would
have said to see his elderly sister discoursing profane fiction to a
pair of heathens who seldom set foot inside his church.

He would scarcely have listened with our resignation; for poor Miss
Julia read as badly as she wrote, and never was story opened with
clumsier ineptitude than hers. We had sheet upon typewritten sheet about
the early life and virtuous vicissitudes of some deplorably dull young
female in the east end of London; and in my case slumber was imminent
when the noble villain made his entry in the cinnamon waistcoat of the
picture at Hampton Court. At that I tried to catch Uvo's eye, but it was
already fixed upon the reader's face with an intensity which soon
attracted her attention.

"Isn't that your idea of him, Mr. Delavoye?" asked Miss Julia,

"Well, yes, it is; but it was Sir Godfrey Kneller's first," said Uvo,
laughing. "So you took the trouble to go all the way over there to study
his portrait, Miss Brabazon?"

"What portrait? All the way over where, Mr. Delavoye?"

Uvo entered into particulars which left the lady's face a convincing
blank. She had seen no portrait; it was years since she had been through
the galleries at Hampton Court, and then without a catalogue. Uvo
seemed to experience so much difficulty in crediting this disclaimer,
that I asked whether cinnamon had not been a favourite colour with the
bloods of the eighteenth century. On his assent the reading proceeded in
a slightly altered voice, in which I thought I detected a note of not
unnatural umbrage.

But far greater coincidences were in store, and those of such a
character that it was certainly difficult to believe that they were
anything of the sort. Considered as an attempt at dramatic narrative,
the story was, of course, beneath criticism. It was all redundant
description, gratuitous explanations, facetious turns to serious
sentences, and declared intentions which entirely spoilt the effect of
their due fulfilment. Bored to extinction with the heroine, who only
became interesting on the villain's advent, as his predestined prey, we
thenceforth heard no more of her until his antecedents had been set
forth in solid slabs of the pluperfect tense. These dwelt with stolid
solemnity upon the distinctions and debaucheries of his University
career, and then all at once on the effect of subsequent travel upon a
cynical yet impressionable mind. In an instant both of us were
attending, and even I guessed what was coming, and what had happened.
Probably by half-forgotten hearsay, our dear good lady had tapped the
same muddy stream as Uvo Delavoye, and some of the mud had silted into a
mind too innocent to appreciate its quality.

"Debased and degraded by the wicked splendours of barbaric courts, the
unprincipled young nobleman had decided not only to 'do in Turkey as the
Turkeys did,' but to initiate the heathen institution of polygamy among
his own broad acres on his return to England, home, and only too much
beauty!... Poor, innocent, confiding Millicent; little did she dream,
when he asked her to be his, that he only meant 'one of the many'; that
the place awaiting her was but her niche in the _seraglio_ which he had
wickedly had built, in a corner of his stately grounds, on some Eastern

Delavoye looked at me without a trace of amusement, but rather in
alarmed recognition of the weirdly sustained parallel between rascal
fact and foolish fiction. But as yet we had only scratched the thin ice
of the situation; soon we were almost shuddering from our knowledge of
the depths below.

The unhappy heroine had repulsed the advances of the villain in the
story as in the actual case; in both she was from the same locality
(where, however, our Vicar had held his last curacy); in both, enticed
into his lordship's coach and driven off at a great rate to his London
mansion, where the first phase of her harrowing adventures ensued. So
innocently were these described that we must have roared over them by
ourselves; but there was no temptation to smile under the rosy droll
nose of poor Miss Julia, by this time warmed to her work, and reeling
off her own interminable periods with pathetic zest. Yet even her jocose
and sidelong style could no longer conceal an interest which had become
more dramatic than she was aware. Just as it first had taken charge of
her pen, so her story had now gained undisputed command of the poor
lady's lips; and she was actually reading it far better than at first,
as if subconsciously stimulated by our rapt attention, though
mercifully ignorant of its uncomfortable quality. I speak only for
myself, and it may be that as a very young man I took the whole business
more seriously than I should to-day. But I must own there were some
beads upon my forehead when Delavoye relieved the tension by jumping to
his feet in unrestrained excitement.

"I'm glad you like that," said Miss Julia, with a pleased smile,
"because I thought it was good myself. Her handkerchief would have her
name on it, you see; and she was able to throw it out of the window like
a stone, at the feet of the first passer-by, because it was so heavy
with her tears. Of course she hoped the person who picked it up would
see the name and----"

"Of course!" cried Uvo, cavalierly. "It was an excellent idea--I always
thought so."

Miss Julia eyed him with a puzzled smirk.

"How could you always think a thing I've only just invented?" she asked

"Well, you see, it's happened in real life before to-day," he faltered,
seeing his mistake.

"Like a good deal of my story, it appears?"

"Like something in every story that was ever written. Truth, you

"Quite so, Mr. Delavoye! But I saw you looking at Mr. Gillon a minute
ago as though something else was familiar to you both. And I should just
like to know what it was."

"I'm sure I've forgotten, Miss Brabazon."

"It wasn't the part about the--the Turkish building in the grounds--I

"Yes," said Uvo, turning honest in desperation.

"And where am I supposed to have read about that?"

"I'm quite certain you never read it at all, Miss Brabazon!"

Now Miss Julia had lost neither her temper nor her smile, and she had
not been more severe on Delavoye than his unsatisfactory manner invited.
But the obvious sincerity of his last answer appeased her pique, and she
leant forward in sudden curiosity.

"Then there is a book about him, Mr. Delavoye?"

"Not exactly a book."

"I know!" she cried. "It's the case you'd been reading the other
night--isn't it?"

"Perhaps it is."

"Was he actually tried--that Lord Mulcaster?"

The wretched Uvo groaned and nodded.

"What for, Mr. Delavoye?"

"His life!" exclaimed Uvo, moistening his lips. Miss Julia beamed and
puckered with excitement.

"How very dreadful, to be sure! And had he actually committed a murder?"

"I've no doubt he had," said Uvo, eagerly. "I wouldn't put anything past
him, as they say; but in those days it wasn't necessary to take life in
order to forfeit your own. There were lots of other capital offences.
The mere kidnapping of the young lady, exactly as you describe it----"

"But did he really do such a thing?" demanded Miss Julia.

And her obviously genuine amazement redoubled mine.

"Exactly as you have described it," repeated Delavoye. "He travelled in
the East, commenced Bluebeard on his return, fished his Fatima like
yours out of some little shop down Shoreditch way, and even drove her to
your own expedient of turning her tears to account!"

And he dared to give me another look--shot with triumph--while Miss
Julia supported an invidious position as best she might.

"Wait a bit!" said I, stepping in at last. "I thought I gathered from
you the other day, Miss Brabazon, that you felt the reality of your
story intensely?"

"I did indeed, Mr. Gillon."

"It distressed you very much?"

"I might have been going through the whole thing."

"It--it even moved you to tears?"

"I should be ashamed to say how many."

"I daresay," I pursued, smiling with all my might, "that even your
handkerchief was heavy with them, Miss Brabazon?"

"It was!"

"Then so much for the origin of _that_ idea! It would have occurred to
anybody under similar circumstances."

Miss Julia gave me the smile I wanted. I felt I had gone up in her
estimation, and sent Delavoye down. But I had reckoned without his
genius for taking a dilemma by the horns.

"This is an old quarrel between Gillon and me, Miss Brabazon. I hold
that all Witching Hill is more or less influenced by the wicked old
wizard of the place. Mr. Gillon says it's all my eye, and simply will
not let belief take hold of him. Yet your Turkish building actually
existed within a few feet of where we're sitting now; and suppose the
very leaves on the trees still whisper about it to those who have ears
to hear; suppose you've taken the whole thing down almost at dictation!
I don't know how your story goes on, Miss Brabazon----"

"No more do I," said Miss Brabazon, manifestly impressed and not at all
offended by his theory. "It's a queer thing--I never should have thought
of such a thing myself--but I certainly did dash it all off as if
somebody was telling me what to say, and at such a rate that my mind's
still a blank from one page to the next."

She picked the script out of her lap, and we watched her bewildered
face as it puckered to a frown over the rustling sheets.

"I shouldn't wonder," said Delavoye a little hastily, "if his next
effort wasn't to subvert her religious beliefs."

"To make game of them!" assented Miss Julia in scandalised undertones.
"'The demoniacal Duke now set himself to deface and destroy the beauty
of holiness, to cast away the armour of light, and to put upon him the
true colours of an aristocratic atheist of the deepest dye.'"

"Exactly what he did," murmured Uvo, with another look at me. It was not
a look of triumph unalloyed; it was at least as full of vivid

"I shall cross that out," said Miss Julia decidedly. "I don't know what
I was thinking of to write anything like that. It really makes me almost
afraid to go on."

Uvo shot out a prompt and eager hand.

"Will you let me take it away to finish by myself, Miss Brabazon?"

"I don't think I can. I must look and see if there's anything more like

"But it isn't your fault if there is. You've simply been inspired to
write the truth."

"But I feel almost ashamed."

And the typewritten sheets rustled more than ever as she raised them
once more. But Delavoye jumped up and stood over her with a stiff lip.

"Miss Brabazon, you really must let me read the rest of it to myself!"

"I must see first whether I can let anybody."

"Let me see instead!"

Heaven knows how she construed his wheedling eagerness! There was a
moment when they both had hold of the MS., when I felt that my friend
was going too far, that his obstinate persistence could not fail to be
resented as a liberty. But it was just at such moments that there was a
smack of greatness about Uvo Delavoye; given the stimulus, he could
carry a thing off with a high hand and the light touch of a born leader;
and so it must have been that he had Miss Julia coyly giggling when I
fully expected her to stamp her foot.

"You talk about our curiosity," she rallied him. "You men are just as

"I have a right to be curious," returned Uvo, in a tone that surprised
me as much as hers. "You forget that your villain was once the head of
our clan, and that so far the fact is quite unmistakable."

"But that's just what I can't understand!"

"Yet the fact remains, Miss Brabazon, and I think it ought to count."

"My dear young man, that's my only excuse for this very infliction!"
cried Miss Julia, with invincible jocosity. "If you'd rather it were
destroyed, I shall be quite ready to destroy it, as Mr. Gillon knows.
But I should like you to hear the whole of it first."

"And I could judge so much better if I read the rest to myself!"

And still he held his corner of the MS., and she hers with an equal
tenacity, which I believe to have been partly reflex and instinctive,
but otherwise due to the discovery that she had written quite serenely
about a blasphemer and an atheist, and not for a moment to any other
qualm or apprehension whatsoever. And then as I watched them their eyes
looked past me with one accord; the sheaf of fastened sheets fluttered
to the ground between them; and I turned to behold the Vicar standing
grim and gaunt upon the threshold, with a much younger and still more
scandalised face peeping over his shoulder.

"I didn't know that you were entertaining company," observed the Vicar,
bowing coldly to us youths. "Are you aware that it's nearly midnight?"

Miss Julia said she never could have believed it, but that she must have
lost all sense of time, as she had been reading something to us.

"I'm sure that was very kind, and has been much appreciated," said the
Vicar, with his polar smile. "I suppose this was what you were reading?"

And he was swooping down on the MS., but Delavoye was quicker; and
quicker yet than either hand was the foot interposed like lightning by
the Vicar.

"You'll allow me?" he said, and so picked the crumpled sheets from under
it. Uvo bowed, and the other returned the courtesy with ironic

In quivering tones Miss Julia began, "It's only something I've been----"

"Considering for the _Parish Magazine_," ejaculated Uvo. "Miss Brabazon
did me the honour of consulting me about it."

"And may I ask your responsibility for the _Parish Magazine_, Mr.

"It's a story," continued Uvo, ignoring the question and looking hard at
Miss Julia--"a local story, evidently written for local publication, the
scene being laid here at Witching Hill House. The principal character is
the very black sheep of my family who once lived there."

"I'm aware of the relationship," said the Vicar, dryly unimpressed.

"It's not one that we boast about; hence Miss Brabazon's kindness in
trying to ascertain whether my people or I were likely to object to its

"Well," said the Vicar, "I'm quite sure that neither you nor your people
would have any objection to Miss Brabazon's getting to bed by

He returned to the door, which he held wide open with urbane frigidity.
"Now, Julia, if you'll set us an example."

And at the door he remained when the bewildered lady, delivered from an
embarrassment that she could not appreciate, and committed to a
subterfuge in which she could see no point, had flown none the less
readily, with a hectic simper and a whistle of silk.

"Now, gentlemen," continued the Vicar, "it's nearly midnight, as I've
said more than once."

"I was to take the story with me, to finish it by myself," explained
Uvo, with the smile of a budding ambassador.

"Oh, very well," rejoined the Vicar, shutting the door. "Then we must
keep each other a minute longer. I happen myself to constitute the final
court of appeal in all matters connected with the _Parish Magazine_.
Moreover, Mr. Delavoye, I'm a little curious to see the kind of
composition that merits a midnight discussion between my sister and two
young men whose acquaintance I myself have had so little opportunity of

He dropped into a chair, merely waving to us to do the same; and
Delavoye did; but I remained standing, with my eyes on the reader's
face, and I saw him begin where Miss Julia had left off and the MS. had
fallen open. I could not be mistaken about that; there was the mark of
his own boot upon the page; but the Vicar read it without wincing at the
passage which his sister had declared her intention of crossing out. His
brows took a supercilious lift; his cold eyes may have grown a little
harder as they read; and yet once or twice they lightened with a human
relish--an icy twinkle--a gleam at least of something I had not thought
to see in Mr. Brabazon. Perhaps I did not really see it now. If you look
long enough at the Sphinx itself, in the end it will yield some
semblance of an answering look. And I never took my eyes from the
Vicar's granite features, as typewritten sheet after sheet was turned so
softly by his iron hand, that it might have been some doctrinal
pamphleteer who claimed his cool attention.

When he had finished he rose very quietly and put the whole MS. behind
the grate. Then I remembered that Delavoye also was in the room, and I
signalled to him because the Vicar was stooping over the well-laid grate
and striking matches. But Delavoye only shook his head, and sat where he
was when Mr. Brabazon turned and surveyed us both, with the firewood
crackling behind his clerical tails.

"Sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Delavoye," said he; "but I think you will
agree that this is a case for the exercise of my powers in connection
with our little magazine. The stupendous production now perishing in the
flames was of course intended as a practical joke at our expense."

"And I never saw it!" cried Uvo, scrambling to his feet. "Of course, if
you come to think of it, that's the whole and only explanation--isn't
it, Gillon? A little dig at the Delavoyes as well, by the way!"

"Chiefly at us, I imagine," said the Vicar dryly. "I rather suspect that
the very style of writing is an attempt at personal caricature. The
taste is execrable all through. But that is only to be expected of the
anonymous lampooner."

"Was there really no name to it, Mr. Brabazon?"

The question was asked for information, but Uvo's tone was that of
righteous disgust.

"No name at all. And one sheet of type-writing is exactly like another.
My sister had not read it all herself, I gather?"

"Evidently not. And she only read the first half to us."

"Thank goodness for that!" cried the Vicar, off his guard. "The whole
impertinence," he ran on more confidentially, "is so paltry, so vulgar,
so egregiously badly done! It's all beneath contempt, and I shall not
descend to the perpetrator's level by attempting to discover who he is.
Neither shall I permit the matter to be mentioned again in my household.
And as gentlemen I look to you both to resist the ventilation of a most
ungentlemanly hoax."

But the promise that we freely gave did not preclude us from returning
at once to No. 7, and there and then concocting a letter to Miss Julia,
which I slipped into the letter-box of the makeshift vicarage as the
birds were waking in the wood behind Mulcaster Park.

It was simply to say that Uvo was after all afraid that his kith and kin
really might resent the publication of her thrilling but painful tale of
their common ancestor; and therefore he had taken Miss Brabazon at her
word, and the MS. was no more. Its destruction was really demanded by
the inexplicable fact that the story was the true story of a
discreditable case in which the infamous Lord Mulcaster had actually
figured; and the further fact that Miss Brabazon had nevertheless
invented it, so far as she personally was aware, would have constituted
another and still more interesting case for the Psychical Research
Society, but for the aforesaid objections to its publication in any
shape or form.

All this made a document difficult to draw up, and none too convincing
when drawn; but that was partly because the collaborators were already
divided over every feature of the extraordinary affair, which indeed
afforded food for argument for many a day to come. But in the meantime
our dear Miss Julia accepted sentence and execution with a gentle and
even a jocose resignation which made us both miserable. We did not even
know that there had been any real occasion for the holocaust for which
we claimed responsibility, or to what extent or lengths the unconscious
plagiarism had proceeded. Delavoye, of course, took the view that
coincided with his precious theory, whereas I argued from Mr. Brabazon's
coolness that we had heard the worst.

But the Vicar always was cool out of the pulpit; and it was almost a
pity that we rewarded his moderation by going to church the next Sunday,
for I never shall forget his ferocious sermon on the modern purveyor of
pernicious literature. He might have been raving from bitter experience,
as Delavoye of course declared he was. But there is one redeeming point
in my recollection of his tirade. And that is a vivid and consoling
vision of the elder Miss Brabazon, listening with a rapt and unconscious
serenity to every burning word.


The Angel of Life

Coplestone was the first of our tenants who had taken his house through
me, and I was extremely proud of him. It was precisely the pride of the
mighty hunter in his first kill; for Coplestone was big game in his way,
and even of a leonine countenance, with his crested wave of tawny hair
and his clear sunburnt skin. In early life, as an incomparable oar, he
had made a name which still had a way of creeping into the sporting
papers; and at forty the same fine figure and untarnished face were a
walking advertisement of virtue. But now he had also the grim eyes and
stubborn jaw of the man who has faced big trouble; he wore sombre ties
that suggested the kind of trouble it had been; and he settled down
among us to a solitude only broken in the holidays of his only child,
then a boy of twelve at a preparatory school.

I first heard of the boy's existence when Coplestone chose the papers
for his house. Anything seemed good enough for the "three
reception-rooms and usual offices"; but over a bedroom and a play room
on the first floor we were an hour deciding against every pattern in the
books, and then on the exact self-colour to be obtained elsewhere. It
was at the end of that hour that a chance remark, about the evening
paper and the latest cricket, led to a little conversation,
insignificant in itself, yet enough to bring Coplestone and me into
touch about better things than house decoration. Often after that, when
he came down of an afternoon, he would look in at the office and leave
me his _Pall Mall_. And he brought the boy in with him on the first day
of the midsummer holidays.

"Ronnie's a keen cricketer at present," said Coplestone on that
occasion. "But he's got to be a wet-bob like his old governor when he
goes on to Eton. That's what we're here for, isn't it, Ronnie? We're
going to take each other on the river every blessed day of the

Ronnie beamed with the brightest little face in all the world. He had
bright brown eyes and dark brown hair, and his skin burnt a delicate
brown instead of the paternal pink. His expression was his father's, but
not an atom of his colouring. His mother must have been a brunette and a
beautiful woman. I could not help thinking of her as I looked at the
beaming boy who seemed to have forgotten his loss, if he had ever
realised it. And yet it was just a touch of something in his face, a
something pensive and constrained, when he was not smiling, that gave
him also such a look of Coplestone at times.

But as a rule Ronnie was sizzling with happiness and excitement; and it
was my privilege to see a lot of him those hot holidays. Coplestone did
not go away for a single night or day. Most mornings one met him and his
boy in flannels, on their way down to the river, laden with their lunch.
But because the exclusive society of the best of boys must eventually
bore the most affectionate of men, I was sometimes invited to join the
picnic, and on Saturdays and Sundays I accepted more than once. Those,
however, were the days on which I was nearly always bespoke by Uvo
Delavoye, and once when I said so it ended in our all going off together
in a bigger boat. That day marked a decline in Ronnie's regard for me as
an ex-member of a minor school eleven. It was not, perhaps, that he
admired me less, but that Delavoye, who played no games at all, had
nevertheless a way with him that fascinated man and boy alike.

With Ronnie, it was a way of cracking jokes and telling stories, and
taking an extraordinary interest in the boy's preparatory school, so
that its rather small beer came bubbling out in a sparkling brew that
Coplestone himself had failed to tap. Then Uvo could talk like an
inspired professional about the games he could not play, about books
like an author, and about adventures like a born adventurer. In Egypt,
moreover, he had seen a little life that went a long way in the telling;
conversely, one always felt that he had done a bigger thing or two out
there than he pretended. To a small boy, at all events, he was
irresistible. Had he been an usher at a school like Ronnie's he would
have had a string of them on either arm at every turn. As it was, a less
sensible father might well have been jealous of him before the holidays
were nearly over.

But it was just in the holidays that Coplestone was at his best; when
the boy went back in September, we were to see him at his worst. In the
beginning he was merely moody and depressed, and morose towards us two
as creatures who had served our turn. The more we tried to cheer his
solitude, the less encouragement we received. If we cared to call again
at Christmas, he hinted, we should be welcome, but not before. We
watched him go off bicycling alone in the red autumn afternoons. We saw
his light on half of the night; late as we were, he was always later;
and now he was never to be seen at all of a morning. But his grim eyes
had lost their light, his ruddy face had changed its shade, and erelong
I saw him reeling in broad daylight.

Coplestone had taken to the bottle--and as a strong man takes to
everything--without fear or shame. Yet somehow I felt it was for the
first time in his life; so did Delavoye, but on other grounds. I did not
believe he could have been the man he was when he came to us, if this
curse had ever descended on Coplestone before. Yet he seemed to take it
rather as a blessing, as a sudden discovery which he was a fool not to
have made before. This was no case of surreptitious, shamefaced
tippling; it was a cynically open and defiant downfall, at once an
outrage on a more than decent community, and a new interest in many
admirable lives.

Soon there were complaints which I was requested to transmit to
Coplestone in his next lucid interval. But I only pretended to have done
so. I thought the complainants a set of self-righteous busybodies, and I
vastly preferred the good will of the delinquent. That was partly on
Ronnie's account, partly for the sake of the man's own magnificent past,
but partly also because his present seemed to me a fleeting phase of
sheer insanity, which would end as suddenly as it had supervened. The
form was too bad to be true, even if Coplestone had ever shown it
before; and there was now some evidence that he had not.

Delavoye had come down from town with eyes as bright as Ronnie's.

"You remember Sawrey-Biggerstaff by name? He was second for the
Diamonds the second year Coplestone won them, and he won them himself
the year after. I met him to-day with a man who lunched me at the
United University. I told him we had Coplestone down here, and asked
him if it was true that he had ever been off the rails like this
before, only without breathing a word about his being off them now.
Sawrey-Biggerstaff swore that he had never heard of such a libel, or
struck a more abstemious hound than Harry Coplestone, or ever heard of
him being or ever having been anything else! So you must see what it all
means, Gilly."

"It means that he's never got over the loss of his wife."

"But that happened nearly three years ago. Ronnie told me. Why didn't
the old boy break out before? Why save it all up for Witching Hill?"

"I know what you're going to say."

"But isn't it obvious? Our wicked old man drank like an aquarium. His
vices are the weeds of this polluted soil; they crop up one after the
other, and with inveterate irony he's allotted this one to the noblest
creature on the place. It's for us to save him by hook or crook--or
rather it's my own hereditary job."

"And how do you mean to set about it?"

"You'll be angry with me, Gilly, but I shan't be happy till I see his
house on your hands again. It's the only chance--to drive him into fresh
woods and pastures new!"

I was angry. I declined to discuss the matter any further; but I stuck
to my opinion that the cloud would vanish as quickly as it had gathered.
And Coplestone of all men was man enough to stand his ground and live it

But first he must take himself in hand, instead of which I had to own
that he was going from bad to worse. He was a man of leisure, and he
drank as though he had found his vocation in the bottle. He was a
lonely man, and he drank as though drink was a friend in need and not
the deadliest foe. He was the only drunkard I ever knew who drank with
impenitent zest; and I saw something of him at his worst; he was more
approachable than he had been before his great surrender. All October
and November he kept it up, his name a byword far beyond the confines of
the Estate, and by December he must have been near the inevitable
climax. Then he disappeared. The servants had no idea of his
whereabouts; but he had taken luggage. That was the best reason for
believing him to be still alive, until he turned up with his boy for the
Christmas holidays.

It would be too much to say that he looked as he had looked last
holidays. The man had aged; he seemed even a little shaken, but not more
than by a moderate dose of influenza; and to a casual eye the
improvement was more astounding than the previous deterioration,
especially in its rapidity. His spirits were at least as good as they
had been before, his hospitality in keeping with the season. I ate my
Christmas dinner with father and son, and Delavoye and I first-footed
them on New Year's morning. What was most remarkable on these occasions
was the way Coplestone drank his champagne, with the happy moderation of
a man who has never exceeded in his life. There was now no shadow of
excess, but neither was there any of the weakling's recourse to the
opposite extreme of meticulous austerity. A doctor might have forbidden
even a hair of the sleeping dog, but to us young fellows it was a joy to
see our hero so completely his own man once more.

Early in January came a frost--a thrilling frost--with skating on the
gravel-pit ponds beyond the Village. It was a pastime in which I had
taken an untutored delight, all the days of my northern youth, and now I
put in every hour I could at the clumsy execution of elementary figures.
But Coplestone had spent some winters in Switzerland, and he was a past
master in the Continental style. Ordinary skaters would form a ring to
watch his dazzling displays, and those who had not seen him in the
autumn must have found it hard to credit the whispers of those who had.
His pink skin regained its former purity, his blue eyes shone like fairy
lamps, and the whole ice rang with the music of his "edge" as he sped
careening like a human yacht. It was better still to watch him patiently
imparting the rudiments to Ronnie, who picked them up as a small boy
will, and worked so hard that the perspiration would stand upon the
smooth brown face for all that wondrous frost. It froze, more or less,
all the rest of those holidays, and the Coplestones never missed a day
until the last of all. I was hoping to find them on the ice at dusk, if
only I could manage to get away in time, but early in the afternoon Uvo
Delavoye came along to disabuse my mind.

"That young Ronnie's caught a chill," said he--"I thought he would.
It'll keep him at home for another day or two, so the ill wind may blow
old Coplestone a bit of good. I'm feeling a bit anxious about him,
Gilly; wild horses won't drag him from this haunted hill! Just at this
moment, however, he's on his way to Richmond to see if he can get
Ronnie the new _Wisden_; and I'm sneaking up to town because I know it's
not to be had nearer. I was wondering if you could make time to look him
up while we're gone?"

I made it there and then at the risk of my place; it was not so often
that I had Ronnie to myself. But at the very gate I ceased to think
about the child. A Pickford van was delivering something at the house.
At a glance I knew it for a six-gallon jar of whisky--to see poor
Coplestone some little way into the Easter term.

Ronnie lay hot and dry in his bed, but brown and bright as he had looked
upon the ice, and sizzling with the exuberance of a welcome that warmed
my heart. He told me, of course, that it was "awful rot" losing the last
day like this; but, on the other hand, he seemed delighted with his
room--he always was delighted with something--and professed himself
rather glad of an opportunity of appreciating it as it deserved. Indeed,
there was not a lazy bone in his little body, and I doubt if he had
spent an unnecessary minute in his bedroom all the holidays. But they
really were delightful quarters, those two adjoining rooms for which no
paper in our stock had been good enough. Both were now radiant in a
sky-blue self-colour that transported one to the tropics, and certainly
looked better than I thought it would when I had the trouble of
procuring it.

In the bedroom the blue was only broken by some simple white furniture,
by a row of books over the bed, and by groups of the little eleven in
which Ronnie already had a place, and photographs of his father at one
or two stages of his great career. I was still exploring when an eager
summons brought me to the bedside.

"Let's play cricket!" cried Ronnie--"do you mind? With a pack of
cards--my own invention! Everything up to six counts properly; all over
six count singles, except the picture cards, and most of them get you
out. King and queen are caught and bowled, but the old knave's Mr.

"Capital, Ronnie!" said I. "Shall it be single wicket between us two, or
the next test-match with Australia?"

Ronnie was all for the test, and really the rules worked very well. You
shuffled after the fall of every wicket, and you never knew your luck.
Tom Richardson, the last man in for England, made sixty-two, while some
who shall be nameless went down like ninepins in the van. In the next
test (at Lord's) we elaborated the laws to admit of stumping, running
out, getting leg-before and even hitting wicket. But the red kings and
queens still meant a catch or what Ronnie called "a row in your timber
yard." And so the afternoon wore on, until I had to mend the fire and
light the gas; and then somehow the cards seemed only cards, and we put
them away for that season.

I forget why it was that Ronnie suddenly wanted his knife. I rather
think that he was deliberately rallying his possessions about him in
philosophic preparation for a lengthy campaign between the sheets. In
any case there was no finding that knife, but something much more
interesting came to light instead.

I was conducting the search under directions from the bed, but I was out
of sight behind the screen when I kicked up the corner of loose carpet
and detected the loosened board. Here, thought I, was a secret
repository where the missing possession might have been left by mistake;
there were the actual marks of a blade upon the floor. "This looks a
likely place," I said; but I did not specify the place I meant, and the
next moment I had discovered neither knife nor pencil, but the soiled,
unframed photograph of a lovely lady.

There it had lain under the movable bit of board, which had made a
certain noise in the moving. That same second Ronnie bounded out of bed,
and I to my feet to chase him back again.

"Who told you to look in there? Give that to me this minute!
No--no--please put it back where you--where you found it!"

His momentary rage had already broken down in sobs, but he stood over me
while I quickly did as he begged and replaced the carpet; then I tucked
him up again, but for some time the bed shook under his anguish. I told
him how sorry I was, again and yet again, and I suppose eventually my
tone betrayed me.

"So you know who it is?" he asked, suddenly regarding me with dry bright

"I couldn't help seeing the likeness," I replied.

"It's my mother," he said unnecessarily.

His manner was curiously dogged and unlike him.

"And you keep her photograph under the floor?"

"Yes; you don't see many about, do you?" he inquired with precocious

There was not one to be seen downstairs. That I knew from my glimpse of
the photograph under the floor; there was nothing like it on any of the
walls, nothing so beautiful, nothing with that rather wild, defiant
expression which I saw again in Ronnie at this moment.

"But why under the floor?" I persisted, guessing vaguely though I did.

"You won't tell anybody you saw it there?"

"Not a soul."

"You promise?"


"You won't say a single word about it, if I tell you something?"

"Not a syllable."

"Well--then--it's because I don't want Daddy to see it, for fear----"

"--it would grieve him?" I suggested as the end of his broken sentence.
And I held my breath in the sudden hope that I might be right.

"For fear he tears it up!" the boy said harshly. "He did that once
before, and this is the last I've got."

I made no comment, and there were no further confidences from Ronnie. So
many things I wanted to know and could not ask! I could only hold my
peace and Ronnie's hot hand, until it pinched mine in sudden warning, as
the whole house lept under a springy step upon the stairs.

"Not a word to anybody, you know, Mr. Gillon?"

"Not one, to a single soul, Ronnie!"

But it was a heavy seal that was thus placed upon my lips; heavy as lead
when I discussed the child with Uvo Delavoye; and that was almost every
minute that we spent together for days to come.

For Ronnie became very ill.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the beginning it was an honest chill. The chill turned to that refuge
of the General Practitioner--influenza. Double pneumonia was its last,
most definite stage; the local doctor made no mistake about that, and
Coplestone appealed in vain against the verdict, before specialists who
came down from London at a guinea a mile.

It was a mild enough case so far. The boy was strong and healthy, and
capable of throwing off at least as much as most strong men. He was also
a capital little patient--and Coplestone was a magnificent patient's
father. He did not harry the doctors; he treated the elderly Scotch
nurse like a queen; he was not always in and out of the sick-room by
day, and he never set foot in it during the night. In the daytime
Delavoye took him for long walks, and I would sit up with him at night
until he started nodding in his chair.

The first night he said: "You must have some whisky, Gillon. I've got a
new lot in." And when I said I seldom touched it--"I know you don't, in
this house," he rejoined, with his hand for an instant on my shoulder.
"But that's all right, Gillon!--Do you happen to know much about Dr.

"Hardly anything. You should try Uvo."

"Well, I don't know much myself; but I always remember that when the
poor old boy was dying he refused the drugs which were giving him all
the peace he got, because he said he'd made up his mind to 'render up
his soul to God unclouded.' Now I come to think of it, there's not much
analogy," continued Coplestone with a husky laugh. "But I know I'd
rather do what Dr. Johnson wouldn't than go up clouded to my little lad
if ever he--wanted me!"

And he took about a teaspoonful from a mistaken sense of hospitality,
but no second allowance as the night wore on. The next night I was able
to refuse without offending him; after that the decanter was never
touched. Yet once or twice I saw the stopper taken out in sheer absence
of mind, only to be replaced without flurry or hesitation.

Self-control? I never knew a man with more; it came out every hour that
we spent together, and before long it was needed almost every minute.
One day Delavoye dashed into the office in town clothes and with a
tragic face.

"They want a second nurse! It's come to that already," he said, "and I'm
going up about it now."

"But isn't that the doctor's job?" I asked, liking the looks of him as
little as his news.

"I can't help it if it is, Gilly! I must lend a hand somehow or _I_
shall crack up. It's little enough one can do, besides being day-nurse
to poor old Coplestone, and this afternoon he's asleep for once. What a
great chap he is, Gilly, and will be ever after, if only we can pull the
lad through and then get them both out of this! But it's two lives
hanging on one thread, and that cursed old man of mine trying all he
knows to cut it! I'll euchre him, you'll see. By hook or crook I'll balk

But white clouds were tumbling behind the red houses opposite, and
Delavoye dashed out again to catch his train, like the desperate leader
of a forlorn hope, leaving his dark eyes burning before mine and his
wild words ringing in my ears.

Quite apart from the point on which he was never sane, he seemed to have
lost the otherwise level head on which I had learnt to rely at any
crisis; but Coplestone still kept his, and him I admired more and more.
He still took his exercise like a man, refrained from harrying nurse or
doctor, showed an untroubled face by the sick-bed, but avoided the room
more and more, and altogether during the terrible delirious stages.

"If I were to stay there long," he said to me once, "I should make a
scene. I couldn't help it. There are more things than one to cloud your
mind, and I've got to keep mine unclouded all the time."

He kept it very nearly serene; and his serenity was not the numbness of
despair which sometimes wears the same appearance; for I do not think
there was a moment at which Coplestone despaired. He had much too stout
a heart. There was nothing forced or unnatural in his manner; his
feelings were not deadened for an instant, yet not for an instant would
he give them rein. Only, our sober vigils cut deeper lines than his
excesses before Christmas, and every night left him a hard year older.

We spent them all downstairs in his study. Neither of us was a
chess-player, and I was all unversed in cards, but sometimes we played
draughts or dominoes by the hour, as though one of us had been Ronnie
himself. Often we talked of him, but never as though there were any
question of his eventual recovery. Coplestone would only go so far as to
bemoan the probability of an entirely lost hockey term, and his eye
would steal round to the photograph of last year's hockey eleven at
Ronnie's little school, in a place of honour on the mantelpiece, where
indeed it concealed one of his own most heroic trophies.

Fitted and proportioned like half a hundred others on the Estate, that
study of Coplestone's is one of those Witching Hill interiors that time
cannot dismantle in my mind. It was filled with the memorials of a
brilliant boyhood. There were framed photographs of four Cambridge
crews, of two Eton eights, of the Eton Society with Coplestone to the
fore in white trousers, of the "long low wall with trees behind it" and
of the "old grey chapel behind the trees." There were also a number of
parti-coloured caps under suspended oars, and more silver in the shape
of cups, salvers, and engraved cigarette boxes than his modest staff of
servants could possibly keep clean. Over the mantelpiece hung the rules
of the Eton Society--under glass--with a trophy of canes decked with
light blue ribbons.

"It all looks pretty blatant, I'm afraid," said Coplestone
apologetically. "But I thought it would interest Ronnie and perhaps
hound him on to cut me out. And now----"

He stopped, and I hoped he was not going on, for this was when Ronnie
was at his worst and the second nurse had arrived.

"And now," said Coplestone, "the little sinner wants to be a dry-bob!"

I have not naturally a despondent temperament, but that night I for my
part was wondering whether Ronnie would ever go to Eton at all. The
delirious stage is always terrifying to the harrowed ignoramus watching
by the bed; it is almost worse if one is downstairs, trying not to
listen, yet doing little else, and without the nurse's calm voice and
experienced eyes to reassure one. That was how I spent that night. The
delirium had begun the night before, and been intermittent ever since.
But Coplestone was not terrified; he kept both nerve and spirits like a
hero. His thought for me brought a lump into my throat. Since I refused
to leave him, I must take the sofa; he would do splendidly in the chair.
He did better than I could have believed possible. He fell peacefully
asleep, and I sat up watching his great long limbs in the lowered
gas-light, but always listening while I watched.

Ronnie had not the makings of his father's fine physique. That was one
of the disquieting features of the case. He was fragile, excitable,
highly strung, as I felt his poor mother must have been before him. And
he was tragically like his hidden portrait of her. I saw it as often as
I was permitted a peep at Ronnie. What had she done amiss before she
died? That was perhaps the chief thing I wanted to know about her, but
after my pledge to Ronnie I felt unable even to discuss the poor soul
with Delavoye. But she was only less continually in my mind than Ronnie
himself, and to-night it seemed she was in his as well.

"O Mummie! Mummie--darling! My very, very, own little Mummie!"

God knows what had taken me upstairs, except the awful fascination of
such wanderings, the mental necessity of either hearing them or knowing
that they had ceased. On the stairs I felt so thankful they had ceased;
it was in the darkened play-room, now a magazine of hospital appliances,
kettles, bottles, and the oxygen apparatus; it was here I heard the
joyous ravings of his loving little heart--here, on the threshold
between his own two rooms, that I even saw him with his thin arms locked
round the neck of the young nurse who had taken over the night duty.

[Illustration: His thin arms locked round the neck of the young nurse.]

She heard me. She came to the door and stood in silhouette against the
cheerful firelight of the inner room. Its glow just warmed one side of
her white cap and plain apparel, then glanced off her high white
forehead and made a tear twinkle underneath.

"He thinks I'm his mother," she whispered--"and I'm letting him!"

I went out and pulled myself together on the landing, before sneaking
back into the study without waking Coplestone.

In the morning I was dozing behind my counter without compunction, for
the vigil had been an absolutely sleepless one for me, when the glass
door opened like a clap of thunder, and in comes Delavoye rubbing his

"The doctor's grinning all round his head this morning!" he crowed. "You
may take it from me that there's a lot of life in our young dog yet."

"What's his temperature?"

"Down to a hundred and a bit. One thing at a time. They've scotched that
infernal delirium, at all events."

"Since when?"

"Some time in the night. He's not talking any rot this morning."

"But he was fairly raving after midnight. I went up and heard him

Uvo broke into exulting smiles.

"Ah! Gilly," said he, "but now we've got an angel abroad in the house.
You can almost hear the beating of her wings!"

"Is that your own, Uvo?"

"No; it's a bit of a chestnut in these days. But it was said originally
of the angel of death, Gilly, and I mean the opposite sort of angel

"The young nurse?"

"Exactly. She's simply priceless. But I knew she would be."

"You knew something about her, then?"

"Enough to bring her down on my own yesterday, and blow the doctor! But
he's all for her now."

So, indeed, was I; for though a tear is nowhere more out of place than
on the cheek of a trained nurse, yet in none is it such welcome
evidence of human interest and affection. And there was the tender tact
of the pretence to which she had lent herself before my eyes; even as a
memory it nearly filled them afresh. Yet I could not speak of it to
Coplestone, and to Delavoye I would not, lest I were led into betraying
that which I had promised Ronnie to keep entirely to myself.

Nurse Agnes we all called her, but I for one hardly saw her again, save
on the daily constitutional in grey uniform and flowing veil. The fact
was that the improvement in Ronnie was so marked, and so splendidly
sustained, that both his father and I were able to get to bed again. The
boy himself had capital nights, and said he looked forward to them; on
the other hand, for final sign of approaching convalescence, he became
just a little difficult by day. Altogether it was no surprise to me to
learn that two nurses would not be necessary after the second week; but
I was sorry to hear it was Nurse Agnes who was going, and I thought that
Uvo Delavoye would be sorrier still.

There was something between them. I felt sure of that. His rushing up
to town to fetch her down, the absurd grounds on which he had pretended
to justify that officious proceeding, and then his candid enthusiasm
next day, when his protégé had shown her quality, all these were
suspicious circumstances in themselves. Yet by themselves, at such a
time, they might easily have escaped one's attention. It was a more than
suspicious circumstance that brought the whole train home to me.

I was getting my exercise one mid-day when there was nothing doing;
suddenly I saw Nurse Agnes ahead of me getting hers. Her thin veil flew
about her as she stepped out briskly, but I was walking quicker still;
in any case I must overtake her, and it was a chance of hearing more
good news of Ronnie; for we never saw anything of her at night, except
in firelit glimpses through the sick-room door. Evidently these were not
enough for Uvo either; presently I espied him sauntering ahead, and when
Nurse Agnes overtook him, instead of my overtaking her, he hardly took
the trouble to lift his hat. But they walked on together at a pace
between his and hers, while I waited in a gateway before turning back.

So that was it! I was delighted for Uvo's sake; I tried to feel
delighted altogether. At any rate he had chosen a wonderful nurse, but
really I had seen so little of the girl ... if that was the word for
her. In the apparent absence of other objections, I was prepared for a
distinct grievance on the score of age.

However, she was going. That was something, and Uvo did not seem
particularly cut up about it after all. But he brought the cab for her
himself when the time came; he did not come in; but I saw him through
the window as I sat at draughts once more with Coplestone, because it
was a Saturday afternoon and Ronnie was not quite so well.

"This must be for Nurse Agnes," I said innocently. "It seems a pity she
should go so soon."

"But she's not going yet!" cried Coplestone, upsetting the board. "She's
going this evening; the other nurse told me she was. Of course I've got
to see her before she goes!"

"I fancy that's her cab," said I, unwilling to give Delavoye away, but
feeling much more strongly that Nurse Agnes had saved Ronnie's life.

"I didn't hear the bell," said Coplestone.

"Still, I believe that's Nurse Agnes on the stairs."

I had heard one creak, but only one, and the nurse was on tip-toe
outside the door as Coplestone opened it. She might have been a thief,
she seemed so startled.

"Why, nurse, what do you mean by trying to give me the slip?" he said in
his hearty voice. "Do you know they all tell me you've saved my little
chap's life, and yet I've hardly seen you all the time? You'd always
fixed him up for the night by the time I'd finished dinner, and I've
been so late in the morning that we've kept on missing each other at
both ends. You've got to spare me a moment now, you know!"

But Nurse Agnes would only stand mumbling and smiling in the half-lit

"I--I mustn't lose my train," was all I heard.

And then I realised that even I had only heard her voice once before,
and that now it did not sound the same voice. It was not meant to sound
the same--that was why--I had it in a flash. And in that flash I saw
that Nurse Agnes had been keeping out of our way all these days and
nights, keeping us out of her way by a dozen tacit little regulations
which had seemed only proper and professional at the time.

But a fiercer light had struck Coplestone like a lash across the eyes.
And he started back as though stung and blinded, until Nurse Agnes tried
to dart past the door; then his long arm shot out, and I shuddered as he
dragged her in by hers.

"You!" he gasped, and his jaw worked as though he had been knocked out
in the ring.

"Yes," she said coolly, facing him through her veil; "and they're quite
right--I've saved your boy for you. Do you mind letting me go?"

I forced my way past the pair of them, and rushed out to Delavoye
waiting with the cab.

"Who is she? Who on earth is this nurse of yours?" I cried without

He drew me out of earshot of the cab-man.

"Has Coplestone spotted her?"

"This very minute--but who is she?"

"His wife."

"I thought she was dead?"

"No; he divorced her three years ago."

"Who told you?"


"And you never told me!"

"I promised him I wouldn't tell a soul."

The little rascal! He had bound us both; but there was a characteristic
difference as between Delavoye and me, and the feelings that we inspired
in that gallant little heart. Whereas I had surprised its secret, Ronnie
had confided in Uvo of his own free will and accord.

"And it was he who begged me to bring her, Gilly, when he was at his
worst! He said it was his one hope--that she could pull him
through--that he knew she could! So I found her, and she did. She wasn't
really a nurse, but she was his mother; she was his Angel of Life."

"Will she be forgiven?" I asked, when we had looked askance at the
study windows, that gave us back only the wavering reflection of shrubs
and of the chimneys opposite.

"Will she forgive?" returned Uvo sardonically. "It's always harder for
the one who's in the wrong, and there's always something to be said for
him or her!"

"Does she know that her husband needs to be saved as well?"

"Hush!" said Delavoye. The door had opened. Coplestone came out upon the
step, and stood there feeling in his pockets.

I held my breath; and the only creature who counted just then, in all
that road of bleak red houses, and in all the wintry world beyond, was
the great shaken fellow coming down the path.

"You might give this to the cabby," said he, filling my palm with loose
silver. "Just tell him we shan't want him now!"


Under Arms

It must have been in my second year of humble office that the burglary
scare took possession of Witching Hill. It was certainly the burglars'
month of November, and the fogs confirmed its worst traditions. On a
night when the street lamps burst upon one at the last moment, like the
flash of cannon through their own smoke, a house in Witching Hill Road
was scientifically entered, and the silver abstracted in a style worthy
of precious stones. In that instance the thieves got clear away with
their modest spoil. It was as though they then made a deliberate
sporting selection of the ugliest customer on the Estate. Their choice
fell upon a Colonel Arthur Cheffins, who not only kept fire-arms but
knew how to use them, and gave such an account of himself that it was a
miracle how the rascals escaped with their lives.

The first I heard of this affair was a volley of gravel on my window at
dead of night. Then came Uvo Delavoye's voice through the fog before I
quite knew what I was doing at the open window. Colonel Cheffins lived
in the house opposite the Delavoyes', where he had lately started a
cramming establishment on a small scale; and on his rushing over the
road to the rescue, at the first sound of the fusillade, poor Uvo had
himself been under fire in the fog. The good colonel was in a great way
about it, I gathered, although no harm had been done, and it was only
one of the pupils who had loosed off in his excitement. But would I care
to come along and inspect the damage then and there? If so, they would
be glad to see me, and as yet there was whisky for all comers.

I turned out instantly in my dressing-gown and slippers, found Uvo
shivering in his, and raced him to the scene. It took some finding in
the fog, until the lighted hall flashed upon us like a dark lantern at
arm's length. In the class room at the back of the house, round the gas
fire which obtained in all our houses, pedagogue and pupils were still
telling their tale by turns and in chaotic chorus. Their audience was
smaller than I expected. A little knot of unsporting tenants seemed more
disposed to complain of the disturbance than to take up the chase; but
indeed that was hopeless in the fog and darkness, and before long Uvo
and I were the only interlopers left. We remained by special invitation,
for I had made friends with the colonel over the papering and painting
of his house, while Uvo had just shown himself a would-be friend indeed.

"It's a very easy battle to reconstruct," said the crammer at the foot
of his stairs. "I was up there on the landing when I took my first shot
at the scoundrels. You'll find it in the lower part of the front door.
One of them blazed back, and there's the hole in the landing window. I
had last word from the mat, and I've been looking for it in the gate,
but I begin to hope we may find a drop or two of their blood instead
to-morrow morning."

Colonel Cheffins was a little bald man with a tooth-brush moustache, and
bright eyes that danced with frank delight in the whole adventure. He
looked every inch the old soldier, even in a Jaeger suit of bedroom
overalls, and I vastly preferred him to his two young men; but
scholastic connections are not formed by picking and choosing your
original material. Delavoye and I, however, made as free as they with
the whisky bottle as a substitute for adequate clothing, and the one who
had nearly committed manslaughter had some excuse in his depression and

"If I'd hit you," he said to Uvo, "I'd have blown my own silly brains
out with the next chamber. I'm not kidding. I wouldn't shoot a man for
twenty thousand pounds!"

And he shuddered into the chair nearest the glowing lumps of white
asbestos licked by thin blue flames.

"God bless my soul, no more would I!" cried the crammer heartily. "I
aimed low on purpose not to do more than wing them; there's my bullet in
the door to say so, whereas theirs fairly whistled past my head on its
way through that upstairs window. They're a most desperate gang of
sportsmen, I assure you."

"There's certainly something to be said for keeping a revolver,"
observed Uvo, eyeing the brace now lying on the cast-iron chimneypiece.

"Do you mean to say you haven't got one?" cried Colonel Cheffins.

"I do. I wouldn't keep one even out in Egypt. I hate the beastly
things," said Uvo Delavoye.

"But why?"

"Oh, I don't know. There's something so uncanny about them. They lie so
snug in your pocket, and you needn't even take them out to send yourself
to Kingdom Come!"

"Why yourself, Mr. Delavoye?"

"You never know. You might go mad with the beastly thing about you."

"God bless my soul!" cried the colonel, with cocked eyebrows. "You might
go mad while you're shaving, and cut yourself too deep, for that

"Or when you're waiting for a train, or looking out of a window!" I put
in, to laugh Uvo out of the morbid vein which I understood in him but
others might easily misconstrue. I could see the two young pupils
exchanging glances as I spoke.

"No," he replied, laughing in his turn, to my relief; "none of those
ways would come as easy, and they'd all hurt more. However, to be quite
serious, I must own it isn't the time or place for these little
prejudices against the only cure for the present epidemic. And yet for
my part I'd always rather trust to one of my Soudanese weapons, with
which you couldn't have an accident if you tried."

Over the way, his own rooms were freely hung with murderous trophies
acquired in the back-blocks of the Nile; but I felt more and more that
Uvo Delavoye was wilfully misrepresenting himself to these three
strangers; and the best I could hope was that a certain dash of sardonic
gaiety might lead them to suppose that it was all his chaff.

"Well," said the colonel, "if those are your views I only hope you
haven't many "valuables" in the house."

"On the contrary, colonel, everything we've got over there is a few
sizes too big for its place, and our plate-chest simply wouldn't go
into the strong-room of the local bank. So where do you think we keep

"I've no idea."

"In the bathroom!" cried Uvo Delavoye, with the shock of laughter which
was the refreshing finish of some of his moodiest fits. But you had to
know him to appreciate his subtle shades, especially to separate the
tangled threads of grim fun and gay earnest, and I feared that the
gallant little veteran was beginning to regard him as a harmless
lunatic. A shake of his bald head was all his comment on the statement
that moved Delavoye himself to sudden mirth. And on the whole I was
thankful when the return of a man-servant with a nervous constable,
grabbed out of the fog by a lucky dip, provided us with an excuse for
groping our way across the road.

"What on earth made you talk all that rot about revolvers?" I grumbled
as we struck his gate.

"It wasn't rot. I meant every word of it."

"The more shame for you, if you did; but you know very well you don't."

"My dear Gilly, I wouldn't live with one of those nasty little weapons
for worlds. I--I couldn't, Gilly--not long!"

He had me quite tightly by the hand.

"I'm coming in with you," I said. "You're not fit to be alone."

"Oh, yes, I am!" he laughed. "I haven't got one of those things yet, and
I shall never get one. I'd rather thieves broke in and stole every ounce
of silver in the place."

So we parted for what was left of the night, instead of turning it into
day as we often did with less excuse; and for once my powers of sleep
deserted me. But it was not the attempted burglary, or any one of its
sensational features, that kept me awake; it was the lamentable
conversation of Uvo Delavoye on the subject of fire-arms, and that no
longer as affecting other minds, but as revealing his own. I had often
heard him indulge his morbid fancies, but never so gratuitously or
before strangers. To me he could and would say anything, but of late he
had been less free with me and I more anxious about him. He had now been
over eighteen months on the shelf. That was his whole trouble. It was
not that he was ever seriously ill, but that he was always well enough
to worry because he was no better or fitter for work. His mind raced
like an engine, and the futile wear and tear was beginning to tell on
the whole machinery. To be sure, he had written a little in a desultory
way, but I never thought his heart was in his pen, and his fastidious
taste was a deterrent rather than a spur. Yet he railed about the bread
of idleness, said a man should be fit or dead, and that his mother and
sister would be better off without him. Those ladies were again from
home, and the fact did not make it easier to dissociate such sayings
from an unhealthy horror of loaded revolvers.

So you may think what I felt the very next evening--which I did insist
on spending at No. 7--when the distasteful conversation was renewed and
developed to the point of outrage. Daylight and less fog had failed to
reveal any trace whatever of the thieves, and it became evident that the
colonel's moral victory (he had lost a few spoons) was also a
regrettably bloodless one. I saw no more of him during a day of vain
excitement, but at night his card was brought up to Uvo's room, and the
old fellow followed like a new pin.

I was in those days none too nice about my clothes, and both of us young
fellows were more or less as we had been all day; but the sight of the
dapper coach in his well-cut dinner jacket, with shirt-front shining
like his venerable pate, and studded with a couple of good pearls, might
well have put us to the blush. Under his arm he carried a big cigar-box,
and this he presented to Delavoye with a courtly sparkle.

"You rushed to our aid last night, Mr. Delavoye, and we nearly shot you
for your pains!" said the colonel. "Pray accept a souvenir which in your
hands, I hope, and in similar circumstances, is less likely to end in so
much smoke."

Uvo lifted the lid and the gas-light flashed from the plated parts of a
six-chambered revolver with a six-inch barrel. It was one of the deadly
brace that we had seen on the colonel's chimneypiece in the middle of
the night.

"I can't take it from you," said Delavoye, shrinking palpably from the
pistol. "I really am most grateful to you, Colonel Cheffins, but I've
done nothing to deserve such a handsome gift."

"I beg to differ," said the colonel, "and I shall be sorely hurt if you
refuse it. You never know when your turn may come; after your own
account of that plate-chest, I shan't lie easy in my bed until I feel
you are properly prepared against the worst."

"But my poor mother would rather lose every salt-cellar, Colonel
Cheffins, than have a man shot dead on her stairs."

"I shouldn't dream of shooting him dead," replied the colonel. "I
shouldn't even go as far as I went last night, if I could help it. But
with that barrel glittering in your hand, Mr. Delavoye, I fancy you'd
find it easier to keep up a conversation with some intrusive

"Is it loaded?" I asked as Uvo took the weapon gingerly from its box.

"Not at the moment, and I fear these few cartridges are all I can spare.
I only keep enough myself for an emergency. I need hardly warn you, by
the way, against pistol practice in these little gardens? It would be
most unsafe with a revolver of this calibre. Why, God bless my soul, you
might bring down some unfortunate person in the next parish!"

I entirely agreed, but Delavoye was not attending. He was playing with
the colonel's offering as a child plays with fire, with the same intent
face and meddlesome maladroitness. It was a mercy it was not loaded. I
saw him wince as the hammer snapped unexpectedly; then he kept on
snapping it, as though the sensation fascinated ear or finger; and just
as I found myself enduring an intolerable suspense, Uvo ended it with a
reckless light in his sunken eyes.

"I'm a lost man, Gilly!" said he, with a grim twinkle for my benefit. "I
was afraid I should be if I once felt it in my paw. It's extraordinarily
kind of you, Colonel Cheffins, and you must forgive me if I seem to have
been looking your gift in the barrel. But the fact is I have always been
rather chary of these pretty things, and I must thank you for the
chance of overcoming the weakness."

His tone was sincere enough. So was the grave face turned upon Colonel
Cheffins. But its very gravity angered and alarmed me, and I was
determined to have his decision in more explicit terms.

"Then the pistol's yours, is it, Uvo?" I asked, with the most
disingenuous grin that I could muster.

"Till death us do part!" he answered. And his laugh jarred every fibre
in my body.

I never knew how seriously to take him; that was the worst of his
elusive humour, or it may be of my own deficiency in any such quality. I
confess I like a man to laugh at his own jokes, and to look as though he
meant the things he does mean. Uvo Delavoye would do either--or
neither--as the whim took him, and I used sometimes to think he
cultivated a wilful subtlety for my special bewilderment. Thus in this
instance he was quite capable of assuming an alarming pose to pay me out
for any undue anxiety I might betray on his behalf; therefore I had to
admire the revolver in my turn, and even to acclaim it as a timely
acquisition. But either Uvo was not deceived, or else I was right as to
his morbid feeling about the weapon. He seemed unable to lay it down.
Sometimes he did so with apparent resolution, only to pick it up again
and sit twisting the empty chambers round and round, till they ticked
like the speedometer of a coasting bicycle. Once he slipped in one of
the cartridges. The colonel looked at me, and I perched myself on the
desk at Uvo's side. But the worst thing of all was the way his hand
trembled as he promptly picked that cartridge out again.

We had said not a word, but Uvo rattled on with glib vivacity and the
laugh that got upon my nerves. His new possession was his only theme. He
could no more drop the subject than the thing itself. It was the
revolver, the whole revolver, and nothing but the revolver for Uvo
Delavoye that night. He was childishly obsessed with its unpleasant
possibilities, but he treated them with a grim levity not unredeemed by
wit. His bloodthirsty prattle grew into a quaint and horrible harangue
eked out with quotations that stuck like burs. More than once I looked
to Colonel Cheffins for a disapproval which would come with more weight
from him than me; but decanter and syphon had been brought up soon after
his arrival, and he only sipped his whisky with an amused air that made
me wonder which of us was going daft.

"Talk about bare bodkins, otherwise hollow-ground razors!" cried Uvo,
emptying his glass. "I couldn't do the trick with cold steel if I tried;
but with a revolver you've only got to press the trigger and it does the
rest. Then--I wonder if you even live to hear the row?--then, Gilly,
it's a case of that 'big blue mark in his forehead and the back blown
out of his head!'"

"That wasn't a revolver," said I, for he had taught me to worship his
modern god of letters; "that was the Snider that 'squibbed in the

Delavoye looked it up in his paper-covered copy.

"Quite right, Gilly!" said he. "But what price this from the very next

    "'So long as those unloaded guns
      We keep beside the bed,
    Blow off, by obvious accident,
      The lucky owner's head.'

"That's a bit more like it than the big blue mark, eh? And my gifted
author is the boy who can handle these little dears better than anybody
else in the class; he don't only use 'em for moral suasion under arms,
but he makes you smell the blood and hear the thunder!"

Colonel Cheffins seemed to have had enough at last; he rose to go with
rather a perfunctory laugh, and I jumped up to see him out on the plea
of something I had to say about his damaged door and window.

"For God's sake, sir, get your revolver back from him!" was what I
whispered down below. "He's not himself. He hasn't been his own man for
over a year. Get it back from him before he takes a turn for the worse

"I know what you mean," said the colonel, "but I don't believe it's as
bad as you think. I'll see what I can do. I might say I've smashed the
other, but I mustn't say it too soon or he'll smell a rat. I must leave
him to you meanwhile, Mr. Gillon, but I honestly believe it's all talk."

And so did I as the dapper little coach smiled cheerily under the hall
lamp, and I shut the door on him and ran up to Uvo's room two steps at a
time. But on the threshold I fell back, for an instant, as though that
accursed revolver covered me; for he was seated at his desk, his back to
the room, his thumb on the trigger--and the muzzle in his right ear.

I crept upon him and struck it upwards with a blow that sent the weapon
flying from his grasp. It had not exploded; it was in my pocket before
he could turn upon me with a startled oath.

"What are you playing at, my good fellow?" cried he.

"What are _you_?"

And my teeth chattered with the demand.

"What do you suppose? You didn't think I'd gone and loaded it, did you?
I was simply seeing--if you want to know--whether one would use one's
forefinger or one's thumb. I've quite decided on the thumb."

"Uvo," I said, pouring out more whisky than I intended, "this is more
than I can stick even from you, old fellow! You've gone on and on about
this infernal shooter till I never want to see one in my life again. If
you meant to blow out your brains this very night, you couldn't have
said more than you have done. What rhyme or reason is there in such
crazy talk?"

"I didn't say it was either poetry or logic," he answered, filling his
pipe. "But it's a devilish fascinating idea."

"The idea of wanton suicide? You call that fascinating?"

"Not as an end. It's a poor enough end. I was thinking of the means--the
cold trigger against your finger--the cold muzzle in your ear--the one
frightful bang and then the Great What Next!"

"The Great What Next for you," I said, as his eyes came dancing through
a cloud of birdseye, "is Cane Hill or Colney Hatch, if you don't take

"I prefer the Village mortuary, if you don't mind, Gilly."

"Either would be so nice for your mother and sister!"

"And I'm such a help to them as I am, aren't I? Think of the bread I win
and all the dollars I'm raking in!"

"It would be murder as well as suicide," I went on. "It would finish off
one of them, if not both."

He smoked in silence with a fatuous, drunken smile, though he was as
sober as a man could be. That made it worse. And it was worst of all
when the smile faded from the face to gather in the eyes, in a liquid
look of unfathomable cynicism, new to me in Uvo Delavoye, and yet
mysteriously familiar and repellent.

"Yes; they're certainly a drawback, Gillon, but I don't know that
they've a right to be anything more. We don't ask to be put into this
world; surely we can put ourselves out if it amuses us."

"'If it amuses us!'"

"But that's the whole point!" he cried, puffing and twinkling as before.
"How many people out themselves for no earthly reason that anybody else
can see, and have their memory insulted by the usual idiotic verdict?
They're no more temporarily insane than I am. It's their curiosity that
gets the better of them. They want to go at their best, with all their
wits about them, as you or I might want to go to Court. If they could
take a return ticket, they would; they don't really want to go for good
any more than I do. They're doing something they don't really want to
do, yet can't help doing, as half of us are, half our time."

"They're weak fools," I blustered. "They're destructive children who've
never grown up, and they ought to be taken care of till they do."

He smiled through his smoke with sinister serenity.

"But we all are children, my dear Gilly, and on the best authority most
of us are fools. As for the destructive faculty, it's part of human
nature and three parts of modern policy; but our politicians haven't the
child's excuse of wanting to know how things are made--which I see at
the back of half the brains that get blown out by obvious accident."

"Good-night, Uvo," I said, just grasping him by the arm. "I know you're
only pulling my leg, but I've heard about enough for one night."

"Another insulting verdict!" he laughed. "Well, so long, if you really
mean it; but do you mind giving me my Webley and Scott before you go?"

"Your what?"

"My present from over the way. It's one of Webley and Scott's best
efforts, you know. I had one like it, only the smaller size, when I was
out in Egypt."

I thought he had forgotten about the concrete weapon, or rather that he
did not know I had picked it up, but expected to find it in the corner
where it had fallen when I knocked it out of his hand. My own hand
closed upon it in my side pocket, as I turned to face Uvo Delavoye, who
had somehow slipped between me and the door.

"So it's not your first revolver?" I temporised.

"No; you've got to have one out there."

"But you didn't think it worth bringing home?"

I was trying to recall his very first remarks about revolvers, after the
burglary the night before. And Delavoye read the attempt with his
startling insight, and helped me out with impulsive candour.

"You're quite right! I did say I hated the beastly things, but it was a
weakness I always meant to get over, and now I have. Do you mind giving
me my Webley?"

"What did you do with the other one, Uvo?"

"Pitched it into the Nile, since you're so beastly inquisitive. But I
was full of fever at the time, and broken-hearted at cracking up. It's
quite different now."

"Is it?"

"Of course it is. I'm not going to do anything rotten. I was only
ragging you. Don't be a silly ass, Gillon!"

He was holding out his hand. His face had darkened, but his eyes blazed.

"I'm sorry, Uvo----"

"I'll make you sorrier!" he hissed.

"I can't help it. You couldn't trust yourself in your fever. It's your
own fault if I can't trust you now."

He glared at me like a caged tiger, and now I knew the wild sly look in
his eyes. It was the look of the Kneller portrait at Hampton Court, but
there was no time to think twice about that, with the tiger in him
gnashing its teeth in very impotence.

"Oh, very well! You don't get out of this, with my property, if I can
help it! I know I'm no match for you in brute strength, but you lay a
finger on me if you dare!"

He was almost foaming at the mouth, and the trouble was that I could
understand his frenzy perfectly. I would not have stood my own behaviour
from any man, and yet I could not have behaved differently if I had
tried, for his insensate fury was all of a piece with his delirious
talk. I kept my eye on him as on a wild beast, and I saw his roving
round the uncouth weapons on the wall. He was edging nearer to them; his
hand was raised to pluck one down, his worn face bloated and distorted
with his passion. Neither of us spoke; we were past the stage; but in
the grate the gas fire burnt with a low reproving roar. And then all at
once I saw Uvo turn his head as though his sensitive ear had caught some
other sound; his raised hand swept down upon the handle of the door; and
as he softly opened it, the other hand was raised in token of silence,
and for one splendid second I looked into a face no longer possessed by
the devil, but radiant with the keenest joy.

Then I was at his elbow, and our ears bent together at the open door.
Gas was burning on the landing as well as in the hall below; everything
seemed normal to every sense. I was obliged to breathe before another
sound came from any quarter but that noisy stove in the room behind us.
And then it was more a vibration of the floor, behind the curtains of
the half-landing, than an actual sound. But that was enough; back we
stole into Uvo's room.

"They've come," he whispered, simply. "They're in the bathroom--now!"

"I heard."

"We'll go for them!"

"Of course."

He reached down the very weapon he had meant for my skull a minute
before. It was a great club, studded with brass-headed nails, and also a
most murderous battle-axe, so that the same whirl might fell one foe and
cleave another. I had taken it from Uvo, and his dancing eyes were
thanking me as he loaded the revolver I had handed him in exchange.

There were three stairs down to the half-landing, but Uvo sat up too
late at nights not to know the one that creaked. We reached the old
maroon curtain without a sound; behind it was the housemaid's sink on
the right, and straight in front the bathroom door with a faint light
under it. But the light went out before we reached it, and then the door
would not open, and with that there was a smothered hubbub of voices and
of feet within. It was like the first shot from an ambuscade, but it was
our ambuscade, and Uvo's voice rang out in triumph.

"Down with the door or the devils'll do us yet!"

And they sounded as though they might before bolt or hinges gave. As we
brought all our weight to bear, we could hear them huddling out of the
window, and somebody whispering sharply, "One at a time; one at a time!"
And at that my companion relaxed his efforts inexplicably, but I flew at
the key-hole with flat foot and every ounce of my weight behind it; the
crash fined off into the scream of splintered wood, and I should have
entered head foremost if the man on the other side had not stemmed the
torrent of torn woodwork. Even as it was I went down on all fours, and
was only struggling to my feet as his figure showed dimly in the open
window. Delavoye fired over my head at the same instant, but his
revolver "squibbed" like that far-away Snider, and before I could hack
with his battle-axe at their rope-ladder, the last of the thieves was
safe and sound on _terra firma_.

[Illustration: Delavoye fired over my head.]

"Don't do that!" cried Delavoye. "It's our one chance of nabbing 'em."

And he was out of the window and swinging down the rope-ladder while the
ruffians were yet in the yard below. But they did not wait to punish his
foolhardihood; the gate into the back garden banged before he reached
the ground, and he hardly had it open when the last of the bunch of
ropes slid hot through my hands.

"After them!" he grunted, giving chase to shadowy forms across the
soaking grass. His revolver squibbed again as he ran. They did not stop
to return his fire; but across the strawberry bed, at the end of the
garden, the high split fence rattled and rumbled with the weight of the
flying gang; and there was a dropping crackle of brushwood on the other
side, as I came up with Delavoye under the overhanging branches of the

"Going over after them?" I panted, prepared to follow where he led.

"I'm afraid it's no good now," he answered, peering at his revolver in
the darkness. The chambers ticked like the reel of a rod. "Besides,
there's one of them cast a shoe or something. I trod on it a moment
ago." He stooped and groped in the manure of the strawberry bed. "A shoe
it is, Gilly, by all that's lucky!"

"You wouldn't like to dog them a bit further?" I suggested. "The fellow
with one shoe won't take much overhauling?"

"No, Gilly," said Delavoye, abandoning the chase as incontinently as he
had started it, but with equal decision; "I think it's about time to see
what they've taken, as well as what they've left."

Their rope-ladder was still swaying from the bathroom window, and it
served our turn again since Uvo was without his key. He climbed up
first, and the window flared into a square of gas-light before I gained
the sill. The scene within was quite instructive. The family chest was
clamped right round with iron bands, like the straps of a portmanteau,
and the lock in each band had defied the ingenuity of the thieves; so
they had cut a neat hole in the lid and extracted the contents
piecemeal. These were not strewn broadcast about the room, but set out
with some method on a dressing-table as well as in the basin and the
bath. Apparently the stage of selection had been reached when we
interrupted the proceedings, and the first thing that struck me was the
amount of fine old plate and silver, candelabra, urns, salvers and the
like, which had not been removed; but Delavoye was already up to the
right armpit in the chest, and my congratulations left him grim.

"They've got my mother's jewel-case all right!" said he. "She has one or
two things worth all those put together; but we shall see them again
unless I'm much mistaken. Come into my room and hear the why and
wherefore. Ah! I was forgetting young ambition's ladder; thanks, Gilly.
I hope you see how hard it's hooked to the woodwork on this side? It's
only been their emergency exit; we shall probably find that they took
their tickets at the pantry window. Now for a drink in my room and a bit
of Sherlock Holmes' work on the lucky slipper!"

I wish I could describe the change in Uvo Delavoye as he sat at his desk
once more, his eager face illumined by the reading gas-lamp with the
smelly rubber tube. Eager was not the word for it now, neither was it
only the gas that lit it up. At its best, for all its bloodless bronze
and premature furrows, the face of Uvo was itself a lamp, that only
flickered to burn brighter, or to beam more steadily; and now he was at
his best in the very chair and attitude in which I had seen him at his
worst not so many minutes before. Was this the fellow who had toyed so
tremulously with a deadly weapon and a deadlier idea? Was it Uvo
Delavoye who had deliberately debauched his mind with the thought of his
own blood, until to my eyes at least he looked capable of shedding it at
the morbid prompting of a degenerate impulse? I watched him keenly
examining the thing in his hands, chuckling and gloating over a trophy
which I for one would have taken far more seriously; and I could not
believe it was he whom I had caught with a revolver, loaded or unloaded,
screwed into his ear.

It was in a silence due to two divergent lines of thought that we both
at once became aware of a prolonged but muffled tattoo on the door

"Coppers ahoy!" cried Uvo softly. "I thought you hauled the rope-ladder
up after us?"

"So I did; but how do you know it's a copper?"

"Who else could it be at this time of night? Stay where you are, Gilly.
I'll go down and see." And in a moment there was a new tune from the
hall below: "Why, it's Colonel Cheffins!... How sporting of you,
colonel!... Yes, come on up and I'll tell you all about it."

The colonel's answers were at first inaudible up above; but on the
stairs he was explaining that he had awakened about an hour ago with a
conviction that yet another house had been attacked, that in his
inability to get to sleep again he had ultimately risen, and seeing a
light still burning across the road, had ventured to come over to
inquire whether we were still all right. And with that there entered the
Jaeger dressing-suit and bedroom slippers, containing a very different
colonel from the dapper edition I had seen out on the other side of
midnight, and for that matter but a worn and feeble copy of the one we
had both admired the night before.

"That's Witching Hill all over!" cried Uvo as he ushered him in. "You
dreamed of what actually happened at the very time it was actually
happening. And yet our friend Gillon can't see that the whole place is
haunted and enchanted from end to end!"

"I'm not sure that I should go as far as that," said the colonel,
sinking into a chair, while Delavoye mixed a stiff drink for him in his
old glass. "In fact, now you come to put it that way, I'm not so sure
that it was a dream at all. I sleep with my window open, at the front of
the house, and I rather thought I heard shots of sorts."

"Of such a sort," laughed Uvo, "that you must be a light sleeper if they
woke you up. Do you mind telling me, colonel, where you used to keep
those cartridges you were kind enough to give me?"

"In my washstand drawer. I hope there was nothing the matter with them?"

"They wouldn't go off. That was all."

"God bless my soul!" cried Colonel Cheffins, putting down his glass.

"The caps were all right, but I am afraid you can't have kept your
powder quite dry, colonel. I expect you've been swilling out that drawer
in the heat of your ablutions. Devil a bullet would leave the barrel,
and I tried all three."

"But what an infernal disgrace!" cried the colonel, shuffling to his
slippered feet. "Why, the damned things ought to go off if you raised
them from the bottom of the sea! I'll let the makers have it in next
week's _Field_, libel or no libel, you see if I don't! But that won't
console either you or me, Mr. Delavoye, and I can't apologise enough. I
only hope the scoundrels were no more successful here than they were at
my house?"

"I'm afraid they didn't go quite so empty away."

"God bless my soul! Those cartridge makers ought to indemnify you. But
perhaps they left some traces? That was the worst of it in my
case--neither footmark nor finger-print worth anything to any body!"

"I'm afraid they left neither here."

"But you don't know that, Mr. Delavoye; you can't know it before
morning. The frost broke up with the fog, you must remember, and the
ground's as soft as butter. Which way did the blackguards run?"

"Through the garden and over the wall at the back into----"

"Then they _must_ have left their card this time!" said Colonel
Cheffins, ten years younger in his excitement, and even more alert and
wide-awake than we had found him the night before. He did not conceal
his anxiety to conduct immediate investigations in the garden. But Uvo
persuaded him to wait till we had finished our drinks, and we got him to
sit down at the desk, trembling with keenness.

"You see," said Uvo, leaning forward in the arm-chair and opening a
drawer in the pedestal between them, "one of them did leave something in
the shape of a card, and here it is."

And there lay the cast shoe, in the open drawer, under the colonel's
eyes and mine as I looked over his shoulder.

"Why, it's an evening pump!" he exclaimed.


"Made by quite a good maker, I should say. All in one piece, without a
seam, I mean."

"I see. I hadn't noticed that; but then I haven't your keen eye,
colonel. You really must come out into the garden with us."

"I shall be delighted, and we might take this with us to fit into any

"Precisely; but there's just one thing I should like you to do first, if
you would," said Uvo deferentially, and I bent still further over the
colonel's shiny head.

"What's that, Mr. Delavoye?"

"Just to try on the glass slipper--so to speak, Colonel
Cheffins--because it's so extraordinarily like the one you were wearing
when you were here before!"

There was a moment's pause in which I saw myself quite plainly in the
colonel's head. Then, with a grunt and a shrug, he reached out his left
hand for the shoe, but his right slid inside his Jaeger jacket, and that
same second my arms were round him. I felt and grabbed his revolver as
soon as he did, and I held the barrel clear of our bodies while he
emptied all six chambers through his garments into the floor.

Then we bound our fine fellow with his own rope-ladder, reloaded both
revolvers with unexpurgated cartridges discovered upon his person, and
prepared to hold a grand reception of his staff and "pupils." But those
young gentlemen had not misconstrued the cannonade. And it was some days
before the last of the gang was captured.

They were all tried together at the December sessions of the Central
Criminal Court, when their elaborate methods were very much admired. The
skilful impersonation of the typical Army coach by the head of the gang,
and the adequate acting of his confederates in the subordinate posts of
pupils and servants, were features which appealed to the public mind.
The taking of the house in Mulcaster Park, as a base for operations
throughout a promising neighbourhood, was a measure somewhat
overshadowed by the brilliant blind of representing it as the scene of
the first robberies. It was generally held, however, that in presenting
a predestined victim with a revolver and doctored cartridges, the master
thief had gone too far, and that for that alone he deserved the
exemplary sentence to which he listened like the officer and gentleman
he had never been. So the great actor lives the part he plays.

It is a perquisite of witnesses to hear these popular trials with a
certain degree of comfort; and so it was that I was able to nudge Uvo
Delavoye, at the last soldierly inclination of that bald bad head,
before it disappeared from a world to which it has not yet returned.

"Well, at any rate," I whispered, "you can't claim any Witching Hill
influence this time."

"I wish I couldn't," he answered in a still lower voice.

"But you've just heard that our bogus colonel has been a genuine
criminal all his life."

"I wasn't thinking of him," said Uvo Delavoye. "I was thinking of a
still worse character, who really did the thing I felt so like that
night before we heard them in the bathroom. Not a word, Gilly! I know
you've forgiven me. But I'm rather sorry for these beggars, for they
came to me like flowers in May."

And as his face darkened with a shame unseen all day in that doleful
dock, it was some comfort to me to feel that it had never been less like
its debased image at Hampton Court.


The Locked Room

It was no great coincidence that we should have been speaking of Edgar
Nettleton that night. Uvo Delavoye was full of him just then, and I had
the man on my mind for other reasons. Besides, I had to talk to Uvo
about something, since he was down with a quinsy caught from the perfect
sanitation in advertised vogue on the Estate, and could hardly open his
own mouth. And perhaps I had to talk to somebody about the unpleasant
duty hanging over me in connection with this fellow Nettleton, who had
taken his house about the same time as Colonel Cheffins and his gang,
had made up to Delavoye over that affair, and was himself almost as
undesirable a tenant from my point of view.

"I know he's a friend of yours, and I haven't come to curse him to your
face," I had been saying. "But if you would just tell Nettleton, when
you see him again, that we're in dead earnest this time, you might be
doing both him and us a service. I sent him a final demand yesterday; if
he doesn't pay up within the week, my orders are to distrain without
further notice. Muskett's furious about the whole thing. He blames me
for ever having truck with such a fellow in the first instance. But when
a man has been science beak in a public school--and _such_ a school--it
sounds good enough for Witching Hill, doesn't it? Who would have thought
he'd had the sack? Public-school masters don't often get it."

"They've got to do something pretty desperate first, I fancy," whispered
Uvo, with a gleam in his sunken eyes. He had not denied the fact. I felt
encouraged to elaborate my grievance against Edgar Nettleton.

"Besides, I had his banker's reference. That was all right; yet we had
trouble to get our very first rent, more trouble over the second, and
this time there's going to be a devil of a row. I shouldn't wonder if
Nettleton had a bill of sale over every stick. I know he's owing all the
tradesmen. He may be a very clever chap, and all that, but I can't help
saying that he strikes me as a bit of a wrong 'un, Uvo."

Of course I had not started with the intention of saying quite so much.
But the brunt of the unpleasantness was falling on my shoulders; and the
fellow had made friends with my friend, whose shoes he was not fit to
black. Uvo, moreover, was still according me a patient, interested
hearing, as he lay like a bright-eyed log in his bed at the top of No.
7. Altogether it was not in my allowance of human nature to lose such an
opportunity of showing him his new friend in his true colours.

"He _is_ clever," whispered Uvo, as though that was the bond between
them. "He knows something about everything, and he's a wonderful
carpenter and mechanic. You must really see the burglar-trap that he
concocted after the scare. If another Cheffins paid him a visit, he'd
put his foot in it with a vengeance."

"It would be six of one and very nearly half a dozen of the other," said
I with hardihood. "Set a Nettleton to catch a Cheffins, as you might
say, Uvo!"

But he only smiled, as though he would not have hesitated to say it in
fun. "Of course you're only joking, Gilly, but I could quite understand
it if you weren't. There's no vice in old Nettleton, let alone crime;
but there's a chuckle-headed irresponsibility that might almost let him
in for either before he knew it. He never does seem to know what he's
doing, and I'm sure he never worries about anything he's once done. If
he did, he'd have gone further afield from the scene of his downfall, or
else taken rooms in town instead of a red elephant of a house that he
evidently can't afford. As a tenant, I quite agree that he is hopeless."

"If only he hadn't come here!" I grumbled. "What on earth can have
brought him to Witching Hill, of all places?"

Uvo's eyes were dancing in the light of the reading gas-lamp, with the
smelly tube, which had been connected up with his bedroom bracket.

"Of course," he whispered, "you wouldn't admit for a moment that it
might be the call of the soil, and all there's in it, Gilly?"

"No, I wouldn't; but I'll tell you one thing," I exclaimed, as it struck
me for the first time: "the man you describe is not the man to trust
with all those morbid superstitions of yours! I know he enters into
them, because you told me he did, and I know how much you wanted to find
some one who would. But so much the worse for you both, if he's the kind
you say he is. An idle man, too, and apparently alone in the world! I
don't envy you if Nettleton really does come under the influence of your
old man of the soil, and plays down to him!"

"My dear Gilly, this is a great concession," whispered Uvo, on his elbow
with surprise.

"I don't mean it for one," said I sturdily. "I only mean the influence
of your own conception of your old man and his powers. I disbelieve in
him and them as much as ever, but I don't disbelieve in your ability to
make both exist in some weaker mind than your own. And where they do
catch on, remember, those wild ideas of yours may always get the upper
hand. It isn't everybody who can think the things you do, Uvo, and never
look like doing 'em!"

"I don't agree with you a bit, Gilly. I never believe those blithering
blighters who attribute their crimes to the bad example of some criminal
hero of the magazines or of the stage. Villain-worship doesn't carry you
to that length unless you're a bit of a villain in the first instance."

"But suppose you are?" I argued, almost before I saw the point that I
was making. "Suppose you have as few scruples, principles, 'pangs and
fears'--call them what you like--as this fellow Nettleton. Suppose
you're full of fire of sorts, but also as irresponsible and
chuckle-headed as you yourself say he is. Well, then, _I_ say, it's
taking responsibility for two to go pumping your theories into as
sensitive an engine as all that!"

Uvo clapped his thin hands softly as there came a knock at the door.
"Well, he's a practical man, Gilly, I must admit, so let's leave it at
that. Come in! What is it, Jane?"

"The servant from Mr. Nettleton's, sir, wants to see Mr. Gillon," said
the maid.

I began by explaining why this scarcely comes into the category of
Witching Hill coincidences. Yet it was rather startling at the time, and
Uvo Delavoye looked as though his evil ancestor had materialised at the
foot of the bed.

"All right, Jane! Mr. Gillon will be down directly."

It was the first time his voice had risen to more than a whisper, and it
was shaky. The maid seemed to catch some echo of an alarm already
communicated to herself, and faintly sounded in her own announcement.

"Sarah seems very anxious to see you, sir," she ventured, turning to me,
and then withdrew in some embarrassment.

I rose to follow. Sarah was almost as great a character as her master,
and I for one liked her the better of the two. She was a simple,
faithful, incompetent old body, who once told me that she had known Mr.
Nettleton, man and boy, most of his life, but without betraying a page
of his past. She had come with him to Witching Hill Road as
cook-general. There had been a succession of auxiliary servants who had
never in any instance outstayed their month. The last of them had left
precipitately, threatening a summons, to the scandal of the neighbours;
but beyond that fact the matter had been hushed up, and even I only knew
that Sarah was now practically single-handed through her coming to me
about a charwoman. I thought I ought to see her at once, but Uvo
detained me with an almost piteous face.

"Do wait a moment! Of course it's probably nothing at all; but you've
given me an idea that certainly never crossed my mind before. I won't
say you've put the fear of God on me, Gilly, but you have put me in
rather a funk about old Nettleton! He is a rum 'un--I must admit it. If
he should have done anything that could possibly be traced to ... all
that.... I'll never open my mouth about it again."

"Oh, bless your life, it's only more servant troubles," I reassured him.
"I shouldn't wonder if old Sarah herself finds him more than she can
stick. They do say he assaulted that last girl, so that she could hardly
limp into her cab!"

Uvo rolled his head on the pillow.

"It wasn't an assault, Gilly. I know what happened to her. But I must
know what's happened to old Sarah, or to Nettleton himself. Will you
promise to come back and tell me?"


"Then off you go, my dear fellow, and I'll hang on to my soul till you
get back. You may have to go along with her, if he's been doing anything
very mad. Take my key, and tell them downstairs not to lock you out."

Sarah was waiting for me on the front-door mat, but she refused to make
any communication before we left the house. She really was what she
herself would have described as an elderly party, though it is doubtful
whether even Sarah would have considered the epithet appropriate to her
years. She certainly wore a rather jaunty bonnet on her walks abroad. It
had a garish plume that nodded violently with her funny old head, and
simply danced with mystery as she signified the utter impossibility of
speech within reach of other ears.

"I'm very sorry to trouble you, sir, very," said the old lady, as she
trotted beside me up Mulcaster Park. "But I never did know such a thing
to 'appen before, and I don't like it, sir, not at all I don't, I'm

"But what has happened, Sarah?"

As a witness Sarah would not have been a success; she believed in
beginning her story very far back, in following it into every by-way and
blind alley of immaterial fact, in reporting every scrap of dialogue
that she could remember or improvise, and in eschewing the oblique
oration as an unworthy economy of time and breath. If interrupted, she
would invariably answer a question that had not been asked, and on
getting up to any real point she would shy at it like a fractious old
steed. It was then impossible to spur her on, and we had to retrace much
ground at her pleasure. The _ípsíssíma verba_ of this innocent creature
are therefore frankly unprintable. But towards the top of Mulcaster Park
I did make out that a number of pointless speeches, delivered by Mr.
Nettleton at his lunch, had culminated in the announcement that he was
going to the theatre that night.

"The theatre!" I cried. "I thought he never even went up to town?"

I had gathered that from Delavoye, and Sarah confirmed it with much
embroidery. I was also told his reasons for making such a sudden
exception, and as given by Sarah they were certainly not convincing.

"Then he's in the theatre now, or ought to be?" I suggested; for it was
then just after nine o'clock.

"Ah, that's where it is, sir!" said Sarah, weightily. "He _ought_ to be,
as you say, sir. But he's locked his lib'ry, and there's a light under
the door, and I can't get no answer, not though I knock, knock, knock,
till I'm tired of knocking!"

I now ascertained that Sarah also had been given money to make a night
of it, in her case at the Parish Hall, where one of the church
entertainments was going on. Sarah made mention of every item on the
programme, as far as she had heard it out. But then it seemed she had
become anxious about her kitchen fire, which she had been ordered to
keep up for elaborate reasons connected with the master's bath. There
had been no fire in the lib'ry that day; it was late in February, but
exceptionally mild for the time of year. She knew her master sometimes
left his lib'ry locked, after that what happened the last
house-parlourmaid, and serve people right for going where they had no
business. She could not say that he had left it locked on this occasion;
she only knew it was so now, and a light under the door, though he had
gone away in broad daylight.

This room, in which Nettleton certainly kept his books, but also his
carpenter's bench, test-tubes and retorts, and a rack of stoppered
bottles, was the one at the back leading into the garden. It was meant
for the drawing-room in this particular type of house, was of
considerable size, but only divided from the kitchen by a jerry-built
wall. Sarah could not say that she had heard a sound in the
lib'ry--though she often did hear master, as she was setting there of a
evening--since he went away without his tea. Of course she had not
noticed the light under the door till after dark; not, in fact, till she
came back from her entertainment. No; she had not thought of going into
the room to draw the curtains. The less she went in there, without
orders, the better, Sarah always thought. And yet, when she trotted in
front of me through her kitchen and scullery, and so round to the French
windows of the sealed chamber, we found them closely shuttered, as they
must have been left early in the afternoon, unless Nettleton had
returned from his theatre and locked himself in.

It was with rather too vivid a recollection of the finding of Abercromby
Royle, in a corresponding room in Mulcaster Park, that I went on to my
office for an assortment of keys.

"Now, Sarah, you stand sentinel at the gate," I said on my return. "If
Mr. Nettleton should come back while I'm busy, keep him in conversation
while I slip out through your kitchen. I don't much like my job, Sarah,
but neither do I think for a moment that there's anything wrong."

Yet there was a really bright layer of light under the door in which I
now tried key after key, while the old body relieved me of her presence
in order to keep a rather unwilling eye up the road.

At last a key fitted, turned, and the door was open for me to enter if I
dared; and never shall I forget the scene that presented itself when I

The room was unoccupied. That was one thing. Neither the quick nor the
dead lay in wait for me this time. A mere glance explored every corner;
the scanty furniture was that of a joiner's shop and a laboratory in
one; all the library to be seen was a couple of standing bookcases, not
nearly full. But my eyes were rooted in horror to the floor. It also was
bare, in the sense that there was no carpet, though a rug or two had
been roughly folded and piled on the carpenter's bench. In their place,
from skirting-board to skirting-board, the floor was ankle-deep in
shavings. And among the shavings, like so many lighthouses in a yellow
sea, burnt four or five fat ecclesiastical candles. They were not in
candlesticks; at first I thought that they were mounted merely in their
own grease. But Nettleton had run no such risk of one toppling before
its time. Their innocent little flames were within an inch or so of the
shavings--one was nearer still--but before I could probe the simple
secret of the vile device, there was a rustle at my elbow, and there
stood Sarah with her nodding plume.

"Well, I never did!" she exclaimed in a scandalised whisper. "Trying to
set fire to the 'ouse--oh, fie!"

The grotesque inadequacy of these comments, taken in conjunction with
her comparative composure, made me suspect for one wild moment that
Sarah herself was an accomplice in the horrible design. She grasped it
at a glance, much quicker than I had done, and it seemed to shock her
very much less. I snatched up one of the candles--they were pinned in
place with black-headed toilet pins--and I lit the gas with it before
stalking through the shavings and setting a careful foot upon the rest
in turn.

When I had extinguished the last of them, I turned to find my innocent
old suspect snivelling on the threshold, and nodding her gay plume more
emphatically than ever.

"'Ow awful!" she ejaculated in hushed tones. "Madness, I call it.
Setting fire to a nice 'ouse like this! But there, he's been getting
queer for a long time. I've often said so--to myself, you know, sir--I
wouldn't say it to nobody else. That burgular business was the

"Well, Sarah," I said, "he's got so queer that we must think what's to
be done, and think quickly, and do it double-quick! But I shall be
obliged if you'll stick to your excellent rule of not talking to
outsiders. We've had scenes enough at Witching Hill, without this
getting about."

"Oh! I shan't say a word, sir," said Sarah, solemnly. "Even pore Mr.
Nettleton, he shall never know from _me_ how I found him out!"

I could hardly believe my ears. "Good God, woman! Do you dream of
spending another night under this maniac's roof?"

"Why, of course I do, sir," cried old Sarah, bridling. "Who's to look
after him, if I go away and leave him, I should like to know? The very

"I'll see that he's looked after," said I, grimly, and went and bolted
the front door, lest he should return before I had decided on my

In the few seconds that my back was turned, Sarah seemed to have
acquired yet another new and novel point of view. I found the old
heroine almost gloating over her master's dreadful handiwork.

"Well, there, I never did see anything so artful! Him at his theatre, to
come home and look on at the fire, and me at my concert, safe and sound
as if I was at church! Oh, he'd see to that, sir; he wouldn't've done it
if he 'adn't've arranged to put me out of 'arm's way. That's Mr.
Nettleton, every inch. Not that I say it was a right thing to do, sir,
even with the 'ouse empty as it is. But what can you expect when a pore
gentleman goes out of 'is 'ead? There's not many would care what
'appened to nobody else! But the artfulness of 'im: in another minute
the whole 'ouse might've been blazing like a bonfire! Well, there, you
do 'ear of such things, and now we know 'ow they 'appen."

To this extraordinary tune, with many such variations, I was meanwhile
making up my mind. The first necessity was to place the intrepid old
fool really out of harm's way, and the next was to save, the house if
possible, but also and at all costs the good name of the Witching Hill
Estate. We had had one suicide, and it had not been hushed up quite as
successfully as some of us flattered ourselves at the time; one case of
gross intemperance, most scandalous while it lasted, and one gang of
burglars actually established on the Estate. People were beginning to
talk about us as it was; a case of attempted arson, even if the
incendiary were proved a criminal lunatic, might be the end of us as a
flourishing concern. It is true that I had no stake in the Company whose
servant I was; but one does not follow the dullest avocation for three
years without taking a certain interest of another kind. At any rate I
intended the secret of this locked room to remain as much a secret as I
could keep it, and this gave me an immediate leverage over Sarah. Unless
she took herself off before her master returned, I assured her I would
have him sent, not to an asylum, but to the felon's cell which I
described as the proper place for him. I was not so sure in my own mind
that I meant him to go to one or the other. But this was the bargain
that I proposed to Sarah.

It came out that she had friends, in the shape of a labouring brother
and his wife and family, whom I strongly suspected of having migrated on
purpose to keep in touch with Sarah's kitchen, no further away than the
Village. I succeeded in packing the old thing off in that direction,
after making her lock her door at the top of the house. Previously I had
removed the marks of my boot from the extinguished candles, and had left
the locked room locked once more and in total darkness. Sarah and I
quitted the house together before ten o'clock.

"I'll see that your master doesn't do himself any damage to-night,"
were my last words to her. "He'll think the candles have been blown out
by a draught under the door--which really wouldn't catch them till they
burnt quite low--and that you are asleep in your bed at the top of the
house. You've left everything as though you were; and that alone, as you
yourself have pointed out, is enough to guarantee his not trying it on
again to-night. You see, the fire was timed to break out before you left
your entertainment, as it would have done if you'd seen the programme
through. Tell your people that Mr. Nettleton's away for the night, and
you've gone and locked yourself out by mistake. Above all, don't come
back, unless you want to give the whole show away; he'd know at once
that you'd discovered everything, and even your life wouldn't be safe
for another minute. Unless you promise, Sarah, I'll just wait for him
myself--with a policeman!"

My reasoning was cogent enough for that simple mind; on the other hand,
the word of such an obviously faithful soul was better than the bond of
most; and altogether it was with considerable satisfaction that I heard
old Sarah trot off into the night, and then myself ran every yard of the
way back to the Delavoyes' house.

Up to this point, as I still think, I had done better than many might
have done in my place. But for my promise to Uvo, and the fact that he
was even then lying waiting for me to redeem it, I would not have rushed
to a sick man with my tale. Yet I must say that I was thankful I had no
other choice, as matters stood. And I will even own that I had formed no
definite plans beyond the point at which Uvo, having heard all, was to
give me the benefit of his sound judgment in any definite dilemma.

To my sorrow he took the whole thing in an absolutely different way from
any that I had anticipated. He took it terribly to heart. I had entirely
forgotten the gist of our conversation before I left him; he had been
thinking of nothing else. The thing that I had expected to thrill him to
the marrow, that would have done nothing else at any other time, simply
harrowed him after what it seemed that I had said three-quarters of an
hour before. Whatever I had said was overlaid in my mind, for the
moment, by all that I had since seen and heard. But Uvo Delavoye might
have been brooding over every syllable.

"You said you wouldn't envy me," he cried, huskily, "if poor old
Nettleton fell under the influence in his turn. You spoke as if it was
_my_ influence; it isn't, but it may be that I'm a sort of medium for
its transmission! Sole agent, eh, Gilly? My God, that's an awful
thought, but you gave it me just now and I sha'n't get shot of it in a
hurry! None of these beastly things happened before _I_ came here--I,
the legitimate son of this infernal soil! I'm the lightning-conductor,
I'm the middleman in every deal!"

"My dear Uvo, we've no time for all that," I said. He had started up in
bed, painfully excited and distressed, and I began to fear that I might
have my work cut out to keep him there. "We agreed to differ about that
long ago," I reminded him.

"It's only another way of putting what you said just now," he answered.
"You said you did believe in my power of infecting another fellow with
my ideas; you spoke of my responsibility if the other fellow put them
into practice; and now he's done this hideous thing, had done it even
when we were talking!"

"He hasn't done it yet, and I mean to know the reason if he ever does,"
said I, perhaps with rather more confidence than I really felt. I went
on to outline my various notions of prevention. Uvo found no comfort in
any of them.

"You can't trust him alone there for the night, after this, Gilly! He'll
pull it off, Sarah or no Sarah, if you do. And if you send him either to
prison or an asylum--but _you_ won't be sending him! That's just it,
Gilly. He'll have been sent by me!"

It was a case of the devil quoting scripture, but I was obliged to tell
Uvo, as though I had found it out for myself, that criminals and
criminal lunatics were not made that way. Villain-worshippers did not go
to such lengths unless they had the seeds of madness or of crime already
in them. Uvo could not repudiate his own thesis, but he said that if
that were so he had watered those seeds in a way that made him the
worst of the two. There was no arguing with him, no taking his part
against this ruthless self-criticism. He owned that in Nettleton he had
found a sympathetic listener at last, that he had poured the whole virus
of his ideas into those willing ears, and now here was the result. He
threatened to get up and dress, and to stagger into the breach with me
or instead of me. No need to recount our contest on that point. I
prevailed by undertaking to do any mortal thing he liked, as long as he
lay where he was with that quinsy.

"Then save the fellow somehow, Gilly," he cried, "only don't you go near
Nettleton to-night! He obviously isn't safe; take the other risk
instead. Since the old soul's out of the house, let him set fire to it
if he likes; that's better than his murdering you on the spot. Then we
must get him quietly examined, without letting him know that we know
anything at all; and if a private attendant's all he wants, I swear I'm
his man. It's about the least I can do for him, and it would give me a
job in life at last!"

I did not smile at my dear old lad. I gave him the assurance his
generosity required, and I meant to carry it out, subject to a plan of
my own for watching Nettleton's house all night. But all my proposals
suffered a proverbial fate within ten minutes, when I was about to pass
the still dark house, and was suddenly confronted by Nettleton himself,
leaning over the gate as though in wait for me.

And here I feel an almost apologetic sense of the inadequacy of
Nettleton's personality to the part that he was playing that night; for
there was nothing terrifying about him, nothing sinister or grotesque.
The outward man was flabbily restless and ineffective, distinguished
from the herd by no stronger features than a goatee beard and the light,
quick, instantaneously responsive eye of an uncannily intelligent child.
And no more than a child did I fear him; man to man, I could have
twisted his arm out of its socket, or felled him like an ox with one
blow from mine. So I thought to myself, the very moment I stopped to
speak to him; and perhaps, by so thinking, recognised some subtler
quality, and confessed a subtle fear.

"I was looking for my old servant," said Nettleton, after a civil
greeting. "She's not come in yet."

"Oh! hasn't she?" I answered, and I liked the ring of my own voice even
less than his.

"Anyhow I can't make her hear, and the old fool's left her door locked,"
said Nettleton.

"That's a bad plan," said I, not to score a silly point, but simply
because I had to say something with conviction. It was a mistake.
Nettleton peered at me by the light from the nearest lamp-post.

"Have you seen anything of her?" he asked suspiciously.

"Yes!" I answered, in obedience to the same necessity of temperament.

"Well?" he cried.

"Well, she seemed nervous about something, and I believe she has gone to
her own people for the night."

We stood without speaking for nearly a minute. A soft step came marching
round the asphalt curve, throwing a bright beam now upon its indigo
surface, and now over the fussy fronts of the red houses, as a child
plays with a bit of looking-glass in the sun. "Good-night, officer,"
said Nettleton as the step and the light passed on. And I caught myself
thinking what an improvement the asphalt was in Witching Hill Road, and
how we did want it in Mulcaster Park.

"We can't talk out here, and I wish to explain about this wretched
rent," said Nettleton. "Come in--or are you nervous too?"

I gave the gate a push, and he had to lead the way. I should not have
been so anxious to see a real child in front of me. But Nettleton turned
his back with an absence of hesitation that reassured me as to his own
suspicions, and indeed none were to be gleaned from his unthoughtful
countenance when he had lit up his hall without waiting for me to shut
the front door. At that I did shut it, and accepted his invitation to
smoke a pipe in his den; for I thought I could see exactly how it was.

Nettleton, having found his candles out and his servant flown, having
even guessed that I knew something and perhaps suspected more, was
about to show me my mistake by taking me into the very room where the
conflagration had been laid for lighting. Of course I should see no
signs of it, and would presently depart at peace with a tenant whose
worst crime was his unpunctuality over the rent. Nothing could suit me
better. It would show that the house really was safe for the night,
while it would give time for due consideration, and for any amount of
conferences with Uvo Delavoye.

So I congratulated myself as I followed Nettleton into the room that had
been locked; of course it was unlocked now that he was at home, but it
was still in perfect darkness as I myself had left it. The shavings
rustled about our ankles; but no doubt he would think there was nothing
suspicious about the shavings in themselves. Yet there was one
difference, perceptible at once and in the dark. There was a smell that
I thought might have been there before, but unnoticed by Sarah and me in
our excitement. It was a strong smell, however, and it reminded me of
toy steamers and of picnic teas.

"One moment, and I'll light the gas. We're getting in each other's way,"
said Nettleton. I moved instinctively, in obedience to a light touch on
the arm, and I heard him fumbling in the dark behind me. Then I let out
the yell of a lifetime. I am not ashamed of it to this day. I had
received a lifetime's dose of agony and amazement.

My right foot had gone through the floor, gone into the jaws of some
frightful monster that bit it to the bone above the ankle!

"Why, what's the matter?" cried Nettleton, but not from the part of the
room where I had heard him fumbling, neither had he yet struck a light.

"You know, you blackguard!" I roared, with a few worse words than that.
"I'll sort you for this, you see if I don't! Strike a light and let me
loose this instant! It's taking my foot off, I tell you!"

"Dear, dear!" he exclaimed, striking a match at once. "Why, if you
haven't gone and got into my best burglar-trap!"

He stood regarding me from a safe distance, with a sly pale smile, and
the wax vesta held on high. I dropped my eyes to my tortured leg: a
couple of boards had opened downward on hinges, and I could see the
rusty teeth of an ancient man-trap embedded in my trousers, and my
trousers already darkening as though with ink, where the pierced cloth
pressed into quivering flesh and bone.

"It's the very same thing that happened to that last maid of mine,"
continued Nettleton. "I shouldn't wonder if you'd never seen a trap like
that before. There aren't so many of 'em, even in museums. I picked this
one up in Wardour Street; but it was my own idea to set it like that,
and I went and quite forgot I'd left it ready for the night!"

That was the most obvious lie. He had set the thing somehow when he had
pretended to be going to light the gas. But I did not tell him so. I did
not open my mouth--in speech. I heard him out in a dumb horror; for he
had stooped, and was lighting the candles one by one.

They were all where they had always been, except one that I must have
kicked over on entering. Nettleton looked at that candle wistfully, and
then at me, with a maniacally sly shake of the head; for it lay within
my reach, but out of his; and it lay in a pool, beneath glistening
shavings, for the whole room was swimming in the stuff that stank.

The lighting of the candles--in my brain as well as on the floor--had
one interesting effect. It stopped my excruciating pain for several
moments. We stood looking at each other across the little low lights,
like Gullivers towering over Lilliputian lamp-posts; that is, he stood,
well out of arm's-length, while I leant with all my weight on one bent
knee. Suddenly he gleamed and slapped his thigh.

"Why, I do believe you thought I was going to set fire to the house!" he

"I knew you were."

"No--but now?"

"Yes--now--I see it in your damned face!"

"Really, Mr. Gillon!" exclaimed Nettleton, with a shake of his cracked
head. "I hadn't thought of such a thing. But I am in a difficulty. The
gas is on your side of the room, just out of your reach. So is the
control of the very unpleasant arrangement that's got you by the heel.
Is it the ankle? Oh! I'm sorry; but it's no use your looking round. I
only meant the trap-door control; the trap itself has to be taken out
before you can set it again, and it's a job even with the proper lever.
After what's happened and the language you've been using, Mr. Gillon,
I'm afraid I don't care to trust myself within reach of your very
powerful arms, either to light the gas or to meddle with my little

"See here," I said through the teeth that I had set against my pain.
"You're as mad as a hatter; that's the only excuse for you----"

"Thank you!" he snapped in. "Then it won't be the worse for me if I _do_
give you a taste of hell before your death and--cremation!"

"I'm sorry for you," I went on, partly because I did not know that the
insane call for more tact than the sane, and partly because I was far
from sure which this man was, but had resolved in any case to appeal
with all my might to his self-interest. "I'm sorry for anybody who loses
his wits, but sorriest for those who get them back again and have to pay
for what they did when they weren't themselves. You go mad and commit a
murder, but you're dead sane when they hang you! That seems to me about
the toughest luck a man could have, but it looks very like being your

"Which of these four candles do you back to win?" inquired Nettleton,
looking at them and not at me. "I put my money on the one nearest you,
and I back this one here for a place."

"Two people know all about this, I may tell you," said I with more
effect. Nettleton looked up. "Uvo Delavoye's one, and your old Sarah's
the other."

"That be blowed for a yarn!" he answered, after a singularly lucid
interval, if he was not lucid all the time. "I think I see you walking
into a trap like this if you knew it was here!"

"It's the truth!" I blustered, feeling to my horror that the truth had
not rung true.

"All right! Then you deserve all you get for coming into another man's

"When your servant came for me, and when we found out together that you
were trying to burn it down?"

I was doing my best to reason with him now, but he was my master, sane
or crazy. His cleverness was diabolical. He took the new point out of my
mouth. "Yes--for going away and standing by to see me do it!" he cried.
"But that's not the only crow I've got to pluck with you, young fellow,
and the other jacks-in-office behind you. Must pay your dirty
extortionate rent, must I? Very last absolutely final application, was
it? Going to put a man in possession, are you? Very nice--very good!
You're in possession yourself, my lad, and I wish you joy of your job!"

He made for the door, hugging the wall with unnecessary caution, leaving
a bookcase tottering as an emblem of his respect. But at the door he
recovered both his courage and his humour.

"I always meant to give him a warm reception," he cried--"and by God
you're going to get one!"

He opened the door--made me a grotesque salute--and it was all that I
could do to keep a horrified face till he was gone. Never had I thought
him mad enough to leave me before he was obliged. Yet the front door
closed softly in its turn; now I was alone in the house, and could have
clapped my hands with joy. I plunged them into my pockets instead, took
out the small shot of my possessions, and fired them at the candles,
even to my watch. But my hand had shaken. I was balanced on one leg and
suffering torments from the other. The four flames burnt undimmed. Then
I stripped to the waist, made four bundles of coat and waistcoat, shirt
and vest. It was impossible to miss with these. As I flung the fourth,
darkness descended like a kiss from heaven--and a loud laugh broke
through the door.

Nettleton came creeping in along the wall, lit the candles one by one,
and said he was indebted to me for doing exactly what he thought I
would, and throwing away my own last means of meddling with his

I went mad myself. I turned for an appreciable time into the madder man
of the two; the railing and the raving were all on my side. They are
not the least horrible thing that I remember. But I got through that
stage, thank God! I like to think that one always must if there is time.
There was time, and to spare, in my case. And there were those four calm
candles waiting for me to behave myself, burning away as though they had
never been out, one almost down to the shavings now, all four in their
last half-inch, yet without another flicker between them of irresolution
or remorse, true ecclesiastical candles to the end!

I had spat at them till my mouth was like an ash-pit; but there they
burnt, corpse candles for the living who was worse than dead, mocking me
with their four charmed flames. But mockery was nothing to me now.
Nettleton had killed the nerve that mockery touches. When I shouted he
gave me leave to go on till I was black in the face; nobody would hear
me through the front of the house, and perhaps I remembered the heavy
shutters he had made for the French windows at the time of the burglar
scare? He went round to see if he could hear me through them, and he
came back rubbing his hands. But now I took no more notice of his
taunts. The last and cruellest was at the very flecks of blood on floor
and shavings, flung far as froth in my demented efforts to tear either
my foot from the trap or myself limb from limb.... And I had only sworn
at him in my terrible preoccupation.

"No, that's where _you're_ going, old cock!" he had answered. "And by
the way, Gillon, when you get there I wish you'd ask for your friend
Delavoye's old man of the soil; tell him his mantle's descended on good
shoulders, will you? Tell him he's not the only pebble on the shores of

That gave me something else to think about towards the end; but I had no
longer any doubt about the man's inveterate insanity. His pale eyes had
rolled and lightened with unstable fires. There had been something
inconsecutive even in his taunts. Consistent only in keeping out of my
way, he had explained himself once when I was trying to picture the
wrath to come upon him, in the felon's dock, in the condemned cell, on
the drop itself. It was only fools who looked forward or back, said
Edgar Nettleton.

And I, who have done a little of both all my life, like most ordinary
mortals, as I look back to the hour which I had every reason to
recognise as my last on earth, the one redeeming memory is that of the
complete calm which did ultimately oust my undignified despair. It may
have been in answer to the prayers I uttered in the end instead of
curses; that is more than man can say. I only know that I was not merely
calm at the last, but immensely interested in what Nettleton would have
called the winning candle. It burnt down to the last thin disk of
grease, shining like a worn florin in the jungle of shavings that seemed
to lean upon the flame and yet did not catch. Then the wick fell over,
the last quarter-inch of it, and I thought that candle had done its
worst. Head and heart almost burst with hope. No! the agony was not to
be prolonged to the next candle, or the next but one. The very end of
the first wick had done the business in falling over. I had forgotten
that strong smell and the pools now drying on the floor.

It began in a thin blue spoonful of flame, that scooped up the worn
grease coin, grew into a saucerful of violet edged with orange, and in
ten or twenty seconds had the whole jungle of shavings in a blaze. But
it was a violet blaze. It was not like ordinary fire. It was more like
the thin blue waves that washed over the rocks of white asbestos in so
many of our tenants' grates. And like a wave it passed over the surface
of the floor, without eating into the wood.

There were no hangings in the room. The incendiary had relied entirely
on his woodwork, and within a minute the floor was a sea of violet
flames with red crests. There was one island. I had stooped after
Nettleton left me for the last time, and swept the shavings clear of me
on all sides, garnering as many as possible into the hole in the floor
where the trap had been set, and drying the floor within reach as well
as I could with the bare hand. There was this island, perhaps the size
of a hearth-rug; and I cannot say that I was ever any hotter than I
should have been on such a rug before a roaring fire.

But this fire did not roar, though it surged over the rest of the floor
in its blue billows and its red-hot crests, flowing under the
carpenter's bench as the sea flows under a pier. And the floor was not
on fire; the fire was on the floor; and it was dying down! It was dying
down before my starting eyes. Where the violet wave receded, it left
little more mark than the waves of the sea leave on the sands. It was
only the fiery crests that lingered, and crackled, and turned black and
my senses left me before I saw the reason, or more than the first
blinding ray of hope!

       *       *       *       *       *

It was not Uvo Delavoye, and it was not Sarah, who was standing over me
when I awoke to the physical agony on which that of the mind had acted
lately as a perfect anodyne. It was the Delavoyes' doctor. Uvo had sent
for him in the middle of the night, telling his poor people he felt much
worse--having indeed a higher temperature--but being in reality only
unbearably anxious about Nettleton and me. He wanted to know what
Nettleton was doing. He wanted to be sure that I was safe in my bed. If
his sister had not been nursing him, he would have made a third madman
by crawling out to satisfy himself; as it was, he had sent for the
doctor and told him all. And the doctor had not only come himself, but
had knocked up his partner on the way, as they were both tenants on the

They might have been utter strangers to me that night, and for a little
time after. Nor was it in accordance with their orders that I got to
know things as soon as I did. That was where Uvo Delavoye did come in,
and with him his mother's new cook, Sarah, in the bonnet with the
nodding plume--just as she had been to see her pore old master.

"It's a beautiful mad-'ouse," said Sarah, with a moist twinkle in her
funny old eye. "I only 'ope he won't want to burn it down!"

"_I_ only hope you're keeping his effort to yourselves," said I. "It'll
do the Estate no good, if it gets out, after all the other things that
have been happening here."

"Trust us and the doctors!" said Uvo. "We're all in the same boat,
Gilly, and your old Muskett's the only other soul who knows. By the
way"--his glance had deepened--"both they and Sarah think it must have
been coming on for a long time."

"I'm quite sure it 'as," said Sarah, earnestly. "I never did 'ear such
things as Mr. Nettleton used to say to me, or to hisself, it didn't seem
to matter who it was. But of course it wasn't for me to go about
repeating them."

I saw Uvo's mouth twitching, for some reason, and I changed the subject
to the miraculous preservation of the house in Witching Hill Road. The
doctors had assured me that the very floor, which my own eyes had beheld
a sea of blazing spirit, was scarcely so much as charred. And Uvo
Delavoye confirmed the statement.

"It wasn't such a deep sea as you thought, Gilly. But it was the spirit
that saved the show, and that's just where our poor friend overshot the
mark. Spirit burns itself, not the thing you put it on. It's like the
brandy and the Christmas pudding. Those shavings would have been far
more dangerous by themselves, but drenched in methylated spirit they
burnt like a wick, which of course hardly burns at all."

"_My_ methylated!" Sarah chimed in. "He must have found it when he was
looking for me all over my kitchens, pore gentleman, and me at my
brother's all the time! I'd just took a gallon from Draytons' Stores,
because you get it ever so much cheaper by the gallon, Mr. Hugo. I must
remember to tell your ma."


The Temple of Bacchus

That spring I did what a great many young fellows were doing in those
particular days. I threw up my work at short notice, and went very far
afield from Witching Hill. It was a long year before I came back,
unscathed as to my skin, but with its contents ignobly depreciated and
reduced, on a visit to 7, Mulcaster Park.

Uvo Delavoye met me at the station, and we fled before the leisurely
tide of top-hats and evening papers, while one of the porters followed
with my things. There were no changes that I could see, except in myself
as I caught sight of myself in my old office window. The creepers might
have made a modest stride on the Queen Anne houses; brick and tile were
perhaps a mellower red; and more tenants appeared to be growing better
roses in their front gardens. But the place had always been at its best
at the end of May: here was a giant's nosegay of apple-blossom, and
there a glimpse of a horse-chestnut laden like a Christmas-tree with its
cockades of pure cream. One felt the flight of time only at such homely
spectacles as Shoolbred's van, delivering groceries at the house which
Edgar Nettleton had tried to burn down with me in it. And an empty
perambulator, over the way at Berylstow, confirmed the feeling when
Delavoye informed me that the little caller was a remarkable blend of
our old friend Guy Berridge and the whilom Miss Hemming.

Mulcaster Park had moved bodily with the times. It had its asphalt paths
at last. Incidentally I missed some blinds which had been taken over as
tenant's fixtures in my first or second year. The new ones were not red.
The next house lower down had also changed hands; a very striking woman,
in a garden hat, was filling a basket with roses from a William Allen
Richardson which had turned the painted porch into a bower; and instead
of answering a simple question, Uvo stopped and called her to the gate.

"Let me introduce you to Mrs. Ricardo, Gilly," said he, as the lady
joined us with a smile that set me thinking. "Mrs. Ricardo knows all
about you, and was looking forward to seeing the conquering hero come
marching home."

It was not one of Uvo's happiest speeches; but Mrs. Ricardo was neither
embarrassed nor embarrassing in what she found to say to me. I liked her
then and there: in any case I should have admired her. She was a tall
and handsome brunette, with thick eyebrows and that high yet dusky
colouring which reminds one in itself of stormlight and angry skies. But
Mrs. Ricardo seemed the most good-natured of women, anxious at once not
to bore me about my experiences, and yet to let us both see that she
thoroughly appreciated their character.

"You will always be thankful that you went, Mr. Gillon, in spite of
enteric," said Mrs. Ricardo. "The people to pity were those who couldn't
go, but especially the old soldiers, who would have given anything to
have gone."

I had just flattered myself that she was about to give each of us a
rose; she had certainly selected an obvious buttonhole, and appeared to
be seeking its fellow in the basket, when suddenly I saw her looking
past us both and up the road. A middle-aged man was hobbling towards us
in the thinning stream of homing citizens. He did not look one of them;
he wore light clothes and a straw hat which he did not remove in
accosting my companions; and I thought that he looked both hot and cross
as he leant hard upon a serviceable stick.

"Gossiping at the gate, as usual!" he cried, with a kind of rasping
raillery. "Even Mr. Delavoye won't thank you for keeping him standing on
this villainous asphalt till his feet sink in."

"That would have been one for you, Gilly, in the old days," said Uvo.
"Captain Ricardo--Mr. Gillon."

Captain Ricardo also seemed to have heard of me. He overhauled me with
his peevish little eyes, and then said two or three of the bitterest
things about the British forces, regular and irregular, that it ever was
my lot to hear. I made no attempt to reply to them. His wife tried to
present him with the rose which I fancied had been meant for one of us,
and his prompt rejection of the offering only hardened me in that
impression. Then Uvo asked him if he had seen good play at the Oval; and
so the vitriolic stream was diverted into such congenial channels as the
decadence of modern cricket and the calibre of the other members of the
Surrey Club.

"But won't you come in?" concluded the captain in his most forbidding
manner. "I hate this talking at the gate like a pack of servants, but my
wife seems to have a mania for it."

It is only fair to state that Mrs. Ricardo had withdrawn during the
denunciation of the game which her husband spent his useless days in
watching, as Uvo told me when we had declined his inhospitality and were
out of earshot. It was all he did say about Captain Ricardo, and I said
nothing at all. The people were evidently friends of his; at least the
wife was, and it was she who had set me thinking with her first smile.
I was still busy wondering whether, or where, I could have seen her

"It's quite possible," said Uvo, when I had wondered aloud. "I wouldn't
give her away if it weren't an open secret here. But Witching Hill
hasn't called on Mrs. Ricardo since it found out that she was once on
the stage."

"Good Lord!"

"There's another reason, to give the neighbours their due. Ricardo has
insulted most of them to their faces. A bit of gossip got about, and
instead of ignoring it he limped out on the war-path, cutting half the
Estate and damning the other half in heaps."

"But what was her stage name?"

Delavoye gave a grim laugh as he ushered me into the garden of many
memories. "You wouldn't know it, Gilly. You were never a great playgoer,
you see, and Mrs. Ricardo was anything but a great actress. But she's a
very great good sort, as you'll find out for yourself when you know her

I could quite believe it even then--but I was not so sure after a day or
two with Uvo. I found him leading a lonely life, with Nettleton's old
Sarah to look after him. Miss Delavoye had been wooed and married while
my back was turned, and Mrs. Delavoye was on a long visit to the young
couple. Uvo, however, appeared to be enjoying his solitude rather than
otherwise; his health was better, he was plying his pen, things were
being taken by all kinds of periodicals. And yet I was uneasy about him.
Among many little changes, but more in this house than in most, the
subtlest change of all was in Uvo Delavoye himself.

He could not do enough for me; from the few survivors of his father's
best bins, to my breakfast served in bed by his own hands, nothing was
good enough for the fraud he made me feel. Yet we were not in touch as
we had been of old. I could have done with fewer deeds of unnecessary
kindness and more words of unguarded intimacy. He did not trust me as he
used. He had something or somebody on his mind; and I soon made up mine
that it was Mrs. Ricardo, but not from anything else he told me. He
never mentioned her name again. He did not tell me that, with a view to
a third road, the Estate had just purchased a fresh slice of the
delightful woodland behind Mulcaster Park; that in its depths was a
little old ruin, just after his heart, and that this ruin was also a
favourite haunt of Mrs. Ricardo's. I was left to make all these
discoveries for myself, on a morning when Uvo Delavoye was expressly
closeted at his desk.

It was, to be sure, my old Mr. Muskett who told me about the new land,
and invited me to explore it at my pleasure. On a warm morning it seemed
a better scheme than going alone upon the river, as Uvo had suggested. I
accordingly turned back with Mr. Muskett, who went on to speak of the
ruin, and in fact set me on my way to it while I was setting him to the
station. Ten minutes later, in a tangle of bush and bracken, I had found
it: an ancient wall, scaled with patches of mouldy stucco, and at one
end an Ionic pillar towering out of the sea of greenery like a
lighthouse clear of the cliffs. Obviously, as Mr. Muskett had said, the
fragments that remained of one of those toy temples which were a
characteristic conceit of old Georgian grounds. But it happened to be
the first that I had seen, and I proceeded to reconnoitre the position
with some interest. Then it was that Mrs. Ricardo was discovered, seated
on one of several stumps of similar pillars, on the far side of the

Mrs. Ricardo, without her hat in the shadow of the old grey wall, but
with her glossy hair and glowing colour stamped against it with rich
effect: a charming picture in its greenwood frame, especially as she was
looking up to greet me with a radiant smile. But I was too taken aback
to be appreciative for the moment. And then I decided that the high
colouring was a thought too high, and a sudden self-consciousness
disappointing after her excellent composure in the much more trying
circumstances of our previous meeting.

"Haven't you been here before, Mr. Gillon?" Mrs. Ricardo seemed
surprised, but quite competent to play the guide. "This mossy heap's
supposed to have been the roof, and these stone stumps the columns that
held it up. There's just that one standing as it was. There should be a
'sylvan prospect' from where I'm sitting; but it must have been choked
up for years and years."

"You do know a lot about it!" I cried, recovering my admiration for the
pretty woman as she recovered her self-possession. And then she smiled
again, but not quite as I had caught her smiling.

"What Mr. Delavoye's friends don't know about Witching Hill oughtn't to
be worth knowing!" said Mrs. Ricardo. "I mean what he really knows, not
what he makes up, Mr. Gillon. I hear you don't believe in all that any
more than I do. But he does seem to have read everything that was ever
written about the place. He says this was certainly the Temple of
Bacchus in the good old days."

"I don't quite see where Bacchus comes in," said I, thinking that Uvo
and Mrs. Ricardo must be friends indeed.

"He's supposed to have been on this old wall behind us, in a fresco or
something, by Villikins or somebody. You can see where it's been gouged
out, and the stucco with it."

But I had to say what was in my mind. "Is Uvo Delavoye still harping on
about his bold bad ancestor, Mrs. Ricardo? Does he still call him his
old man of the soil?"

To her, at any rate, yes, he did! She did not think it was a thing he
talked about to everybody. But I had hoped it was an extinct folly,
since he had not mentioned it as yet to me. It was almost as though Mrs.
Ricardo had taken my old place. Did she discourage him as I had done?
She told me it was his latest ambition to lay the ghost. And I marvelled
at their intimacy, and wondered what that curmudgeon of a husband had to
say to it!

Yet it seemed natural enough that we should talk about Uvo Delavoye, as
I sat on another of the broken columns and lit a cigarette at Mrs.
Ricardo's suggestion. Uvo was one of those people who are the first of
bonds between their friends, a fruitful subject, a most human interest
in common. So I found myself speaking of him in my turn, with all
affection and yet some little freedom, to an almost complete stranger
who was drawing me on more deliberately than I saw.

"You were great friends, Mr. Gillon, weren't you?"

"We _are_, and I hope we always shall be."

"It must have been everything for you to have such a friend in such a

"It was so! I stayed on and on because of him. He was the life and soul
of the Estate to me."

Mrs. Ricardo looked as though she could have taken the words out of my
mouth. "But what a spoilt life, and what a strange soul!" said she,
instead; and I saw there was something in Mrs. Ricardo, after all.

She was looking at me and yet through me, as we sat on our broken bits
of Ionic columns. She had spoken in a dreamy voice, with a wonderful
softening of her bold, flamboyant beauty; for I was not looking through
her by any means, but staring harder than I had any business, in a fresh
endeavour to remember where we had met before. And for once she had
spoken without a certain intonation, which I had hardly noticed in her
speech until I missed it now.

"Of course I've heard of all the extraordinary adventures you've both
had here," resumed Uvo's new friend, as though to emphasise the terms
that they were on.

"Not all of them?" I suggested. There were one or two affairs that he
and I were to have kept to ourselves.

"Why not?" she flashed, suspiciously.

"Oh! I don't know."

"Which of them is such a secret?"

She was smiling now, but with obvious effort. Why this pressure on a
pointless point? And where _had_ I seen her before?

"Well, there was our very first adventure, for one," said I.

"Underground, you mean?"


I could not help staring now. Mrs. Ricardo had reddened so inexplicably.

"There was no need to tell me the other part!" she said, scornfully. "I
was in it--as you know very well!"

Then I did know. She was the bedizened beauty who had raked in the
five-pound notes, and smashed a magnum of champagne in her excitement,
at the orgy in Sir Christopher Stainsby's billiard room.

"I know it now," I stammered, "but I give you my word----"

"Fiddle!" she interrupted. "You've known it all the time. I've seen it
in your face. He gave me away to you, and I shan't forgive him!"

I found myself involved in a heated exposition of the facts. I had never
recognised her until that very minute. But I had kept wondering where we
had met before. And that was all that she could have seen in my face. As
for Uvo Delavoye, when I had spoken to him about it, he had merely
assured me that I must have seen her on the stage: so far and no further
had he given her away. Mrs. Ricardo took some assuring and reassuring on
the point. But the truth was in me, and in her ultimate pacification she
seemed to lose sight of the fact that she herself had done what she
accused Uvo of doing. Evidently the leakage of her secret mattered far
less to Mrs. Ricardo than the horrible thought that Mr. Delavoye had let
it out.

Of course I spoke as though there was nothing to matter in the least to
anybody, and asked after Sir Christopher as if the entertainment in his
billiard room had been one of the most conventional. It seemed that he
had married again in his old age; he had married one of the other ladies
of those very revels.

"That's really why I first thought of coming here to live," explained
Mrs. Ricardo, with her fine candour. "But there have been all kinds of

She had known about the tunnel before she had heard of it from Uvo; some
member of the lively household had discovered its existence, and there
had been high jinks down there on more than one occasion. But Lady
Stainsby had not been the same person since her marriage. I gathered
that she had put her reformed foot down on the underground orgies, but
that Captain Ricardo had done his part in the subsequent disagreeables.
It further appeared that the blood-stained lace and the diamond buckle
had also been discovered, and that old Sir Christopher had "behaved just
like he would, and froze on to both without a word to Mr. Delavoye's
grand relations."

I suggested that mining rights might have gone with the freehold, but
Mrs. Ricardo quoted Uvo's opinion as to what still ailed Sir
Christopher Stainsby. She made it quite clear to me that our friend, at
any rate, still laboured under his old obsession, and that she herself
took it more seriously than she had professed before one confidence led
to another.

"But don't you tell him I told you!" she added as though we were
ourselves old friends. "The less you tell Mr. Delavoye of all we've been
talking about, the better turn you'll be doing me, Mr. Gillon. It was
just like him not to give away ancient history even to you, and I don't
think you're the one to tell him how I went and did it myself!"

I could have wished that she had taken that for granted; but at least
she felt too finely to bind me down to silence. Altogether I found her a
fine creature, certainly in face and form, and almost certainly at
heart, if one guessed even charitably at her past, and then at her life
in a hostile suburb with a neglectful churl of a husband.

But to admire the woman for her own sake was not to approve of her on
all other grounds; and during our friendly and almost fascinating chat I
contracted a fairly definite fear that was not removed by the manner of
its conclusion. Mrs. Ricardo had looked at a watch pinned to a pretty
but audacious blouse, and had risen rather hurriedly. But she had looked
at her watch just a minute too late; as we turned the corner of the
ruin, there was Delavoye hurrying through the brake towards us; and
though he was far enough off to conceal such confusion as Mrs. Ricardo
had shown at my appearance on the scene, and to come up saying that he
had found me at last, I could not but remember how he had shut himself
up for the morning, after advising me to go on the river.

I was uneasy about them both; but it was impossible to say a word to
anybody. He never spoke of her; that was another bad sign to my
suspicious mind. It was entirely from her that I had drawn my material
for suspicion, or rather for anxiety. I did not for a moment suppose
that there was anything more than a possibly injudicious friendship
between them; it was just the possibilities that stirred my sluggish
imagination; and I should not have thought twice about these but for
Uvo's marked reserve in speaking of the one other person with whom I now
knew that he was extremely unreserved. If only I had known it from him,
I should not have deplored the mere detail that Mrs. Ricardo was in one
way filling my own old place in his life.

My visit drew to an end; on the last night I simply had to dine in town
with a wounded friend from the front. It would have been cruel to get
out of it, though Uvo almost tempted me by his keenness that I should
go. I warned him, however, that I should come back early. And I was even
earlier than my word. And Uvo was not in.

"He's gone out with his pipe," said Sarah, looking gratuitously
concerned. "I'm sure I don't know where you'll find him." But this
sounded like an afterthought; and there was a something shifty and yet
wistful in the old body's manner that inclined me to a little talk with
her about the master.

"You don't think he's just gone into the wood, do you, Sarah?"

"Well, he do go there a good deal," said Sarah. "Of course he don't
always go that way; but he do go there."

"Might he have gone into Captain Ricardo's, Sarah?"

"He might," said Sarah, with more than dubious emphasis.

"They're his great friends now, aren't they?" I hazarded.

"Not Captain Ricardo, sir," said Sarah. "I've only seen him in the 'ouse
but once, and that was when Miss Hamy was married; but we 'ad all sorts
then." And Sarah looked as though the highways and hedges had been
scoured for guests.

"But do you see much more of Mrs. Ricardo, Sarah?"

"I don't, sir, but Mr. Hugo do," said Sarah, for once off her loyal
guard. "He sees more of her than his ma would like."

"Come, come, Sarah! She's a charming lady, and quite the belle of the

"That may be, sir, but the Estate ain't what it was," declared Sarah,
with pregnant superiority. "There's some queer people come since I was
with pore Mr. Nettleton."

"What about Mr. Nettleton himself, Sarah?"

"Mr. Nettleton was always a gentleman, sir, though he did try to set
fire to the 'ouse with my methylated."

I left the old dame bobbing in the doorway, and went to look for Uvo in
the wood. I swear I had no thought of spying upon him. What could there
be to spy upon, at half-past nine at night, with Captain Ricardo safe
and grumbling at his own fireside? I had been wasting my last evening at
a club and in the train, and I did not want to miss another minute of
Uvo Delavoye's society.

It was an exquisite night, the year near its zenith and the moon only
less than full. The wood was changed from a beautiful bright picture
into a beautiful black photograph; twig and leaf, and silent birds,
stood out like motes in the moonbeams. But there were fine intervals of
utter darkness, wide pools and high cascades of pitch, with never a
bubble in the way of detail. And there was one bird to be heard, giving
its own glory to the glorious night. But I was not long alive to the
heavenly song, or to the beauty of the moonlit wood.

I had entered by way of a spare site a little higher up than the
Delavoyes', who, unlike some of their newer neighbours, had not a garden
gate into the wood. I had penetrated some score yards into the pitch and
silver of leafy tree and open space when I became aware that someone
else had entered still higher up, and that our courses were converging.
I thought for a moment that it might be Uvo; but there was something
halt yet stealthy about the unseen advance, as of a shackled man
escaping; and I knew who it was before I myself stole and dodged to get
a sight of him. It was Captain Ricardo, creeping clumsily, often pausing
to lean hard upon his tremendous stick. At first I thought he had two
sticks; but the other was not one; the other was a hunting crop, for I
saw the lash unloosed in one of the pauses, and a tree-trunk flicked
again and again, about the height of a man's shoulder, as if for

When the limping, cringing figure again proceeded on its way, the big
stick was in the left hand, the crop in the right, and I was a second
sneak following the first, in the direction of the Temple of Bacchus.

I saw him stop and listen before I heard the voices. I saw the crop
raised high in the moonlight, as if in the taking of some silent vow,
and I lessened the distance between us with impunity, for he had never
once looked round. And now I too heard the voices; they were on the
other side of the temple wall; and this side was laved with moonlight,
so that the edges of the crumbling stucco made seams of pitch, and
Ricardo's shadow crouched upon the wall for a little age before his bent
person showed against it.

Now he was at one end of the wall, peeping round, listening, instead of
showing himself like a man. My blood froze at his miserable tactics. I
had seen men keep cover under heavy fire with less precaution than this
wretch showed in spying on his guilty wife; yet there was I copying him,
even as I had dogged him through the wood. Now he had wedged himself in
the heavy shadow between the wall and the one whole pillar at right
angles to the wall; now he was looking as well as listening. And now I
was in his old place, now I was at his very elbow, eavesdropping myself
in my watch and ward over the other eavesdropper.

The big stick leant against the end of the wall, just between us, nearer
to my hand than his. The man himself leant hard against the pillar, the
crop grasped behind him in both hands, its lash dangling like the tail
of a monster rat. Those two clasped hands were the only part of him in
the moonlight, and I watched them as I would have watched his eyes if we
had been face to face. They were lean, distorted, twitching, itching
hands. The lash was wound round one of them; there might have been more
whipcord under the skin.

Meanwhile I too was listening perforce to the voices on the other side
of the wall. I thought one came from the stone stump where Mrs. Ricardo
had sat the other day, that she was sitting there again. The other voice
came from various places. And to me the picture of Uvo Delavoye,
tramping up and down in the moonlight as he talked, was as plain as
though there had been no old wall between us.

"I know you have a thin time of it. But so has he!"

That was almost the first thing I heard. It made an immediate difference
in my feeling towards the other eavesdropper. But I still watched his

"Sitting on top of a cricket pavilion," said the other voice, "all day

"It takes him out of himself. You must see that he is eating his heart
out, with this war still on, and fellows like Gillon bringing it home to
him every day."

"I don't see anything. He doesn't give me much chance. If it isn't
cricket at the Oval, it's billiards here at the George, night after
night until I'm sick to death of the whole thing."

"Are you sure he's there now?"

"Oh, goodness, yes! He made no bones about it."

I thought Uvo had stopped in his stride to ask the question. I knew
those hands clutched the hunting crop tighter at the answer. I saw the
knuckles whiten in the moonlight.

"Because we're taking a bit of a risk," resumed Uvo, finishing further
off than he began.

"Oh, no, we're not. Besides, what does it matter? I simply had to speak
to you--and you know what happened the other morning. Mornings are the
worst of all for people seeing you."

"But not for what they think of seeing you."

"Oh! what do I care what they think?" cried the wife of the man beside
me. "I'm far past that. It's you men who keep on thinking and thinking
of what other people are going to think!"

"We sometimes have to think for two," said Uvo--just a little less
steadily, to my ear.

"You don't see that I'm absolutely desperate, mewed up with a man who
doesn't care a rap for me!"

"I should make him care."

"That shows all _you_ care!" she retorted, passionately.

And then I felt that he was standing over her; there was something in
the altered pose of the head near mine, something that took my eyes
from the moonlit hands, and again gave me as vivid a picture as though
the wall were down.

"It's no use going back on all that," said Uvo, and it was harder to
hear him now. "I don't want to say rotten things. You know well enough
what I feel. If I felt a bit less, it would be different. It's just
because we've been the kind of pals we have been ... my dear ... my
dear!... that we mustn't go and spoil it now."

The low voice trembled, but now hers was lower still, and I at least
lost most of her answer ... "if you really cared for me ... to take me
away from a man who never did!" That much I heard, and this: "But you're
no better! You don't know what it is to--care!"

That brought an outburst, but not from the man beside me. He might have
been turned into part of the Ionic pillar. It was Uvo who talked, and I
for one who listened without another thought of the infamy of listening.
I was not there to listen to anybody, but to keep an eye on Ricardo; my
further action depended on his; but from the first his presence had
blunted my own sense of our joint dishonour, and now the sense was
simply dead. I was there with the best motives. I had even begun
listening with the best motives, as it were with a watching brief for
the unhappy pair. But I forgot both my behaviour and its excuse while
Uvo Delavoye was delivering his fine soul; for fine it was, with one
great twist in it that came out even now, when I least expected it, and
to the last conceivable intent. It is the one part of all he said that I
do not blush to have overheard.

"Let us help each other; for God's sake don't let us drag each other
down! That's not quite what I mean. I know it sounds rotten. I wonder if
I dare tell you what I do mean? It's not we who would do the dragging,
don't you see? You know who it is, who's pulling at us both like the
very devil that he was in life!"

Uvo laughed shortly, and now his tone was a tone I knew too well.
"Nobody has stood up to him yet," he went on; "it's about time somebody
did. Surely you and I can put up a bit of a fight between us? Surely we
aren't such ninepins as old Stainsby, Abercromby Royle, Guy Berridge
and all that lot?"

In the pause I figured her looking at him, as I had so often done when a
civil answer was impossible. But Mrs. Ricardo asked another question

"Is that your notion of laying the ghost?"

"Yes!" he said earnestly. "There's something not to be explained in all
the things that have happened since I've been here. To be absolutely
honest, I haven't always really and truly believed in all my own
explanations. I'm not sure that Gilly himself--that unbelieving
dog--didn't get nearer the mark on the night he was nearly burned to
death. But, if it's my own ghost, all the more reason to lay it; and, if
it isn't, those other poor brutes were helpless in their ignorance, but
I haven't their excuse!"

"I believe every word of it," said the poor soul with a sob. "When we
came here I thought we should be--well, happy enough in our way. But we
haven't had a day's happiness. You, you have given me the only happiness
I've ever had here, and now...."

"No; it's been the other way about," interrupted Uvo, sadly. "But
that's all over. I'm going to clear out, and you'll find things far
happier when I'm gone. It's I who have been the curse to you--to both of
you--if not to all the rest...."

His voice failed him; but there was no mistaking its fast resolve. Its
very tenderness was not more unmistakable, to me, than the fixity of a
resolution which my whole heart and soul applauded. And suddenly I was
flattering myself that the man by my side shared my intuitive confidence
and approval. He was no longer a man of stone; he had come to life
again. Those hands of his were not fiercely frozen to the crop, but
turning it gently round and round. Then they stopped. Then they moved
with the man's whole body. He was looking the other way, almost in the
direction by which he and I had approached the temple. And as I looked,
too, there were footsteps in the grass, Mrs. Ricardo passed close by us
with downcast eyes, and so back into the wood, with Uvo at arm's length
on the far side.

Then it was that I found myself mistaken in Ricardo. He had not taken
his eyes off the retreating pair. He was crouching to follow them, only
waiting till they were at a safe distance. I also waited--till they
disappeared--then I touched him on the shoulder.

He jumped up, gasping. I had my finger before my lips.

"Can't you trust them now?" I whispered.

"Spying!" he hissed when he could find his tongue.

"What about you, Captain Ricardo?"

"It was my wife."

"Well, it was my friend and you're his enemy. And his enemy was armed to
the teeth," I added, handing him the big stick that he had left leaning
against the wall.

"That wasn't for him. This was," muttered Ricardo, lapping the lash
round his crop. "I was going to horsewhip him within an inch of his
life. And now that you know all about it, too, I've a damned good mind
to do it still!"

"There are several reasons why you won't," I assured him.

"You're his bully, are you?" he snarled.

"I'm whatever you choose to make me, Captain Ricardo. Already you've
consoled me for doing a thing I never dreamt of doing in my life

"But, good God! I never dreamt of listening either. I was prepared for a
very different scene. And then--and then I thought perhaps I'd better
not make one after all! I thought it would only make things worse.
Things might have been worse still, don't you see?"

"Exactly. I think you behaved splendidly, all the same."

"But if you heard the whole thing----"

"I couldn't help myself. I found myself following you by pure chance.
Then I saw what you had in your hand."

With a common instinct for cover, we had drifted round to the other side
of the wall. And neither of us had raised his voice. But Ricardo never
had his eyes off me, as we played our tiny scene among the broken
columns, where Uvo and Mrs. Ricardo had just played theirs.

"Well, are you going to hold your tongue?" he asked me.

"If you hold yours," I answered.

"I mean--even as between you two!"

"That's just what I mean, Ricardo. If neither of us know what's
happened, nothing else need happen. 'Least said,' you know."

"Nothing whatever must be said. I'll trust you never to tell Delavoye,
and, if it makes you happier, you can trust me to say nothing to--to
anybody. It's my only chance," said Ricardo, hoarsely. "I've not been
all I might have been. I see it now. But perhaps ... it isn't ... too

And suddenly he seized me violently by the hand. Then I found myself
alone in the shadow of the wall which had once borne a fresco by
Nollikins, and I stood like a man awakened from a dream. In the
flattering moonlight, the sham survivals of the other century might have
been thousands of years old, their suburban setting some sylvan corner
of the Roman campagna.... Then once more I heard the nightingale, and it
sang me back into contemporary realities. I wondered if it had been
singing all the time. I had not heard less of it during the hour that
Uvo and I had spent underneath this very wood, four summers ago!

That was on the first night of our life at Witching Hill, and this was
to be our last. I arranged it beautifully when I got in and had tried to
explain how entirely I had lost my bearings in the wood. I told Uvo, and
it happened to be true, that I had been wondering why on earth he would
not come up north with me next day. And before midnight he had packed.

Then we sat up together for the last time in that back room of his on
the first floor, and watched the moon set in the tree-tops, and silver
leaves twinkle as the wood sighed in its sleep. One more pipe, and the
black sky was turning grey. A few more pipes, much talk about old times,
and the wood was a wood once more; its tossing crests were tipped with
emeralds in the flashing sun; and as tree after tree broke into a merry
din, we spoke of joy-bells taken up by steeple after steeple, and Uvo
read me eight lines that he had discovered somewhere while I was away.

    "Some cry up Gunnersbury,
      For Sion some declare,
    And some say that with Chiswick House
      No villa can compare;

    "But ask the beaux of Middlesex,
      Who know the country well,
    If Witching Hill--if Witching Hill--
      Don't bear away the bell."

"I hope you agree, Beau Gillon?" said Uvo, with the old wilful smile.
"By the way, I haven't mentioned him since you've been back, but on a
last morning like this you may be glad to hear that my old ghost of the
soil is laid at last.... The rest is silence, if you don't mind, old


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