The Devil's Paw by E. Phillips Oppenheim - HTML preview
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It was at some nameless hour in the early morning when Julian's vigil came to an end, when the handle of his door was slowly turned, and the door itself pushed open and closed again. Julian, lying stretched upon his bed, only half prepared for the night, with a dressing gown wrapped around him, continued to breathe heavily, his eyes half-closed, listening intently to the fluttering of light garments, the soft, almost noiseless footfall of light feet. He heard her shake out his dinner coat, try the pockets, heard the stealthy opening and closing of the drawers in his wardrobe. Presently the footsteps drew near to his bed. For a moment he was obliged to set his teeth. A little waft of peculiar, unanalysable perfume, half-fascinating, half-repellent, came to him with a sense of disturbing familiarity. She paused by his bedside. He felt her hand steal under the pillow, which his head scarcely touched; search the pockets of his dressing gown, search even the bed. He listened to her soft breathing. The consciousness of her close and intimate presence affected him in an inexplicable manner. Presently, to his intense relief, she glided away from his immediate neighbourhood, and the moment for which he had waited came. He heard her retreating footsteps pass through the communicating door into his little sitting room, where he had purposely left a light burning. He slipped softly from the bed and followed her. She was bending over an open desk as he crossed the threshold.
He closed the door and stood with his back to it.
"Much warmer," he said, "only, you see, it isn't there."
She started violently at the sound of his voice, but she did not immediately turn around.
When she did so, her demeanour was almost a shock to him. There was no sign of nervousness or apology in her manner. Her eyes flashed at him angrily. She wore a loose red wrap trimmed with white fur, a dishabille unusually and provokingly attractive.
"So you were shamming sleep!" she exclaimed indignantly.
"Entirely," he admitted.
Neither spoke for a moment. Her eyes fell upon a tumbler of whisky and soda, which stood on a round table drawn up by the side of his easy-chair.
"I have not come to bed thirsty," he assured her. "I had another one downstairs - to which I helped myself. This one I brought up to try if I could remember sufficient of my chemistry to determine its contents. I have been able to decide, to my great relief, that your intention was probably to content yourself with plunging me into only temporary slumber."
"I wanted you out of the way whilst I searched your rooms," she told him coolly. "If you were not such an obstinate, pigheaded, unkind, prejudiced person, it would not have been necessary."
"Dear me!" he murmured. "Am I all that? Won't you sit down?"
For a moment she looked as though she were about to strike him with the electric torch which she was carrying. With a great effort of self-control, however, she changed her mind and threw herself into his easy-chair with a little gesture of recklessness. Julian seated himself opposite to her. Although she kept her face as far as possible averted, he realised more than ever in those few moments that she was really an extraordinarily beautiful person. Her very attitude was full of an angry grace. The quivering of her lips was the only sign of weakness. Her eyes were filled with cold resentment.
"Well," she said, "I am your prisoner. I listen."
"You are after that packet, I suppose?"
"What sagacity!" she scoffed. "I trusted you with it, and you behaved like a brute. You kept it. It has nothing to do with you. You have no right to it."
"Let us understand one another, once and for all," he suggested. "I will not even discuss the question of rightful or wrongful possession. I have the packet, and I am going to keep it. You cannot cajole it put of me, you cannot steal it from me. Tomorrow I shall take it to London and deliver it to my friend at the Foreign Office. Nothing could induce me to change my mind."
She seemed suddenly to be caught up in the vortex of a new emotion. All the bitterness passed from her expression. She fell on her knees by his side, sought his hands, and lifted her face, full of passionate entreaty, to his. Her eyes were dimmed with tears, her voice piteous.
"Do not be so cruel, so hard," she begged. "I swear before Heaven that there is no treason in those papers, that they are the one necessary link in a great, humanitarian scheme. Be generous, Mr. Orden. Julian! Give it back to me. It is mine. I swear - "
His hands gripped her shoulders. She was conscious that he was looking past her, and that there was horror in his eyes. The words died away on her lips. She, too, turned her head. The door of the sitting room had been opened from outside. Lord Maltenby was standing there in his dressing gown, his hand stretched out behind him as though to keep some one from following him.
"Julian," he demanded sternly, "what is the meaning of this?"
For a moment Julian was speechless, bereft of words, or sense of movement. Catherine still knelt there, trembling. Then Lord Maltenby was pushed unceremoniously to one side. It was the Princess who entered.
"Catherine!" she screamed. "Catherine!"
The girl rose slowly to her feet. The Princess was leaning on the back of a chair, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief and sobbing hysterically. Lord Shervinton's voice was heard outside.
"What the devil is all this commotion?" he demanded.
He, too, crossed the threshold and remained transfixed. The Earl closed the door firmly and stood with his back against it.
"Come," he said, "we will have no more spectators to this disgraceful scene. Julian, kindly remember you are not in your bachelor apartments. You are in the house over which your mother presides. Have you any reason to offer, or excuse to urge, why I should not ask this young woman to leave at daybreak?"
"I have no excuse, sir," Julian answered, "I certainly have a reason."
"Because you would be putting an affront upon the lady who has promised to become my wife. I am quite aware that her presence in my sitting room is unusual, but under the circumstances I do not feel called upon to offer a general explanation. I shall say nothing beyond the fact that a single censorious remark will be considered by me as an insult to my affianced wife."
The Princess abandoned her chorus of mournful sounds and dried her eyes. Lord Waltenby was speechless.
"But why all this mystery?" the Princess asked pitifully. "It is a great event, this. Why did you not tell me, Catherine, when you came to my room?"
"There has been some little misunderstanding," Julian explained. "It is now removed. It brought us," he added, "very near tragedy. After what I have told you, I beg whatever may seem unusual to you in this visit with which Catherine has honoured me will be forgotten."
Lord Maltenby drew a little breath of relief. Fortunately, he missed that slight note of theatricality in Julian's demeanour which might have left the situation still dubious.
"Very well, then, Julian," he decided, "there is nothing more to be said upon the matter.
Miss Abbeway, you will allow me to escort you to your room. Such further explanations as you may choose to offer us can be very well left now until the morning."
"You will find that the whole blame for this unconventional happening devolves upon me," Julian declared.
"It was entirely my fault," Catherine murmured repentantly. "I am so sorry to have given any one cause for distress. I do not know, even now - "
She turned towards Julian. He leaned forward and raised her fingers to his lips.
"Catherine," he said, "every one is a little overwrought. Our misunderstanding is finished. Princess, I shall try to win your forgiveness tomorrow."
The Princess smiled faintly.
"Catherine is so unusual," she complained.
Julian held open the door, and they all filed away down the corridor, from which Lord Shervinton had long since beat a hurried retreat. He stood there until they reached the bend. Catherine, who was leaning on his father's arm, turned around. She waved her hand a little irresolutely. She was too far off for him to catch her expression, but there was something pathetic in her slow, listless walk, from which all the eager grace of a few hours ago seemed to have departed.
It was not until they were nearing London, on the following afternoon, that Catherine awoke from a lethargy during which she had spent the greater portion of the journey.
From her place in the corner seat of the compartment in which they had been undisturbed since leaving Wells, she studied her companion through half-closed eyes. Julian was reading an article in one of the Reviews and remained entirely unconscious of her scrutiny. His forehead was puckered, his mouth a little contemptuous. It was obvious that he did not wholly approve of what be was reading.
Catherine, during those few hours of solitude, was conscious of a subtle, slowly growing change in her mental attitude towards her companion. Until the advent of those dramatic hours at Maltenby, she had regarded him as a pleasant, even a charming acquaintance, but as belonging to a type with which she was entirely and fundamentally out of sympathy. The cold chivalry of his behaviour on the preceding night and the result of her own reflections as she sat there studying him made her inclined to doubt the complete accuracy of her first judgment. She found something unexpectedly intellectual and forceful in his present concentration, - in the high, pale forehead, the deep-set but alert eyes. His long, loose frame was yet far from ungainly; his grey tweed suit and well-worn brown shoes the careless attire of a man who has no need to rely on his tailor for distinction. His hands, too, were strong and capable. She found herself suddenly wishing that the man himself were different, that he belonged to some other and more congenial type.
Julian, in course of time, laid down the Review which he had been studying and looked out of the window.
"We shall be in London in three quarters of an hour," he announced politely.
She sat up and yawned, produced her vanity case, peered into the mirror, and used her powder puff with the somewhat piquant assurance of the foreigner. Then she closed her dressing case with a snap, pulled down her veil, and looked across at him.
"And how," she asked demurely, "does my fiance propose to entertain me this evening?"
He raised his eyebrows.
"With the exception of one half-hour," he replied unexpectedly, "I am wholly at your service."
"I am exacting," she declared. "I demand that half-hour also."
"I am afraid that I could not allow anything to interfere with one brief call which I must pay."
"In Downing Street?"
"You go to visit your friend at the Foreign Office?"
"Immediately I have called at my rooms."
She looked away from him out of the window. Beneath her veil her eyes were a little misty. She saw nothing of the trimly partitioned fields, the rolling pastoral country.
Before her vision tragedies seemed to pass, - the blood-stained paraphernalia of the battlefield, the empty, stricken homes, the sobbing women in black, striving to comfort their children whilst their own hearts were breaking. When she turned away from the window, her face was hardened. Once more she found herself almost hating the man who was her companion. Whatever might come afterwards, at that moment she had the sensations of a murderess.
"You may know when you sleep to-night," she exclaimed, "that you will be the blood-guiltiest man in the world!"
"I would not dispute the title," he observed politely, "with your friend the Hohenzollern."
"He is not my friend," she retorted, her tone vibrating with passion. "I am a traitress in your eyes because I have received a communication from Germany. From whom does it come, do you think? >From the Court? From the Chancellor or one of his myrmidons?
Fool! It comes from those who hate the whole military party. It comes from the Germany whose people have been befooled and strangled throughout the war. It comes from the people whom your politicians have sought to reach and failed."
"The suggestion is interesting," he remarked coldly, "but improbable."
"Do you know," she said, leaning a little forward and looking at him fixedly, "if I were really your fiancee - worse! if I were really your wife - I think that before long I should be a murderess!"
"Do you dislike me as much as all that?"
"I hate you! I think you are the most pigheaded, obstinate, self-satisfied, ignorant creature who ever ruined a great cause."
He accepted the lash of her words without any sign of offence, - seemed, indeed, inclined to treat them reflectively.
"Come," he protested, "you have wasted a lot of breath in abusing me. Why not justify it?
Tell me the story of yourself and those who are associated with you in this secret correspondence with Germany? If you are working for a good end, let me know of it.
You blame me for judging you, for maintaining a certain definite poise. You are not reasonable, you know."
"I blame you for being what you are," she answered breathlessly. "If you were a person who understood, who felt the great stir of humanity outside your own little circle, who could look across your seas and realise that nationality is accidental and that the brotherhood of man throughout the world is the only real fact worthy of consideration – ah! if you could realise these things, I could talk, I could explain."
"You judge me in somewhat arbitrary fashion."
"I judge you from your life, your prejudices, even the views which you have expressed."
"There are some of us," he reminded her, "to whom reticence is a national gift. I like what you said just now. Why should you take it for granted that I am a narrow squireen? Why shouldn't you believe that I, too, may feel the horror of these days?"
"You feel it personally but not impersonally," she cried. "You feel it intellectually but not with your heart. You cannot see that a kindred soul lives in the Russian peasant and the German labourer, the British toiler and the French artificer. They are all pouring out their blood for the sake of their dream, a politician's dream. Freedom isn't won by wars. It must be won, if ever, by moral sacrifice and not with blood."
"Then explain to me," he begged, "exactly what you are doing? What your reason is for being in communication with the German Government? Remember that the dispatch I intercepted came from no private person in Germany. It came from those in authority."
"That again is not true," she replied. "I would ask for permission to explain all these things to you, if it were not so hopeless."
"The case of your friends will probably be more hopeless still," he reminded her, "after to-night."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"We shall see," she said solemnly. "The Russian revolution surprised no one. Perhaps an English revolution would shake even your self-confidence."
He made no reply. Her blood tingled, and she could have struck him for the faint smile, almost of amusement, which for a moment parted his lips. He was already on his feet, collecting their belongings.
"Can you help me," he asked, "with reference to the explanations which it will be necessary to make to your aunt and to my own people? We left this morning, if you remember, in order that you might visit the Russian Embassy and announce our betrothal.
You are, I believe, under an engagement to return and stay with my mother."
"I cannot think about those things to-day," she replied. "You may take it that I am tired and that you had business. You know my address. May I be favoured with yours?"
He handed her a card and scribbled a telephone number upon it. They were in the station now, and their baggage in the hands of separate porters. She walked slowly down the platform by his side.
"Will you allow me to say," he ventured, "how sorry I am - for all this?"
The slight uncertainty of his speech pleased her. She looked up at him with infinite regret. As they neared the barrier, she held out her hand.
"I, too, am more sorry than I can tell you;" she said a little tremulously. "Whatever may come, that is how I feel myself. I am sorry."
They separated almost upon the words. Catherine was accosted by a man at whom Julian glanced for a moment in surprise, a man whose dress and bearing, confident though it was, clearly indicated some other status in life. He glanced at Julian with displeasure, a displeasure which seemed to have something of jealousy in its composition. Then he grasped Catherine warmly by the hand.
"Welcome back to London, Miss Abbeway! Your news?"
Her reply was inaudible. Julian quickened his pace and passed out of the station ahead of them.