The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim - HTML preview
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Sir Everard Dominey, Baronet, the latest and most popular recruit to Norfolk sporting society, stood one afternoon, some months after his return from Germany, at the corner of the long wood which stretched from the ridge of hills behind almost to the kitchen gardens of the Hall. At a reasonable distance on his left, four other guns were posted. On one side of him stood Middleton, leaning on his ash stick and listening to the approach of the beaters; on the other, Seaman, curiously out of place in his dark grey suit and bowler hat. The old keeper, whom time seemed to have cured of all his apprehensions, was softly garrulous and very happy.
"That do seem right to have a Squire Dominey at this corner," he observed, watching a high cock pheasant come crashing down over their heads. "I mind when the Squire, your father, sir, gave up this corner one day to Lord Wendermere, whom folks called one of the finest pheasant shots in England, and though they streamed over his head like starlings, he'd nowt but a few cripples to show for his morning's work."
"Come out with a bit of a twist from the left, don't they?" Dominey remarked, repeating his late exploit.
"They do that, sir," the old man assented, "and no one but a Dominey seems to have learnt the knack of dealing with them proper. That foreign Prince, so they say, is well on to his birds, but I wouldn't trust him at this corner."
The old man moved off a few paces to some higher ground, to watch the progress of the beaters through the wood. Seaman turned to his companion, and there was a note of genuine admiration in his tone.
"My friend," he declared, "You are a miracle. You seem to have developed the Dominey touch even in killing pheasants."
"You must remember that I have shot higher ones in Hungary," was the easy reply.
"I am not a sportsman," Seaman admitted. "I do not understand sport. But I do know this: there is an old man who has lived on this land since the day of his birth, who has watched you shoot, reverently, and finds even the way you hold your gun familiar."
"That twist of the birds," Dominey explained, "is simply a local superstition. The wood ends on the slant, and they seem to be flying more to the left than they really are."
Seaman gazed steadfastly for a moment along the side of the wood.
"Her Grace is coming," he said. "She seems to share the Duke's dislike of me, and she is too great a lady to conceal her feelings. Just one word before I go. The Princess Eiderstrom arrives this afternoon."
Dominey frowned, then, warned by the keeper's shout, turned around and killed a hare.
"My friend," he said, with a certain note of challenge in his tone, "I am not certain that you have told me all that you know concerning the Princess's visit."
Seaman was thoughtful for a brief space of time.
"You are right," he admitted, "I have not. It is a fault which I will repair presently."
He strolled away to the next stand, where Mr. Mangan was displaying an altogether different standard of proficiency. The Duchess came up to Dominey a few minutes later.
"I told Henry I shouldn't stop with him another moment," she declared. "He has fired off about forty cartridges and wounded one hare."
"Henry is not keen," Dominey remarked, "although I think you are a little hard on him, are you not? I saw him bring down a nice cock just now. So far as regards the birds, it really does not matter. They are all going home."
The Duchess was very smartly tailored in clothes of brown leather mixture. She wore thick shoes and gaiters and a small hat. She was looking very well but a little annoyed.
"I hear," she said, "that Stephanie is coming to-day."
Dominey nodded, and seemed for a moment intent on watching the flight of a pigeon which kept tantalisingly out of range.
"She is coming down for a few days," he assented. "I am afraid that she will be bored to death."
"Where did you become so friendly with her?" his cousin asked curiously.
"The first time we ever met," Dominey replied, "was in the Carlton grill room, a few days after I landed in England. She mistook me for some one else, and we parted with the usual apologies. I met her the same night at Carlton House Terrace--she is related to the Terniloffs --and we came across one another pretty often after that, during the short time I was in town."
"Yes," the Duchess murmured meditatively. "That is another of the little surprises you seem to have all ready dished up for us. How on earth did you become so friendly with the German Ambassador?"
Dominey smiled tolerantly.
"Really," he replied, "there is not anything so very extraordinary about it, is there? Mr.
Seaman, my partner in one or two mining enterprises, took me to call upon him. He is very interested in East Africa, politically and as a sportsman. Our conversations seemed to interest him and led to a certain intimacy--of which I may say that I am proud. I have the greatest respect and liking for the Prince."
"So have I," Caroline agreed. "I think he's charming. Henry declares that he must be either a fool or a knave."
"Henry is blinded by prejudice," Dominey declared a little impatiently. "He cannot imagine a German who feasts with any one else but the devil."
"Don't get annoyed, dear," she begged, resting her fingers for a moment upon his coat sleeve. "I admire the Prince immensely. He is absolutely the only German I ever met whom one felt instinctively to be a gentleman.-- Now what are you smiling at?"
Dominey turned a perfectly serious face towards her. "Not guilty," he pleaded.
"I saw you smile."
"It was just a quaint thought. You are rather sweeping, are you not, Caroline?"
"I'm generally right," she declared.-- "To return to the subject of Stephanie."
"Do you know whom she mistook you for in the Carlton grill room?"
"Tell me?" he answered evasively.
"She mistook you for a Baron Leopold Von Ragastein," Caroline continued drily. "Von Ragastein was her lover in Hungary. He fought a duel with her husband and killed him. The Kaiser was furious and banished him to East Africa."
Dominey picked up his shooting-stick and handed his gun to Middleton. The beaters were through the wood.
"Yes, I remember now," he said. "She addressed me as Leopold."
"I still don't see why it was necessary to invite her here," his companion observed a little petulantly. "She may--call you Leopold again!"
"If she does, I shall be deaf," Dominey promised. "But seriously, she is a cousin of the Princess Terniloff, and the two women are devoted to one another. The Princess hates shooting parties, so I thought they could entertain one another."
"Bosh! Stephanie will monopolise you all the time! That's what's she's coming for."
"You are not suggesting that she intends seriously to put me in the place of my double?" Dominey asked, with mock alarm.
"Oh, I shouldn't wonder! And she's an extraordinarily attractive woman. I'm full of complaints, Everard. There's that other horrible little man, Seaman. You know that the very sight of him makes Henry furious. I am quite sure that he never expected to sit down at the same table with him."
"I am really sorry about that," Dominey assured her, "but you see His Excellency takes a great interest in him on account of this Friendship League, of which Seaman is secretary, and he particularly asked to have him here."
"Well, you must admit that the situation is a little awkward for Henry," she complained. "Next to Lord Roberts, Henry is practically the leader of the National Service movement here; he hates Germany and distrusts every German he ever met, and in a small house party like this we meet the German Ambassador and a man who is working hard to lull to sleep the very sentiments which Henry is endeavouring to arouse."
"It sounds very pathetic," Dominey admitted, with a smile, "but even Henry likes Terniloff, and after all it is stimulating to meet one's opponents sometimes."
"Of course he likes Terniloff," Caroline assented, "but he hates the things he stands for. However, I'd have forgiven you everything if only Stephanie weren't coming. That woman is really beginning to irritate me. She always seems to be making mysterious references to some sentimental past in which you both are concerned, and for which there can be no foundation at all except your supposed likeness to her exiled lover. Why, you never met her until that day at the Carlton!"
"She was a complete stranger to me," Dominey asserted.
"Then all I can say is that you have been unusually rapid if you've managed to create a past in something under three months!" Caroline pronounced suspiciously. "I call her coming here a most bare-faced proceeding, especially as this is practically a bachelor establishment."
They had arrived at the next stand, and conversation was temporarily suspended. A flight of wild duck were put out from a pool in the wood, and for a few minutes every one was busy. Middleton watched his master with unabated approval.
"You're most as good as the old Squire with them high duck, Sir Everard," he said. "That's true very few can touch 'em when they're coming out nigh to the pheasants. They can't believe in the speed of 'em."
"Do you think Sir Everard shoots as well as he did before he went to Africa?" Caroline asked.
Middleton touched his hat and turned to Seaman, who was standing in the background.
"Better, your Grace," he answered, "as I was saying to this gentleman here, early this morning. He's cooler like and swings more level. I'd have known his touch on a gun anywhere, though."
There was a glint of admiration in Seaman's eyes. The beaters came through the wood, and the little party of guns gossiped together while the game was collected. Terniloff, his usual pallor chased away by the bracing wind and the pleasure of the sport, was affable and even loquacious. He had great estates of his own in Saxony and was explaining to the Duke his manner of shooting them. Middleton glanced at his horn-rimmed watch.
"There's another hour's good light, sir," he said. "Would you care about a partridge drive, or should we do through the home copse?"
"If I might make a suggestion," Terniloff observed diffidently, "most of the pheasants went into that gloomy-looking wood just across the marshes."
There was a moment's rather curious silence. Dominey had turned and was looking towards the wood in question, as though fascinated by its almost sinister-like blackness and density. Middleton had dropped some game he was carrying and was muttering to himself.
"We call that the Black Wood," Dominey said calmly, "and I am rather afraid that the pheasants who find their way there claim sanctuary. What do you think, Middleton?"
The old man turned his head slowly and looked at his master. Somehow or other, every scrap of colour seemed to have faded out of his bronzed face. His eyes were filled with that vague horror of the supernatural common amongst the peasant folk of various localities. His voice shook. The old fear was back again.
"You wouldn't put the beaters in there, Squire?" he faltered; "not that there's one of them would go."
"Have we stumbled up against a local superstition?" the Duke enquired.
"That's not altogether local, your Grace," Middleton replied, "as the Squire himself will tell you. I doubt whether there's a beater in all Norfolk would go through the Black Wood, if you paid him red gold for it.-- Here, you lads."
He turned to the beaters, who were standing waiting for instructions a few yards away. There were a dozen of them, stalwart men for the most part, clad in rough smocks and breeches and carrying thick sticks.
"There's one of the gentlemen here," Middleton announced, addressing them, "who wants to know if you'd go through the Black Wood of Dominey for a sovereign apiece?-- Watch their faces, your Grace.-- Now then, lads?"
There was no possibility of any mistake. The very suggestion seemed to have taken the healthy sunburn from their cheeks. They fumbled with their sticks uneasily. One of them touched his hat and spoke to Dominey.
"I'm one as 'as seen it, sir, as well as heard," he said. "I'd sooner give up my farm than go nigh the place."
Caroline suddenly passed her arm through Dominey's. There was a note of distress in her tone.
"Henry, you're an idiot!" she exclaimed. "It was my fault, Everard. I'm so sorry. Just for one moment I had forgotten. I ought to have stopped Henry at once. The poor man has no memory."
Dominey's arm responded for a moment to the pressure of her fingers. Then he turned to the beaters.
"Well, no one is going to ask you to go to the Black Wood," he promised. "Get round to the back of Hunt's stubbles, and bring them into the roots and then over into the park. We will line the park fence. How is that, Middleton?"
The keeper touched his hat and stepped briskly off.
"I'll just have a walk with them myself, sir," he said. "Them birds do break at Fuller's corner. I'll see if I can flank them. You'll know where to put the guns, Squire."
Dominey nodded. One and all the beaters were walking with most unaccustomed speed towards their destination. Their backs were towards the Black Wood. Terniloff came up to his host.
"Have I, by chance, been terribly tactless?" he asked.
Dominey shook his head.
"You asked a perfectly natural question, Prince," he replied. "There is no reason why you should not know the truth. Near that wood occurred the tragedy which drove me from England for so many years."
"I am deeply grieved," the Prince began--
"It is false sentiment to avoid allusions to it," Dominey interrupted. "I was attacked there one night by a man who had some cause for offence against me. We fought, and I reached home in a somewhat alarming state. My condition terrified my wife so much that she has been an invalid ever since. But here is the point which has given birth to all these superstitions, and which made me for many years a suspected person. The man with whom I fought has never been seen since."
Terniloff was at once too fascinated by the story and puzzled by his host's manner of telling it to maintain his apologetic attitude.
"Never seen since!" he repeated.
"My own memory as to the end of our fight is uncertain," Dominey continued. "My impression is that I left my assailant unconscious upon the ground."
"Then it is his ghost, I imagine, who haunts the Black Wood?"
Dominey shook himself as one who would get rid of an unwholesome thought.
"The wood itself, Prince," he explained, as they walked along, "is a noisome place. There are quagmires even in the middle of it, where a man may sink in and be never heard of again. Every sort of vermin abounds there, every unclean insect and bird are to be found in the thickets. I suppose the character of the place has encouraged the local superstition in which every one of those men firmly believes."
"They absolutely believe the place to be haunted, then?"
"The superstition goes further," Dominey continued. "Our locals say that somewhere in the heart of the wood, where I believe that no human being for many years has dared to penetrate, there is living in the spiritual sense some sort of a demon who comes out only at night and howls underneath my windows."
"Has any one ever seen it?"
"One or two of the villagers; to the best of my belief, no one else," Dominey replied.
Terniloff seemed on the point of asking more questions, but the Duke touched him on the arm and drew him to one side, as though to call his attention to the sea fogs which were rolling up from the marshes.
"Prince," he whispered, "the details of that story are inextricably mixed up with the insanity of Lady Dominey. I am sure you understand."
The Prince, a diplomatist to his fingertips, appeared shocked, although a furtive smile still lingered upon his lips.
"I regret my faux pas most deeply," he murmured. "Sir Everard," he went on, "you promised to tell me of some of your days with a shotgun in South Africa. Isn't there a bird there which corresponds with your partridges?"
"If you can kill the partridges which Middleton is going to send over in the next ten minutes," he said, "you could shoot anything of the sort that comes along in East Africa, with a catapult. If you will stand just a few paces there to the left, Henry, Terniloff by the gate, Stillwell up by the left-hand corner, Mangan next, Eddy next, and I shall be just beyond towards the oak clump. Will you walk with me, Caroline?"
His cousin took his arm as they walked off and pressed it.
"Everard, I congratulate you," she said. "You have conquered your nerve absolutely. You did a simple and a fine thing to tell the whole story. Why, you were almost matter-of-fact. I could even have imagined you were telling it about some one else."
Her host smiled enigmatically.
"Curious that it should have struck you like that," he remarked. "Do you know, when I was telling it I had the same feeling.-- Do you mind crouching down a little now? I am going to blow the whistle."