Arthur J. Rees.

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"I have come down from London purposely to see her," he said anxiously.
"My business is very important."

"Could you not tell me?" she murmured.

"I am afraid not."

She fidgeted and came a little closer, as though she liked the nearness of
his handsome presence.

"Very well, you shall see her, but you won't be able to talk to her. Come
with me."

They went from the room and upstairs. Miss Pursill opened a door on the
first floor and beckoned Charles to enter. It was a bedroom, furnished on
the same scale of antique magnificence as the drawing-room downstairs. In
a deep armchair in front of a fire sat an old woman, tucked up in an
eiderdown of blue and white satin. She did not look round as they entered,
but remained quite still - an immobile figure with a nodding head.

"That is Mrs. Pursill," said her daughter.

Charles glanced at the old woman in the chair and turned away. She was
past anything except waiting for death, and it was impossible to speak to
her or question her. She was in the last stage of senile decay. He masked
his disappointment with an effort, conscious that the eyes of the younger
woman were fixed on his face.

"If there is anything I can tell you - " she simpered, as she met his
glance.

His face betrayed his anxiety.

"I had some reason to think that a young lady of my acquaintance, the
daughter of an old friend of your mother's, might be staying with her."

"There is no young lady here," said Miss Pursill with a hard look. "I know
nothing about it. What is her name?"

"I have made a mistake, I am afraid." Charles was instantly on his guard.
"I am really very sorry - "

She was not altogether proof against the winning smile with which he
tendered an apology, but she looked at him strangely as she accompanied
him downstairs to the front door.

Charles went back to London with a dark and angry face. His anger was
directed against Fate, which had arranged such a fantastic anticlimax for
his cherished hopes. The blow was almost too much for him. He had deceived
himself into thinking that he would find Sisily at Charleswood, and he
felt that he had really lost her. He was now reduced to searching for her
in the great wilderness of London, which seemed a hopeless task.

By the time the train reached Charing Cross he rallied from his fit of
despondency. He refused to despair. Sisily was somewhere in London, at
that moment walking alone among its countless hordes, perhaps thinking of
him. He would find her - he must! Where to commence? She had reached
Paddington only a few nights ago, so that was obviously the logical
starting-point of any inquiries. To Paddington he went, this time in a
taxi-cab.

He had an extraordinary initial piece of luck. Fortune, either regretting
her previous treatment or tantalizing him in feminine fashion with the
expectation of greater favours to come, threw him at the very outset of
his inquiries against the red-headed luggage porter who had spoken with
Sisily on her arrival from Penzance. The porter, leaning against the white
enamelled walls of a Tube passage, pictured the scene with much loquacity,
and a faithful recollection of his own share in the interview. Charles
anxiously asked him if the young lady he had encountered was very
pretty - pale and dark. The porter, with a judicial air, responded that
looks in women was, after all, a matter of taste - what was one man's meat
was another man's poison, as you might say - but this young lady had dark
hair and eyes, and her face hadn't too much colour in it, so far as he
remembered. He apologized for this vagueness of description on the plea
that one girl was very like another to a man who saw them in droves every
day, as he did. But one or two minute particulars of her dress which he
was able to supply convinced Charles that he had seen Sisily. The man
added that as far as he knew the young lady went on to Euston Square,
though he couldn't say he'd actually seen her catch the train for there.

It was not until he had pocketed the half-crown Charles gave him that he
added a piece of information of some importance.

"You're not the first who's been inquiring about this particular young
lady," he said. "There was somebody before you - let me see - Thursday it
was. He came strolling along, affable as you please, and seemed to know
all about it before he started. 'That young lady who arrived by the
Cornwall train on Tuesday night, porter, and asked you the way to Euston
Square - what was she like?' That took me back a bit, but I told him, just
as I've told you. He asked me another question or two, and then went into
the station-master's office."

"What was he like?"

"Not much older than yourself, in a brown suit, tall and thin, with
sharpish features and quick smiling eyes."

Barrant! Charles recognized the description with a sinking heart. He
turned away with a sickening sense of the impotence of his own efforts.
Scotland Yard was searching for Sisily, and no doubt had warned all the
London police to look out for her. She might be arrested any minute.
Outside the station he bought an evening paper from a yelling newsboy, and
hastily scanned the headlines under the flare of a street lamp. There was
nothing about the Cornwall murder. So far they were safe. His own
departure from Cornwall had apparently caused no suspicion, and Sisily was
still free - somewhere in London.

Where? To find her - that was his task. He rallied sharply from his
despondency. He would pit himself against the police. A desperate man,
guided by love, could do much - might even outwit the tremendous forces of
Scotland Yard. He would not be worthy of Sisily if he lost heart because
the odds were against him. Fortune's wheel might have a lucky turn in
store for him.

He beckoned a passing taxi-cab. "Euston Square," he said as he entered.
That was obviously the next point of his search.

But Fortune vouchsafed him no more favours that day. His dive into the
crowded depths of Euston Square brought forth no result - no clue which
would help in his search. He interviewed many keepers of the "temperance
hotels" and boarding-houses which abounded in that quarter, all sorts of
women, but all alike in their quick suspicious resentment of his guarded
inquiries and in their pretended ignorance of past visitors to their dingy
portals. He had little experience of the embittered sordid outlook of a
class which earned its own bread by supplying indifferent food and shelter
to London's floating population, but after his fiftieth repulse he had no
difficulty in reaching the conclusion that the police were again ahead of
him with their inquiries.

Nevertheless he persevered fruitlessly until a late hour before returning
to his hotel to pass a sleepless night in a fever of baffled excitement.
Not till then did he realize how much he had been upheld by the hope of
finding Sisily at Charleswood. He was lost in a maze of conjectures,
fears, and impossible plans, though his intelligence told him that no plan
of search he could form was likely to be of the slightest use. Only luck
could help him there, and it was part of the hopelessness of the situation
that he dared not invoke the aid of any of those agencies or organizations
which make it their business to find persons who have disappeared in
London. His search must be a solitary one.

The morning saw him enter upon it with a feverish energy borrowed from the
future and the desperate optimism of a temperament willing to gamble with
Fortune against such incalculable odds. At first he attempted to divine
the motives likely to actuate a girl ignorant of London in seeking a
hiding-place there, and shaped his search accordingly; but he gave that up
after a while, and decided to search the streets of the inner suburbs, in
the hope of encountering her sooner or later. His method was to purchase a
map of each district, and explore it thoroughly from one end to the other.
He got his meals anywhere, and slept in the nearest hotel where he
happened to find himself late at night. But his meals were often missed
and his broken sleep haunted with nightmare visions of the pitfalls and
snares spread for inexperienced girls in London.

So Charles passed nearly a week of interminable tramping of London
streets, scanning the endless medley of faces in the hope of a chance
glimpse of Sisily's wistful eyes and pale features. But it is one thing to
gamble with Fortune, and another to win from her. Sometimes she flattered
Charles with a chance resemblance which sent him flying across the traffic
at the risk of his life, and once he sprang off a 'bus after a girl he saw
vanishing into an Underground lift, but it was not Sisily. The end of the
week saw him returning from uncharted areas of outer London to the more
familiar thoroughfares of the city's life, for in that time his dauntless
spirit had realized the colossal folly of any attempt to search London by
system. He had no intention of abandoning his quest, but he now felt that
it did not matter where his footsteps led him, because it was only by a
piece of wonderful luck that he could ever hope to meet Sisily. He did not
even know if she was in London. But he believed she was, and some
indomitable inward whisper kept assuring him that he would find her sooner
or later. So he kept on - and on, seeking the vision of his desires with
the insatiable eagerness of a man pursuing the unreachable horizon of a
hashish dream.

It was towards the end of this time that it occurred to Charles to wonder
if Sisily had made her way to Charleswood since his first visit there. He
was resting in a Lambeth public-house after an exhausting day's wanderings
over South London when this thought came to him. He sat up, slapping his
thigh with excitement, asking himself why he had not thought of that
before. It was a chance - certainly a chance. He decided to run down to
Charleswood again on the following afternoon.

He did, and found himself disappointed once more. The elegant Miss Pursill
had gone to Brighton for change of air, but the pretty maid, who had been
left behind to look after the house and the decayed old lady, assured him
that there had been nobody to see Mrs. Pursill since his last visit. Miss
Pursill went away the very next day after he was down, and there had been
no callers or visitors.

She imparted this information at first with a sparkle of coquetry in her
eye, then with a glance of compassion as she noticed how much the debonair
visitor had changed for the worse since she saw him last. She looked at
him solicitously, as though she would have liked to remove with womanly
hands the marks of neglect from his apparel. From the door she watched him
making his way back to the station. She stood there in the shade of the
evening, following him with her eyes until the bend of the road hid him
from view.




CHAPTER XXV


The train was moving out after the briefest stop at a place so
unimportant, and he swung himself into one of the carriages gliding past
him. At first he thought the compartment was empty, but as the train
emerged from a tunnel immediately beyond the station gates he observed a
man with glasses reading a newspaper in the opposite corner seat. That
reminded him to buy an evening paper at the next stopping place, a town of
some importance, where a number of intending passengers were waiting on
the platform. Several pushed past him into the compartment. He did not
heed them. He sat in a deep reverie, his paper unfolded in his hand, past
scenes flowing through his brain as the train sped on towards London. The
carriage and its occupants receded from his vision, and he was back again
on the Cornwall cliffs with Sisily. Her face appeared before his eyes just
as he had seen it in their last parting.

He came back with an effort to the world of events, and unfolded his
newspaper. That was a daily ordeal from which he shrank, yet dared not
evade. During the past week he had faced it in all sorts of places: street
corners, public squares, obscure restaurants, the burrowed windings of
Underground stations, and once in the dark interior of a cinema where he
had followed a girl with a vague resemblance to Sisily. As the days went
on and he read nothing to alarm him, his tension grew less. It really
looked as if Scotland Yard and the newspapers had forgotten all about the
Cornwall murder, or had relegated it to the list of undiscoverable
mysteries.

He now glanced at the headlines listlessly enough. The editor could offer
nothing better on his front page that night than Ireland and the
industrial situation. Charles opened the sheet and looked inside. His
listlessness vanished as his eye fell upon his own name. In the guise of
fat black capitals it headed a half-column article about his uncle's
death. Charles read it through, slowly and deliberately, to the end. He
learnt that there had been what the writer called fresh developments in
the case. The police were now looking for another suspect - himself. The
detective engaged upon the case had suspicions of the murdered man's
nephew for some time past, but had his reasons for reticence - reasons
which had now so completely disappeared that Scotland Yard had made public
a full description of the young man and the additional information that he
was supposed to be in London. Charles found himself reading the
description of himself with the detached, slightly wondering air with
which a man might be supposed to read his own death notice. He weighed the
personal details quite critically. Young and tall. Yes. Good-looking. Was
he? Dark blue eyes. Were they? He had never thought about them. Of
gentlemanly appearance. That read like the advertisement of a Cheapside
tailor - what was a gentlemanly appearance, if he had it? He had always
associated it with a cheap lounge suit and a bowler hat. Very well
dressed - then followed the description of his clothes. But he couldn't be
well dressed and of gentlemanly appearance at the same time!

These preoccupations floated lightly, almost playfully, on the surface of
his mind, but the great fact had sunk to the depths like lead. His
father's fears had been right, and his departure from Cornwall had drawn
attention to his actions on that night. He was - what was the
phrase? - wanted by the police. So was Sisily. He was searching for Sisily,
and the police were searching for both of them.

What had the police discovered about him? His lips framed the reply.
Everything. That was to say, all there was to find out. Obviously they had
discovered his visit to Flint House on that night, or at least, that he
was out in the storm during the time the murder was committed. His
commonsense told him the reason for Barrant's reticence. He had kept quiet
in the hope that he would go to his father's house at Richmond, which no
doubt had been closely watched. Now that Barrant had come to the
conclusion that the man he was after was too clever to walk into that
trap, he had confided his suspicions to the newspapers in order to guard
all avenues of escape by putting the public on the watch for him.

A feeling of helplessness crept over Charles as he contemplated the
incredible ingenuity of the mesh of events in which he and Sisily were
entangled. Any moment might terminate his liberty and see him placed under
lock and key. Would it help Sisily if he gave himself up and told all he
knew? That was a question he had asked himself before, and dismissed it
because he realized that his own story might involve her more deeply
still. And the loss of time since then, coupled with his own
disappearance, intensified the risk which such a course would entail.
There was no hope for her in that direction. Where, then, were they to
look for hope?

He was recalled to his surroundings by a hand laid on his arm. He started
and looked round. The man next to him, with a glance at the paper in his
hand, asked him if he could tell him the winner of the second race at
Lingfield. "It ought to be in the stop-press," he murmured. Charles turned
the sheet to the indicated column, and the inquirer glanced at it with a
satisfied smile, and the remark that it was only what he had expected, in
spite of the weight. "A good horse," he remarked approvingly. "But perhaps
you don't go in for racing yourself?"

Charles resisted an insane impulse to shout with laughter. Didn't go in
for racing! He was going in for racing with a vengeance - a race against
time and the police. What was he to do now?

He glanced round him restlessly. The swaying noisy train and the
compartment packed with stolid faces jarred on his overburdened nerves.
Why were those women in the next compartment laughing like hyenas? What
was there in life to laugh over at any time? It was a thing to impose
silence on all by its desolation, its unescapable doom. His eye was caught
by an advertisement above the rack opposite him - an advertisement which
depicted a smiling grotesque face, and advised him to buy the comic
journal it represented in order to dissipate melancholy and gloom.

Fools - fools all!

While he was thus looking around him his eyes encountered a curious glance
from the man in the opposite corner seat, who had been in the compartment
when he entered the train at Charleswood. The man dropped his gaze at
once, but there was something in the quality of the look which put Charles
on his guard. Charles did not turn his head again, but, leaning back in
his seat, kept the other under view from seemingly closed eyes. He was
soon convinced that the man in the corner seat was watching him - shooting
furtive glances across the carriage from behind the screen of his
newspaper.

Was he a detective? Not if Barrant was a usual representative of the
tribe. Yet there was something infernally quizzical in the scrutiny which
reached him through those gold-rimmed glasses. Stay, though! Did
detectives wear glasses? Wasn't there an eyesight test or something like
that for officers of the law? He had never seen a policeman wearing
glasses. If he was not a detective, why was he watching him? There was no
reward offered for his arrest. Perhaps he belonged to the wretched type of
beings who pride themselves on their public spirit - men who wrote letters
to the newspapers and interfered in other people's business. The beast
might have guessed his identity and wanted to show his public spirit by
handing him over to the police. The newspaper in his hand! Of course. He
had read his description there, and identified him.

Charles found himself conjecturing how the man would set about carrying
out his task of public watchdog, if that was in his mind. He pictured the
possibility of him appealing to the others in the compartment. He might
get up and say: "There is a murderer in this compartment. I recognize him
from the description in this paper, and I call upon you all as
public-spirited citizens to see that he does not escape justice." The
torpid passengers would start up, staring and looking foolish after the
fashion of English people when asked to do something unusual. Would they
help? There was a stout man opposite with the symptoms of a public spirit
lurking in the creases of his fat self-satisfied face. Charles promised
himself that he would give them a fight for it. He counted his chances. He
was aware from his previous journey to Charleswood that the train he was
in now ran through to Charing Cross without another stop. Perhaps the man
in the corner seat would wait until they arrived there, and then give him
in charge. That was a disconcerting possibility, but he could see no way
of guarding against it unless he chose to drop from the train, now
travelling at nearly forty miles an hour, taking the risk of being maimed
or killed. He considered the advisability of that. It was a chance he
might have taken casually enough on his own account, but he had also to
think of Sisily. She would be quite friendless if he were killed. Besides,
there was also the chance that he might be mistaken in interpreting the
man's intentions by his own fears. At all events he seemed to have no
thought of springing up and denouncing him. Charles decided to wait and
trust to luck to escape in the crowd at Charing Cross if the man made any
move there.

In ten minutes the train was running into Charing Cross station at slowing
speed. Charles's mouth closed tightly, and his face flushed.

The man in the corner seat flattened his newspaper into a pocket, opened
the carriage door, and sprang out on to the platform. Charles followed him
quickly, and stood still watching him make his way towards the barrier. He
saw him press through, give up his ticket, and disappear without so much
as a backward glance.

There was something so ridiculous in this anticlimax to his poignant fears
that the young man was for the moment actually exasperated. But his face
and linen were wet with perspiration. Then a great feeling of relief swept
over him like a cooling wave. He followed in the wake of the other
passengers and emerged from the station into the street.

It was early enough for the shops to be still open, but the streets were
thronged with pleasure-seekers going to restaurants and places of
amusement. As he stood there a painted girl touched him on the arm with an
enticing smile for such wares as she had to sell, and her solicitation
awakened him sharply to the folly of standing in the lighted Strand at
that hour in full view of every passing policeman. He walked slowly away,
debating where to turn his steps. An outfitter's shop displaying overcoats
gave him a bright idea. He walked inside and selected a long dark coat
which reached to his heels, putting it on over the light and fashionable
coat he was wearing. The shopman seemed surprised at his choice, but made
no comment as he took his money and handed him his change. Charles caught
a glimpse of himself as he went out, and was satisfied with his changed
appearance. In that shapeless garment he was no longer likely to catch the
eye of any unduly curious observer as a "well-dressed" man.

He now walked swiftly. Turning out of Chandos Street from the Strand, he
avoided the brightly lit proximity of Leicester Square, and plunged into
the crooked dark streets on the other side of Charing Cross Road. He
reached New Oxford Street, crossed it, and continued along obscure
streets, his head bent forward, in the unconscious habit of a man thinking
deeply as he went.

In the first feeling of dismay at the discovery that the police were
looking for him he had been overwhelmed by a sense of catastrophe. With
the passing of that phase he was able to consider the situation with a
cooler brain, and it now seemed to him that his position was not so
precarious as he deemed it in the light of that shock. He knew London, and
might be able to evade arrest indefinitely if he took precautions and
avoided risks. But Sisily was in different case. He recalled her telling
him that she had only been in London once, as a child with her father. Her
inexperience of London was her greatest danger, because it was likely to
attract attention. The only one to whom she could look for help was
himself.

His determination to find her was doggedly renewed as he thought of that.
He accepted the lengthened odds against him with the desperate dark
courage of a spirit which had always regarded life as a gamble against
unseen forces holding marked cards. The police were searching for him?
Very well. He would pit his wits against theirs, and continue his own
search for Sisily with a caution he had hitherto disdained to use.

Courage and caution! Those were the two qualities he must use in adroit
combination. The plight of both Sisily and himself was desperate enough
now without giving the enemy a chance by recklessness. He was like a man
rowing a small boat in the immensity of a dark sea which threatened every
moment to engulf him. Sisily was somewhere in that darkness, and she must
be rescued. If his own cockleshell went down there could be no succour for
her. That was a thought to make him keep afloat - to keep on rowing.

And suppose that he did find her, as he believed he would, sooner or
later - given time. What was to happen then?

That thought pursued him in his walk that night, and was his constant
companion in the lonely days and nights of his wanderings which followed.
He had banished it before, but that course was no longer possible. The
impalpable yet terribly real menace of authority overshadowing them both
now made it imperative that all the facts should be faced. All the
facts - but what were they? It was the question he asked himself again and
again as he strove to twist out of the black fantasy of that horrible


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Online LibraryArthur J. ReesThe Moon Rock → online text (page 16 of 25)