E. Phillips Oppenheim.

The Betrayal online

. (page 1 of 18)
Online LibraryE. Phillips OppenheimThe Betrayal → online text (page 1 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

E-text prepared by MRK










Like a clap of thunder, the north wind, rushing seawards, seemed
suddenly to threaten the ancient little building with destruction. The
window sashes rattled, the beams which supported the roof creaked and
groaned, the oil lamps by which alone the place was lit swung perilously
in their chains. A row of maps designed for the instruction of the
young - the place was a schoolhouse - commenced a devil's dance against
the wall. In the street without we heard the crash of a fallen
chimneypot. My audience of four rose timorously to its feet, and I,
glad of the excuse, folded my notes and stepped from the slightly raised
platform on to the floor.

"I am much obliged to you for coming," I said, "but I think that it is
quite useless to continue, for I can scarcely make you hear, and I am
not at all sure that the place is safe."

I spoke hastily, my one desire being to escape from the scene of my
humiliation unaccosted. One of my little audience, however, was of a
different mind. Rising quickly from one of the back seats, she barred
the way. Her broad comely face was full of mingled contrition and

"I am so sorry, Mr. Ducaine," she exclaimed. "It does seem a cruel
pity, doesn't it? - and such a beautiful lecture! I tried so hard to
persuade dad and the others to come, but you know how they all love
hearing anything about the war, and - "

"My dear Miss Moyat," I interrupted, "I am only sorry that a mistaken
sense of kindness should have brought you here. With one less in the
audience I think I should have ventured to suggest that we all went
round to hear Colonel Ray. I should like to have gone myself

Blanche Moyat looked at me doubtfully.

"That's all very well," she declared, "but I think it's jolly mean of
the Duke to bring him down here the very night you were giving your

"I do not suppose he knew anything about that," I answered. "In any
case, I can give my lecture again any time, but none of us may ever have
another opportunity of hearing Colonel Ray. Allow me - "

I opened the door, and a storm of sleet and spray stung our faces. Old
Pegg, who had been there to sell and collect tickets, shouted to us.

"Shut the door quick, master, or it'll be blown to smithereens. It's a
real nor'easter, and a bad 'un at that. Why, the missie'll hardly
stand. I'll see to the lights and lock up, Master Ducaine. Better be
getting hoam while thee can, for the creeks'll run full to-night."

Once out in the village street I was spared the embarrassment of
conversation. We had to battle the way step by step. We were drenched
with spray and the driving rain. The wind kept us breathless, mocking
any attempt at speech. We passed the village hall, brilliantly lit; the
shadowy forms of a closely packed crowd of people were dimly visible
through the uncurtained windows. I fancied that my companion's clutch
upon my arm tightened as we hurried past.

We reached a large grey stone house fronting the street. Miss Moyat
laid her hand upon the handle of the door and motioned to me to enter.

I shook my head.

"Not to-night," I shouted. "I am drenched."

She endeavoured to persuade me.

"For a few moments, at any rate," she pleaded. "The others will not be
home yet, and I will make you something hot. Father is expecting you to

I shook my head and staggered on. At the corner of the street I looked
behind. She was holding on to the door handle, still watching me, her
skirts blowing about her in strange confusion. For a moment I had half
a mind to turn back. The dead loneliness before me seemed imbued with
fresh horrors - the loneliness, my fireless grate and empty larder.
Moyat was at least hospitable. There would be a big fire, plenty to eat
and drink. Then I remembered the man's coarse hints, his unveiled
references to his daughters and his wish to see them settled in life,
his superabundance of whisky and his only half-veiled tone of patronage.
The man was within his rights. He was the rich man of the
neighbourhood, corn dealer, farmer, and horse breeder. I was an unknown
and practically destitute stranger, come from Heaven knew where, and
staying on - because it took a little less to keep body and soul together
here than in the town. But my nerves were all raw that night, and the
thought of John Moyat with his hearty voice and slap on the shoulder was
unbearable. I set my face homewards.

From the village to my cottage stretched a perfectly straight road, with
dykes on either side. No sooner had I passed the last house, and set my
foot upon the road, than I saw strange things. The marshland, which on
the right reached to the sea, was hung here and there with sheets of
mist driven along the ground like clouds before an April tempest. White
flakes of spray, salt and luminous, were dashed into my face. The sea,
indriven up the creeks, swept the road in many places. The cattle,
trembling with fear, had left the marshland, and were coming, lowing,
along the high path which bordered the dyke. And all the time an
undernote of terror, the thunder of the sea rushing in upon the land,
came like a deep monotonous refrain to the roaring of the wind.

Through it all I battled my way, hatless, soaked to the skin, yet
finding a certain wild pleasure in the storm. By the time I had reached
my little dwelling I was exhausted. My hair and clothes were in wild
disorder, my boots were like pulp upon my feet. My remaining strength
was expended in closing the door. The fire was out, the place struck
cold. I staggered towards the easy chair, but the floor seemed suddenly
to heave beneath my feet. I was conscious of the fact that for two days
I had had little to eat, and that my larder was empty. My limbs were
giving way, a mist was before my eyes, and the roar of the sea seemed to
be in my ears, even in my brain. My hands went out like a blind man's,
and I suppose broke my fall. There was rest at least in the
unconsciousness which came down like a black pall upon my senses.

It could only have been a short time before I opened my eyes. Some one
was knocking at the door. Outside I could hear the low panting of a
motor-car, the flashing of brilliant lamps threw a gleam of light across
the floor of my room. Again there came a sharp rapping upon the door.
I raised myself upon my elbow, but I made no attempt at speech. The
motor was the Rowchester Daimler omnibus. What did these people want
with me? I was horribly afraid of being found in such straits. I lay
quite still, and prayed that they might go away.

But my visitor, whoever he was, had apparently no idea of doing anything
of the sort. I heard the latch lifted, and the tall bulky form of a man
filled the threshold. With him came the wind, playing havoc about my
room, sending papers and ornaments flying around in wild confusion. He
closed the door quickly with a little imprecation. I heard the
scratching of a match, saw it carefully shielded in the hollow of the
man's hand. Then it burned clearly, and I knew that I was discovered.

The man was wrapped from head to foot in a huge ulster. He was so tall
that his cap almost brushed my ceiling. I raised myself upon my elbow
and looked at him, looked for the first time at Mostyn Ray. He had the
blackest and the heaviest eyebrows I had ever seen, very piercing eyes,
and a finely shaped mouth, firm even to cruelty. I should have known
him anywhere from the pictures which were filling the newspapers and
magazines. My first impression, I think, was that they had done him but
scanty justice.

As for me, there is no doubt but that I was a pitiful object. Of colour
I had never very much, and my fainting fit could scarcely have improved
matters. My cheeks, I had noticed that morning when shaving, were
hollow, and there were black rims under my eyes. With my disordered
clothing and hair, I must indeed have presented a strange appearance as
I struggled to gain my feet.

He looked at me, as well he might, in amazement.

"I would ask you," he said, "to excuse my unceremonious entrance, but
that it seems to have been providential. You have met with an accident,
I am afraid. Allow me."

He helped me to stagger to my feet, and pushed me gently into the easy
chair. The match burnt out, and he quietly struck another and looked
around the room for a candle or lamp. It was a vain search, for I had

"I am afraid," I said, "that I am out of candles - and oil. I got a
little overtired walking here, and my foot slipped in the dark. Did I
understand that you wished to see me?"

"I did," he answered gravely. "My name is Mostyn Ray - but I think that
we had better have some light. I am going to get one of the motor

"If you could call - in the morning," I began desperately, but he had
already opened and closed the door. I looked around my room, and I
could have sobbed with mortification. The omnibus was lit inside as
well as out, and I knew very well who was there. Already he was talking
with the occupants. I saw a girl lean forward and listen to him. Then
my worst fears were verified. I saw her descend, and they both stood
for a moment by the side of the man who was tugging at one of the huge
lamps. I closed my eyes in despair.

Once more the wind swept into my room, the door was quickly opened and
closed. A man-servant in his long coat, and cockaded hat tied round his
head with a piece of string, set down the lamp upon my table. Behind,
the girl and Mostyn Ray were talking.

"The man had better stop," he whispered. "There is the fire to be

For the first time I heard her voice, very slow and soft, almost
languid, yet very pleasant to listen to.

"No!" she said firmly. "It will look so much like taking him by storm.
I can assure you that I am by no means a helpless person."

"And I," he answered, "am a campaigner."

"Get back as quickly as you can, Richards," she directed, "and get the
things I told you from Mrs. Brown. Jean must bring you back in the

Once more the door opened and shut. I heard the swish of her skirts as
she came over towards me.

"Poor fellow!" she murmured. "I'm afraid that he is very ill."

I opened my eyes and made an attempt to rise. She laid her hand upon my
shoulder and smiled,

"Please don't move," she said, "and do forgive us for this intrusion.
Colonel Ray wanted to call and apologize about this evening, and I am so
glad that he did. We are going to take no end of liberties, but you
must remember that we are neighbours, and therefore have privileges."

What could I say in answer to such a speech as this? As a matter of
fact speech of any sort was denied me; a great sob had stuck in my
throat. They did what was kindest. They left me alone.

I heard them rummaging about in my back room, and soon I heard the
chopping of sticks. Presently I heard the crackling of flames, and I
knew that a fire had been lit. A dreamy partial unconsciousness
destitute of all pain, and not in itself unpleasant, stole over me. I
felt my boots cut from my feet. I was gently lifted up. Some of my
outer garments were removed. Every now and then I heard their voices, I
heard her shocked exclamation as she examined my larder, I heard the
words "starvation," "exhaustion," scarcely applying them to myself.
Then I heard her call to him softly. She was standing by my bookcase.

"Do you see this?" she murmured. "'Guy Ducaine, Magdalen,' and the
college coat of arms. They must belong to him, for that is his name."

I did not hear his answer, but directly afterwards a little exclamation
escaped him.

"By Jove, what luck! I have my flask with me, after all. Is there a
spoon there, Lady Angela?"

She brought him one directly. He stooped down, and I felt the metal
strike my teeth. The brandy seemed to set all my blood flowing once
more warmly in my veins. The heat of the fire, too, was delicious.

And then the strangest thing of all happened. I opened my eyes. My
chair was drawn sideways to the fire and immediately facing the window.
The first thing that I saw was this. Pressed against it, peering into
the room, was the white face of a man, an entire stranger to me.



They both hurried to my side. I was sitting up in my chair, pointing,
my eyes fixed with surprise. I do not know even now why the incident
should so much have alarmed me, but it is a fact that for the moment I
was palsied with fear. There had been murder in the man's eyes,
loathsome things in his white unkempt face. My tongue clove to the roof
of my mouth. They gave me more brandy, and then I spoke.

"There was a man - looking in. A man's face there, at the window!"

Ray took up the lamp and strode to the door. When he returned he
exchanged a significant glance with Lady Angela.

"There is no one there now, at any rate," he said. "I dare say it was

"It was not," I answered. "It was a man's face - a horrible face."

"The omnibus is coming back," he said quietly. "The servants shall have
a good look round."

"I would not worry about it," Lady Angela said, soothingly. "It is easy
to fancy things when one is not well."

So they meant to treat me like a child. I said nothing, but it was a
long time before my limbs ceased to shake. The tall servant reappeared
with a huge luncheon basket - all manner of delicacies were emptied out
upon my table. Lady Angela was making something in a clip, Ray was
undoing a gold-foiled bottle. Soon I found myself eating and drinking,
and the blood once more was mashing through my veins. I was my own man
again, rescued by charity. And of all the women in the world, fate had
sent this one to play the Lady Bountiful.

"You are looking better, my young friend," Colonel Ray said presently.

"I feel-quite all right again, thank you," I answered. "I wish I could
thank you and Lady Angela."

"You must not attempt anything of the sort," she declared. "My father,
by-the-bye, Mr. Ducaine, wished me to express his great regret that he
should have interfered in any way with your arrangements for this
evening. You know, there are so many stupid people around here who have
never understood anything at all about the war, and he was very anxious
to get Colonel Ray to talk to them. He had no idea, however, that it
was the night fixed for your lecture, and he hopes that you will accept
the loan of the village hall from him any night you like, and we should
so much like all of us to come."

"His Grace is very kind," I murmured. "I fear, however, that the people
are not very much interested in lectures, even about their own

"I am, at any rate," Lady Angela answered, smiling, "and I think we can
promise you an audience."

Colonel Ray, who had been standing at the window, came back to us.

"If I may be permitted to make a suggestion, Lady Angela," he said, "I
think it would be well if you returned home now, and I will follow
shortly on foot."

"Indeed," I said, "there is no need for you, Colonel Ray, to remain. I
am absolutely recovered now, and the old woman who looks after me will
be here in the morning."

He seemed scarcely to have heard me. Afterwards, when I knew him
better, I understood his apparent unconcern of any suggestion counter to
his own. He thought slowly and he spoke seldom, but when he had once
spoken the matter, so far as he was concerned, was done with. Lady
Angela apparently was used to him, for she rose at once. She did not
shake hands, but she nodded to me pleasantly. Colonel Ray handed her
into the wagonette, and I heard the quicker throbbing of the engine as
it glided off into the darkness.

It was several minutes before he returned. I began to wonder whether he
had changed his mind, and returned to Rowchester with Lady Angela. Then
the door handle suddenly turned, and he stepped in. His hair was tossed
with the wind, his shoes were wet and covered with mud, and he was
breathing rather fast, as though he had been running. I looked at him
inquiringly. He offered me no explanation. But on his way to the
chair, which he presently drew up to the fire, he paused for a full
minute by the window, and shading the carriage lamp which he still
carried, with his hand, he looked steadily out into the darkness. A
thought struck me.

"You have seen him!" I exclaimed.

He set down the lamp upon the table, and deliberately seated himself.

"Seen whom?" he asked, producing a pipe and tobacco.

"The man who looked in - whose face I saw at the window."

He struck a match and lit his pipe.

"I have seen no one," he answered quietly. "The face was probably a
fancy of yours. I should recommend you to forget it."

I looked down at his marsh-stained shoes. One foot was wet to the
ankle, and a thin strip of green seaweed had wound itself around his
trousers. To any other man I should have had more to say. Yet even in
those first few hours of our acquaintance I had become, like all the
others, to some extent the servant of his will, spoken or unspoken. So
I held my peace and looked away into the fire. I felt he had something
to say to me, and I waited.

He moved his head slowly towards the bookcase.

"Those books," he asked, "are yours?"

"Yes," I answered.

"Your name then is Guy Ducaine?"


"Did you ever know your father?"

It was a singular question. I looked at him quickly. His face was

"No. Why do you ask? Did you?"

He ignored me absolutely for several moments. His whole attention
seemed fixed upon the curling wreath of blue smoke which hung between

"He died, I suppose," he continued, "when you were about twelve years

I nodded.

"My uncle," I said, "gave me a holiday and a sovereign to spend. He
told me that a great piece of good fortune had happened to me."

Colonel Ray smiled grimly.

"That was like old Stephen Ducaine," he remarked. "He died himself a
few years afterwards."

"Three years."

"He left you ten thousand pounds. What have you done with it?"

"Mr. Heathcote, of Heathcote, Sons, and Vyse, was my solicitor."


I remembered that he had been away from England for several years.

"The firm failed," I told him, "for a quarter of a million. Mr.
Heathcote shot himself. I am told that there is a probable dividend of
sixpence-half-penny in the pound to come some day."

Colonel Ray smoked on in silence. This was evidently news to him.

"Awkward for you," he remarked at last.

I laughed a little bitterly. I knew quite well that he was expecting me
to continue, and I did so.

"I sold my things at Magdalen, and paid my debts. I was promised two
pupils if I would take a house somewhere on this coast. I took one and
got ready for them with my last few pounds. Their father died
suddenly - and they did not come. I got rid of the house, at a
sacrifice, and came to this cottage."

"You took your degree?"

"With honours."

He blew out more smoke.

"You are young," he said, "a gentleman by birth, and I should imagine a
moderate athlete. You have an exceptional degree, and I presume a fair
knowledge of the world. Yet you appear to be deliberately settling down
here to starve."

"I can assure you," I answered, "that the deliberation is lacking. I
have no fear of anything of the sort. I expect to get some pupils in
the neighbourhood, and also some literary work. For the moment I am a
little hard up, and I thought perhaps that I might make a few shillings
by a lecture."

"Of the proceeds of which," he remarked, with a dry little smile, "I
appear to have robbed you."

I shrugged my shoulders.

"I hoped for little but a meal or two from it," I answered. "The only
loss is to my self-respect. I owe to charity what I might have earned."

He took his pipe from his mouth and looked at me with a thin derisive

"You talk," he said, "like a very young man. If you had knocked about
in all corners of the world as I have you would have learnt a greater
lesson from a greater book. When a man meets brother man in the wilds,
who talks of charity? They divide goods and pass on. Even the savages
do this."

"These," I ventured to remark, "are not the wilds."

He sighed and replaced his pipe in his mouth.

"You are young, very young," he remarked, thoughtfully. "You have that
beastly hothouse education, big ideas on thin stalks, orchids instead of
roses, the stove instead of the sun. The wilds are everywhere - on the
Thames Embankment, even in this God-forsaken corner of the world. The
wilds are wherever men meet men."

I was silent. Who was I to argue with Ray, whose fame was in every
one's mouth - soldier, traveller, and diplomatist? For many years he had
been living hand and glove with life and death. There were many who
spoke well of him, and many ill - many to whom he was a hero, many to
whom his very name was like poison. But he was emphatically not a man
to contradict. In my little cottage he seemed like a giant,
six-foot-two, broad, and swart with the burning fire of tropical suns.
He seemed to fill the place, to dominate me and my paltry surroundings,
even as in later years I saw him, the master spirit in a great assembly,
eagle-eyed, strenuous, omnipotent. There was something about him which
made other men seem like pygmies. There was force in the stern
self-repression of his speech, in the curve of his lips, the clear
lightning of his eyes.

My silence did not seem altogether to satisfy him. I felt his eyes
challenge mine, and I was forced to meet his darkly questioning gaze.

"Come," he said, "I trust that I have said enough. You have buried the
thought of that hateful word."

"You have stricken it mortally," I answered, "but I can scarcely promise
so speedy a funeral. However, what more I feel," I added, "I will keep
to myself."

"It would be better," he answered curtly.

"You have asked me," I said, "many questions. I am emboldened to ask
you one. You have spoken of my father."

The look he threw upon me was little short of terrible.

"Ay," he answered, "I have spoken of him. Let me tell you this, young
man. If I believed that you were a creature of his breed, if I believed
that a drop of his black blood ran in your veins, I would take you by
the neck now and throw you into the nearest creek where the water was
deep enough to drown."

I rose to my feet, trembling.

"If those are your feelings, sir," I declared, "I have no wish to claim
your kindness."

"Sit down, boy," he answered coldly. "I have no fear of you. Nature
does not pay us so evil a trick as to send us two such as he in
successive generations."

He rose and looked out of the window. The storm had abated but little.
The roar of the sea and wind was still like thunder in the air. Black
clouds were driven furiously across the sky, torrents of rain and spray
beat every now and then upon the window. He turned back and examined
the carriage lamp.

"It is an awful night," I said. "I cannot offer you a bed unless you
will take mine, but I can bring rugs and a pillow to the fire if you
will lie there."

Then for the only time in my life I saw him hesitate. He looked out of
my uncurtained window into the night. Very often have I wondered what
thought it was that passed then through his brain.

"I thank you," he said; "the walk is nothing, and they will expect me at
Rowchester. You have pencil and paper. Write down what I tell

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryE. Phillips OppenheimThe Betrayal → online text (page 1 of 18)