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Pain and exhaustion, if they are sufficiently extreme, can well nigh
paralyze mind as well as body, and for some time Captain Stewart
wondered what this thing might be which lurked at the bottom of him
still under the surges of agony. Then at last he had the strength to
look at it, and it was fear, cold and still and silent. He was afraid to
the very depths of his soul.

True, as O'Hara had said, there did not seem to be any very desperate
peril to face, but Stewart was afraid with the gambler's unreasoning,
half-superstitious fear, and that is the worst fear of all. He realized
that he had been afraid of Ste. Marie from the beginning, and that, of
course, was why he had tried to draw him into partnership with himself
in his own official and wholly mythical search for Arthur Benham. He
could have had the other man under his eye then. He could have kept him
busy for months running down false scents. As it was, Ste. Marie's
uncanny instinct about the Irishman O'Hara had led him true - that and
what he doubtless learned from Olga Nilssen.

If Stewart had been in a condition and mood to philosophize, he would
doubtless have reflected that seven-tenths of the desperate causes, both
good and bad, which fail in this world, fail because they are wrecked by
some woman's love or jealousy - or both. But it is unlikely that he was
able just at this time to make such a reflection, though certainly he
wondered how much Olga Nilssen had known, and how much Ste. Marie had
had to put together out of her knowledge and any previous suspicions
which he may have had.

The man would have been amazed if he could have known what a mountain of
information and evidence had piled itself up over his head all in twelve
hours. He would have been amazed and, if possible, even more frightened
than he was, but he was without question sufficiently frightened, for
here was Ste. Marie in the very house, he had seen Arthur Benham, and
quite obviously he knew all there was to know, or at least enough to
ruin Arthur Benham's uncle beyond all recovery or hope of
recovery - irretrievably.

Captain Stewart tried to think what it would mean to him - failure in
this desperate scheme - but he had not the strength or the courage. He
shrank from the picture as one shrinks from something horrible in a bad
dream. There could be no question of failure. He had to succeed at any
cost, however desperate or fantastic. Once more the spasm of childish,
futile rage swept over him and shook him like a wind.

"Why couldn't the fellow have been killed by that one-eyed fool?" he
cried, sobbing. "Why couldn't he have been killed? He's the only one who
knows - the only thing in the way. Why couldn't he have keen killed?"

Quite suddenly Captain Stewart ceased to sob and shiver, and sat still
in his chair, gripping the arms with white and tense fingers. His eyes
began to widen, and they became fixed in a long, strange stare. He drew
a deep breath.

"I wonder!" he said, aloud. "I wonder, now."

* * * * *




XVI

THE BLACK CAT


That providential stone or tree-root, or whatever it may have been,
proved a genuine blessing in disguise to Ste. Marie. It gave him a
splitting headache for a few hours, but it saved him a good deal of
discomfort the while his bullet wound was being more or less probed and
very skilfully cleansed and dressed by O'Hara. For he did not regain
consciousness until this surgical work was almost at its end, and then
he wanted to fight the Irishman for tying the bandages too tight.

But when O'Hara had gone away and left him alone he lay still - or as
still as the smarting, burning pain in his leg and the ache in his head
would let him - and stared at the wall beyond his bed, and bit by bit the
events of the past hour came back to him, and he knew where he was. He
cursed himself very bitterly, as he well might do, for a bungling idiot.
The whole thing had been in his hands, he said, with perfect
truth - Arthur Benham's whereabouts proved Stewart's responsibility or,
at the very least, complicity and the sordid motive therefor.
Remained - had Ste. Marie been a sane being instead of an impulsive
fool - remained but to face Stewart down in the presence of witnesses,
threaten him with exposure, and so, with perfect ease, bring back the
lost boy in triumph to his family.

It should all have been so simple, so easy, so effortless! Yet now it
was ruined by a moment's rash folly, and Heaven alone knew what would
come of it. He remembered that he had left behind him no indication
whatever of where he meant to spend the afternoon. Hartley would come
hurrying across town that evening to the rue d'Assas, and would find no
one there to receive him. He would wait and wait, and at last go home.
He would come again on the next morning, and then he would begin to be
alarmed and would start a second search - but with what to reckon by?
Nobody knew about the house on the road to Clamart but Mlle. Olga
Nilssen, and she was far away.

He thought of Captain Stewart, and he wondered if that gentleman was by
any chance here in the house, or if he was still in bed in the rue du
Faubourg St. Honoré, recovering from his epileptic fit.

After that he fell once more to cursing himself and his incredible
stupidity, and he could have wept for sheer bitterness of chagrin.

He was still engaged in this unpleasant occupation when the door of the
room opened and the Irishman O'Hara entered, having finished his
interview with Captain Stewart below. He came up beside the bed and
looked down not unkindly upon the man who lay there, but Ste. Marie
scowled back at him, for he was in a good deal of pain and a vile humor.

"How's the leg - _and_ the head?" asked the amateur surgeon. To do him
justice, he was very skilful, indeed, through much experience.

"They hurt," said Ste. Marie, shortly. "My head aches like the devil,
and my leg burns."

O'Hara made a sound which was rather like a gruff laugh, and nodded.

"Yes, and they'll go on doing it, too," said he. "At least the leg will.
Your head will be all right again in a day or so. Do you want anything
to eat? It's near dinner-time. I suppose we can't let you starve - though
you deserve it."

"Thanks; I want nothing," said Ste. Marie. "Pray don't trouble about
me."

The other man nodded again indifferently and turned to go out of the
room, but in the doorway he halted and looked back.

"As we're to have the pleasure of your company for some time to come,"
said he, "you might suggest a name to call you by. Of course I don't
expect you to tell your own name - though I can learn that easily
enough."

"Easily enough, to be sure," said the man on the bed. "Ask Stewart. He
knows only too well."

The Irishman scowled. And after a moment he said:

"I don't know any Stewart."

But at that Ste. Marie gave a laugh, and a tinge of red came over the
Irishman's cheeks.

"And so, to save Captain Stewart the trouble," continued the wounded
man, "I'll tell you my name with pleasure. I don't know why I shouldn't.
It's Ste. Marie."

"What?" cried O'Hara, hoarsely. "What? Say that again!"

He came forward a swift step or two into the room, and he stared at the
man on the bed as if he were staring at a ghost.

"Ste. Marie?" he cried, in a whisper. "It's impossible! What are you,"
he demanded, "to Gilles, Comte de Ste. Marie de Mont-Perdu? What are you
to him?"

"He was my father," said the younger man; "but he is dead. He has been
dead for ten years."

He raised his head, with a little grimace of pain, to look curiously
after the Irishman, who had all at once turned away across the room and
stood still beside a window with bent head.

"Why?" he questioned. "What about my father? Why did you ask that?"

O'Hara did not answer at once, and he did not stir from his place by the
window, but after a while he said:

"I knew him.... That's all."

And after another space he came back beside the bed, and once more
looked down upon the young man who lay there. His face was veiled,
inscrutable. It betrayed nothing.

"You have a look of your father," said he. "That was what puzzled me a
little. I was just saying to - I was just thinking that there was
something familiar about you.... Ah, well, we've all come down in the
world since then. The Ste. Marie blood, though. Who'd have thought it?"

The man shook his head a little sorrowfully, but Ste. Marie stared up at
him in frowning incomprehension. The pain had dulled him somewhat. And
presently O'Hara again moved toward the door. On the way he said:

"I'll bring or send you something to eat - not too much. And later on
I'll give you a sleeping-powder. With that head of yours you may have
trouble in getting to sleep. Understand, I'm doing this for your
father's son, and not because you've any right yourself to
consideration."

Ste. Marie raised himself with difficulty on one elbow.

"Wait!" said he. "Wait a moment!" and the other halted just inside the
door. "You seem to have known my father," said Ste. Marie, "and to have
respected him. For my father's sake, will you listen to me for five
minutes?"

"No, I won't," said the Irishman, sharply. "So you may as well hold your
tongue. Nothing you can say to me or to any one in this house will have
the slightest effect. We know what you came spying here for. We know all
about it."

"Yes," said Ste. Marie, with a little sigh, and he fell back upon the
pillows. "Yes, I suppose you do. I was rather a fool to speak. You
wouldn't all be doing what you're doing if words could affect you. I was
a fool to speak."

The Irishman stared at him for another moment, and went out of the room,
closing the door behind him.

So he was left once more alone to his pain and his bitter
self-reproaches and his wild and futile plans for escape. But O'Hara
returned in an hour or thereabout with food for him - a cup of broth and
a slice of bread; and when Ste. Marie had eaten these the Irishman
looked once more to his wounded leg, and gave him a sleeping-powder
dissolved in water.

He lay restless and wide-eyed for an hour, and then drifted away through
intermediate mists into a sleep full of horrible dreams, but it was at
least relief from bodily suffering, and when he awoke in the morning his
headache was almost gone.

He awoke to sunshine and fresh, sweet odors and the twittering of birds.
By good chance O'Hara had been the last to enter the room on the evening
before, and so no one had come to close the shutters or draw the blinds.
The windows were open wide, and the morning breeze, very soft and
aromatic, blew in and out and filled the place with sweetness. The room
was a corner room, with windows that looked south and east, and the
early sun slanted in and lay in golden squares across the floor.

Ste. Marie opened his eyes with none of the dazed bewilderment that he
might have expected. The events of the preceding day came back to him
instantly and without shock. He put up an experimental hand, and found
that his head was still very sore where he had struck it in falling, but
the ache was almost gone. He tried to stir his leg, and a protesting
pain shot through it. It burned dully, even when it was quiet, but the
pain was not at all severe. He realized that he was to get off rather
well, considering what might have happened, and he was so grateful for
this that he almost forgot to be angry with himself over his monumental
folly.

A small bird chased by another wheeled in through the southern window
and back again into free air. Finally, the two settled down upon the
parapet of the little shallow balcony which was there to have their
disagreement out, and they talked it over with a great deal of noise and
many threatening gestures and a complete loss of temper on both sides.
Ste. Marie, from his bed, cheered them on, but there came a commotion in
the ivy which draped the wall below, and the two birds fled in
ignominious haste, and just in the nick of time, for when the cause of
the commotion shot into view it was a large black cat, of great bodily
activity and an ardent single-heartedness of aim.

The black cat gazed for a moment resentfully after its vanished prey,
and then composed its sleek body upon the iron rail, tail and paws
tucked neatly under. Ste. Marie chirruped, and the cat turned yellow
eyes upon him in mild astonishment, as one who should say, "Who the
deuce are you, and what the deuce are you doing here?" He chirruped
again, and the cat, after an ostentatious yawn and stretch, came to
him - beating up to windward, as it were, and making the bed in three
tacks. When O'Hara entered the room some time later he found his patient
in a very cheerful frame of mind, and the black cat sitting on his chest
purring like a dynamo and kneading like an industrious baker.

"Ho," said the Irishman, "you seem to have found a friend!"

"Well, I need one friend here," argued Ste. Marie. "I'm in the enemy's
stronghold. You needn't be alarmed; the cat can't tell me anything, and
it can't help me to escape. It can only sit on me and purr. That's
harmless enough."

O'Hara began one of his gruff laughs, but he seemed to remember himself
in the middle of it and assumed an intimidating scowl instead.

"How's the leg?" he demanded, shortly. "Let me see it." He took off the
bandages and cleansed and sprayed the wound with some antiseptic liquid
that he had brought in a bottle. "There's a little fever," said he, "but
that can't be avoided. You're going on very well - a good deal better
than you'd any right to expect." He had to inflict not a little pain in
his examination and redressing of the wound. He knew that, and once or
twice he glanced up at Ste. Marie's face with a sort of reluctant
admiration for the man who could bear so much without any sign whatever.
In the end he put together his things and nodded with professional
satisfaction. "You'll do well enough now for the rest of the day," he
said. "I'll send up old Michel to valet you. He's the gardener who shot
you yesterday, and he may take it into his head to finish the job this
morning. If he does I sha'n't try to stop him."

"Nor I," said Ste. Marie. "Thanks very much for your trouble. An
excellent surgeon was lost in you."

O'Hara left the room, and presently the old caretaker, one-eyed,
gnomelike, shambling like a bear, sidled in and proceeded to set things
to rights. He looked, Ste. Marie said to himself, like something in an
old German drawing, or in those imitations of old drawings that one
sometimes sees nowadays in _Fliegende Blätter_. He tried to make the
strange creature talk, but Michel went about his task with an air
half-frightened, half-stolid, and refused to speak more than an
occasional "oui" or a "bien, Monsieur," in answer to orders. Ste. Marie
asked if he might have some coffee and bread, and the old Michel nodded
and slipped from the room as silently as he had entered it.

Thereafter Ste. Marie trifled with the cat and got one hand well
scratched for his trouble, but in five minutes there came a knocking at
the door. He laughed a little. "Michel grows ceremonious when it's a
question of food," he said. "Entrez, mon vieux!"

The door opened, and Ste. Marie caught his breath.

"Michel is busy," said Coira O'Hara, "so I have brought your coffee."

She came into the sunlit room holding the steaming bowl of café au lait
before her in her two hands. Over it her eyes went out to the man who
lay in his bed, a long and steady and very grave look. "A goddess that
lady, a queen among goddesses - " Thus the little Jew of the Boulevard de
la Madeleine. Ste. Marie gazed back at her, and his heart was sick
within him to think of the contemptible rôle Fate had laid upon this
girl to play: the candle to the moth, the bait to the eager, unskilled
fish, the lure to charm a foolish boy.

The girl's splendid beauty seemed to fill all that bright room with, as
it were, a richer, subtler light. There could be no doubt of her
potency. Older and wiser heads than young Arthur Benham's might well
forget the world for her. Ste. Marie watched, and the heartsickness
within him was like a physical pain, keen and bitter. He thought of that
first and only previous meeting - the single minute in the
Champs-Elysées, when her eyes had held him, had seemed to beseech him
out of some deep agony. He thought of how they had haunted him afterward
both by day and by night - calling eyes - and he gave a little groan of
sheer bitterness, for he realized that all this while she was laying her
snares about the feet of an inexperienced boy, decoying him to his ruin.
There was a name for such women, an ugly name. They were called
adventuresses.

The girl set the bowl which she carried down upon a table not far from
the bed. "You will need a tray or something," said she. "I suppose you
can sit up against your pillows? I'll bring a tray and you can hold it
on your knees and eat from it." She spoke in a tone of very deliberate
indifference and detachment. There seemed even to be an edge of scorn in
it, but nothing could make that deep and golden voice harsh or unlovely.
As the girl's extraordinary beauty had filled all the room with its
light, so the sound of her voice seemed to fill it with a sumptuous and
hushed resonance like a temple bell muffled in velvet. "I must bring
something to eat, too," she said. "Would you prefer croissants or
brioches or plain bread-and-butter? You might as well have what you
like."

"Thank you!" said Ste. Marie. "It doesn't matter. Anything. You are most
kind. You are Hebe, Mademoiselle, server of feasts." The girl turned her
head for a moment and looked at him with some surprise.

"If I am not mistaken," she said, "Hebe served to gods." Then she went
out of the room, and Ste. Marie broke into a sudden delighted laugh
behind her. She would seem to be a young woman with a tongue in her
head. She had seized the rash opening without an instant's hesitation.

The black cat, which had been cruising, after the inquisitive fashion of
its kind, in far corners of the room, strolled back and looked up to the
table where the bowl of coffee steamed and waited.

"Get out!" cried Ste. Marie. "Va t'en, sale petit animal! Go and eat
birds! That's _my_ coffee. Va! Sauve toi! Hé, voleur que tu es!" He
sought for something by way of missile, but there was nothing within
reach.

The black cat turned its calm and yellow eyes toward him, looked back to
the aromatic feast, and leaped expertly to the top of the table. Ste.
Marie shouted and made horrible threats. He waved an impotent pillow,
not daring to hurl it for fear of smashing the table's entire contents,
but the black cat did not even glance toward him. It smelled the coffee,
sneezed over it because it was hot, and finally proceeded to lap very
daintily, pausing often to take breath or to shake its head, for cats
disapprove of hot dishes, though they will partake of them at a pinch.

There came a step outside the door, and the thief leaped down with some
haste, yet not quite in time to escape observation. Mlle. O'Hara came
in, breathing terrible threats.

"Has that wretched animal touched your coffee?" she cried. "I hope not."
But Ste. Marie laughed weakly from his bed, and the guilty beast stood
in mid-floor, brown drops beading its black chin and hanging upon its
whiskers.

"I did what I could, Mademoiselle," said Ste. Marie, "but there was
nothing to throw. I am sorry to be the cause of so much trouble."

"It is nothing," said she. "I will bring some more coffee, only it will
take ten minutes, because I shall have to make some fresh." She made as
if she would smile a little in answer to him, but her face turned grave
once more and she went out of the room with averted eyes.

Thereafter Ste. Marie occupied himself with watching idly the movements
of the black cat, and, as he watched, something icy cold began to grow
within him, a sensation more terrible than he had ever known before. He
found himself shivering as if that summer day had all at once turned to
January, and he found that his face was wet with a chill perspiration.

When the girl at length returned she found him lying still, his face to
the wall. The black cat was in her path as she crossed the room, so that
she had to thrust it out of the way with her foot, and she called it
names for moving with such lethargy.

"Here is the coffee at last," she said. "I made it fresh. And I have
brought some brioches. Will you sit up and have the tray on your knees?"

"Thank you," said Ste. Marie. "I do not wish anything."

"You do not - " she repeated after him. "But I have made the coffee
especially for you," she protested. "I thought you wanted it. I don't
understand."

With a sudden movement the man turned toward her a white and drawn face.

"Mademoiselle," he cried, "it would have been more merciful to let your
gardener shoot again yesterday. Much more merciful, Mademoiselle."

She stared at him under her straight, black brows.

"What do you mean?" she demanded. "More merciful? What do you mean by
that?"

Ste. Marie stretched out a pointing finger, and the girl followed it.
She gave, after a tense instant, a single, sharp scream. And upon that:

"No, no! It's not true! It's not possible!"

Moving stiffly, she set down the bowl she carried, and the hot liquid
splashed up round her wrists. For a moment she hung there, drooping,
holding herself up by the strength of her hands upon the table. It was
as if she had been seized with faintness. Then she sprang to where the
cat crouched beside a chair. She dropped upon her knees and tried to
raise it in her arms, but the beast bit and scratched at her feebly, and
crept away to a little distance, where it lay struggling and very
unpleasant to see.

"Poison!" she said, in a choked, gasping whisper. "Poison!" She looked
once toward the man upon the bed, and she was white and shivering. "It's
not true!" she cried again. "I - won't believe it! It's because the
cat - was not used to coffee. Because it was hot. I won't believe it! I
won't believe it!" She began to sob, holding her hands over her white
face.

Ste. Marie watched her with puzzled eyes. If this was acting, it was
very good acting. A little glimmer of hope began to burn in him - hope
that in this last shameful thing, at least, the girl had had no part.

"It's impossible," she insisted, piteously. "I tell you it's impossible.
I brought the coffee myself from the kitchen. I took it from the pot
there - the same pot we had all had ours from. It was never out of my
sight - or, that is - I mean - "

She halted there, and Ste. Marie saw her eyes turn slowly toward the
door, and he saw a crimson flush come up over her cheeks and die away,
leaving her white again. He drew a little breath of relief and gladness,
for he was sure of her now. She had had no part in it.

"It is nothing, Mademoiselle," said he, cheerfully. "Think no more of
it. It is nothing."

"Nothing?" she cried, in a loud voice. "Do you call poison nothing?" She
began to shiver again very violently. "You would have drunk it!" she
said, staring at him in a white agony. "But for a miracle you would have
drunk it - and died!"

Abruptly she came beside the bed and threw herself upon her knees there.
In her excitement and horror she seemed to have forgotten what they two
were to each other. She caught him by the shoulders with her two hands,
and the girl's violent trembling shook them both.

"Will you believe," she cried, "that I had nothing to do with this? Will
you believe me? You must believe me!"

There was no acting in that moment. She was wrung with a frank anguish,
an utter horror, and between her words there were hard and terrible
sobs.

"I believe you, Mademoiselle," said the man, gently. "I believe you.
Pray think no more about it."

He smiled up into the girl's beautiful face, though within him he was
still cold and a-shiver, as even the bravest man might well be at such
an escape, and after a moment she turned away again. With unsteady hands
she put the new-made bowl of coffee and the brioches and other things
together upon the tray and started to carry it across the room to the
bed, but half-way she turned back again and set the tray down. She
looked about and found an empty glass, and she poured a little of the
coffee into it. Ste. Marie, who was watching her, gave a sudden cry.

"No, no, Mademoiselle, I beg you! You must not!"

But the girl shook her head at him gravely over the glass.

"There is no danger," she said, "but I must be sure."

She drank what was in the glass, and afterward went across to one of the
windows and stood there with her back to the room for a little time.


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