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high-hearted as Bayard was. In his place they would have acted as he
did, but nowadays one has to practise heroism much less
conspicuously - in the little things that few people see and that no one
applauds or writes books about. It is much harder to do brave little
acts than brave big ones."

"Yes." she agreed, slowly. "Oh yes, of course."

But there was no spirit in her tone, rather a sort of apathy. Once more
the leaves overhead swayed in the breeze, opened a tiny rift, and the
little trembling ray of sunshine shot down to her where she sat. She
stretched out one hand cup-wise, and the sunbeam, after a circling
gyration, darted into it and lay there like a small golden bird panting,
as it were, from fright.

"If I were a painter," said Ste. Marie, "I should be in torture and
anguish of soul until I had painted you sitting there on a stone bench
and holding a sunbeam in your hand. I don't know what I should call the
picture, but I think it would be something figurative - symbolic. Can you
think of a name?"

Coira O'Hara looked up at him with a slight smile, but her eyes were
gloomy and full of dark shadows. "It might be called any one of a great
number of things, I should think," said she.
"Happiness - belief - illusion. See! The sunbeam is gone."

* * * * *




XXI

A MIST DIMS THE SHINING STAR


Ste. Marie remained in his room all the rest of that day, and he did not
see Mlle. O'Hara again, for Michel brought him his lunch and the old
Justine his dinner. For the greater part of the time he sat in bed
reading, but rose now and then and moved about the room. His wound
seemed to have suffered no great inconvenience from the morning's
outing. If he stood or walked too long it burned somewhat, and he had
the sensation of a tight band round the leg; but this passed after he
had lain down for a little while, or even sat in a chair with the leg
straight out before him; so he knew that he was not to be crippled very
much longer, and his thoughts began to turn more and more keenly upon
the matter of escape.

He realized, of course, that now, since he was once more able to walk,
he would be guarded with unremitting care every moment of the day, and
quite possibly every moment of the night as well, though the simple
bolting of his door on the outside would seem to answer the purpose save
when he was out-of-doors. Once he went to the two east windows and hung
out of them, testing as well as he could with his hands the strength and
tenacity of the ivy which covered that side of the house. He thought it
seemed strong enough to give hand and foot hold without being torn
loose, but he was afraid it would make an atrocious amount of noise if
he should try to climb down it, and, besides, he would need two very
active legs for that.

At another time a fresh idea struck him, and he put it at once into
action. There might be just a chance, when out one day with Michel, of
getting near enough to the wall which ran along the Clamart road to
throw something over it when the old man was not looking. In one of his
pockets he had a card-case with a little pencil fitted into a loop at
the edge, and in the case it was his custom to carry postage-stamps. He
investigated and found pencil and stamps. Of course he had nothing but
cards to write upon, and they were useless. He looked about the room and
went through an empty chest of drawers in vain, but at last, on some
shelves in the closet where his clothes had hung, he found several large
sheets of coarse white paper. The shelves were covered with it loosely
for the sake of cleanliness. He abstracted one of these sheets, and cut
it into squares of the ordinary note-paper size, and he sat down and
wrote a brief letter to Richard Hartley, stating where he was, that
Arthur Benham was there, the O'Haras, and, he thought, Captain Stewart.
He did not write the names out, but put instead the initial letters of
each name, knowing that Hartley would understand. He gave careful
directions as to how the place was to be reached, and he asked Hartley
to come as soon as possible by night to that wall where he himself had
made his entrance, to climb up by the cedar-tree, and to drop his answer
into the thick leaves of the lilac bushes immediately beneath - an answer
naming a day and hour, preferably by night, when he could return with
three or four to help him, surprise the household at La Lierre, and
carry off young Benham.

Ste. Marie wrote this letter four times, and each of the four copies he
enclosed in an awkwardly fashioned envelope, made with infinite pains so
that its flaps folded in together, for he had no gum. He addressed and
stamped the four envelopes, and put them all in his pocket to await the
first opportunity.

Afterward he lay down for a while, and as, one after another, the books
he had in the room failed to interest him, his thoughts began to turn
back to Mlle. Coira O'Hara and his hour with her upon the old stone
bench in the garden. He realized all at once that he had been putting
off this reflection as one puts off a reckoning that one a little dreads
to face, and rather vaguely he realized why.

The spell that the girl wielded - quite without being conscious of it; he
granted her that grace - was too potent. It was dangerous, and he knew
it. Even imaginative and very unpractical people can be in some things
surprisingly matter-of-fact, and Ste. Marie was matter-of-fact about
this. The girl had made a mysterious and unprecedented appeal to him at
his very first sight of her, long before, and ever since that time she
had continued, intermittently at least, to haunt his dreams. Now he was
in the very house with her. It was quite possible that he might see her
and speak with her every day, and he knew there was peril in that.

He closed his eyes and she came to him, dark and beautiful, magnetically
vital, spreading enchantment about her like a fragrance. She sat beside
him on the moss-stained bench in the garden, holding out her hand
cup-wise, and a sunbeam lay in the hand like a little, golden,
fluttering bird. His thoughts ran back to that first morning when he had
narrowly escaped death by poison. He remembered the girl's agony of fear
and horror. He felt her hands once more upon his shoulders, and he was
aware that his breath was coming faster and that his heart beat quickly.
He got to his feet and went across to one of the windows, and he stood
there for a long time frowning out into the summer day. If ever in his
life, he said to himself with some deliberation, he was to need a cool
and clear head, faculties unclouded and unimpaired by emotion, it was
now in these next few days. Much more than his own well-being depended
upon him now. The fates of a whole family, and quite possibly the lives
of some of them, were in his hands. He must not fail, and he must not,
in any least way, falter.

For enemies he had a band of desperate adventurers, and the very boy
himself, the centre and reason for the whole plot, had been, in some
incomprehensible way, so played upon that he, too, was against him.

The man standing by the window forced himself quite deliberately to look
the plain facts in the face. He compelled himself to envisage this
beautiful girl with her tragic eyes for just what his reason knew her to
be - an adventuress, a decoy, a lure to a callow, impressionable, foolish
lad, the tool of that arch-villain Stewart and of the lesser villain her
father. It was like standing by and watching something lovely and
pitiful vilely befouled. It turned his heart sick within him, but he
held himself to the task. He brought to aid him the vision of his lady,
in whose cause he was pursuing this adventure. For strength and
determination he reached eye and hand to her where she sat enthroned,
calm-browed, serene.

For the first time since the beginning of all things his lady failed
him, and Ste. Marie turned cold with fear.

Where was that splendid frenzy that had been wont to sweep him all in an
instant into upper air - set his feet upon the stars? Where was it? The
man gave a sudden, voiceless cry of horror. The wings that had such
countless times upborne him fluttered weakly near the earth and could
not mount. His lady was there; through infinite space he was aware of
her, but she was cold and aloof, and her eyes gazed very serenely beyond
at something he could not see.

He knew well enough that the fault lay somewhere within himself. She was
as she had ever been, but he lacked the strength to rise to her. Why?
Why? He searched himself with a desperate earnestness, but he could find
no answer to his questioning. In himself, as in her, there had come no
change. She was still to him all that she ever had been - the star of his
destiny, the pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day, to guide him on
his path. Where, then, the fine, pure fervor that should, at thought of
her, whirl him on high and make a god of him?

He stood wrapped in bewilderment and despair, for he could find no
answer.

In plain words, in commonplace black-and-white, the man's anguish has an
over-fanciful, a well-nigh absurd look, but to Ste. Marie the thing was
very real and terrible, as real and as terrible as, to a half-starved
monk in his lonely cell, the sudden failure of the customary exaltation
of spirit after a night's long prayer.

He went, after a time, back to the bed, and lay down there with one
upflung arm across his eyes to shut out the light. He was filled with a
profound dejection and a sense of hopelessness. Through all the long
week of his imprisonment he had been cheerful, at times even gay.
However evil his case might have looked, his elastic spirits had mounted
above all difficulties and cares, confident in the face of apparent
defeat. Now at last he lay still, bruised, as it were, and battered and
weary. The flame of courage burned very low in him. From sheer
exhaustion he fell after a time into a troubled sleep, but even there
the enemy followed him and would not let him rest. He seemed to himself
to be in a place of shadows and fears. He strained his eyes to make out
above him the bright, clear star of guidance, for so long as that shone
he was safe; but something had come between - cloud or mist - and his star
shone dimly in fitful glimpses.

* * * * *

On the next morning he went out once more with the old Michel into the
garden. He went with a stronger heart, for the morning had renewed his
courage, as bright, fresh mornings do. From the anguish of the day
before he held himself carefully aloof. He kept his mind away from all
thought of it, and gave his attention to the things about him. It would
return, doubtless, in the slow, idle hours; he would have to face it
again and yet again; he would have to contend with it; but for the
present he put it out of his thoughts, for there were things to do.

It was no more than human of him - and certainly it was very
characteristic of Ste. Marie - that he should be half glad and half
disappointed at not finding Coira O'Hara in her place at the rond point.
It left him free to do what he wished to do - make a careful
reconnaissance of the whole garden enclosure - but it left him empty of
something he had, without conscious thought, looked forward to.

His wounded leg was stronger and more flexible than on the day before;
it burned and prickled less, and could be bent a little at the knee with
small distress; so he led the old Michel at a good pace down the length
of the enclosure, past the rose-gardens, a tangle of unkempt sweetness,
and so to the opposite wall. He found the gates there, very
formidable-looking, made of vertical iron bars connected by cross-pieces
and an ornamental scroll. They were fastened together by a heavy chain
and a padlock. The lock was covered with rust, as were the gates
themselves, and Ste. Marie observed that the lane outside upon which
they gave was overgrown with turf and moss, and even with seedling
shrubs; so he felt sure that this entrance was never used. The lane, he
noted, swept away to the right toward Issy and not toward the Clamart
road. He heard, as he stood there, the whir of a tram from far away at
the left, a tram bound to or from Clamart, and the sound brought to his
mind what he wished to do. He turned about and began to make his way
round the rose-gardens, which were partly enclosed by a low brick wall
some two or three feet high. Beyond them the trees and shrubbery were
not set out in orderly rows as they were near the house, but grew at
will without hindrance or care. It was like a bit of the Meudon wood.

He found the going more difficult here for his bad leg, but he pressed
on, and in a little while saw before him that wall which skirted the
Clamart road. He felt in his pocket for the four sealed and stamped
letters, but just then the old Michel spoke behind him:

"Pardon, Monsieur! Ce n'est pas permis."

"What is not permitted?" demanded Ste. Marie, wheeling about.

"To approach that wall, Monsieur," said the old man, with an incredibly
gnomelike and apologetic grin.

Ste. Marie gave an exclamation of disgust. "Is it believed that I could
leap over it?" he asked. "A matter of five metres? Merci, non! I am not
so agile. You flatter me."

The old Michel spread out his two gnarled hands.

"Pas de ma faute. I have orders, Monsieur. It will be my painful duty to
shoot if Monsieur approaches that wall." He turned his strange head on
one side and regarded Ste. Marie with his sharp and beadlike eye. The
smile of apology still distorted his face, and he looked exactly like
the Punchinello in a street show.

Ste. Marie slowly withdrew from his pocket two louis d'or and held them
before him in the palm of his hand. He looked down upon them, and Michel
looked, too, with a gaze so intense that his solitary eye seemed to
project a very little from his withered face. He was like a hypnotized
old bird.

"Mon vieux," said Ste. Marie. "I am a man of honor."

"Sûrement! Sûrement, Monsieur!" said the old Michel, politely, but his
hypnotized gaze did not stir so much as a hair's-breadth. "Ça va sans le
dire."

"A man of honor," repeated Ste. Marie. "When I give my word I keep it.
Voilà! I keep it. And," said he, "I have here forty francs. Two louis. A
large sum. It is yours, my brave Michel, for the mere trouble of turning
your back just thirty seconds."

"Monsieur," whispered the old man, "it is impossible. He would kill
me - by torture."

"He will never know," said Ste. Marie, "for I do not mean to try to
escape. I give you my word of honor that I shall not try to escape.
Besides, I could not climb over that wall, as you see. Two louis,
Michel! Forty francs!"

The old man's hands twisted and trembled round the barrel of the
carbine, and he swallowed once with some difficulty. He seemed to
hesitate, but in the end he shook his head. It was as if he shook it in
grief over the grave of his first-born. "It is impossible," he said
again. "Impossible." He tore the beadlike eye away from those two
beautiful, glowing golden things, and Ste. Marie saw that there was
nothing to be done with him just now. He slipped the money back into his
pocket with a little sigh and turned away toward the rose-gardens.

"Ah, well," said he. "Another time, perhaps. Another time. And there are
more louis still, mon vieux. Perhaps three or four. Who knows?"

Michel emitted a groan of extreme anguish, and they moved on.

But a few moments later Ste. Marie gave a sudden low exclamation, and
then a soundless laugh, for he caught sight of a very familiar figure
seated in apparent dejection upon a fallen tree-trunk and staring across
the tangled splendor of the roses.

* * * * *




XXII

A SETTLEMENT REFUSED


Captain Stewart had good reason to look depressed on that fresh and
beautiful morning when Ste. Marie happened upon him beside the
rose-gardens. Matters had not gone well with him of late. He was ill and
he was frightened, and he was much nearer than is agreeable to a
complete nervous breakdown.

It seemed to him that perils beset him upon every side, perils both seen
and unseen. He felt like a man who is hunted in the dark, hard pressed
until his strength is gone, and he can flee no farther. He imagined
himself to be that man shivering in the gloom in a strange place, hiding
eyes and ears lest he see or hear something from which he cannot escape.
He imagined the morning light to come, very slow and cold and gray, and
in it he saw round about him a silent ring of enemies, the men who had
pursued him and run him down. He saw them standing there in the pale
dawn, motionless, waiting for the day, and he knew that at last the
chase was over and he near done for.

Crouching alone in the garden, with the scent of roses in his nostrils,
he wondered with a great and bitter amazement at that madman - himself of
only a few months ago - who had sat down deliberately, in his proper
senses, to play at cards with Fate, the great winner of all games. He
wondered if, after all, he had been in his proper senses, for the deed
now loomed before him gigantic and hideous in its criminal folly. His
mind went drearily back to the beginning of it all, to the tremendous
debts which had hounded him day and night, to his fear to speak of them
with his father, who had never had the least mercy upon gamblers. He
remembered as if it were yesterday the afternoon upon which he learned
of young Arthur's quarrel with his grandfather, old David's senile
anger, and the boy's tempestuous exit from the house, vowing never to
return. He remembered his talk with old David later on about the will,
in which he learned that he was now to have Arthur's share under certain
conditions. He remembered how that very evening, three days after his
disappearance, the lad had come secretly to the rue du Faubourg St.
Honoré begging his uncle to take him in for a few days, and how, in a
single instant that was like a lightning flash, the Great Idea had come
to him.

What gigantic and appalling madness it had all been! And yet for a time
how easy of execution! For a time. Now.... He gave another quick shiver,
for his mind came back to what beset him and compassed him round
about - perils seen and hidden.

The peril seen was ever before his eyes. Against the light of day it
loomed a gigantic and portentous shadow, and it threatened him - the
figure of Ste. Marie _who knew_. His reason told him that if due care
were used this danger need not be too formidable, and, indeed, in his
heart he rather despised Ste. Marie as an individual; but the man's
nerve was broken, and in these days fear swept wavelike over reason and
had its way with him. Fear looked up to this looming, portentous shadow
and saw there youth and health and strength, courage and hopefulness,
and, best of all armors, a righteous cause. How was an ill and tired and
wicked old man to fight against these? It became an obsession, the
figure of this youth; it darkened the sun at noonday, and at night it
stood beside Captain Stewart's bed in the darkness and watched him and
waited, and the very air he breathed came chill and dark from its silent
presence there.

But there were perils unseen as well as seen. He felt invisible threads
drawing round him, weaving closer and closer, and he dared not even try
how strong they were lest they prove to be cables of steel. He was
almost certain that his niece knew something or at the least suspected.
As has already been pointed out, the two saw very little of each other,
but on the occasions of their last few meetings it had seemed to him
that the girl watched him with a strange stare, and tried always to be
in her grandfather's chamber when he called to make his inquiries. Once,
stirred by a moment's bravado, he asked her if M. Ste. Marie had
returned from his mysterious absence, and the girl said:

"No. He has not come back yet, but I expect him soon now - with news of
Arthur. We shall all be very glad to see him, grandfather and Richard
Hartley and I."

It was not a very consequential speech, and, to tell the truth, it was
what in the girl's own country would be termed pure "bluff," but to
Captain Stewart it rang harsh and loud with evil significance, and he
went out of that room cold at heart. What plans were they perfecting
among them? What invisible nets for his feet?

And there was another thing still. Within the past two or three days he
had become convinced that his movements were being watched - and that
would be Richard Hartley at work, he said to himself. Faces vaguely
familiar began to confront him in the street, in restaurants and cafés.
Once he thought his rooms had been ransacked during his absence at La
Lierre, though his servant stoutly maintained that they had never been
left unoccupied save for a half-hour's marketing. Finally, on the day
before this morning by the rose-gardens, he was sure that as he came out
from the city in his car he was followed at a long distance by another
motor. He saw it behind him after he had left the city gate, the Porte
de Versailles, and he saw it again after he had left the main route at
Issy and entered the little rue Barbés which led to La Lierre. Of
course, he promptly did the only possible thing under the circumstances.
He dashed on past the long stretch of wall, swung into the main avenue
beyond, and continued through Clamart to the Meudon wood, as if he were
going to St. Cloud. In the labyrinth of roads and lanes there he came to
a halt, and after a half-hour's wait ran slowly back to La Lierre.

There was no further sign of the other car, the pursuer, if so it had
been, but he passed two or three men on bicycles and others walking, and
what one of these might not be a spy paid to track him down?

It had frightened him badly, that hour of suspense and flight, and he
determined to remain at La Lierre for at least a few days, and wrote to
his servant in the rue du Faubourg to forward his letters there under
the false name by which he had hired the place.

He was thinking very wearily of all these things as he sat on the fallen
tree-trunk in the garden and stared unseeing across tangled ranks of
roses. And after a while his thoughts, as they were wont to do, returned
to Ste. Marie - that looming shadow which darkened the sunlight, that
incubus of fear which clung to him night and day. He was so absorbed
that he did not hear sounds which might otherwise have roused him. He
heard nothing, saw nothing, save that which his fevered mind projected,
until a voice spoke his name.

He looked over his shoulder thinking that O'Hara had sought him out. He
turned a little on the tree-trunk to see more easily, and the image of
his dread stood there a living and very literal shadow against the
daylight.

Captain Stewart's overstrained nerves were in no state to bear a sudden
shock. He gave a voiceless, whispering cry and he began to tremble very
violently, so that his teeth chattered. All at once he got to his feet
and began to stumble away backward, but a projecting limb of the fallen
tree caught him and held him fast. It must be that the man was in a sort
of frenzy. He must have seen through a red mist just then, for when he
found that he could not escape his hand went swiftly to his coat-pocket,
and in his white and contorted face there was murder plain and
unmistakable.

Ste. Marie was too lame to spring aside or to dash upon the man across
intervening obstacles and defend himself. He stood still in his place
and waited. And it was characteristic of him that at that moment he felt
no fear, only a fine sense of exhilaration. Open danger had no terrors
for him. It was secret peril that unnerved him, as in the matter of the
poison a week before.

Captain Stewart's hand fell away empty, and Ste. Marie laughed.

"Left it at the house?" said he. "You seem to have no luck, Stewart.
First the cat drinks the poison, and then you leave your pistol at home.
Dear, dear, I'm afraid you're careless."

Captain Stewart stared at the younger man under his brows. His face was
gray and he was still shivering, but the sudden agony of fear, which had
been, after all, only a jangle of nerves, was gone away. He looked upon
Ste. Marie's gay and untroubled face with a dull wonder, and he began to
feel a grudging admiration for the man who could face death without even
turning pale. He pulled out his watch and looked at it.

"I did not know," he said, "that this was your hour out-of-doors."

As a matter of fact, he had quite forgotten that the arrangement
existed. When he had first heard of it he had protested vigorously, but


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Online LibraryJustus Miles FormanJason → online text (page 17 of 23)