The Traveller in the Fur Cloak
Was the girl worth the price—two thousand “thalers”? If so, was the Englishmanjustified in buying her?
STANLEY J. WEYMAN
CHAPTER XVIII. BUT no doubt the feeling that the Waechters’ business was not the only one on my hands and that when I had accomplished that, I must turn without the loss of an hour to a more important task, added to my impatience. I was in a fever to get forward, and the carriage seemed to crawl. Everything was an obstacle, everything detained us. Where the ruts were deep we fell to a snail’s pace; again we trotted, but how slowly! While every delay, and there were many delays, and every halt, necessary as it might be, set me on tenter-hooks! I pictured the party in front of us travelling without let or pause, I pictured the girl’s belief that I had deserted her, and her despair, and a hundred times I despaired myself, making sure that with their two hours start the Waechters must outpace and escape me. When Grussbaum brought us to a standstill that he might ask some postboy if the party had passed that way, I could have cursed his officiousness; and when he repeated the act I could no longer restrain myself. “Of course they are before us!” I cried, thrusting out my head. “They are going to Hamburg, stupid! Is there another road? Push on! Push on!” At the first Post House where we changed horses, we learned that the party still held their start. We left with a new team, the postboys bribed to a spasm of activity, and we rattled away for a while, but the ruts and the sand quickly quenched this, and it was at little more than a walk that about three o’clock we completed the second stage. By that time I had resigned myself to the worst, and depression had closed about me like a fog. I was sure that the Waechters would not halt at Perleberg but would press on through the night; and I foresaw that the moment was fast approaching when I must confront a new decision and make a new choice—the moment when, at Perleberg, I must finally decide between duty and sympathy, between pity and hard facts. For to follow the party beyond Perleberg would be to waste hours and days; hours and days which I could not spare and dared not waste, since they were already allotted to a task to which remorse and self interest alike pledged me.
Sooner than I expected, and almost before I had foreseen the necessity, that choice, that very choice, was thrust upon me. As I stood impatient to be off and peevishly watching the buckling of the last strap Grussbaum stepped up to me. “They have not gone this way, mein Herr,” he said.
“Not? They’ve not?” I exclaimed. “Impossible!” “Still, honoured Sir, they have not.”
"Nonsense! These people are lying to you!” And distrusting the man I was instantly at a white heat, I turned about. There was a cobbler’s hutch on the farther side of the road, some twenty paces beyond the Post House. A man was working in it, seated cobbler-fashion under the tiny pent-house, a shoe between his knees. “Here, you!” I cried. “Here’s a quarter-thaler for you, if you can tell me
what carriages have passed since noon —going for Perleberg.”
He reflected and slowly told them off. “Two Eilwagen and two post carriages,” he said. “No, no party of four.”
“Not two men and two women? Think, man! You must have seen them?”
“No. No party of four.”
“Will a whole thaler open your mouth?”
UT the cobbler was more honest than I deserved to find him. He shook his head and unwillingly I had to believe him. I flung him the thaler and strode back to the carriage. Grussbaum met me. “There is a turning half a league back which leads into the Fehrbellin-Perleberg road,” he said. “They may have taken that way.” “But why? Why, man?” I was in no mood to agree with any one. “It must be longer and worse.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “His honour knows best,” he answered meekly. “But perhaps—to evade us.” “D—n!” I said, and I took a turn down the road, and said “D—n” again. And no wonder. For I had to make my choice—here and now. If we drove straight on I might indeed intercept the Waechters at Perleberg; but on the other hand they might leave the town on one side and whether they did that or not, what might not happen in the meantime? Yet to leave the main road and to follow them—to commit ourselves to the infamous tracks that lost themselves among the sands and pine-forests of this outlandish country—this was a dubious and a hateful prospect. If I kept on I should reach Perleberg by nightfall or thereabouts. But if I diverged, if I committed myself to the unknown, Heaven knew where night would find us or whether even twenty-four hours would see us in Perleberg.
I thought of my duty and I thought of the girl. I pictured poor Perceval, his face livid and damp with the dews of death, and again I touched where it lay deep in my pocket the tiny scrap of linen that had borne to me the girl’s feeble cry for help. And I stood—tortured by doubt and indecision. I might lose forty-eight hours, and the loss might balk me in my main purpose. On the other hand I might be abandoning this child, helpless in brutal hands, to the most terrible of fates. What was I to do? How was I to decide? For even if I followed her, I had to remember that the chances were against me. I might lose the track, or following it I might never overtake the party. Their two hours’ start would by the time I reached the turning they had taken have become three—more than three; and to come up with them by daylight might be impossible, to trace them in the dark equally impossible. They had but to take no matter what turning, they had but to drive aside and let me go by, and I should be hopelessly astray. In a word I saw that the odds were immense that if I left the road to pursue the party, I should do no atom of good and only waste time that was invaluable.
I decided. I turned back to the carriage. “Well, jump in,” I said savagely. “Let them go to the devil!”
“His honour goes on?”
“Where else? In! Get in, man! Let us lose no more time.”
He held the door. I sprang in. He closed it and bundled up in front. The postboys sounded their horns and cracked their whips, the ostlers stepped aside. I flung out a douceur. We set out.
But I suffered. God knows how I suffered and what piteous visions I had as I turned my back on the girl, what dumb appeals wrung my heart, what pangs of conscience tormented me! I suffered, and, when we had travelled a mile I could bear it no longer. I put out my head, I oidered the horses’ heads to be turned, and even while, writhing on the horns of this cursed dilemma, I called myself every kind of a fool for my softness. I drove back to the Post House. There of course I had to confront a wrangle. The Post master had no mind to let out his team for the byroads—I must pay treble, I must pay double, I must take at least a cock-horse. But I was in no temper to be browbeaten, and in the end, now bribing and now bullying, I got my will, and we travelled back to
the by-road of which Grussbaum had informed me. There we confirmed the fact that a calash had recently turned off, and we followed its traces at the best speed that we could compass.
AN HCAjR, two hours passed, we were still toiling on, - and we had seen nothing and heard nothing of our quarry. Hours, I knew, must elapse before we could hope to see anything of it, and meantime night was beginning to close in—and on what a scene! The district which we were traversing, a part of that tongue of land which Brandenburg thrusts in between the jaws of the Danish and Mecklenburg marches is one of the most desolate in Europe. A barren waste, broken here and there by ragged thickets, with ever—at hand or on the horizon—a dark wall of forest, a man may traverse it for hours by day without seeing a human being, and from sunset to dawn without espying a lighted window. Such wretched hamlets and famine-stricken farms as there are lie hidden in hollows and parted by wide spaces. The inns, where there are inns, are cut-throat hovels; and here as in all march-lands where jurisdictions meet, outlaws gather and prey, or would prey, were there anything to steal. The sand clogs, the toiling wheels, fallen trees cumber the forest road, the signposts are gibbets; and as in the wilds of Livonia men tremble as they pass lest in the pinewoods beside them the wolves give tongue.
Something of a road we kept and to this I had to trust. But as the twilight fell and veiled the melancholy landscape, while our progress grew ever more laboured, I had leisure, and, alas, only too much leisure, to reflect what a fool I had been, on what a goose-chase I had started, what a Jack o’ lanthorn I was pursuing! Even the opinion of Grussbaum, began To have its weight with me, and for the lads I had hardly the face, so foolish seemed my expedition, to ask them if they were still in the road.
In a word I found time to repent a dozen times. How could I have landed myself in such a wild goose chase as this, I asked myself—I, who had my task laid down and ordained for me, without one hour to spare if I would do my duty and let no chance slip? To search for Ellis, to search for the dispatches, ten days had been little for this, the enterprise had been desperate, the odds against me, had I spent every minute and every thought upon the search! And here was I wandering from the road and from my purpose—wandering benighted in the fog and mist of this wintry waste! Had ever diplomatist, even the unlucky Drake, even poor Spencer Smith, played the fool so completely?
I have seldom lived through four hours of sorer vexation. We had gone too far to return, yet toiling forward saw with every mile less hope. Flakes of snow, too, were beginning to fall from a grey sky, not a landmark showed, and the horses tugging at the traces laboured on ever more slowly. But all things come to an end, and we had left the open moor and were plodding along between black lines of pine-trees, when on a sudden I sat up. The postillion had sounded his horn. I thrust out my head, hope revived. I tried to pierce the gloom with my eyes, but for the moment I could see nothing except eddying flakes falling slowly and softly. Then, as the carriage swerved a little, I perceived what had drawn the postboy’s greeting. A single, steady, lonely light shone before us. Anon it vanished as we sank into a hollow, it appeared again, again I lost it. But when it peeped out for the third time we were close upon it and a minute later we drew up before a dark mass of a house, set in the angle between two roads—two of four that met in a desolate clearing, a little, but very little lighter than the sombre woods that hemmed it in.
BEFORE Grussbaum could open the door, I was out of the carriage and in the road, once more intent on getting forward. For so much at least we had done; and now to eat and to drive on, or to drive on without the loss of a minute—either would suit me. Meantime as I stamped my chilled feet on the road I wondered that no one came out to receive us, and I looked at the house. It stood lonely and gloomy, with pine woods all about it, but it bulked large. So far it promised well, and impatiently I strode to the door and tried it. It was unfastened, and throwing it back I entered. “House! House!” I cried,—damn the folks, what were they about? Were they all asleep? What was the use of a horn if no attention was paid to it? “House within!” again. “Do you hear?”
But I had hardly hailed the place before my hopes
sank, and I guessed that the single light that we had espied measured the position more correctly than my expectations. My call, echoing through empty rooms, awoke only echoes. The air of the house, too, smelled musty and damp, the cold took me by the throat, the stone-floored passage rang hollow. And when I shouted again and a man at length appeared from some hidden recess, and came, bearing a light, down the long tunnellike passage towards me, I saw before me, no hearty civil Boniface but a dirty, unshaven lump of a man whose sodden visage matched his frowsy blouse.
A relay? In half an hour? The fellow laughed sourly, eyeing us—for Grussbaum had joined me—with covert insolence. He had but one nag in the stable. The gentleman should have given notice if he wanted a relay. Since the war there were no travellers on the road, and such as there were passed him by.
“But you are the Postmaster!” I stormed. “You are the Postmaster!”
“I’m all the Postmaster there is,” he answered sulkily. “I’ve a team, and that’s a team too many. But it went out four hours agone.”
WERE there no horses to be hired in the neighbourhood? No, there was no neighbourhood, he answered, and no horses. And no traffic either, not so much as a louse could live by. The war had killed it—and the taxes. It was no use for the gentleman to be angry —he could not make horses, no more than another. Of course the gentleman could stay if he pleased, but it was a poor place nowadays. Supper? Well, he had nothing that was ready—the house was empty. The next Post House? Towards Perleberg? A German mile and perhaps a bit, and a good road, a much better road—the Fehrbellin-Perleberg road, if the gentry preferred to go on.
“It’s two German miles —and a long bit,” Grussbaum muttered in my ear. “Ten English miles.”
I did not at once see the bearing of this—of an understatement so unlike an innkeeper—but I put the same question that I should have put if I had seen it. “You had a party came in this afternoon, hadn’t you?”
“Yes, mein Herr—for a wonder,” with a grimace.
“Four persons. They took my team and went on.”
“That way. Four hours ago.” He cast the light of the candle he was carrying on the face of a clock fixed to the wall beside him—for all this time we were standing in the chill discomfort of the bare, stone-floored passage.
“They should be there by now.”
It seemed to be a full stop. I 'felt myself beaten and I dare say that my face showed it. But as the man had said, he could not make horses, and ours were worn out. To proceed with them was impossible, and with a silent curse at my folly I gave up the struggle. “Well,”
I said peevishly, “get fire and lights. And be stirring, man! Move yourself!
Can’t you see that we are ihalf frozen? And supper!
Something, anything, as soon as you can!”
“You stop then, mein Herr?”
“Of course we stop,” I cried irascibly. “What else can we do if you have no horses? And be moving, man. A fire first—is this the room?” I pushed open a door. “Gott in Himmel, what a vault!
And then, supper, do you hear? And be airing beds for us. No wonder you’ve little custom if you have no better welcome for travellers than this!”
He grumbled something that I did not catch, and looked at me by no means pleasantly, but in the end he obeyed, snuffed his light and set it down on the table and went sluggishly away. Grussbaum had gone out before him to hasten matters and there was nothing left for me to do but to pace up and down the bare, half-lit room. The walls, colored a dismal blue, and dampstained in places, gave out the chill of the grave, and I shivered as I walked, even in my fur-cloak. By and by, but it might well have been sooner—a squalid old woman brought in a tray of embers and started the fire in the stove, and with vengeful extravagance I piled in wood from a heap in a corner.
And how my spirits sank, as I fed the blaze and owned myself defeated! I had led into the enemy’s hand, and he had trumped me; he had drawn me off the road and left me planted here, while he pursued his way unmolested and triumphant. Nor could any reflection be more mortifying, any thought more poignant than the certainty I now felt that if I had clung to the main road I should have been in Perleberg before him and might have intercepted him and his prey, at my leisure.
BY AND BY the old hag came in again, and removing the dip set a pair of guttering candles in its place, while I, drawing up a stool, crouched before the open door of the stove and now cursed my folly and now tried to beat the logs into a fiercer blaze. A silence as of death held the house—anything less like a house of entertainment, anything more funereal I had never in all my journeyings happened upon; and the thought of the desolate forest without, stretching for miles on every side, did but darken the picture. It was a relief when at last I heard a step coming down the passage, and looked behind me. Here was some sign of life at any rate, and, I hoped, of supper.
But it was only Grussbaum, and, disappointed, I moved to give the man a share of the heat. “Pull up a chair,” I said ungraciously, “a more God-forsaken place than this I never saw!”
He did not comply, but instead and after a moment’s pause, “I’ve been down the road,” he said.
I was in no mood to do anything but snub him, but something in his tone led me to look up, and I perceived a change in the man; such a change as I had noticed once before. He had shed his meekness, his voice had gathered force, and either there was a gleam of excitement in his eyes or the leaping blaze, that issued from the open stove, deceived me. At any rate, “Down the road?” I queried, in place of what I had meant to say. “Why? Why, man?” “I took a lanthorn—from the car iage.”
I stared at him. “Well?”
“There’s no trace of wheels along the Perleberg road. Nor along either of the other roads.”
“So! And you fancy—”
“I fancy,” with a glance at the door, “that your friends are here, mein Herr.”
“Here?” I stood up, in my surprise.
“Here, or hereabouts,” he rejoined. “And if that beso I would advise his honour to say nothing but to keep his eyes open.”
But I was in too low a mood to preserve any hope, and I laughed. “Why, there’s not a sound in the house!” I said. “Rubbish! Rubbish, man!”
“Still, they’ve not gone on, I am sure,” he persisted. “And there’s a hamlet five furlongs away on the Fehrbellin road. They may have walked to it.”
Q“Much more likely that the snow has effaced their wheel marks!” I retorted. “No, man, I don’t believe a word of it. Depend upon it, they are half way to Perleberg by now and if I had not been all sorts of a fool I should have been there beforethem. Instead of spinning these fine yarns, my friend, suppose you go and urge on the supper. I am more interested in that than in your theories.”
F or really this was too much! To be advised by this man whom I had taken up out of charity! It was a reversal of our positions a little too sudden. And I suppose Grussbaum saw that he had presumed, for he became again the suppliant of the barrier, meek, subdued and uncert a i n of himself. “Of course,” he stammered, “if the Wohlgeborener Herr thinks that there is nothing in what I say?”
“I do,” I answered sharply. “I am sure that there is nothing. Do you see about the supper, man. That’s your work.”
But he had sown the seeds of suspicion in my mind, and no sooner was he gone than I began to turn over what he had said, and very uncomfortable it made me. I was sure that there was nothing in it, and] yet I could not rest. I caught myself listening, suspecting, glancing over my shoulder. The gloom of the room with its bare table and its mouldering walls took on a lowering aspect. The long echoing passages throbbed with unseen possibilities. The stillness, the chill, the unreadiness veiled a mystery, demanded explanation. I fancied strange things passing in the depths of this silent house, and when the landlord at last appeared and sluggishly proceeded to lay a coarse
cloth on the end of the table, I watched him. But his glum face told nothing, it was a stolid mask, and I still swung between uncertainties. He went and came, and it was not until he brought in a covered dish, and the smell of roast meat restored the common-place, that I shook off the obsession.
ASI rose to go to the table, and Grussbaum sneaked in, “What time did you say that that party left?” I asked, fixing my eyes on the landlord’s face.
“With the horses, mein HerrT’
“To be sure/’ sharply. “What other party had you?'”
“It would be about two.”
We sat down with that, Grussbaum at a little distance from me and making himself as small as he could. The landlord removed the cover. Roast veal, of course. I carved, sitting with my back to the stove, and the man carried a plateful to Grussbaum. I helped myself and ordered a stoup of beer to be brought for Grussbaum and a bottle of Rhine wine for myself. We heard the man go down the empty passage, and ordinarily I should have made some remark to my companion. But I was vexed with him; the appearance of the meal had dispelled my doubts, and I maintained a displeased silence. The clatter of our knives alone broke it. We plied them briskly, our eyes on our plates.
Presently we heard the landlord’s returning steps, and, still a little suspicious, I looked up. A second later—it could have been no more—Grussbaum glanced up also, his knife suspended in the air. Our eyes met. We had caught—both of us—a sound other than that which the man’s footsteps made, a light tinkling sound that even his tramp across the wooden floor, as he came up the room with the wine, did not quite cover. It was the musical ring of bells on a small dog’s collar.
The man—perhaps he was a little dull of ear—did not detect the sound that followed him until he halted to place the bottle and stoup on the table. Then it reached him and with a muttered exclamation and more activity than I should have expected, he wheeled about and Stared at the door. He saw then what we also saw; a tiny white dog standing In the middle of the dark doorway and looking into the room with bright eyes. One moment we viewed the creature and then with a sharp curse and a rush of feet the man drove it from the door, and pursued it down the passage.
“Azor!” I exclaimed. “Gott in Himmel?”
“Colossal!” Grussbaum muttered, his eyes still on the doorway, his ears cocked. “Azor! So they are here, mein Herr, right enough.”
“Thank God!” I sighed. “Then I have them.”
He shook his head. “I am afraid,” he rejoined, “that it won’t be as easy as that/’
WITHIN twenty minutes—we could hardly sacrifice less to the meal and appearances—we had formed our plan; and of those twenty minutes it is not too much to say that I had been forced to devote ten to the enlistment of Grussbaum. The man had every reason to be grateful to me, and I had every ground to expect aid, unquestioning aid, from him. But I did not get it. He evinced on the contrary a reluctance, which presently developed into obstinacy, and it was necessary for me, not only to go into the facts with him—at some cost ■of pride, the man being so poor a creature and, as I had thought, so entirely at my disposal—but to set out the girl’s miserable position, and even to dwell upon her danger, in a manner little to my taste.
Even when I had done this, the man, d—-n him, was far from kindling; of generous indignation he betrayed not a trace. Instead he hummed, he hawed, he fidgeted, and as we sat, our heads together in the circle of light shed by the wretched candles, with the eyes of one or the other ever on the door, which we had not ventured to close lest we awaken suspicion, his hesitation was as plain as it seemed cowardly. True, the'rogue made a show of sympathy; but it was so ill done that I saw that he did not care a jot for the girl, and whether he did or no, that he had no will to commit himself.
“So!” he muttered. “Sad, to be sure, mein, Herr.' Very sad! Wunderbar. But, fortunately, it is not as if the young lady were a friend of the Wohlgeborener Herr? Or as if”—imploring patience by a gesture—“a letter to Her Highness the Grand Duchess would not—”
_ I cut him short. “Would not—what?” I retorted. What good would a letter do, man? And while the letter was travelling to Zerbst, what do you think would be happening to the young lady? And where would she be when the answer came?”
He could not reply to that. There was no reply. But his mouth remained as obstinately set as before. “To be sure! To be sure, that is so,” he agreed humbly. “The Wohlgeborener Herr must know. He is the best judge. And if he were in his own country,” with a sly upward glance, “it might be his duty to set other things aside—”
“Duty!” This was indeed too much. “Duty! You’ll leave me to decide on my duty, sir, if you please,” I said, “That is my business.”
“Of course!” he assented smoothly. “Of course!” fingering the cloth and keeping his eyes fixed on it. “But I thought that—the Herr's business compelled him to be at Perleberg—”
I could not suffer that—the pig! “D—n your impudence, man,” I exclaimed. “My duty and my business!” staring at him. “What are you talking about? What are they to you? I picked you up out of charity, and you preach to me! Goff in Himmel, have done! Have done! Do you hear? And bend your mind to this. Are you going to help me or are you not? That is the only question for you!” “Gh, dear, dear!” he stammered, shaking his head. “Enter the woman and exit wisdom!” And as I scowled at this fresh impertinence. “Who aims at two stools falls between both!”
“If you mouth me,” I cried, enraged by his persistence, “one more proverb—”
BUT he was insuppressible. “Who pushes on wins, who breaks back loses!” he murmured, shaking his head at the cloth.
It seemed impossible to stay his tongue except by force and, “In one word,” I asked in despair, “are you going to help me?”
He fingered his cleft chin in a pitiable state of perplexity and it seemed to me that it was just the turn of a coin whether he persisted in his obstinacy or no. But of a sudden he seemed to make up his mind and with a final shrug which disclaimed responsibility he gave way. “Very well, mein Herr, if it must be so,” he said. “I will do what you order—what must be, must be.” But having once yielded I am bound to say that he gave no further trouble, but on the contrary showed a quickness of grasp and a readiness to play his part that a little surprised me.
Ten minutes later, the landlord being in the room, I made the discovery that I had lost one of my fur-lined gloves, and I bade the sulky fellow see if I had dropped it in the hall. He took out one of our candles and searched for it, but of course he did not find it. On that, “Do you look—look outside,” I commanded Grussbaum, “I may have dropped it as I stepped out of the caleche.”
He rose to do so and the landlord who had secured the outer door had to unbar it. “If it is not there,” I .called after Grussbaum, “see if it is in the carriage. And don’t come back without it!” I added peevishly. “It must be somewhere.”
As I had calculated, the landlord did not re-fasten the door—he was moving in and out, clearing the table. And I took care to keep him busy; now ordering another bottle of wine and now bidding him bring more wood and see that a brazier was taken to my room, if there was no stove in it. When the man returned after seeing to this I still held him a minute or two in talk, and then sent him out with a message to the postboys, enjoining haste in the morning. We would start at six to the minute. Altogether I kept the fellow employed for fifteen minutes by my watch and then, assured that Grussbaum should by this time have reached the police station at the hamlet I found one more errand for my sluggish friend, and while he was about it, I slipped into my cloak and stepping softly out of the house, pulled the door to after me.
'T'HE slight snow-fall had ceased and, though there was A no moon, the stars were shining in a frosty sky. The house stood, as I have said, in a clearing at the point where four roads met. Its front looked on the road by which we had come, but its flank, prolonged by the stables, ran along the Fehrbellin road. Having ascertained this, I went no farther towards the stables, for though the air was keen there might be loiterers in the yard, and the last thing I wished was to be seen. The Waechters, if they were not harboured upstairs, were probably tucked away at the back, and my aim was to reach the rear by passing round the nearer flank of the house, where the forest, dwindling at close quarters to stumps and isolated trees, still pressed in close to the building. It was not only that this was the quieter side, but I calculated the light which we had viewed as we approached and which was not visible from the road before the house must proceed from some window on this side.
I had not felt my way a dozen yards, keeping within a pace or two of the house, before I tripped over a wood-pile and got a heavy fall. I was bruised and shaken, but not much hurt, and fortunately my fur cloak deadened the sound—fortunately, for I had not, moving with greater care, gone more than another ten paces, before there shone across my way a broad beam of light—probably the one that had greeted our arrival. It issued as far as I could see from a building lower than the main house, and it was hidden from the eyes of any one standing before the inn by a projecting chimney-breast. As I stoleon towards it, trying every step before I took it, I passed a window from a crack in the shutter of which there also issued a thin arrow of light; but intent on the farther casement which I judged to be unshuttered I passed by this, using the utmost caution as I did so.
I reached the one on which my hopes of learning something rested. But here I experienced a moment of acute disappointment. The sill of the window was a
couple of feet above my head, and I could discern no more of the room than the rafters and laths—in some places stripped of plaster—of a grimy and dilapidated ceiling. I tried if by retreating a little way from the window I could see more, and I succeeded in bringing a part of the walls within sight. Still I could see neither light nor occupant, and I drew back still farther, only to come suddenly sharply against a tree-stump. The collision might wall have hurt me, but was destined to help me, for quickly—the stump was about three feet high— I climbed upon it, balanced myself with care, and with my eyes raised above the sill I looked into the room.
T COULD not have been better placed, for two of the ^ occupants of the place were directly within my line of sight, and they were the women whom I had hoped to see. The girl lay on a bed, her face hidden, her clasped hands stretched nervelessly before her, her whole attitude eloquent of fatigue and dejection. A few feet from her Frau Waechter sat beside the light, her face turned towards the bed. She was watching her companion, and more, watching her with a strange, intent, brooding look which I found it hard to translate, yet which instinctively filled me with apprehension. It was not so much that her gaze, her very stillness, seemed to me sinister: but I read in her look a kind of shrinking, as if the woman saw what she did not wish to see, and, evil as she was, shuddered at the picture called up by her thoughts. If the girl on whom she looked had lain a corpse before her, and a corpse through her act, then I could have understood that look— it was so I could have fancied her gazing on her handiwork and trembling in her soul. For as she saw the girl now—so I could imagine her thinking—she would see her in her dreams.
But, thank God, that fancy was not justified, the girl was at any rate alive. I saw her move, though ever so slightly; it appeared to me that she sighed or groaned. She was not dead and, thank Heaven, we were here to save her. Of the men of the party I could see nothing, and presently with the same care with which I had climbed up, I descended. I stole back towards the front of the inn. Grussbaum should have returned by this time, and not a minute longer than was necessary would I leave the girl in the power of these people.
But as I passed the other window, the tiny arrow of light which shone from a crack in the shutters tempted my curiosity. It might be well to know what was passing there also, and it would delay me but a moment to do so, for the window was lower than the other—so low, that to bring my eye to the chink which was at the foot of the shutter, I had to stoop. Once I had looked in, I remained; fascinated as well as puzzled by what I saw. The two men were there, but what in the world were they doing? Waechter was on his feet beside a bare wooden table, holding, of all the strange things I could think of, a large iron spoon in his hand, while his eyes dwelt intently on something about which the dwarf, seated at the table, was busy. What this was I could not for a while make out. But by and by the lad moved and disclosed his work. He was sawing off, laboriously and with a common table knife, the top of—again of all strange things—a tin extinguisher. I had hardly grasped the fact, when the tip of the thing came off, and laying it aside he held the extinguisher to his eye. After looking through it, he handed it to his companion, who also examined it, measuring as it seemed to me the size of the hole, which had been made. Ill satisfied, he followed suit by peering through it; then he thrust it—and this I thought oddest of all—into his ear. As he did so I caught through window and shutter a faint sound—the harsh jarring laugh of the dwarf.
VI/HAT—what on earth were they doing? I could not * V conceive, and though time pressed, and I knew that Grussbaum might be waiting for me, I could not drag myself away with my curiosity unsated. I must unriddle the riddle if it were possible. I must see more. And for more I had not long to wait, though it enlightened me little. Waechter laid down the extinguisher and took up in its stead the iron spoon. He wrapped a cloth about the handle, and placing something in the bowl of the spoon, he held the bowl in the flame of the lamp. The lad rose to his feet that he might see the better, and the two, stooping and intent, pored over the spoon.
They were Beating something, or possibly melting something. But what was it? What could it all mean? What were they going to do? Though I shivered, cloaked as I was, in the keen frosty air, I could not draw myself away. I must see it out. I watched, and at length the operation, whatever it was, came to an end, and Karl moved away. He brought a piece of wood from a cornerand laid it on the table. Then he took up the funnel which he had made out of the extinguisher, and protecting the hand in which he held it with a corner of thecloth, he poised the thing, thin end downwards, over the wopd. Waechter removed the spoon from its position in the flame and quickly but carefully poured the contents of the bowl into the funnel. I imagined—but I was not sure—that as he tilted the spoon, I caught the gleam of metal. Then—nothing happened, and I drew the conclusion
that the experiment had failed, for I caught the sound of an oath and an exclamation of disappointment. Baffled— for I had made nothing of what I had seen—I substituted ear for eye, pressed it against the hole, and caught the words “pewter—cools too quickly!” And then the word “lead.” But I could make little of that either, and I could wait no longer. I crept away, and emerged a few seconds later on the road, where I found Grussbaum and a couple of men awaiting me in front of the inn. I joined them.
“Come,” I said. “I have seen them and they are here.” And in a dozen words I explained where they were.
“That will be the old house,” one of the men, who appeared to be the chief, decided. “We must go through the kitchen. There is no other way to it.”
“Then let us go,” I said. “We have lost enough time already,” though indeed the lost time lay at my door.
“But steady, mein Herr, steady a moment, if you please,” the policeman rejoined. “We don’t want to get into trouble, Gott bewahre. You are sure, I suppose, that this young woman—”
“I am sure that these people have carried her off by force,” I answered warmly. “I am prepared to swear to that.” And I explained as shortly as I ,could who she was and her position in the Grand Duchess’s household— which impressed the man as that kind of thing does impress Germans. “And this man and woman,” I continued, “by whatever means they have got her into their power, mean no good by her. They are the lowest of the low, criminals, adventurers—I am sure of that—everything of the worst.”
THE man nodded. “So!” he commented. “So! Well, mein Herr, we will hear what they say.”
But he spoke in more measured tones than I liked, and I was annoyed. Still in action he showed himself strenuous enough. We found the inn-door on the latch, and we entered; but I fancied only just in time, for we caught the landlord making away from us down the dark passage, a light in his hand. The officer called to him to wait, we overtook him, and without ceremony pushed by him and through a dirty neglected kitchen to a door in the farther
wall. The officer knocked on this, and at once the little dog within began to bark. We heard persons moving, but no one answered the summons, and our man tried the door and found it locked. He called on those inside to open, and at the same time thrust at the door with his knee.
“What is it?” cried an angry voice, amid the persistent barking of the dog. “What do you want? Tausend Teufel, are we never to be at rest!”
“We are the police!” the officer returned, and he shook the door again. “Do you hear, open! open!”
“But what is it? What—”
“Open! Open at once! Admit us, or we break in the door!”
“Patience! Patience! We are doing it!” Quickly the key was turned, the door thrown back. “What is the matter?”
I had looked to find them cringing, panic-stricken, criminals caught in the act. But they confronted us with surprising boldness, even with anger; the woman in particular—no doubt the delay had allowed her time to enter—who stood forward and challenged us haughtily. “What is the matter?” she asked. She had plucked up the dog and held it in her arms, where it cuddled, darting from time to time angry whines at us. “Why are we disturbed? What is the meaning of this? If you are really police—”
“We are,” the officer said sharply. “We are in search of a young woman who is said to be with you, meine Frau."
The woman stared at him in well-acted surprise. “Do you mean my daughter?” she exclaimed. “She is the only young woman with us.”
I thrust myself forward. “She is not your daughter,” I said. “And we are here to remove her and to restore her to her family.”
“Ah!” The woman looked scornfully at me, and Azor shot out a shrijl bark. “It’s you, is it? Now I understand. You who persecuted her before, eh! The Englishman.”
“No matter who I am,” I retorted. “We are here to free the young lady, to whom you have no right.”
“No right?” She laughed derisively, defying us all, denouncing me—and I am bound to own that the woman was a consummate actress. “No right to my own daughter? And you’ll take her out of my hands? You will free her, will you? No, sir, not while there is law in this country. Why, for sheer impudence—do you think that I do not know who you are? You who persecuted the girl in Berlin, who had the insolence to follow her to her mother’s room and would have dragged her even from there! But I was alone then, and I am not alone now. Her father is here, and he will deal with you. And you, mein Herr," turning to the officer, “have a care what you do. This man who has imposed on you is, I tell you, an Englishman. An Englishman and a spy. And I denounce him in your hearing. You have heard me!”
' I 'HE officer eyed me and was evidently shaken. “I don’t know about that,” he said. “But any way the gentleman is prepared to swear that the young woman is not your daughter, and that you are detaining her by force.” “Not my daughter!” the woman cried. “Not my daughter? Then who is she?”
“Well, I must have your papers,” the man replied. “Then I’ll see. Produce them, mein Herr," he continued, addressing the man who had seated himself in a nonchalant attitude on the table—the table at which I had seen him make that strange experiment! “Who are you and whence do you come? And why—” with a sharp look round the wretched room with its rotting plaster and mean pallets, “Why, I ask you, are you here?”
“To escape that man whom we knew to be following us,” Waechter replied. “He has followed my daughter, Walburga, from Berlin—has followed her for days—and for no good, as you may imagine. But we wanted no trouble with him and we came here to be out of his way—though it is not comfortable.”
“Well, any way, your papers,” the man announced shortly. “Let me see them.”
Continued on page 46
Continued from page 27
Waechter put his hand into his breast pocket. “Willingly,” he said. “Of course. With pleasure. But—” he paused. He looked at me and I caught a gleam of triumph—of spiteful, malicious triumph in his eyes. “Not before that man. You will see why, officer, when I produce the papers.”
The policeman looked at me. I could see that he had begun to doubt me. “Are you English?” he asked. I admitted it. “So! Then I think the man has reason. You will retire, mein Herr, if you please.” “But,” I rejoined, and stood my ground, “his papers may be in order, but that won’t make the young lady his daughter. She is not his daughter! I swear it! And I am the accuser. I claim the right to be present.”
He shook his head. “I am the judge of that,” he said. “At any rate ask the young lady. Ask her in my presence who she is,” I urged.' But the man had made up his stolid mind, and my remonstrances only set him against me. “I have decided,” he said, and he pointed to the door, “you will retire, mein Herr. If you do not I give up the matter.”
Baffled, already scenting defeat, I saw there was nothing else for it, and I yielded with an ill grace. I went out, Grussbaum with me. The two policemen remained in the room. They closed the door on us. Outside, in the squalid noisome kitchen, lighted by a single candle, and with the landlord scowling at us from the hearth, I glared at Grussbaum. “Why didn’t you prime them?” I growled. “And why didn’t you speak up? You are no use. If you had said a word, if you had backed me up! But the man is a fool!”
But Grussbaum only shook his head, and of all the people I have ever met, he could be the most depressing. His very stoop, the droop of his shoulders, invited defeat. And we waited, I for my part in hot anger, which as the minutes passed gave place to despair. The rogues had the man’s ear, and what use might they not make of it? He was a raw country policeman, dull and stupid, and doubtful of me as a foreigner! They might impose on him, bribe him, even browbeat him! And the woman was clever and plausible, capable of that and more than that.
YET I might have had no fears, so much did the issue surpass them. After a long delay I heard a hand on the latch, the door fell ajar, I stepped forward to enter. But instead of admitting me, the men came out, signed sternly to me to stand back, and closed the door behind them. I heard the key turned in the lock. “Well?” I cried. “What have you learned? What is it?”
“A cock and bull story,” growled the chief, eyeing me with anything but friendly looks. “Trouble for nothing! A mare’s nest—or worse.”
“But, heaven and earth, man,” I remonstrated. “You can’t mean to leave the girl. I am prepared to swear that she is not their daughter.”
“Their daughter? Piff!” he cracked his fingers contemptuously. “If she is not, what business is it of yours? I’ll trouble you for your papers, Mr. Englishman.” “Fiddlesticks!” I cried in a rage, at the thought of the girl left helpless and hopeless in that woman’s hands. “Fiddlesticks, man! Don’t talk nonsense! And have a care! I call on you to go back into that room and release the girl. I tell you she is not their daughter, and I am prepared to swear it.”
“Your papers! Your papers!” was his only answer. He held out his hand.
I confess it with shame—a boy in his teens could not have acted more foolishly. In the heat of my chagrin I lost my temper and I thrust the man’s hand aside. It was hardly more than a gesture, it certainly was not a blow, but it was enough. In a twinkling he drew his clumsy hanger, and. “I arrest you! I arrest you for resistance to lawful authority,” he shouted, red with anger. “And I call on you,” to the now grinning landlord, “to witness that this man has resisted me in my duty. To the lock-up, mein Herr. To the lock-up!” pushing me towards the door. “You will sleep without sheets to-night!”
“Oh, dear, oh dear!” cried Grussbaum almost weeping. “It was but an accident, Herr Offizier. The Herr meant nothing. Nothing! He is a stranger! He does not understand—”
“Nevertheless to the lock-up he goes,” the man cried truculently, “and you too, my little cock, if I have more of it. We’ll search him there. Come, my gentleman, be moving, unless you want a stroke over the head! On! on! Without words, Herr Englander.”
I was sober now; sober enough to know that I had played into the enemy’s hands and made a foe of the one ally to whom I could look for aid. And that was bad, though, possessing a talisman equal to the crisis, I had no fear for myself. As the officer with his hand on my shoulder urged me along the passage, “Wait! Wait, my friend, a moment,” I s'âid. “You had better look at my papers first.” And I sought to get at that inner pocket in which I kept my precious safe-conduct. For I saw that if I did not wish to face an unpleasant night at the Police Office 1 must produce it now.
But, “No, at the lock-up!” cried the arbitrary one, continuing to push me along. “On! Don’t trouble yourself! We will see what you have about you at the lock-up.”
“Still for your own sake,” I protested. ‘A ou’ll find it wiser—”
A ND then, most unexpectedly, Grussu intervened. He laid a hand on
the officer’s arm, gabbled something in his ear, caught his attention, drew him aside. The two muttered together, the policeman suspicious, but taken aback. A moment and they retired into a corner of the kitchen, and with their backs to us, while the other man remained to guard me, they conferred together.
The result surprised me. The officer emerged from the corner looking considerably upset. “Well, I’ll look over it for this time, mein Herr,” he muttered sulkily. “But be less quick with your hands another time, or you’ll be in trouble. Come,” to his subordinate, “we’ve done here— nothing in it!” And with a half salute, made, it seemed to me, against his will, he stalked down the passage, leaving me a free man.
And a very bewildered man! It was like nothing so much as the turn-over by which in a Punch and Judy show the executioner of one moment becomes the culprit of the next. I looked at Grussbaum. “Man, alive!” I cried, “how the devil did you do it?”
“Ah!” he said, and with a sly look he laid the fingers of one hand in the palm of the other. “That way. That way, honoured sir. I knew that the Wohlgeborener Herr would not see me a loser. No doubt the Waechters showed him your card—the card you lost. But another time mein Herr must not, craving pardon, lose his temper as well as his card.”
“Temper!” I cried. “If you knew!” And again I thought of the girl and shuddered. And half way along the dark tunnel of a passage I paused. Why not? The means which Grussbaum had used, why should I not use them? Hurriedly I reckoned up the money I had, the balance still left of the sum which the Grand Duke had provided for my journey. I had much of it left,* and at least I might try. True, it was an ignoble way to success, but if it succeeded where other ways had failed? I turned to Grussbaum, took him by the shoulder, faced the astonished man about. “Go back to the Waechters!” I said. “Make them open to you, do you hear? Get speech with them, tell them that I have an offer to make to them—that they have nothing to fear! Tell them it is to their advantage to see me! Go, go now, do it at once. Lose not a minute, man!”
“You are going to bribe them, mein Herr?” he said—there were times when the creature was strangely sharp-witted. “Yet consider, honored sir, the girl is nothing to you, and—”
“Go! Go!” I answered, pushing him on his way. “That’s my business, man! Do you do as I bid you! That’s your business! And take no refusal. Get me speech with them or—”
“Enough!” he said, and shrugged his shoulders. And he went, though I could see that he went a contre coeur. However I cared nothing for that, for there, in the dark passage had risen before my eyes a picture, or rather a series of pictures, so vivid and so startling, that I shuddered as I viewed them. As plainly as I had seen the thing with the bodily eye, I saw those mouldering damp-stained rooms, shut away at the back of this gloomy echoing house—so shut away that no cry from within, no call for help could issue from them. I saw again the greedy faces that pored over that mysterious, that sombre experiment. I heard again the jarring, crazy laugh of the half-witted lad. Once more I watched the dark, brooding countenance of the woman, as, her chin resting on her hand, she gazed with fearful intent on the hapless form prone on the bed— gazed and saw, I was sure, things invisible to me! And whether the vile surroundings coloured my thoughts or worn down_ by my long journey I yielded to imagination, I seemed to touch the skirts of some horror, some deed which shook me even as I strove vainly to comprehend it.
And then—I had another vision; of the pure oval face that, limned on the canvas —ah, God, in a scene so different —had struck my fancy and attracted me. I recalled the face as I had first seen it, the spacious airy chamber aglow with sunlight and humming with summer scents: and comparing that scene with my latest impression, comparing it with that form cast in hopeless abandonment on the ragged couch, I shook with rage.
SO MUCH so, that I have no recollection of Grussbaum’s return, or of anything that passed until I found myself once more face to face with the three, the door closed behind us. And how, with the impression of those sinister visions still upon me, I hated the three! How I longed to cast myself upon them! But with the need sobriety returned, and as I looked from one greedy face to another I bade myself be prudent. Force had failed, I was here to try another way, and already I fancied that they foresaw that way. To manoeuvre was useless, and, “It has come to this,” I said curtly. “What will you take for the girl?”
The woman smiled—she for one had certainly foreseen my errand. But she knew her part by heart and, “For my daughter?” she sneered, holding the dog to her breast and soothing it. “I am to sell her then, am I? My daughter? I am to sell her to you, young man, am I? Ay, and turn—”
“Silence!” I said. “Silence, woman! You may discard all that. We are alone, there is no one to be deceived. Come, I speak plainly. I have here a thousand thalers. If you will release her, and commend her to my care—”
“Fine care!” she jeered. “You would buy a mistress, would you?”
I put aside her words as if she had not spoken. “I will give you that sum,” I said.
“A thousand thalers?” the man muttered, and cupidity shone in his eyes as they met mine. “You have it? With you?” I nodded.
“Show it to us,” he said, his eyes glittering. “Show it to us! Let us see that you have it.”
“I-have it,” I said. And tuen, noting the glance he shot at the closed door. “But I have pistols also and know how to use them,” I added grimly. “See—here is the money7.” And I drew from the pocket inside the breast of my coat a packet of notes and laid it on the table beside me. “They are hundred-thaler notes—of Frankfort, and there are ten of them. Restore the girl, hand her over to me, and they are yours.” And purposely I fluttered the notes before him, separating them with my thumb.
The man, I saw, was tempted. He drew a step nearer, his eyes fixed on the money. “For two thousand,” he muttered, greedily. “Make it two thousand and I will do it. By G-d, I will.”
“I have no more,” I said, shortly. “It’s to take or leave.”
He hesitated. I was sure that he hesitated. And though my attention
was directed to him and I was less sure of the woman, whom I took to be the brains of the trio, I fancied that she too wavered. Defeat came from an un-
expected quarter. The dwarf came between us. He uttered a snarling cry, such a cry as a dog might utter, that saw a bone about to be taken from it. “Nein!” he growled. “Nein! She’s my girl! To hell with his money!”
The woman smiled. “See!” she said. “You are late for the fair, mein Herr.” But I still hoped, I still thought the battle far from lost, and I fluttered the money before their eyes. “A thousand thalers!” I repeated. “It’s a fortune, and in your hands, sir—” I looked towards the man, and held out the money, “it may make more.”
_ But “Nein! Nein!” the lad cried passionately, and he rose to his feet, clawing the air with his great mis-shapen hands, and crouching as if with a little more he would spring upon me. “She’s mine! Mine!” His hands opened and closed, as if he had me by the throat.
“That’s your answer,” the woman said, drily. And she drew a deep breath. “We don’t sell”—with that evil smile—• “our daughter, mein Herr.”
_ “Still,” the man muttered doubtfully, “if you’ve two thousand? For two thousand?”
“I have no more,” I said.
_ “Then—nein!” the man rejoined, shrugging his shoulders—and I saw that his mind too was made up. “After all—the lad is right. She is his.”
I looked from one to the other and saw—saw that I had indeed failed; and for a moment the impulse to draw upon them and force the girl from them at any risk almost overcame me. Then I saw the hopelessness of the thought, and the madness of it, and I put it away. Instead, “Then, listen,” I said, as I hid the notes away, “it will be for your own good if you do. I shall have you tracked from this house. I know you, and do what you will you cannot escape me. And if a hair of this girl’s head is injured, if there is foul play”-—I looked from one to the other—“if lead succeeds where pewter fails—ay, you flinch, but I know more than you think!—if she dies in your hands, no matter in what way, then God have mercy on you, for I will have none! I will have none!” I repeated, “nor those who are behind me. So be warned! Be warned! No!” For the man, his eyes devilish with rage, had made a movement as if he would get between me and the door. “Stand back! Stand
where you are,” I cried, “or I will scatter your brains on that wall. And remember! From this moment I am on your track and I will never leave it! Use your lead, or whatever devilish contrivance you have, but if the girl be injured your heads shall pay for it as sure as there is a God in heaven! Be warned! That is my last word! Be warned!”
And I went out, almost falling over Grussbaum on the threshold, but not heeding him—what if he had listened? I strode through the noisome kitchen and down the passage. If I had failed to release the girl, still I had done what I could. I could do no more. And the remembrance of their malignant faces as I had seen them at the last, certified to me that I had done something—that at the worst they would hesitate before they pursued their evil path to the end. I had done something.
IT Wx\S noon on the following day when I came within sight of Perleberg, and only those who have known the perplexity of a divided allegiance may divine the painful state of doubt into which the first view of the little town plunged me.
For it had been—and were I faithful to my dead friend, it must still be—the goal of all my efforts; the scene to which in the face of many obstacles and difficulties I had struggled forward. For here at Perleberg, poor Perceval had disappeared. Here beyond reasonable doubt he had been foully dealt with. And here, could I but wrest them from the obscurity in which they lay buried, were both the secret of his fate and the clue to those papers, so valuable, and fraught with such tremendous mischief, for which he had given his life.
It followed that with Perleberg before me, rising out of the dreary plain in which the town stands, I should have had but one desire at heart—to solve that mystery and grasp that clue. With that intent I had come. To that end, my thoughts and faculties had been long directed. And had any one doubted three days before that they would be so directed, had any one then predicted that, arrived on the scene of my labors, I should suffer another aim, another object to share and to divert my thoughts, I should certainly and reasonably have laughed at him. As reasonable would it have seemed to doubt my identity, or to assert that I should prefer the whim of the moment to every tradition in which I had been reared, and to every rule by which I had hitherto guided my life.
All true. And yet could I—nay, how could I—ignore the events of the last forty-eight hours, or wipe from my memory the face that had haunted me for weeks and now rose before me, in piteous appeal? How could I steel my heart against the silent prayer of the helpless girl whom I believed to be in direst peril, and snared like any dove in the net of this vile gang—the girl who had no one on earth to look to, no hope of escape if I deserted her? Perceval— Perceval, poor fellow, cried indeed for vengeance from the dark grave in which he lay. But he was cold and dead—I could not doubt it; no man could now help him or save him. While she lived, she still lived to fear and suffer. And her woe-begone face, her quivering lips, her terror-filled eyes haunted me, obsessed me, floated between me and the dull plain, the passing trees, the shimmering water glided even, ghost-like, beside the carriage as we drove!
No, it was impossible. I could not be so inhuman, so hard of heart. I could not wrest my thoughts from her. A woman, yet a child, she appealed to all the manhood that was in me, and I could not, I could not close my ears to her.
I had taken Grussbaum into the carriage with me, and in his aid I discerned the only way out of my trouble. 1 must depute to him the one task, or the other. And perforce and reluctantly I ceded to him that which I held now—I confess it the nearest to my heart. He knew nothing of Ellis, of his story or his disappearance. In dealing with that matter he would be worse than useless. But he could look out for the Waechters, he could search the town for them, he could follow them, attach himself to them, dog them—if need be, threaten them. If they went forward to Hamburg,
he could go forward also, and see the girl’s father—Altona is but a suburb of Hamburg, though Danish—and put him on the track. True, I felt that Grussbaum was but a poor creature to entrust with anything; I had not much faith in either his perseverance or his courage. But he had shown some flashes of sense, and once or twice he had surprised me by rising to the occasion. In a word I had no better helper at hand, and I must trust to him or to no one.
ACCORDINGLY, as we drove through
the outskirts of the town, I laid my instructions upon him; and again, confound the man, I found him obstructive.. This time I was not surprised; he must act alone, and he had no initiative and no enterprise. But I was determined. I silenced his remonstrance, crushed his weak resistance, and reminding him brutally of his obligations to me, I bribed him into compliance. “I entrust this to you,” I concluded, “because I cannot do it myself—I have my own work to do in Perleberg. Learn first if these rogues have gone forward. If they have, let me know, you understand, and then do you follow them. I will pay all expenses and make it worth your while besides. But, whatever happens, don’t let them escape you! Don’t let them give you the slip, man. Hang on to them, or not a thaler will come your way. Not a thaler. That is the bargain. But if you wish to reach your sick wife with a full purse, here is your chance.”
He fingered his chin in pitiable indecision—a weakling indeed on whom to lean. “If you could tell me, mein Herr, why the young lady goes with them?” he prayed. “Why she does not—” “Leave them?” I exclaimed. “If I could tell you that, I should not be sending you after them.”
“If they go forward—I am to follow?” he muttered. “But if they do not?” “Well, if they don’t, so much the better!”
He still fingered his chin, but on a sudden he looked at me more sharply than was his wont. “Who are they, honored sir?” he asked. “Do you know?” “No. I don’t,” I said. “I don’t know. If I did!”
“Just so, just so,” he mumbled. “To be sure. To be sure, honored sir, I see.” A moment later we drove past the end of a street, and following the main road some sixty yards farther, we halted before the Post House. I descended from the carriage and looked about me— looked with growing interest. For now that I stood on the spot, the Baron’s story of Perceval’s last hours recurred to me in all its vivid detail. The Post House was a shabby wooden building with two gables and two doors opening on the road. A gateway, abutting on it, admitted to a yard enclosed by untidy stables. On the farther side of the gateway a low building declared itself the postillions’ room—that room which Perceval, in a fever of anxiety, ordering and counter-ordering his horses, had repeatedly entered on that fateful night. There, where my carriage now stood—in the road, as is the German way—his had stood; and to and fro beside it, impatiently awaiting the coming of the French postboy, he had paced up and down in the dusk, until out of the darkness had stepped to his side the shrouded thing that in a moment had erased him from the living! The thing that so far, covered by the veil of night, had defied detection.
HAD he been lured a few yards this way, or a few yards that? Had he been struck down under the more remote wall of the inn where of a night the gloom would be deep? Or in the shadow of the ramshackle tavern that leaned and tottered on the other side of the road, some twenty yards farther from the foot of the street? It hung out the sign of the Black Cow and I knew it for the disreputable inn of which the Baron had spoken, the inn beneath which in a cellar had been found the skeleton which was not Ellis’s, but betrayed some earlier crime. Or had he walked away from this place with the life still safe in him, and gone into the town? And perished, God only knew where and how?
The answer was to seek. It was for me to seek.
Meantime, it all lay much as I had pictured it, thanks to the good Baron’s accuracy. But, as my eyes travelled from the Post House to the distant
street-end, and round to the Black Cow and so back to the sordid group of loiterers who hung about the Post House doors and watched me suspiciously, my hopes sank and I felt all my helplessness. I perceived more fully the difficulties of my task. I owned, with the mise en scene before me, that where others, better equipped, had failed, it was most unlikely that I should succeed. In Berlin fancy had had full play; I had supposed that, were I once on the spot, discoveries would leap to the eye. But the little group of houses, the road, the yard, the every-day life about them, told no tales. They raised before the imagination the blank wall of the actual. Perceval had passed this way, had entered this house and left this house, had paced this road, had passed from it to his death. But the scene retained no trace of him; it told no more of him or his fate than any group of houses on the Berlin-Hamburg chausee. He had left no mark—or the life of many commonplace days had obliterated it; and it was with a baffled sense of disillusion that I at last turned away, and entering the Post House by the nearer door, sought the small room in which he had supped, and where the servant wench had come on him pacing to and fro and talking to himself—and again had seen him examining his pistols.
I ORDERED dinner, and standing with my back to the stove I watched the girl—the same buxom girl who had watched Ellis—as she laid it. From time to time she cast a stealthy glance at me— at my fur cloak I fancied, for the room being cold I had kept it on. And at last, “Is August here?” I asked.
But my question, abrupt as it was, failed to surprise her. “So!” she ^said, and her face took on a sullen cast. ‘You are one of them?”
“One of whom?”
“The police. August? No, you know well. He is in gaol.”
“Ah, I remember,” I said. And I put two or three questions to her; about the two Jews who had supped with Ellis, and as to the latest moment at which she had seen him, and where. But all I could extract from her was, “I have told you all I know, and I have been tormented enough. I have been badgered, teased, threatened—till I don’t know what I remember, and what I don’t. I don’t know what happened to the gentleman, but,” viciously, “I wish he had never been born, der liebe Golt knows that!”
No, I was a day, two days, many days late for the fair. It was a case of la moutarde apres diner. Whatever traces of the crime theré had been, whatever clues might have been gathered, had been over-trodden, confused, destroyed this many a week. And doubtless I should find all the witnesses in the same mood as the girl, weary of questioning, uncertain what they remembered, and what had been suggested to them—above all sulkily set on not committing themselves to anything. With a lad in the yard I had my greatest success, little as that was. He had seen and he vaguely remembered the missing postillion, and he confirmed the fact that the man had worn a cast-off French uniform, and had been dark-complexioned with very black eye-brows. In his judgment—but th( stranger had kept his leather collai turned up and had shown his face little —a French deserter. But there again as the fellow had spoken German, the lad was not sure; he might have been i German in French pay. Be that as might—and this was what chiefly inter ested me—the lad retained a hazy im pression that he had seen the face before at some time and somewhere, he not say where. It was all, indeed mist; and uncertain, and alas, when pressedo search his memory, he only grew mor doubtful. “On the road? Drivin: through perhaps?” I suggested. But no he was not sure that it was on the road He could not tell where it was. Or, ii fine, and at last, whether it was; he migh not have seen the man before. He migh have only fancied it. He had certain! not seen him since.
It needed but an hour of this to piling me into the deepest dejection. I saw th absurdity of my belief that I, a strange and a foreigner, could learn anythin where the authorities had failed; an before I left the Post House I had £ good as given up hope. It was only £ a matter of duty that I proceeded int the town to interview von Kalisch.
THE Baron’s description had been so clear and the town was so small that I needed no guide. Five minutes saw me standing in the Market Place, overlarge for the town, with the hoary cathedral on one hand, some low arcaded houses on the other, and in the middle of the grass-grown cobbled space the grey, age-worn crumbling statue of Roland. Beyond this and facing me rose the quaint little Rath-haus, of which one end abutted on a street that left the market-place at a corner, while the other end was divided by a house of some pretensions from the parallel street which left the market place at the other corner. The latter street led, I knew, to the German Coffee House.
A sleepy, old-world place, smacking nothing of crime or mystery. Here and there a dog wandered, its nose to the ground. At one or two doors a tradesman in a nightcap loitered, smoking his long German pipe and gazing stolidly before him. About the grey statue sparrows chirped and fluttered and pigeons strutted. The heavy bell of the cathedral tolled the hour of two, and a boy with a satchel on his back issued noisily from a doorway and clattered through the Arcade.
I walked across to the residence which prolonged the Rath-haus, and I knocked at the door. A good-looking, frank-faced girl, with blue eyes and a mass of light hair wound about her head, opened it. She started on seeing me, and I was sure that even before I spoke she associated me with that other traveller in the fur cloak who had come so tragically into her life.
I asked if Captain von Kalisch was at
She admitted me; but reluctantly, I thought. And as I passed by her she looked at me covertly. No doubt she, like the others, had heard enough of the matter, had been questioned and bullied and questioned again, until she was weary of it. No doubt she had told all that she knew a hundred times. Oh, it was a hopeless, a hopeless task on which I had embarked.
Still the girl impressed me favourably. I judged her to be honest and straightforward, one who would tell the truth as far as she knew it. And the Governor, when I was admitted to his modest quarters, had the same effect on me. He wore glasses and a small beard, was smallish himself and of a more intellectual type than the common run of Prussian officers. But he sighed when he saw me and I told him who I was. He too had had more than enough of the case.
“So!” he said. “You want to know? But first, sir,” formally, “your authority, if you please.”
I gave him Davout’s letter and he read it, and sighed again, as he returned it to me. An Englishman vouched for by a Frenchman! Matters had come to a pretty pass in Prussia when these things were! However, “Very good,” he said wearily. “What, mein Herr, do you wish to know?”
“What you think,” I said. “Your opinion.”
“Oh!” he answered. “That? Well, I’ve thought till I am tired. And I see only two alternatives: one which I
believe to be the truth, and another remotely possible.”
“The first then, if it please you?”
“A common guet-apens. I think your friend was murdered for what he had about him, and buried in some backyard, some house, in the fields, perhaps, in the river—God knows where! That is what we all believe here.”
VBut,” I objected, “that was not what he feared when he came to you?”
“No, he feared a plot, the French behind it. True. Doubtless. But all the same, what I have said was what happened to him, in my opinion.”
“A queer coincidence,” I said drily. “He feared, he had cause to fear, one thing; and another happened to him!” “Well, yes. A coincidence,” he admitted.
“But,” I argued, “surely in a little place like this, Herr von Kalisch, there are not many rough characters capable of such a crime as this.”
“There are enough,” he said. “The upset of the war—there is hardly a village that has not its disbanded soldiers, broken men, deserters, ready, the worst of them, to cut a throat for a month’s pay. And. without a scrap of evidence what could we do? Lay ’em all by the heels?
Impossible, mein Herr.” He shrugged his shoulders.
“And the other—the remote possibility?”
HE GLANCED at the door. “Well, of course, it may have been the French,” he said. “But if so, without our knowledge. And they must have been very clever if they did it—without our knowledge. Anyway our hands are clean—I tell you that as man to man. And I don’t think the French did it. But I don’t deny the possibility. I am quite frank.”
I told him of the simultaneous attack that had been made on me, and of the warnings against Klatz that we had received. “They don’t fall in with the theory of a chance attack,” I argued. “On the other hand one would have thought that if the French were guilty Davout would not have—”
“Sent you here?” He shrugged his shoulders. “They would not tell him. The order would come from elsewhere.” I thought this over and in the end, “Well, there’s an argument and I am not sure that it is not a conclusive argument, against this theory. My friend’s papers. If they had fallen into French hands we should be aware of it.” “They would have been published?” “Or used.”
“Then you may depend upon it,” briskly, “that my theory is the correct one. The papers were for nothing in it, or they would have been taken and used. Therefore the French were not in it, and he was murdered for what he had. His cloak would have been enough,” with his eye on mine.
“The postillion? If anyone is to be suspected it seems to me that he is the man. Have you learned nothing of him?” “Nothing. He may be hundreds of miles away by now. In Silesia, on the Rhine, in Poland—God knows where. Perhaps in Spain.”
That seemed a hopeless view and I felt proportionately discouraged. I asked the Governor to describe in minute detail the events of that afternoon —Ellis’s arrival, his application for a. guard, his appearance, his words, his manner. He did so and with an honest desire, I could see, to tell the truth. When he had done—and his story went not a jot beyond the Baron’s report, “At first, I confess,” he added, “I thought it a case of suicide. Your friend’s manner was wild, his statements disjointed, he made a sort of mystery of what he feared, he looked like a man who had not slept for nights, and I was inclined to think his fears a delusion. But of course when the body could not be found, I changed my mind.”
“Poor Perceval! Poor Ellis!” I muttered, moved by the picture. And I felt once more the bite of remorse, of selfreproach which was never entirely to leave me. “Nothing of his has been found? Nothing that was on his person?” “Nothing except the cloak.”
“Which was not his,” I rejoined. And I explained that matter. “And now as to the girl who let me in,” I said. “She
believes, I understand, that my friend returned at nine o’clock and asked for you. I want to look into that—into that especially. Some one, I take it, did come and did ask for you? And according to her story she sent him after you to the German Coffee House. What I want to know is—did any one come on to you there? Any stranger?”
“Well, yes,” reluctantly, “a man did ask for me there and see me. A stranger.” I opened my eyes. “Oh,” I said. “And did he say that he had come on from your house?”
“But have you since learned if he did call—at the house. Because if he did, he and not Ellis was the caller—at nine o’clock.”
BUT von Kalisch shook his head. “I thought of that, of course—but too late. The man was a Danish merchant going for Holstein, who sought leave to stay two nights in the town. Unfortunately when the point arose, he was gone and we have failed to get into touch with him.”
“But he may have been the man?” “He may. He was a tall man like your friend, and he wore a cloak. A blue roquelaure with a red lining and a high stiff collar.”
“Umph! Well, there again we are in doubt. Can I see the maid?”
“Certainly.” He went out and called her in, explaining—but I knew that this was unnecessary—my interest in the matter, “Speak freely, Lotte,” he added, for she looked much inclined to cry. “We know your only desire is to tell the truth.” “I only want to know one thing,” I said. “Do you believe that the gentleman who called at nine o’clock was the traveller who had taken tea with the Governor earlier in the afternoon?”
She looked at me piteously. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know. He had a cloak like the other and he was of the same height. And his speech seemed foreign. But there was no light in the passage and the lamp in the Market Place was behind him.”
“He went away as if for the German Coffee House?”
“Yes. He turned the corner as if to go down the street.”
“And some one joined him?”
“I don’t know,” she said with the same unhappy expression.
“But you thought that some one joined him? You have said so?” I persisted.
“There was a man near the Roland’s Statute, who seemed to move in the same direction at the same time as the gentleman turned from the door. I fancied that he had been waiting for him. and was about to rejoin him. But I did not see them meet, and”—with a sigh—“it may not have been so.”
“You could not see what that man was like?”
“Only that he was rather tall than short. I can say no more.”
“At any rate it was no one you knew?” “It might have been my brother—I should not have known.”
To be Continued