The DARK ROAD
VAUDREN brought the car to a standstill in the courtyard, of the flats. Stretching an arm across the woman who sat beside him, he opened the door for her to get out. She stepped down and closed the door silently. He got out at his side and closed his door silently. His wife had already got out from the back and was closing her door silently. Nobody had spoken a word.
Usually they arrived with noise and laughter and much slamming of doors. The owners of adjacent flats knew, as a rule, when Vaudren set out or returned from a run. Tonight he and his companions were quiet and furtive, like the shadows in the square courtyard. They stood for a moment beside the car, laden with rugs and coats; then they walked along the pavement and came into the wide shaft of brilliant light that struck out into the darkness from the entrance hall. In the light their faces looked pale and tired. They went in through the swinging doors. The lift was not in its gilt cage. Automatically Miss Wilson moved forward to press the button that would bring it down.
Vaudren put a hand on hers and stopped her.
“We needn’t bother Johnson,” he said. “He’s probably having his supper. Let’s walk up.”
He turned to the softly carpeted stairs, and the women followed him without comment. The stairs were broken into short flights and it was no great labor to reach the second floor, but they went up quietly, with drooping shoulders as if exhausted. Along the corridor their steps quickened a little. Vaudren. who was first, fumbled a little with his key before he got the door open. He stepped into the hall and switched on the light, and held the door for his wife and Miss Wilson. They passed in, and he closed the door quietly and sighed.
“Thank heaven we’re back!” said Mrs. Vaudren softly.
Her husband laughed uneasily.
“Why specially thank heave A this time?” he asked; but the two women disappeared along the passage without saying anything. He went into the little cloakroom, hung up his hat and coat, and washed his hands and face. That usually bucked one up after a long run, but tonight it didn’t work. His feet felt heavy as he walked along to the drawing-room. He went in, switched on the lights and the electric fire. He shivered; it was cold in here. He crossed to the windows and pulled the heavy curtains over them, and returned to the fire.
It was a charming room, brightly and comfortably furnished. He often stood on the hearthrug here and congratulated himself on his wife’s talent for combining taste with comfort. Tonight, more than ever, he admired it. There were solidity and graciousness about the architectural side of it, beautiful lines and a high ceiling, but a dull woman might have made a mess of it all the same. There was a lot to be said for these new service flats. Of course, the servants disappeared after dinner and it was a deuce of a job to get anything done by the night staff. Still, that had its advan. tages. For instance, there was nobody to know when you came home, unless Johnson was in the hall and brought you up in the lift. Johnson hadn t been there tonight. Had anyone seen their car arriving? Ridiculous ! What did it matter to him whether anyone had seen them or not? He picked up the evening paper which lay neatly folded on a side table, and sat down in a chair by the fire.
■pRESENTLA Miss Wilson came into the room. He looked at her more closely than usual as he rose and pushed an armchair nearer the fire for her. He had never cared very much for that dark, keen-looking type of woman, though certainly she was handsome in her way—an unlikely friend for Mary, who was fair and had a better figure and was not a creature of moods, as he guessed Miss Wilson to be. Funny they were such pals; though, of course, they had been at school together.
“Come and sit by the fire,” he invited. “It’s dashed chilly in here.” “Thank you,” said Miss Wilson, sinking into a chair. “I didn’t change my frock. It didn't seem worth while; it’s so late.”
“Of course not,” said Vaudren. He always found her rather difficult to talk to. He fingered his paper. “More political trouble blowing up, I see. \\ hat with India and Egypt this government is getting into rather a mess.” “I suppose so,” said Miss Wilson vaguely from the depths of the chair. 1 here was a pause, then she sat up and looked across at him.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t have said it.”
“Said, ‘Drive on!’ ”
He put the paper down on his knees and said uneasily; “Why on earth not? There was nothing to stop for.”
She looked at him keenly.
“But there was, you know.”
“We don't know that there was,” he said irritably. “It’s probably all sheer imagination. The road was pitch dark. One imagines all sorts of things at night.”
“It’s a pity you hadn’t the headlights on.”
"I can drive better without them, and they only dazzle other people.” “Yeá, I know, but we should have seen him in time.”
“Seen whom in time? What on earth is this all about? I think I feel a jerk and begin to pull up, and then realize it’s nothing. One’s always doing that in the dark on a road full of potholes like that bit.”
“Yes, I know,” repeated Miss Wilson. “But you braked hard and said to me, ‘What was that?’ ”
“D'ye think Mary heard me?” asked Vaudren quickly.
“No. She was asleep, she says, and didn’t notice anything. But I saw
G. R. Malloch
A story of spiritual blackmail, of two women who loved and a man who faced fear
something just after the bump. I was looking out at the side, watching the shapes of the trees—”
“What did you see?”
“Something dark on the road as we flashed past.”
“I—I had a sort of idea that I saw something. But nothing definite; nothing you could take for anything. A shadow, I thought.” Vaudren’s voice was almost a whisper, then he continued more loudly: “I concluded it was nothing and went on.” “You only went on because I said ‘Drive on!’ ”
Vaudren said, “Nonsense!” But he knew that it was true. That moment was photographed on his mind with astonishing clearness now, though at the time everything had been confused. The soft bump, the feeling of going over something with the left front wheel, the sensation of horror and hesitation, with all sorts of contradictory impulses and arguments dinning in his mind: the impossibility of having run over anyone without seeing the person and yet the feeling of having done it, the instinctive braking, his hurriedly flung question, the horrible indecision and misery of that moment, with a vista of coroner’s courts and police and insurance claims all rushing on him when he was dog-tired and worn out—all solved and dissolved by a calm voice that spoke in his ear the words “Drive on!”
He had responded to that command automatically without pausing to reason. His limbs, acting without authority from him, had released the brakes and engaged the clutch, and the car had shot forward along the dark road faster than they had been going before. Too fast for safety, for after a mile or two Miss Wilson had asked whether she might relieve him for a little. She said that he looked tired.
He had changed places with her, and she had driven slowly and carefully. He was nodding, half asleep, telling himself that he had imagined the whole thing and they had only bumped over a px>thole and she had been quite right and there was nothing to worry about, when they had emerged on to a wider road and the second thing happened. ' He had sat up with a jerk. He didn’t know this road. He had snapped a question at Miss Wilson, and she had said it was all right, and because they were on a crossing with an illuminated signal px>st in the middle, it wasn’t a time to argue. She had driven across slowly, and then, just as they reached the post, the car swerved toward it. She pulled up violently, but not in time to prevent the front left-hand wing from touching the concrete base as the car stopped. There was a scrunch as the wing buckled.
He reconstructed the scene—four long stretches of concrete road stretching away from the dim signal light, the concrete pillar against which they rested, Miss Wilson’s hysterical laugh, loud enough to waken Mary, who had leaned forward from her back seat to ask what was the matter; the pxfliceman who rode out of nowhere on a bicycle, the explanations. Miss Wilson’s saying that she had been very sleepy and had somehow misjudged things, the constable’s sympathetic understanding.
The damage was trifling. Vaudren had put Miss Wilson in beside his wife and backed away from the p>ost. The policeman had flashed his lamp on the px>st, showing it deeply scored; had taken particulars and written them down in his notebook, congratulated them that they had got off so lightly, and said he didn’t know whether the authorities would do anything about the scratches on their nice new px)st. They parted on a joke, and Miss Wilson had leaned forward to Vaudren and whispered that he was to carry straight on and that there was a turning on the left, presently, that would take them back to their road. Again he had obeyed her, thinking she was hysterical perhaps but vaguely conscious that there was a purpose in what she said. Why had she been driving in the wrong direction? Didn’t she want the pxfliceman to know that she had lost herself as well as fallen asleep? Was that it—or was it not?
XTOW, sitting in this bright, comfortable room, which seemed so safe and secure and happily familiar, all that seemed like a nightmare, an impossible dream.
“It was funny, you falling asleep,” Vaudren said vaguely.
“I didn't fall asleep.”
He stared at her.
“Then how do you account for running into that signal post? You’re a careful driver and a good one.”
“I did that on purpose, don’t you see?”
“I’m afraid I don’t see. Why should you go and buckle my wing on purpose, to say nothing of the chance of wrecking the car?”
Miss Wilson smiled a little wearily.
“A new car, too,” she said. “It was a dreadful thing todo. But, don’t you see, it makes a sort of alibi, doesn’t it?”
“A sort of alibi?” he repeated in amazement.
“Yes. In case—in case there was anything on that wing.”
“What do you mean? What could there be on that wing?”
She stirred in her chair and flung dut her hands.
“Must you force me to say it, Mr. Vaudren? Blood, then, perhaps; marks of some kind, probably. Suppose anyone had seen what happened before— you can’t tell what eyes might be looking out of those woods —and your car was traced with marks on that wing? I saw you were half asleep, so I drove out of our way, and when I saw that post with a pxdiceman near it I knew what to do in a flash. I’m sorry I damaged the car. But it was necessary. If there was any question about the wing, why, you could explain that I drove it into the signal pxxst. There’s the crumpled wing, and the mark on the px>st, and the evidence of the policeman. It’s watertight.”
Vaudren did not answer her at once “‘Suppx>se anyone had seen what happened before.” The words burned into his brain. He saw the dark woods on either side of the road alive with peering eyes -tramps, pxflicemen, lovers, poachers, a hundred possibilities. Suppose anyone had seen him, Vaudren. knock a man down and drive off after a momentary poause? It was cruelly hard. He didn’t know that he had hit anyone— and yet, pjerhaps he had. Why had he not stopped and got out at once, as his impulse had prompted? Why had he. in that moment of dazed confusion, listened to and obeyed that calm voice saying, “Drive on!” He didn’t know. It was all so unlike him, so unlike anything he had ever done. Knocking a man down and driving on like a coward, the veriest road hog's conduct. And yet he had done it ! If that became known it would blast his character for ever. Nothing could excuse it; nothing could explain it away.
But perhaps this was all nonsense, all the imaginings of an overwrought, hysterical woman. He didn’t know that he had hit anything. He had been dog-tired; the road was iMtch-black under the trees and full of p>otholes. It was just sheer imagination. You could imagine anything. Why had there been no cry? A possible answer to that question made him shiver. Curse this woman talking about blood !
“Don’t you think that perhaps you are imagining a lot of things that never happened?”
Continued on page 64
The Dark Road
Continued from page 7
he asked at last. “You were a bit wrought up, you know, when you ran into that post. I shouldn’t have let you drive; you were tired out.”
“If you think I’m hysterical, I’m not,” said Miss W'ilson patiently. “But I can give a pretty good imitation of hysteria. I laughed like that on purpose to waken Mary. She was asleep before. I wanted her to know how the wing came to be damaged. More evidence of how it happened, I mean.”
What a horribly persistent woman! Suppose he had killed a man and run away from it. What then? But he hadn’t the least evidence that he had.
“I don’t know why I said ‘Drive on!’ any more than you know why you obeyed me,” she went on. “Perhaps it was just panic on my part —women hate to be mixed up in horrible things. I was frightened—for you, too. All the complications—reckless driving, losing your license, perhaps being tried for manslaughter. I saw it all in a flash. You were too dazed to see anything. I know just how you went on at my word; automatically, taking the chance that-it was all right because someone said so. Anyone would have done it.”
“But I’m not anyone,” said Vaudren furiously.
“I know that. That’s why, at all costs, your wife mustn’t know about it.”
That silenced him. It was incomprehensible to him that he could possibly have done such a thing; but to Mary it would ; mean the shattering in amazement of her i ideal of him. He knew that. He could see uncomprehending astonishment in her eyes j as she heard the story; scornful loyalty ; flashing at his accusers, slowly deepening I agony as she realized the truth, scorn for [ him, unbearable pity, the end of all their ! happiness, a furtive cloud falling on their marriage, the death of respect and the birth of contempt. The condemnation of the world outside he could bear if her belief survived; but with that gone, all would be gone.
And yet they didn’t actually know anything. Perhaps nothing of the kind had happened at all. Then why was he so uneasy, why had he driven home so quietly, why had he been glad that no one had seen them come in or knew the hour of their return?
He looked at Miss Wilson with hatred. If that woman had not been with them, he would have stopped and got out. If he had knocked anyone down, he would have acted i in the proper way. And if nothing had happened, as might be the case, curse her ! for making all this trouble, for imagining all j these horrors, for filling his mind with bogies. |A voice whispered in his mind: “She has supplied you with a perfect alibi, in any case.” He cursed the voice, cursed himself for listening to it. And then the door opened.
T_TIS wife came into the room. He had never admired her serene beauty more ! than he did at that moment, when imagi ¡nation suggested it slipping from his grasp.
! He saw with relief that’ nothing was disturbing her as she came forward and accepted with a smile the chair he had j vacated.
“I’m sorry to have been so long,” she apologized, “but I felt I had to change. I hadn’t got on a pretty frock like Adela’s and I felt grubby.”
“You look charming as usual. Mary,” said Miss Wilson. “I’m a lazy beast.”
“What are you going to do about the car?” asked Mary.
“How do you mean?” he asked without ! looking up.
“I mean you can’t leave it in the courti yard all night, can you?”
“Hang it all. I’d dean forgotten it was there.” said Vaudren, and they all laughed.
! ’’Let me see. It’s only a few minutes past ten; Jones will still be up. I’ll tell him to come and fetch it.”
He went to the telephone in the hall, and
they heard him speaking to the chauffeur.
“Yes, please, Jones, I want you to take it to the garage. And, Jones, we’ve had a bit of an accident. No, no, nothing serious, but we managed to crumple the left wing a bit on the signal post at Ruttleby crossroads. Did more damage to the post than to ourselves; at least so the policeman who was there seemed to think. Yes, we came by that road for a change. A bit out of our way; quite right. Well, thank you, Jones. You’ll see it in? Good night.”
Why on earth had he told all that to Jones, he asked himself as he returned to the drawing-room. ‘‘You know why,” a voice said in his mind.
“I thought I’d better tell Jones what happened to his beloved car,” he explained to the women. “It’s the apple of his eye, Miss Wilson, I warn you.”
“I’m glad you explained it to him,” she said significantly. “Will he be dreadfully cross with me?”
“Oh-no, I don’t think so,” laughed Mary.
Vaudren went over to a cupboard and took a decanter and glasses from it.
“I feel whacked,” he said, “and I’m going to have a drink. Will anyone join me?”
The women declined. He helped himself generously and gulped it down. He needed it. A warm glow ran through his veins. How absurd it all was, imagining things that had never happened. He felt restless and excited.
“Let’s dance,” he exclaimed. He put a record on the gramophone and set it going. “Mary !”
“No thanks,” said Mary. “I’m too tired. Dance with him, Adela.”
Adela rose and joined him, gravely. As they danced, Vaudren was conscious of a closer intimacy in their relations than had ever been. The conjunction of their moving bodies seemed to be made more personal by some conjunction of their minds. Mary seemed far away in her chair by the fire. He shared a secret with this woman in his arms and not with his wife.
They went on dancing for some time till Adela declared herself tired. Vaudren poured himself another drink. They were standing by the fire, looking down at Mary, talking, when the doorbell rang.
“Who can it be at this time of night?” asked Vaudren, setting his glass down on the mantelpiece.
“I’ll see,” said Mary, jumping up.
She was at the door before he could stop her. Vaudren picked up his glass and drank. He and Adela exchanged a look which showed that their thoughts about the ring were the same. But she was perfectly calm.
They heard Mary's voice. “Come in and tell him yourself, Jones.”
Vaudren sighed his relief. Jones was before him, cap in hand.
“I thought I’d just tell you, sir, that I think I can straighten that out myself without going to a repair shop, if you don’t need the car tomorrow morning. And I’ll put a wipe of paint on it, so you won’t see it at all.”
“All right, Jones, thank you. See what you can do. We shan’t need the car in the morning.”
“Thank you. sir. And I found this, sir, on the running board, wedged against the tool box. I thought it might belong to one of the ladies. Good night, sir; good night, madam.”
Jones was gone, and Vaudren stood staring at the thing in his hand. It was a brass button.
The two women came to either side and looked at it.
“Not mine.” said Mary.
“And not mine,” said Miss Wilson.
“No,” said Vaudren slowly, “it belongs to someone in the Corps of Commissionaires. Button off the uniform.”
“A funny thing to be on the running board of our car,” he added, as the women said nothing. “But of course it may have
Continued on page 66
Continued from page 64
J been knocked up off the road like a stone and got stuck there.”
“Very likely.” said Mary placidly; but Adela was silent.
Vaudren emptied the decanter before he went to bed.
XJEXT morning, when he came into the dining room, Vaudren hesitated before he took up the morning paper that was folded beside his plate on the table. His head felt muzzy and confused, and he longed for a cup of strong coffee to clear away the effects of his unaccustomed potations. Why not have his breakfast first? Probably he wouldn’t be able to eat any breakfast if he found anything in the paper about last night. But Mary wasn’t there yet—neither, thank heaven, was Miss Wilsonand she liked him to wait for her.
He crossed to the window and looked down on the flowing traffic—cars, buses, lorries, drays -all mixed in what looked like inextricable confusion, and crowds hurrying along the pavements on their way to work. A lot of those fellows driving down there must have had accidents - bad accidents, killed people too and no one thought the worse of them. Yes, but had they ... ?
He turned away from the question and faced the table again. The newspaper drew him like a magnet. He picked it up gingerly, as if it might burn him, and opened it.
To his intense relief, there were no headlines about him. Divorce of a Peer, Bathing Beauties at Bognor. Seeing England from a Caravan—ah! here was something: Motoring Fatalities.
Quite a lot of them; half a column; a charabanc upset, collision between two cars, between a car and a lorry, nothing about him. What was this?
“Commissionaire Killed on the Road. The body of Sergeant Colly, a member of the Corps of Commissionaires, was found on the roadside near Ruttleby last night by a passing motorist, whose headlights picked it out. Colly, who was walking from Bittleton to Ruttleby to catch a bus back to town, after taking a message to Colonel Willkins of the Grange, Bittleton, had evidently been run over by a motor vehicle and had sustained fatal injuries. His tunic was torn and several of the buttons were missing. It bore the marks of a motor tire. The police are pursuing enquiries, and request that any motorists who passed along the woodland road from Bittleton last night should communicate with them.”
There it was. He had killed this Sergean Colly! Now he knew. And yet he didn’t know. It didn't follow that he had hit the man, did it? Yes, but what about, that button? He flung the paper down just as Miss Wilson entered the room.
She looked as keen and alert and thinly handsome as usual; a woman of some personality, lie told himself; a good pal in a difficulty. One could rely on her. Could one? Hadn’t she landed him in this infernal mess by her interference? Well meant, but trust a woman to make a mess of a thing like that.
She came round the table to him, calmly, and stood by his side.
“Is it in the pa¡x*r?” she asked without any preliminary greeting.
He opened the paper again and turned to the ixige. put a finger on the paragraph, and laid it on the table. She put a hand on his arm before he could move away, and stooped to read.
"A commissionaire.” she said quietly. “I wonder if Jones examined that button.” "Can’t have, or he wouldn’t have thought it might be yours.”
“No. Well, then, you are perfectly safe. No one who ran into the Ruttleby signal post, travelling in the direction we were, would be suspected of being in the woodland road. It would be miles out of their way in the wrong direction, wouldn’t it?”
“It would,” Vaudren said grudgingly.
“A perfect alibi if you had done it,” she
said. “But of course you didn’t. There’s no evidence at all that you did.” “The button?” “Knocked up off the road where it was lying, after the poor fellow had been killed by another car. You see, Harry, you couldn’t prove, yourself, that you did it. Probably the man was already dead, if we touched him at all. He would have cried out, otherwise.”
He looked at her moodily. “Harry.” It was the first time she had abandoned the formal Mr. Vaudren. They were linked somehow by this secret, and she was showing him that they were. Or perhaps it was just unconscious sympathy.
His wife’s voice, bidding them good morning, broke in upon his thoughts. They sat dowm, and breakfast began.
It was quite true that no one could prove that he did it. The only possible evidence would have been the marks on the wing, and Adela had obliterated those completely. By this time Jones had straightened the thing out and probably painted it, too. What if Jones had found blood on it?
Vaudren set down his coffee cup with a clatter. Jones read the papers; he studied the crime paees. That button and blood— that would put him on the scent at once.
. What would he do?.
rT'HERE was only one thing for Jones' employer to do, anyhow, and that was to restore his own self-respect by going to the police at once. Lie would go after breakfast, but he must have a word with Adela first. Funny that it was Adela, not his wife, that he had to have a word with about a matter that affected him and her so vitally. He felt tied to Adela somehow.
But Adela eluded him. He did not know that she did so, purposely to strengthen that sense of being linked with her. And he had a directors’ meeting to attend that morning. Adela kept herself attached to his wife like a shadow, disregarding his looks and signs tiff it was time for him to go. Savagely he put on his coat and hat, and left the flat to travel to the city by tube. He knew that he ought to call at the garage to see what progress Jones was making with the car, but something made him postpone that. Was it fear? he asked himself, and denied it angrily. He was late, as it was.
The directors’ meeting dragged slowly through the usual procedure, but he could not give his mind to it. He heard the secretary droning through the minutes of the last meeting, and cursed the fellow for loving the sound of his own voice so much ; he heard the chairman call their attention to the agenda before them, but it was all so much meaningless nonsense to him. He was on the dark road among the woods while hidden eyes witnessed his panic. He saw Jones staring at a patch of blood on the wing of the car. He pictured himself found out and publicly disgraced, making a feeble, lying defense that no one believed in; being asked to resign from his club, going home to his wife and not daring to look in her face. He agreed without consideration to everything that the chairman suggested, and made his escape as soon as he could.
In the street, he hailed a taxi and told the man to drive to his club. He didn’t want to lunch at home. He was afraid to face his wife and he feared Adela still more. What claim was she making on him? She was deep. He was afraid of her. He calculated that it would take the man a long time to get through the traffic to Piccadilly, but that was all to the good; he would be late for lunch and most of the members would have finished, and he would have the dining room to himself. He didn’t want to meet his friends.
His eyes fell on a commissionaire threading through the crowds on the pavement, stepping smartly; an alert, military figure with a satchel under one arm. The real meaning of it all suddenly hit him like a blow. It wasn’t a matter of his own private life. The question of his own feelings and interests that had seemed so important was nothing. Sergeant Colly suddenly became real to him; a live, active man like that, with a wife and children in the background
probably. Colly had been like that yesterday morning; quick, alert. He had killed Sergeant Colly.
But had he? He didn’t really know, and, as Adela had said, it could never be proved that he had. Suppose he rushed in and accused himself, what good would it do? Could that restore Colly to life or make any difference to those who mourned him? Why bring ruin on himself and Mary and make a wreck of their life, just because a thing might have happened that could never be proved? If it had happened and became known, Adela and perhaps Mary, would be dragged into it, too, as abetting him in his flight.
He reached the club sooner than he expected. It seemed to be crowded with strangers, and he recollected that they were entertaining the members of another club, the rooms of which were being redecorated. The dining room was nearly full. He found an empty table, but a stranger immediately seated himself opposite him. The man insisted upon talking. He was a bore, one of those fellows who lie in wait for a victim. His subject was the state of the roads and the callousness of motorists. He quoted figures, and Vaudren nodded and replied in monosyllables. Then his enemy asked if he had read about that poor fellow, a commissionaire, who had been callously slain on a dark road and left unattended and unsuccored by the scoundrel who had run him down. That was the sort of thing that must» be stopped. Hanging was too good for that sort of fellow. Didn’t he agree?
It was a direct question. Vaudren had to answer.
“You say it was a dark road and late at night? It’s possible the motorist didn’t see him or know what had happened.”
“Nonsense, sir. No doubt the fellow would say that, but who would believe such a tale?”
Vaudren rose and left his torturer. Yes, he asked himself, as he paid his bill at the desk, who would believe a story like that? But it was the only story he had. He went home.
On the table in the hall of the flat lay a card. He picked it up and read, “Detective Inspector Jackson.”
SO THEY were after him already. Jones, perhaps, had found a blood stain. A maid appeared in the passage; one of those impersonal maids you get in service flats, to whom the occupiers were only numbers. She looked at him curiously, he thought.
“That gentleman said he would call again this afternoon, sir,” she said. “Miss Wilson thought you would be in.”,
“Quite,” said Vaudren absently. “Thank you, I shall probably be at home. Let me know when he comes.”
He made his way along to the drawingroom. Adela was there, alone.
“Mary’s gone out to tea,” she said. There was some sort of faint significance in her voice.
“Have you seen this?” he asked, holding up the card.
“Yes. He’s coming back. I’m glad Mary’s out.”
“You realize what it means?”
“Yes but I’ve saved you!” There was a ring of triumph in her voice. She leaned forward in her chair, smiling intensely.
Vaudren stared at her. “Saved me!” She had ruined him, dragged him down into the mud, where cads and cowards wallowed and found their natural home. And she talked about saving him !
“Nothing can break down the alibi I’ve made for you,” Adela went on. “What happened last night is a secret between you and me.” She seemed to savor the words. “A secret, our secret—oh, Harry, something binding us together! I know what it means to you, how your sensitive nature hates it all, how you would rush in on a point of honor and ruin everything and break Mary's heart. I had to stop you from doing that, hadn’t I?”
"Why—why? What was your object in doing what you did? Don’t you see that if I keep silent I could never hold up my head again; that I’d not have a single rag of self-
respect left? You’ve only made things worse. I must tell the truth. And now, that means confessing that I ran away like a coward from what I’d done!”
She rose and faced him.
“I did it because I love you—because I understand you as that doll never would or could! Was I going to see you dragged through the mud because of a perfectly unavoidable thing like that? A great man like you, a man with a wonderful career before you, a career that I could help you make? What does it matter if a common man like that was killed? He might have been killed by a flash of lightning and you would have been as much to blame. He had no business to be walking in the road there, in the dark, in the shadow of the trees. Besides, you don’t know that you killed him. It’s all supposition. I knew in a flash how you’d rush in and ruin yourself. I saw that detective. I told him we were never on that road. He said he knew that, because we ran into a signal, coming the other v'ay.” Vaudren listened in stunned silence to all this. So that was it. Not only was he to be deprived of honor and self-respect, but she w'as making a claim on him that would drag him lower still. He had betrayed himself, and now he was to betray his wife. There was no depth he w'as not to sink into. He stared at her. She was eager and darkly beautiful, a woman who might tempt any man, offering him her love, a secret dark love that might be hidden and sweet. And she had deliberately used this aw'ful thing as a means to her end, a way of binding them together as participators in a shameful knowledge of something that must be concealed.
Suddenly she flung her arms round his neck and kissed him passionately. He felt her lips burning against his own. He thrust her away, gently. He shared the common loathing that decent men have for blackmailers, and this to him w'as a kind of spiritual blackmail. But there w'as one thing he must know. He could deal with her afterward, and one must be gentle with women who love. He did not doubt her sincerity.
“Did the detective suggest that I had anything to do with this affair?” he asked.
“No. He w'as very mysterious. He simply asked for the number of the car and the route we took. He didn’t mention the man at all, and of course I didn’t.”
“Then w'hy is he coming back?”
“He said he must see the actual owner of the car.”
“I understand. Well, I shall tell him everything when he comes.”
“You’re not to do that !” Her eyes blazed at him. “Oh, Harry, don’t be a fool. Mary will have to know then.”
“Mary will have to know.”
A T THAT moment Mary came into the room. She cast off her furs and came over to the fire.
“The Harringtons w'ere out, so I came back. What are you two so excited about?” “Please sit down, Mary; I want to tell you something,” said Vaudren gravely.
Mary sank into a chair and fixed her eyes trustfully on his face. Adela went over to the window and stood with her back to them, her hands twisting a handkerchief till it tore.
“It’s about last night,” Vaudren began, but his wife smiled strangely and held up a hand.
“I know about last night,” she said. “I heard it all. I told Adela I w'as asleep, but I w'asn’t. You thought you had hit something; you were pulling up and she said ‘Drive on.’ I know' just exactly w'hat passed in your mind, Harry; the confusion, the doubt, the unthinking response to that suggestion. And now you’ve seen the papers —and there was that button Jones found— and what are you going to do?”
“Tell the police all I know. A detective’s been here already and he’s coming back, so it makes it look very bad. But I must tell them exactly what happened.”
His wife rose and kissed him, and her cool lips spoke to him of a depth of love and sweet affection that brought tears very near
his eyes. They had forgotten about Adela.
They heard a far-off bell ringing and Mary moved away from him. Presently the door opened.
“The gentleman from Scotland Yard, sir.” The parlormaid withdrew' discreetly, discipline triumphing over curiosity. A pleasant-looking man advanced over the carpet.
“Sit down, inspector, please,” said Vaudren, now master of himself. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes, sir,” said the inspector. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to confirm the information that lady so kindly gave me, from you, as the owmer of the car. Let me explain that w'e’re on the track of a particularly dangerous motor bandit whose movements last night we are trying to check up. It’s very important. He was using a stolen car of the same make as your own, and we want to establish just when he passed the Ruttleby crossroads last night. I may say that we want him for murder.” “Whose murder?”
“A commissionaire named Colby. You’ve seen another story in the press, no doubt, but I put it there. Colly w'as killed by being stabbed through the heart. He was carrying a bag containing valuable jewels, the property of Colonel Willkins.”
“But,” interrupted Vaudren, “he was supposed to have been run over by a car. Was that after he was killed?”
“It never happened at all. That’s just a bit of police camouflage to throw certain parties off their guard.”
“What did you w'ant of me, then?”
“I’m merely checking up the cars that passed the crossroads at about that time. Was it at nine-thirty that you hit the pillar?” “Yes.”
“That’s all, thank you. I’ve got the number.”
“One moment, inspector. As a matter of fact, I did pass along the woodland road on which Colly w'as killed. Miss Wilson, I hear, told you we didn’t, but she doesn’t know that bit of country well, and I was driving myself then. Now, just at the very darkest spot, I thought I felt a slight bump of some kind, but I didn’t stop. I should have stopped, of course. Jones, my chauffeur, found this when he was cleaning the car afterward.” Vaudren took the button from his pocket and handed it to the inspector. “Reading about the case today, it occurred to me that I should communicate with the police.”
The inspector looked at him curiously for a moment, summing him up, and smiled.
“If that was on your mind, sir, you can dismiss it. This may be one of Colly’s buttons, but you didn’t run over him because the body was never on the road at all. It was lying on the footpath and just opposite a big pothole. That accounts for your bump, and no doubt you knocked the button up and it fell on the car. We found another on the road. They had ripped his coat open, searching him, and two of the buttons were torn off. We shan’t need to trouble you in the matter. But thanks for telling me, all the same.”
He got up and held out his hand. Vaudren took it, and the inspector nodded, smiling. He had pieced together in his acute brain a rough idea of the situation he had broken into in this fine flat. “Women trying to make him keep his mouth shut,” he told himself as he went out, “but the man’s too decent for that.”
When Vaudren came back to the drawingroom, Adela was no longer there. He went over to his wife and, kneeling beside her chair, buried his face in her lap.
“You knew everything!” he whispered. “What must you have thought of me?”
Her hands lay on his bowed head.
“I knew you, darling,” she said, “and that means that I knew that you would do the right thing in the end—in spite of Adela. She says she has to go home this afternoon.” Kneeling there with his eyes closed, Vaudren saw again the dark road. But this time it was haunted by no whispering fears. It was lit by a glory of sunrise.