The slave of the lamp, p.11
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       The Slave of the Lamp, p.11
 

          
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  CHAPTER IX

  A CLUE

  When Christian left the drawing-room he walked quickly down themoss-grown path to the moat. Hilda was standing at the edge of the darkwater, and as he joined her she turned and walked slowly by his side.

  "You are a most unsatisfactory person," she said gravely after a fewmoments.

  He looked down at her without replying. His eyes softened for a momentinto a smile, but his lips remained grave.

  "You deliberately set yourself," she continued, "to shatter one illusionafter another. You have made me feel quite old and worldly to-night, andthe worst of it is that you are invariably right. It is most annoying."

  Her voice was only half-playful. There was a shade of sadness in it.Christian must have divined her thoughts, for he said:

  "Do not let us quarrel over Signor Bruno. I dare say I am wrongaltogether."

  She looked slowly round. Her eyes rested on the dark surface of thewater, where the shadows lay deep and still; then she raised them to thetrees, clearly outlined against the sky.

  "I suppose that such practical, matter-of-fact people as you are proofagainst mere outward influences."

  "So I used to imagine, but I am beginning to find that outward thingsare very important after all. In London it seemed only natural thatevery one should live in a hurry, with no time for thought, pushingforward and trying to outstrip their neighbours; but in the country itseems that things are different. Intellectual people live quiet,thoughtful, and even dreamy lives. They get through somehow withoutseeing the necessity for doing something--trying to be something thattheir neighbours cannot be--and no doubt they are happier for it. I ambeginning to see how they are content to go on with their uneventfullives from year to year until the end even comes without a shock."

  "But you yourself would never reach that stage, Christian."

  "No, no, Hilda. I can understand it in others, but for me it isdifferent. I have tasted too deeply of the other life. I should getrestless----"

  "You are getting restless already," she interrupted gravely, "and youhave not been here two days!"

  They were interrupted by Sidney's clear whistle, and a moment laterMolly came tripping down the path.

  "Come along in," she said; "the old gentleman is going. I was juststealing away to join you when Sidney whistled."

  When Signor Bruno reached his home that evening, he threw his hat uponthe table with some considerable force. His aged landlady, having leftthe lamp burning, had retired to bed. He sank into an armchair, andcontemplated the square toes of his own boots for some moments. Then hescratched his head thoughtfully.

  "Sacre nom d'un chien!" he muttered; "where have I seen that facebefore?"

  Signor Bruno spoke French when soliloquising, which was perhaps somewhatpeculiar for an Italian. However proficient a man may be in the masteryof foreign tongues, he usually dreams and talks to himself in thelanguage he learnt at his mother's knee. He may count fluently in astrange tongue, but he invariably works out all mental arithmetic in hisown. Likewise he prays--if he pray at all--in one tongue only. On theother hand, it appears very easy to swear in an acquired language.Probably our forefathers borrowed each other's expletives when thingswent so lamentably wrong over the Tower of Babel. Still muttering tohimself, Signor Bruno presently retired to rest with the remembrance ofa young face, peculiarly and unpleasantly strong, haunting his dreams.

  Shortly after Signor Bruno's departure, Christian happened to be leftalone in the drawing room with Hilda. He promptly produced from hispocket the leaf he had cut from a book earlier in the evening. Unfoldingthe paper, he handed it to her, and said:--

  "Do you recognise that?"

  She looked at it, and answered without hesitation--

  "Signor Bruno!"

  The drawing was slight, but the likeness was perfect. The face was inprofile, and the reproduction of the intelligent features could scarcelyhave been more lifelike in a careful portrait. Christian replaced thepaper in his pocket.

  "You remember Carl Trevetz, at Paris," continued he, "his fatherbelonged to the Austrian Embassy!"

  "Yes, I remember him!"

  "To-morrow I will send this to him, simply asking who it is."

  "Yes--and then?"

  "When the answer comes, Hilda, I will write on the outside of theenvelope the name that you will find inside--written by Trevetz."

  For a moment she looked across the table at him with a vague expressionof wonder upon her face.

  "Even if you are right," she said, "will it affect us? Will it make uscease to look upon him as a friend?"

  "I think so."

  "Then," she said slowly, "it has come. You remember now?"

  "Yes; I remember now--but it may be a mistake yet. I would rather havemy memory confirmed by Trevetz before telling you what I know--or thinkI know--about Bruno!"

  Hilda was about to question him further when Molly entered the room, andthe subject was perforce dropped.

  The next morning there came a letter for Christian from Mr. Bodery. Itwas short, and not very pleasant.

  "DEAR VELLACOTT,--Sorry to trouble you with business so early in yourholiday, but there has been another great row in Paris, as you will seefrom the papers I send you. It is hinted that the mob are mere tools inthe hands of influential wire-pullers, and the worst of it is that theywere armed with English rifles and bayonets of a pattern just supersededby the War Office. How these got into their hands is not yet explained,but you will readily see the gravity of the circumstance in the presentsomewhat strained state of affairs. Several of the 'dailies' refer tous, as you will see, and express a hope that our 'exceptional knowledgeof French affairs' will enable us to throw some light upon the subject.Trevetz is giving us all the information he can gather; but, of course,he is only able to devote a portion of his time to us. He hints thatthere is plenty of money in the background somewhere, and that a strongparty has got up the whole affair--perhaps the Church. We must havesomething to say (something of importance) next week, and with this inview I must ask you to hold yourself in readiness to go to Paris onreceipt of a telegram or letter from me.--Yours,

  "C. C. BODERY."

  Christian folded the letter, and replaced it in the envelope. Suddenlyhis attention was attracted to the latter. Upon the back there was a rimround the adhesive portion, and within this the glaze was gone from thepaper. The envelope had been tampered with by a skilful manipulator. IfMr. Bodery had been in the habit of using inferior stationery, no tracewould have been left upon the envelope.

  Christian slipped the letter into his pocket, and, glancing round, sawthat his movements had passed unobserved.

  "Anything new?" asked Sidney, from the head of the table.

  "Well, yes," was the reply. "There has been a disturbance in Paris. Imay have to go over there on receipt of a telegram from the office;" hestopped, and looked slowly round the table. Hilda's attention was takenup by her plate, upon which, however, there was nothing. He leantforward, and handed her the toast-rack. She took a piece, but forgot tothank him. "I am sorry," he continued simply, "very sorry that thedisturbances should have taken place just at this time."

  His voice expressed natural and sincere regret, but no surprise. Thisseemed to arouse Molly's curiosity, for she looked up sharply.

  "You do not seem to be at all surprised," she said.

  "No," he replied; "I am accustomed to this sort of thing, you see. Iknew all along that there was the chance of being summoned at any time.This letter only adds to the chance--that is all!"

  "It is a great shame," said Molly, with a pout. "I am sure there areplenty of people who could do it instead of you."

  Christian laughed readily.

  "I am sure there are," he replied, "and that is the very reason why Imust take the opportunities that fortune offers."

  Hilda looked across the table at him, and noted the smile upon his lips,the light of energy in his eyes. The love of action had driven all otherthoughts from his mind.

  "I suppose,
" she said conversationally, "that it will in reality be agood thing for you if the summons does come."

  "Yes," he replied, without meeting her glance; "it will be a good thingfor me."

  "Is that consolatory view of the matter the outcome of philosophy, or ofvirtue?" inquired Molly mischievously.

  "Of virtue," replied Christian gravely, and then he changed the subject.

  After breakfast he devoted a short time to the study of some newspapercuttings inclosed in Mr. Bodery's letter. Then he suddenly expressed hisdetermination of walking down to the village post office.

  "I wish," he said, "to send a telegram, and to get some newspapers,which have no doubt come by the second post. After that you will betroubled no more about my affairs."

  "Until a telegram comes," said Hilda quietly, without looking up from aletter she held in her hand. She received one daily from Farrar.

  Christian glanced at her with his quick smile.

  "Oh," he said, "I do not expect a telegram. It is not so serious as allthat. In fact, it is not worth thinking about."

  "You have a most enviable way of putting aside disagreeable subjects,"persisted Hilda, "for discussion at a vague future period."

  Christian was steadily cheerful that morning, imperturbably practical.

  "That," he said, "is the outcome--not of virtue--but of philosophy. Willyou come to the post office with Stanley and me? I am sure there is nopossible household duty to prevent you."

  Together they walked through the peaceful fields. Stanley never lingeredlong beside them; something was for ever attracting him aside or ahead,and he ran restlessly away. Christian could not help noticing thedifference in Hilda's manner when they were alone together. Thesemi-sarcastic _badinage_ to which he had been treated lately wascompletely dropped, and her earnest nature was allowed to show itselfundisguised. Still she was a mystery to him. He was by habit a closeobserver, but her changing moods and humours were to him unaccountable.At times she would make a remark the direct contradiction of which wasshining in her eyes, and at other times she remained silent when merepoliteness would seem to demand speech. Who knows? Perhaps at all timesand in all things they understood each other. When their lips wereexchanging mere nothings--the very lightest and emptiest ofconversational chaff--despite averted eyes, despite indifferent manner,their souls may have been drawn together by that silent bond of sympathywhich holds through fair and foul, through laughter and tears, throughlife and beyond death.

  Christian was not in the habit of allowing himself to become absorbed byany passing thoughts, however deep they might be. His mind had adapteditself to the work required of it, as the human mind is ever ready todo. No deep meditating was required of it, but a quick grasp and asomewhat superficial treatment. Journalism is superficial, it cannot beotherwise; it must be universal and immediate, and therefore its touchis necessarily light. There is nothing permanent about it except theceaseless throb of the printing machine and the warm smell of ink. Thatwhich a man writes one day may be rendered useless and worthless thenext, through no carelessness of his, but by the simple course ofevents. He must perforce take up his pen again and write againsthimself. He may be inditing history, and his words may be forgotten intwelve hours. There is no time for deep thought, even if such wererequired. He who writes for cursory reading is wise if he writescursorily.

  Mr. Bodery's communication in no manner disturbed Christian. He wasready enough to talk and laugh, or talk and be grave, as Hilda mightdictate, while they walked side by side that morning, but she wasstrangely silent. It thus happened that little passed between them untilthey reached the post office. There, he was formally introduced to thespry little postmistress, who looked at him sharply over her spectacles.

  "I wish, Mrs. Chalder," he said cheerily, as he scribbled off hismessage to Mr. Bodery, while Hilda made friendly overtures to theofficial cat, "I wish that you would forget to send me the disagreeableletters, and only forward the pleasant ones. There was one this morning,for instance, which you might very easily have mislaid. Instead of whichyou carefully sent it rather earlier than usual and spoilt mybreakfast."

  His voice unconsciously followed the swing of his pencil. It seemedcertain that he was making conversation with the sole purpose ofentertaining the old woman. With a pleased laugh and a shake of her greycurls she replied:

  "Ah, I wish I could, sir. I wish I could burn the bad letters and sendon only the good ones--but they're all alike on the outside. It's ashard to say what's inside a letter as it is to tell what's inside a manby lookin' on his face."

  "Yes," replied Christian, reading over what he had just written. "Yes,Mrs. Chalder, you are right."

  "But the reason of your letter gettin' earlier this morning was thatSeen'yer Bruno said he was goin' past the Hall, sir, and would justleave the letters at the Lodge. It is a bit out of the carrier's way,and that man _do_ have a long tramp every day, sir."

  "Ah, that accounts for it," murmured the journalist, without looking up.He was occupied in crossing his t's and dotting his i's. He felt thatHilda was looking at him, and some instinct told him that she saw themotive of his conversation, but still he played his part and wore hismask of carelessness, as men have done before women, knowing thefutility of it, since the world began. She never referred to theincident, and made no remark whatever with a view to his doing so, buthe knew that it would be remembered, and in after days he learnt tobuild up a very castle of hope upon that frail foundation.

  Hilda had not been paying much attention to what he was saying untilSignor Bruno's name was mentioned. The old man had hitherto occupied avery secondary place in her thoughts. He was no one in her circle ofpossibly interesting people, beyond the fact of his having passedthrough a troubled political phase--a fighter on the losing side. Now hehad, as it were, assumed a more important _role_. The mention of hisname possessed a new suggestion: and all this, forsooth, becauseChristian Vellacott opined that the benevolent old face was known tohim.

  She began to entertain exaggerated ideas concerning the youngjournalist's thoughts and motives. Twice had she obtained a glimpse intothe inner chamber of his mind, and on each occasion the result had beena vague suggestion of some mental conflict, some dark game ofcross-purposes between him and Signor Bruno. Remembering this, she, inher intelligent simplicity, began to ascribe to Christian's every wordand action an ulterior motive which in reality did not perhaps exist.She noted Christian's calm and direct way of reaching the end hedesired, and unconsciously she yielded a little to the influence of hisstrength--an influence dangerously fascinating for a strong woman. Herstrength is so different from that of a man that there is no realconflict--it seeks to yield, and glories over its own downfall.

  After paying for the telegram, Christian took possession of the bulkypacket of newspapers addressed to him, and they left the post office.

 
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