The slave of the lamp, p.14
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       The Slave of the Lamp, p.14

           Henry Seton Merriman
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  As the breakfast-bell echoed through the house Christian ran downstairs.He met Hilda entering the open door with the letters in her hand.

  "Down already?" he exclaimed.

  "Yes," she replied incautiously, "I wished to get the letters early."

  "And, after all, there is nothing for you?"

  "No," she replied. "No, but--"

  She stopped suddenly and handed him two letters, which he took slowly,and apparently forgot to thank her, saying nothing at all. There was apeculiar expression of dawning surprise upon his face, and he studiedthe envelopes in his hand without reading a word of the address.Presently he raised his eyes and glanced at Hilda. She was holding aletter daintily between her two forefingers, cornerwise, and with littlepuffs of her pouted lips was spinning it round, evidently enjoying theinfantile amusement immensely.

  He dropped his letters into the pocket of his jacket, and stood asidefor her to pass into the house; but she, abruptly ceasing her windmilloperations, looked at him with raised eyebrows and stood still.

  "Well?" she said interrogatively.


  "And Mr. Trevetz's answer--I suppose it is one of those letters?"

  "Oh yes!" he replied. "I had forgotten my promise."

  He took the letters from his pocket, and looked at the addresses again.

  "One is from Trevetz," he said slowly, "and the other from Mrs. Strawd."

  "Nothing from Mr. Bodery?" asked she indifferently.

  He had taken a pencil from his pocket, and, turning, he held Trevetz'sletter against the wall while he wrote across it. Without ceasing hisoccupation, and in a casual way, he replied:--

  "No, nothing from Mr. Bodery; so I am free as yet."

  "I am very glad," she murmured conventionally.

  "And I," he said, turning with a polite smile to hand her the letter.

  She took the envelope, and holding it up in both hands examined itcritically.

  "M-a-x," she read; "how badly it is written! Max--Max Talma--is thatit?"

  "Yes," he answered gravely, "that is it."

  With a little laugh and a shrug of her shoulders she proceeded to openthe envelope. It contained nothing but the sketch made upon the fly-leafof a novel. Christian was watching her face. She continued to smile asshe unfolded the paper. Then she suddenly became grave, and handed theopen sketch to him. At the foot was written:--

  "Max Talma--look out! Avoid him as you would the devil!

  "In haste, C.T."

  Christian read it, laughed carelessly, and thrust the paper into hispocket. "Trevetz writes in a good forcible style," he said, turning togreet Molly, who came, singing, downstairs at this moment. For aninstant her merry eyes assumed a scrutinising, almost anxious look asshe caught sight of her sister and Christian standing together.

  "Are you just down?" she asked carelessly.

  "Yes," answered Christian, still holding her hand.

  "I have just come down."

  As usual the day's pleasure was all prearranged. A groom rode to thestation at Christian's request with a large envelope on which wasprinted Mr. Bodery's name and address. This was to be given to theguard, who would in his turn hand it to a special messenger atPaddington, and the editor of the _Beacon_ would receive it by fouro'clock in the afternoon.

  The day was fine, with a fresh breeze, and the programme of pleasure wassatisfactorily carried out. But with sunset the wind freshened into abrisk gale, and heavy clouds rolled upwards from the western horizon.This was the first suggestion of autumn, the first sigh of dying summer.The lamps were lighted a few minutes earlier that night, and the familyassembled in the drawing-room soon after dark, although the windows wereleft open for those who wished to pass in and out.

  Mrs. Carew's grey head was, as usual, bent over some simple needlework,while Molly sat near at hand. According to her wont she also was busy,while around her the work lay strewed in picturesque disorder. Sidneywas reading in his own room--reading for a vague law examination whichalways appeared to have been lately postponed till next October.

  Christian was seated at the piano, playing by snatches and turning overthe brown leaves of some very old music, unearthed from a lumber-room byMrs. Carew for his benefit. He waited for no thanks or comment;sometimes he read a few bars only, sometimes a page. He appeared to haveforgotten that he had an audience. Presently he rose, leaving the musicin disorder. Hilda had been called away some time before by an oldvillage woman requiring medicaments for unheard-of symptoms. Christianlooked slowly round the room, then raising his hand he dexterouslycaught a huge moth which had flown past his face.

  As he crossed the room towards the open window, with a view ofliberating the moth, a low whistle reached his ear. The refrain was thatof the familiar "retraite." Hilda had evidently gone out to the moat byanother door. Bowing his head, he passed between the muslin curtains anddisappeared in the darkness. The sound of his footsteps died away almostimmediately amidst the rustle of branch and leaf already crisp withapproaching change.

  It was Stanley's bed-time. Mechanically, Molly kissed her brother,continuing to work thoughtfully.

  In a few minutes the door opened and Hilda entered the room. She came upto the table, and standing there with her hands resting upon some piecesof Molly's work, she gave a graphic description of the old woman'scomplaints and maladies. She stood quite close to Molly, and told herstory to Mrs. Carew merrily, failing to notice that her sister hadceased sewing, and was listening with a surprised look in her eyes. Whenthe symptoms had been detailed and laughed over, Hilda turned quietlyand passed out into the garden. With fearless familiarity she ranlightly down the narrow pathway towards the moat, but no signal-whistlegreeted her. The leaves rustled and whispered overhead; the water lappedand gurgled at her feet, but there was no sign or sound of life.

  Silent and motionless she stood, a tall fair form clad in white, amidstthe universal, darkness. So silent and so still that it might have beenthe shade of some fair maid of bygone years mourning the loss of hertrue knight, who in all the circumstances of war had crossed that samemoat never to return.

  Presently a sudden feeling of loneliness, a new sense of fear, came overHilda. All around was so forbidding. The water at her feet was so blackand mysterious. She gave a soft low whistle identical with that whichhad called Christian out twenty minutes before, but it remainedunanswered, and through the rustling leaves she sped towards the house.From the open window a glow of rosy light shone forth upon the flowers,imparting to all alike a pallid pink, and dimly defining the greytree-trunks across the lawn. As Hilda stepped between the curtains, theservants entered the drawing-room in solemn Indian file for eveningprayers.

  Mrs. Carew looked up from the Bible which lay open before her, and saidto Hilda:--

  "Where is Christian?"

  "I don't know, mother; he is not in the garden," answered the girl,crossing the room to her own particular chair.

  Sidney rose from his seat, and going to the window, sent his loud clearwhistle away into the night. His broad figure remained motionless forsome minutes, almost filling up the window; then he silently resumed hisseat.

  Mrs. Carew smoothed down the silken book-marker, and began reading in alow voice. It is to be feared that the Psalmist's words of joy were notheard with understanding ears that night. A short prayer followed;softly and melodiously Mrs. Carew asked for blessings upon the bowedheads around her, and the servants left the room.

  "Have you not seen Christian since you went to see Mrs. Sender, Hilda?"asked Molly, at once.

  "No," replied Hilda, arranging the music into something like order uponthe piano.

  "He went out about half an hour ago, in answer to your whistle."

  Hilda turned her head as if about to reply hastily, but checked herself,and resumed her task of setting the music in order.

  "How could I whistle," she asked gently, "when I was in the kitchendoling out medicated cotton-wool to Mrs. Sender?"
  Molly looked puzzled.

  "Did _you_ whistle, Sidney?" she asked.

  "I--no; I was half-asleep over a law-book in my own room."

  "I expect he has gone for a stroll, and forgotten the time," suggestedMrs. Carew reassuringly, as she sat down to work again.

  "But what about the whistle; are you sure you heard it, Molly?" askedHilda, speaking rather more quickly than was habitual with her. Shewalked towards the window and drew aside the curtain, keeping her backturned towards the room.

  "Yes," answered Molly uneasily. "Yes--I heard it, and so did he, for hewent out at once."

  Sidney stood awkwardly with his shoulder against the mantelpiece,listening in a half-hearted way to his sisters' conversation. With aheavy jerk he threw himself upright and slowly crossed the room. Hestood for some moments immediately behind Hilda without touching her.Then he raised his hand and with gentle, almost caressing pressure roundher waist, he made her step aside so that he could pass out. He was asingularly undemonstrative man, rarely giving way to what he consideredthe weakness of a caress. Fortunately, however, for their own happiness,his womenfolk understood him, and especially between himself and Hildathere existed a peculiar unspoken sympathy.

  In the ordinary way he would have mumbled--

  "Le'mme out!"

  On this occasion he touched her waist gently, and the caress almoststartled her. It seemed like a confession that he shared the vagueanxiety which she concealed so well.

  With the charity of maternal love, which is by no means so blind as isgenerally supposed, Mrs. Carew often said of Sidney that he invariablyrose to the occasion; and Mrs. Carew's statements were as a rulecorrect. His slowness was partly assumed; his indifference was a merehabit. The assumption of the former saved him infinite worry andresponsibility; the habit of indifference did away with the necessity ofcoming to a decision upon general questions. This state of mind may, totownsmen, be incomprehensible. Certain it is that such as are in thatcondition are not found among the foremost dwellers in cities. But inthe country it is a different matter. Such cases are only too common,and (without breath of disparagement) they are usually to be found inhouseholds where one man finds himself among several women--be thelatter mother and sisters, or wife and sisters-in-law.

  The man may be a thorough sportsman, he may be an excellent landlord anda popular squire, but within his own doors he is overwhelmed. Chivalrybids him give way to the wishes and desires of some woman or other, andif he be a sportsman he is necessarily chivalrous. When one is tiredafter a long day in the saddle or with a gun, it is so much easier toacquiesce and philosophically persuade oneself that the matter is notworth airing an adverse opinion over. This is the beginning, and if anybeginning can look forward to great endings it is that of a habit.

  It would appear that Sidney Carew's occasion had come at last, for onceoutside the window he changed to a different being. The lazy slouchvanished from his movements, his eyes lost their droop, and he held hishead erect.

  He made his way rapidly to the stable, and there, without the knowledgeof the grooms, he obtained a large hurricane-lamp, lighted it, andreturned towards the house. From the window Hilda saw him pass down alittle path towards the moat, with the lamp swinging at his side, whilethe shadows waved backwards and forwards across the lawn.

  The mind is a strange storehouse. However long a memory may have beenwarehoused there, deep down beneath piles of other remembrances andconceits, it is generally to be found at the top when the demand comes,ready for use--for good or evil. A dim recollection was resuscitated inSidney's mind. An unauthenticated nursery tale of a departing guestleaving with a word of joy upon his lips and warm comfort in his heart,turning from the glowing doorway and walking down the little pathwaystraight into the moat.

  Christian, however, was an excellent swimmer; he knew every inch of thepathway, every stone round the moat. That he should have been drowned inten feet of clear water, with an easy landing within ten yards, seemedthe wildest impossibility. Of course such things have happened, butChristian Vellacott was essentially wide awake, and unlikely to come tomishap through his own carelessness. Of all these things Sidney thoughtas he walked rapidly towards the moat, and in particular he ponderedover Molly's statement that she had heard Hilda whistle. This had metwith flat denial from Hilda, and Sidney, with brotherly candour, couldonly arrive at the conclusion that Molly had been mistaken. He would notgive way to the least suggestion of anxiety even in his own mind. Afterall Christian would probably come in with some simple explanation and alaugh for their fears. It often happens thus, as we must all know. Themoments so long and dreary for the watcher, whose imagination gains moreand more power as the time passes, slip away unheeded by the awaited,who treats the matter with a laugh or, at the most, a few conventionalwords of sympathy.

  Sidney stood at the edge of the water and threw the beams of lightacross the rippling surface. Mechanically he followed the ray as itswept from end to end of the moat, and presently, without heeding, heturned his attention to the stones at his feet. A gleam of reflectedlight caught his passing gaze, and he stooped to examine the cause moreclosely.

  The smooth stonework was wet; in fact the water was standing in littlepools upon it. Round these there were circles of dampness, showing thatevaporation was taking place. The water had not lain there long. A manfalling into the moat would have thrown up splashes such as these; in noother way could they be plausibly accounted for. Sidney stood erect.Again he held the lamp over the gleaming water, half fearing to seesomething. His lips had quite suddenly become dry and parched, and therewas an uncomfortable throb in his throat. Suddenly he heard a rustlebehind him, and before he could draw back Hilda was at his side. Sheslipped her hand through his arm, and by the slightest pressure drew himaway from the moat.

  "You know--Sid--he could swim perfectly," she said persuasively.

  He made no answer, but walked slowly by her side, swinging the lampbackwards and forwards as a schoolboy swings his satchel. Thus he gainedtime to moisten his lips and render speech possible.

  Together they went round the grounds, but no sign or vestige ofChristian did they discover. A pang of remorse came to Hilda as shetouched her brother's strong arm. Ever since Christian's arrival sheremembered that Sidney had been somewhat neglected, or only rememberedwhen his services were required. Christian had indeed been attentive tohim, but Hilda felt that their friendship was not what it used to be.The young journalist in his upward progress had left the slow-thinkingcountry squire behind him. All they had in common belonged to the past;and, for Christian, the past was of small importance compared to thepresent. She recollected that during the last fortnight everything hadbeen arranged with a view to giving pleasure to herself, Molly, andChristian, without heed to Sidney's inclinations. By word or sign he hadnever shown his knowledge of this; he had never implied that hisexistence or opinion was of any great consequence. She remembered eventhat such pleasures as Christian had shared with Sidney--pleasures afterhis own heart, sailing, shooting, and fishing--had been undertaken atChristian's instigation or suggestion, and eagerly welcomed by Sidney.

  And now, at the first suspicion of trouble, she turned instinctively toher brother for the help and counsel which were so willingly andmodestly accorded.

  "Sidney," she said, "did he ever speak to you of his work?"

  "No," he replied slowly; "no, I think not."

  "He has been rather worried over those disturbances in Paris, I think,and--and--I suppose he has never said anything to you about SignorBruno?"

  "Signor Bruno!" said Sidney, repeating the name in some surprise. "No,he has never mentioned his name to me."

  "He does not like him----"

  "Neither do I."

  "But you never told me--Sid!"

  "No," he replied simply: "there was nothing to be gained by it!"

  This was lamentably true, and Hilda felt that it was so, although herbrother had no thought of posing as a martyr.

  "Christian," she continued sof
tly, "distrusted him for some reason. Heknows something of his former life, and told me a short time ago thatBruno was not his name at all. This morning Christian received a letterfrom Carl Trevetz, whom we knew in Paris, you will remember, saying thatSignor Bruno's real name was Max Talma, also warning Christian to avoidhim."

  "Is this all you know?" asked Sidney, in a peculiarly quiet tone.

  "That is all I know," she replied. "But it has struck me that--thatthis may have something to do with Signor Bruno. I mean--is it notprobable that Christian may have discovered something which caused himto go away suddenly without letting Bruno know of his departure?"

  Sidney thought of the water at the edge of the moat. The incident mightprove easy enough of explanation, but at the moment it was singularlyunreconcilable with Hilda's comforting explanation. And again, therecollection of the signal-whistle heard by Molly was unwelcome.

  "Yes," he replied vaguely. "Yes, it may."

  He was, by nature and habit, a slow thinker, and Hilda was running awayfrom him a little; but he was, perhaps, surer than she.

  "I am convinced, Sidney," she continued, "that Christian connects SignorBruno in some manner with the disturbances in France. It seems verystrange that an old man buried alive in a small village should have itin his power to do so much harm."

  "A man's power of doing harm is practically unlimited," he said slowly,still wishing to gain time.

  "Yes, but he has always appeared so childlike and innocent."

  "That is exactly what I disliked about him," said Sidney.

  "Then do you think he has been deliberately deceiving us all along?"she asked.

  "Not necessarily," was the tolerant reply. "You must remember thatChristian is essentially a politician. He does not suspect Bruno ofanything criminal; his suspicions are merely political; and it may bethat Bruno's doings, whatever they appear to be now, may in the futurebe looked upon as the actions of a hero. Politics are impersonal, andSignor Bruno is only known to us socially."

  Hilda could not see the matter in this light. No woman could have beenexpected to do so.

  "I suppose," she said presently, "that Signor Bruno is a politicalintriguer."

  "I expect so," replied her brother.

  They were walking slowly up the broad path towards the house, havinggiven up the idea of searching for Christian or calling him.

  "Then," continued Sidney, "you think it is likely that he has gone offto see Bruno, or to watch him?"

  "I think so."

  "That is the only reasonable explanation I can think of," he saidgravely and doubtfully, for he was still thinking of the moat.

  They entered the house, and to Mrs. Carew and Molly their explanationwas imparted. It was received somewhat doubtfully, especially by Molly.However, the farce had to be kept up--and do we not act in similarcomedies every day?

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