The House by the Lock/Chapter 11
Karine's face grew paler than before.
Throwing up her head with a proud, spirited little gesture, she walked quickly to the door, and passed into the hall.
I knew that this was to prevent her friends from entering and finding us together, as they must otherwise have done; and there was nothing for me to do (cowardly as this seemed) but obey her, and passively submit to the carrying out of her scheme.
It had indeed been Sir Walter and Lady Tressidy and Carson Wildred whose voices we had heard.
"Why did you run away? We have been looking for you everywhere, and wasting so much time!" I heard Lady Tressidy say fretfully.
"I was very tired of standing," the girl promptly returned, "and of waiting, too"–with a certain imperiousness in her tone. "I wandered away to fill up the time till Mr. Wildred should have straightened matters in the dining-room."
She had contrived to satisfy their curiosity without telling an actual falsehood, of which I knew instinctively she would greatly dislike making herself guilty.
It did not seem to occur to them to enter the drawing-room where she had left me; and when I was sure that they had passed out of sight and hearing I came forth from the ignominious hiding-place to which her command had condemned me.
In the exalted mood which had possession of me the thought of dinner would have been abhorrent. For the rest of the evening I kept my room, meditating many things, and becoming more and more desirous of learning Carson Wildred's secret, if secret indeed he had.
At all events, I still had six weeks in which to work, with the hope ever before me of saving Karine Cunningham from the man whom, by her own confession, she did not love.
Strange and desperate expedients passed in review before me. How was I to accomplish my object? The man had denied ever having met me in old days when it had been mentioned to him that I fancied a previous acquaintance had somewhere existed; and if I were to learn anything satisfactory in regard to his antecedents I felt that it must be from others.
He had made himself a name in a certain set in London, there was no doubt of that; and I set myself to find out, step by step, how he had contrived to do it–what was the actual foundation for the reports of his wealth, his "smartness," his influence on many sides.
On the following day, Monday, I went to my old club, the Wayfarers, which I had not yet troubled with my presence, and picked out a man named Driscoll, who made a business of knowing everybody and everything. Beginning with some conventional talk about the changes in England in general, and London in particular, since I had seen it last, I managed to mention Carson Wildred without appearing to have dragged his name into the conversation for any special purpose of my own.
It sprang from some talk about a British Christmas, and I made as humorous a story as I could about my having gone down to the House by the Lock only to miss my friend and my dinner after all.
"Wildred can entertain royally if he chooses," said Driscoll. "I've been to dinners he gave at the Savoy and Prince's, and Willis's Rooms, don't you know, something really quite original, with flowers alone which must have cost a fortune. People come to his entertainments, too–he can get anybody he wants–from the duchesses down to the music-hall favourites, even if he likes to get up a conventional river party, with a spread down at that queer place of his you speak of–the House by the Lock."
"It is a queer place indeed," I echoed. "I wonder how he came by it?"
"Oh, if the stories are true, in a way as peculiar as the place itself, therefore appropriate. It was owned, I know for a matter of fact, by an Italian whose father was exiled, and came over here to live after '48, a chap by the name of di Tortorelli, belonged to a good family and all that, had the entrée everywhere. The son, a nice fellow except that he was weak, loved nothing so well as baccarat. Somehow he and Wildred got acquainted, when Wildred was little known, if at all, in society, and the two played cards on rather a big scale at the house of a mutual friend. Di Tortorelli had bad luck one night, lost a pot of money, and finally, having nothing else left that was worth having, staked the House by the Lock–very dilapidated, and in a shocking state of repair.
"Well, that's the way Wildred got it, and there are those who do say that after having won almost everything Tortorelli had, Wildred financed him till his marriage with a rich American on the proviso that Tortorelli should get him into the smart set. Those are only Wildred's enemies, of course, for like most men of strong character he has a few, though on the whole his generosity has made him extremely popular."
"Then he knew no one when he first appeared over the social horizon?" I went on questioning.
Driscoll laughed. "I never heard of anyone who knew him before the day when he first blazed forth as a social luminary about three or four years ago. He took a house in town for the season, I remember–it was the Duke of Torquay's–one of the finest in town, and let for a fabulous sum. Then he and Tortorelli gave an entertainment together, somehow securing several royalties, to say nothing of Paderewski and La Belle Otero, and one or two other celebrities, who must each have cost him anywhere from a thousand to two thousand pounds for the one night.
"After that, Wildred was made, of course, for the affair was a brilliant success. By the way, that was the first time he ever met the beautiful Miss Cunningham, who had just made a triumphant début as the beauty of the season–in fact, most people think the most beautiful girl who has been seen since the day when Mrs. Langtry created her first sensation in London. Miss Cunningham was at the party with the Tressidys, and blasé chap as he was even then, Wildred went down at the first shot from a pair of dark eyes–violet?–brown?–no one ever yet was sure of their colour. Of course she's a great heiress, but the man must be blind and paralysed who couldn't fall in love with Karine Cunningham for herself; and however he gets it, Carson Wildred has no lack of money of his own."
"How does gossip say he gets it?" I went on to enquire with eagerness which I concealed as best I could.
"Oh, gossip doesn't trouble itself much in that way!" Driscoll laughed. "It only concerns itself to eat his dinners, for as a matter of fact, though I can't exactly vouch for it myself, there isn't much secret about the way the money pours in. It's the man's extraordinary luck! He seems to have a lot of relations who are always good-naturedly going off the hooks and leaving Wildred fortunes just when he needs them most. Old fellows in the Antipodes, don't you know, who might really quite as well be dead as not. It's all straight enough, of course, but the funny thing is that if one hears one day that Wildred has come rather a cropper at Newmarket or the Derby, or somewhere else, the news within the month is pretty sure to be that another Johnny in Australia or elsewhere has conveniently slipped his cable and left Wildred a cool fifty thousand or so at the very least."
Hardly had the laughter prompted by his own words died on Driscoll's lips, when to my astonishment the man of whom we spoke sauntered into the room. He was looking at peace with all the world, and as nearly handsome as it was possible for him to look, the contrast between him and the podgy, elderly gentleman by whom he was accompanied being much to his advantage.
"Talking of angels!" ejaculated Driscoll beneath his breath; "what do you think of that for a coincidence?"
"Is he a member here?" I asked in an equally low voice, for I did not wish Wildred to have the satisfaction of guessing that he had formed the subject of conversation between me and my companion.
"No," Driscoll said, "but he often comes in with old Wigram, who's been a great traveller, you know, and who now goes in no end for dabbling in chemistry. That's Wildred's great fad, and makes the two, who are as different as possible, rather chummy."
As we spoke on, still in somewhat cautious tones, the two newcomers drew nearer to us, greeting several men whom they knew, and finally sat down. The room felt the colder to me for Carson Wildred's presence.
Half an hour dragged along, and I was thinking of moving on, when, as I passed Wildred with a slight inclination in return for his, somewhat to my surprise he followed me. "How do you do?" he said, with an attempt at an ingratiating smile. "Now, if you won't think me rude for the suggestion, I'd be willing to bet you a hundred pounds to a fiver that you and Driscoll were doing me the honour of discussing some of my affairs, if not myself, when I happened to look in just now."
Here was a good opening for a conversation unweighted by polite fictions, and I unhesitatingly accepted it. "Yes," I replied, quietly, turning more fully towards him, "we were talking of you and your affairs."
"I readily divined that from the look on Driscoll's innocent old mug as I entered. I am remarkably quick at reading other people's faces."
"I have flattered myself that I am the same–when the faces have not been altered almost (if not quite) beyond recognition."
I looked full into his curious pale eyes as I gave him this hint, but they did not fall before mine, and his dark, sallow skin could scarcely be paler than its wont.
He returned my stare, and was not afraid to show me that my meaning had made itself clearly understood.
"Why speak in riddles, my dear Mr. Stanton?" he asked, shrugging his shoulders a little. "But as we have got upon this subject, suppose we follow it up to the end–bitter or otherwise–and as you may not care to take all your fellow-Wayfarers into your inmost confidence, I suggest that we move out of earshot of the mob. Here are a couple of chairs, and a table, far from the madding crowd. Shall we sit for five minutes or so? Thanks. And won't you let me offer you a cigar? These are not bad ones. A present from the Shahzada last year!"
I courteously refused the offer, watching him with some interest as, pretending to be unconscious of or indifferent to my scrutiny, he struck a match and lighted his cigar. "I have already frankly assured you, Mr. Stanton," he went on, "that I am not aware of having met you before the other night–Christmas Eve, I think it was–at the theatre with my very good friend Farnham. But you evidently wish me to see that you still firmly believe I am–er–mistaken. Am I not stating the case correctly? But it is certainly far from flattering to me that you should have almost completely forgotten me, to say the least."
"I shall remember you again, sooner or later," I murmured.
"I sincerely hope so, if in any way we have come across each other in the past, unknown to me. But I have been so well acquainted with you by reputation for some years, Mr. Stanton, that I would be ready to swear my memory could not have played me false."
I did not reply, save by a slight upward movement of the eyebrows, but I was conscious that he was gazing at me intently.
"You do not like me," he remarked presently, in the same low, monotonous tone of voice which we had employed so far throughout our disjointed conversation.
It was my turn to shrug my shoulders. "I should not be apt to select you as a friend."
"I wonder"–very slowly and lazily–"whether it be possible that I can in any way, quite inadvertently, have interfered with your plans?"
"Rather say," I broke out imprudently, "that it is possible I may interfere with yours!"
He laughed. "I wonder how?"
"In no definite way, unless–I should happen suddenly to remember exactly where and how I have met you before. That little accident might slightly hamper your career in general for the future perhaps."
"You are pleased to be insulting. And yet, somehow, I don't want to take offence from you. I would much prefer to argue you out of your somewhat unreasonable prejudice and mistake. Do you suggest, for instance, that I am now concealing my identity under a disguise?"
So speaking he raised his hand with a pretence at carelessness, pushing his dark hair from his forehead in such a way as to assure me without doubt that he did not wear a wig.
"The moustache–allow me to give you an ocular demonstration–is equally genuine," he sneered. "I don't sport a false nose, or I should have procured myself a more desirable one, and my teeth"–with a disagreeable grin–"are my own. Have I convinced you that I have not tampered with Nature's handiwork, such as it is?"
"You might have waited, Mr. Wildred," I returned, "until I had accused you of doing so before trying to prove the contrary. You know the saying, 'He who excuses, accuses himself,' I suppose?"
"I have heard it, though fortunately it does not concern the case. Look here, Mr. Stanton, you and I are sitting here among mutual friends, apparently holding, so far as they can see or hear, an amicable discussion. But the truth is I have wit enough to understand that what you would like and what you mean is–war to the knife! Fortunately for me, I am one of Her Majesty's most peaceable, law-abiding subjects, and always have been so. I have as little to hide in my past as any man can possibly have–less than yourself even, it may be–and therefore I do not fear your prying, and can afford to laugh at your impertinence.
"I will even have my family tree brought out for your benefit if you choose, and will engage to show you the diary which I have kept for years, and where you can see exactly how and where my time has been spent for the last decade or so. Anything to please a famous, and therefore privileged, man like yourself. Is it a bargain, Mr. Stanton–will you accept my data if I provide it for you?"
"So great an anxiety to disarm the suspicions of a stranger might tend to confirm and strengthen them," I said, slowly.
"As you will. I see you don't intend to take my overtures of peace in the spirit in which they were offered. Well, you seem fond of proverbs, so here is a Roland for your Oliver–'forewarned is forearmed.' You will not have me for a friend; you are indiscreet enough to advise me that you intend to make mischief for me if you can–if you can, mind! My conscience is clear as to my past; and here and now I dare you to do your worst!"
Leaning his elbow on the table, his head upon his hand, he faced me, looking up sideways with a mocking brilliance in his pale eyes.
"It is my turn to give you warning, and it is this: I make a bad enemy. Even had I some black secret, jealously guarded for years–which I haven't–you would never drag it from me. I believe myself to be a cleverer man than you, and if I had chosen the rôle of villain I should have been a successful one, there is no doubt. You would not, Mr. Stanton. Had I something which it was vital to my interests to conceal, I should have gone about it in such a way that not the devil himself pitted against me should worm my secret from me. Had I elected to commit a crime, it would not have been until after I was ready with an absolutely infallible alibi.
"Now, if you are sensible, the very fact that I have made these admissions will prove my innocence to you. It will be a waste of your valuable time if you attempt to stand in my way, in any quarter whatever." He rose lazily. "Good-evening, Mr. Stanton," he said, in a louder tone, which he made both cordial and impressive for the benefit of any listening ears. "This has been a most interesting chat with you, one I am not likely soon to forget. I hope it may not be long before I have the pleasure of meeting you again."
He had certainly scored. I was obliged, hot with indignation and self-scorn, mentally to confess as much. He had kept his temper, and he had got the better of me. If my time would only come!