The House by the Lock/Chapter 21
A PICTURE FROM THE PAST
"The fact is," said Bennett, "I haven't quite known what to make of Mr. Farnham since he's been back on this side the herring-pond. Of course he hasn't been well, but that would hardly be enough to account for the change in him. Did you see him, may I ask, Mr. Stanton, when he was in England?"
I informed him that I had done so, not thinking it best to volunteer the statement that I had only met him once.
"And did he seem like himself?"
This was rather turning the tables upon me. I was not prepared to answer many questions, but without hesitation I replied to this one, saying that, in my opinion, Farnham had seemed uncommonly jolly and well.
Bennett looked thoughtful. "He got home here in Denver at night," he said, "after telegraphing from New York he was coming; I went to call at his request–another wire–not a letter–and he saw me in bed. Mr. Farnham is fond of plenty of light and noise as a rule, but in his bedroom he had refused to have the electricity turned on, and there was only a lamp on the table, as far as possible from the bed. I called out, 'How do you do?' in my usual tones, but he answered me almost in a whisper. There were some important papers which had been waiting for him to sign, and I had taken them with me, thinking he'd be anxious to attend to them–he was always so keen and prompt in business–but he seemed quite angry when I suggested it, and said he wasn't to be bothered about anything of the sort for a week.
"Next evening I saw him again for a few moments, and there was the same dim light, the same whispering. He was going away again immediately, he informed me, and when I objected that he didn't seem up to travelling, he answered that when there was a lady in the case there was no question of a man being 'up to' things. I might send his letters to the Santa Anna Hotel, San Francisco, he went on, until further notice, which I should receive by telegraph in about ten days if his plans went well. Just as I was going he said, kind of laughing and yet partly in earnest too, 'Well, Bennett, if you don't hear from me at the end of that time, you'd better begin to look me up. The game that I mean to try and win is a dangerous one. There are others who want the lady beside myself.'
"Now, if there was a town on the face of the earth that Mr. Farnham used to hate, that town was San Francisco. It was because he hated the journey, and never wanted to take it again, that he sold his mine out in California to the English gentleman, Mr. Wildred. I wouldn't have supposed that there was a woman alive would have got him to go to San Francisco, and I used to think, too, that Mr. Farnham didn't care much for women; but no doubt the longer one lives the more one learns, and the more surprises one gets in such matters. I needn't say much about his being away from Denver for a few days, even at the office, he hinted to me; and with that we parted. Next morning early he left, and not a line have I had except a wire, merely announcing his safe arrival at the Santa Anna Hotel."
I listened in silence. Before Bennett had finished speaking my thoughts were far away–as far as San Francisco.
"By Jove!" I exclaimed aloud, with a rushing of blood to my brain that pulsed to bursting in the little veins at my temples. "The Santa Anna Hotel!"
"Do you know it, Mr. Stanton?" enquired Bennett, evidently surprised at my sudden vehemence.
"I was there once many years ago," I said. "The name has brought back an old association to my mind which I had thought was lost."
I knew now where I had seen those strange light eyes of Carson Wildred's, and what was the deed with which they had connected themselves in my mind. After all, perhaps, I had not come to America for nothing!
My memory travelled back over a space of ten years. I had then come back to San Francisco after an expedition into distant wilds with a party of friends shooting grizzlies in the Rockies. I had stopped at the Santa Anna Hotel, a small hostelry lately built, having an English landlord, and therefore greatly frequented by Englishmen.
On the night of my arrival there had been a serious disturbance in the house. Three men who had been stopping at the place got quarrelling over a game of cards which they were playing in a private parlour. Two, who were the hosts, and were entertaining the third, had set upon him with intent to kill, being accused of cheating. I and several of my friends had run out from the billiard-room, hearing a yell for help, just in time to see a man in evening dress stagger, bleeding, from the opposite door. "I'm killed! That devil has murdered me!" he exclaimed, and fell forward on his face.
At Bennett's mention of the Santa Anna Hotel the whole scene had come up before me as vividly as though it had been enacted but yesterday. The open door, showing a brilliantly-lighted interior; cards scattered on the carpet; a young man–almost a boy–standing, as if frozen with horror, by an overset table; a large bowie knife, common to the country, apparently fallen from his right hand to the floor.
At the door itself an older man, who had followed the victim, no doubt with the intention of keeping him from making an outcry or escaping into the hall. But he had been too late, and the expression of his face as he met our eyes was hideous. Though the knife had to all appearance been used by his companion, it was at him that the murdered man had pointed before he fell and died. He was the one apostrophised as "that devil" by the death-stricken wretch; and though he had had a high, aquiline nose, red hair, and bristling auburn brows that met across his forehead, the eyes had been those of Carson Wildred.
They were eyes not easy to forget, especially as they blazed defiance into those of the men who sprang forward to lay hands upon him. "There stands the murderer, gentlemen, as you see," he had said, making a gesture towards his young companion, a boy of eighteen or nineteen, who seemed too astonished and horrified to move. Despite the evidence of the fallen knife, however, not one among the men who witnessed the end of the scene believed that the youth was guilty. Murder was in the eyes of the other, and must have betrayed him, even if the last words of the dead man had not accused him.
California was somewhat wilder in those days than it is at present, and men were more ready to act upon impulse. So it was that, as two of us gripped the fierce, red-haired fellow, another of the party flung some whispered word to the boy, who had only spoken to murmur brokenly, "God knows I'm innocent!"
What that whispered word was no one knew save he who spoke it and he to whom it was addressed. But whatever it might have been, it seemed to rouse the young man to life and a realisation of his position. With a leap he was at the long window and had sprung out on to a verandah, which ran round three sides and three stories of the house. The room was on the first floor, and it was easy enough for an active young fellow to let himself down by one of the twisted pillars which supported the verandah of the lower storey.
It could not have been so easy to escape those who half-heartedly followed; but the boy must have found some safe sanctuary near by, for not only did he evade his pursuers, but was never found or brought to trial.
The other, an Australian, calling himself Willis Collins, known as a gambler, suspected as a card "sharper," was less fortunate. But for the cry of the dying man he might have cleared himself; but his reputation was against him to begin with; it was proved that the other was a young Englishman who had lost his money through Collins, and been duped by him, and altogether matters went hardly with the elder of the two confederates. He was tried and condemned (not for murder, as it happened, but manslaughter), and sentenced to imprisonment for twenty years.
The incident had passed out my mind until, on a visit to America six years later (four years previous to my present one), a man who had been of our bear-shooting party in the Rocky Mountains had chanced to mention that the fellow had very cleverly succeeded in making his escape from the prison where he had been confined.
I had had no personal interest in the affair, and though it had made considerable impression upon me at that time, through being called up at the trial as a witness, I do not suppose I had summoned it to my recollection for many a long day until now, at the mention of the Santa Anna Hotel.
It was no wonder, I told myself, that I had not been able to decide where and how I had seen Carson Wildred previous to the night when Farnham had introduced us to each other at the theatre. Unless I could collect proofs not at present in my possession, it would even now be useless to instill my conviction into the mind of anyone else.
Carson Wildred had a peculiarly flat nose; Willis Collins had had a particularly high one. Carson Wildred's hair was inky black; Willis Collins's had been a bright auburn. Wildred's face was smooth; Collins's mouth and chin had been concealed by a heavy though close-cropped red beard. So far as I knew there was but one man living who could have effected so radical a change, not only in the appearance, but in the actual conformation of features, in the countenance of any human being, and that was an old fellow in Paris, who had gained a reputation and a fortune among men who had reason to cut loose from the moorings of their past. I had met this famous (or infamous) person in a curious way, and had heard some strange stories from his lips. If I had made his acquaintance, why should not Collins or Wildred have done so and profited by the friendship, as fortunately I had neither the desire nor need to do? I determined that, unless my present researches were more successful than I now dared expect them to be, I would, on my return to the other side, run across to France, and endeavour to piece together the bits of this old but newly-discovered puzzle.
Meanwhile, however, I had other work, and work closer at hand.
"While you've been talking, Mr. Bennett," said I, "I have been coming to a conclusion."
He smiled. "I'm glad of that, sir," he returned. "I have risked betraying Mr. Farnham's confidence that I may ask you what you think of that last hint of his, which, to tell the truth, has troubled me very much, coming, as it did, on top of so many queer actions. Although he was, or pretended to be, half in joke, ought I to let him stay away without taking any measures to find out whether his life really was threatened in California, and trying to help him out of a scrape if necessary? Of course, if it was all straight he'd be furious to have a watch set on his actions, and would never forgive me the indiscretion. Still, I haven't heard from him, as I said, since the day of his arrival, and neither my mind nor my conscience is very easy, Mr. Stanton. The question is, What would you do if you were in my place?"
I was delighted at this, and turned half away, that he might not see my change of countenance.
"It's rather a difficult position," I said, slowly, "for you. But there's a simple way out of it, without the necessity for you to run any risk of losing Mr. Farnham's favour. I've been to the Santa Anna Hotel before. There's no reason why I shouldn't go again if I choose, and no reason why I should mention having spoken with you at all if I meet my old friend. I'm something of a nomad, you know, and if I'm in England one month, and turn up in Kamtchatka the next, nobody is ever in the least surprised."
"But have you been thinking of going to California?" asked Bennett, half relieved and half dubious as to the course proposed.
"Oh, yes, I've been thinking of it," I promptly answered. But I neglected to add that it had only been during the past five minutes.