The Lightning Conductor/Chapter 20


MISS SYBIL BARROW TO HER SCHOOL
FRIEND, MISS MINNIE HOBSON, OF
EDGBASTON, BIRMINGHAM


Santa Margherita,
Taormina, Sicily,
January 28.

My darling Min,—

You were a saucy girl to chaff me like that about the Honourable Mr. Winston. It didn't matter one bit to me whether we got to know him or not. Why should it? Even when he comes into the title he'll only be a viscount, and Lord Brighthelmston may live for years. It wasn't to meet him that we joined the viscountess, though I shouldn't wonder if she had something up her sleeve when she asked us to meet her in Cannes. Anyway, she'd taken a tremendous fancy to me. We got on awfully well together at first, but she needs a lot of living up to, and if she hadn't held a sort of salon everywhere we've been, with all kinds of swells, home-made and foreign, kootooing to her, and being introduced to us, I don't know but I should have persuaded Pa to drop the whole business long ago. She's a nice old lady, but sometimes, when you let yourself go, and are having a ripping time, she freezes up and looks at you as if you were some unknown species of animal in the Zoo. That's what I mean when I say she wants a lot of living up to; and more than once in the last two months or so I'd have given my boots if Pa and I hadn't bound ourselves to travel about with her, but had gone off on our own, with a courier, like that handsome one I sent you the snapshot of with the Yankee girl at Blois. Well, anyhow, it's all come to an end now; and she's introduced us to dozens of smart people, so there's nothing to regret.

Pa and I are going back to Naples to-morrow or the day after, and so home to England. Give me London! I'm dying for a good game of ping pong. I asked them to get it at the Grand Hotel in Rome, but the silly things didn't. Addie Johnson has written and asked me to a swell dance she's giving at the Kensington Town Hall; I hope we can get back in time; and I may be able to take a charming cavalier with me. But I'll tell you about him later. We've been having scenes of great excitement for the last few days, which have helped me to get through the time in Sicily, which otherwise would have been pretty slow, as I don't care for country, abroad or at home. Besides, the oranges and lemons keep falling on your head, and at night you have to throw gravel at the nightingales to keep the noisy creatures still. I collected some on purpose.

Well, I told you how vexed Lady B. was because "Jack," as she calls him, couldn't get to Cannes. He was always writing from different places and making excuses, till Pa said in his joking way, he'd bet that "Jack was up to some game of his own," and my lady didn't like that a little bit. Finally, when Pa and I got sick of Cannes, which is too far from Monte Carlo to be lively, we all went on to Rome. That was just after my last epistle to you. It rained cats and dogs in Rome, and I never went into a single church, not even St. Peter's. We planned to wait for "Jack," but your letter came, and I was afraid there might be something in that joke of yours about his trying to keep out of my way, and I was bound he shouldn't think I was after him. There's as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it for a girl who can bait her hook as I can. So when Lady B.'s neuralgia got bad, we proposed Naples, and it was very nice. But she is a fussy old thing and couldn't let well alone; she'd seen Naples and hadn't seen Sicily. Nothing would do but we should "run over." I would have put my foot down on that, but Lady B. mentioned that she had a friend at some place called Taormina, an English baronet with a lovely house, who always had a lot of nice people staying with him. And she said she'd often been invited, and would get an invitation for us all for a few days if we'd go. I thought we might meet someone it would be a good thing for us to know, so I consented; but we were to go first to Palermo and Siracusa, and work on to Taormina by the time our invitation arrived.

Palermo wasn't so bad. I never saw so many young men in my life, all very dark, with enormous eyes, and little moustaches and canes, both of which they twirled a good deal when they looked at anyone they admired. But Syracuse was awful. I daresay it was nice enough when you could be a tyrant and cut off your enemies' heads, and build gold statues to yourself; but tyrants are out of their job now, and things have been allowed to go down a good deal since their day. I nearly cried when I saw what sort of hole it was, but our invitation to Sir Evelyn Haines' (which we found waiting for us) wasn't for that day, but the next. It was settled that we should go on by the first train in the morning, when a telegram arrived for Lady B. She was in a twitter, and gave it to Pa to read, and say what he thought. It was sent from Naples by a perfect stranger to her, who signed his name James Van Wyck Payne; and as nearly as I can remember, it said, "Beg that you will receive me at Syracuse. Have travelled on from Rome on purpose immediately on learning your address. Have news of vital importance to give you about your son."

Lady B. couldn't think what it all meant; but she was anxious, and we were curious. She and Pa calculated times, and discovered that if we went away by the first train we would miss the mysterious Mr. Payne, so it was decided that we must wait till the next, and a telegram was sent to an address in Naples to that effect.

In the morning, as early as he could, he arrived. I was on the verandah of the hotel, watching, dressed in my travelling frock, so as to be ready to get off by the next train. When a stranger came running up the steps asking for Lady Brighthelmston, you can believe I kept my eyes open, though I pretended to be reading an awfully exciting book of Guy Boothby's—really great! He was young, and evidently American, but very handsome, and the best of form; blond, tall, and smooth-faced, with such a clever expression, and unfathomable eyes. He was shown in; but as Lady B.'s sitting-room had a window opening on the verandah, with the blinds only half shut, I could presently hear from where I sat a murmur of voices which I knew to be hers and his. Just as Pa had joined me, and was asking whether the gentleman had turned up yet, there came a stifled shriek from Lady B.'s room. We jumped up, rushed to the window, and met her there as she was running out to call us, crying, with Mr. Payne at her back. We went in, and she made him tell his story, which was very complicated. However, we soon understood that the Honourable Mr. Winston's chauffeur had stolen his motor-car, and his watch (which Mr. Payne had got out of pawn and shown to Lady B.) and his clothes, and probably murdered him. Lady B. hadn't had any letter for ages; she had supposed that was because she was travelling about so much lately and had missed them, but now she saw that anything might easily have happened to her son. Everything was frightfully confused and exciting, and while Pa tried to soothe Lady B., Mr. Payne and I stepped out on the verandah to talk things over quietly, as I had kept my head. He showed wonderful detective gifts, and from some details he told me about the girl and a middle-aged American lady, friends of his, whom the chauffeur had deceived, I began to think it might be the party I had seen in Blois, only with a different car; but that, as I said to Mr. Payne, must have been before any tragedy had taken place. He thought I was probably right about the identity; and to make sure, I went upstairs to one of my boxes which wasn't locked yet, and rooted out the negative of that snapshot I sent you from Blois. We looked at the film together, each holding it with one hand to keep it from curling, and Mr. Payne exclaimed, "That's the man! that's the scoundrel!" I had thought the face awfully good-looking, but it didn't seem the same to me then, and I had to admit it might be that of a murderer. I proposed showing it to Lady B., but she was frightfully upset already; and Mr. Payne said he didn't see that it would do any good to harrow up her feelings still more now, and perhaps if we did she wouldn't be able to undertake a journey. If he'd known in time that we were going on to Taormina, he wouldn't have kept us at Syracuse, but would have joined us at Taormina; for he had news that Miss Randolph, that stuck-up American girl, and her aunt had just arrived there the night before, with poor Mr. Winston's stolen car, which the wicked chauffeur was driving. He—Mr. Payne, I mean—had written from Rome to the girl's father in New York, that she was in the power of an abandoned ruffian, and the father had started off to the rescue the very day after receiving the letter. He had cabled to Mr. Payne in Rome, and the message had been forwarded to Naples, but in that way they had missed each other, and Mr. Payne only knew that the old man had been following the girl about from pillar to post; that he'd heard in Naples that she'd gone to Palermo, and had proceeded there himself. Probably, when he found that she had left, if the hotel people could tell him where she was likely to be by this time, he wouldn't wait for an ordinary train, but would take a special. Mr. Payne said he was that kind of man; and if Lady B. would go on now by the next train to Taormina, everybody might confront the chauffeur and denounce him at once. By everybody he meant himself, Lady B., and this Mr. Randolph, of New York. I was very much interested, of course, and naturally wanted to be in at the death, which Mr. Payne seemed quite pleased to have me do, for we had by this time made up great friends; we seemed so congenial in many ways, and he knows such quantities of swell people everywhere. The Duke of Burford is a great chum of his, and so is that handsome Lord Lane that you were wild to meet last year and couldn't get to know. But perhaps you shall yet, dear. Who can tell?

Poor Lady B. was as weak as a rag, but determined on revenge, and Pa kept her up on a raw egg in wine. We took the train for Taormina. It was a strange journey. We four reserved a carriage for ourselves, and Lady B. asked questions till she was too exhausted to speak. Then she sat with her eyes shut, and salts to her nose, trying to strengthen herself for what was to come, while Mr. Payne and I talked in low voices about people we knew. Sometimes I intimated I knew them, too, and others still more swell, for I didn't like to seem out of it; and luckily I'd read a great deal about them in the Society papers, so I was never at a loss.

Mr. Payne was in communication with the American girl's aunt, who was partly in his confidence; and he knew from her that they would be at the San Domenico, at Taormina. It was afternoon when we arrived, and as we didn't want to waste a moment, we drove past the very house where we were invited to stay, up to the San Domenico, where the wretched pretender was to be run to earth. It was a very long, mountainous drive, and Lady B. was trembling with excitement. She wanted to have it out of the man what he had done with her son, and, I do believe, if it had been back in old times, she would have been in a mood to put out his eyes with red-hot irons, or flay him alive to make him confess. She didn't say much, but her eyes were bright, and there was such a flush of excitement on her face that she looked quite pretty and almost young.

At last we got up to the hotel, and had to walk through two courtyards; for it used to be a monastery, and is very quaintly built. A porter walked up to see what we wanted, and Mr. Payne asked for Miss Randolph and Miss Kedison. The man said they had gone out on donkeys for an excursion up in the mountains to a place called Mola, which we could see from the hotel, overhanging a precipice. He said they hadn't been gone long, and probably wouldn't be back for at least two hours. Then Mr. Payne inquired if their chauffeur who drove their motor-car was staying at the hotel, and if he had gone with the ladies.

The porter answered that the chauffeur was at another hotel, and that he had not joined the excursion, but he had seen the ladies off with their donkeys and guide. When the man began to understand that we were all more interested in the whereabouts of the chauffeur than of the mistresses, he added that one of the servants of the hotel who had just been down to the station had mentioned meeting the chauffeur in very smart clothes (quite different from when he had been with the ladies) going down the hill towards Santa Margherita, Sir Evelyn Haines' house, where there was a big reception on.

While we were talking another man came out—a sort of under-porter, and when he heard our porter telling that Miss Randolph had gone up to Mola, he said in that case he had made a great mistake, for he had sent an American gentleman who had been inquiring for her to the wrong place. He had supposed that she would be at Sir Evelyn Haines' house, for a bazaar was being held there for the benefit of a charity, and almost all the English and Americans at the hotel San Domenico and the other Taormina hotels had gone to it. The gentleman seemed in a great hurry, the porter had noticed; and he had said that he had come from Palermo in a special train, so as not to waste any time.

"Ah, didn't I tell you what Chauncey Randolph would do?" exclaimed Mr. Payne, turning to me as if we were old friends. I believe Chauncey Randolph has the reputation of being a millionaire; but I don't suppose he's got any more money or is a bit more important than Pa.

We had kept our cab, which was waiting outside, and after a few minutes' discussion between Lady B. and Mr. Payne, it was decided that we should drive straight down to Sir Evelyn Haines', where probably the horrible chauffeur was audaciously passing himself off as the Honourable Jack Winston, whom Sir Evelyn had never met.

Just as Pa was helping Lady B. into a cab, Mr. Payne exclaimed "Molly!" and I looked over my shoulder to see the stuck-up thing I had met in Blois. She was dressed differently, but I recognized her at once. I suppose some people would call her pretty, but I don't in the least, though she may be the sort of girl men like. She was walking, and her fat aunt was hanging on to her arm, and an Italian man leading two donkeys was close behind them.

"Why, Jimmy!" she answered, appearing to be very surprised, and glancing from Mr. Payne to Lady B., from her to Pa and me. She shook hands, then walked up to the cab to speak to Lady B., and had begun explaining that her aunt had had a fall off the donkey she was riding, and they had given up their excursion, when Mr. Payne interrupted her to do a little explaining on his side.

She stood looking perfectly dazed, as he told her how it was now proved beyond a doubt that her chauffeur, of whom she thought so highly, was a fraudulent villain, a thief, and, it was to be feared, even worse. He said that he had suspected for some time, but now his suspicions were confirmed by Lady Brighthelmston, who believed that some terrible evil had fallen upon her son through this Brown. Miss Kedison chimed in, and so did Lady B., and I don't much wonder that it took the girl some time to understand what they were all driving at, sharp as these Yankee women are. When it was clear what they accused the chauffeur of doing, she said it was absolutely impossible, that there was certainly some extraordinary mistake, and she would not believe any harm of Brown. Then Mr. Payne told her that anyhow her father believed, and owing to a warning letter, had come all the way from New York to take her from the clutches of an unscrupulous scoundrel capable of anything. She was surprised at that. Evidently her father hadn't let her know he was coming. Perhaps he thought that if he did, she'd elope with the chauffeur. She had gone from red to white, from white to red, while the three poured accusations on her favourite; but when she heard her father was actually on the spot, she really did look rather handsome for a moment. It was as if a light from inside illuminated her face. "Dad here!" she exclaimed, with her eyes shining. "Oh, then everything will be all right! Where—where is he?"

"Gone down to look for you at the house of Lady Brighthelmston's friend, Sir Evelyn Haines, where your chauffeur is swaggering about like a wolf in sheep's clothing to be presently delivered into our hands," replied Mr. Payne solemnly. "Come with us, meet your father, and be convinced with your own eyes of that scoundrel's guilt."

"If my father is there looking for me, I will go," said the girl. "Aunt Mary, you had better stay here and lie down."

That is the way these American girls order their middle-aged relatives about. If I told Pa to stop somewhere and lie down, he'd tell me to go hang, but Aunt Mary didn't seem to mind. She just bowed to everybody and trotted away, as meek as a fat white lamb, and Mr. Payne engaged another cab for Miss Randolph and himself, and we drove down the hill. Those two were in front of us, and I could see him talking to her all the way like a father-confessor, his face close to her ear; but she never looked round at him once.

I was almost as much excited as Lady B. by the time we stopped at the gate of Sir Evelyn Haines' house, which used to be a monastery. Most things in Sicily seem to have been monasteries or palaces. Our luggage had been sent straight up there from the railway station in another cab, for owing to Lady B.'s state of mind at Syracuse, no word had been sent as to what train we would arrive by. You don't drive in, for it isn't a modern gentleman's place at all, but has been left as much as possible as it was in old, old days. We walked, Lady B. leaning on Pa's arm, I by her other side, and Mr. Payne behind us with Miss Randolph, because she wouldn't go ahead, though I know he wanted to.

It's really a beautiful place, for people who like that old-fashioned, queer kind of thing, with a lovely garden, full of all kinds of flowers such as you see at home, and quite tropical ones, too. There were a great many well-dressed people walking about, for the charity bazaar was on, and no doubt everybody was glad of a chance to get into the house and talk about it afterwards as if they knew Sir Evelyn and had been his guests. There were tables set out under the trees, and tea was being carried round. Suddenly I heard Miss Randolph exclaim, "There's Dad!" and at the same moment she ran ahead of us, across the grass to where a tall, big man with short, curly grey hair and a smooth-shaven face stood under a tree talking to another man whose back—which was turned to us—looked a tiny bit familiar.

At once Mr. Payne stepped forward, and said eagerly, "Lady Brighthelmston, the man Brown is here. He has got hold of Miss Randolph's father. Heaven knows what may have passed. Come with me, and confront him with a question about your son."

With a sort of gasp the poor old lady allowed herself to be hurried across the lawn, and I begged Pa to come along quick, because I didn't want to miss Mr. Payne's great moment.

Miss Randolph had got to the tall, grey-haired man, and was holding out her hands, without a word, when Mr. Payne said in a sharp voice, "Brown!" The other man turned. It was the courier I snap-shotted in Blois.

"Jack!" cried Lady B. And then it was our turn to be surprised.

We supposed at first that she'd gone mad; but, my dear girl, it was true. The murderous chauffeur was the Honourable Jack! But I do believe he was ashamed of himself for the silly trick he'd played, for all he laughed and showed his white teeth, because he was as red as a beet through his brown skin, and pulled his moustache, trying to talk, when his mother interrupted him by exclaiming, and asking questions which she never gave him a chance to answer. And while he talked to his mother, attempting to brazen it out, he looked at Miss Randolph, but she kept her head turned away.

As for poor Mr. Payne, I was sorry for him. He had meant so well, and worked so hard for everybody's good, and now it had come to nothing. He did his best to make himself right with his American friend, saying, "Mr. Randolph, at all events, this man has insulted your daughter, travelling around Europe with her under false pretences. What do you intend to do about it?"

But the big man answered, in a slow, drawling way, as if he were just ready to laugh, "Well, I guess I won't do much. Mr. Winston and I met here accidentally, and talked to each other awhile before either of us knew who the other was; and when we did know, why, he was able to give me a pretty satisfactory explanation. I guess there's nothing much that's wrong; and I hope Mr. Winston will introduce me to his mother."

Aren't Americans queer? I will say, though, that the girl didn't seem inclined to take things so calmly. Her cheeks were scarlet, and her eyes looked about twice too big for her face with anger or something like it.

Pa and I were rather out of the "durbah," for like the bat in the fable, we were neither bird nor beast, and had to stand aside while the fight between the two kinds of creatures went on. By-and-by Mr. Payne joined us, poor fellow, and I did what I could to console him, telling him that was always the way in this world, with the well-meaning, unselfish people. He was awfully grateful for my kindness, and when he heard that Pa and I had just that very minute been talking things over and deciding we'd had enough of being abroad, he asked if we'd mind his travelling with us as far as England, where he might stop for a few weeks, and drive about in his motor-car. Of course, I said we wouldn't mind; so I may bring him to the dance at Kensington Town Hall, if he isn't too big a swell for that set.

Of course, Sir Evelyn Haines soon found us out, and was very kind; but Mr. Payne would go, and I've hardly seen anything of Lady B. since, though it's now after dinner. I suppose the Honourable Jack is by way of being in love with Miss Randolph, or else he wants her dollars, which is most likely, considering the foxy way he seems to have gone about the business. But these American girls think such a lot of themselves, that they don't like being played with; and judging by the look on her face this afternoon when she heard the truth, she was hurt and angry all the way down to the quick. I shouldn't wonder if she refused to have anything more to do with him, for all he seemed to have got on the soft side of her father; and I must say, in my opinion, it would serve him right if she did.

Good-bye, my child. It's late, and I'm tired. I don't care a rap how the thing does turn out. It isn't my business.

Yours affectionate
Syb.