The Man Who Saved the President's Life
THE MAN WHO SAVED THE PRESIDENT'S LIFE.
By E. Phillips Oppenheim.
IT was the second day out, and people were beginning to settle down into their steamer clothes and manners. The girl had already established a little court, as was usual with her wherever she went. The man had not yet appeared.
He came just as the deck-steward appeared with the afternoon tea. He was tall and pale, with dark, deep-set eyes and a sensitive mouth, notwithstanding its straight, firm lines. His features were hard and cleanly cut, his clothes hung loosely about him, as though his gauntness were merely the temporary result of some recent illness. He stepped out from the gangway with some hesitation; but once there, he swept the deck with a keen, masterful glance. A lurch of the steamer threw him against the side of a chair. He calmly seated himself in it and commenced to look bored.
The chair was next to the girl's, but he did not appear to notice the fact. Several of the young men who were in attendance upon her had coveted that chair, but in vain. The girl, however, made no remark at this act of calm appropriation. It was left for his servant, who appeared a few minutes later with rugs and a small library of books, to point out to him that he was a trespasser.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he said, "but I don't think that this is your chair."
The man looked annoyed.
"It will do," he said shortly, "unless," he added, turning to the girl, "it belongs to one of your friends."
The girl smiled upon him pleasantly.
"It is my aunt's chair," she said; "but I think that you may safely occupy it for the present, at any rate. She will not be on deck this afternoon."
The young man raised his cap, hut he seemed curiously bereft of words. His thanks were barely articulate, and if it were possible for him to have become paler, he certainly did so. His long, white hands clutched nervously at the rug which covered his knees. Every now and then he cautiously studied the girl's profile. Under his breath he groaned to himself.
"This is the beginning! What a fool I am! What a fool I have been!"
There was a change also in the girl. Her high spirits seemed to have deserted her. Her laughter was forced, the sallies of her cavaliers failed to amuse her. She, too, was apparently conscious of the sudden approach of tragedy. One by one her attendants deserted her. Soon she was alone with the man.
They did not begin to talk at once. They both seemed interested in the tumbled grey waste of waters through which the steamer was ploughing her way. But presently her rug slipped, and she felt it replaced with firm, skilful fingers. She thanked him—almost shyly for her—and they began to talk.
Their conversation took its tedious but necessary course through the desert of the commonplace, but long before the dinner-bell rang the probationary period was past. He had learned that she was the Miss Ursula Bateman whom New York society papers loved to allude to as the prototype of the modern American young woman of fashion. She was tired of Newport and Lennox, and, although she did not tell him so, she was tired also of being ceaselessly importuned to marry one or another of a goodly number of eager young men. She was an orphan and her own mistress. In a moment of inspiration she had planned this flight, a Continental tour amongst the unvisited places of Europe with an elderly aunt of purely negative tendencies. She was very enthusiastic over her escape.
"You can't imagine how it feels," she told him, as they leaned over the rail together to watch a shoal of porpoises, "to be really free from it all for a month or two, at any rate. We're too much in earnest over our pleasure. We make a business of it, as we do of everything else,"
He looked at her with a faint smile.
"I'm glad to see," he said gravely, "that you have emerged from the holocaust without any ineffaceable signs of the struggle."
She laughed good-humouredly.
"Oh! I know what you're thinking," she exclaimed; "but it isn't in the face alone one carries the marks of deterioration."
"I suppose not," he answered thoughtfully. "Yet the face is a wonderful index."
She turned and surveyed him coolly. "You would trust your own impressions of a face, then? It would be sufficient for you?"
"I think so," he answered. "Corroborative evidence would, of course, be reassuring."
"But suppose the evidences—all appearances were against your impressions, which should you rely upon?" she persisted.
"I dare say I should find it hard to make up my mind," he admitted.
She nodded and brushed back the hair from her forehead.
"That is exactly how I feel," she said, turning and walking back to her chair.
At dinner-time she was in unusual spirits. She increased at every moment the circle of her admirers. She sat at the captain's table, and everyone seemed to catch a little of the reflected glory of her bright sayings and infectious laughter. But someone asked her a question, about half way through the meal, which for a moment checked her flow of spirits.
"Who was the man who turned us all out this afternoon, Miss Bateman? We can't put up with that sort of thing all the way over, yon know. No one man has a right to two whole uninterrupted hours alone with you—not even the President of the United States!"
"His name is Geoffrey Paish," she answered. "I really don't know much more about him than that."
The name awakened plenty of interest.
"Why, he's the fellow," someone eagerly exclaimed, "who's come in for the whole of the Paish estate. The old man was a banker in New York, you know—his uncle, I think it was. Mighty queer family, too."
"The old man died worth seven millions," the boy who sat on her left hand remarked enviously. "Nice little pile for him to step into."
"Did anyone ever hear of this Geoffrey Paish at college or anywhere?" asked Andrew Bliss, the man who sat opposite to her.
No one had. A man from little higher up the table leaned forward.
"There were some very queer stories going about New York concerning this young man only last week," he remarked.
The girl caught him up sharply.
"There are queer stories about everyone," she said, "if people care to listen to them. Let us talk about something else."
She was a little later than the others when she came up on deck after dinner. As usual, she wore no hat or wrap of any sort. The wind blew her fair hair about her face, and she was obliged to gather up and hold the skirts of her black dinner-gown. Several young men came hurrying towards her, but she waved them away. She crossed the deck to where the man was sitting. He had just finished a frugal dinner which had been brought out to him by his servant.
"Will you come for a little walk?" she said. "I should like to go out to the bows."
He rose at once and led the way. The journey to the fore-part of the ship was a little devious, and once, after a moment's hesitation, he offered her his hand. She took it frankly, and a sudden rush of colour came into his cheeks. The willing touch of her fingers possessed a certain significance for him.
They leaned over the white railings, and the fresh breeze blew strong and salt in their faces. She stood quite close to him.
"I wanted to come here," she said, "because we are safe against interruption. There is something which I have to say to you."
He moistened his dry lips. His interjection was scarcely audible.
"I was telling you only this afternoon," she said, "how monotonous my life had been. I seem to have been moving along the plane all the time. But once, for a few minutes, things were different. I had what I suppose people would call an adventure. It was while I was staying in Virginia with an aunt—not this one. I do not think that I will tell you the name of the place."
"Don't!" he muttered.
"It was a large, old-fashioned house, very low, and my room was on the first floor, only a few feet from the ground. One night we had a dance there. I fell asleep in my chair afterwards, leaving my jewels scattered about the dressing-table. When I woke up, there was a man in the room calmly filling his pockets with them."
"Pardon me," he interrupted, "but I hope you are noticing the phosphorus."
"We will talk about the phosphorus afterwards," she continued equably. "I suppose the slight noise I made disturbed him, and he wheeled suddenly round. He was a tall man and he wore a mask."
"A mask! Yes!"
"Which afterwards slipped," she continued. "Just at that moment all I could think of was that I was looking into the muzzle of a revolver."
"Of course you were not frightened?" he remarked, with a queer little smile.
"Not in the least," she answered him. "I looked upon the revolver as a sort of harmless but necessary toy. At that moment I had no fear. But afterwards——
"Let me fetch you a cloak," he begged. "The breeze is too strong here."
"I am not cold," she answered calmly. "It was a memory. But to go on with my story. Naturally I asked the man what he was doing in my room, and as naturally he pointed to what were left of my jewels. For a burglar he was a terrible bungler. The hand which held his revolver shook so that I could have knocked it out of his hand."
"Look here," he said, "I've got to have some of these. It's life or death to me. I'm very sorry."
"I told him that he was welcome to all of them, that I was quite tired of them, and dying to get some new ones. I warned him of the bloodhounds, and told him of the nearest way on to the State Road. And all the time he stood looking at me in a queer sort of way. I was absolutely certain that the man would never harm me. Perhaps I took advantage of my conviction. I began to laugh at him for his clumsiness. The man got mad. The first part of the whole thing ended very much as I had imagined it would. He threw down my jewels and made for the window. He was clumsy with the fastening, and I got up and helped him. It was then that his mask slipped. It was then also, for the first time, that the burglar misbehaved himself."
Again that queer little smile. The man looked up from the tumbling mass of cloven waters into the face of his companion.
"What did he do?" he asked.
"I shall not tell you," she answered severely. "Only, I think that I would rather have lost my jewels."
"You are not sure about it?" he demanded eagerly.
"It is not a matter which concerns you, is it?" she asked innocently.
He did not reply, and when she spoke again, her tone was graver.
"The comedy ended there, the tragedy began a few seconds later. The man was met upon the lawn by a confederate. There was a quarrel between them, presumably because the burglar declared that he had no jewels to share. I heard the second man declare that be would give his companion up to the police and earn the reward offered for his apprehension. My burglar only shrugged his shoulders. I shouted to them softly to go away. They did not hear. Then I think that the second man decided to break into my room himself. I am surprised that he did not think of it before. It was absurdly easy. They quarrelled. I could see that the first man was determined to stop him. Then there was the shooting. I saw it all. I could not move. I was terrified to death. They carried the second man into the house. I saw him clutch at the air and fall. It was horrible. The other man——"
"He escaped. It was wonderful, but he escaped."
The man by her side touched his forehead lightly. There were great drops of moisture there, though the wind was still blowing about them."
"Well?" he said.
"The mask slipped," she murmured. "I have never forgotten his face for a single second."
They stood side by side, and the young men on the promenade-deck grumbled. The strains of shuffling feet came to them from the steerage. Then the man began to laugh softly, but very bitterly, && he tore open his coat.
"You think that he did not rob you—at all," he said. "You were wrong! See!"
It was a cracked and bent little ring of very thin gold, holding a single moonstone. He drew it from an inner pocket and held it out to her.
"You took that?" she exclaimed.
"That—and a memory," he said, looking into her face, "were the sole proceeds of my little attempt."
Her cheeks flushed a fiery red.
"How dare you remind me of that!" she exclaimed. "And I have always wanted to tell you—you took me by surprise, or I should have called out. Of course I should have called out."
"Well," he said, "I believe it. I took you by storm. All my life, I think—bah! what folly this is! I am quite ready, Miss Bateman."
"You will tell the captain, of course. I shall not make any resistance. I always fancied that this would come some day, although I never thought that you would be concerned in it. I shall not deny anything. I had broken out of prison with the man Willard, and I shot him."
"Did you think I was going to give you up?" she asked, looking at him with wide-open eyes.
"Of course. Why not? It is your duty," he answered.
"My duty?" she repeated.
"Certainly," he answered. "It will be quite simple. I shall deny nothing."
She was silent for a moment, leaning over the rails with her head letting upon her hands.
"Please to go away," she said to him. I want to be quite alone—to think!"
He left her without a word.
"Dead sure. We've got him, Jake. It's a thousand dollars, sure."
The girl turned her head cautiously. She saw the red tips of two cigars. She herself was out of sight behind a ventilator.
"Pity we had to take the trip," the first voice remarked. "We could have nabbed him in New York."
"I guess we're all right, anyway," was the answer. "An ocean trip won't do either of us any harm, and I wasn't taking any risks."
There was a moment's pause. The girl felt herself shaking from head to foot.
"What bothers me is how he has managed to escape detection all this time," one of the men remarked.
"Guess everybody thought he was a pauper," the other answered. "Nobody thought of looking for him amongst the millionaires."
"Sure! Old man Paish left him all his pile. I forgot that."
"Guess he'll try and square this thing. He's been clever enough at keeping out of the way. He won't fancy being dropped on just as he's off."
"Won't do," was the terse answer. "Besides, it wouldn't pay us. This is a big thing!"
The men moved on, the girl lingered there. Her eyes were fixed upon vacancy. This was to be the end of it, then. A prison cell, perhaps worse. A sudden shriek of the foghorn broke in upon her thoughts. They had steamed right into the midst of a dense bank of white sea mist. Under cover of the grey floating shadows she stole away to her state-room and locked the door.
Almost before the decks were dry the next morning she was out, and, curiously enough, she found him the only other early riser. A fresh, strong wind was blowing salt and vigorous, and the white spray was leaping high into the dazzling sunshine. She held on to the hull, and he came at once to her side.
"You see, I am not yet in irons," he said, with an attempt at gaiety which went ill with his beringed eyes and white cheeks. "What have I to thank for this respite?"
She looked him in the face, and the breath seemed to die away in his body.
"I think," she said quietly, "that you know very well—that—that——"
The wonder of it kept him speechless, motionless. There was something in her face which he had never seen in any other woman's. He felt like a man mocked by a mirage of impossible joys. It was surely a miracle, this. He could not find any words, but for a moment their hands were clasped together.
"I wanted to speak to you," she said hurriedly. "There are one or two things which I must ask you."
"You shall ask me whatever you will, and I will answer you truly," he assured her.
"Are you really Geoffrey Paish?"
"You are very rich, then?"
"Why did you break into my room?"
"I had just escaped from prison. I needed money to get away."
"And you were in prison for——?"
"For nothing I ever did. Please believe that. It is my only excuse for many things."
"I want to believe it," she answered simply. "I certainly shall, if you tell me so. Tell me what your plans are now?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"My fortune," he said, "was a tardy recompense for the act of injustice which sent me to prison. I knew that I risked a great deal in coming forward to claim it, but I had had enough of poverty. I was never known in my younger days by the name of Paish, and I have had a fever lately, which has altered me. I decided to risk it. I thought that if I could once reach Europe safely, I could find a dozen hiding-places."
Her eyes filled with tears.
"I am afraid," she said, "that you will not reach Europe safely."
"You mean that you will give me up?" he asked quietly. "It is your duty."
"You know very well that I shall not," she answered. "But there are others here on board, following you."
She told him of the conversation which she had overheard. He listened intently.
"I know the two men," he remarked. "I have seen them watching me."
"You must try and make terms with them," she suggested eagerly. "Those sort of men are to bribed, are they not?"
"Generally," he answered; "and yet, after all, I am not sure that it is worth while. I shall be hunted from corner to corner of the earth all my life. I shall bring disrepute and scandal upon my friends. Nothing worth having in life will be possible for me. I think that I will not struggle any more against fate."
"You must not talk like that," she answered. "You are a young man, and you should have a long life before you."
He laughed bitterly.
"The life behind has been too long!" he exclaimed.
She dropped her voice.
"For my sake," she whispered.
Again he looked at her in amazement. He was still weak from his fever, for his hands were trembling.
"You cannot mean—that you really care?" he said, in a low tone.
She smiled encouragement upon him. The breakfast-gong had sounded, and they were no longer alone.
"Should I be here if I did not?" she whispered.
She played shuffleboard badly that morning, for only a few yards away Geoffrey Paish and two men were sitting together and talking earnestly. Their chairs were pulled almost to the rail; their heads were close together. It was not possible for her to hear a word of their conversation, yet she found her attention continually diverted towards them. At last the two men departed. Geoffrey Paish was left alone. He sat with unseeing eyes fixed upon the skyline. She came softly over to him.
"The men are honest," he answered "They are not to be bribed. I have offered them half my fortune."
She reeled for a moment and then sat down in one of the empty chairs.
"What are we to do?" she murmured. "Oh! what can we do?"
"For you," he answered, "there is only one thing. You must forget. Our acquaintance must end here. We may renew it, perhaps—in the police-court."
She looked at him reproachfully. He was instantly ashamed of himself.
"Forgive me," he whispered; "but indeed I scarcely know what I am saying. Either I am a little mad, or those two men were. They talked like lunatics."
"In what way?" she asked.
He laughed shortly.
"Well, they seemed to think that the notoriety I should gain would be a sort of recompense for any minor inconvenience—such as imprisonment, for instance—which I might have to undergo. They talked of the whole affair as a capital joke, and they seemed amazed that I should have attempted to keep my secret at all."
She shuddered a little.
"That is the American of it," she exclaimed bitterly.
He looked cautiously around. Her chair was behind a boat. He took her fingers into his.
"I'm going to adopt your philosophy," he whispered. "Let us make the most of these few days."
Of course, all sorts of stories went around. The one most favoured by their fellow-passengers, and which she herself had certainly encouraged, was that they were old friends who had parted years ago under some misunderstanding. No one else ventured to claim even a share of her time. The colour came back to his cheeks; his step upon the deck became positively buoyant. No one would have guessed anything of the shadow which lurked behind their apparent gaiety. Now and then they came across the two detectives, whose greeting was always perfectly respectful. He laughed once with a momentary bitterness as he returned their bow.
"What a devil's comedy!" he murmured.
Her fingers touched his, and the bitterness fled away.
"You are a witch," he declared.
At Queenstown she found Hoyle, the senior of the two men, in the saloon writing cablegrams, with a messenger at his side. He half covered them with his hand at her approach.
"You are determined to send those, Mr. Hoyle?" she said.
"I have no alternative, Miss Bateman," he answered.
"I, too, am rich," she said hesitatingly, "and I am engaged to Mr. Paish."
"Delighted to hear it," Hoyle answered heartily. "You mustn't let him get down-hearted. Most of the men in the world would enjoy a little affair like this" (he tapped the cablegrams). "I guess it won't do him any harm in the long run. You'll excuse me now, Miss Bateman."
He was busy with another cable. She made her way on deck again. Only once during the rest of the way to Liverpool did she address the detective again.
"I want you to tell me," she said, stopping suddenly in front of his chair, "is—will—have you send word to Liverpool?"
"Well," he answered slowly, "I guess so. I hated to do it, Miss Bateman, with you both so set against it; but there wasn't any use in bottling it up. I shouldn't be surprised if something didn't happen to Mr. Paish at Liverpool."
"At the docks?" she asked.
"At the docks," he answered.
Early the next morning came their farewell. She drew him behind one of the boats and pressed her lips passionately to his. She dared not trust herself to words. Then he went overboard into the grey mists and was lost to sight in a moment.
Twelve hours later he was shown into a sitting-room at the small private hotel which they had selected as their rendezvous. He was properly dressed, but he had the appearance of a man who has grown suddenly younger. His smile, as she rushed into his arms, was a trifle apologetic.
"You have seen the papers?" she cried.
"I mast have have been the densest of idiots!" he exclaimed. "I couldn't see what Hoyle was driving at all the time; and I suppose my head was full of the other thing."
"And all the time," she cried, half laughing, half sobbing, "you were a hero, and I didn't know it. You were the man who saved the President's life at Metrofuzo, and for whose discovery he offered a thousand dollars reward."
"It came my way," he said. "You can imagine that I was a bit reckless just then, and odds didn't scare me much."
She wiped the tears from her eyes.
"You have made yourself the laughing-stock of the country, sir," she declared. "Fancy jumping overboard, even though it was in the river, to escape being lionised and interviewed! Why, it will be worse than ever now, when they do find you out."
"They mustn't find me," he said. "You forget, Ursula, the other affair remains."
She shrugged her shoulders scornfully.
"Pooh!" she exclaimed. "I guess the President will have to settle that for you. It isn't as though the man had died, you know."
He turned towards her suddenly.
"What? Say that again."
His voice sounded strange and harsh. He was suddenly pale again.
"I thought you knew," she murmured. "We took care of the man, and he got well. They took him back to prison."
He sat down heavily.
"And I," he said, "I carried with me all the way to Cuba, all through the fighting, and through many sleepless nights, that dead man's face! Great Heavens! Not dead! I never saw a newspaper. I never doubted but that he was dead. Not dead!"
He was trembling. She came and sank down by his side.
"If you hadn't met me," she murmured, "you wouldn't have known."
He took her into his arms.
"Ursula," he said, "I am a free man. I can prove myself innocent of the thing they sent me to prison for. It was Paish's son who stole the bonds. He found it out, and that is why he left me his money. His son died in Cuba. I have his confession."
She laughed softly.
"Aren't you glad," she murmured, "that the mask slipped?"
He slipped a battered little ring on to her finger.
"After all," he remarked, "I wasn't such a clumsy burglar."