The Parrot and the Melodrama
FR all as respectable as you see me now, prosperous and portly, with my practice in London and my villa at Hazlemere, I once, when I was a barrister, and briefless, played a leading part in as thorough a melodrama as ever brought down the house in a Surrey-side theater.
My aunt was my one surviving relative; it was she who had paid for my schooling, given me my rare tips, and made it possible for me to take up my scholarship at Exeter. It was she whose checks supported me, more or less adequately, in my dusty rooms in the Temple. It was she who appointed me to the office of caretaker at Willow Cottage, near Grindhurst, while she went for her summer holiday to Scotland.
Willow Cottage is a very comfortable place to stay at. It is much too big for its name, a long, low, white building, crowded with furniture—legacies from different branches of our family, who, passing from the need of chairs and tables, left these to Aunt Eliza for the crowding of her cottage. Uncle Algernon left her the Chinese jars and curios, Aunt Jane full half the heavy Victorian furniture. Uncle Robert the cases of stuffed fish and foxes, and Aunt Mary the gray parrot. To the gray parrot, and thus indirectly to Aunt Mary, I owe my melodrama.
After the dusty scramble of London life in July, the quiet of the ordered household, the dewy peace of the big green garden, the long leisure of complete solitude charmed and refreshed me. I read philosophy, walked and smoked, and went so far as to make a few notes for my great projected work on the "Essential Identity of Ethic and Esthetic."
But though the gray parrot was destined to direct my fate, this was as yet unrevealed to me, and I confess that I hated the bird. She croaked, she whistled, she screamed, she sang lines of hymns in her evil, raucous voice, tremulous with suppressed chuckles. And when I implored the housemaid to remove her from her stand in the hall and take her into the kitchen, she told me it was as much as her place was worth. When I threw a coat over the cage, Polly swore till my hair stood on end, and I hastily tore off the coat, for the sake of the maid-servants. So in the long evenings before I started reading, after the servants had gone for the night to their own quarters, I used to lift Polly's cage and carry it out on to the lawn at the other side of the house: then I could work in peace.
One night the inevitable happened, and I awoke in the gray of the morning with a shock of remembrance, the remembrance that I had forgotten something. What, I wondered sleepily. Another shock, more violent and sleep-dispelling, warned me that I had forgotten to bring in the parrot. The natural man said, "Do her good," and I turned on my pillow to compose myself for sleep; but Prudence discoursed at some length on tramps, and on chills, and on the necessity of keeping the parrot's nightly airings a secret from the servants. "Suppose," said Prudence, "the confounded beast has taken cold and dies, the servants will say it was your fault." So I got into flannels and stumbled down the dim staircase and through the dark hall. All the shutters were up, and the alarm-bell on the door. I crept out through the French window in the parlor, and round through the toneless, dewy morning to the lawn. The cage was lying on its side. The parrot was gone. Never mind what I said. Directly the words were out of my mouth, my heart gave a leap, for they were answered by a flood of such swear-words as I had never heard from any but one mouth—or rather one beak. The anathema ended in a well-known hoarse chuckle.
On the laburnum-tree sat the parrot, cocking a wary eye at me.
"Come, Polly! Come, pretty Polly!" I said, advancing.
"Polly put the ket!" said the bird irrelevantly.
"Come then, Polly!" I resumed, holding out my hand. The parrot fluttered and squawked, and I stood still, shivering in the July dawn.
"Sugar, Polly, sugar," said I, advancing again. "Stand still, can't you?"
"Could I but stand where Moses stood!" sang the parrot, and flew off over the lawn. I followed.
Polly then rested, she took short flights from one tree to another, she sang lines of hymns at me, she chuckled and she screamed, but she swore no more. I am sure nothing but being covered up, or a sudden shock, such as my first remarks must have given her, would have betrayed her into such an indiscretion. She seemed to take a perverse joy in leading me slowly on; and lead me on she did, over woods and fields, and on to a by-road, where she took off from a chestnut-tree and disappeared over a high brick wall.
"I'll have you yet!" I said.
My blood was up. I had quite forgotten how the loss of the bird might affect my relations with my aunt. It had become a personal matter between me and the parrot. I looked about for some foothold in the wall. It had been newly pointed. One of the boughs of the big chestnut-tree almost rested on the wall, but the bough was far above my reach. The trunk was too smooth for climbing, too big for swarming. But I was always a good climber. And, as I say, my blood was up. I measured with my eye the distance between tree and wall. Then I got my back against the wall and one foot against the tree, gave a heave with my back, and got one hand against the wall, and pressing outward with hands and feet, began to go up by jerks. It was hard work and very slow, but I did it, and when I got on to the top, I crouched on the wall breathless. Had the parrot disappeared? No, there she was, to all appearance waiting for me. I dropped from the wall, and the old game began again. I had given up calling, to the brute; my only chance was to get close to her and take her by surprise. This I did at last effect, but not till we were close to the house, which stood in the middle of the park in which I was trespassing. It was a large, ugly, red Georgian building with many windows, all shuttered fast. It had a large, walled garden at the back, and it was on the high, red wall of this garden, where a yellow rose climbed over it, that, approaching quietly over the soft turf, I grasped the parrot by the tail. Fatigued by her long flight, she hardly fluttered. She gave a surprised squawk, bit my fingers as I tied her up in my handkerchief and put her in my pocket, where she swore once, and then was silent.
"And now to get out," I said; but as I said it I heard a window go up softly. It was a window in the first floor of a sort of wing that projected into the garden. My first thought, I confess it, was flight. But I thought of dogs, and of householders timid to the point of firearms, so I halted and looked up. A woman, with something blue on, put her head out of the window—the window, I saw, was barred—and looked cautiously to right and left. She saw me, and signed that I was to come near and to be silent. I don't know how she conveyed this in a single gesture, but she did. The old garden wall presented no difficulties. I got over it, landed on a soft flower-bed, and the next moment I was below the window. She pointed at something among the shrubs. It was a short ladder used for fruit-gathering. I got the ladder and set it under her window. I hesitated a moment, for the natural thought had occurred to me, that this house was probably a lunatic asylum, and the lady might be dangerous. The next moment I was climbing the ladder, moved by four considerations: I am not altogether a coward, the adventure was piquant, the window was barred, and, most potent of all, the woman was beautiful as the day.
As I brought myself on a level with her, I felt acutely conscious that my hair was rumpled from the pillow and my chin rough with a two days' beard; but when I raised my eyes to her face, she was still looking at the wall where I had found the parrot.
"Where is the other man?" she whispered, turning bright, anxious eyes on me.
"There is no one else," I answered in the same low tone.
"I heard two voices."
"I was after my parrot. Here it is in my pocket. When I caught it, it swore. I am sorry I trespassed. Is there any way of getting out except over the wall?"
Even as I spoke she thrust her arm through the bars, and her warm hand closed on mine.
"Don't go," she whispered; "for God's sake, don't leave me!"
I began to feel decidedly uncomfortable. To be suddenly clutched by a lunatic, however beautiful, must always be somewhat of a shock. And I have a horror of insanity.
"I must go," I said firmly; "it's absurd!" and I tried gently to draw my hand away.
She loosed it at once.
"Very well, go!" she said. "I thought you would help me. I was wrong. Go!"
And with that her face took on a look of such despair as I have never seen on any face in all my days.
"I would help you if I could," I said lamely; "but surely your friends——"
"I have no friends," she said. "I thought you would have been my friend. You look good."
She gazed wistfully at me, and for a moment there was silence. As I looked at her I remembered my, and wondered whether, perhaps, after all, she was not mad, but only a sane woman imprisoned in a madhouse to serve the greed of others.
So I asked what seemed to me a very tactful question.
"Why do they say you are mad?"
Her answer took me by surprise.
"Do they?" she said mournfully. "I didn't know."
"Perhaps they don't," I said soothingly. "How many mad people are there in this asylum?"
Her face changed, lightened, and a ripple of silent laughter passed over it. She spoke rapidly.
"Now I understand! You thought I was mad, and well you might! And I thought you were a burglar, but I was going to ask you to help me all the same."
I smiled too. A great weight seemed lifted from me, but almost on the instant a greater weight took its place. If she were not mad, this beautiful vision with the bright hair and the sad eyes, she must be in some deadly trouble or peril to stoop to ask help even from a burglar.
The east was brightening. The world was growing every moment more alive and alight. I could now see into the interior of her room. This was no lunatic's cell, but a lady's chamber, furnished with comfort, even with luxury.
"I must not stay long," I said, "if you don't want every one to know I've been here. What is it that you want me to do for you?"
"I never thought of your thinking me mad," she answered slowly. "I am so used to it all, but of course to you it seems—You will go back to thinking that, if I tell you what I want. And I have thought over it so much, and I thought any man would do it for me, if I could only get to speak with one. You are the first person except two that I have spoken to for eighteen months." She shivered, and looked away from me across the grass, where the long shadows now began to gather strength in the waxing light. She twisted her fingers together in an agony of indecision.
"What is it?" I asked. "I will do it if I can."
Then she spoke suddenly, in a voice curiously hard and dead.
"I want you to ask me to marry you."
I own that I found no words.
"It is horrible!" she said, turning scarlet. "Of course I don't mean that I want you to marry me, but I want to be engaged to you till—till after a certain day. Then I shall release you. It won't cost you anything—only a few words, and to stand by them till I tell you it is all right. Will you?"
"But why?" I stammered. I can't pretend that I showed to advantage in this interview. I felt by turns a man of sense and a despicable dastard, according to her silence or her speaking. And the fact that our talk was in whispers somehow added to my embarrassment.
"It is getting lighter and lighter," she said. "The gardeners get up so early. You must go. I promised once to marry some one, if no one I liked better offered to marry me before I was twenty-one. That was eighteen months ago. I've seen no one since but that man and his sister. So how could I see any one I liked better? Will you ask me? Oh, say yes, quickly. It doesn't mean anything to you, but it's everything to me."
"What's your name?" I said.
"Mine is Richard Dorrington. Miss Chisholm, will you marry me?"
"I accept your kind offer with pleasure and gratitude," she answered glibly. It was evident that she had rehearsed many a time the scene we were now playing. Only in her rehearsals some one more chivalrous than I had, perhaps, been cast for my part.
"Now go," she said. "There is nothing for you to do. Only remember you are engaged to me."
"Shall I announce the engagement?"
"No, no; do nothing, only go."
"When am I to see you again?"
Our positions were suddenly reversed. As she grew eager to be rid of me, I longed increasingly to stay, to talk to her, to touch her hand again.
"Oh, never, I hope!"
"But I must," I said. "You must explain what all this means."
"Come to-morrow morning, then," she said, "but earlier, and don't bring the parrot."
She flashed a sudden smile at me, and drew back into the room.
"Good-by,' I said, reaching a hand up awkwardly from my ladder.
She stretched her hand through the bars, and, at the touch of it, I felt suddenly how utterly I had failed to rise to the opportunities of my adventure. I pressed the soft hand against my cheek, against my lips.
"Oh!" she cried, a soft, inarticulate cry, like that of a wild creature caught and hurt in the catching.
Then she closed the window quickly. I replaced the ladder and took my way across the dewy park, now fully dressed in its daylight green, and touched to gold by the level beams of the rising sun.
I went home to think things over, and indeed food for thought had been supplied to me in no niggard measure.
"This is your doing!" I said angrily to the parrot as I replaced her and her cage in the still darkened hall.
"This is your doing," I repeated as the memory came back to me of that hand against my face. And I fetched the parrot three lumps of sugar and some hempseed.
That day seemed long to me. I lounged about the garden, and tried to read, but philosophy had lost its charm. The interest of my extraordinary adventure was enough, in itself, to distract my thoughts. And then there was the recollection of her hand, of her eyes—her sad eyes and her weary mouth. The time passed slowly, slowly. I strolled down to the village in the afternoon, bought some tobacco—it was a loathsome shag, I remember—and asked questions. I learned a good deal that I did not want to know, and at last came to the thing I did want to know—who lived in the big red house in the highwalled park? Queer folks, it seemed—a middle-aged lady and gentleman and a young lady, not their daughter, my informant thought. Lodge gates always kept locked; no servants allowed out. Lady always present when tradesmen came. Most of the things from the stores in London—big cases. That was how the rich robbed the poor nowadays instead of being neighborly. Family never even went to church, so, of course, nobody called on them except the vicar, and he was not let in. One or other of the old people drove out every day with the young lady. Poor thing!
Then suddenly my informant came round the counter and looked out at the open door. "That's them a-coming now," she said. There was a sound of hoofs and wheels, and a big barouche, drawn by two fat horses, rolled by. In it sat my lady of the dew and the dawn, and beside her an amiable-looking, fresh-faced man of about forty-five. He was talking to her, pointing out some pigeons on a house-roof. She listened in white silence.
Her eyes lightened as she saw me, and mechanically my hand went to my cap. I dropped it again, but not quickly enough. Her companion turned, and said something to her. I saw her shake her head, and knew she had been forced to deny acquaintance with me. I had spoiled her plan. I went home cursing myself for the fool I was.
In the early morning I climbed the big wall again, but this time I took a rope to help my climb, and left it hidden among the chestnut branches.
Then I crossed the park. Her window was close shuttered. I found the ladder, and was about to raise it, when I saw the gleam of something white—a paper tied to the ladder. I cut the thread and unfolded the paper. I could see written words, but there was not yet light to read them. The shuttered window promised nothing. With the paper in my hand, I crouched among the shrubs close to the house, struck a match softly under my coat, and read:
"Farewell forever. I no longer love you. I have buried your letters and presents at the spot where you caught what you were chasing. Be sure no one sees you dig. All is over between us. Emma."
I own that my adventure was taking a turn I had never anticipated. Or was it now justifying my first anticipation? Was she really, after all, mad? No other explanation seemed possible.
I stopped back, looked up at the house. All was shuttered darkness, and in the garden it was very dark. No one would see me dig. I found the spot where I had caught the parrot; a yellow rose lay on the mold. I dug in the soft earth with my fingers, and under the rose I found something hard—a little sandal-wood box. Another look at the house. Still silent and eyeless. Then I put the box in my pocket and made off home, extremely irritated at the whole affair, yet not without a certain curiosity as to the nature of the "presents and letters."
When I got back to the cottage, I hastened to light a candle, for daylight was not yet full. I opened the box. It contained only one thing—an envelope, from which I drew a long letter.
"You have spoiled everything. He saw that you knew me, and asked if I knew you. I said no, and now how can I ever say that we were engaged? If I had said yes, I believe he would have killed me. I don't feel safe. You don't know what it is—this terror by day and night. He has never been unkind, but I am afraid. If he thinks there is anything between us, perhaps he will not let me live to see my birthday. It is on Monday. I shall write a line and tie it to the ladder, and pray to God that you may find it, and not some one else. And I shall write it so that if he finds it he won't understand. You won't understand either, but you will when you get this. They let me walk in the garden. I don't think they think any one could get in. They think I knew you before. But I don't know, they are so clever—perhaps they know all about it. I couldn't tell you this morning all about it, but I will now. If you can think of any way to make them think you don't know me; but of course you can't. I am going mad now, I think. You thought I was mad. Perhaps I soon shall be. If he goes on thinking you are staying in the village because of me—you don't know what it is, this terror. Now I will tell you my story. I know you did not like me, and you half think I am mad, but if you can help me you will. For the love of God, help me! But I know you can't.
"We used to live at Clapham Common. We hadn't many friends. My father liked to live quietly. Then he died two years ago, and Dr. James—you saw him in the carriage with me—he and Mr. Anderson were my guardians, and Mr. Anderson went to America, and he is to be back in time for my birthday. And Dr. James and his sister came and lived at Elm Bank—that was our house at Clapham. They were very kind, indeed, and tried to comfort me. When my father died, his last words were: 'Emma, be true and just in all your dealings,' and I want to be, but it is very hard. And I had to say I did not know you, and it was a lie. Then after six months he said: 'Will you marry me?' and I said no, but he begged and begged, and then I said I was too young, and he said so I was, perhaps, but would I promise to marry him if—but I told you that before. So I said yes, and the very next day we came to this dreadful place, and I have seen no one, no one at all. And when I saw you this morning, I thought God had sent you, though I don't know how I could have thought that when I thought you were a burglar. My other guardian is to come down on Monday. If you could see him—but perhaps it will be all right, and he will take me away with him.
"Please pardon this hurried letter. I daren't reread it, hardly stop to think as I write. I dare say really there's nothing to be frightened of, but you don't know what it is. "Emma Chisholm.
"You may think I could just tell my other guardian and go away with him, but I don't like really to break my promise, and, besides, I am afraid. I don't know what to do. I wish he hadn't seen that you knew me."
The very incoherence of this letter stamped it as trustworthy, and the repetition of one phrase in it went to my heart: "You don't know what it is—this terror by night and day—you don't know what it is."
Somehow I must soothe that terror. I must undo my folly of that afternoon. I must convey to her the knowledge that I had done so. I sat with my head in my hands, and thought and thought. Then I dressed me in my best, and went to call at the Grange. The lodge gate was locked. The woman eyed me doubtfully.
"Orders are to let no one in," she said; "but there, I see Dr. James a-walking in the drive now, sir. I'll go and ask him, if you will bide a bit outside of the gate."
I saw her meet him. I saw his eyes follow hers to the gate; then he came hurrying towards me.
"Excuse me, my dear sir," he said; "we have to be very careful."
So saying, he unlocked the door.
"Come in," he said; "here is a pleasant seat, where we can watch the deer sporting among the trees. And now tell me what I can have the pleasure of doing for you."
"I am come to this neighborhood," said I, " in the hope of meeting Miss Chisholm, and cultivating her acquaintance with a view to a proposal of marriage." He looked at me with masked anxiety. "But as I find she does not go into society, I venture to lay my proposal before her guardian."
His face cleared. "Yes, yes," he said pleasantly. "You knew Miss Chisholm in bygone days, no doubt."
I affected an exaggeration of the embarrassment I certainly felt.
"I will be frank with you," I said, feeling meaner than I ever remember to have done in my life. "I inherit my property from an uncle. It seems that in his youth he was attached to Miss Chisholm's mother. I was his favorite nephew, and the dearest wish of his heart was to find the daughter of his early love and manage a marriage between her and me. Of course the late Mr. Chisholm would have opposed it; but he died just before my uncle, and my uncle then added a codicil to his will, by which I was to lose half my legacy if within three years I did not marry Miss Chisholm. I have seen the young lady in her drives with you, and I now look on as a privilege that which——"
"I see, I see," he said, interrupting my smooth lying; "and the lady your uncle loved, what was her name?"
Here was a facer. I hesitated, stammered, and he gloated over my discomfiture, but I was not cornered yet.
"I don't like to show his letter to a stranger," I said bashfully, "still you, sir, are so kind and sympathetic that—that——"
I drew out the letter I had prepared, signed my Uncle Algernon's name, and written on paper stamped with Willow Cottage, where, indeed, that lamented uncle had breathed his last.
Dr. James read the forgery and folded it up. He was silent. I could see that I had convinced him. I had undone the effects of that folly about the cap. What would be his next move? He sighed, and returned the letter to me.
"I quite understand," he said, "quite. In happier circumstances I should have been proud and delighted. As it is, Mr. Dorrington, it would be cruel to trifle with you. I owe you the truth. My ward is hopelessly insane."
My plot had succeeded, and his had failed. This sang in my ears as I walked home. I got away from him with a bearing of dumb sadness and submission, but as I went along the lanes I rejoiced. For at the moment when he told me that she was mad, my doubts of her sanity vanished away at once and forever, and I knew him for the villain he was. But I knew, too, that he was an actor, and a good one; good enough, no doubt, to convince the other trustee, the returning Anderson, and to destroy at once Emma's chances of freedom. Yes, I had begun to call her Emma to myself, and to perceive that Emma is, after all, rather a pretty name.
I went up to London that day, and I called on my friend Tenterden. Tenterden is a man whom people call on when they are in a fix. He is an archæologist and a good fellow. He has been in more than one adventure. He came down with me to Willow Cottage, and we brought with us a black-covered wicker basket. I walked the lanes. I met Emma driving with Mrs. James. I turned my eyes away, and walked moodily on. Next day I met her driving with the man, and I raised my hat respectfully—to him. He returned my salutation with a sad smile. This was all I could do to show her that I had tried to undo my folly.
On Monday morning, Tenterden and I went into the woods very early. We took the basket with us. When we came out again, Tenterden had changed clothes, complexion, and manner. I should never have known.him. He looked the part for which he was dressed, gentleman's gentleman. As for me, Tenterden had wrought upon me with cosmetics and a wig and crape hair and loud checks, till I had changed from the Dorrington I knew to a businesslike bounder with red whiskers and a rather shiny black suit. Tenterden of his wisdom had devised our disguises and got them from Hugo's.
Then we went to the station and waited, scanning the passengers dropped by the rare trains—the parson on his way back from an exchange Sunday, a girl coming home from service, a gardener with plants in shallow boxes.
It was nearly noon before our man arrived, a tall, thin, gray man with a black bag. Tenterden stepped up to him, "For the Grange, sir?" he said.
"Yes. Is there anything to meet me?"
"No, sir," said Tenterden. "The horse is gone lame, sir, and nothing else was to be got. But it's not far, sir, if you will step this way."
I followed at a little distance. As soon as we were out of sight of the station Tenterden stopped short.
"Mr. Anderson, I believe," he said, with a complete change of manner.
The other looked his surprise. Tenterden spoke rapidly.
"You are now going to the Grange to settle up the affairs of the Chisholm estate.
Let me tell you, sir, that you are not safe in going to that house."
"Lord bless my soul!" said Mr. Anderson.
"Don't be alarmed," said Tenterden, in his lordliest manner. "I am a private detective," and as he said it I seemed to smell, through the scent of the hay, the gas and orange-peel of the Surrey Theater. "So is my friend here," he went on, indicating me with a theatrical wave of the hand. "We propose to accompany you. We have pistols." He showed them. "We have some knowledge of this matter." I wondered how he could show that. "And we will see you through."
Mr. Anderson shuffling irresolutely on the white dust, muttered something about "communicating with Dr. James through his solicitor."
"There is no time," said Tenterden firmly. I could see how he was enjoying himself. "It is a matter of life and death. I shall go with you, Mr. Anderson, as your valet, and this gentleman as your clerk or your solicitor, whichever you prefer."
"He looks more like a clerk," said Mr. Anderson, eying me with disfavor.
"Come," Tenterden went on, "let us be moving. We can talk as we go."
On the way to the house we did talk. His first alarm over, Mr. Anderson did not appear incurably stupid, but he now poohpoohed our tale.
We found the lodge gates hospitably thrown open. We entered, and as soon as we had passed out of sight, a clang behind us told us that they had been closed.
"Hear that!" said Tenterden significantly. Mr. Anderson looked uncomfortable.
The house-door was opened by a sour-looking man-servant, who glanced doubtfully at us. " Excuse me, sir," he said, "but which is Mr. Anderson?"
Mr. Anderson admitted his identity. "Step this way, sir," he said, and slammed the door in our faces as Mr. Anderson crossed the door-mat; but Tenterden's foot was in the door.
Mr. Anderson was equal to the occasion.
"What the devil d'you mean?" he said. "Let my man in at once. Come in, Rigby."
Tenterden pushed, and we got the door back. Mr. Anderson's face showed very white in the gloom.
" 'Pon my word, I think you were right!" he cried. "Servants get more insolent every day. I shall report you to your master."
The surly man said nothing, and I wondered whether Mr. Anderson had saved the situation with his quotation. It seemed hardly a likely thing for a man-servant to say to his master. We followed Mr. Anderson into a library, and there awaited Dr. James and his ward.
During our waiting we exchanged glances, but no words. I felt more than ever the melodramatic atmosphere. The room exactly reproduced a stage carpenter's idea of a library. I also felt, however, a sense of real danger. Tenterden, I noticed, looked really delighted. He always enjoys playing a part.
Dr. James came in, softly, like a sandy cat. He and Mr. Anderson exchanged greetings. He took no notice of us, except to suggest that we should wait outside.
"I shall want my clerk," said Mr. Anderson. "Rigby, you can wait outside." So Tenterden waited outside.
"And where is our ward?"
"She will be here in a moment." He almost seemed to purr the words. "I have an announcement to make to you," he said, "which may surprise you. Since Miss Chisholm has been in the care of my sister an attachment has, ahem, sprung up between us. She has promised to become my bride. We shall hope to see you at the ceremony, which will be performed very shortly."
"Do you know," said Mr. Anderson abruptly, "that people about here say Miss Chisholm is mad? That comes of your shutting her up here. What did you do it for?"
"Her own wish, my dear sir. Her nerves were shattered by her father's death. But care and kindness, my dear Mr. Anderson, care and kindness have done wonders. She is a picture of health."
"Will you have her sent for?"
Dr. James rang the bell.
"Johnson, request Miss Chisholm to step this way."
Johnson retired, and in an exceedingly short time returned.
"Miss Chisholm has a headache, sir, and begs to be excused. She hopes to see Mr. Anderson on some future occasion."
This was very pat, but unconvincing. I fumbled with the black bag.
"Come, come," said Mr. Anderson, "this is mere trifling. I insist on seeing my ward. This is most disrespectful conduct, most disrespectful."
"I regret extremely," Dr. James was beginning, when the door opened and she came in.
"I hope,I have not kept you waiting," she said. "I have only this moment heard that you were here."
She looked round anxiously as she shook hands with Mr. Anderson. Then he handed her to a chair.
"I hear I am to congratulate Dr. James on his engagement to you," he said, with knitted brows.
Emma glanced at Dr. James, who no longer seemed as if purring were possible to him. Then she said, very distinctly:
"I promised to marry Dr. James if no one I liked better made me an offer of marriage before my twenty-first birthday. But I have seen some one I like better, and——"
Dr. James started from his chair.
"You're dreaming, child," he said, and his voice was dangerously calm. "You can't have seen anybody!"
"I have seen some one," she went on steadily, "and I have accepted the proposal he made to me. I am engaged to Mr. Richard Dorrington. Oh, Mr. Anderson, I may be engaged to him, mayn't I?"
"This is idle talk, my dear child," said Dr. James. "Of course you are absolutely free, but why drag in the name of a gentleman who is a perfect stranger to you?"
"He is not," she said; "he is engaged to me. Oh, Mr. Anderson, it is really true. Don't leave me here. I am frightened. I wish Mr. Dorrington were here!"
I could bear it no longer. I tore off the wig and whiskers, and was swept into the full swirl of the melodrama.
"He is here!" I cried. With a sudden shriek she put out her hands and ran to me, and I caught her in my arms. Never was a more effective curtain devised. By all the rules of dramatic art Dr. James should have put a vial of poison to his lips, and died in agony at the feet of the reunited. Instead, a slow smile came to his lips, and he nodded once or twice. "Well, well!" he said, "love laughs at locksmiths. You were one too many for me, Mr. Dorrington. The fact is, I took you for a fortune-hunter, and I had my duty to do and my"—he sighed, with quite a decent show of emotion—"my treasure to guard. Well, well, we may cry quits, and be friends again. Your friend, too, who went and fetched the lady; he's in it, eh? Well, well. But come," he added briskly, "luncheon is ready. Let me order two more covers to be laid, and let us talk it all over, over a glass of good sherry."
And before we could protest, he was gone.
I heard his voice and Tenterden's outside.
Emma had withdrawn herself from my arms, and stood talking to Mr. Anderson in the window, explaining matters, I supposed. I wondered what was to happen next. The time passed, five minutes, ten minutes.
"Our host delays," I said. As I spoke we heard the click of a latch. Emma and I both sprang at the door. It was locked, and the windows were barred.
"Trapped!" cried Mr. Anderson.
"Yes," I said in a low voice, "and what would it have been if you had come alone?"
For though we were yet far from understanding the mystery, we felt that Dr. James was desperate.
How long was it before we got out? About eleven hours, my dear reader, during which we ran the whole gamut of emotions, and I got Mr. Anderson almost to forgive me that deception about the detective, which I do really believe saved his life. Eleven hours during which we three kept up each other's spirits, and I got to know Emma better than I could have done in ten years' polite acquaintance over tennis and dinner-parties. Eleven hours! The unanswered bells soon told us that no servants were left in the house, or none that would help us. We knew the lonely situation of the place. It had, in fact, once been an asylum. We might die there of starvation long before any one came near us. Eleven hours, and it seemed like a year. It was quite dark. Emma was sitting on the floor, leaning against Mr. Anderson's knee, holding my hand. We had exhausted ourselves in vain efforts to break down the barriers of that strong old room. Suddenly she moved, sat up, and then we heard it, too—a slow, heavy footstep on the flagged passage. The key turned in the lock. I pulled out my pistol. The door opened. A man stood in it with a candle in one hand and a pistol in the other. His mouth was torn and bleeding; there was blood on his cuffs and on his hands. I sprang to my feet, but I need not have stood on the defensive. The melodrama was working itself out: the man was Tenterden.
"He got me away easily enough," he said, in answer to our questions. "Of course I'd listened at the keyhole, and I really did think it was all right. He got me into the diningroom, and he and that man of his tied my hands and feet with rope, and then tied me into a chair with a nice, tight rope round my neck. Then I suppose he went back and locked you all in, and off he went. He came back to have a last look at me, and said he thought I might come to wish I'd kept out of this. Oh, he told me plainly that we should all starve here."
"And how did you get loose?"
"I bit the ropes," he said, "when I had got my neck out of the rope collar. That took six hours. I had a handsome black marble dining-room clock to go by. Then I bit the ropes through, but there were a great many knots. I'm afraid I don't look very nice. The clock stopped at eight. I don't know how long it took me. What time is it? I feel as if it were the week after next."
"Come," I said, "we must find some food for Her." So we ate and drank in that grim house, and it was nearly one o'clock before we left it.
"I'll tell you one thing," said Tenterden cheerfully, "I don't fancy you'll find very much of Miss Chisholm's property left. The rascal played a bold game, and I fancy he has won most of the stakes."
He had. Every security that could be realized had been realized. A certain estate in which Emma has a life interest only was all that escaped Mm. Dr. James had been in very low water at the time of Mr. Chisholm's death, and the trusteeship had been his financial salvation. Whether his scheme of marriage with Emma was merely conceived as an easy way of avoiding awkward investigations, or whether he desired her for herself, we shall never know. He and his sister disappeared utterly, and we have never seen or heard of them again. I asked Emma once whether he had been cruel to her while he had her at his mercy at the Grange, but she shuddered, and said: "Don't let's talk of it. I want to forget it all. He wasn't cruel, but he frightened me. Oh, don't make me remember it!"
But some of these days, when we have been married a great many years, some very bright spring day, out in the daisied fields, she will find courage to tell me of her life there. Till then the reader and I must possess our souls in patience.
I did marry her, then? Of course. From the moment when her hand lay against my face I knew that if she would marry me I should have won from Fate life's greatest good and grace. The loss of her fortune made it easier for me to woo her. Had she still been an heiress, though, I don't know that it would have made much difference. For, after all, we were all playing in a melodrama, and do not melodramas always end in marriage?