BY ARTHUR A'BECKETT.
IN NEW YORK.
Mrs. Clutterbuck, the newly-married wife of Colonel Clutterbuck, of New York, was not "at home" to visitors. She had given orders to that effect, but the command was superfluous as there were no callers. To tell the truth, Mme. de Vigny had not been a great social success in the country of her adoption. The Senator, her husband, had married her to preside over his establishment, and to gracefully adorn his dinner table, and although she had accepted both duties, the result had been disappointment. Mrs. Clutterbuck's notion of looking after a house was to take the minimum amount of trouble, and order the maximum amount of goods. She had run up bills in all directions, giving a special preference to the stores of jewelers, dressmakers, and venders of lace. Her idea of dispensing hospitality was scarcely in accord with the colonel's notions on the same matter. The Senator, who was a power in Wall Street, firmly believed that more could be done over the viands and iced water than in the place of custom, and was in the habit of filling his dining room with people who could be useful. His desire was, of course, to conciliate those he invited by adopting a tone of business-like geniality, but he received no assistance from his wife, whose solitary aim seemed to be the unprovoked and contemptuous snubbing of her husband's guests.
"Loo-cill," said he one day after a banquet had ended in disaster, "I guess you are not particular to company. Guess, madame, you prefer solitude to some of the best-known persons in the United States."
"If you mean by that," replied Mrs, Clutterbuck, admiring herself in a mirror, "I do not care for the vulgar crowd you ask to dinner, you are certainly right. They are neither polished nor amusing."
"Strikes me, madame, that you seem to feel the want of the British aristocracy. You can't get on without them—that is so. It seems a pity that Lord Francis Onslow should be on the other side of the Atlantic. He would have been a decided acquisition to our family circle. See?"
"What do you mean?" asked Lucille, with her large eyes fixed upon the colonel menacingly. "What do you mean?"
"What I say," retorted the colonel. "I do not want, madame, any unpleasantness, but I give you fair warning that I know a thing or two. I have special sources of information."
"Do you want to insult me?" Lucille asked in a low tone, raising her head, and still keeping her steady gaze upon her husband, her eyes looking into his eyes, as if they would read his very soul.
"Come, come, madame, none of that," cried Clutterbuck, waving her off. "I tell you, Loo-cill, I was not born yesterday, nor yet the day before. My will is a pretty strong one, and I tell you distinctly I am not a subject. I have been tried before, and it would not do. So take my word, madame, you are giving yourself a great deal of trouble for nothing. Take my advice, madame, and drop it. Guess it won't do."
She seemed to concentrate her power of will into a supreme and final effort, and then she shrank back into a fauteuil—conquered. Her husband laughed, and continued:
"You see you cannot contrive it. No, madame, it won't do. So, if you take my advice, I would not try it again. You see it just riles me, and I am not a nice man to rile. I love and respect all ladies, but I have a sharp and short way of reckoning with snakes. See?"
She was silent for a moment and then burst into a hysterical laugh. "There," continued her husband, "you notice you are unhinged. It is not good for you, this kind of excitement. And now tell me, how is Ronny? Why did he not come down to give his uncle good-morning before I started for business to-day?"
"Ronny has gone," replied Lucille shortly.
"Gone," exclaimed the Senator. "Why, where have you sent him?"
"That is my business," returned Mrs. Clutterbuck. "Surely I have a right to do what I please with my own nephew."
"Nephew," echoed he. "Whew!"
"Have you any reason for questioning the relationship?"
"Well, no," replied her husband, stroking his beard; "but it strikes me for so near a relative, the lad does not seem to care particularly about you. Why, I do believe he likes me better than he does you."
"Ronny has bad taste."
"Maybe, madame, maybe," returned her husband. "But you might keep a civil tongue in your head. It's that kind of thing that riles my guests."
"What kind of thing?"
"Oh, drop it. Now tell me, when do you expect Ronny's return?"
"I don't expect it at all."
"Ah, I see you are not in a communicative mood, so I shall take myself off. But see here, madame. You were intended by Nature for the leisure class, but in the States we haven't got the institution. Some day we may import it from Europe, and if we do, why then you will find yourself quite at home. But, until we do import it from Europe, take a word of advice. Climb down, madame, climb down."
And with this parting shot the colonel took his departure.
Mrs. Clutterbuck listened to the retreating steps, and then went to her desk. She sat down in front of the table and pondered. Had she acted wisely? Certainly it was advisable to quit England—Europe—but was not this a case of from the frying-pan into the fire? The colonel was a man of violent passions, and she felt that she was absolutely without influence over him. He was too strong for her. She had been accustomed to do what she liked with members of the opposite sex; here was a man who set her at defiance, laughed her to scorn. What was she to do? She was absolutely dependent upon him for support. Unless she could get back to Europe (which was not a desirable spot for the moment), or find a traveling Englishman, she was powerless. Her husband's friends and acquaintances appeared to hold her in abhorrence. Besides, manners and customs on one side of the Atlantic seemed to differ from customs and manners on the other. It was not a cheerful prospect. However, there was nothing to be done but to submit and to keep her eyes open to take immediate advantage of any chance that might offer itself. So she sat down before the little table, and unlocking her desk examined its contents. There were a few letters written in faded ink, and tears gathered in her eyes as she glanced at them.
"He loved me once," she said with a sigh, "and I absolutely loved him; yes, loved him. Well, that is past. He has abandoned me as he abandoned her, and I can strike them both through their boy."
Then she took out a letter that bore the New York postmark of the day before, and read it through from end to end. It was a long letter and seemed to give her satisfaction. "I do not see how they can recover the boy," she murmured, "and, if this programme is carried out in the future, he should be as much lost to his family as a grain of sand in a desert or a needle in a bundle of hay."
Then she considered whether she should burn the letter or return it to her desk. She decided upon the latter course, and placed it for greater security in the concealed recesses of a secret drawer. The rest of the afternoon she spent listlessly in reading novels with yellow covers and playing on the piano. She had no visitors. When the dinner hour arrived the colonel had not reappeared. However, this did not greatly disturb her, as it was his custom on occasions to stay away from home, but when he decided to dine elsewhere he usually communicated through the telephone his intentions. He had neglected to do this, so Mrs. Clutterbuck decided, upon her own responsibility, to dine alone. She gave the necessary orders, and in due course the meal was served and discussed. After the things had been removed (she had taken her dinner in the boudoir) she lighted a cigarette. It was not a habit which met with her husband's encouragement, but as he was not there to upbraid her she saw no reason why she should not indulge her taste for the fumes of nicotine. A little later the door was thrown open, and the colonel entered. He was pale, and his features worked. Evidently, he was in a violent passion.
"You are quite a stranger," she said, with a little laugh, "and I have dined without you. I did not feel your loss, because the suprême de volatille was excellent. You see I am smoking. Take one?"
He deliberately seized the proffered cigarette case, and threw it with all his force against the wall. She shrugged her shoulders and laughed again. "What a child you are! You remind me of Ronny, and yet you are no relative of his."
"Are you a relative of his?" asked the colonel slowly, weighing every word as if he were afraid to trust his voice.
"Why, yes. Did I not tell you that he was my nephew?"
"And did you not tell me a lie?"
There was a pause, and they looked at one another as a duelist regards an opponent—neither anxious to begin, both on guard. Again she laughed.
"You are not very cheerful company this evening."
"Then I will make my visit as short as possible."
"Ah, you are paying me a visit, are you? You purpose obtaining a separation."
"There is no necessity for a separation."
"I see, then, you will obtain a divorce. I have always been told that in America there are special facilities for disjoining marriage ties. Is New York a good place for that sort of thing?"
"There is no necessity, madame, to dissolve marriage ties."
"You are very, very serious this evening," said Lucille, putting the cigarette in her mouth. "I hate conundrums. All this afternoon I have been worrying myself to find an answer to the riddle, why I became your wife?"
"You never did become my wife," replied the colonel shortly.
Lucille turned pale, and then her face was suffused with color. She rose to her full height.
"And you have come to tell me this?"
"Now, madame, see here; I don't want any heroics. I am going to take it quietly, and I advise you to do the same. Now, what I have to say is just this. I made a mistake in marrying you."
"The mistake was mutual."
"Now, madame, there is no cause for interruption. You shall have the story right away, and if you have not enough of it by the time I have done, it will be your fault and not mine. Look you here, if I made a mistake you made a greater. Have you ever heard of a crime called bigamy?"
"Yes," returned Lucille coolly. "It is a weakness of mine—I committed bigamy when I married you."
"And you tell me that without turning a hair?" exclaimed the American, fairly taken aback at her audacity. "Then you know I could throw you into jail, madame?"
"You can do nothing of the sort," she returned. "Now stop further explanation; you see there is no necessity. I have saved you the trouble of inflicting a long story on me with your terrible nasal twang, and I am thankful."
"Look you here, madame," returned the colonel, white with passion. "Don't you rile me too much. There is a limit, I tell you, and you have about reached it and a bit over."
"Oh! I am not in the least afraid of you. For the reason that causes you not to hurl me into jail will prevent you from murdering me. And less than a murder would not do; even your countrymen don't care about wife—I beg your pardon—women-beaters."
The colonel ground his teeth and clenched his hands, but kept tranquil.
"Madame, you are right," he said at last. "Quite right, I am not going to murder you. Anything of that sort I can leave to your husband—when he gets out of prison. But to come to business. If you take my advice you will make tracks. I have had private information that you have escaped by the skin of your teeth. They have got your husband and they wanted you, but the prosecutors seem to be economical, and they are satisfied with him. So instead of being taken to the Tombs on your arrival in New York, you were allowed to come home with me. And a nice home you have made it, madame," and he looked round the room crammed with costly gimcracks. "It has cost me a pretty penny."
"Very likely," she replied calmly, "but you can afford it."
"Yes, fortunately, I can, madame. Salem Clutterbuck is good for millions."
"You had better not boast of your wealth, or you will make me avaricious."
"Avaricious! Why, what has my wealth to do with you, madame? All that is past and gone. We squared up when Mrs. Clutterbuck returned to Mme. Vin-jay."
"Not quite," said Lucille with a cold smile. "You must be a bad man of business, and yet you have realized a fortune."
"Yes, I have made my pile, madame," he returned, with a vague feeling of uneasiness, "and as to my being a man of business, why you just ask anyone who knows me."
"There is no necessity," said Lucille, "because I can test you myself. As a man of business, how much do you intend to pay me to go away?"
The colonel indulged in a low whistle, and for a moment regarded with absolute admiration the woman he had for a time believed to be his wife. Then he slowly produced his pocket-book, and taking out some notes, placed them before her. She took them up and reckoned the amount. "Not bad for a first bid," she observed, "and I see you know how to deal. You are a better man of business than I imagined. Say double, and we will call it done."
Again the Senator produced his pocket-book, and once more extracted from its recesses some notes. He placed these before Lucille, and she took them up as before. Once again she arrived at a total.
"You are satisfied I shall not disturb you," she asked. "You can trust me?"
"Well, yes, madame, I can," replied the colonel. "You think quite rightly that I don't want a scandal. I don't. But if there is to be one, we may as well have it on a grand scale. If you come back, madame, to annoy me, why then I shall know that I may as well go in for the entire cucumber, and act accordingly."
"You will shoot me?"
"I guess it will come to that. You are a woman of great discrimination. I shall remove you, and I can do it with a better grace after you have been away a bit. So you know what to expect. And now, as we have had this friendly chat, there is no reason why we should quarrel. Loo-cill, here's my hand."
She burst into a bitter laugh.
"Do you think I am going to take it? If by grasping it I could make it wither, I would seize it and hold it to my heart."
"Why, what have I done, madame?"
"Why, you have robbed me of my last chance. If you had stood by me I might have pulled through. Well, it will be pleasant reading to see a report of your death."
"I daresay it will," said the colonel, biting his lip until the blood came. "In the meantime you can read this. And now, madame, I have to bid you adoo."
And laying down a marked paper before her, he stalked away.
Lucille, left to herself, remained for some moments buried in the deepest thoughts. What should she do next? She had expected the storm, for she had felt that the discovery of her past was only a question of time. So she was not unprepared for the colonel's desertion. She had taken care to supply herself with a goodly store of diamonds and precious stones, and accordingly for the moment was not within the reach of want. The bundle of notes she had extracted from the Senator's pocket-book represented a considerable sum, and added to the total of the value of her worldly goods. Then she had her beauty. She looked into the mirror and shuddered. What would her husband do when he escaped from the prison walls? It was the question she had asked herself a hundred times. It was the question that had been suggested to her not an hour ago. It would be a terrible day of reckoning.
"He will kill me," she muttered. "He has more pluck than this blustering American. He will kill me. Well, and if he does, what does it matter?"
And then she took up the marked paper that the Senator had left behind him, and glanced carelessly through the paper until she came to the column that bore the trace of ink. Then she started back as if stung by an adder. The marked passage told the world in general, and the American capital in particular, that Lord Francis Onslow, the husband of the acquitted murderess, had lately arrived in New York.
It was night-time in the chief American police station before Frank could find an opportunity for continuing his inquiries. On his arrival he had quickly learned that Mrs. Clutterbuck had not been arrested—that a telegram had been received warning the officials to do nothing, as their services were not required. And for the moment, the chief officer whom he consulted could tell him nothing more. He had been advised to let matters take their course.
"You see," said the chief, "we can't do much at present, sir. The colonel is highly respected and a Senator, and until we have authority to interfere with his arrangements we must hold our hands. You say that the boy that accompanies them is your son. Maybe it is so, but still the lad is under the colonel's protection, and we don't want to lend ourselves to an abduction case. It would be giving ourselves away."
"But I tell you the boy belongs to me."
"Maybe he does and maybe he doesn't. The word of Colonel Clutterbuck is as good as yours, and while the lad is in his custody I don't see how we can help you. If you take our advice you will let matters slide for awhile. We will keep our eyes upon the household, and if we find him taken out of the custody of the lady who says she is his aunt, why then we will communicate with you, and then will be the time for you to come upon the scene. At present, you will pardon me, sir—I should say my lord—you are what I may call a superfluity."
"Then you refuse to help me?" said Frank angrily.
"Well, that is not quite as I want to put it," replied the officer of police, "but I guess it's about the true meaning. Don't be impatient, sir; many a bright undertaking has been ruined by too much impatience. I know it isn't pleasant advice to anyone to be told to take things coolly, but that's just the advice I would give to you. Let things slide a bit, and when the time is ripe for action, why then you shall know all about it."
"At least you will give me the colonel's address?"
"Can't say I can; the colonel is a man of business, and you will hear of him from everyone in the proper quarter; but it is no part of my duty to act as a directory. You will run against him soon enough without my aid. So, sir, or as I should say, my lord, if you are not busy, I am, and I must wish you good-day."
With that, the official bowed and walked away. Frank, finding that nothing was to be done, turned also, and so the men separated.
In his hurry to leave England and reach the United States, Fenella's husband had neglected to arm himself with letters of introduction, and now he found the disadvantage of being in a strange city without a friend. He walked down Broadway, and paraded Fifth Avenue, but saw none but unfamiliar faces. He had put up at one of the large New York hotels, where he had advisedly given a false name. He was not particularly anxious to make the acquaintance of the American interviewer, a gentleman who was unique until copied in England some few years ago. So far he had been able to preserve his incognito, as the police official, who was a kind fellow at heart, had promised to preserve the secret of his identity. So, chafing at the delay, he wandered about listlessly, until, to his great delight, he received one evening a summons to attend at the bureau.
"You see I have not forgotten you," said the official. "Now I think we can set to work. The boy you have been looking for has left the custody of the colonel—he is no longer in his care."
"And where is he?" asked Frank eagerly.
"That is a conundrum, my lord, that, for the moment, I cannot answer," was the reply. "The fact is, we have made a bit of a mess of it. A recruit—a sharp one, but still a recruit—was put upon your business, and he seems to have muddled it."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, look you here. He was ordered to keep his eye on the lad, and to report when the boy was removed from the colonel's custody. Well, he did his duty, inasmuch as he gave us the notice the boy was off. That has been reported right enough, but——" he stopped.
"Don't you know where my son is at this moment?" said Frank angrily.
"Well, sir—I should say, my lord—that is exactly what I cannot say. Our man rushed off to tell us the news of departure; he would have done better had he followed up the track."
"And what do you propose to do?"
"Oh, we have made the best of it. We have sent a first-class officer, up to every move in the game, to take the matter up, and by this time you may be sure the country is being scoured high and low. When we come upon a track you shall hear of it. We can trust the colonel. He is respected, and would not lend himself to any underhand piece of work. But it's the lady that is doing it. Now, we have not much of an opinion about her, and she is in it, that's the worst of it. However, don't you cry out yet; ours is the smartest service in the world, and we will do our best for you."
"But can I do nothing?"
"Well, no, sir—I should say, my lord—I don't see that you can. You had better look in to-morrow evening, and then I could report progress. In the meanwhile, keep an eye upon yourself. New York is a dangerous place for a stranger. I know you Englishmen are brave fellows, but such a thing as kidnaping, even an adult, is not unknown on this side of the Atlantic. So have a care, sir—I should say, my lord."
Smiling at the correction, Frank departed, determining to return on the following evening. On his way to the hotel, he had to pass a large house at the corner of a street, and as he walked along, he felt that there was someone gazing at him from one of the ground-floor windows. He turned his head in that direction, and immediately a blind was drawn down abruptly. But not until two piercing eyes had gazed for a moment into his own. He resumed his way and then stopped suddenly. He was quite alone, for the street was empty. He raised his hand to his brow, and trembled as if he had an ague fit. He seemed to be fighting some unseen, some terrible enemy. The perspiration ran down his face, and then of a sudden he became calmer, unnaturally calm. He appeared to be in a trance. He moved as if some power was controlling his actions. He hesitated, but only for a second, and then began to retrace his steps, and slowly but surely he walked along, as a somnambulist progresses. His eyes were wide open, but sightless; his arms hung listlessly by his side, until the time came for him to open a door, then slowly he extended his right arm, and his rigid hand seized the handle. He had passed through and entered the hall. Slowly he walked up the stairs, and slowly he made his way to the entrance of a large room. Again he opened a door, and again he walked on, until, seemingly exhausted, he sank into a chair.
When he returned to consciousness, he still imagined he was taking part in some strange dream. For although he did not recognize the apartment in which he was resting, a familiar figure was bending over him. A woman had just taken her hand from his brow and was standing over him. He uttered an exclamation of horror, and tried to rise to his feet. The woman smiled and withdrew her hand, and once more he sank back in the chair in which he was resting.
Lord Francis Onslow and Mme. de Vigny were face to face.