The Arrow of Gold, by Joseph Conrad

Chapter 7

My brain was in a whirl. I am safe to say that at this precise moment there was nobody completely sane in the house. Setting apart Therese and Ortega, both in the grip of unspeakable passions, all the moral economy of Dona Rita had gone to pieces. Everything was gone except her strong sense of life with all its implied menaces. The woman was a mere chaos of sensations and vitality. I, too, suffered most from inability to get hold of some fundamental thought. The one on which I could best build some hopes was the thought that, of course, Ortega did not know anything. I whispered this into the ear of Dona Rita, into her precious, her beautifully shaped ear.

But she shook her head, very much like an inconsolable child and very much with a child’s complete pessimism she murmured, “Therese has told him.”

The words, “Oh, nonsense,” never passed my lips, because I could not cheat myself into denying that there had been a noise; and that the noise was in the fencing-room. I knew that room. There was nothing there that by the wildest stretch of imagination could be conceived as falling with that particular sound. There was a table with a tall strip of looking-glass above it at one end; but since Blunt took away his campaigning kit there was no small object of any sort on the console or anywhere else that could have been jarred off in some mysterious manner. Along one of the walls there was the whole complicated apparatus of solid brass pipes, and quite close to it an enormous bath sunk into the floor. The greatest part of the room along its whole length was covered with matting and had nothing else but a long, narrow leather-upholstered bench fixed to the wall. And that was all. And the door leading to the studio was locked. And Therese had the key. And it flashed on my mind, independently of Dona Rita’s pessimism, by the force of personal conviction, that, of course, Therese would tell him. I beheld the whole succession of events perfectly connected and tending to that particular conclusion. Therese would tell him! I could see the contrasted heads of those two formidable lunatics close together in a dark mist of whispers compounded of greed, piety, and jealousy, plotting in a sense of perfect security as if under the very wing of Providence. So at least Therese would think. She could not be but under the impression that (providentially) I had been called out for the rest of the night.

And now there was one sane person in the house, for I had regained complete command of my thoughts. Working in a logical succession of images they showed me at last as clearly as a picture on a wall, Therese pressing with fervour the key into the fevered palm of the rich, prestigious, virtuous cousin, so that he should go and urge his self-sacrificing offer to Rita, and gain merit before Him whose Eye sees all the actions of men. And this image of those two with the key in the studio seemed to me a most monstrous conception of fanaticism, of a perfectly horrible aberration. For who could mistake the state that made Jose Ortega the figure he was, inspiring both pity and fear? I could not deny that I understood, not the full extent but the exact nature of his suffering. Young as I was I had solved for myself that grotesque and sombre personality. His contact with me, the personal contact with (as he thought) one of the actual lovers of that woman who brought to him as a boy the curse of the gods, had tipped over the trembling scales. No doubt I was very near death in the “grand salon” of the Maison Doree, only that his torture had gone too far. It seemed to me that I ought to have heard his very soul scream while we were seated at supper. But in a moment he had ceased to care for me. I was nothing. To the crazy exaggeration of his jealousy I was but one amongst a hundred thousand. What was my death? Nothing. All mankind had possessed that woman. I knew what his wooing of her would be: Mine — or Dead.

All this ought to have had the clearness of noon-day, even to the veriest idiot that ever lived; and Therese was, properly speaking, exactly that. An idiot. A one-ideaed creature. Only the idea was complex; therefore it was impossible really to say what she wasn’t capable of. This was what made her obscure processes so awful. She had at times the most amazing perceptions. Who could tell where her simplicity ended and her cunning began? She had also the faculty of never forgetting any fact bearing upon her one idea; and I remembered now that the conversation with me about the will had produced on her an indelible impression of the Law’s surprising justice. Recalling her naive admiration of the “just” law that required no “paper” from a sister, I saw her casting loose the raging fate with a sanctimonious air. And Therese would naturally give the key of the fencing-room to her dear, virtuous, grateful, disinterested cousin, to that damned soul with delicate whiskers, because she would think it just possible that Rita might have locked the door leading front her room into the hall; whereas there was no earthly reason, not the slightest likelihood, that she would bother about the other. Righteousness demanded that the erring sister should be taken unawares.

All the above is the analysis of one short moment. Images are to words like light to sound — incomparably swifter. And all this was really one flash of light through my mind. A comforting thought succeeded it: that both doors were locked and that really there was no danger.

However, there had been that noise — the why and the how of it? Of course in the dark he might have fallen into the bath, but that wouldn’t have been a faint noise. It wouldn’t have been a rattle. There was absolutely nothing he could knock over. He might have dropped a candle-stick if Therese had left him her own. That was possible, but then those thick mats — and then, anyway, why should he drop it? and, hang it all, why shouldn’t he have gone straight on and tried the door? I had suddenly a sickening vision of the fellow crouching at the key-hole, listening, listening, listening, for some movement or sigh of the sleeper he was ready to tear away from the world, alive or dead. I had a conviction that he was still listening. Why? Goodness knows! He may have been only gloating over the assurance that the night was long and that he had all these hours to himself.

I was pretty certain that he could have heard nothing of our whispers, the room was too big for that and the door too solid. I hadn’t the same confidence in the efficiency of the lock. Still I . . . Guarding my lips with my hand I urged Dona Rita to go back to the sofa. She wouldn’t answer me and when I got hold of her arm I discovered that she wouldn’t move. She had taken root in that thick-pile Aubusson carpet; and she was so rigidly still all over that the brilliant stones in the shaft of the arrow of gold, with the six candles at the head of the sofa blazing full on them, emitted no sparkle.

I was extremely anxious that she shouldn’t betray herself. I reasoned, save the mark, as a psychologist. I had no doubt that the man knew of her being there; but he only knew it by hearsay. And that was bad enough. I could not help feeling that if he obtained some evidence for his senses by any sort of noise, voice, or movement, his madness would gain strength enough to burst the lock. I was rather ridiculously worried about the locks. A horrid mistrust of the whole house possessed me. I saw it in the light of a deadly trap. I had no weapon, I couldn’t say whether he had one or not. I wasn’t afraid of a struggle as far as I, myself, was concerned, but I was afraid of it for Dona Rita. To be rolling at her feet, locked in a literally tooth-and-nail struggle with Ortega would have been odious. I wanted to spare her feelings, just as I would have been anxious to save from any contact with mud the feet of that goatherd of the mountains with a symbolic face. I looked at her face. For immobility it might have been a carving. I wished I knew how to deal with that embodied mystery, to influence it, to manage it. Oh, how I longed for the gift of authority! In addition, since I had become completely sane, all my scruples against laying hold of her had returned. I felt shy and embarrassed. My eyes were fixed on the bronze handle of the fencing-room door as if it were something alive. I braced myself up against the moment when it would move. This was what was going to happen next. It would move very gently. My heart began to thump. But I was prepared to keep myself as still as death and I hoped Dona Rita would have sense enough to do the same. I stole another glance at her face and at that moment I heard the word: “Beloved!” form itself in the still air of the room, weak, distinct, piteous, like the last request of the dying.

With great presence of mind I whispered into Dona Rita’s ear: “Perfect silence!” and was overjoyed to discover that she had heard me, understood me; that she even had command over her rigid lips. She answered me in a breath (our cheeks were nearly touching): “Take me out of this house.”

I glanced at all her clothing scattered about the room and hissed forcibly the warning “Perfect immobility”; noticing with relief that she didn’t offer to move, though animation was returning to her and her lips had remained parted in an awful, unintended effect of a smile. And I don’t know whether I was pleased when she, who was not to be touched, gripped my wrist suddenly. It had the air of being done on purpose because almost instantly another: “Beloved!” louder, more agonized if possible, got into the room and, yes, went home to my heart. It was followed without any transition, preparation, or warning, by a positively bellowed: “Speak, perjured beast!” which I felt pass in a thrill right through Dona Rita like an electric shock, leaving her as motionless as before.

Till he shook the door handle, which he did immediately afterwards, I wasn’t certain through which door he had spoken. The two doors (in different walls) were rather near each other. It was as I expected. He was in the fencing-room, thoroughly aroused, his senses on the alert to catch the slightest sound. A situation not to be trifled with. Leaving the room was for us out of the question. It was quite possible for him to dash round into the hall before we could get clear of the front door. As to making a bolt of it upstairs there was the same objection; and to allow ourselves to be chased all over the empty house by this maniac would have been mere folly. There was no advantage in locking ourselves up anywhere upstairs where the original doors and locks were much lighter. No, true safety was in absolute stillness and silence, so that even his rage should be brought to doubt at last and die expended, or choke him before it died; I didn’t care which.

For me to go out and meet him would have been stupid. Now I was certain that he was armed. I had remembered the wall in the fencing-room decorated with trophies of cold steel in all the civilized and savage forms; sheaves of assegais, in the guise of columns and grouped between them stars and suns of choppers, swords, knives; from Italy, from Damascus, from Abyssinia, from the ends of the world. Ortega had only to make his barbarous choice. I suppose he had got up on the bench, and fumbling about amongst them must have brought one down, which, falling, had produced that rattling noise. But in any case to go to meet him would have been folly, because, after all, I might have been overpowered (even with bare hands) and then Dona Rita would have been left utterly defenceless.

“He will speak,” came to me the ghostly, terrified murmur of her voice. “Take me out of the house before he begins to speak.”

“Keep still,” I whispered. “He will soon get tired of this.”

“You don’t know him.”

“Oh, yes, I do. Been with him two hours.”

At this she let go my wrist and covered her face with her hands passionately. When she dropped them she had the look of one morally crushed.

“What did he say to you?”

“He raved.”

“Listen to me. It was all true!”

“I daresay, but what of that?”

These ghostly words passed between us hardly louder than thoughts; but after my last answer she ceased and gave me a searching stare, then drew in a long breath. The voice on the other side of the door burst out with an impassioned request for a little pity, just a little, and went on begging for a few words, for two words, for one word — one poor little word. Then it gave up, then repeated once more, “Say you are there, Rita, Say one word, just one word. Say ‘yes.’ Come! Just one little yes.”

“You see,” I said. She only lowered her eyelids over the anxious glance she had turned on me.

For a minute we could have had the illusion that he had stolen away, unheard, on the thick mats. But I don’t think that either of us was deceived. The voice returned, stammering words without connection, pausing and faltering, till suddenly steadied it soared into impassioned entreaty, sank to low, harsh tones, voluble, lofty sometimes and sometimes abject. When it paused it left us looking profoundly at each other.

“It’s almost comic,” I whispered.

“Yes. One could laugh,” she assented, with a sort of sinister conviction. Never had I seen her look exactly like that, for an instant another, an incredible Rita! “Haven’t I laughed at him innumerable times?” she added in a sombre whisper.

He was muttering to himself out there, and unexpectedly shouted: “What?” as though he had fancied he had heard something. He waited a while before he started up again with a loud: “Speak up, Queen of the goats, with your goat tricks. . .” All was still for a time, then came a most awful bang on the door. He must have stepped back a pace to hurl himself bodily against the panels. The whole house seemed to shake. He repeated that performance once more, and then varied it by a prolonged drumming with his fists. It WAS comic. But I felt myself struggling mentally with an invading gloom as though I were no longer sure of myself.

“Take me out,” whispered Dona Rita feverishly, “take me out of this house before it is too late.”

“You will have to stand it,” I answered.

“So be it; but then you must go away yourself. Go now, before it is too late.”

I didn’t condescend to answer this. The drumming on the panels stopped and the absurd thunder of it died out in the house. I don’t know why precisely then I had the acute vision of the red mouth of Jose Ortega wriggling with rage between his funny whiskers. He began afresh but in a tired tone:

“Do you expect a fellow to forget your tricks, you wicked little devil? Haven’t you ever seen me dodging about to get a sight of you amongst those pretty gentlemen, on horseback, like a princess, with pure cheeks like a carved saint? I wonder I didn’t throw stones at you, I wonder I didn’t run after you shouting the tale — curse my timidity! But I daresay they knew as much as I did. More. All the new tricks — if that were possible.”

While he was making this uproar, Dona Rita put her fingers in her ears and then suddenly changed her mind and clapped her hands over my ears. Instinctively I disengaged my head but she persisted. We had a short tussle without moving from the spot, and suddenly I had my head free, and there was complete silence. He had screamed himself out of breath, but Dona Rita muttering; “Too late, too late,” got her hands away from my grip and slipping altogether out of her fur coat seized some garment lying on a chair near by (I think it was her skirt), with the intention of dressing herself, I imagine, and rushing out of the house. Determined to prevent this, but indeed without thinking very much what I was doing, I got hold of her arm. That struggle was silent, too; but I used the least force possible and she managed to give me an unexpected push. Stepping back to save myself from falling I overturned the little table, bearing the six-branched candlestick. It hit the floor, rebounded with a dull ring on the carpet, and by the time it came to a rest every single candle was out. He on the other side of the door naturally heard the noise and greeted it with a triumphant screech: “Aha! I’ve managed to wake you up,” the very savagery of which had a laughable effect. I felt the weight of Dona Rita grow on my arm and thought it best to let her sink on the floor, wishing to be free in my movements and really afraid that now he had actually heard a noise he would infallibly burst the door. But he didn’t even thump it. He seemed to have exhausted himself in that scream. There was no other light in the room but the darkened glow of the embers and I could hardly make out amongst the shadows of furniture Dona Rita sunk on her knees in a penitential and despairing attitude. Before this collapse I, who had been wrestling desperately with her a moment before, felt that I dare not touch her. This emotion, too, I could not understand; this abandonment of herself, this conscience-stricken humility. A humbly imploring request to open the door came from the other side. Ortega kept on repeating: “Open the door, open the door,” in such an amazing variety of intonations, imperative, whining, persuasive, insinuating, and even unexpectedly jocose, that I really stood there smiling to myself, yet with a gloomy and uneasy heart. Then he remarked, parenthetically as it were, “Oh, you know how to torment a man, you brown-skinned, lean, grinning, dishevelled imp, you. And mark,” he expounded further, in a curiously doctoral tone — “you are in all your limbs hateful: your eyes are hateful and your mouth is hateful, and your hair is hateful, and your body is cold and vicious like a snake — and altogether you are perdition.”

This statement was astonishingly deliberate. He drew a moaning breath after it and uttered in a heart-rending tone, “You know, Rita, that I cannot live without you. I haven’t lived. I am not living now. This isn’t life. Come, Rita, you can’t take a boy’s soul away and then let him grow up and go about the world, poor devil, while you go amongst the rich from one pair of arms to another, showing all your best tricks. But I will forgive you if you only open the door,” he ended in an inflated tone: “You remember how you swore time after time to be my wife. You are more fit to be Satan’s wife but I don’t mind. You shall be my wife!”

A sound near the floor made me bend down hastily with a stern: “Don’t laugh,” for in his grotesque, almost burlesque discourses there seemed to me to be truth, passion, and horror enough to move a mountain.

Suddenly suspicion seized him out there. With perfectly farcical unexpectedness he yelled shrilly: “Oh, you deceitful wretch! You won’t escape me! I will have you . . . .”

And in a manner of speaking he vanished. Of course I couldn’t see him but somehow that was the impression. I had hardly time to receive it when crash! . . . he was already at the other door. I suppose he thought that his prey was escaping him. His swiftness was amazing, almost inconceivable, more like the effect of a trick or of a mechanism. The thump on the door was awful as if he had not been able to stop himself in time. The shock seemed enough to stun an elephant. It was really funny. And after the crash there was a moment of silence as if he were recovering himself. The next thing was a low grunt, and at once he picked up the thread of his fixed idea.

“You will have to be my wife. I have no shame. You swore you would be and so you will have to be.” Stifled low sounds made me bend down again to the kneeling form, white in the flush of the dark red glow. “For goodness’ sake don’t,” I whispered down. She was struggling with an appalling fit of merriment, repeating to herself, “Yes, every day, for two months. Sixty times at least, sixty times at least.” Her voice was rising high. She was struggling against laughter, but when I tried to put my hand over her lips I felt her face wet with tears. She turned it this way and that, eluding my hand with repressed low, little moans. I lost my caution and said, “Be quiet,” so sharply as to startle myself (and her, too) into expectant stillness.

Ortega’s voice in the hall asked distinctly: “Eh? What’s this?” and then he kept still on his side listening, but he must have thought that his ears had deceived him. He was getting tired, too. He was keeping quiet out there — resting. Presently he sighed deeply; then in a harsh melancholy tone he started again.

“My love, my soul, my life, do speak to me. What am I that you should take so much trouble to pretend that you aren’t there? Do speak to me,” he repeated tremulously, following this mechanical appeal with a string of extravagantly endearing names, some of them quite childish, which all of a sudden stopped dead; and then after a pause there came a distinct, unutterably weary: “What shall I do now?” as though he were speaking to himself.

I shuddered to hear rising from the floor, by my side, a vibrating, scornful: “Do! Why, slink off home looking over your shoulder as you used to years ago when I had done with you — all but the laughter.”

“Rita,” I murmured, appalled. He must have been struck dumb for a moment. Then, goodness only knows why, in his dismay or rage he was moved to speak in French with a most ridiculous accent.

“So you have found your tongue at last — CATIN! You were that from the cradle. Don’t you remember how. . .”

Dona Rita sprang to her feet at my side with a loud cry, “No, George, no,” which bewildered me completely. The suddenness, the loudness of it made the ensuing silence on both sides of the door perfectly awful. It seemed to me that if I didn’t resist with all my might something in me would die on the instant. In the straight, falling folds of the night-dress she looked cold like a block of marble; while I, too, was turned into stone by the terrific clamour in the hall.

“Therese, Therese,” yelled Ortega. “She has got a man in there.” He ran to the foot of the stairs and screamed again, “Therese, Therese! There is a man with her. A man! Come down, you miserable, starved peasant, come down and see.”

I don’t know where Therese was but I am sure that this voice reached her, terrible, as if clamouring to heaven, and with a shrill over-note which made me certain that if she was in bed the only thing she would think of doing would be to put her head under the bed-clothes. With a final yell: “Come down and see,” he flew back at the door of the room and started shaking it violently.

It was a double door, very tall, and there must have been a lot of things loose about its fittings, bolts, latches, and all those brass applications with broken screws, because it rattled, it clattered, it jingled; and produced also the sound as of thunder rolling in the big, empty hall. It was deafening, distressing, and vaguely alarming as if it could bring the house down. At the same time the futility of it had, it cannot be denied, a comic effect. The very magnitude of the racket he raised was funny. But he couldn’t keep up that violent exertion continuously, and when he stopped to rest we could hear him shouting to himself in vengeful tones. He saw it all! He had been decoyed there! (Rattle, rattle, rattle.) He had been decoyed into that town, he screamed, getting more and more excited by the noise he made himself, in order to be exposed to this! (Rattle, rattle.) By this shameless CATIN! CATIN! CATIN!”

He started at the door again with superhuman vigour. Behind me I heard Dona Rita laughing softly, statuesque, turned all dark in the fading glow. I called out to her quite openly, “Do keep your self-control.” And she called back to me in a clear voice: “Oh, my dear, will you ever consent to speak to me after all this? But don’t ask for the impossible. He was born to be laughed at.”

“Yes,” I cried. “But don’t let yourself go.”

I don’t know whether Ortega heard us. He was exerting then his utmost strength of lung against the infamous plot to expose him to the derision of the fiendish associates of that obscene woman! . . . Then he began another interlude upon the door, so sustained and strong that I had the thought that this was growing absurdly impossible, that either the plaster would begin to fall off the ceiling or he would drop dead next moment, out there.

He stopped, uttered a few curses at the door, and seemed calmer from sheer exhaustion.

“This story will be all over the world,” we heard him begin. “Deceived, decoyed, inveighed, in order to be made a laughing-stock before the most debased of all mankind, that woman and her associates.” This was really a meditation. And then he screamed: “I will kill you all.” Once more he started worrying the door but it was a startlingly feeble effort which he abandoned almost at once. He must have been at the end of his strength. Dona Rita from the middle of the room asked me recklessly loud: “Tell me! Wasn’t he born to be laughed at?” I didn’t answer her. I was so near the door that I thought I ought to hear him panting there. He was terrifying, but he was not serious. He was at the end of his strength, of his breath, of every kind of endurance, but I did not know it. He was done up, finished; but perhaps he did not know it himself. How still he was! Just as I began to wonder at it, I heard him distinctly give a slap to his forehead. “I see it all!” he cried. “That miserable, canting peasant-woman upstairs has arranged it all. No doubt she consulted her priests. I must regain my self-respect. Let her die first.” I heard him make a dash for the foot of the stairs. I was appalled; yet to think of Therese being hoisted with her own petard was like a turn of affairs in a farce. A very ferocious farce. Instinctively I unlocked the door. Dona Rita’s contralto laugh rang out loud, bitter, and contemptuous; and I heard Ortega’s distracted screaming as if under torture. “It hurts! It hurts! It hurts!” I hesitated just an instant, half a second, no more, but before I could open the door wide there was in the hall a short groan and the sound of a heavy fall.

The sight of Ortega lying on his back at the foot of the stairs arrested me in the doorway. One of his legs was drawn up, the other extended fully, his foot very near the pedestal of the silver statuette holding the feeble and tenacious gleam which made the shadows so heavy in that hall. One of his arms lay across his breast. The other arm was extended full length on the white-and-black pavement with the hand palm upwards and the fingers rigidly spread out. The shadow of the lowest step slanted across his face but one whisker and part of his chin could be made out. He appeared strangely flattened. He didn’t move at all. He was in his shirt-sleeves. I felt an extreme distaste for that sight. The characteristic sound of a key worrying in the lock stole into my ears. I couldn’t locate it but I didn’t attend much to that at first. I was engaged in watching Senor Ortega. But for his raised leg he clung so flat to the floor and had taken on himself such a distorted shape that he might have been the mere shadow of Senor Ortega. It was rather fascinating to see him so quiet at the end of all that fury, clamour, passion, and uproar. Surely there was never anything so still in the world as this Ortega. I had a bizarre notion that he was not to be disturbed.

A noise like the rattling of chain links, a small grind and click exploded in the stillness of the hall and a eciov began to swear in Italian. These surprising sounds were quite welcome, they recalled me to myself, and I perceived they came from the front door which seemed pushed a little ajar. Was somebody trying to get in? I had no objection, I went to the door and said: “Wait a moment, it’s on the chain.” The deep voice on the other side said: “What an extraordinary thing,” and I assented mentally. It was extraordinary. The chain was never put up, but Therese was a thorough sort of person, and on this night she had put it up to keep no one out except myself. It was the old Italian and his daughters returning from the ball who were trying to get in.

Suddenly I became intensely alive to the whole situation. I bounded back, closed the door of Blunt’s room, and the next moment was speaking to the Italian. “A little patience.” My hands trembled but I managed to take down the chain and as I allowed the door to swing open a little more I put myself in his way. He was burly, venerable, a little indignant, and full of thanks. Behind him his two girls, in short-skirted costumes, white stockings, and low shoes, their heads powdered and earrings sparkling in their ears, huddled together behind their father, wrapped up in their light mantles. One had kept her little black mask on her face, the other held hers in her hand.

The Italian was surprised at my blocking the way and remarked pleasantly, “It’s cold outside, Signor.” I said, “Yes,” and added in a hurried whisper: “There is a dead man in the hall.” He didn’t say a single word but put me aside a little, projected his body in for one searching glance. “Your daughters,” I murmured. He said kindly, “Va bene, va bene.” And then to them, “Come in, girls.”

There is nothing like dealing with a man who has had a long past of out-of-the-way experiences. The skill with which he rounded up and drove the girls across the hall, paternal and irresistible, venerable and reassuring, was a sight to see. They had no time for more than one scared look over the shoulder. He hustled them in and locked them up safely in their part of the house, then crossed the hall with a quick, practical stride. When near Senor Ortega he trod short just in time and said: “In truth, blood”; then selecting the place, knelt down by the body in his tall hat and respectable overcoat, his white beard giving him immense authority somehow. “But — this man is not dead,” he exclaimed, looking up at me. With profound sagacity, inherent as it were in his great beard, he never took the trouble to put any questions to me and seemed certain that I had nothing to do with the ghastly sight. “He managed to give himself an enormous gash in his side,” was his calm remark. “And what a weapon!” he exclaimed, getting it out from under the body. It was an Abyssinian or Nubian production of a bizarre shape; the clumsiest thing imaginable, partaking of a sickle and a chopper with a sharp edge and a pointed end. A mere cruel-looking curio of inconceivable clumsiness to European eyes.

The old man let it drop with amused disdain. “You had better take hold of his legs,” he decided without appeal. I certainly had no inclination to argue. When we lifted him up the head of Senor Ortega fell back desolately, making an awful, defenceless display of his large, white throat.

We found the lamp burning in the studio and the bed made up on the couch on which we deposited our burden. My venerable friend jerked the upper sheet away at once and started tearing it into strips.

“You may leave him to me,” said that efficient sage, “but the doctor is your affair. If you don’t want this business to make a noise you will have to find a discreet man.”

He was most benevolently interested in all the proceedings. He remarked with a patriarchal smile as he tore the sheet noisily: “You had better not lose any time.” I didn’t lose any time. I crammed into the next hour an astonishing amount of bodily activity. Without more words I flew out bare-headed into the last night of Carnival. Luckily I was certain of the right sort of doctor. He was an iron-grey man of forty and of a stout habit of body but who was able to put on a spurt. In the cold, dark, and deserted by-streets, he ran with earnest, and ponderous footsteps, which echoed loudly in the cold night air, while I skimmed along the ground a pace or two in front of him. It was only on arriving at the house that I perceived that I had left the front door wide open. All the town, every evil in the world could have entered the black-and-white hall. But I had no time to meditate upon my imprudence. The doctor and I worked in silence for nearly an hour and it was only then while he was washing his hands in the fencing-room that he asked:

“What was he up to, that imbecile?”

“Oh, he was examining this curiosity,” I said.

“Oh, yes, and it accidentally went off,” said the doctor, looking contemptuously at the Nubian knife I had thrown on the table. Then while wiping his hands: “I would bet there is a woman somewhere under this; but that of course does not affect the nature of the wound. I hope this blood-letting will do him good.”

“Nothing will do him any good,” I said.

“Curious house this,” went on the doctor, “It belongs to a curious sort of woman, too. I happened to see her once or twice. I shouldn’t wonder if she were to raise considerable trouble in the track of her pretty feet as she goes along. I believe you know her well.”

“Yes.”

“Curious people in the house, too. There was a Carlist officer here, a lean, tall, dark man, who couldn’t sleep. He consulted me once. Do you know what became of him?”

“No.”

The doctor had finished wiping his hands and flung the towel far away.

“Considerable nervous over-strain. Seemed to have a restless brain. Not a good thing, that. For the rest a perfect gentleman. And this Spaniard here, do you know him?”

“Enough not to care what happens to him,” I said, “except for the trouble he might cause to the Carlist sympathizers here, should the police get hold of this affair.”

“Well, then, he must take his chance in the seclusion of that conservatory sort of place where you have put him. I’ll try to find somebody we can trust to look after him. Meantime, I will leave the case to you.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06