The door opened — Cecil entered.
The Seraph crossed the room, with his hand held out; not for his life in that moment would he have omitted that gesture of friendship. Involuntarily he started and stood still one instant in amaze; the next, he flung thought away and dashed into swift, inconsequent words.
“Cecil, my dear fellow! I’m ashamed to send for you on such a blackguard errand. Never heard of such a swindler’s trick in all my life; couldn’t pitch the fellow into the street because of the look of the thing, and can’t take any other measure without you, you know. I only sent for you to expose the whole abominable business, never because I believe —— Hang it! Beauty, I can’t bring myself to say it even! If a sound thrashing would have settled the matter, I wouldn’t have bothered you about it, nor told you a syllable. Only you are sure, Bertie, aren’t you, that I never listened to this miserable outrage on us both with a second’s thought there could be truth in it? You know me? you trust me too well not to be certain of that?”
The incoherent address poured out from his lips in a breathless torrent; he had never been so excited in his life; and he pleaded with as imploring an earnestness as though he had been the suspected criminal, not to be accused with having one shadow of shameful doubt against his friend. His words would have told nothing except bewilderment to one who should have been a stranger to the subject on which he spoke; yet Cecil never asked even what he meant. There was no surprise upon his face, no flush of anger, no expression of amaze or indignation; only the look which had paralyzed Rock on his entrance; he stood still and mute.
The Seraph looked at him, a great dread seizing him lest he should have seemed himself to cast this foul thing on his brother-inarms; and in that dread all the fierce fire of his freshly-loosened passion broke its bounds.
“Damnation! Cecil, can’t you hear me! A hound has brought against you the vilest charge that ever swindlers framed: an infamy that he deserves to be shot for, as if he were a dog. He makes me stand before you as if I were your accuser; as if I doubted you; as if I lent an ear one second to this loathsome lie. I sent for you to confront him, and to give him up to the law. Stand out, you scoundrel, and let us see how you dare look at us now!”
He swung round at the last words, and signed to Baroni to rise from the couch were he sat. The Jew advanced slowly, softly.
“If your lordship will pardon me, you have scarcely made it apparent what the matter is for which the gentleman is wanted. You have scarcely explained to him that it is on a charge of forgery.”
The Seraph’s eyes flashed on him with a light like a lion’s, and his right hand clinched hard.
“By my life! If you say that word again you shall be flung in the street like the cur you are, let me pay what I will for it! Cecil, why don’t you speak?”
Bertie had not moved; not a breath escaped his lips. He stood like a statue, deadly pale in the gaslight; when the figure of Baroni rose up and came before him, a great darkness stole on his face — it was a terrible bitterness, a great horror, a loathing disgust; but it was scarcely criminality, and it was not fear. Still he stood perfectly silent — a guilty man, any other than his loyal friend would have said: guilty, and confronted with a just accuser. The Seraph saw that look, and a deadly chill passed over him, as it had done at the Jew’s first charge — not doubt; such heresy to his creeds, such shame to his comrade and his corps could not be in him; but a vague dread hushed his impetuous vehemence. The dignity of the old Lyonnesse blood asserted its ascendency.
“M. Baroni, make your statement. Later on Mr. Cecil can avenge it.”
Cecil never moved; once his eyes went to Rockingham with a look of yearning, grateful, unendurable pain; but it was repressed instantly; a perfect passiveness was on him. The Jew smiled.
“My statement is easily made, and will not be so new to this gentleman as it was to your lordship. I simply charge the Honorable Bertie Cecil with having negotiated a bill with my firm for 750 pounds on the 15th of last month, drawn in his own favor, and accepted at two months’ date by your lordship. Your signature you, my Lord Marquis, admit to be a forgery — with that forgery I charge your friend!”
The echo of those words alone escaped the dry, white lips of Cecil; he showed no amaze, no indignation; once only, as the charge was made, he gave in sudden gesture, with a sudden gleam, so dark, so dangerous, in his eyes, that his comrade thought and hoped that with one moment more the Jew would be dashed down at his feet with the lie branded on his mouth by the fiery blow of a slandered and outraged honor. The action was repressed; the extraordinary quiescence, more hopeless because more resigned than any sign of pain or of passion, returned either by force of self-control or by the stupor of despair.
The Seraph gazed at him with a fixed, astounded horror; he could not believe his senses; he could not realize what he saw. His dearest friend stood mute beneath the charge of lowest villainy — stood powerless before the falsehoods of a Jew extortioner!
“Bertie! Great Heaven!” he cried, well-nigh beside himself, “how can you stand silent there? Do you hear — do you hear aright? Do you know the accursed thing this conspiracy has tried to charge you with? Say something, for the love of God! I will have vengeance on your slanderer, if you take none.”
He had looked for the rise of the same passion that rang in his own imperious words, for the fearless wrath of an insulted gentleman, the instantaneous outburst of a contemptuous denial, the fire of scorn, the lightning flash of fury — all that he gave himself, all that must be so naturally given by a slandered man under the libel that brands him with disgrace. He had looked for these as surely as he looked for the setting of one sun and the rise of another; he would have staked his life on the course of his friend’s conduct as he would upon his own, and a ghastly terror sent a pang to his heart.
Still — Cecil stood silent; there was a strange, set, repressed anguish on his face that made it chill as stone; there was an unnatural calm upon him; yet he lifted his head with a gesture haughty for the moment as any action that his defender could have wished.
“I am not guilty,” he said simply.
The Seraph’s hands were on his own in a close, eager grasp almost ere the words were spoken.
“Beauty, Beauty! Never say that to me. Do you think I can ever doubt you?”
For a moment Cecil’s head sank; the dignity with which he had spoken remained on him, but the scorn of his defiance and his denial faded.
“No; you cannot; you never will.”
The words were spoken almost mechanically, like a man in a dream. Ezra Baroni, standing calmly there with the tranquility that an assured power alone confers, smiled slightly once more.
“You are not guilty, Mr. Cecil? I shall be charmed if we can find it so. Your proofs?”
“Proof? I give you my word.”
Baroni bowed, with a sneer at once insolent but subdued.
“We men of business, sir, are — perhaps inconveniently for gentlemen — given to a preference in favor of something more substantial. Your word, doubtless, is your bond among your acquaintance; it is a pity for you that your friend’s name should have been added to the bond you placed with us. Business men’s pertinacity is a little wearisome, no doubt, to officers and members of the aristocracy like yourself; but all the same I must persist — how can you disprove this charge?”
The Seraph turned on him with a fierceness of a bloodhound.
“You dog! If you use that tone again in my presence, I will double-throng you till you cannot breathe!”
Baroni laughed a little; he felt secure now, and could not resist the pleasure of braving and of torturing the “aristocrats.”
“I don’t doubt your will or your strength, my lord; but neither do I doubt the force of the law to make you account for any brutality of the prize-ring your lordship may please to exert on me.”
The Seraph ground his heel into the carpet.
“We waste words on that wretch,” he said abruptly to Cecil. “Prove his insolence the lie it is, and we will deal with him later on.”
“Precisely what I said, my lord,” murmured Baroni. “Let Mr. Cecil prove his innocence.”
Into Bertie’s eyes came a hunted, driven desperation. He turned them on Rockingham with a look that cut him to the heart; yet the abhorrent thought crossed him — was it thus that men guiltless looked?
“Mr. Cecil was with my partner at 7:50 on the evening of the 15th. It was long over business hours, but my partner to oblige him stretched a point,” pursued the soft, bland, malicious voice of the German Jew. “If he was not at our office — where was he? That is simple enough.”
“Answered in a moment!” said the Seraph, with impetuous certainty. “Cecil! — to prove this man what he is, not for an instant to satisfy me — where were you at that time on the 15th?”
“Where were you?” pursued his friend. “Were you at mess? At the clubs? Dressing for dinner? — where — where? There must be thousands of ways of remembering — thousands of people who’ll prove it for you?”
Cecil stood mute still; his teeth clinched on his under lip. He could not speak — a woman’s reputation lay in his silence.
“Can’t you remember?” implored the Seraph. “You will think — you must think!”
There was a feverish entreaty in his voice. That hunted helplessness with which a question so slight yet so momentous was received, was forcing in on him a thought that he flung away like an asp.
Cecil looked both of them full in the eyes — both his accuser and his friend. He was held as speechless as though his tongue were paralyzed; he was bound by his word of honor; he was weighted with a woman’s secret.
“Don’t look at me so, Bertie, for mercy’s sake! Speak! Where were you?”
“I cannot tell you; but I was not there.”
The words were calm; there was a great resolve in them, moreover; but his voice was hoarse and his lips shook. He paid a bitter price for the butterfly pleasure of a summer-day love.
“Cannot tell me! — cannot? You mean you have forgotten!”
“I cannot tell you; it is enough.”
There was an almost fierce and sullen desperation in the answer; its firmness was not shaken, but the ordeal was terrible. A woman’s reputation — a thing so lightly thrown away with an idler’s word, a Lovelace’s smile! — that was all he had to sacrifice to clear himself from the toils gathering around him. That was all! And his word of honor.
Baroni bent his head with an ironic mockery of sympathy.
“I feared so, my lord. Mr. Cecil ‘cannot tell.’ As it happens, my partner can tell. Mr. Cecil was with him at the hour and on the day I specify; and Mr. Cecil transacted with him the bill that I have had the honor of showing you —”
“Let me see it.”
The request was peremptory to imperiousness, yet Cecil would have faced his death far sooner than he would have looked upon that piece of paper.
“It is not often that we treat gentlemen under misfortune in the manner we treat you, sir; they are usually dealt with more summarily, less mercifully. You must excuse altogether my showing you the document; both you and his lordship are officers skilled, I believe, in the patrician science of fist-attack.”
He could not deny himself the pleasure and the rarity of insolence to the men before him, so far above him in social rank, yet at that juncture so utterly at his mercy.
“You mean that we should fall foul of you and seize it?” thundered Rockingham in the magnificence of his wrath. “Do you judge the world by your own wretched villainies? Let him see the paper; lay it there, or, as there is truth on earth, I will kill you where you stand.”
The Jew quailed under the fierce flashing of those leonine eyes. He bowed with that tact which never forsook him.
“I confide it to your honor, my Lord Marquis,” he said, as he spread out the bill on the console. He was an able diplomatist.
Cecil leaned forward and looked at the signatures dashed across the paper; both who saw him saw also the shiver, like a shiver of intense cold, that ran through him as he did so, and saw his teeth clinch tight, in the extremity of rage, in the excess of pain, or — to hold in all utterance that might be on his lips.
“Well?” asked the Seraph, in a breathless anxiety. He knew not what to believe, what to do, whom to accuse of, or how to unravel this mystery of villainy and darkness; but he felt, with a sickening reluctance which drove him wild, that his friend did not act in this thing as he should have acted; not as men of assured innocence and secure honor act beneath such a charge. Cecil was unlike himself, unlike every deed and word of his life, unlike every thought of the Seraph’s fearless expectance, when he had looked for the coming of the accused as the signal for the sure and instant unmasking, condemnation, and chastisement of the false accuser.
“Do you still persist in denying your criminality in the face of that bill, Mr. Cecil?” asked the bland, sneering, courteous voice of Ezra Baroni.
“I do. I never wrote either of these signatures; I never saw that document until to-night.”
The answer was firmly given, the old blaze of scorn came again in his weary eyes, and his regard met calmly and unflinchingly the looks fastened on him; but the nerves of his lips twitched, his face was haggard as by a night’s deep gambling; there was a heavy dew on his forehead — it was not the face of a wholly guiltless, of a wholly unconscious man; often even as innocence may be unwittingly betrayed into what wears the semblance of self-condemnation.
“And yet you equally persist in refusing to account for your occupation of the early evening hours of the 15th? Unfortunate!”
“I do; but in your account of them you lie!”
There was a sternness inflexible as steel in the brief sentence. Under it for an instant, though not visibly, Baroni flinched; and a fear of the man he accused smote him, more deep, more keen than that with which the sweeping might of the Seraph’s fury had moved him. He knew now why Ben Davis had hated with so deadly a hatred the latent strength that slept under the Quietist languor and nonchalance of “the d —— d Guards’ swell.”
What he felt, however, did not escape him by the slightest sign.
“As a matter of course you deny it!” he said, with a polite wave of his hand. “Quite right; you are not required to criminate yourself. I wish sincerely we were not compelled to criminate you.”
The Seraph’s grand, rolling voice broke in; he had stood chafing, chained, panting in agonies of passion and of misery.
“M. Baroni!” he said hotly, the furious vehemence of his anger and his bewilderment obscuring in him all memory of either law or fact, “you have heard his signature and your statements alike denied once for all by Mr. Cecil. Your document is a libel and a conspiracy, like your charge; it is false, and you are swindling; it is an outrage, and you are a scoundrel; you have schemed this infamy for the sake of extortion; not a sovereign will you obtain through it. Were the accusation you dare to make true, I am the only one whom it can concern, since it is my name which is involved. Were it true — could it possibly be true — I should forbid any steps to be taken in it; I should desire it ended once and forever. It shall be so now, by God!”
He scarcely knew what he was saying; yet what he did say, utterly as it defied all checks of law or circumstance, had so gallant a ring, had so kingly a wrath, that it awed and impressed even Baroni in the instant of its utterance.
“They say that those fine gentlemen fight like a thousand lions when they are once roused,” he thought. “I can believe it.”
“My lord,” he said softly, “you have called me by many epithets, and menaced me with many threats since I have entered this chamber; it is not a wise thing to do with a man who knows the law. However, I can allow for the heat of your excitement. As regards the rest of your speech, you will permit me to say that its wildness of language is only equaled by the utter irrationality of your deductions and your absolute ignorance of all legalities. Were you alone concerned and alone the discoverer of this fraud, you could prosecute or not as you please; but we are subjects of its imposition, ours is the money that he has obtained by that forgery, and we shall in consequence open the prosecution.”
“Prosecution?” The echo rang in an absolute agony from his hearer; he had thought of it as, at its worst, only a question between himself and Cecil.
The accused gave no sigh, the rigidity and composure he had sustained throughout did not change; but at the Seraph’s accent the hunted and pathetic misery which had once before gleamed in his eyes came there again; he held his comrade in a loyal and exceeding love. He would have let all the world stone him, but he could not have borne that his friend should cast even a look of contempt.
“Prosecution!” replied Baroni. “It is a matter of course, my lord, that Mr. Cecil denies the accusation; it is very wise; the law specially cautions the accused to say nothing to criminate themselves. But we waste time in words; and, pardon me, if you have your friend’s interest at heart, you will withdraw this very stormy championship; this utterly useless opposition to an inevitable line of action. I must attest Mr. Cecil; but I am willing — for I know to high families these misfortunes are terribly distressing — to conduct everything with the strictest privacy and delicacy. In a word, if you and he consult his interests, he will accompany me unresistingly; otherwise I must summon legal force. Any opposition will only compel a very unseemly encounter of physical force, and with it the publicity I am desirous, for the sake of his relatives and position, to spare him.”
A dead silence followed his words, the silence that follows on an insult that cannot be averted or avenged; on a thing too hideously shameful for the thoughts to grasp it as reality.
In the first moment of Baroni’s words Cecil’s eyes had gleamed again with that dark and desperate flash of a passion that would have been worse to face even than his comrade’s wrath; it died, however, well-nigh instantly, repressed by a marvelous strength of control, whatever its motive. He was simply, as he had been throughout, passive — so passive that even Ezra Baroni, who knew what the Seraph never dreamed, looked at him in wonder, and felt a faint, sickly fear of that singular, unbroken calm. It perplexed him — the first thing which had ever done so in his own peculiar paths of finesse and of intrigue.
The one placed in ignorance between them, at once as it were the judge and champion of his brother-at-arms, felt wild and blind under this unutterable shame, which seemed to net them both in such close and hopeless meshes. He, heir to one of the greatest coronets in the world, must see his friend branded as a common felon, and could do no more to aid or to avenge him than if he were a charcoal-burner toiling yonder in the pine woods! His words were hoarse and broken as he spoke:
“Cecil, tell me — what is to be done? This infamous outrage cannot pass! cannot go on! I will send for the Duke, for —”
“Send for no one.”
Bertie’s voice was slightly weaker, like that of a man exhausted by a long struggle, but it was firm and very quiet. Its composure fell on Rockingham’s tempestuous grief and rage with a sickly, silencing awe, with a terrible sense of some evil here beyond his knowledge and ministering, and of an impotence alike to act and to serve, to defend and to avenge — the deadliest thing his fearless life had ever known.
“Pardon me, my lord,” interposed Baroni, “I can waste time no more. You must be now convinced yourself of your friend’s implication in this very distressing affair.”
“I!” The Seraph’s majesty of haughtiest amaze and scorn blazed from his azure eyes on the man who dared say this thing to him. “I! If you dare hint such a damnable shame to my face again, I will wring your neck with as little remorse as I would a kite’s. I believe in his guilt? Forgive me, Cecil, that I can even repeat the word! I believe in it? I would as soon believe in my own disgrace — in my father’s dishonor!”
“How will your lordship account, then, for Mr. Cecil’s total inability to tell us know he spent the hours between six and nine on the 15th?”
“Unable? He is not unable; he declines! Bertie, tell me what you did that one cursed evening. Whatever it was, wherever it was, say it for my sake, and shame this devil.”
Cecil would more willingly have stood a line of leveled rifle-tubes aimed at his heart than that passionate entreaty from the man he loved best on earth. He staggered slightly, as if he were about to fall, and a faint white foam came on his lips; but he recovered himself almost instantly. It was so natural to him to repress every emotion that it was simply old habit to do so now.
“I have answered,” he said very low, each word a pang —“I cannot.”
Baroni waved his hand again with the same polite, significant gesture.
“In that case, then, there is but one alternative. Will you follow me quietly, sir, or must force be employed?”
“I will go with you.”
The reply was very tranquil, but in the look that met his own as it was given, Baroni saw that some other motive than that of any fear was its spring; that some cause beyond the mere abhorrence of “a scene” was at the root of the quiescence.
“It must be so,” said Cecil huskily to his friend. “This man is right, so far as he knows. He is only acting on his own convictions. We cannot blame him. The whole is — a mystery, an error. But, as it stands, there is no resistance.”
“Resistance! By God! I would resist if I shot him dead, or shot myself. Stay — wait — one moment! If it be an error in the sense you mean, it must be a forgery of your name as of mine. You think that?”
“I did not say so.”
The Seraph gave him a rapid, shuddering glance; for once the suspicion crept in on him — was this guilt? Yet even now the doubt would not be harbored by him.
“Say so — you must mean so! You deny them as yours; what can they be but forgeries? There is no other explanation. I think the whole matter a conspiracy to extort money; but I may be wrong — let that pass. If it be, on the contrary, an imitation of both our signatures that has been palmed off upon these usurers, it is open to other treatment. Compensated for their pecuniary loss, they can have no need to press the matter further, unless they find out the delinquent. See here”— he went to a writing-cabinet at the end of the room, flung the lid back, swept out a heap of papers, and wrenching a blank check from the book, threw it down before Baroni —“here! fill it up as you like, and I will sign it in exchange for the forged sheet.”
Baroni paused a moment. Money he loved with an adoration that excluded every other passion; that blank check, that limitless carte blanche, that vast exchequer from which to draw! — it was a sore temptation. He thought wistfully of the welsher’s peremptory forbiddance of all compromise — of the welsher’s inexorable command to “wring the fine-feathered bird,” lose whatever might be lost by it.
Cecil, ere the Hebrew could speak, leaned forward, took the check and tore it in two.
“God bless you, Rock,” he said, so low that it only reached the Seraph’s ear, “but you must not do that.”
“Beauty, you are mad!” cried the Marquis passionately. “If this villainous thing be a forgery, you are its victim as much as I— tenfold more than I. If this Jew chooses to sell the paper to me, naming his own compensation, whose affair is it except his and mine? They have been losers, we indemnify them. It rests with us to find out the criminal. M. Baroni, there are a hundred more checks in that book; name your price, and you shall have it; or, if you prefer my father’s, I will send to him for it. His Grace will sign one without a question of its errand, if I ask him. Come! your price?”
Baroni had recovered the momentary temptation, and was strong in the austerity of virtue, in the unassailability of social duty.
“You behave most nobly, most generously by your friend, my lord,” he said politely. “I am glad such friendship exists on earth. But you really ask me what is not in my power. In the first place, I am but one of the firm, and have no authority to act alone; in the second, I most certainly, were I alone, should decline totally any pecuniary compromise. A great criminal action is not to be hushed up by any monetary arrangement. You, my Lord Marquis, may be ignorant in the Guards of a very coarse term used in law, called ‘compounding a felony.’ That is what you tempt me to now.”
The Seraph, with one of those oaths that made the Hebrew’s blood run cold, though he was no coward, opened his lips to speak; Cecil arrested him with that singular impassiveness, that apathy of resignation which had characterized his whole conduct throughout, save at a few brief moments.
“Make no opposition. The man is acting but in his own justification. I will wait for mine. To resist would be to degrade us with a bully’s brawl; they have the law with them. Let it take its course.”
The Seraph dashed his hand across his eyes; he felt blind — the room seemed to reel with him.
“Oh, God! that you ——”
He could not finish the words. That his comrade, his friend, one of his own corps, of his own world, should be arrested like the blackest thief in Whitechapel or in the Rue du Temple!
Cecil glanced at him, and his eyes grew infinitely yearning — infinitely gentle; a shudder shook him all through his limbs. He hesitated a moment, then he stretched out his hand.
“Will you take it — still?”
Almost before the words were spoken, his hand was held in both of the Seraph’s.
“Take it? Before all the world — always, come what will.”
His eyes were dim as he spoke, and his rich voice rang clear as the ring of silver, though there was the tremor of emotion in it. He had forgotten the Hebrew’s presence; he had forgotten all save his friend and his friend’s extremity. Cecil did not answer; if he had done so, all the courage, all the calm, all the control that pride and breeding alike sustained in him, would have been shattered down to weakness; his hand closed fast in his companion’s, his eyes met his once in a look of gratitude that pierced the heart of the other like a knife; then he turned to the Jew with a haughty serenity.
“M. Baroni, I am ready.”
“Wait!” cried Rockingham. “Where you go I come.”
The Hebrew interposed demurely.
“Forgive me, my lord — not now. You can take what steps you will as regards your friend later on; and you may rest assured he will be treated with all delicacy compatible with the case, but you cannot accompany him now. I rely on his word to go with me quietly; but I now regard him, and you must remember this, as not the son of Viscount Royallieu — not the Honorable Bertie Cecil, of the Life Guards — not the friend of one so distinguished as yourself — but as simply an arrested forger.”
Baroni could not deny himself that last sting of his vengeance; yet, as he saw the faces of the men on whom he flung the insult, he felt for the moment that he might pay for his temerity with his life. He put his hand above his eyes with a quick, involuntary movement, like a man who wards off a blow.
“Gentlemen,” and his teeth chattered as he spoke, “one sign of violence, and I shall summon legal force.”
Cecil caught the Seraph’s lifted arm, and stayed it in its vengeance. His own teeth were clinched tight as a vise, and over the haggard whiteness of his face a deep red blush had come.
“We degrade ourselves by resistance. Let me go — they must do what they will. My reckoning must wait, and my justification. One word only. Take the King and keep him for my sake.”
Another moment, and the door had closed; he was gone out to his fate, and the Seraph, with no eyes on him, bowed down his head upon his arms where he leaned against the marble table, and, for the first time in all his life, felt the hot tears roll down his face like rain, as the passion of a woman mastered and unmanned him — he would sooner a thousand times have laid his friend down in his grave than have seen him live for this.
Cecil went slowly out beside his accuser. The keen, bright eyes of the Jew kept vigilant watch and ward on him; a single sign of any effort to evade him would have been arrested by him in an instant with preconcerted skill. He looked, and saw that no thought of escape was in his prisoner’s mind. Cecil had surrendered himself, and he went to his doom; he laid no blame on Baroni, and he scarce gave him a remembrance. The Hebrew did not stand to him in the colors he wore to Rockingham, who beheld this thing but on its surface. Baroni was to him only the agent of an inevitable shame, of a hapless fate that closed him in, netting him tight with the web of his own past actions; no more than the irresponsible executioner of what was in the Jew’s sight and knowledge a just sentence. He condemned his accuser in nothing; no more than the conscience of a guilty man can condemn the discoverers and the instruments of his chastisement.
Was he guilty?
Any judge might have said that he knew himself to be so as he passed down the staircase and outward to the entrance with that dead resignation on his face, that brooding, rigid look set on his features, and gazing almost in stupefaction out from the dark hazel depths of eyes that women had loved for their luster, their languor, and the softness of their smile.
They walked out into the evening air unnoticed; he had given his consent to follow the bill-discounter without resistance, and he had no thought to break his word; he had submitted himself to the inevitable course of this fate that had fallen on him, and the whole tone of his temper and his breeding lent him the quiescence, though he had none of the doctrine of a supreme fatalist. There were carriages standing before the hotel, waiting for those who were going to the ballroom, to the theater, to an archduke’s dinner, to a princess’ entertainment; he looked at them with a vague, strange sense of unreality — these things of the life from which he was now barred forever. The sparkling tide of existence in Baden was flowing on its way, and he went out an accused felon, branded, and outlawed, and dishonored from all place in the world that he had led, and been caressed by and beguiled with for so long.
To-night, at this hour, he should have been among all that was highest and gayest and fairest in Europe at the banquet of a Prince — and he went by his captor’s side, a convicted criminal.
Once out in the air, the Hebrew laid his hand on his arm. He started — it was the first sign that his liberty was gone! He restrained himself from all resistance still, and passed onward, down where Baroni motioned him out of the noise of the carriages, out of the glare of the light, into the narrow, darkened turning of a side street. He went passively; for this man trusted to his honor.
In the gloom stood three figures, looming indistinctly in the shadow of the houses. One was a Huissier of the Staats–Procurator, beside whom stood the Commissary of Police of the district; the third was an English detective. Ere he saw them their hands were on his shoulders, and the cold chill of steel touched his wrists. The Hebrew had betrayed him, and arrested him in the open street. In an instant, as the ring of the rifle rouses the slumbering tiger, all the life and the soul that were in him rose in revolt as the icy glide of the handcuffs sought their hold on his arms. In an instant, all the wild blood of his race, all the pride of his breeding, all the honor of his service, flashed into fire and leaped into action. Trusted, he would have been true to his accuser; deceived, the chains of his promise were loosened, and all he thought, all he felt, all he knew were the lion impulses, the knightly instincts, the resolute choice to lose life rather than to lose freedom, of a soldier and a gentleman. All he remembered was that he would fight to the death rather than be taken alive; that they should kill him where he stood, in the starlight, rather than lead him in the sight of men as a felon.
With the strength that lay beneath all the gentle languor of his habits and with the science of the Eton Playing Fields of his boyhood, he wrenched his wrists free ere the steel had closed, and with the single straightening of his left arm felled the detective to earth like a bullock, with a crashing blow that sounded through the stillness like some heavy timber stove in; flinging himself like lightning on the Huissier, he twisted out of his grasp the metal weight of the handcuffs, and wrestling with him was woven for a second in that close-knit struggle which is only seen when the wrestlers wrestle for life and death. The German was a powerful and firmly built man; but Cecil’s science was the finer and the most masterly. His long, slender delicate limbs seemed to twine and writhe around the massive form of his antagonist like the coils of a cobra; they rocked and swayed to and fro on the stones, while the shrill, shrieking voice of Baroni filled the night with its clamor. The viselike pressure of the stalwart arms of his opponent crushed him in till his ribs seemed to bend and break under the breathless oppression, the iron force; but desperation nerved him, the Royallieu blood, that never took defeat, was roused now, for the first time in his careless life; his skill and his nerve were unrivaled, and with a last effort he dashed the Huissier off him, and lifting him up — he never knew how — as he would have lifted a log of wood, hurled him down in the white streak of moonlight that alone slanted through the peaked roofs of the crooked by-street.
The cries of Baroni had already been heard; a crowd, drawn by their shrieking appeals, were bearing toward the place in tumult. The Jew had the quick wit to give them, as call-word, that is was a croupier who had been found cheating and fled; it sufficed to inflame the whole mob against the fugitive. Cecil looked round him once — such a glance as a Royal gives when the gaze-hounds are panting about him and the fangs are in his throat; then, with the swiftness of the deer itself, he dashed downward into the gloom of the winding passage at the speed which had carried him, in many a foot-race, victor in the old green Eton meadows. There was scarce a man in the Queen’s Service who could rival him for lightness of limb, for power of endurance in every sport of field and fell, of the moor and the gymnasium; and the athletic pleasures of many a happy hour stood him in good stead now, in the emergence of his terrible extremity.
Flight! — for the instant the word thrilled through him with a loathing sense. Flight! — the craven’s refuge, the criminal’s resource. He wished in the moment’s agony that they would send a bullet through his brain as he ran, rather than drive him out to this. Flight! — he felt a coward and a felon as he fled; fled from every fairer thing, from every peaceful hour, from the friendship and good will of men, from the fame of his ancient race, from the smile of the women that loved him, from all that makes life rich and fair, from all that men call honor; fled, to leave his name disgraced in the service he adored; fled, to leave the world to think him a guilty dastard who dared not face his trial; fled, to bid his closest friend believe him low sunk in the depths of foulest felony, branded forever with a criminal’s shame — by his own act, by his own hand. Flight! — it has bitter pangs that make brave men feel cowards when they fly from tyranny and danger and death to a land of peace and promise; but in his flight he left behind him all that made life worth the living, and went out to meet eternal misery; renouncing every hope, yielding up all his future.
“It is for her sake — and his,” he thought; and without a moment’s pause, without a backward look he ran, as the stag runs with the bay of the pack behind it, down into the shadows of the night.
The hue and cry was after him; the tumult of a crowd’s excitement, raised it knows not why or wherefore, was on his steps, joined with the steadier and keener pursuit of men organized for the hunter’s work, and trained to follow the faintest track, the slightest clew. The moon was out, and they saw him clearly, though the marvelous fleetness of his stride had borne him far ahead in the few moments’ start he had gained. He heard the beat of their many feet on the stones, the dull thud of their running, the loud clamor of the mob, the shrill cries of the Hebrew offering gold with frantic lavishness to whoever should stop his prey. All the breathless excitation, all the keen and desperate straining, all the tension of the neck-and-neck struggle that he had known so often over the brown autumn country of the Shires at home, he knew now, intensified to horror, made deadly with despair, changed into a race for life and death.
Yet, with it the wild blood in him woke; the recklessness of peril, the daring and defiant courage that lay beneath his levity and languor heated his veins and spurred his strength; he was ready to die if they chose to slaughter him; but for his freedom he strove as men will strive for life; to distance them, to escape them, he would have breathed his last at the goal; they might fire him down, if they would, but he swore in his teeth to die free.
Some Germans in his path, hearing the shouts that thundered after him in the night, drew their mule-cart across the pent-up passage-way down which he turned, and blocked the narrow road. He saw it in time; a second later, and it would have been instant death to him at the pace he went; he saw it, and gathered all the force and nervous impetus in his frame to the trial, as he came rushing downward along the slope of the lane, with his elbows back, and his body straight, as prize-runners run. The wagon, sideways, stretched across — a solid barrier, heaped up with fir boughs brought for firing from the forests; the mules stood abreast, yoked together. The mob following saw too, and gave a hoot and yell of brutal triumph; their prey was in their clutches; the cart barred his progress, and he must double like a fox faced with a stone wall.
Scarcely! — they did not know the man with whom they had to deal — the daring and the coolness that the languid surface of indolent fashion had covered. Even in the imminence of supreme peril, of breathless jeopardy, he measured with unerring eye the distance and the need; rose as lightly in the air as Forest King had risen with him over fence and hedge; and with a single, running leap cleared the width of the mules’ backs, and landing safely on the farther side, dashed on; scarcely pausing for breath. The yell that hissed in his wake, as the throng saw him escape, by what to their slow Teutonic instincts seemed a devil’s miracle, was on his ear like the bay of the slot-hounds to the deer. They might kill him, if they could; but they should never take him captive.
And the moon was so brightly, so pitilessly clear; shining down in the summer light, as though in love with the beauty of earth! He looked up once; the stars seemed reeling round him in disordered riot; the chill face of the moon looked unpitying as death. All this loveliness was round him; this glory of sailing cloud and shadowy forest and tranquil planet, and there was no help for him.
A gay burst of music broke on the stillness from the distance; he had left the brilliance of the town behind him, and was now in its by-streets and outskirts. The sound seemed to thrill him to the bone; it was like the echo of the lost life he was leaving forever.
He saw, he felt, he heard, he thought; feeling and sense were quickened in him as they had never been before, yet he never slackened his pace save once or twice, when he paused for breath; he ran as swiftly, he ran as keenly, as ever stag or fox had run before him; doubling with their skill, taking the shadow as they took the covert; noting with their rapid eye the safest track; outracing with their rapid speed the pursuit that thundered in his wake.
The by-lanes he took were deserted, and he was now well-nigh out of the town, with the open country and forest lying before him. The people whom he met rushed out of his path; happily for him they were few, and were terrified, because they thought him a madman broken loose from his keepers. He never looked back; but he could tell that the pursuit was falling farther and farther behind him, that the speed at which he went was breaking the powers of his hunters; fresh throngs added indeed to the first pursuers as they tore down through the starlight night, but none had the science with which he went, the trained, matchless skill of the university foot-race. He left them more and more behind him each second of the breathless chase, that, endless as it seemed, had lasted bare three minutes. If the night were but dark! He felt that pitiless luminance glistening bright about him everywhere; shining over all the summer world, and leaving scarce a shadow to fall athwart his way. The silver glory of the radiance was shed on every rood of ground; one hour of a winter night, one hour of the sweeping ink-black rain of an autumn storm, and he could have made for shelter as the stag makes for it across the broad, brown Highland water.
Before him stretched indeed the gloom of the masses of pine, the upward slopes of tree-stocked hills, the vastness of the Black Forest; but they were like the mirage to a man who dies in a desert; he knew, at the pace he went, he could not live to reach them. The blood was beating in his brain and pumping from his heart; a tightness like an iron band seemed girt about his loins, his lips began to draw his breath in with loud gasping spasms; he knew that in a little space his speed must slacken — he knew it by the roar, like the noise of water, that was rushing on his ear, and the oppression, like a hand’s hard grip, that seemed above his heart.
But he would go till he died; go till they fired on him; go, though the skies felt swirling round like a sea of fire, and the hard, hot earth beneath his feet jarred his whole frame as his feet struck it flying.
The angle of an old wood house, with towering roof and high-peaked gables, threw a depth of shadow at last across his road; a shadow black and rayless, darker for the white glisten of the moon around. Built more in the Swiss than the German style, a massive balcony of wood ran round it, upon and beneath which in its heavy shade was an impenetrable gloom, while the twisted wooden pillars ran upward to the gallery, loggia-like. With rapid perception and intuition he divined rather than saw these things, and, swinging himself up with noiseless lightness, he threw himself full-length down on the rough flooring of the balcony. If they passed he was safe, for a brief time more at least; if they found him — his teeth clinched like a mastiff’s where he lay — he had the strength in him still to sell his life dearly.
The pursuers came closer and closer, and by the clamors that floated up in indistinct and broken fragments, he knew that they had tracked him. He heard the tramp of their feet as they came under the loggia; he heard the click of the pistols — they were close upon him at last in the blackness of night.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12