The effect of this tale on the mind of Harry Desborough was instant and convincing. The Fair Cuban had been already the loveliest, she now became, in his eyes, the most romantic, the most innocent, and the most unhappy of her sex. He was bereft of words to utter what he felt: what pity, what admiration, what youthful envy of a career so vivid and adventurous. ‘O madam!’ he began; and finding no language adequate to that apostrophe, caught up her hand and wrung it in his own. ‘Count upon me,’ he added, with bewildered fervour; and getting somehow or other out of the apartment and from the circle of that radiant sorceress, he found himself in the strange out-of-doors, beholding dull houses, wondering at dull passers-by, a fallen angel. She had smiled upon him as he left, and with how significant, how beautiful a smile! The memory lingered in his heart; and when he found his way to a certain restaurant where music was performed, flutes (as it were of Paradise) accompanied his meal. The strings went to the melody of that parting smile; they paraphrased and glossed it in the sense that he desired; and for the first time in his plain and somewhat dreary life, he perceived himself to have a taste for music.
The next day, and the next, his meditations moved to that delectable air. Now he saw her, and was favoured; now saw her not at all; now saw her and was put by. The fall of her foot upon the stair entranced him; the books that he sought out and read were books on Cuba, and spoke of her indirectly; nay, and in the very landlady’s parlour, he found one that told of precisely such a hurricane, and, down to the smallest detail, confirmed (had confirmation been required) the truth of her recital. Presently he began to fall into that prettiest mood of a young love, in which the lover scorns himself for his presumption. Who was he, the dull one, the commonplace unemployed, the man without adventure, the impure, the untruthful, to aspire to such a creature made of fire and air, and hallowed and adorned by such incomparable passages of life? What should he do, to be more worthy? by what devotion, call down the notice of these eyes to so terrene a being as himself?
He betook himself, thereupon, to the rural privacy of the square, where, being a lad of a kind heart, he had made himself a circle of acquaintances among its shy frequenters, the half-domestic cats and the visitors that hung before the windows of the Children’s Hospital. There he walked, considering the depth of his demerit and the height of the adored one’s super-excellence; now lighting upon earth to say a pleasant word to the brother of some infant invalid; now, with a great heave of breath, remembering the queen of women, and the sunshine of his life.
What was he to do? Teresa, he had observed, was in the habit of leaving the house towards afternoon: she might, perchance, run danger from some Cuban emissary, when the presence of a friend might turn the balance in her favour: how, then, if he should follow her? To offer his company would seem like an intrusion; to dog her openly were a manifest impertinence; he saw himself reduced to a more stealthy part, which, though in some ways distasteful to his mind, he did not doubt that he could practise with the skill of a detective.
The next day he proceeded to put his plan in action. At the corner of Tottenham Court Road, however, the Senorita suddenly turned back, and met him face to face, with every mark of pleasure and surprise.
‘Ah, Senor, I am sometimes fortunate!’ she cried. ‘I was looking for a messenger;’ and with the sweetest of smiles, she despatched him to the East End of London, to an address which he was unable to find. This was a bitter pill to the knight-errant; but when he returned at night, worn out with fruitless wandering and dismayed by his fiasco, the lady received him with a friendly gaiety, protesting that all was for the best, since she had changed her mind and long since repented of her message.
Next day he resumed his labours, glowing with pity and courage, and determined to protect Teresa with his life. But a painful shock awaited him. In the narrow and silent Hanway Street, she turned suddenly about and addressed him with a manner and a light in her eyes that were new to the young man’s experience.
‘Do I understand that you follow me, Senor?’ she cried. ‘Are these the manners of the English gentleman?’
Harry confounded himself in the most abject apologies and prayers to be forgiven, vowed to offend no more, and was at length dismissed, crestfallen and heavy of heart. The check was final; he gave up that road to service; and began once more to hang about the square or on the terrace, filled with remorse and love, admirable and idiotic, a fit object for the scorn and envy of older men. In these idle hours, while he was courting fortune for a sight of the beloved, it fell out naturally that he should observe the manners and appearance of such as came about the house. One person alone was the occasional visitor of the young lady: a man of considerable stature, and distinguished only by the doubtful ornament of a chin-beard in the style of an American deacon. Something in his appearance grated upon Harry; this distaste grew upon him in the course of days; and when at length he mustered courage to inquire of the Fair Cuban who this was, he was yet more dismayed by her reply.
‘That gentleman,’ said she, a smile struggling to her face, ‘that gentleman, I will not attempt to conceal from you, desires my hand in marriage, and presses me with the most respectful ardour. Alas, what am I to say? I, the forlorn Teresa, how shall I refuse or accept such protestations?’
Harry feared to say more; a horrid pang of jealousy transfixed him; and he had scarce the strength of mind to take his leave with decency. In the solitude of his own chamber, he gave way to every manifestation of despair. He passionately adored the Senorita; but it was not only the thought of her possible union with another that distressed his soul, it was the indefeasible conviction that her suitor was unworthy. To a duke, a bishop, a victorious general, or any man adorned with obvious qualities, he had resigned her with a sort of bitter joy; he saw himself follow the wedding party from a great way off; he saw himself return to the poor house, then robbed of its jewel; and while he could have wept for his despair, he felt he could support it nobly. But this affair looked otherwise. The man was patently no gentleman; he had a startled, skulking, guilty bearing; his nails were black, his eyes evasive; his love perhaps was a pretext; he was perhaps, under this deep disguise, a Cuban emissary!
Harry swore that he would satisfy these doubts; and the next evening, about the hour of the usual visit, he posted himself at a spot whence his eye commanded the three issues of the square.
Presently after, a four-wheeler rumbled to the door, and the man with the chin-beard alighted, paid off the cabman, and was seen by Harry to enter the house with a brown box hoisted on his back. Half an hour later, he came forth again without the box, and struck eastward at a rapid walk; and Desborough, with the same skill and caution that he had displayed in following Teresa, proceeded to dog the steps of her admirer. The man began to loiter, studying with apparent interest the wares of the small fruiterer or tobacconist; twice he returned hurriedly upon his former course; and then, as though he had suddenly conquered a moment’s hesitation, once more set forth with resolute and swift steps in the direction of Lincoln’s Inn. At length, in a deserted by-street, he turned; and coming up to Harry with a countenance which seemed to have become older and whiter, inquired with some severity of speech if he had not had the pleasure of seeing the gentleman before.
‘You have, sir,’ said Harry, somewhat abashed, but with a good show of stoutness; ‘and I will not deny that I was following you on purpose. Doubtless,’ he added, for he supposed that all men’s minds must still be running on Teresa, ‘you can divine my reason.’
At these words, the man with the chin-beard was seized with a palsied tremor. He seemed, for some seconds, to seek the utterance which his fear denied him; and then whipping sharply about, he took to his heels at the most furious speed of running.
Harry was at first so taken aback that he neglected to pursue; and by the time he had recovered his wits, his best expedition was only rewarded by a glimpse of the man with the chin-beard mounting into a hansom, which immediately after disappeared into the moving crowds of Holborn.
Puzzled and dismayed by this unusual behaviour, Harry returned to the house in Queen Square, and ventured for the first time to knock at the fair Cuban’s door. She bade him enter, and he found her kneeling with rather a disconsolate air beside a brown wooden trunk.
‘Senorita,’ he broke out, ‘I doubt whether that man’s character is what he wishes you to believe. His manner, when he found, and indeed when I admitted that I was following him, was not the manner of an honest man.’
‘Oh!’ she cried, throwing up her hands as in desperation, ‘Don Quixote, Don Quixote, have you again been tilting against windmills?’ And then, with a laugh, ‘Poor soul!’ she added, ‘how you must have terrified him! For know that the Cuban authorities are here, and your poor Teresa may soon be hunted down. Even yon humble clerk from my solicitor’s office may find himself at any moment the quarry of armed spies.’
‘A humble clerk!’ cried Harry, ‘why, you told me yourself that he wished to marry you!’
‘I thought you English like what you call a joke,’ replied the lady calmly. ‘As a matter of fact, he is my lawyer’s clerk, and has been here to-night charged with disastrous news. I am in sore straits, Senor Harry. Will you help me?’
At this most welcome word, the young man’s heart exulted; and in the hope, pride, and self-esteem that kindled with the very thought of service, he forgot to dwell upon the lady’s jest. ‘Can you ask?’ he cried. ‘What is there that I can do? Only tell me that.’
With signs of an emotion that was certainly unfeigned, the fair Cuban laid her hand upon the box. ‘This box,’ she said, ‘contains my jewels, papers, and clothes; all, in a word, that still connects me with Cuba and my dreadful past. They must now be smuggled out of England; or, by the opinion of my lawyer, I am lost beyond remedy. To-morrow, on board the Irish packet, a sure hand awaits the box: the problem still unsolved, is to find some one to carry it as far as Holyhead, to see it placed on board the steamer, and instantly return to town. Will you be he? Will you leave to-morrow by the first train, punctually obey orders, bear still in mind that you are surrounded by Cuban spies; and without so much as a look behind you, or a single movement to betray your interest, leave the box where you have put it and come straight on shore? Will you do this, and so save your friend?’
‘I do not clearly understand . . .’ began Harry.
‘No more do I,’ replied the Cuban. ‘It is not necessary that we should, so long as we obey the lawyer’s orders.’
‘Senorita,’ returned Harry gravely, ‘I think this, of course, a very little thing to do for you, when I would willingly do all. But suffer me to say one word. If London is unsafe for your treasures, it cannot long be safe for you; and indeed, if I at all fathom the plan of your solicitor, I fear I may find you already fled on my return. I am not considered clever, and can only speak out plainly what is in my heart: that I love you, and that I cannot bear to lose all knowledge of you. I hope no more than to be your servant; I ask no more than just that I shall hear of you. Oh, promise me so much!’
‘You shall,’ she said, after a pause. ‘I promise you, you shall.’ But though she spoke with earnestness, the marks of great embarrassment and a strong conflict of emotions appeared upon her face.
‘I wish to tell you,’ resumed Desborough, ‘in case of accidents . . . .’
‘Accidents!’ she cried: ‘why do you say that?’
‘I do not know,’ said he, ‘you may be gone before my return, and we may not meet again for long. And so I wished you to know this: That since the day you gave me the cigarette, you have never once, not once, been absent from my mind; and if it will in any way serve you, you may crumple me up like that piece of paper, and throw me on the fire. I would love to die for you.’
‘Go!’ she said. ‘Go now at once. My brain is in a whirl. I scarce know what we are talking. Go; and good-night; and oh, may you come safe!’
Once back in his own room a fearful joy possessed the young man’s mind; and as he recalled her face struck suddenly white and the broken utterance of her last words, his heart at once exulted and misgave him. Love had indeed looked upon him with a tragic mask; and yet what mattered, since at least it was love — since at least she was commoved at their division? He got to bed with these parti-coloured thoughts; passed from one dream to another all night long, the white face of Teresa still haunting him, wrung with unspoken thoughts; and in the grey of the dawn, leaped suddenly out of bed, in a kind of horror. It was already time for him to rise. He dressed, made his breakfast on cold food that had been laid for him the night before; and went down to the room of his idol for the box. The door was open; a strange disorder reigned within; the furniture all pushed aside, and the centre of the room left bare of impediment, as though for the pacing of a creature with a tortured mind. There lay the box, however, and upon the lid a paper with these words: ‘Harry, I hope to be back before you go. Teresa.’
He sat down to wait, laying his watch before him on the table. She had called him Harry: that should be enough, he thought, to fill the day with sunshine; and yet somehow the sight of that disordered room still poisoned his enjoyment. The door of the bed-chamber stood gaping open; and though he turned aside his eyes as from a sacrilege, he could not but observe the bed had not been slept in. He was still pondering what this should mean, still trying to convince himself that all was well, when the moving needle of his watch summoned him to set forth without delay. He was before all things a man of his word; ran round to Southampton Row to fetch a cab; and taking the box on the front seat, drove off towards the terminus.
The streets were scarcely awake; there was little to amuse the eye; and the young man’s attention centred on the dumb companion of his drive. A card was nailed upon one side, bearing the superscription: ‘Miss Doolan, passenger to Dublin. Glass. With care.’ He thought with a sentimental shock that the fair idol of his heart was perhaps driven to adopt the name of Doolan; and as he still studied the card, he was aware of a deadly, black depression settling steadily upon his spirits. It was in vain for him to contend against the tide; in vain that he shook himself or tried to whistle: the sense of some impending blow was not to be averted. He looked out; in the long, empty streets, the cab pursued its way without a trace of any follower. He gave ear; and over and above the jolting of the wheels upon the road, he was conscious of a certain regular and quiet sound that seemed to issue from the box. He put his ear to the cover; at one moment, he seemed to perceive a delicate ticking: the next, the sound was gone, nor could his closest hearkening recapture it. He laughed at himself; but still the gloom continued; and it was with more than the common relief of an arrival, that he leaped from the cab before the station.
Probably enough on purpose, Teresa had named an hour some thirty minutes earlier than needful; and when Harry had given the box into the charge of a porter, who sat it on a truck, he proceeded briskly to pace the platform. Presently the bookstall opened; and the young man was looking at the books when he was seized by the arm. He turned, and, though she was closely veiled, at once recognised the Fair Cuban.
‘Where is it?’ she asked; and the sound of her voice surprised him.
‘It?’ he said. ‘What?’
‘The box. Have it put on a cab instantly. I am in fearful haste.’
He hurried to obey, marvelling at these changes, but not daring to trouble her with questions; and when the cab had been brought round, and the box mounted on the front, she passed a little way off upon the pavement and beckoned him to follow.
‘Now,’ said she, still in those mechanical and hushed tones that had at first affected him, ‘you must go on to Holyhead alone; go on board the steamer; and if you see a man in tartan trousers and a pink scarf, say to him that all has been put off: if not,’ she added, with a sobbing sigh, ‘it does not matter. So, good-bye.’
‘Teresa,’ said Harry, ‘get into your cab, and I will go along with you. You are in some distress, perhaps some danger; and till I know the whole, not even you can make me leave you.’
‘You will not?’ she asked. ‘O Harry, it were better!’
‘I will not,’ said Harry stoutly.
She looked at him for a moment through her veil; took his hand suddenly and sharply, but more as if in fear than tenderness; and still holding him, walked to the cab-door.
‘Where are we to drive?’ asked Harry.
‘Home, quickly,’ she answered; ‘double fare!’ And as soon as they had both mounted to their places, the vehicle crazily trundled from the station.
Teresa leaned back in a corner. The whole way Harry could perceive her tears to flow under her veil; but she vouchsafed no explanation. At the door of the house in Queen Square, both alighted; and the cabman lowered the box, which Harry, glad to display his strength, received upon his shoulders.
‘Let the man take it,’ she whispered. ‘Let the man take it.’
‘I will do no such thing,’ said Harry cheerfully; and having paid the fare, he followed Teresa through the door which she had opened with her key. The landlady and maid were gone upon their morning errands; the house was empty and still; and as the rattling of the cab died away down Gloucester Street, and Harry continued to ascend the stair with his burthen, he heard close against his shoulders the same faint and muffled ticking as before. The lady, still preceding him, opened the door of her room, and helped him to lower the box tenderly in the corner by the window.
‘And now,’ said Harry, ‘what is wrong?’
‘You will not go away?’ she cried, with a sudden break in her voice and beating her hands together in the very agony of impatience. ‘O Harry, Harry, go away! Oh, go, and leave me to the fate that I deserve!’
‘The fate?’ repeated Harry. ‘What is this?’
‘No fate,’ she resumed. ‘I do not know what I am saying. But I wish to be alone. You may come back this evening, Harry; come again when you like; but leave me now, only leave me now!’ And then suddenly, ‘I have an errand,’ she exclaimed; ‘you cannot refuse me that!’
‘No,’ replied Harry, ‘you have no errand. You are in grief or danger. Lift your veil and tell me what it is.’
‘Then,’ she said, with a sudden composure, ‘you leave but one course open to me.’ And raising the veil, she showed him a countenance from which every trace of colour had fled, eyes marred with weeping, and a brow on which resolve had conquered fear. ‘Harry,’ she began, ‘I am not what I seem.’
‘You have told me that before,’ said Harry, ‘several times.’
‘O Harry, Harry,’ she cried, ‘how you shame me! But this is the God’s truth. I am a dangerous and wicked girl. My name is Clara Luxmore. I was never nearer Cuba than Penzance. From first to last I have cheated and played with you. And what I am I dare not even name to you in words. Indeed, until to-day, until the sleepless watches of last night, I never grasped the depth and foulness of my guilt.’
The young man looked upon her aghast. Then a generous current poured along his veins. ‘That is all one,’ he said. ‘If you be all you say, you have the greater need of me.’
‘Is it possible,’ she exclaimed, ‘that I have schemed in vain? And will nothing drive you from this house of death?’
‘Of death?’ he echoed.
‘Death!’ she cried: ‘death! In that box that you have dragged about London and carried on your defenceless shoulders, sleep, at the trigger’s mercy, the destroying energies of dynamite.’
‘My God!’ cried Harry.
‘Ah!’ she continued wildly, ‘will you flee now? At any moment you may hear the click that sounds the ruin of this building. I was sure M’Guire was wrong; this morning, before day, I flew to Zero; he confirmed my fears; I beheld you, my beloved Harry, fall a victim to my own contrivances. I knew then I loved you — Harry, will you go now? Will you not spare me this unwilling crime?’
Harry remained speechless, his eyes fixed upon the box: at last he turned to her.
‘Is it,’ he asked hoarsely, ‘an infernal machine?’
Her lips formed the word ‘Yes,’ which her voice refused to utter.
With fearful curiosity, he drew near and bent above the box; in that still chamber, the ticking was distinctly audible; and at the measured sound, the blood flowed back upon his heart.
‘For whom?’ he asked.
‘What matters it,’ she cried, seizing him by the arm. ‘If you may still be saved, what matter questions?’
‘God in heaven!’ cried Harry. ‘And the Children’s Hospital! At whatever cost, this damned contrivance must be stopped!’
‘It cannot,’ she gasped. ‘The power of man cannot avert the blow. But you, Harry — you, my beloved — you may still —’
And then from the box that lay so quietly in the corner, a sudden catch was audible, like the catch of a clock before it strikes the hour. For one second the two stared at each other with lifted brows and stony eyes. Then Harry, throwing one arm over his face, with the other clutched the girl to his breast and staggered against the wall.
A dull and startling thud resounded through the room; their eyes blinked against the coming horror; and still clinging together like drowning people, they fell to the floor. Then followed a prolonged and strident hissing as from the indignant pit; an offensive stench seized them by the throat; the room was filled with dense and choking fumes.
Presently these began a little to disperse: and when at length they drew themselves, all limp and shaken, to a sitting posture, the first object that greeted their vision was the box reposing uninjured in its corner, but still leaking little wreaths of vapour round the lid.
‘Oh, poor Zero!’ cried the girl, with a strange sobbing laugh. ‘Alas, poor Zero! This will break his heart!’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13