The river was a weak little stream for most of its length, but it widened and deepened where the bridge spanned it, and, seeming to be fed by fresh springs, foamed over the bowlders which at this point formed its hard, uneven bed. The bridge was probably stronger than it looked, or it would have been swept away long ago; for the river, when the rains swelled it, had been known to overflow so far as to touch the oak palings of the bungalow garden.
On a post against these palings, under a little green wooden gable, hung a life preserver, rope, and boat hook. These, like the bungalow, were the property of Miss Bosanquet. Once a tiny village child, trotting at the side of a hardly larger sister, had slipped upon the bridge, and, falling, had its little life dashed out before her helpless eyes. The life preserver had resulted, as well as the often-renewed white paint upon the handrail, and the half-yard band upon the unprotected side of the planks.
A couple of hamlets lay upon the farther side of the wood, and the bridge being the nearest road to both village and schoolhouse, the small passers were many — so many, and so blood curdlingly reckless, that Miss Bosanquet, seated at her writing table near an open window of the charming apartment that was drawing-room and study in one, sometimes declared that she had her heart in her mouth twenty times a day.
"The reviewers are rather fond of complaining that I'm spasmodic. If they lived opposite that bridge, and saw the girls hanging on by their hair ribbons, the babies by their toes, and the boys by nothing at all, they might be spasmodic, too," said Miss Bosanquet.
On the present occasion the long summer dusk was so far advanced that the last straggler was probably safe in bed, and Miss Bosanquet was not at her writing table, being engaged with a visitor — with her most frequent visitor, the rector. That he should drop in at the -bungalow once or twice a week, was a matter of course. That he should say what he had just said, was not.
"Again! My dear friend! Oh, please — " she expostulated.
She stood looking at him, a woman who possibly had once been more beautiful — who certainly could never have been more charming. Her dress of dark heliotrope, flowing softly over the perfect curves of her tall figure, suited admirably the thick twists of the bright, fair hair that had not a stripe of gray, the pure, blond tints of the strong, sweet face that had hardly a line. It was not, as a rule, a grave face — or, at least, was one that readily grew gay; eyes and lips were alike quickly alert with a delightful humor. They were so now, for all her reproachful tone. The rector — he was a highly personable one, handsome, kindly, portly, as a rector should be — sighed.
"My dear," he said gently, "you know I shall aways go on hoping."
"I hope not. For I think it is four times — isn't it? that I have told you I shall never marry," said Miss Bosanquet.
"Is it impossible that your mind should change? Have you forgotten that when your niece marries — "
"Dahlia? I don't believe she thinks of it. She's so young yet. And there's her voice — she will have her profession," said Miss Bosanquet rather quickly.
"You would be very lonely — miss her — "
"Terribly! You see, I don't deny it. But I have always my work."
"Would that suffice? Suppose — "
"We change the subject? Do! Help me with my last chapter," said Miss Bosanquet brightly.
If the words were abrupt, the manner atoned for them; and the rector, taught by experience, was wise enough to accept the finality of the tone. He changed his own promptly.
"Is it troubling you?" he asked.
"As usual." She laughed a little whimsically. "I have my public, you know, and my public expects a certain thing of me — the conventional happy ending. Absolutely absurd in the present case, treating the woman as a human creature and not an impossible simulacrum of perfection. You know the story. Don't you think so?"
"H'm! We are obliged to allow that forgiveness," began the rector, it must be admitted a little pompously.
"Pooh! You are not in the pulpit, my good friend. You know well enough there are some things that no man should be forgiven, and that no woman should forgive. Forgiveness! Can that unmake, remake, obliterate? Women know very well that it can't. And yet it is chiefly women who, if I give it them, will whimper over an unnatural reconciliation and an impossible happiness."
There was a moment's silence. The rector filled it with a little cough — a discreet sound. That the woman he desired to marry was a successful novelist undoubtedly added to his admiration of her. But it was not the reason why he loved her. A modest perception that her brains far bettered his perhaps explained why he seldom contradicted her, rector though he was. He broke the silence by changing the subject again.
"Miss Dahlia is quite well, I trust?"
"Perfectly, thanks. She is dining at Pinecrest to-night. There is a rather big party of big people — a senator among them, if I'm not mistaken. Mrs. Holroyd sent quite a gushing invitation; the child was delighted. They want her to sing, of course."
"She is an acquisition anywhere," declared the rector gallantly.
"Quite so. But I am not sure that I care to have her made a convenience of. Oh, you are dining there, too. Of course! A pleasant evening. Must you go? Good-by," said Miss Bosanquet pleasantly.
The rector departed, and she sat on alone, her eyes fixed absently upon the blank manuscript page on which "Chapter the Last" was written in her firm, clear hand. Then a burst of music filled the bungalow; Dahlia's glorious young soprano rang out superbly. In a moment she came in.
"Ready at last, Aunt Claudia. I thought Harriett would never finish fussing with my hair. But it looks stunning, I think, don't you? Shall I do?" she asked.
She turned herself slowly around for inspection. Beyond an occasional turn of expression, there was no likeness between the two, for Dahlia was slight and small and dark, with a vivid richness of color and bloom and an eager vivacity of manner. She was very pretty — in a year or two more she would be lovely. Miss Bosanquet adjusted the ribbon that bound her little dark head.
"You look very nice, darling. I rather wish, though, that we had sent for a conveyance from Grant's; I hardly like your walking."
"Just through the wood? Why, it's nothing — no distance, and as dry as a bone. And Mrs. Holroyd will send me home," returned Dahlia, pulling the long gloves up her slim girl's arms and putting on her cloak.
"You might walk with me instead of Harriett, Aunt Claudia. It's a lovely evening. Do, dear," she said affectionately. Then she laughed. "That last chapter will never be finished to-night, anyhow, you know."
"Or begun, either, I guess. Yes, I think I will come," said Miss Bosanquet.
A long scarf of black lace was thrown over a chair; she folded it about her head and shoulders, and the two went out, crossing the bridge. The wood was very quiet; the path wound wide and white between the trees. At the first curve of it the girl checked with a little cry at the sudden appearance of a figure — Randal Holroyd, heir of the Hol royd estate and fortune. He was quite young — not more than four-and-twenty; his handsome, boyish face showed flushed and eager in the dusk. His bow was divided, but his eyes were only for Dahlia.
"I thought you might be walking over, Miss Conroy, and that if so, you would let me look after you. It's a bit lonely if you're nervous. So good of you to come! Wonderful, isn't it? And — and we needn't trouble your aunt to come any further, perhaps," he said.
"There was not the very least need for you to come. I should scarcely be scared of a rabbit or a squirrel. But — but I shall be quite all right. Aunt Claudia, you know," said Dahlia.
The toss of her dark head matched the cool indifference of her tone, but her little face was rosy. Claudia Bosanquet looked from one to the other, and her own face whitened under the shadow of the black lace; an odd little gasp escaped her. She stood quite still, watching the two young figures as they moved away, Randal carefully carrying Dahlia's music, his fair head bent devotedly down to the pink hood that moved at his shoulder as daintily graceful as a flower. But when she turned, Claudia Bosanquet almost ran, moving with a most uncharacteristic roughness and haste, not pausing until she dropped, breathless, into the chair by her writing table.
"I might have known!" she said aloud. "Oh, I might have known! Why should she escape?" Her eyes fell upon the blank manuscript page, blank but for its heading. She laughed bitterly. "The last chapter! As though that could be written to the story of any of us by any hand but Death's!"
She sat looking before her, listening to the rush of the river — a melancholy sound in the gathering gloom. It was fully an hour later, and it had grown as dark as the June night would grow, when she roused herself and rang for the lamp. She snatched up her pen when the maid had withdrawn, and began to write, filling page after page at a reckless speed, hardly halting for a word. Then she read it over. It was good! Oh, it was good! She knew that. But, all the same, it was the sort of thing that "her public" wouldn't stand. She tore the sheets across and threw the pieces down — not thus was her last chapter to be written. Then, invaded by a sudden irritation and impatience, she got up.
"I'll go out," she said aloud. "I shall do no good to-night!"
The black lace scarf still lay upon her shoulders; she wrapped it over her head and went out. A thin, faint moon was rising above the trees; the night was utterly quiet. Over the bridge she sauntered on slowly, following the path that she and Dahlia had trodden.
Presently, from somewhere in the wood, came a little, piteous, shrill scream of terror and pain, perhaps from a rabbit caught by some night-prowling canine, and, with an involuntary exclamation of distress, she stood still. But for this check she would probably not have seen the marks in the dust. Doing so now, she felt herself thrill and shiver with an instant premonition of what they were, for the moonlight showed them red. She hardly needed to stoop down, to touch the one — the largest — that was nearest to her foot, to look at her dabbled fingers. Blood!
"Oh!" she cried.
She looked at the marks, trailing obliquely from left to right of the path. Here there was a spot, here more spots, here, where she stood, almost a little pool, and beside them, in the dry dust, was the print of feet. Somebody — man or woman — had dragged themselves across, wounded and bleeding, and but a little time before; witness her stained finger-tips. Here upon the grass was a blot of red. Whoever it was had gone this way.
To do whatever there was to be done with neither fuss nor hesitation had always been a matter of course with Claudia Bosanquet; now the thought that she might encounter tramp or beggar did not for an instant deter her. She was not timid. The fact that here probably help was needed, which she could render, sufficed her.
She hurried along the narrow path that wound in among the bushes, came out upon a little clearing, and gave a cry. For in the center, the moonlight bright upon it, lay a huddled figure. Even before she bent over it she realized that this insensible man was neither tramp nor beggar; his clothing told as much, and the hand that lay palm upward was delicate, long-fingered, hardly less white than her own.
A moment's examination "Showed what was his injury — one sock, torn away above the ankle, was soaked in crimson, the flesh all mangled and jagged; from the bottom of the trouser leg two triangular pieces of cloth were wrenched clean out. The foot had been caught in a trap. Why had he swooned? Was there any other hurt? There seemed no signs of any.
A few yards away was a little pool; she wet her handkerchief, and, kneeling down, laid it on his forehead. His thrown-up arm concealed the lower half of his face. She gently removed it, and the sudden gasping intake of her breath left her with lips apart, staring. He stirred, made a moaning sound, and she got slowly upon her feet, while her face, under the shrouding black lace, grew white and stiff. His eyes opened, saw her; he struggled up on his elbow, and she spoke.
"You fainted," she said, and her voice in its harshness was one that Dahlia would hardly have recognized, although it was so quiet; never had she been prone to outcry. He looked up at her, a vague figure in the moonlight, and glanced about him confusedly as his strayed senses came back. "You fainted and fell here," she said.
"Fainted?" He struggled up a little more, and in a moment half laughed. "Of course — I remember. Fainted, did I? That was the sight and smell of the blood. I always was a fool in that way — never could stand it I was — caught in a trap."
"Yes, I saw. There should be no traps in the wood. They are not allowed; James Holroyd does not permit it. This one must have been exceptionally strong — "
"Your ankle is badly torn — "
"I saw that much. If you would kindly give me your hand — "
Miss Bosanquet gave him her hand. With a struggle he got upon his feet. Then she composedly put back the shrouding lace — it fell down on either side of her colorless face like two folded sable wings — and looked at him. He started, and fell back with a gasp of amazement.
"Claudia! Good Heaven! Is it — is it you?"
"As surely as you are Archer Bradley," said Miss Bosanquet.
"You — recognized me?"
"Yes, I recognized you," said Miss Bosanquet.
"Who would have thought of it?" He scanned her from head to foot — seemed to subdue his astonishment in a shrug and a half-laugh. "Well, if I ha4 been anyone else, you would have bound up my wounds in true Samaritan fashion, no doubt. But I'm afraid I can hardly expect you to do it for me."
"I expected to find a tramp. I should have done what I could in that case. There is no reason why I should not do the same now. I can hardly leave you as you are, more than a mile from the village," said Miss Bosanquet coldly. "If you choose to come to my house with me — "
"You live here, then?"
"Yes, close. Tie this handkerchief round your ankle. You should have done so before; it has bled terribly. And perhaps you hap better take my arm," said Miss Bosanquet.
Bradley obeyed. He needed the support, for he limped painfully, and more than once stopped with a wince and sound of pain. But the silence was broken in no other way until they were on the bridge. He looked down at the tumbling water, foaming over its bowlder-strewn bed; in the perfect night stillness its noise was loud.
"The river seems deep here," he said involuntarily.
"Very deep, and the current is swift — that is the house."
The light of the lamp shone out with a rosy glow from between the curtains of the long, open window as they went up the path. Bradley paused as they entered, looking at his conductress. They were almost of a height; he was not a tall man.
"I suppose I may as well have the grace to acknowledge," he said, with his former half-laugh and shrug in one, "that this is a thousand times more than I deserve from you."
"We need not discuss that, I think," said Miss Bosanquet coldly. "You had better sit down. I will get what is necessary."
He sank into the chair to which she pointed, and she went out into the hall. The kitchen was at the other end of the bungalow, and the two maids were shut up there, she knew; their voices were audible as she glanced that way. That was well, she thought, since no one must know that Archer Bradley, of all men, was under roof of hers again. How small the world was — how small! she said to herself wonderingly, as she got water and towels, sponge and bandages, and carried them in.
The stiff whiteness had left her face now; though a little pale, it bore almost its usual sweet, composed serenity. He looked covertly at it, at the luxuriant coils of her bright hair, at her graceful figure, and an odd compound of expressions grew upon his own. It was a handsome face still, curiously attractive, in a sense curiously young, although the lines about the eyes and mouth were deep, and the close-cut dark hair was streaked with gray. He spoke suddenly, but with the touch of hesitation and deprecation more pronounced in his manner.
"You have changed very little," he said, "astonishingly little! And it is twenty years, I think."
"It is twenty-one years. I live a quiet life, that may be the reason," she answered composedly. "Let me see your ankle."
The wound was a bad one; the teeth of the trap had mangled and lacerated the flesh cruelly. She glanced up presently.
"It might have been meant for a man," she said. "It must have been strong enough to hold one."
"It did hold one longer than I liked," said Bradley.
"You must have tried to drag yourself away, surely?"
"Yes. For the first minute — like a fool — I couldn't think of, couldn't remember, the way to free myself."
"The man who set it was probably close by. You should have called for help. You did not?"
"No, I didn't call," said Bradley. "Whoever he may be, he will get into trouble for setting it in the wood," said Miss Bosanquet.
She fastened the bandage with firm, deft white fingers, carried away the sponge and basin, and came back. He sat looking about the pretty, flower-decked room, every detail of which spoke of the prosperous well-being of its owner. She took up the lace scarf, and threw it round her shoulders and over her head. Nothing could have been more calmly indifferent than her manner and tone.
"It is unfortunate that there is no vehicle of any kind here," she said, "but the distance to the village is not far, and I can show you the path from the garden gate."
"Thank you." He stood up, hesitated. A hint of chagrin in his expression was repeated in his voice. "You — you don't ask me anything about myself, Claudia!"
"No," said Miss Bosanquet simply. "You don't care to know, I suppose?"
"It is certainly no concern of mine." "Oh, quite so! Perhaps, however, you may be able to give me credit for being glad to find you so prosperous, as is evidently the case." He hesitated again. "You — did not go back to the — to your profession?"
"No, that remained impossible." She made a gesture as if to forestall further questioning. "I write," she said curtly, "since you are curious."
"Write! Do you?" he glanced around again. "Ah! And you are rich, then, no doubt?"
"Rich? Few who depend upon their pens are that! I make a livelihood and save a little. It is more than many can say."
"You are — not married?"
The word carried more than denial — a very volume; the whole of the woman's life story was in it. For the first time she looked at him straight and full, as he looked back at her, and the fire in her gray eyes was bright. He saw the woman whom he had desired, pursued, won, tired of, deserted — who, possibly, had been but an episode among episodes. She saw the man, whom, a raw girl, she had worshiped utterly, had learned through anguish to doubt, scorn, despise not less utterly, but who remained the only man who had ever counted with her for good or bad. Her eyes withdrew and turned away in a moment, but his continued upon her; a new expression grew in his face, a lurking satisfaction that he had at last struck this one flash of fire out of her. But his tone was humble.
"I suppose I was a scoundrel, Claudia. No, I know I was. I left you — broke my word — behaved most disgracefully — "
"But naturally," said Miss Bosanquet, and looked at him quietly. "A woman who trusts a man as I trusted you asks him to deceive her, leaves herself to his mercy and his honor. If they chance to be nonexistent, it is of not much use to cry out. I had lost my voice; my hopes of making money and a name were over. Why should you have kept your promise to make me your wife? You were ambitious, and you had the chance of marrying a rich woman. What you did was quite natural."
"At any rate, I didn't marry her," muttered Bradley half sullenly. The calm of her voice was barbed with something keener than mere scorn, and he had reddened under it. "But no doubt you know that?"
"No; it did not concern me. But I am glad, for her sake," said Miss Bos anquet.
"You'll never forgive me, Claudia?"
"No. There are some things one does not forgive," said Miss Bosanquet.
"Well, it serves me right, I suppose!" He gave his half-laugh and shrug. "You cared for me too much, poor girl! And I broke your heart, spoiled your life — "
She turned round upon him.
"No!" she said.
"No?" Thrown out, he stared at her.
"No; oh, no!" She almost smiled; there was a gleam of faint, tolerant amusement in her eyes; the irresistible humor that was part of her twitched her lips.
"I suppose," she said quietly, "that it flatters a man's vanity as nothing else can do to believe that her love for him must needs be a woman's all. Women know better; they realize that there are other things — many.
"It sounds like a heresy, doesn't it? But it's true — it's true! You did not break my heart, Archer; it was too strong, as my life, believe me, was too good a thing to be spoiled for such a one as you."
She paused, with a little shake of her head, and smiled again. "You have pictured me, I suppose — if you ever thought of me at all — as lying always under the shame you put upon me? Wrong — all wrong! A woman who meekly submits to expiate endlessly a girl's folly is but a poor creature whose suffering is largely self-made. I paid for mine — yes — and having paid I put it away, would have no more of it. I have worked, struggled, succeeded in the past twenty years, won myself a place in the world, a place with those who know me, that I hope I deserve to hold. They have been, take them all in all, happy years. We have both been happy — we are happy. We — "
"We?" Bradley cried.
His attitude of indifference, as he listened, had been plainly a pretense, not at all hiding his involuntary surprise and mortification. With the word, loudly uttered, there was a change in his look as swift as his movement, and Claudia Bosanquet stopped dead. A woman checked a pace-length from a precipice might have borne such a face, might have made the wild, breathless gesture with which she almost clapped her hand upon her mouth. Her dilated eyes, beyond her control, looked at a table upon which stood a large photograph of Dahlia — the girl wore a white dress, and carried a big rose wreathed hat; a ribbon was twisted through her dark hair. She made a picture of smiling youth, beauty, and sweetness.
Bradley saw it, stared at it, pointed to it.
"Who is that?" he asked slowly.
"She is my niece," said Miss Bosanquet. Her clenched hand pressed hard on the table; it seemed that the whole force of her was in the words. "She is my niece!"
"Your niece? Your sister Alice's — your only sister's — daughter?" She nodded dumbly, and he half laughed. "I'm afraid it won't do, Claudia! Do you think it will? Look!"
He moved to stand beside the photograph. No one examining the two faces, thus seen side by side, could have failed to see the resemblance between them; almost feature for feature they were alike. For a moment the woman strove to meet the man's eyes, strove to maintain her steady poise, then, as if all the strength were suddenly smitten out of her, dropped upon a chair and hid her face. He made a movement as if to go to her, checked it, and waited. She raised her head and stood up, her self-control regained.
"She has never known," she said. "You understand that she has never known?"
"Neither have I, for that matter. I never even suspected. If I had — " He broke off, and looked at the photograph again narrowly. "You mean she has always believed herself to be your niece?"
"Always. As she always shall do. As everybody has always done. Not the faintest shadow of the truth has ever touched her, I thank Heaven." She paused, as though searching for sentences that should convey the most in the fewest words. "Alice was an angel to me — I never had from her the reproach of so much as a look. She never held up her head after her husband's death — she was never strong, like me. Even if her child had not followed she would hardly, I think, have made shift to live — as it was — I can't speak of it! Her child died.
"There was a name and place left ownerless and vacant for my child, who had neither. I gave her the name, I put her into the place. It was all quite easy — there was not three months' difference in the ages of the two, and we were abroad. I came back with my niece. No one suspected — nobody ever has done so; least of all the child herself. Sometimes she has envied girls with mothers. Well, I have borne to hear her do that! But that doesn't matter. She is Dahlia Conroy, the daughter of my sister and her husband, with the proof of her birth to show if the need should ever arise. I don't know why I trouble to tell you all this; you have not the slightest claim to hear it. I will show you the path to the village. As I said, it is not far."
Her tone had been growing more and more steady, her manner more and more composed. As she made a gesture that at once put the matter aside, and motioned him to pass out at the window before her, Bradley shook his head.
"Do you mean," he asked slowly, "that you expect me to go — to be dismissed like this?"
"Expect?" She stared at him.
"Don't you think it is taking a great deal for granted, Claudia!"
"What — what do you mean?"
The words came breathlessly; in the wood she had been no paler. Bradley raised his eyebrows; his half smile had a cool power in it that was a sinister charge.
"I see you understand," he said quietly. "I can't claim, unfortunately, to have been a good father, but perhaps that is not all my fault. If I had known before or after I left you — never mind that. Surely it is only natural that I should wish to see and know my daughter — "
"See her? Know her?"
"Why not?" said Bradley.
"And that she should see and know you?"
"Well, I suppose the one involves the other, does it not?"
"You mean that? You dare mean it? That you will claim her? Tell her the truth? Blast her for life with the disgrace of it? Shame me in her eyes? Ruin all that I have worked for for twenty years and won, for her sake? You threaten me with that?"
"Threaten? That's an ugly word. And are you not taking too tragic a view of it?"
"Too tragic? It would kill her, or worse than kill her!" As she stared at him still her wild eyes grew calmer; the extraordinary strength that was in her rallied again. "I will deny it! In a sense I have lied for her all her life, and I will lie again. I will deny it, every word."
"What then? Look at my face as it is before you and her face there, and say — once the thought is put into her head — if you think she will believe you."
He pointed to the photograph. Miss Bosanquet did not glance at it — it had told her enough already. She flung back the shrouding lace from her head as though it suffocated her; blindly she groped for a chair; dumb, she dropped into it. There was silence, broken only' by the rushing of the river. Bradley stood watching her. For the moment she was conquered, and he knew it. Then his face changed and softened with a return of its better look, and he suddenly moved across to her.
"I suppose I'm a scoundrel, Claudia," he said hoarsely. "You have reason to say so, Heaven knows! Scoundrel or not, I'm utterly alone in the world — as I deserve to be, of course, and, I swear to you, as wretched a man as there is in it. You cared for me once — you won't deny that — and the girl's my child as well as yours. You don't want her to know. Keep it from her. Be what you should have been before ever she was. Marry me!"
"Marry you?" She was amazed.
"Why not? For her sake! Oh, I don't ask it for mine! And you can afford to despise it — I see that. We would go abroad — I want to get out of the country. I — I'd keep straight — I swear I would. She need never know a word. She would not suspect if she was told nothing, and — "
"Ah!" cried Miss Bosanquet. "Listen! She is coming!"
The gate clicked; there came a rapid run of light feet upon the path. At the farther end of the room a door opened into another; she had barely time to hurry him through and close it when Dahlia appeared at the window. Breathless and pale, the pink hood fallen back from her head, she stood panting before she could speak. With an ejaculation, a swift movement, Miss Bosanquet caught her by the shoulders.
"Child, what's the matter? Why have you come like this? And alone?"
"No, no!" Dahlia said panting. "The rector and Mr. Holroyd came with me to the bridge. They'll be here directly, I expect. They went back into the wood to — to look." She paused; she was too excited to note the stiff pallor of the face above her, and the light from the shaded lamp did not reach it. "Oh, Aunt Claudia, what do you think? There's been a burglary!"
"A burglary? At Pinecrest?"
"Yes — while we were at dinner. Mr. Holroyd thinks it must have been a planned thing by some gang to get hold of the jewels brought down for the party — you know how enormously valuable they must be. They would have gone, every one of them, but they'd been talking about that wonderful stone, called the Shah's Ruby, which belongs to Mrs. Longstreet, and she sent her maid to bring it down to us to see. She found the door locked, heard somebody moving inside, and screamed — he must have got out by the window; there was a ladder-thing hanging from it. Only one of the servants heard her, and he ran out just in time to see two figures rushing away. He gave chase to one, but lost him in the plantation. The girl came shrieking into the dining room — wasn't it terrifically exciting? Everybody rushed out then, of course, but couldn't see anything of the second man. It was Mr. Holroyd who found that he'd been caught in the trap."
"The trap? Caught in a trap?" Claudia Bosanquet fell back against the table; no words can paint the horror of her ashen face. Dahlia nodded, unseeing; she was taking off her cloak.
"Yes. Didn't I say that Mr. Holroyd had had some set on the lawn? It seems Mrs. Longstreet joked when she came about being sure she would be robbed one of these days, and you know how awfully nervous he is. Yes, the thief was certainly caught in it — there were scraps of cloth in the teeth. He must have been dreadfully torn in getting away; there was blood on the grass — ugh, horrible! He made off into the wood. We traced the marks right across it to a place this side of the broad path. That is, the rector and Mr. Holroyd did, and I kept with them; Mrs. Holroyd was too upset to think of a motor car for me. They have gone back to see if they can trace them any further. It may help the police; Mr. Holroyd phoned for them directly, of course. Is that their voices? I'll bring them in to tell you all about it, shall I?"
Miss Bosanquet nodded — it was the jerking motion of a clockwork figure — and the girl, with a little ripple of excited laughter, ran out.
In a flash Claudia was across to the inner door and had flung it open. Then she needed to say nothing; his face showed that Bradley had heard. They looked at each other for a moment before the woman spoke.
"It is true?" she asked. "True?"
"Yes — it's true."
"You have sunk to this — have — "
She was voiceless. He smiled with a sort of weary bravado.
"Sunk? You had better say — have I chosen? It would be nearer the truth. Plainly, I turned thief because honesty and a pittance were not to my taste. If I am laid by the heels over this, it won't be the first time the key has been turned on me. That's the state of the case, if you want to hear it."
"You have — been in prison?"
"And shall be again in all probability." He half laughed. "Oh, I suppose I was always a scoundrel, Claudia, long before I played the scamp to you; there's a black drop in my blood somewhere, I think. If you had said"yes to me just now, if this hadn't come out, I should have meant to run straight and should have failed, most likely. Most likely? Pooh! I know I should!"
Some sound outside, real or fancied, made him turn towards the window swiftly and pause to listen.
"Enough of that," he resumed hurriedly. "You don't intend to give me away — that's understood; all you want is that I take myself off as quickly as may be. The sooner I do it the better for myself, before those fools of police come along. What did the girl say about the parson coming? If he or the other she was speaking of should see me here — "
"See you here? Randal Holroyd?''
The frozen, staring stillness of her face broke up; she seized him by the arm. "He must not see you!" she whispered vehemently. "He is her love — Dahlia's lover! I knew it only to-night. And she loves him; I saw it in her face.
"Don't you see. If he knew — His father is bound up in pride of birth and place as such men are. He may let his son marry my niece; he would die before he would let him marry my daughter. Oh, go, go! I'll hold my tongue — no need to tell you that! This way, or she will see you. Take the path to the right when you are clear of the garden and you will come to the village. Oh, I don't know whether it is of any use to say to you — leave this life — be honest. But do if you can — if you can!"
An outer door opened from the second room; she had hurried across and thrown it open. Bradley paused on the threshold and looked at her.
"No chance of that," he said with a laugh. "Once a scoundrel, always a scoundrel! I shall die one when my time comes, you may be sure. Well, if it were of any use to say I was sorry, I'd say it. As it isn't, good-by, Claudia."
Limping, but swift, he was gone in the shadows. She flung the door to, slipped the bolt, and ran into the other room, dropping breathless into the chair by her writing-table; for a moment her head fell forward upon it; a great shivering took her. Then she sat up hurriedly at the sound of Dahlia's approaching feet. The girl came in flushed and eager.
"They don't seem to be coming, Aunt Claudia. Perhaps they have found him!"
"Him?" said Miss Bosanquet.
"The man who was hurt in the trap. He can't have got so very far — do you think he could? We thought there were more footmarks on the path, you know, but it wasn't light enough to be certain; they seemed to lead this way," the rector said. You haven't seen any horrid-looking man about, have you, dear?"
"My dear child! I have been writing."
"Oh, your last chapter! Of course," said Dahlia. She came nearer to the light. "Wasn't it most awfully exciting, Aunt Claudia? I wonder if the police are searching the wood yet? Mr. Holroyd thought they'd motor over. I do hope they catch him, don't you? Perhaps he is the one who was actually in the room. I think he must be, because — What's that? Listen!"
An outburst of sounds broke the silence — the voices and feet of men. They came from the rear of the bungalow. One voice, loud and excited, was that of young Holroyd. As the woman started up and the girl turned toward the window, he ran in.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Bosanquet. But Miss Conroy has told you, of course, about the flare-up we've had? They've caught the fellow!"
"Oh!" cried Dahlia. "Really? The police?"
"Rather," said Randal. He looked at her; neither had eyes for the ghastly face behind them.
"Dropped upon him not a dozen yards away from the garden gate," he said rapidly; "saw him sneaking off among the trees. Lucky, wasn't it? No doubt about it being the scamp — his ankle's hurt — tied up — been in the trap safe enough. Not a bit the sort of looking fellow you'd — hallo!"
The noise of feet and voices was drawing nearer, plainly approaching through the bungalow garden. The rector's voice suddenly separated itself from the other voices, raised and indignant.
"Preposterous!" he said angrily. "Abominable! An absurd lie on the face of it! You must see that for yourself, lieutenant. Ridiculous! Bring the man in. I insist upon it!" He appeared at the window, his handsome face flushed and wrathful. Entering, he put Dahlia aside as though she were nothing, approaching the tall figure behind her.
"My dear lady, you know, of course, that they have caught this burglar scoundrel? He has the outrageous insolence to declare that you know him!"
"That I know him!" Miss Bosanquet repeated like an echo. Dahlia gave a cry.
"He says so — that it is all a mistake; declares that he is an old friend, and has been spending the evening with you; that if they bring him in you will confirm it."
"That I shall confirm it!" repeated Miss Bosanquet again.
She made a blind motion to move to Dahlia and stopped; the police were at the window, were in the room. Bradley was between two detectives, each holding him by an arm. For an instant his eyes met hers — did they threaten or beseech? The man designated as "lieutenant," in charge of the detectives, bowed to her.
"I beg your pardon, madam. As a matter of form, and just to save time, perhaps, you won't mind answering the question. You don't know this party, of course, though it did seem as if he came out of your garden?"
He pushed the prisoner forward, and with the other hand coolly tilted up the lampshade.
"If you'll have the goodness to take a look at him — hallo! If I didn't think I'd heard the voice, out there! But it was pretty dark, and my eyes are not as they used to be. It's you, is it? Whew!"
He slapped his leg, staring at the figure revealed in the sudden flow of light. Bradley's eyes had gone past him to where Dahlia stood. She gave a little gasp and drew back to young Holroyd's side, returning the look; fright, shrinking, and curiosity were all in her pretty face.
The rector gave an exclamation. "You know him?" he cried.
"Know him, sir?" The lieutenant laughed. "Well, rather! It's precious few of us who don't know Gentleman Jeffcott. Though that's not his right name, I believe. An old hand, and a clever one — that's what he is. Well, that being the case, you're not going to stick to it that you know this lady, eh?" Bradley slowly turned to him.
"I admit I'm beaten," he said composedly. "Wasn't aware that you were in the country these days, Saunders. If I had spotted you out there, I should not have tried my — little ruse. Your memory for voices is fetter than mine." He paused. "I have not, of course, the honor of knowing the lady."
"Why make so outrageous a statement?" began the rector hotly.
He laughed. "My dear sir, a man will tell almost any lie to save his skin. This means five years, Saunders, I suppose, eh?"
"That's about it," said the lieutenant easily. "Lucky if it's no more, with your record. You're wanted for more than this little shine, you know. And if you take my advice, you won't talk." His hand went to his pocket, pulled something out. "Now I've got a car waiting over the bridge — good thing, too, as you're not in walking trim — and the sooner you come along the better."
With a nod Bradley held out his hands, clasped together. The lieutenant, with cool dexterity, snapped the handcuffs on; without a glance in the direction of the girl or woman he walked out between the detectives. The lieutenant and the rector went out talking, and the two young people in a moment followed, whispering together. Claudia, left alone, did not stir — she stood with a face blank as a sleepwalker's. The tramping steps died away.
Then came a sound like a great splash, a shouting of men's voices, and a scream from Dahlia that rang shrilly over all. Claudia rushed out, darting down to the gate, and the girl sprang and caught her round the waist.
"He's in the river! He pushed away the detectives and slipped or jumped — I don't know which! Oh, oh!" she shrieked.
There was a wild rush of figures from the bridge, and incoherent cries of this direction and that. The rector shouted for a boat-hook and a rope, and Randal ran and brought them, but clouds had obscured the moon, and there was a delay of many minutes. Though had there been none, it would have availed nothing. Leap or slip, the head had struck a bowlder with a blow that had fractured the skull, and the force of it had dislocated the neck; it was a dead man they laid upon the bank.
Claudia Bosanquet stood back while the tumult of question, answer, and exclamation surged about her; she had given only one cry. In a few moments all the men but one had hurried away to bring what was necessary, and the rector with them. Young Holroyd was whispering to Dahlia; he had brought out the pink cloak and wrapped it round her, for the girl was shivering and half crying. The remaining detective stood apart staring across the river, a stolid statue of indifference.
Claudia moved slowly forward to the dripping figure on the grass. She looked down at the face; the moonlight, bright again now, showed it almost undisfigured; it was only a very little wound from which the crimson stream ran thin. She had said she would never forgive, and had meant it; she had no remorse, but the girl would never know, and the dead lay piteous. Of a sudden she bent down, her cheek touching the cheek that had lain on her bosom when she was young; she kissed the lips about which some warmth of life lingered still.
Dahlia, seeing, gave a cry of amazement and remonstrance: "Aunt Claudia! — Why — why — " she exclaimed.
Miss Bosanquet looked up into her daughter's face.
"There may be some woman who has loved him or who does love him," she said. "That is why, my dear."
The black fall of lace hid her face as she rose to her feet. Bewildered, touched, excited, Dahlia burst outright into tears, and Randal suddenly put his arms around her.
"Don't, darling!" he whispered eagerly. "You know I love you, Dahlia. Don't, sweetheart!"
He drew the little head to his shoulder and kissed it, and the girl clung to him, sobbing. Doing so, she turned alike from the father she had never known and the mother she was never to recognize.
Claudia Bosanquet stood with veiled face and shrouded head bent down, like a widow of old time.
~ The End ~