Two men stood in the billiard-room of an old country house, talking. Play, which had been of a half-hearted nature, was over, and they sat at the open window, looking out over the park stretching away beneath them, conversing idly.
"Your time's nearly up, Jem," said one at length, "this time six weeks you'll be yawning out the honeymoon and cursing the man--woman I mean-- who invented them."
Jem Benson stretched his long limbs in the chair and grunted in dissent.
"I've never understood it," continued Wilfred Carr, yawning. "It's not in my line at all; I never had enough money for my own wants, let alone for two. Perhaps if I were as rich as you or Croesus I might regard it differently."
There was just sufficient meaning in the latter part of the remark for his cousin to forbear to reply to it. He continued to gaze out of the window and to smoke slowly.
"Not being as rich as Croesus--or you," resumed Carr, regarding him from beneath lowered lids, "I paddle my own canoe down the stream of Time, and, tying it to my friends' door-posts, go in to eat their dinners."
"Quite Venetian," said Jem Benson, still looking out of the window. "It's not a bad thing for you, Wilfred, that you have the doorposts and dinners--and friends."
Carr grunted in his turn. "Seriously though, Jem," he said, slowly, "you're a lucky fellow, a very lucky fellow. If there is a better girl above ground than Olive, I should like to see her."
"Yes," said the other, quietly.
"She's such an exceptional girl," continued Carr, staring out of the window. "She's so good and gentle. She thinks you are a bundle of all the virtues."
He laughed frankly and joyously, but the other man did not join him. "Strong sense--of right and wrong, though," continued Carr, musingly. "Do you know, I believe that if she found out that you were not----"
"Not what?" demanded Benson, turning upon him fiercely, "Not what?"
"Everything that you are," returned his cousin, with a grin that belied his words, "I believe she'd drop you."
"Talk about something else," said Benson, slowly; "your pleasantries are not always in the best taste."
Wilfred Carr rose and taking a cue from the rack, bent over the board and practiced one or two favourite shots. "The only other subject I can talk about just at present is my own financial affairs," he said slowly, as he walked round the table.
"Talk about something else," said Benson again, bluntly.
"And the two things are connected," said Carr, and dropping his cue he half sat on the table and eyed his cousin.
There was a long silence. Benson pitched the end of his cigar out of the window, and leaning back closed his eyes.
"Do you follow me?" inquired Carr at length.
Benson opened his eyes and nodded at the window.
"Do you want to follow my cigar?" he demanded.
"I should prefer to depart by the usual way for your sake," returned the other, unabashed. "If I left by the window all sorts of questions would be asked, and you know what a talkative chap I am."
"So long as you don't talk about my affairs," returned the other, restraining himself by an obvious effort, "you can talk yourself hoarse."
"I'm in a mess," said Carr, slowly, "a devil of a mess. If I don't raise fifteen hundred by this day fortnight, I may be getting my board and lodging free."
"Would that be any change?" questioned Benson.
"The quality would," retorted the other. "The address also would not be good. Seriously, Jem, will you let me have the fifteen hundred?"
"No," said the other, simply.
Carr went white. "It's to save me from ruin," he said, thickly.
"I've helped you till I'm tired," said Benson, turning and regarding him, "and it is all to no good. If you've got into a mess, get out of it. You should not be so fond of giving autographs away."
"It's foolish, I admit," said Carr, deliberately. "I won't do so any more. By the way, I've got some to sell. You needn't sneer. They're not my own."
"Whose are they?" inquired the other.
Benson got up from his chair and crossed over to him. "What is this?" he asked, quietly. "Blackmail?"
"Call it what you like," said Carr. "I've got some letters for sale, price fifteen hundred. And I know a man who would buy them at that price for the mere chance of getting Olive from you. I'll give you first offer."
"If you have got any letters bearing my signature, you will be good enough to give them to me," said Benson, very slowly.
"They're mine," said Carr, lightly; "given to me by the lady you wrote them to. I must say that they are not all in the best possible taste."
His cousin reached forward suddenly, and catching him by the collar of his coat pinned him down on the table.
"Give me those letters," he breathed, sticking his face close to Carr's.
"They're not here," said Carr, struggling. "I'm not a fool. Let me go, or I'll raise the price."
The other man raised him from the table in his powerful hands, apparently with the intention of dashing his head against it. Then suddenly his hold relaxed as an astonished-looking maid-servant entered the room with letters. Carr sat up hastily.
"That's how it was done," said Benson, for the girl's benefit as he took the letters.
"I don't wonder at the other man making him pay for it, then," said Carr, blandly.
"You will give me those letters?" said Benson, suggestively, as the girl left the room.
"At the price I mentioned, yes," said Carr; "but so sure as I am a living man, if you lay your clumsy hands on me again, I'll double it. Now, I'll leave you for a time while you think it over."
He took a cigar from the box and lighting it carefully quitted the room. His cousin waited until the door had closed behind him, and then turning to the window sat there in a fit of fury as silent as it was terrible.
The air was fresh and sweet from the park, heavy with the scent of new-mown grass. The fragrance of a cigar was now added to it, and glancing out he saw his cousin pacing slowly by. He rose and went to the door, and then, apparently altering his mind, he returned to the window and watched the figure of his cousin as it moved slowly away into the moonlight. Then he rose again, and, for a long time, the room was empty.
* * * * *
It was empty when Mrs. Benson came in some time later to say good-night to her son on her way to bed. She walked slowly round the table, and pausing at the window gazed from it in idle thought, until she saw the figure of her son advancing with rapid strides toward the house. He looked up at the window.
"Good-night," said she.
"Good-night," said Benson, in a deep voice.
"Where is Wilfred?"
"Oh, he has gone," said Benson.
"We had a few words; he was wanting money again, and I gave him a piece of my mind. I don't think we shall see him again."
"Poor Wilfred!" sighed Mrs. Benson. "He is always in trouble of some sort. I hope that you were not too hard upon him."
"No more than he deserved," said her son, sternly. "Good night."
The well, which had long ago fallen into disuse, was almost hidden by the thick tangle of undergrowth which ran riot at that corner of the old park. It was partly covered by the shrunken half of a lid, above which a rusty windlass creaked in company with the music of the pines when the wind blew strongly. The full light of the sun never reached it, and the ground surrounding it was moist and green when other parts of the park were gaping with the heat.
Two people walking slowly round the park in the fragrant stillness of a summer evening strayed in the direction of the well.
"No use going through this wilderness, Olive," said Benson, pausing on the outskirts of the pines and eyeing with some disfavour the gloom beyond.
"Best part of the park," said the girl briskly; "you know it's my favourite spot."
"I know you're very fond of sitting on the coping," said the man slowly, "and I wish you wouldn't. One day you will lean back too far and fall in."
"And make the acquaintance of Truth," said Olive lightly. "Come along."
She ran from him and was lost in the shadow of the pines, the bracken crackling beneath her feet as she ran. Her companion followed slowly, and emerging from the gloom saw her poised daintily on the edge of the well with her feet hidden in the rank grass and nettles which surrounded it. She motioned her companion to take a seat by her side, and smiled softly as she felt a strong arm passed about her waist.
"I like this place," said she, breaking a long silence, "it is so dismal --so uncanny. Do you know I wouldn't dare to sit here alone, Jem. I should imagine that all sorts of dreadful things were hidden behind the bushes and trees, waiting to spring out on me. Ugh!"
"You'd better let me take you in," said her companion tenderly; "the well isn't always wholesome, especially in the hot weather.
"Let's make a move."
The girl gave an obstinate little shake, and settled herself more securely on her seat.
"Smoke your cigar in peace," she said quietly. "I am settled here for a quiet talk. Has anything been heard of Wilfred yet?"
"Quite a dramatic disappearance, isn't it?" she continued. "Another scrape, I suppose, and another letter for you in the same old strain; 'Dear Jem, help me out.'"
Jem Benson blew a cloud of fragrant smoke into the air, and holding his cigar between his teeth brushed away the ash from his coat sleeves.
"I wonder what he would have done without you," said the girl, pressing his arm affectionately. "Gone under long ago, I suppose. When we are married, Jem, I shall presume upon the relationship to lecture him. He is very wild, but he has his good points, poor fellow."
"I never saw them," said Benson, with startling bitterness. "God knows I never saw them."
"He is nobody's enemy but his own," said the girl, startled by this outburst.
"You don't know much about him," said the other, sharply. "He was not above blackmail; not above ruining the life of a friend to do himself a benefit. A loafer, a cur, and a liar!"
The girl looked up at him soberly but timidly and took his arm without a word, and they both sat silent while evening deepened into night and the beams of the moon, filtering through the branches, surrounded them with a silver network. Her head sank upon his shoulder, till suddenly with a sharp cry she sprang to her feet.
"What was that?" she cried breathlessly.
"What was what?" demanded Benson, springing up and clutching her fast by the arm.
She caught her breath and tried to laugh.
"You're hurting me, Jem."
His hold relaxed.
"What is the matter?" he asked gently.
"What was it startled you?"
"I was startled," she said, slowly, putting her hands on his shoulder. "I suppose the words I used just now are ringing in my ears, but I fancied that somebody behind us whispered 'Jem, help me out.'"
"Fancy," repeated Benson, and his voice shook; "but these fancies are not good for you. You--are frightened--at the dark and the gloom of these trees. Let me take you back to the house."
"No, I'm not frightened," said the girl, reseating herself. "I should never be really frightened of anything when you were with me, Jem. I'm surprised at myself for being so silly."
The man made no reply but stood, a strong, dark figure, a yard or two from the well, as though waiting for her to join him.
"Come and sit down, sir," cried Olive, patting the brickwork with her small, white hand, "one would think that you did not like your company."
He obeyed slowly and took a seat by her side, drawing so hard at his cigar that the light of it shone upon his fare at every breath. He passed his arm, firm and rigid as steel, behind her, with his hand resting on the brickwork beyond.
"Are you warm enough?" he asked tenderly, as she made a little movement. "Pretty fair," she shivered; "one oughtn't to be cold at this time of the year, but there's a cold, damp air comes up from the well."
As she spoke a faint splash sounded from the depths below, and for the second time that evening, she sprang from the well with a little cry of dismay.
"What is it now?" he asked in a fearful voice. He stood by her side and gazed at the well, as though half expecting to see the cause of her alarm emerge from it.
"Oh, my bracelet," she cried in distress, "my poor mother's bracelet. I've dropped it down the well."
"Your bracelet!" repeated Benson, dully. "Your bracelet? The diamond one?"
"The one that was my mother's," said Olive. "Oh, we can get it back surely. We must have the water drained off."
"Your bracelet!" repeated Benson, stupidly.
"Jem," said the girl in terrified tones, "dear Jem, what is the matter?"
For the man she loved was standing regarding her with horror. The moon which touched it was not responsible for all the whiteness of the distorted face, and she shrank back in fear to the edge of the well. He saw her fear and by a mighty effort regained his composure and took her hand.
"Poor little girl," he murmured, "you frightened me. I was not looking when you cried, and I thought that you were slipping from my arms, down--down--"
His voice broke, and the girl throwing herself into his arms clung to him convulsively.
"There, there," said Benson, fondly, "don't cry, don't cry."
"To-morrow," said Olive, half-laughing, half-crying, "we will all come round the well with hook and line and fish for it. It will be quite a new sport."
"No, we must try some other way," said Benson. "You shall have it back."
"How?" asked the girl.
"You shall see," said Benson. "To-morrow morning at latest you shall have it back. Till then promise me that you will not mention your loss to anyone. Promise."
"I promise," said Olive, wonderingly. "But why not?"
"It is of great value, for one thing, and--But there--there are many reasons. For one thing it is my duty to get it for you."
"Wouldn't you like to jump down for it?" she asked mischievously. "Listen."
She stooped for a stone and dropped it down.
"Fancy being where that is now," she said, peering into the blackness; "fancy going round and round like a mouse in a pail, clutching at the slimy sides, with the water filling your mouth, and looking up to the little patch of sky above."
"You had better come in," said Benson, very quietly. "You are developing a taste for the morbid and horrible."
The girl turned, and taking his arm walked slowly in the direction of the house; Mrs. Benson, who was sitting in the porch, rose to receive them.
"You shouldn't have kept her out so long," she said chidingly. "Where have you been?"
"Sitting on the well," said Olive, smiling, "discussing our future."
"I don't believe that place is healthy," said Mrs. Benson, emphatically. "I really think it might be filled in, Jem."
"All right," said her son, slowly. "Pity it wasn't filled in long ago."
He took the chair vacated by his mother as she entered the house with Olive, and with his hands hanging limply over the sides sat in deep thought. After a time he rose, and going upstairs to a room which was set apart for sporting requisites selected a sea fishing line and some hooks and stole softly downstairs again. He walked swiftly across the park in the direction of the well, turning before he entered the shadow of the trees to look back at the lighted windows of the house. Then having arranged his line he sat on the edge of the well and cautiously lowered it.
He sat with his lips compressed, occasionally looking about him in a startled fashion, as though he half expected to see something peering at him from the belt of trees. Time after time he lowered his line until at length in pulling it up he heard a little metallic tinkle against the side of the well.
He held his breath then, and forgetting his fears drew the line in inch by inch, so as not to lose its precious burden. His pulse beat rapidly, and his eyes were bright. As the line came slowly in he saw the catch hanging to the hook, and with a steady hand drew the last few feet in. Then he saw that instead of the bracelet he had hooked a bunch of keys.
With a faint cry he shook them from the hook into the water below, and stood breathing heavily. Not a sound broke the stillness of the night. He walked up and down a bit and stretched his great muscles; then he came back to the well and resumed his task.
For an hour or more the line was lowered without result. In his eagerness he forgot his fears, and with eyes bent down the well fished slowly and carefully. Twice the hook became entangled in something, and was with difficulty released. It caught a third time, and all his efforts failed' to free it. Then he dropped the line down the well, and with head bent walked toward the house.
He went first to the stables at the rear, and then retiring to his room for some time paced restlessly up and down. Then without removing his clothes he flung himself upon the bed and fell into a troubled sleep.
Long before anybody else was astir he arose and stole softly downstairs. The sunlight was stealing in at every crevice, and flashing in long streaks across the darkened rooms. The dining-room into which he looked struck chill and cheerless in the dark yellow light which came through the lowered blinds. He remembered that it had the same appearance when his father lay dead in the house; now, as then, everything seemed ghastly and unreal; the very chairs standing as their occupants had left them the night before seemed to be indulging in some dark communication of ideas.
Slowly and noiselessly he opened the hall door and passed into the fragrant air beyond. The sun was shining on the drenched grass and trees, and a slowly vanishing white mist rolled like smoke about the grounds. For a moment he stood, breathing deeply the sweet air of the morning, and then walked slowly in the direction of the stables.
The rusty creaking of a pump-handle and a spatter of water upon the red-tiled courtyard showed that somebody else was astir, and a few steps farther he beheld a brawny, sandy-haired man gasping wildly under severe self-infliction at the pump.
"Everything ready, George?" he asked quietly.
"Yes, sir," said the man, straightening up suddenly and touching his forehead. "Bob's just finishing the arrangements inside. It's a lovely morning for a dip. The water in that well must be just icy."
"Be as quick as you can," said Benson, impatiently.
"Very good, sir," said George, burnishing his face harshly with a very small towel which had been hanging over the top of the pump. "Hurry up, Bob."
In answer to his summons a man appeared at the door of the stable with a coil of stout rope over his arm and a large metal candlestick in his hand.
"Just to try the air, sir," said George, following his master's glance, "a well gets rather foul sometimes, but if a candle can live down it, a man can."
His master nodded, and the man, hastily pulling up the neck of his shirt and thrusting his arms into his coat, followed him as he led the way slowly to the well.
"Beg pardon, sir," said George, drawing up to his side, "but you are not looking over and above well this morning. If you'll let me go down I'd enjoy the bath."
"No, no," said Benson, peremptorily.
"You ain't fit to go down, sir," persisted his follower. "I've never seen you look so before. Now if--"
"Mind your business," said his master curtly.
George became silent and the three walked with swinging strides through the long wet grass to the well. Bob flung the rope on the ground and at a sign from his master handed him the candlestick.
"Here's the line for it, sir," said Bob, fumbling in his pockets.
Benson took it from him and slowly tied it to the candlestick. Then he placed it on the edge of the well, and striking a match, lit the candle and began slowly to lower it.
"Hold hard, sir," said George, quickly, laying his hand on his arm, "you must tilt it or the string'll burn through."
Even as he spoke the string parted and the candlestick fell into the water below.
Benson swore quietly.
"I'll soon get another," said George, starting up.
"Never mind, the well's all right," said Benson.
"It won't take a moment, sir," said the other over his shoulder.
"Are you master here, or am I?" said Benson hoarsely.
George came back slowly, a glance at his master's face stopping the protest upon his tongue, and he stood by watching him sulkily as he sat on the well and removed his outer garments. Both men watched him curiously, as having completed his preparations he stood grim and silent with his hands by his sides.
"I wish you'd let me go, sir," said George, plucking up courage to address him. "You ain't fit to go, you've got a chill or something. I shouldn't wonder it's the typhoid. They've got it in the village bad."
For a moment Benson looked at him angrily, then his gaze softened. "Not this time, George," he said, quietly. He took the looped end of the rope and placed it under his arms, and sitting down threw one leg over the side of the well.
"How are you going about it, sir?" queried George, laying hold of the rope and signing to Bob to do the same.
"I'll call out when I reach the water," said Benson; "then pay out three yards more quickly so that I can get to the bottom."
"Very good, sir," answered both.
Their master threw the other leg over the coping and sat motionless. His back was turned toward the men as he sat with head bent, looking down the shaft. He sat for so long that George became uneasy.
"All right, sir?" he inquired.
"Yes," said Benson, slowly. "If I tug at the rope, George, pull up at once. Lower away."
The rope passed steadily through their hands until a hollow cry from the darkness below and a faint splashing warned them that he had reached the water. They gave him three yards more and stood with relaxed grasp and strained ears, waiting.
"He's gone under," said Bob in a low voice.
The other nodded, and moistening his huge palms took a firmer grip of the rope.
Fully a minute passed, and the men began to exchange uneasy glances. Then a sudden tremendous jerk followed by a series of feebler ones nearly tore the rope from their grasp.
"Pull!" shouted George, placing one foot on the side and hauling desperately. "Pull! pull! He's stuck fast; he's not coming; PULL!"
In response to their terrific exertions the rope came slowly in, inch by inch, until at length a violent splashing was heard, and at the same moment a scream of unutterable horror came echoing up the shaft.
"What a weight he is !" panted Bob. "He's stuck fast or something. Keep still, sir; for heaven's sake, keep still."
For the taut rope was being jerked violently by the struggles of the weight at the end of it. Both men with grunts and sighs hauled it in foot by foot.
"All right, sir," cried George, cheerfully.
He had one foot against the well, and was pulling manfully; the burden was nearing the top. A long pull and a strong pull, and the face of a dead man with mud in the eyes and nostrils came peering over the edge. Behind it was the ghastly face of his master; but this he saw too late, for with a great cry he let go his hold of the rope and stepped back. The suddenness overthrew his assistant, and the rope tore through his hands. There was a frightful splash.
"You fool!" stammered Bob, and ran to the well helplessly.
"Run!" cried George. "Run for another line."
He bent over the coping and called eagerly down as his assistant sped back to the stables shouting wildly. His voice re-echoed down the shaft, but all else was silence.