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Amber whistled low. "Impossible!" he said thoughtfully.
Rutton had crossed to and was bending over a small leather trunk that stood in one corner of the room. In the act of opening it, he glanced over his shoulder. "What?" he demanded sharply.
"I was only thinking; there's something I can't see through in that babu's willingness to go."
"He was afraid to stay."
Rutton, rummaging in the trunk, made no reply. After a moment Amber resumed.
"You know what Bengalis are; that fellow'd do anything, brave any ordinary danger, rather than try to cross that sandbar again--if he really came that way; which I am inclined to doubt. On the other hand, he's intelligent enough to know that a night like this in the dunes would kill him. Well, what then?"
Rutton was not listening. As Amber concluded he seemed to find what he had been seeking, thrust it hurriedly into the breast-pocket of his coat, and with a muttered word, unintelligible, dashed to the door and flung it open and himself out.
With a shriek of demoniac glee the wind entered into and took possession of the room. A cloud of snow swept across the floor like a veil. The door battered against the wall as if trying to break it down. A pile of newspapers was swept from the table and scattered to the four corners of the room. The rug lifted beneath the table and flapped against it like a broken wing. The cheap tin kerosene lamp jumped as though caught up by a hand; its flame leapt high and blue above the chimney--and was not. In darkness but for the fitful flare of the fire that had been dying in embers on the hearth, Amber, seeking the doorway, fell over a chair, blundered flat into the wall, and stumbled unexpectedly out of the house.
His concern was all for Rutton; he had no other thought. He ran a little way down the hollow, heartsick with horror and cold with dread. Then he paused, bewildered. Other than the wan glimmer of the snow-clad earth he had no light to guide him; with this poor aid he could see no more than that the vale was deserted. Whither in that white whirling world Rutton might have wandered, it was impossible to surmise. In despair the Virginian turned back.
When he had found his way to the door of the cabin, it was closed; as he entered and shut it behind him, a match flared and expired in the middle of the room, and a man cursed brokenly.
"Rutton?" cried Amber in a flush of hope.
"Is that you, Mr. Amber? Thank Gawd! Wyte a minute."
A second match spluttered, its flame waxing in the pink cup of Doggott's hands. The servant's head and shoulders stood out in dim relief against the darkness.
"I've burnt me 'and somethin' 'orrid on this damn' 'ot chimney," he complained nervously.
He succeeded in setting fire to the wick. The light showed him barefoot and shivering in shirt and trousers. He lifted a bemused red face to Amber, blinking and nursing his scorched hand. "For pity's syke, sir, w'at's 'appened?"
"It's hard to say," replied Amber vaguely, preoccupied. He went immediately to a window and stood there, looking out.
"But w'ere's Mr. Rutton, sir?"
"Gone--out there--I don't know just where." Amber moved back to the table. "You see, he had a caller."
"A caller, sir--on a night like this?"
"The man he came here to hide from," said Amber.
"I knew 'e was tryin' to dodge somethin', sir; but 'e never told me aught about it. What kind of a person was 'e, sir, and what made Mr. Rutton go aw'y with 'im?"
"He didn't; he went after him to...." Amber caught his tongue on the verge of an indiscretion; no matter what his fears, they were not yet become a suitable subject for discussion with Rutton's servant. "I think," he amended lamely, "he had forgotten something."
"And 'e's out there now! My Gawd, what a night!" He hung in hesitation for a little. "Did 'e wear 'is topcoat and 'at, sir?"
"No; he went suddenly. I don't think he intended to be gone long."
"I'd better go after 'im, then. 'E'll 'ave pneumonia ... I'll just jump into me clothes and--" He slipped into the back room, to reappear with surprisingly little delay, fully dressed and buttoning a long ulster round his throat. "You didn't 'appen to notice which w'y 'e went, sir?"
"As well as I could judge, to the east."
Doggott took down a second ulster and a cap from pegs in the wall. "I'll do my best to find 'im; 'e might lose 'imself, you know, with no light nor nothin'."
"I'll be all right; I'll follow 'is footprints in the snow. I've a 'andy little electric bull's-eye to 'elp me, in my pocket."
"Are you armed, Doggott?"
"By Mr. Rutton's orders, sir, I've carried a revolver for years. You aren't thinkin' it's come to that, sir?"
"I don't know.... If I was sure I wouldn't let you go alone," said Amber, frowning. "It's only that Mr. Rutton may not want me about ... I wish I knew!"
"It'll be better, sir, for you to stay and keep the fire up--if you don't mind my makin' so free as to advise--in case 'e's 'arf-froze when 'e gets back, as is likely. But I'd better 'urry, 'specially if...." Doggott's color faded a little and his mouth tightened. "But I 'ope you're mistyken, sir. Good-night."
The door slammed behind him.
Alone, and a prey to misgivings he scarce dared name to himself, Amber from the window watched the blot of light from Doggott's handlamp fade and vanish in the storm; then, becoming sensible to the cold, went to the fireplace, kicked the embers together until they blazed, and piled on more fuel.
A cosy, crackling sound began to be audible in the room; sibilant jets of flame, scarlet, yellow, violet, and green, spurted up from the driftwood. Under the hypnotic influence of the comforting warmth, weariness descended upon Amber like a burden; he was afraid to close his eyes or to sit down, lest sleep should overcome him for all his intense excitement and anxiety. He forced himself to move steadily round the room, struggling against a feeling that all that he had witnessed must have been untrue, an evil dream, akin to the waking visions that had beset him between the loss of Quain and the finding of Rutton. The very mediocrity of the surroundings seemed to discredit the testimony of his wits.
Unmistakably a camp erected for its owners' convenience during the hunting season, alike in design and furnishing the cabin was almost painfully crude and homely. The walls were of rough-hewn logs from which the bark had not been removed; the interstices were stopped only with coarse plaster; the partition dividing it into two rooms was of pine, unpainted. In one corner near Rutton's trunk, a bed-hammock swung from a beam. The few chairs were plain and rude. There were two deal tables, a plate-rack nailed to the partition, and a wall-seat in the chimney-corner. On the centre table, aside from the lamp, were a couple of books, some out-of-date magazines, and a common tin alarm-clock ticking stolidly.
In a setting so hopelessly commonplace and everyday, one act of a drama of blood and fire had been played; into these mean premises the breath of the storm, as the babu entered, had blown Romance.... Incredible!
And yet Amber's hand, dropping idly in his coat-pocket, encountered a priceless witness to the reality of what had passed. Frowning, troubled, he drew forth the ring and slipped it upon his finger; rays of blinding emerald light coruscated from it, dazzling him. With a low cry of wonder he took it to the lamplight. Never had he looked upon so fine a stone, so strangely cut.
It was set in ruddy soft gold, worked and graven with exquisite art in the semblance of a two-headed cobra; inside the band was an inscription so worn and faint that Amber experienced some difficulty in deciphering the word RAO (king) in Devanagari, flanked by swastikas. Aside from the stone entirely, he speculated, the value of the ring as an antique would have proven inestimable. As for the emerald itself, in its original state, before cutting, it must have been worth the ransom of an emperor; much had certainly been sacrificed to fashion it in its present form. The cunning of a jewel-cutter whose art was lost before Tyre and Nineveh upreared their heads must have been taxed by the task. Its innumerable facets reproduced with wonderful fidelity a human eyeball, unwinking, sleepless. In the enigmatic heart of its impenetrable iris cold fire lived, cold passionless flames leaped and died and leaped again like the sorcerous fire of a pythoness.
To gaze into its depths was like questioning the inscrutable green heart of the sea. Fascinated, Amber felt his consciousness slip from him as a mantle might slip from his shoulders; awake, staring wide-eyed into the emerald eye, he forgot self, forgot the world, and dreamed, dreamed curiously....
The crash of the door closing behind him brought him to the right-about in a panic flutter. He glared stupidly for a time before comprehending that Rutton and Doggott had returned. How long they had been absent he had no means of reckoning; the interval might have been five minutes or an hour in duration. The time since he had stooped to examine the ring was as indefinite; but his back was aching and his thoughts were drowsy and confused. He had a sensation as of being violently recalled to a dull and colourless world from some far realm of barbaric enchantment. His brain reeled and his vision was blurred as if by the flash and glamour of many vivid colours.
With an effort he managed to force himself to understand that Rutton was back. After that he felt more normal. His thoughts slid back into their accustomed grooves.
If there were anything peculiar in his manner, Rutton did not remark it. Indeed, he seemed unconscious, for a time, of the presence either of Amber or of Doggott. The servant relieved him of his overcoat and hat, and he strode directly to the fire, bending over to chafe and warm his frost-nipped hands. Unquestionably he laboured under the influence of an extraordinary agitation. His limbs twitched and jerked nervously; his eyebrows were tensely elevated, his eyes blazing, his nostrils dilated; his face was ashen grey.
From across the room Doggott signalled silence to Amber, with a forefinger to his lips; and with a discretion bred of long knowledge of his master's temper, tiptoed through into the back room and shut the door.
Amber respected the admonition throughout a wait that seemed endless.
The tin clock hammered off five minutes or more. Suddenly Rutton started and wheeled round, every trace of excitement smoothed away. Meeting Amber's gaze he nodded as if casually, and said, "Oh, Amber," quietly, with an effect of faint surprise. Then he dropped heavily into a chair by the table.
"Well," he said slowly, "that is over."
Amber, without speaking, went to his side and touched his shoulder with that pitifully inadequate gesture of sympathy which men so frequently employ.
"I killed him," said Rutton dully.
"Yes," replied Amber. He was not surprised; he had apprehended the tragedy from the moment that Rutton had fled him, speechless; the feeling of horror that he had at first experienced had ebbed, merged into a sort of apathetic acknowledgment of the inevitable.
After a bit Rutton turned to the table and drew an automatic pistol from his pocket, opening the magazine. Five cartridges remained in the clip, showing that two had been exploded. "I was not sure," he said thoughtfully, "how many times I had fired." His curiosity satisfied, he reloaded the weapon and returned it to his pocket. "He died like a dog," he said, "whimpering and blaspheming in the face of eternity ... out there in the cold and the night.... It was sickening--the sound of the bullets tearing through his flesh...."
"Didn't he resist?" Amber asked involuntarily.
"He tried to. I let him pop away with his revolver until it was empty. Then...."
"What made you wait?"
"I didn't care; it didn't matter. One of us had to die to-night; he should have known that when I refused to accompany him back to ... I was hungry for his bullet more than for his life; I gave him every chance. But it had to be as it was. That was Fate. Now...." He paused and after a little went on in a more controlled voice. "Quaintly enough, if there's anything in the theory of heredity, David, my hands have been stained with no man's blood before to-night. Yet my forebears were a murderous lot.... Until this hour I never realised how swift and uncontrollable could be the impulse to slay...."
His voice trailed off into silence and he sat staring into the flickering flames that played about the driftwood. Now and again his lips moved noiselessly.
With a wrench Amber pulled himself together. He had been mentally a witness to the murder--had seen the Bengali, obese, monstrous, flabby, his unclean carcass a gross casing for a dark spirit of iniquity and treachery, writhing and whining in the throes of death.... "Rutton," he demanded suddenly, without premeditation, "what are you going to do?"
"Do?" Rutton looked up, his eyes perplexed.
"Why, what is there to do? Get away as best I can, I presume--seek another hole to hide in."
"But how about the law?"
"The law? Why need it ever be known--what has happened to-night? I can count on your silence--I have no need to ask. Doggott would die rather than betray me. He and I can dispose of--it. No one comes here at this time of the year save hunting parties; and their eyes are not upon the ground. You will go your way in the morning. We'll clear out immediately after."
"You'd better take no chances."
Suddenly Rutton smote the table with his fist. "By Indur!" he swore strangely, his voice quavering with joy; "I had not thought of that!" He jumped up and began to move excitedly to and fro. "I am free! None but you and I know of the passing of the Token and the delivery of the message--none can possibly know for days, perhaps weeks. For so much time at least I am in no danger of--"
He shut his mouth like a trap on words that might have enlightened Amber.
"Let me see: there are still waste places in the world where a man may lose himself. There's Canada--the Hudson Bay region, Labrador...."
A discreet knock sounded on the door in the partition, and it was opened gently. Doggott appeared on the threshold, pale and careworn. Rutton paused, facing him.
"Any orders, sir?"
"Yes; begin packing up. We leave to-morrow."
"Very good, sir."
"That is all to-night."
"Yes, sir. Good-night. Good-night, Mr. Amber." The man retired and at intervals thereafter Amber could hear him moving about, apparently obeying orders.
Rutton replenished the fire and stood with his back to it, smiling almost happily. All evidence of remorse had disappeared. He seemed momentarily almost light-hearted, certainly in better spirits than he had been at any time that night. "Free!" he cried softly. "And by the simplest of solutions. Strange that I should never have thought before to-night of--" He glanced carelessly toward the window; and it was as if his lips had been wiped clean of speech.
Amber turned, thrilling, his flesh creeping with the horror that he had divined in Rutton's transfixed gaze.
Outside the glass, that was lightly silvered with frost, something moved--the spectral shadow of a turbaned head--moved and was stationary for the space of twenty heartbeats. Beneath the turban Amber seemed to see two eyes, wide staring and terribly alight.
"God!" cried Rutton thickly, jerking forth his pistol.
The shadow vanished.
With a single thought Amber sprang upon Rutton, snatched the weapon from his nerveless fingers, and, leaping to the door, let himself out.
The snow had ceased; only the wind raved with untempered force. Overhead it was blowing clear; through rifts and rents in the fast-moving cloud-rack pale turquoise patches of moonlit sky showed, here and there inlaid with a far shining star. The dunes were coldly a-glimmer with the meagre light that penetrated to the earth and was cast back by its white and spotless shroud.
But Amber, at pause a few paces beyond the doorstep, his forefinger ready upon the trigger of the automatic pistol, was alone in the hollow.
Cautiously, and, to be frank, a bit dismayed, he made a reconnaissance, circling the building, but discovered nothing to reward his pains. The snow lay unbroken except in front of the cabin, where the traces of feet existed in profuse confusion; Amber himself, Rutton, Doggott, the babu, and perhaps another, had passed and repassed there; the trail they had beaten streamed out of the vale, to the eastwards. Only, before the window, through which he had seen the peering turbaned head, he found the impressions of two feet, rather deep and definite, toes pointing toward the house, as though some one had lingered there, looking in. The sight of them reassured him ridiculously.
"At least," he reflected, "disembodied spirits leave no footprints!"
He found Rutton precisely as he had left him, his very attitude an unuttered question.
"No," Amber told him, "he'd made a quick getaway. The marks of his feet were plain enough, outside the window, but he was gone, and ... somehow I wasn't over-keen to follow him up."
"Right," said the elder man dejectedly. "I might have known Chatterji would not have come alone. So my crime was futile." He spoke without spirit, as if completely fagged, and moved slowly to the door. "I don't want another interruption to-night," he continued, shooting the bolts. He turned to the windows, "Nor peeping Toms," he added, drawing the shade of one down to the sill.
Amber started for him in a panic. "Get away from that window, Rutton! For the love of heaven don't be foolhardy!"
Rutton drew the second shade deliberately. "Dear boy!" he said with his slow, tired smile, "I'm in no danger personally. Not a hair of my head will be touched until...." Again he left his thought half-expressed.
"But if that fellow out there was Chatterji's companion----!"
"He undoubtedly was. But you don't understand; my life is not threatened--yet."
"Chatterji fired at you," Amber argued stubbornly.
"Only when he found it was his life or mine. I tell you, David, if our enemy in the outer darkness were the babu's brother, he would not touch a hair of my head unless in self-defense."
"I don't understand. It's all so impossible!" Amber threw out his hands helplessly, "Unbelievable! For God's sake wake me up and tell me I've had a nightmare!"
"I would that were so, David. But the end is not yet."
"What do you mean by that?" demanded Amber, startled.
"Simply, that we have more to endure, you and I. Consider the limitations of the human understanding, David; a little while ago I promised to ask your aid if ever the time should come when I might be free to do so; I said, 'That hour will never strike.' Yet already it is here; I need you. Will you help me?"
"You know that."
"I know.... One moment's patience, David." Rutton glanced at the clock. "Time for my medicine," he said; "that heart trouble I mentioned...."
He drew from a waistcoat pocket a small silver tube, or phial, and uncorking this, measured out a certain number of drops into a silver spoon. As he swallowed the dose the phial slipped from his fingers and rang upon the hearthstone, spilling its contents in the ashes. A pungent and heady odour flavoured the air.
"No matter," said Rutton indifferently. "I shan't need it again for some time." He picked up and restored the phial to his pocket. "Now let me think a bit." He took a quick turn up the room and down again. Amber remarked that the medicine was having its effect; though the brilliance of Rutton's eyes seemed somewhat dimmed a dull flush had crept into his dark cheeks, and when he spoke it was in stronger accents--with a manner more assured, composed.
"A mad dance," he observed thoughtfully: "this thing we call life. We meet and whirl asunder--motes in a sunbeam. To-night Destiny chose to throw us together for a little space; to-morrow we shall be irrevocably parted, for all time."
"Don't say that, Rutton."
"It is so written, David." The man's smile was strangely placid. "After this night, we'll never meet. In the morning Doggott will ferry you over--"
"Shan't we go together?"
"No," said Rutton serenely; "I must leave before you."
"Without Doggott; I wish him to go with you."
"On the errand I am going to ask you to do for me. You are free to leave this country for several months?"
"Quite. I corrected the final galleys of my 'Analysis of Sanskrit Literature' just before I came down. Now I've nothing on my mind--or hands. Go on."
"Wait." Rutton went a second time to the leather trunk, lifted the lid, and came back with two small parcels. The one, which appeared to contain documents of some sort, he cast negligently on the fire, with the air of one who destroys that which is no longer of value to him. It caught immediately and began to flame and smoke and smoulder. The other was several inches square and flat, wrapped in plain paper, without a superscription, and sealed with several heavy blobs of red wax.
Rutton drew a chair close to Amber and sat down, breaking the seals methodically.
"You shall go a long journey, David," he said slowly--"a long journey, to a far land, where you shall brave perils that I may not warn you against. It will put your friendship to the test."
The elder man ripped the cover from the packet, exposing the back of what seemed to be a photograph. Holding this to the light, its face invisible to Amber, he studied it for several minutes, in silence, a tender light kindling in his eyes to soften the almost ascetic austerity of his expression. "In the end, if you live, you shall win a rich reward," he said at length. He placed the photograph face down upon the table.
"The love of a woman worthy of you, David."
"But----!" In consternation Amber rose, almost knocking over his chair. "But--Great Scott, man!"
"Bear with me, David, for yet a little while," Rutton begged. "Sit down."
"All right, but----!" Amber resumed his seat, staring.
"You and Doggott are to seek her out, wherever she may be, and rescue her from what may be worse than death. And it shall come to pass that you shall love one another and marry and live happily ever after--just as though you were a prince and she an enchanted princess in a fairy tale, David."
"I must say you seem pretty damn' sure about it!"
"It must be so, David; it shall be so! I am an old man--older than you think, perhaps--and with age there sometimes comes something strangely akin to the gift of second-sight. So I know it will be so, though you think me a madman."
"I don't, indeed, but you.... Well! I give it up." Amber laughed uneasily. "Go on. Where's this maiden in distress?"
"In India--I'm not sure just where. You'll find her, however."
"Then you are to bring her home with you, without delay."
"You must win her first; then she will come gladly."
"But I've just told you I loved another woman, Rutton, and besides--"
"You mean the Miss Farrell you mentioned?"
"That will be no obstacle."
"What! How in thunder d'you know it won't?" Amber expostulated. A faint suspicion of the truth quickened his wits. "Who is this woman you want me to marry?"
"My only child, David."
"Then why won't my--my love for Sophia Farrell interfere?"
"Because," said Rutton slowly, "my daughter and Sophia Farrell are the same.... No; listen to me; I'm not raving. Here is my proof--her latest photograph." He put it into Amber's hands.
Dazed, the younger man stared blankly at the likeness of the woman he loved; it was unquestionably she. Fair, sweet, and imperious, her face looked up to his from the bit of cardboard in his hands; the direct and fearless eyes met his--eyes frank, virginal, and serene, beautiful with the beauty of a soul as unsullied and untroubled as the soul of a child.
He gasped, trembling, astounded. "Sophia...!" he said thickly, colouring hotly. He was conscious of a tightening of his throat muscles, making speech a matter of difficulty. "But--but--" he stammered.
"Her mother," said Rutton softly, looking away, "was a Russian noblewoman. Sophia is Farrell's daughter by adoption only. Farrell was once my closest friend. When my wife died...." He covered his eyes with his hand and remained silent for a few seconds. "When Sophia was left motherless, an infant in arms, Farrell offered to adopt her. Because I became, about that time, aware of this horror that has poisoned my life--this thing of which you have seen something to-night--I accepted on condition that the truth be never revealed to her. It cost me the friendship of Farrell; he was then but lately married and--and I thought it dangerous to be seen with him too much. I left England, having settled upon my daughter the best part of my fortune, retaining only enough for my needs. From that day I never saw her or heard from Farrell. Yet I knew I could trust him. Last summer, when my daughter was presented at Court, I was in London; I discovered the name of her photographer and bribed him to sell me this." He indicated the photograph.
"And she doesn't know!"
"She must never know." Rutton leaned forward and caught Amber's hand in a compelling grasp. "Remember that. Whatever you do, my name must never pass your lips--with reference to herself, at least. No one must even suspect that you know me--Farrell least of all."
"Sophia knows that now," said Amber. "Quain and I spoke of you one night, but the name made no impression on her. I'm sure of that."
"That is good; Farrell has been true. Now ... you will go to India?"
"I will go," Amber promised.
"You will be kind to her, and true, David? You'll love her faithfully and make her love you?"
"I'll do my best," said the young man humbly.
"It must be so--she must be taught to love you. It is essential, imperative, that she marry you and leave India with you without a day's delay."
Amber sat back in his chair, breathing quickly, his mouth tense. "I'll do my best. But, Rutton, why? Won't you tell me? Shouldn't I know--I, who am to be her husband, her protector?"
"Not from me. I am bound by an oath, David. Some day it may be that you will know. Perhaps not. You may guess what you will--you have much to go on. But from me, nothing. Now, let us settle the details. I've very little time." He glanced again at the shoddy tin clock, with a slight but noticeable shiver.
"How's that? It's hours till morning."
"I shall never see the dawn, David," said Rutton quietly.
"I have but ten minutes more of life.... If you must know--in a word: poison.... That I be saved a blacker sin, David!"
"You mean that medicine--the silver phial?" Amber stammered, sick with horror.
"Yes. Don't be alarmed; it's slow but sure and painless, dear boy. It works infallibly within half an hour. There'll be no agony--merely the drawing of the curtain. Best of all, it leaves no traces; a diagnostician would call it heart-failure.... And thus I escape that." He nodded coolly toward the door.
"But this must not be, Rutton!" Amber rose suddenly, pushing back his chair. "Something must be done. Doggott--"
"Not so loud, please--you might alarm him. After it's all over, call him. But now--it's useless; the thing is done; there's no known antidote. Be kind to me, David, in this hour of mine extremity. There's much still to be said between us ... and in seven minutes more...."
Rutton retained his clutch upon Amber's hand; and his eyes, their lustre dimmed, held Amber's, pitiful, passionate, inexorable in their entreaty. Amber sat down, his soul shaken with the pity of it.
"Ah-h!" sighed Rutton. Relieved, the tension relaxed; he released Amber's hand; his body sank a little in the chair. Becoming conscious of this, he pulled himself together.... "Enter India by way of Calcutta," he said in a dull and heavy voice. "There, in the Machua Bazaar, you will find a goldsmith and money-lender called Dhola Baksh. Go to him secretly, show him the ring--the Token. He will understand and do all in his power to aid you, should there be any trouble about your leaving with Sophia. To no one else in India are you to mention my name. Deny me, if taxed with knowing me. Do you understand?"
"Never mind--but remember these two things: you do not know me and you must under no circumstances have anything to do with the police. They could do nothing to help you; on the other hand, to be seen with them, to have it known that you communicate with them, would be the equivalent of a seal upon your death warrant. You remember the money-lender's name?"
"Dhola Baksh of the Machua Bazaar."
"Trust him--and trust Doggott.... Four minutes more!"
"Rutton!" cried Amber in a broken voice. Cold sweat broke out upon his forehead.
The man smiled fearlessly. "Believe me, this is the better way--the only way.... Some day you may meet a little chap named Labertouche--a queer fish I once knew in Calcutta. But I daresay he's dead by now. But if you should meet him, tell him that you've seen his B-Formula work flawlessly in one instance at least. You see, he dabbled in chemistry and entomology and a lot of uncommon pursuits--a solicitor by profession, he never seemed to have any practice to speak of--and he invented this stuff and named it the B-Formula." Rutton tapped the silver phial in his waistcoat pocket, smiling faintly. "He was a good little man.... Two minutes. Strange how little one cares, when it's inevitable...."
He ceased to speak and closed his eyes. A great stillness made itself felt within the room. In the other, Doggott was silent--probably asleep. Amber noted the fact subconsciously, even as he was aware that the high fury of the wind was moderating. But consciously he was bowed down with sorrow, inexpressibly racked.
In the hush the metallic hammering of the mean tin clock rang loud and harsh; Amber's heart seemed to beat in funeral time to its steady, unhurried, immutable ticking.
It was close upon two in the morning.
"Amber," said Rutton suddenly and very clearly, "you'll find a will in my despatch box. Doggott is to have all I possess. The emerald ring--the Token--I give to you."
"Your hand.... Mine is cold? No? I fancied it was," said the man drowsily. And later: "Sophia. You will be kind to her, David?"
"On my faith!"
Rutton's fingers tightened cruelly upon his, then relaxed suddenly. He began to nod, his chin drooping toward his breast.
"The Gateway ... the Bell...."
The words were no more than whispers dying on lips that stilled as they spoke. For a long time Amber sat unmoving, his fingers imprisoned in that quiet, cooling grasp, his thoughts astray in a black mist of mourning and bewilderment.
Through the hush of death the tin clock ticked on, placidly, monotonously, complacently. In the fireplace a charred log broke with a crash and a shower of live cinders.
Out of doors something made a circuit of the cabin, like a beast of the night, stealthy footsteps muffled by the snow: pad--pad--pad....
In the emerald ring on Amber's finger the deathless fire leaped and pulsed.
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
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