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Sydney Barnes staggered into his apartment with a little exclamation of relief which was almost a groan. He slammed the door and sank into an easy-chair. With both his hands he was grasping it so that his fingers were hot and wet with perspiration. At last he had obtained his soul's desire!
He sat there for several minutes without moving. The blinds were close drawn and the room was in darkness. Gradually he began to be afraid. He rose, and with trembling fingers struck a match. On the corner of the table--fortunately he knew exactly where to find it--was a candle. He lit it, and holding it over his head, peered fearfully around. Convinced at last that he was alone, he set it down again, wiped the perspiration from his forehead, and opening a cupboard in the chiffonnier, produced a bottle and a glass.
He poured out some spirits and drank it. Then, after rummaging for several moments in his coat pocket, he produced several crumpled cigarettes of a cheap variety. One of these he proceeded to smoke, whilst, with trembling fingers, he undid the packet which he had been carrying, and began a painstaking study of its contents. A delicate perfume stole out into the room from those closely pressed sheets, so eagerly clutched in his yellow-stained fingers. A little bunch of crushed violets slipped to the floor unheeded. Ghoul-like he bent over the pages of delicate writing, the intimate, passionate cry of a soul seeking for its mate. They were no ordinary love-letters. Mostly they were beyond the comprehension of the creature who spelt them out word for word, seeking all the time to appraise their exact monetary value to himself. But for what he had heard he would have found them disappointing. As it was, he gloated over them. Two thousand pounds a year his clever brother had earned by merely possessing them! He looked at them almost reverently. Then he suddenly remembered what else his brother had earned by their possession, and he shivered. A moment later the electric bell outside pealed, and there came a soft knocking at the door.
A little cry--half stifled--broke from his lips. With numbed and trembling fingers he began tying up the letters. The perspiration had broken out upon his forehead. Some one to see him! Who could it be? He was quite determined not to go to the door. He would let no one in. Again the bell! Soon they would get tired of ringing and go away. He was quite safe so long as he remained quiet. Quite safe, he told himself feverishly. Then his pulses seemed to stop beating. There was a rush of blood to his head. He clutched at the sides of his chair, but to rise was a sheer impossibility.
The thing which was terrifying him was a small thing in itself--the turning of a latch-key in the door. Before him on the table was his own--he knew of no other. Yet some one was opening, had opened his front door! He sprang to his feet at last with something which was almost a shriek. The door of the room in which he was, was slowly being pushed open. By the dim candlelight he could distinguish the figure of his visitor standing upon the threshold and peering into the room.
His impulse was, without doubt, one of relief. The figure was the figure of a complete stranger. Nor was there anything the least threatening about his appearance. He saw a tall, white-haired gentleman, carefully dressed with military exactitude, regarding him with a benevolent and apologetic smile.
"I really must apologize," he said, "for such an unceremonious entrance. I felt sure that you were in, but I am a trifle deaf, and I could not be sure whether or not the bell was ringing. So I ventured to use my own latch-key, with, as you are doubtless observing, complete success."
"Who are you, and what do you want?" Barnes asked, finding his voice at last.
"My name is Colonel Fitzmaurice," was the courteous reply. "You will allow me to sit down? I have the pleasure of conversing, I believe, with Mr. Sydney Barnes?"
"That's my name," Barnes answered. "What do you want with me?"
Despite his visitor's urbanity, he was still a little nervous. The Colonel had a somewhat purposeful air, and he had seated himself directly in front of the door.
"I want," the Colonel said calmly, "that packet which you have just stolen from Mrs. Morris Barnes, and which you have in your pocket there!"
Barnes rose at once, trembling, to his feet. His bead-like eyes were bright and venomous. He was terrified, but he had the courage of despair.
"I have stolen nothing," he declared, "I don't know what you're talking about. I won't listen to you. You have no right to force your way into my flat. Colonel or no colonel, I won't have it. I'll send for the police."
The Colonel smiled.
"No,"' he said, "don't do that. Besides, I know what I'm talking about. I mean the packet which I think I can see sticking out of your coat pocket. You have just stolen that from Mrs. Barnes' tin trunk, you know."
"I have stolen nothing," the young man declared, "nothing at all. I am not a thief. I am not afraid of the police."
The Colonel smiled tolerantly.
"That is good," he said. "I hate cowards. But I am going to make you very much afraid of me--unless you are wise and give me that packet."
Barnes breathed thickly for a moment. Coward he knew that he was to the marrow of his bones, but other of the evil passions were stirring in him then. His narrow eyes were alight with greed. He had the animal courage of vermin hard pressed.
"The packet is mine," he said fiercely. "It's nothing to do with you. Get out of my room."
He rose to his feet. The Colonel awaited him with equable countenance. He made, however, no advance.
"Young man," the Colonel said quietly, "do you know what happened to your brother?"
Sydney Barnes stood still and shivered. He could say nothing. His tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of his mouth.
"Your brother was another of your breed," the Colonel continued. "A blackmailer! A low-living, evil-minded brute. Do you know how he came by those letters?"
"I don't know and I don't care," Barnes answered with a weak attempt at bluster. "They're mine now, and I'm going to stick to them."
The Colonel shook his head.
"He broke his trust to a dying man," he said softly,--"to a man who lay on the veldt at Colenso with three great wounds in his body, and his life's blood staining the ground. He had carried those letters into action with him, because they were precious to him. His last thought was that they should be destroyed. Your brother swore to do this. He broke his word. He turned blackmailer."
"You're very fond of that word," Barnes muttered. "How do you know so much?"
"The soldier was my son," the Colonel answered, "and he did not die. You see I have a right to those letters. Will you give them to me?"
Give them up! Give up all his hopes of affluence, his dreams of an easy life, of the cheap luxuries and riches which formed the Heaven of his desire! No! He was not coward enough for that. He did not believe that this mild-looking old gentleman would use force. Besides, he could not be very strong. He ought to be able to push him over and escape!
"No!" he answered bluntly, "I won't!"
The Colonel looked thoughtful.
"It is a pity," he said quietly. "I am sorry to hear you say that. Your brother, when I asked him, made the same reply."
Barnes felt himself suddenly grow hot and then cold. The perspiration stood out upon his forehead.
"I called upon your brother a few days before his death," the Colonel continued calmly. "I explained my claim to the letters and I asked him for them. He too refused! Do you remember, by the by, what happened to your brother?"
Sydney Barnes did not answer, but his cheeks were like chalk. His mouth was a little open, disclosing his yellow teeth. He stared at the Colonel with frightened, fascinated eyes.
"I can see," the Colonel continued, "that you remember. Young man," he added, with a curious alteration in his tone, "be wiser than your brother! Give me the packet."
"You killed him," the young man gasped. "It was you who killed Morris."
The Colonel nodded gravely.
"He had his chance," he said, "even as you have it."
There was a dead silence. The Colonel was waiting. Sydney Barnes was breathing hard. He was alone, then, with a murderer. He tried to speak, but found a difficulty in using his voice. It was a situation which might have abashed a bolder ruffian.
The Colonel rose to his feet.
"I am sorry to hurry you," he said, "but we are already late for our appointment with Wrayson and his friends."
Sydney Barnes snatched up the packet and retreated behind the table. The Colonel leaned forward and blew out the candle.
"I can see better in the dark," he remarked calmly. "You are a very foolish young man!"
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