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FRIEND OR ENEMY?
There came no summons from Rowchester, and I dined alone. I must have dozed over my after-dinner cigarette, for at first that soft rapping seemed to come to me from a long way off. Then I sat up in my chair with a start. My cigarette had burnt out, my coffee was cold. I had been asleep, and outside some one was knocking at my' front door.
I had sent Grooton to the village with letters, and I was alone in the place. I sprang from my chair just as the handle of the door was turned and a woman stepped quietly in. She was wrapped from head to foot in a long cloak, and she was thickly veiled. But I knew her at once. It was Mrs. Smith-Lessing.
My first impulse was one of anger. It seemed to me that she was taking advantage of the sympathy which Ray's brutality during our last interview had forced from me. I spoke to her coldly, almost angrily.
"Mrs. Smith-Lessing," I said, "I regret that I cannot receive you here. My position just now does not allow me to receive visitors."
She simply raised her veil and sank into the nearest chair. I was staggered when I saw her face. It was positively haggard, and her eyes were burning. She looked at me almost with horror.
"I had to come," she said. "I could not keep away a moment longer. Tell me the truth, Guy Ducaine. The truth, mind!" she repeated, fearfully.
"What do you mean?" I asked, bewildered. "I do not understand you."
"Tell me the truth about that man who came to see you on the seventh of January."
I shook my head.
"I have nothing to tell you," I said firmly. "When I found him on the marshes he was dead. I did not hear till afterwards that he had ever asked for me."
"This is the truth?" she asked eagerly.
"It is the truth!" I answered.
I could see the relief shine in her face. She was still anxious, however.
"Is it true," she asked, "that you told a girl in the village, Blanche Moyat, to keep secret the fact that this man inquired in the village for the way to your cottage?"
"That also is true," I admitted. "She did not tell me until afterwards, and I saw no purpose in publishing the fact that the man had been on his way to see me."
"You have been very foolish," she said. "You have quarrelled with the girl. She is telling this against you, and there will be trouble."
"I cannot help it," I answered. "I never spoke to the man. I saw nothing of him until I found him dead."
"Guy!" she cried, "this is an awful thing. I am not sure, but I believe that the man was your father!"
As often as the thought had comae to me I had thrust it away. This time, however, there was no escape. The whole hideous scene spread itself out again before my eyes. I saw the doubled-up body, limp and nerveless. I felt again the thrill of horror with which one looks for the first time on death. The mockery of the sunlight filling the air, gleaming far and wide upon the creek-riven marshes and wet sands, the singing of the birds, the slow tramp of the wagon horses. All these things went to fill up that one terrible picture. I looked at the woman opposite to me, and in her face was some reflection of the horror which I as surely felt.
"For your sake," she murmured, "we must find out how he met with his death."
"The verdict was Found drowned," I murmured.
"People will change their opinion now," she answered. "Besides, you and I know that he was not drowned."
"You are sure of that?" I asked.
"Quite," she answered. "He had letters with him, I know, and papers for you. Besides, he carried always with him a number of trifles by which he could have been identified. When he was searched at the police station his pockets were empty. He had been robbed. Guy, he had, as I have had, one unflinching, relentless enemy. Tell me, was Colonel Ray in Braster at the time?"
"No," I answered hoarsely. "I cannot tell you. I will have no more to do with it. The matter is over--let it rest,"
"But, my poor boy," she said quietly, "it will not be allowed to rest. Can't you see that this girl's statement does away with the theory that he was washed up from the sea? He met with his death there on the sands. He left Braster to visit you, and he was found within a few yards of your cottage dead, and with marks of violence upon him. You will be suspected, perhaps charged. It is inevitable. Now tell me the truth. Was Mostyn Ray in Braster at the time?"
"He lectured that night in the village," I answered.
Her eyes gleamed with a strange fire.
"I knew it!" she exclaimed. "I have him at last, then. I saw him falter when I spoke of your father. Guy, I will save you, but I would give the rest of my days to bring this home to Mostyn Ray."
I shook my head.
"You will never do it," I declared. "There might be suspicion, but there will never be any proof. If there was any murder done at all, it was done without witnesses."
"We shall see about that," she muttered. "There is what you call circumstantial evidence. It has hanged people before now."
We remained silent for several moments. All this time she was watching me.
"Guy," she said softly, "you are very like what he was--at your age."
Her cloak had fallen back. She was wearing a black evening gown with a string of pearls around her neck. The excitement had given her a faint colour, and something like tears softened her eyes as she looked across at me. But the more I looked at her the more anxious I was to see her no more. Her words reminded me of the past. I remembered that it was she who had been my father's evil genius, she who had brought this terrible disgrace upon him, and this cloud over my own life. I rose to my feet.
"I do not wish to ask for any favours from you," I said, "but I will ask you to remember that if you are seen here I shall certainly lose my post."
"What does it matter?" she answered contemptuously. "I am not a rich woman, Guy, but I know how to earn money. Mostyn Ray would not believe it, perhaps, but I loved your father. Yours has been a miserable little life. Come with me, and I promise that I will show you how to make it great. You have no relatives or any ties. I promise you that I will be a model stepmother."
I looked at her, bewildered.
"It is not possible for me to do anything of the sort," I told her. "I do not wish to seem unkind, but nothing in this world would induce me to consider such a thing for a moment. I have chosen my life and the manner of it. Do you think that I can ever forget that you and my father between you broke my mother's heart, and made it necessary for me to be brought up without friends, ashamed of my name and of my history? One does not forget these things. I bear you no ill will, but I wish that you would go away."
She sat there quite quietly, listening to me.
"Guy," she said, when I had finished, "all that you speak of happened many years ago. There is forgiveness for everybody, isn't there? You and I are almost alone in the world. I want to be your friend. You might find me a more powerful one than you think. Try me! I will make your future mine. You shall have your own way in all things. I know the hills and the valleys of life, the underneath and the matchless places. If you accept my offer you will never regret it. I can be a faithful friend or a relentless enemy. Between you and me, Guy, there can be no middle course. I want to be your friend. Don't make me your enemy."
The woman puzzled me. She had every appearance of being in earnest. Yet the things which she proposed were absurd.
"This is folly," I answered her. "I cannot count it anything else. Do you suppose that I want to creep through life at a woman's apron-strings? I am old enough, and strong enough, I hope, to think and act for myself. My career is my own, to make or to mar. I do not wish for enmity from any one, but your friendship I cannot accept. Our ways lie apart--a long way apart."
"Do not be too sure of that," she said quietly. "I think that you and I may come together again very soon, and it is possible that you may need my help."
"All that I need now," I answered impatiently, "is your absence."
She rose at once from her chair.
"Very well," she said, "I will go. Only let me warn you that I am a persistent woman. I think that it will not be very long before you will see things differently. Will you shake hands with me, Guy?"
Her small white fingers came hesitatingly out from under her cloak. I did not stop to think to what my action might commit me, whether indeed it was seemly that I should accept any measure of friendship from this woman. I took her hand and held it for a moment in mine.
"You cannot go back alone," I said, doubtfully, as I opened the door.
"I have a servant waiting close by," she answered, "and I am not at all afraid. Think over what I have said to you--and good-bye."
She drew her cloak around her and flitted away into the darkness.
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