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MY FATHER'S LETTER
I heard Ray's heavy footsteps ascending the stairs to his room. In a few moments he returned, bearing in his hand a letter.
"Guy," he said thoughtfully, "I am a man who is slow to place trust in any one. For that reason, and perhaps because ignorance was better for you, I have told you little of the events of that night. Now my first opinion of you has undergone some modifications. You are stronger than I thought, you have shown faith in me too, or I should not be here practically a guest under your roof to-night. Listen! The man whom you found dead in the marshes was not your father!"
I was not surprised. Always I had doubted it.
"Who was he, then?" I asked calmly.
"When your father went mad at Gibraltar," Ray said, "he needed help. This man, Clery by name, supplied it. When I knew them both he was your father's valet. Since then he has been his confederate in many schemes. Your father on many occasions manifested the remnants of a sense of honour. This creature set himself deliberately and successfully to corrupt it. He was a parasite, a nerveless, bloodless thing without a single human attribute. He and that woman were alike responsible for your father's ruined life."
"Once before," Ray continued, after a moment's pause, "I had told him that if ever we should meet where his life would cost me nothing, I would kill him as I would set my heel upon an adder--and he only smiled as though I had paid him some delicate compliment. And that night, Guy, a hundred yards from your cottage, he sidled up to me in that lonely road, and bade me direct him to the abode of Mr. Guy Ducaine. A moment after he recognized me."
A grim smile parted Ray's lips, but I could not repress a shudder. Invariably at any reference to that awful night the old fear came back.
"He seemed at first paralyzed with fear," Ray continued. "He tried to slip away into the marshes, but I caught him easily, and held him so that he could not escape. He admitted that he had come to find you with a message from your father. He denied at first having a letter, but I searched him until I found it. As you see, it is addressed to you. Nevertheless I struck matches, opened it, and with some difficulty managed to read it. All the time this creature was doubling about like an eel trying to get away. Read the letter."
I drew it from the envelope. It was dated from the Savoy Hotel.
"My DEAR SON,--I do not deserve that you should read beyond these three words. I have as little right to call you my son as you can have desire to claim me for your father. I am here, however, purely on an errand of justice. I have learned that you have been robbed of the sum set aside to give you a start in life. I am here to endeavor to replace it, for which purpose I desire that you will grant me a business interview within the next few days. I beg your reply by Clery, my faithful companion and servant. I am known here as
"RICHARD DREW FOSTER."
I laid the letter down without remark. Ray had filled his pipe whilst I had been reading, and was sitting now on the arm of his easy chair, facing me.
"I understood the letter and its meaning," he continued. "I knew that the whole neighbourhood was under the observation of the French Secret Service, and the man who signed himself Richard Drew Foster saw in you an excellent tool ready to his hand. It is very certain also that the matter would probably have presented itself to you in a wholly different light. Accordingly, I placed the letter in my own pocket, and I released my hold of Clery.
"'You can go back to your master,' I said, 'and tell him that you have seen me, and that I have his letter. It will be sufficient. And you can tell him that I shall be in London to-morrow night, and if any such person as Mr. Drew Foster is staying at the Savoy Hotel, he will know the inside of a military prison before midnight.'
"The man slunk away. I suppose he realized that with me in the way their game was up. But afterwards he must have hesitated, and then made up his mind to attempt what was probably the bravest action of his life. He followed me, stole up softly behind, and with an old trick which they teach them on the other side of the Seine, he as nearly as possible throttled me. However, I got my finger inside the slipknot, and I held him by the throat. When I could breathe, I lifted him up and threw him into the marshes. There I left him. It seems the fall killed him. That is the whole story. It was absolutely God's justice, but I am quite aware that the laws of the country do not exactly favour such summary treatment. Accordingly I held my peace. I am sorry for it now."
"And Mr. Drew Foster?"
"Had left the Savoy Hotel when I reached there," Ray said drily, "and had omitted to leave an address."
"You might have trusted me," I remarked, thoughtfully.
"If I had known you as well then as I do now," Ray answered, "I would have risked it."
Then as we sat in silence there came a low tapping at the door. Ray looked at me keenly.
"Who visits you at this hour?" he asked.
"We will see," I answered.
I had meant to be careful whom I admitted, but I had scarcely withdrawn the latch when the door was pushed open, and a slim, thickly-cloaked figure glided past me into the room. I knew her by the supple swiftness of her movements. Ray sat still, and smoked with the face of a Sphinx.
I think that at first she did not see him. She swept round upon me and raised her veil.
"Guy," she cried, "forgive me, but I could not help it. I have made a mummy of myself, and I have walked along those awful sands that I might not be seen; but there is a question--"
She saw Ray. The words died from her lips. She stood and shivered like a trapped bird. He removed his pipe from his teeth.
"Go on," he said mildly. "Don't mind me. Perhaps I can help Mr. Ducaine to answer it."
She sank into a chair. Her eyes seemed to implore me to protect her. I heard Ray's little snort of contempt; but I answered her kindly. I could not help it.
"I am sorry that you came," I said, "but, of course, I will answer any question you want to ask me. Don't hurry! You are out of breath. Let me give you some wine."
My own untasted liqueur was on the table by the side of my empty coffee cup. I made her drink it, and her teeth ceased to chatter. She was rather a pathetic object. One of her little black satin slippers was cut to shreds, and the other was clogged with wet sand. The fear of Ray, too, was in her white face. She caught hold of my hand impulsively.
"The man," she murmured, "whom you found--what was he like?"
"He was a small dark man."
She laughed hysterically.
"He," she exclaimed, "was over six feet, and broad! It was not he. It may have been some one whom he sent, but it was not he. Guy, have you heard from him? Do you know where he is?"
I shook my head. Ray interposed.
"I think," he said roughly, "that you'll find him at home when you get there, madam, wherever that may be. If he were in this country it would be within the four walls of a prison."
She looked across at him.
"You have set them on--the police--then?" she said. "You would hunt him down still? After all these years?"
"Ay!" he answered.--"Tell me where he is hiding in this country, and I will promise you that his days of freedom are over."
She pointed to me.
"Ay, were he his father a hundred times over."
She turned to me as though in protest, but my face gave her no encouragement. She rose wearily to her feet.
"I will go," she muttered. "Guy," she added, turning to me, "you are honest. You will always be honest. You have nothing to fear, so you do not hesitate to speak if necessary to those whom nevertheless you do not trust. But there are other things in the world to fear besides dishonesty. There is animal brutality, coarse indifference to pain in others. There is the triumph of the beast over the man. There he sits, he who can teach you these things," she added, pointing to Ray. "Do not choose him for your friend, Guy. You will grow to see life, to judge others, through his eyes-and then God help you."
Ray laughed, and again to me there seemed to be a note of coarseness in his strident and unconcealed contempt of the woman. She took no notice of him whatever. She opened the door and passed out so quickly that though I tried to intercept her, and called out after her, I was powerless to prevent her going. She had flitted away into the shadows. I could not even hear her retreating footsteps.
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