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COLONEL RAY'S RING
The ring lay on the table between us. Colonel Ray had not yet taken it up. In grim silence he listened to my faltering words. When I finished he smiled upon me as one might upon a child that needed humouring.
"So," he said, slipping the ring upon his finger, "you have saved me from the hangman. What remains? Your reward, eh?"
"It may seem to you," I answered hotly, "a fitting subject for jokes. I am sorry that my sense of humour is not in touch with yours. You are a great traveller, and you have shaken death by the hand before. For me it is a new thing. The man's face haunts me! I cannot sleep or rest for thinking of it--as I have seen it dead, and as I saw it alive pressed against my window that night. Who was he? What did he want with me?"
"How do you know," Ray asked, "that he wanted anything from you?"
"He looked in at my window."
"He might have seen me enter."
Then I told him what I had meant to keep secret.
"He asked for me in the village. He was directed to my cottage."
Ray had been filling his pipe. His fingers paused in their task. He looked at me steadily.
"How do you know that?" he asked.
"The person to whom he spoke in the village told me so."
"Then why did that person not appear at the inquest?"
"Because I asked her not to," I told him. "If she had given evidence the verdict must have been a different one."
"It seems to me," he said quietly, "that you have acted foolishly. If that young woman, whoever she may be, chooses to tell the truth later on you will be in an awkward position."
"If she had told the truth yesterday," I answered, "the position would have been quite awkward enough. Let that go! I want to know who that man was, what he wanted with me."
Colonel Ray shrugged his shoulders.
"My young friend," he said, "have you come from Braster to ask that question?"
"To give you the ring and to ask you that question."
"How do you know that the ring is mine?"
"I saw it on your finger when you were giving me wine."
"Then you believe," he said, "that I killed him?"
"It is no concern of mine," I cried hoarsely. "I do not want to know. I do not want to hear. But I tell you that the man's face haunts me. He asked for me in the village. I feel that he came to Rowchester to see me. And he is dead. Whatever he came to say or to tell me will be buried with him. Who was he? Tell me that?"
Ray smoked on for a few moments reflectively.
"Sit down, sit down!" he said gruffly, "and do abandon that tragical aspect. The creature was not worth all this agitation. He lived like a dog, and he died like one."
"It is true, then?" I murmured.
"If you insist upon knowing," Ray said coolly, "I killed him! There are insects upon which one's foot falls, reptiles which one removes from the earth without a vestige of a qualm, with a certain sense of relief. He was of this order."
"He was a human being," I answered.
"He was none the better for that," Ray declared. "I have known animals of finer disposition."
"You at least," I said fiercely, "were not his judge. You struck him in the dark, too. It was a cowardly action."
Ray turned his head. Then I saw that around his neck was a circular bandage.
"If it interests you to know it," he remarked drily, "I was not the assailant. But for the fact that I was warned it might have been my body which you came across on the sands. I started a second too soon for our friend--and our exchange of compliments sent him to eternity."
"It was in self-defence, then?"
"Scarcely that. He would have run away if he could. I decided otherwise."
"Tell me who he was," I insisted.
Ray shook his head.
"Better for you not to know," he remarked reflectively. "Much better."
My cheeks grew hot with anger.
"Colonel Ray," I said, "this may yet be a serious affair for you. Why you should assume that I am willing to be a silent accessory to your crime I cannot imagine. I insist upon knowing who this man was."
"You have come to London," Ray answered quietly, "to ask me this?"
"I have told you before why I am here," I answered. "I will not be put off any longer. Who was that man, and what did he want with me?"
For a period of time which I could not measure, but which seemed to me of great duration, there was silence between us. Then Ray leaned over towards me.
"I think," he said, "that it is my turn to talk. You have come to me like a hysterical schoolboy, you seem ignorant of the primeval elements of justice. After all it is not wonderful. As yet you have only looked in upon life. You look in, but you do not understand. You have called me a coward. It is only a year or so since His Majesty pinned a little cross upon my coat--for valour. I won that for saving a man's life. Mind you, he was a man. He was a man and a comrade. To save him I rode through a hell of bullets. It ought to have meant death. As a matter of fact it didn't. That was my luck. But you mustn't call me a coward, Ducaine. It is an insult to my decoration."
"Oh, I know that you are brave enough," I answered, "but this man was a poor weak creature, a baby in your hands."
"So are the snakes we stamp beneath our feet," he answered coolly. "Yet we kill them. In Egypt I have been in more than one hot corner where we fought hand to hand. I have killed men more than once. I have watched them galloping up with waving swords, and their fine faces ablaze with the joy of battle, and all the time one's revolver went spit, and the saddles were empty. Yet never once have I sent a brave man to his last account without regret, enemy and fanatic though he was. I am not a bloodthirsty man. When I kill, it is because necessity demands it. As for that creature whom you found in the marshes, well, if there were a dozen such in this room now, I would do my best to rid the earth of them. Take my advice. Dismiss the whole subject from your mind. Go back to Braster and wait. Something may happen within the next twenty-four hours which will be very much to your benefit. Go back to Braster and wait."
"You will tell me nothing, then?" I asked. "It is treating me like a child. I am not a sentimentalist. If the man deserved death the matter is between you and your conscience. But he came to Rowchester to see me. I want to know why."
"Go back to Rowchester and wait," Ray said. "I shall tell you nothing. Depend upon it that his business with you, if he had any, was evil business. He and his whole brood left their mark for evil wherever they crawled."
"His name?" I asked.
"Were there no papers upon him?" Ray demanded.
"So much the better," Ray declared grimly. "Now, my young friend, I have given you all the time I can spare. Beyond what I have said I shall say nothing. If you had known me better--you would not be here still."
So I left him. His words gave me no loophole of hope. His silence was the silence of a strong man, and I had no weapons with which to assail it. I had wasted the money which I could ill afford on this journey to London. Certainly Ray's advice was good. The sooner I was back in Braster the better.
From the station I had walked straight to Ray's house, and from Ray's house I returned, without any deviation, direct to the great terminus. For a man with less than fifty pounds in the world London is scarcely a hospitable city. I caught a slow train, and after four hours of jolting, cold, and the usual third-class miseries, alighted at Rowchester Junction. Already I had started on the three mile tramp home, my coat collar turned up as some slight protection against the drizzling rain, when a two-wheeled trap overtook me, and Mr. Moyat shouted out a gruff greeting. He raised the water-proof apron, and I clambered in by his side.
"Been to Sunbridge?" he inquired cheerfully.
"I have been to London," I answered.
"You haven't been long about it," he remarked. "I saw you on the eight-twenty, didn't I?"
"My business was soon over," I said.
"I've been to Sunbridge," he told me. "Went over with his Grace. My girl was talking about you the other night, Mr. Ducaine."
"Indeed?" I answered.
"Seemed to think," he continued, "that things had been growing a bit rough for you, losing those pupils after you'd been at the expense of taking the Grange, and all that, you know."
"It was rather bad luck," I admitted quietly.
"I've been wondering," he continued, with some diffidence, "whether you'd care for a bit of work in my office, just to carry you along till things looked up. Blanche, she was set upon it that I should ask you anyway. Of course, you being a college young gentleman might not care about it, but there's times when any sort of a job is better than none, eh?"
"It is very kind of you, Mr. Moyat," I answered, "and very kind of Miss Blanche to have thought of it. A week ago I shouldn't have hesitated. But within the last few days I have had a sort of offer--I don't know whether it will come to anything, but it may. Might I leave it open for the present?"
I think that Mr. Moyat was a little disappointed. He flicked the cob with the whip, and looked straight ahead into the driving mist.
"Just as you say," he declared. "I ain't particular in want of any one, but I'm getting to find my own bookkeeping a bit hard, especially now that my eyes ain't what they were. Of course it would only be a thirty bob a week job, but I suppose you'd live on that all right, unless you were thinking of getting married, eh?"
I laughed derisively.
"Married, Mr. Moyat!" I exclaimed. "Why, I'm next door to a pauper."
"There's such a thing," he remarked thoughtfully, "if one's a steady sort of chap, and means work, as picking up a girl with a bit of brass now and then."
"I can assure you, Mr. Moyat," I said as coolly as possible, "that anything of that sort is out of the question so far as I am concerned. I should never dream of even thinking of getting married till I had a home of my own and an income."
He seemed about to say something, but checked himself. We drove on in silence till we came to a dark pile of buildings standing a little way back from the road. He moved his head towards it.
"They tell me Braster Grange is took after all," he remarked. "Mr. Hulshaw told me so this morning."
I was very little interested, but was prepared to welcome any change in the conversation.
"Do you know who is coming there?" I asked.
"An American lady, I believe, name of Lessing. I don't know what strangers want coming to such a place, I'm sure."
I glanced involuntarily over my shoulder. Braster Grange was a long grim pile of buildings, which had been unoccupied for many years. Between it and the sea was nothing but empty marshland. It was one of the bleakest spots along the coast--to the casual observer nothing but an arid waste of sands in the summer, a wilderness of desolation in the winter. Only those who have dwelt in those parts are able to feel the fascination of that great empty land, a fascination potent enough, but of slow growth. Mr. Moyat's remark was justified.
We drove into his stable yard and clambered down.
"You'll come in and have a bit of supper," Mr. Moyat insisted.
I hesitated. I felt that it would be wiser to refuse, but I was cold and wet, and the thought of my fireless room depressed me. So I was ushered into the long low dining-room, with its old hunting prints and black oak furniture, and, best of all, with its huge log fire. Mrs. Moyat greeted me with her usual negative courtesy. I do not think that I was a favourite of hers, but whatever her welcome lacked in impressiveness Blanche's made up for. She kept looking at me as though anxious that I should remember our common secret. More than once I was almost sorry that I had not let her speak.
"You've had swell callers again," she remarked, as we sat side by side at supper-time. "A carriage from Rowchester was outside your door when I passed."
"Ah, he's a good sort is the Duke," Mr. Moyat declared appreciatively. "A clever chap, too. He's A1 in politics, and a first-class business man, chairman of the great Southern Railway Company, and on the board of several other City companies."
"I can't see what the gentry want to meddle with such things at all for," Mrs. Moyat said. "There's some as says as the Duke's lost more than he can afford by speculations."
"The Duke's a shrewd man," Mr. Moyat declared. "It's easy to talk."
"If he hasn't lost money," Mrs. Moyat demanded, "why is Rowchester Castle let to that American millionaire? Why doesn't he live there himself?"
"Prefers the East Coast," Mr. Moyat declared cheerfully. "More bracing, and suits his constitution better. I've heard him say so himself."
"That is all very well," Mrs. Moyat said, "but I can't see that Rowchester is a fit country house for a nobleman. What do you think, Mr. Ducaine?"
I was more interested in the discussion than anxious to be drawn into it, so I returned an evasive reply. Mrs. Moyat nodded sympathetically.
"Of course," she said, "you haven't seen the house except from the road, but I've been over it many a time when Mrs. Felton was housekeeper and the Duke didn't come down so often, and I say that it's a poor place for a Duke."
"Well, well, mother, we won't quarrel about it," Mr. Moyat declared, rising from the table. "I must just have a look at the mare. Do you look after Mr. Ducaine, Blanche."
To my annoyance the retreat of Mr. and Mrs. Moyat was evidently planned, and accelerated by a frown from their daughter. Blanche and I were left alone--whereupon I, too, rose to my feet."
"I must be going," I said, looking at the clock.
Blanche only laughed, and bade me sit down by her side.
"I'm so glad dad brought you in to-night," she said. "Did he say anything to you?"
"Never mind," she answered archly. "Did he say anything at all?"
"He remarked once or twice that it was a wet night," I said.
"Stupid!" she exclaimed. "You know what I mean."
"He did make me a very kind offer," I admitted.
She looked at me eagerly.
"I told him that I am expecting an offer of work of some sort from the Duke. Of course it may not come. In any case, it was very kind of Mr. Moyat."
She drew a little closer to me.
"It was my idea," she whispered. I put it into his head."
"Then it was very kind of you too," I answered. She was apparently disappointed. We sat for several moments in silence. Then she looked around with an air of mystery, and whispered still more softly into my ear--
"I haven't said a word about that--to anybody."
"Thank you very much," I answered. "I was quite sure that you wouldn't, as you had promised."
Again there was silence. She looked at me with some return of that half fearsome curiosity which had first come into her eyes when I made my request.
"Wasn't the inquest horrid?" she said. "Father says they were five hours deciding--and there's old Joe Hassell; even now he won't believe that--that--he came from the sea."
"It isn't a pleasant subject," I said quietly. "Let us talk of something else."
She was swinging a very much beaded slipper backwards and forwards, and gazing at it thoughtfully.
"I don't know," she said. "I can't help thinking of it sometimes. I suppose it is terribly wicked to keep anything back like that, isn't it?"
"If you feel that," I answered, "you had better go and tell your father everything."
She looked at me quickly.
"Now you're cross," she exclaimed. "I'm sure I don't know why."
"I am not cross," I said, "but I do not wish you to feel unhappy about it."
"I don't mind that," she answered, lifting her eyes to mine, "if it is better for you."
The door opened and Mr. Moyat appeared. Blanche was obviously annoyed, I was correspondingly relieved. I rose at once, and took my leave.
"Blanche got you to change your mind?" he said, looking at me closely.
"Miss Moyat hasn't tried," I answered, shaking him by the hand. "We were talking about something else."
Blanche pushed past her father and came to let me out. We stood for a moment at the open door. She pointed down the street.
"It was just there he stopped me," she said in a low tone. "He was very pale, and he had such a slow, strange voice, just like a foreigner. It was in the shadow of the market-hall there. I wish I'd never seen him."
A note of real fear seemed to have crept into her voice. Her eyes were straining through the darkness. I forced a laugh as I lit my cigarette.
"You mustn't get fanciful," I declared. "Men die every day, you know, and I fancy that this one was on his last legs. Good-night."
Her lips parted as though in an answering greeting, but it was inaudible. As I looked round at the top of the street I saw her still standing there in the little flood of yellow light, gazing across towards the old market-hall.
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