Chapter 34




DOCTOR BEAUREGARD.


"Glass? My dear madam, pardon my remissness; he is dead. Rosa brought me the news before we sat down to table."

I opened my eyes. In the words, as I came back to consciousness, I found nothing remarkable, nor for a few seconds did it surprise me that the dark gallery had changed into a panelled, lighted room, with candles shining on a long, white table, and on flowers and crystal decanters, and dishes heaped with fruit. The candles were shaded, and from the sofa where I lay I saw across the cloth the faces of Miss Belcher and Captain Branscome intent on the Doctor. He was leaning forward from the head of the table and speaking to Plinny, who sat with her back to me, darkly silhouetted against the light. Mr. Rogers, on Plinny's left, had turned his chair sideways and was listening too; and at the lower end of the board a tall epergue of silver partially hid the form of Mr. Goodfellow.

"Yes, indeed, I ought to have told you," went on the Doctor's voice. "But really no recovery could be expected. The man's heart was utterly diseased."

His gaze, travelling past Plinny, wandered as if casually towards me, where I lay in the penumbra. I felt it coming, and closed my eyes; and on the instant my brain cleared.

Yes; Glass was dead, of course, poisoned by this man as ruthlessly as these my friends would be poisoned if I cried out no warning. . . . Or perhaps it had happened already.

I opened my eyes again, cautiously, little by little. The Doctor was filling Plinny's glass. Having filled it, he pushed the decanters towards Mr. Rogers, and turned to say a word to Miss Belcher, on his right. No; there was time. It had not happened--yet.

I wanted to start up and scream aloud. But some power, stronger than my will, held me down against the sofa-cushion. I had lost all grip of myself--of my voice and limbs alike. I could neither stir nor speak, but lay watching with half-closed eyes, while the room swam and in my ears I heard a thin voice buzzing: "Tell your friends-the ice--he never touches the ice. But it will not save them. He will find some other way."

The door opened, and its opening broke the spell. On the threshold stood the tall negress with a tray of coffee-cups, and on the tray a salver with a number of little glasses and a glass bowl--a bowl of ice. Her master pushed back the decanters to make room for the tray before him. She set it down, and the little glasses jingled softly.

"Upon my word, sir," said Miss Belcher, "what wonder upon wonders is this? Ice? And in Mortallone?"

"It is Rosa's little surprise, madame, and she will be gratified by your--"

He pushed back his chair and, leaving the sentence unfinished, rose swiftly and came to me as I staggered up from the sofa. A cry worked in my throat, but before I could utter it his two hands were on my shoulders, and he had appealed to the company with a triumphant little laugh.

"Did I not tell you the child would come to himself all right? A simple sedative--after the fright he had. He's trembling now, poor boy. No, ma'am"--he turned to Plinny, who had risen, and was coming forward solicitously; "let him sit upright for a moment, while he comes to his bearings. Or, better still, when you have finished your coffee--if Miss Belcher will be kind enough to pour it out for me-- we will take him out into the fresh air. Yes, yes, and the sooner the better, for I see that Mr. Rogers is fidgeting to be out and assure himself that the treasure has not taken wings."

He forced me gently back to my seat, and walked to the table.

"What were we saying? Ah, yes--to be sure--about the ice." He lifted his coffee-cup with a steady hand, and, his eyes travelling over it, fixed themselves on me, as though to make sure I was recovering. "The ice is a surprise of Rosa's, and I assure you she is proud of it. But (you may go, Rosa) I advise you to content yourselves with wondering; for the water on these hills, strange to say, is not healthy."

They voted the Doctor's advice to be good, and, having finished their coffee, wandered out into the fresh air. Plinny took my arm, and, leading me to the verandah, found me a comfortable seat, where I could recline and compose myself, for I was trembling yet.

"They have stacked the treasure there beyond the last window," Plinny informed me, nodding towards the end of the verandah, where Captain Branscome, Mr. Rogers, and Mr. Goodfellow were already gathered and busy in conversation. "In bulk it is less than we expected, but in value (the Doctor says) it goes beyond everything. Three hundredweight, they say, and in pure gems! He is to choose his share, by-and-by; and then we have to contrive how to take it down to the ship."

"Miss Plinlimmon," said the Captain, coming towards us, "you promised me a word yesterday. I should wish to claim it now--that is, if Harry can spare you."

I observed that his voice shook a little, but this I set down to excitement.

"Did I? Yes, I remember."

Miss Plinlimmon's voice, too, was tremulous. She hesitated, and her eyes in the dim light seemed to seek mine.

I assured her that I was recovering fast, here in the fresh air, and that it would be a kindness, indeed, to leave me alone. She bent quickly and kissed me. I wondered why, as she stepped past the Captain and he followed her down the verandah steps.

I wished to be left alone. I was puzzled, and what puzzled me was that neither Miss Belcher nor Dr. Beauregard had left the dining-room. In fact, as I passed out through the window, happening to turn my head, I had caught sight of his face, and it had signalled to her to stay. I knew not why he should intend harm to Miss Belcher rather than to any other of our party. But I distrusted the man; and Plinny had scarcely left me before, having made sure that Mr. Rogers and Mr. Goodfellow were within easy call, I rose up softly, crept to the dining-room window, and, dropping upon hands and knees close by the wall, peered into the room.

The Doctor and Miss Belcher had reseated themselves, He had poured himself out another glass of wine and was holding it up to the light with a steady hand, while she watched him, her elbows on the table and her firm jaw resting on her clasped fingers. Her face, though it showed no sign of fear, was pallid.

"Yes," he was saying slowly; "it is too late at this hour to be discussing what the priests would call the sin of it. You would never convince me; and if you convinced me, I am too old--and too weary--for what the priests call repentance. I am Martin--the same man that outwitted Melhuish and his crew--the same that played Harry with this Glass, and the man Coffin, and a drunken old ruffian they brought with them from Whydah! The fools! to think to frighten me, that had started by laying out a whole ship's crew! And now you come along; and I hold you all in the hollow of my palm. But I open my hand--so--and let you go."

"Why?"

"Why? I have told you. I am tired."

"That is not all the truth," answered Miss Belcher, eyeing him steadily.

"No; it is not all the truth. No one tells all the truth in this world. But I am glad you challenge me, for you shall have a little more of the truth. I let you go because you were simpletons, and I had not dealt with simpletons before."

"Is that the truth?" she persisted.

He laughed and sipped his wine.

"No; I let you go because I saw in you--I who have killed many for wealth and more for the mere pleasure of power--something which told me that, after all, I had missed the secret. From an outcast child in Havana I had made myself the sole king of this treasure of Mortallone. I went back and made slaves of men and women who had tossed that child their coppers in contemptuous pity. I brought them here, to Mortallone, to play with them; and as soon as they tired me, they--went. It was power I wanted; power I achieved; and in power, as I thought, lay the secret. The tools in this world say that a poisoner is always a coward: it is one of the phrases with which fools cheat themselves. For long I was sure of myself; and then, when the thought began to haunt me that, after all, I had missed the secret, I sought out the man who, in Europe, had made himself more powerful than kings; and I found that he had missed the secret too. Then I guessed that the secret is beyond a man's power to achieve, unless it be innate in him; that the gods themselves cannot help a man born in bastardy, as I was, or born with a vulgar soul, as was Napoleon. One chance of redemption he has--to mate with a woman who has, and has known from birth, the secret which he has missed. I guessed it--I that had wasted my days with singing-women, such as poor 'Metta! Then I met you, and I knew. Yes, madam, you--you, whose life to-night I had almost taken with a touch--taught me that I had left women out of account. Ah, madam, if the world were twenty years younger! . . . Will you do me the honour to touch glasses and drink with me?"

"Not on any account," said Miss Belcher, rising. "Not to put too fine a point upon it, you make me feel thoroughly sick; but"--she hesitated on the threshold of the window"--the worst of it is, I think I understand you a little."

I drew back into the shadow. Her stiff skirt almost struck me on the cheek as she passed, and, crossing the verandah, leant with both hands on the rail, while her face went up to the sky and the newly risen moon.

A voice spoke to her from the moonlit terrace below.

"Hallo!" she answered. "Is that Captain Branscome?"

"It is, ma'am: and Miss Plinlimmon--Amelia--as she allows me to call her."

Miss Belcher cut him short with a laugh. It rang out frank and free enough, and only I, crouching by the wall, understood the hysterical springs of it.

"You two geese!" she exclaimed, and ran down the steps to them.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

"Was that Lydia?" demanded Mr. Rogers, a moment later, as he came along the verandah.

"It was," I answered.

"I don't understand these people," grumbled Mr. Rogers, pausing and scratching his head. "There was to have been a meeting outside here, directly after supper, to divide off Doctor Beauregard's share; but confound it if every one don't seem to be playing hide-and-seek! Where's the Doctor?"

"In the dining-room," said I, nodding towards the window. . . .

He stepped towards it. At that moment I heard a dull thud within the room, and Mr. Rogers, his foot already on the threshold, drew back with a cry. I ran to his elbow.

On the floor, stretched at her master's feet, lay the negress Rosa. Dr. Beauregard stood by the corner of the table, and poured himself a small glassful of curacoa. While we gazed at him he reached out a hand to the icebowl, selected a small piece, and dropped it delicately into the glass. I heard it tingle against the rim.

"Your good health, sirs!" said Dr. Beauregard.

He sat back rigid in his chair.


THE END.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *       *       *       *       *       *




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