Henry Leroux wrote busily on. The light of the table-lamp, softened andenriched by its mosaic shade, gave an appearance of added opulence tothe already handsome appointments of the room. The little table-clockticked merrily from half-past eleven to a quarter to twelve.
Into the cozy, bookish atmosphere of the novelist's study penetrated themuffled chime of Big Ben; it chimed the three-quarters. But, with hismind centered upon his work, Leroux wrote on ceaselessly.
An odd figure of a man was this popular novelist, with patchy anduntidy hair which lessened the otherwise striking contour of his brow.A neglected and unpicturesque figure, in a baggy, neutral-coloreddressing-gown; a figure more fitted to a garret than to this spacious,luxurious workroom, with the soft light playing upon rank after rankof rare and costly editions, deepening the tones in the Persian carpet,making red morocco more red, purifying the vellum and regilding thegold of the choice bindings, caressing lovingly the busts and statuettessurmounting the book-shelves, and twinkling upon the scantily-coveredcrown of Henry Leroux. The door bell rang.
Leroux, heedless of external matters, pursued his work. But the doorbell rang again and continued to ring.
“Soames! Soames!” Leroux raised his voice irascibly, continuing to writethe while. “Where the devil are you! Can't you hear the door bell?”
Soames did not reveal himself; and to the ringing of the bell was addedthe unmistakable rattling of a letter-box.
“Soames!” Leroux put down his pen and stood up. “Damn it! he's out! Ihave no memory!”
He retied the girdle of his dressing-gown, which had become unfastened,and opened the study door. Opposite, across the entrance lobby, wasthe outer door; and in the light from the lobby lamp he perceived twolaughing eyes peering in under the upraised flap of the letter-box. Theringing ceased.
“Are you VERY angry with me for interrupting you?” cried a girl's voice.
“My dear Miss Cumberly!” said Leroux without irritation; “on thecontrary--er--I am delighted to see you--or rather to hear you. There isnobody at home, you know.”...
“I DO know,” replied the girl firmly, “and I know something else, also.Father assures me that you simply STARVE yourself when Mrs. Leroux isaway! So I have brought down an omelette!”
“Omelette!” muttered Leroux, advancing toward the door; “youhave--er--brought an omelette! I understand--yes; you have brought anomelette? Er--that is very good of you.”
He hesitated when about to open the outer door, raising his hands to hisdishevelled hair and unshaven chin. The flap of the letter-box dropped;and the girl outside could be heard stifling her laughter.
“You must think me--er--very rude,” began Leroux; “I mean--not to openthe door. But”...
“I quite understand,” concluded the voice of the unseen one. “You are amost untidy object! And I shall tell Mira DIRECTLY she returns that shehas no right to leave you alone like this! Now I am going to hurry backupstairs; so you may appear safely. Don't let the omelette get cold.Good night!”
“No, certainly I shall not!” cried Leroux. “So good of you--I--er--dolike omelette.... Good night!”
Calmly he returned to his writing-table, where, in the pursuit of theelusive character whose exploits he was chronicling and who had broughthim fame and wealth, he forgot in the same moment Helen Cumberly and theomelette.
The table-clock ticked merrily on;SCRATCH--SCRATCH--SPLUTTER--SCRATCH--went Henry Leroux's pen; for thisup-to-date litterateur, essayist by inclination, creator of “MartinZeda, Criminal Scientist” by popular clamor, was yet old-fashionedenough, and sufficient of an enthusiast, to pen his work, while lessermen dictated.
So, amidst that classic company, smiling or frowning upon him from theoaken shelves, where Petronius Arbiter, exquisite, rubbed shoulderswith Balzac, plebeian; where Omar Khayyam leaned confidentially towardPhilostratus; where Mark Twain, standing squarely beside Thomas Carlyle,glared across the room at George Meredith, Henry Leroux pursued theamazing career of “Martin Zeda.”
It wanted but five minutes to the hour of midnight, when again the doorbell clamored in the silence.
Leroux wrote steadily on. The bell continued to ring, and, furthermore,the ringer could be heard beating upon the outer door.
“Soames!” cried Leroux irritably, “Soames! Why the hell don't you go tothe door!”
Leroux stood up, dashing his pen upon the table.
“I shall have to sack that damned man!” he cried; “he takes too manyliberties--stopping out until this hour of the night!”
He pulled open the study door, crossed the hallway, and opened the doorbeyond.
In, out of the darkness--for the stair lights had beenextinguished--staggered a woman; a woman whose pale face exhibited,despite the ravages of sorrow or illness, signs of quite unusual beauty.Her eyes were wide opened, and terror-stricken, the pupils contractedalmost to vanishing point. She wore a magnificent cloak of civet furwrapped tightly about her, and, as Leroux opened the door, she totteredpast him into the lobby, glancing back over her shoulder.
With his upraised hands plunged pathetically into the mop of his hair,Leroux turned and stared at the intruder. She groped as if a darknesshad descended, clutched at the sides of the study doorway, and then,unsteadily, entered--and sank down upon the big chesterfield in utterexhaustion.
Leroux, rubbing his chin, perplexedly, walked in after her. Hescarcely had his foot upon the study carpet, ere the woman started up,tremulously, and shot out from the enveloping furs a bare arm and apointing, quivering finger.
“Close the door!” she cried hoarsely--“close the door!... He has...followed me!”...
The disturbed novelist, as a man in a dream, turned, retraced his steps,and closed the outer door of the flat. Then, rubbing his chin morevigorously than ever and only desisting from this exercise to fumble inhis dishevelled hair, he walked back into the study, whose Athenean calmhad thus mysteriously been violated.
Two minutes to midnight; the most respectable flat in respectableWestminster; a lonely and very abstracted novelist--and a pale-faced,beautiful woman, enveloped in costly furs, sitting staring with fearfuleyes straight before her. This was such a scene as his sense of theproprieties and of the probabilities could never have permitted HenryLeroux to create.
His visitor kept moistening her dry lips and swallowing, emotionally.
Standing at a discreet distance from her:--
“Madam,” began Leroux, nervously.
She waved her hand, enjoining him to silence, and at the same timeintimating that she would explain herself directly speech becamepossible. Whilst she sought to recover her composure, Leroux, graduallyforcing himself out of the dreamlike state, studied her with a sort ofanxious curiosity.
It now became apparent to him that his visitor was no more thantwenty-five or twenty-six years of age, but illness or trouble, or bothtogether, had seared and marred her beauty. Amid the auburn masses ofher hair, gleamed streaks, not of gray, but of purest white. The lowbrow was faintly wrinkled, and the big--unnaturally big--eyes werepurple shaded; whilst two heavy lines traced their way from the cornerof the nostrils to the corner of the mouth--of the drooping mouth withthe bloodless lips.
Her pallor became more strange and interesting the longer he studied it;for, underlying the skin was a yellow tinge which he found inexplicable,but which he linked in his mind with the contracted pupils of her eyes,seeking vainly for a common cause.
He had a hazy impression that his visitor, beneath her furs, was mostinadequately clothed; and seeking confirmation of this, his gaze strayeddownward to where one little slippered foot peeped out from the civetfurs.
Leroux suppressed a gasp. He had caught a glimpse of a bare ankle!
He crossed to his writing-table, and seated himself, glancing sidewaysat this living mystery. Suddenly she began, in a voice tremulous andscarcely audible:--
“Mr. Leroux, at a great--at a very great personal risk, I have cometo-night. What I have to ask of you--to entreat of you, will... will”...
Two bare arms emerged from the fur, and she began clutching at herthroat and bosom as though choking--dying.
Leroux leapt up and would have run to her; but forcing a ghastly smile,she waved him away again.
“It is all right,” she muttered, swallowing noisily. But frightfulspasms of pain convulsed her, contorting her pale face.
“Some brandy--!” cried Leroux, anxiously.
“If you please,” whispered the visitor.
She dropped her arms and fell back upon the chesterfield, insensible.