When Thieves Fall Out
The door slammed. It was invisibly locked and the key taken out. I listened for the last of an angry stride. It never even began. But after a pause the door was unlocked again, and Rattray re-entered.
Without looking at me, he snatched the candle from the table on which it stood by the bedside, and carried it to a bureau at the opposite side of the room. There he stood a minute with his back turned, the candle, I fancy, on the floor. I saw him putting something in either jacket pocket. Then I heard a dull little snap, as though he had shut some small morocco case; whatever it was, he tossed it carelessly back into the bureau; and next minute he was really gone, leaving the candle burning on the floor.
I lay and heard his steps out of earshot, and they were angry enough now, nor had he given me a single glance. I listened until there was no more to be heard, and then in an instant I was off the bed and on my feet. I reeled a little, and my head gave me great pain, but greater still was my excitement. I caught up the candle, opened the unlocked bureau, and then the empty case which I found in the very front.
My heart leapt; there was no mistaking the depressions in the case. It was a brace of tiny pistols that Rattray had slipped into his jacket pockets.
Mere toys they must have been in comparison with my dear Deane and Adams; that mattered nothing. I went no longer in dire terror of my life; indeed, there was that in Rattray which had left me feeling fairly safe, in spite of his last words to me, albeit I felt his fears on my behalf to be genuine enough. His taking these little pistols (of course, there were but three chambers left loaded in mine) confirmed my confidence in him.
He would stick at nothing to defend me from the violence of his bloodthirsty accomplices. But it should not come to that. My legs were growing firmer under me. I was not going to lie there meekly without making at least an effort at self-deliverance. If it succeeded - the idea came to me in a flash - I would send Rattray an ultimatum from the nearest town; and either Eva should be set instantly and unconditionally free, or the whole matter be put unreservedly in the hands of the local police.
There were two lattice windows, both in the same immensely thick wall; to my joy, I discovered that they overlooked the open premises at the back of the hall, with the oak-plantation beyond; nor was the distance to the ground very great. It was the work of a moment to tear the sheets from the bed, to tie the two ends together and a third round the mullion by which the larger window was bisected. I had done this, and had let down my sheets, when a movement below turned my heart to ice. The night had clouded over. I could see nobody; so much the greater was my alarm.
I withdrew from the window, leaving the sheets hanging, in the hope that they also might be invisible in the darkness. I put out the candle, and returned to the window in great perplexity. Next moment I stood aghast ---between the devil and the deep sea. I still heard a something down below, but a worse sound came to drown it. An unseen hand was very quietly trying the door which Rattray had locked behind him.
"Diablo!" came to my horrified ears) in a soft, vindictive voice.
"I told ye so," muttered another; "the young swab's got the key."
There was a pause, in which it would seem that Joaquin Santos had his ear at the empty keyhole.
"I think he must be slipping," at last I heard him sigh. "It was not necessary to awaken him in this world. It is a peety."
"One kick over the lock would do it," said Harris; "only the young swab'll hear."
"Not perhaps while he is dancing attendance on the senhora. Was it not good to send him to her? If he does hear, well, his own turn will come the queecker, that is all. But it would be better to take them one at a time; so keeck away, my friend, and I will give him no time to squil."
While my would-be murderers were holding this whispered colloquy, I had stood half-petrified by the open window; unwilling to slide down the sheets into the arms of an unseen enemy, though I had no idea which of them it could be; more hopeful of slipping past my butchers in the darkness, and so to Rattray and poor Eva; but not the less eagerly looking for some hiding-place in the room. The best that offered was a recess in the thick wall between the two windows, filled with hanging clothes: a narrow closet without a door, which would shelter me well enough if not too curiously inspected. Here I hid myself in the end, after a moment of indecision which nearly cost me my life. The coats and trousers still shook in front of me when the door flew open at the first kick, and Santos stood a moment in the moonlight, looking for the bed. With a stride he reached it, and I saw the gleam of a knife from where I stood among the squire's clothes; it flashed over my bed, and was still.
"He is not 'ere!"
"He heard us, and he's a-hiding."
"Make light, my friend, and we shall very soon see."
Harris did so.
"Here's a candle," said Santos; "light it, and watch the door. Perro mal dicto! What have we here?"
I felt certain he had seen me, but the candle passed within a yard of my feet, and was held on high at the open window.
"We are too late!" said Santos. "He's gone!"
"Are you sure
"Look at this sheet."
"Then the other swab knew of it, and we'll settle with him."
"Yes, yes. But not yet, my good friend - not yet. We want his asseestance in getting the gold back to the sea; he will be glad enough to give it, now that his pet bird has flown; after that - by all mins. You shall cut his troth, and I will put one of 'is dear friend's bullets in 'im for my own satisfaction."
There was a quick step on the stairs-in the corridor.
"I'd like to do it now," whispered Harris; "no time like the present."
"Not yet, I tell you!"
And Rattray was in the room, a silver-mounted pistol in each hand; the sight of these was a surprise to his treacherous confederates, as even I could see.
"What the devil are you two doing here?" he thundered.
"We thought he was too quite, said Santos. "You percive the rizzon."
And he waved from empty bed to open window, then held the candle close to the tied sheet, and shrugged expressively.
"You thought he was too quiet!" echoed Rattray with fierce scorn. "You thought I was too blind - that's what you mean. To tell me that Miss Denison wished to see me, and Miss Denison that I wished to speak to her! As if we shouldn't find you out in about a minute! But a minute was better than nothing, eh? And you've made good use of your minute, have you. You've murdered him, and you pretend he's got out? By God, if you have, I'll murder you! I've been ready for this all night!"
And he stood with his back to the window, his pistols raised, and his head carried proudly - happily - like a man whose self-respect was coming back to him after many days. Harris shrank before his fierce eyes and pointed barrels. The Portuguese, however, had merely given a characteristic shrug, and was now rolling the inevitable cigarette.
"Your common sense is almost as remarkable as your sense of justice, my friend," said he. "You see us one, two, tree meenutes ago, and you see us now. You see the empty bed, the empty room, and you imagine that in one, two, tree meenutes we have killed a man and disposed of his body. Truly, you are very wise and just, and very loyal also to your friends. You treat a dangerous enemy as though he were your tween-brother. You let him escape - let him, I repit - and then you threaten to shoot those who, as it is, may pay for your carelessness with their lives. We have been always very loyal to you, Senhor Rattray. We have leestened to your advice, and often taken it against our better judgment. We are here, not because we think it wise, but because you weeshed it. Yet at the first temptation you turn upon us, you point your peestols at your friends."
"I don't believe in your loyalty," rejoined Rattray. "I believe you would shoot me sooner than I would you. The only difference would be than I should be shot in the back!"
"It is untrue," said Santos, with immense emotion. "I call the saints to witness that never by thought or word have I been disloyal to you" - and the blasphemous wretch actually crossed himself with a trembling, skinny hand. "I have leestened to you, though you are the younger man. I have geeven way to you in everything from the moment we were so fullish as to set foot on this accursed coast; that also was your doeeng; and it will be your fault if ivil comes of it. Yet I have not complained. Here in your own
'ouse you have been the master, I the guest. So far from plotting against you, show me the man who has heard me brith one treacherous word behind your back; you will find it deeficult, friend Rattray; what do you say, captain?"
"Me?" cried Harris, in a voice bursting with abuse. And what the captain said may or may not be imagined. It cannot be set down.
But the man who ought to have spoken - the man who had such a chance as few men have off the stage - who could have confounded these villains in a breath, and saved the wretched Rattray at once from them and from himself - that unheroic hero remained ignobly silent in his homely hiding-place. And, what is more, he would do the same again!
The rogues had fallen out; now was the time for honest men. They all thought I had escaped; therefore they would give me a better chance than ever of still escaping; and I have already explained to what purpose I meant to use my first hours of liberty. That purpose I hold to have justified any ingratitude that I may seem now to have displayed towards the man who had undoubtedly stood between death and me. Was not Eva Denison of more value than many Rattrays? And it was precisely in relation with this pure young girl that I most mistrusted the squire: obviously then my first duty was to save Eva from Rattray, not Rattray from these traitors.
Not that I pretend for a moment to have been the thing I never was: you are not so very grateful to the man who pulls you out of the mud when he has first of all pushed you in; nor is it chivalry alone which spurs one to the rescue of a lovely lady for whom, after all, one would rather live than die. Thus I, in my corner, was thinking (I will say) of Eva first; but next I was thinking of myself; and Rattray's blood be on his own hot head! I hold, moreover, that I was perfectly right in all this; but if any think me very wrong, a sufficient satisfaction is in store for them, for I was very swiftly punished.
The captain's language was no worse in character than in effect: the bed was bloody from my wounded head, all tumbled from the haste with which I had quitted it, and only too suggestive of still fouler play. Rattray stopped the captain with a sudden flourish of one of his pistols, the silver mountings making lightning in the room; then he called upon the pair of them to show him what they had done with me; and to my horror, Santos invited him to search the room. The invitation was accepted. Yet there I stood. It would have been better to step forward even then. Yet I cowered among his clothes until his own hand fell upon my collar, and forth I was dragged to the plain amazement of all three.
Santos was the first to find his voice.
"Another time you will perhaps think twice before you spik, friend squire."
Rattray simply asked me what I had been doing in there, in a white flame of passion, and with such an oath that I embellished the truth for him in my turn.
"Trying to give you blackguards the slip," said I.
"Then it was you who let down the sheet?"
"Of course it was."
"All right! I'm done with you," said he; "that settles it. I make you an offer. You won't accept it. I do my best; you do your worst; but I'll be shot if you get another chance from me!"
Brandy and the wine-glass stood where Rattray must have set them, on an oak stool beside the bed; as he spoke he crossed the room, filled the glass till the spirit dripped, and drained it at a gulp. He was twitching and wincing still when he turned, walked up to Joaquin Santos, and pointed to where I stood with a fist that shook.
"You wanted to deal with him," said Rattray; "you're at liberty to do so. I'm only sorry I stood in your way."
But no answer, and for once no rings of smoke came from those shrivelled lips: the man had rolled and lighted a cigarette since Rattray entered, but it was burning unheeded between his skinny fingers. I had his attention, all to myself. He knew the tale that I was going to tell. He was waiting for it; he was ready for me. The attentive droop of his head; the crafty glitter in his intelligent eyes; the depth and breadth of the creased forehead; the knowledge of his resource, the consciousness of my error, all distracted and confounded me so that my speech halted and my voice ran thin. I told Rattray every syllable that these traitors had been saying behind his back, but I told it all very ill; what was worse, and made me worse, I was only too well aware of my own failure to carry conviction with my words.
"And why couldn't you come out and say so asked Rattray, as even I knew that he must. "Why wait till now?"
"Ah, why!" echoed Santos, with a smile and a shake of the head; a suspicious tolerance, an ostentatious truce, upon his parchment face. And already he was sufficiently relieved to suck his cigarette alight again.
"You know why," I said, trusting to bluff honesty with the one of them who was not rotten to the core: "because I still meant escaping."
"And then what?" asked Rattray fiercely.
"You had given me my chance," I said; "I hould have given you yours."
"You would, would you? Very kind of you, Mr. Cole!"
"No, no," said Santos; "not kind, but clever! Clever, spicious, and queeck-weeted beyond belif! Senhor Rattray, we have all been in the dark; we thought we had fool to dii with, but what admirable knave the young man would make! Such readiness, such resource, with his tongue or with his peestol; how useful would it be to us! I am glad you have decided to live him to me, friend Rattray, for I am quite come round to your way of thinking. It is no longer necessary for him to die!"
"You mean that?" cried Rattray keenly.
"Of course I min it. You were quite right. He must join us. But he will when I talk to him.
I could not speak. I was fascinated by this wretch: it was reptile and rabbit with us. Treachery I knew he meant; my death, for one; my death was certain; and yet I could not speak.
"Then talk to him, for God's sake," cried Rattray, "and I shall be only too glad if you can talk some sense into him. I've tried, and failed."
"I shall not fail," said Santos softly. "But it is better that he has a leetle time to think over it calmly; better steel for 'im to slip upon it, as you say. Let us live 'im for the night, what there is of it; time enough in the morning."
I could hardly believe my ears; still I knew that it was treachery, all treachery; and the morning I should never see.
"But we can't leave him up here," said Rattray; "it would mean one of us watching him all night."
"Quite so," said Santos. "I will tell you where we could live him, however, if you will allow me to wheesper one leetle moment."
They drew aside; and, as I live, I thought that little moment was to be Rattray's last on earth. I watched, but nothing happened; on the contrary, both men seemed agreed, the Portuguese gesticulating, the Englishman nodding, as they stood conversing at the window. Their faces were strangely reassuring. I began to reason with myself, to rid my mind of mere presentiment and superstition. If these two really were at one about me (I argued) there might be no treachery after all. When I came to think of it, Rattray had been closeted long enough with me to awake the worst suspicions in the breasts of his companions; now that these were allayed, there might be no more bloodshed after all (if, for example, I pretended to give in), even though Santos had not cared whose blood was shed a few minutes since. That was evidently the character of the wretch: to compass his ends or to defend his person he would take life with no more compunction than the ordinary criminal takes money; but (and hence) murder for murder's sake was no amusement to him.
My confidence was further restored by Captain Harris; ever a gross ruffian, with no refinements to his rascality, he had been at the brandy bottle after Rattray's example; and now was dozing on the latter's bed, taking his watch below when he could get it, like the good seaman he had been. I was quite sorry for him when the conversation at the window ceased suddenly, and Rattray roused the captain up.
"Watches aft!" said he. "We want that mattress; you can bring it along, while I lead the way with the pillows and things. Come on, Cole!"
"Where to?" I asked, standing firm.
"Where there's no window for you to jump out of, old boy, and no clothes of mine for you to hide behind. You needn't look so scared; it's as dry as a bone, as cellars go. And it's past three o'clock. And you've just got to come."Next