I Find a Friend
The night after I consulted the specialist I was quite determined to sleep. I had laid in a bundle of the daily papers. No country cottage was advertised to let but I knew of it by evening, and about all the likely ones I had already written. The scheme occupied my thoughts. Trout-fishing was a desideratum. I would take my rod and plenty of books, would live simply and frugally, and it should make a new man of me by Christmas. It was now October. I went to sleep thinking of autumn tints against an autumn sunset. It must have been very early, certainly not later than ten o'clock; the previous night I had not slept at all.
Now, this private hotel of mine was a very old fashioned house, dark and dingy all day long, with heavy old chandeliers and black old oak, and dead flowers in broken flower-pots surrounding a grimy grass-plot in the rear. On this latter my bedroom window looked; and never am I likely to forget the vile music of the cats throughout my first long wakeful night there. The second night they actually woke me; doubtless they had been busy long enough, but it was all of a sudden that I heard them, and lay listening for more, wide awake in an instant. My window had been very softly opened, and the draught fanned my forehead as I held my breath.
A faint light glimmered through a ground-glass pane over the door; and was dimly reflected by the toilet mirror, in its usual place against the window. This mirror I saw moved, and next moment I had bounded from bed.
The mirror fell with a horrid clatter: the toilet-table followed it with a worse: the thief had gone as he had come ere my toes halted aching amid the debris.
A useless little balcony - stone slab and iron railing - jutted out from my window. I thought I saw a hand on the railing, another on the slab, then both together on the lower level for one instant before they disappeared. There was a dull yet springy thud on the grass below. Then no more noise but the distant thunder of the traffic, and the one that woke me, until the window next mine was thrown up.
"What the devil's up?"
The voice was rich, cheery, light-hearted, agreeable; all that my own was not as I answered "Nothing!" for this was not the first time my next-door neighbor had tried to scrape acquaintance with me.
"But surely, sir, I heard the very dickens of a row?"
"You may have done."
"I was afraid some one had broken into your room!"
"As a matter of fact," said I, put to shame by the undiminished good-humor of my neighbor, "some one did; but he's gone now, so let him be."
"Gone? Not he! He's getting over that wall. After him - after him!" And the head disappeared from the window next mine.
I rushed into the corridor, and was just in time to intercept a singularly handsome young fellow, at whom I had hardly taken the trouble to look until now. He was in full evening dress, and his face was radiant with the spirit of mischief and adventure.
"For God's sake, sir," I whispered, "let this matter rest. I shall have to come forward if you persist, and Heaven knows I have been before the public quite enough!"
His dark eyes questioned me an instant, then fell as though he would not disguise that he recollected and understood . I liked him for his good taste. I liked him for his tacit sympathy, and better still for the amusing disappointment in his gallant, young face.
"I am sorry to have robbed you of a pleasant chase," said I. "At one time I should have been the first to join you. But, to tell you the truth, I've had enough excitement lately to last me for my life."
"I can believe that," he answered, with his fine eyes full upon me. How strangely I had misjudged him! I saw no vulgar curiosity in his flattering gaze, but rather that very sympathy of which I stood in need. I offered him my hand.
"It is very good of you to give in," I said. "No one else has heard a thing, you see. I shall look for another opportunity of thanking you to-morrow."
"No, no!" cried he, "thanks be hanged, but - but, I say, if I promise you not to bore you about things - won't you drink a glass of brandy-and-water in my room before you turn in again?"
Brandy-and-water being the very thing I needed, and this young man pleasing me more andmore, I said that I would join him with all my heart, and returned to my room for my dressing-gown and slippers. To find them, however, I had to light my candles, when the first thing I saw was the havoc my marauder had left behind him. The mirror was cracked across; the dressing-table had lost a leg; and both lay flat, with my brushes and shaving-table, and the foolish toilet crockery which no one uses (but I should have to replace) strewn upon the carpet. But one thing I found that had not been there before: under the window lay a formidable sheath-knife without its sheath. I picked it up with something of a thrill, which did not lessen when I felt its edge. The thing was diabolically sharp. I took it with me to show my neighbor, whom I found giving his order to the boots; it seemed that it was barely midnight, and that he had only just come in when the clatter took place in my room.
"Hillo!" he cried, when the man was gone, and I produced my trophy. "Why, what the mischief have you got there?"
"My caller's card," said I. "He left it behind him. Feel the edge."
I have seldom seen a more indignant face than the one which my new acquaintance bent over the weapon, as he held it to the light, and ran his finger along the blade. He could have not frowned more heavily if he had recognized the knife.
"The villains!" he muttered. "The damned villains!"
"Villains?" I queried. "Did you see more than one of them, then?"
"Didn't you?" he asked quickly. "Yes, yes, to be sure! There was at least one other beggar skulking down below." He stood looking at me, the knife in his hand, though mine was held out for it. "Don't you think, Mr. Cole, that it's our duty to hand this over to the police? I - I've heard of other cases about these Inns of Court. There's evidently a gang of them, and this knife might convict the lot; there's no saying; anyway I think the police should have it. If you like I'll take it to Scotland Yard myself, and hand it over without mentioning your name."
"Oh, if you keep my name out of it," said I, "and say nothing about it here in the hotel, you may do what you like, and welcome! It's the proper course, no doubt; only I've had publicity enough, and would sooner have felt that blade in my body than set my name going again in the newspapers."
"I understand," he said, with his well-bred sympathy, which never went a shade too far; and he dropped the weapon into a drawer, as the boots entered with the tray. In a minute he had brewed two steaming jorums of spirits-and-water; as he handed me one, I feared he was going to drink my health, or toast my luck; but no, he was the one man I had met who seemed, as he said, to "understand." Nevertheless, he had his toast.
"Here's confusion to the criminal classes in general," he cried; "but death and damnation to the owners of that knife!"
And we clinked tumblers across the little oval table in the middle of the room. It was more of a sitting-room than mine; a bright fire was burning in the grate, and my companion insisted on my sitting over it in the arm-chair, while for himself he fetched the one from his bedside, and drew up the table so that our glasses should be handy. He then produced a handsome cigar-case admirably stocked, and we smoked and sipped in the cosiest fashion, though without exchanging many words.
You may imagine my pleasure in the society of a youth, equally charming in looks, manners and address, who had not one word to say to me about the Lady Jermyn or my hen-coop. It was unique. Yet such, I suppose, was my native contrariety, that I felt I could have spoken of the catastrophe to this very boy with less reluctance than to any other creature whom I had encountered since my deliverance. He seemed so full of silent sympathy: his consideration for my feelings was so marked and yet so unobtrusive. I have called him a boy. I am apt to write as the old man I have grown, though I do believe I felt older then than now. In any case my young friend was some years my junior. I afterwards found out that he was six-and-twenty.
I have also called him handsome. He was the handsomest man that I have ever met, had the frankest face, the finest eyes, the brightest smile. Yet his bronzed forehead was low, and his mouth rather impudent and bold than truly strong. And there was a touch of foppery about him, in the enormous white tie and the much-cherished whiskers of the fifties, which was only redeemed by that other touch of devilry that he had shown me in the corridor. By the rich brown of his complexion, as well as by a certain sort of swagger in his walk, I should have said that he was a naval officer ashore, had he not told me who he was of his own accord.
"By the way," he said, "I ought to give you my name. It's Rattray, of one of the many Kirby Halls in this country. My one's down in Lancashire."
"I suppose there's no need to tell my name?" said I, less sadly, I daresay, than I had ever yet alluded to the tragedy which I alone survived. It was an unnecessary allusion, too, as a reference to the foregoing conversation will show.
"Well, no!" said he, in his frank fashion; "I can't honestly say there is."
We took a few puffs, he watching the fire, and I his firelit face.
"It must seem strange to you to be sitting with the only man who lived to tell the tale!"
The egotism of this speech was not wholly gratuitous. I thought it did seem strange to him: that a needless constraint was put upon him by excessive consideration for my feelings. I desired to set him at his ease as he had set me at mine. On the contrary, he seemed quite startled by my remark.
"It is strange," he said, with a shudder, followed by the biggest sip of brandy-and-water he had taken yet. "It must have been horrible - horrible!" he added to himself, his dark eyes staring into the fire.
"Ah!" said I, "it was even more horrible than you suppose or can ever imagine."
I was not thinking of myself, nor of my love, nor of any particular incident of the fire that still went on burning in my brain. My tone was doubtless confidential, but I was meditating no special confidence when my companion drew one with his next words. These, however, came after a pause, in which my eyes had fallen from his face, but in which I heard him emptying his glass.
"What do you mean?" he whispered. "That there were other circumstances - things which haven't got into the papers?"
"God knows there were," I answered, my face in my hands; and, my grief brought home to me, there I sat with it in the presence of that stranger, without compunction and without shame.
He sprang up and paced the room. His tact made me realize my weakness, and I was struggling to overcome it when he surprised me by suddenly stopping and laying a rather tremulous hand upon my shoulder.
"You - It wouldn't do you any good to speak of those circumstances, I suppose?" he faltered.
"No: not now: no good at all."
"Forgive me," he said, resuming his walk. "I had no business - I felt so sorry - I cannot tell you how I sympathize! And yet - I wonder if you will always feel so?"
"No saying how I shall feel when I am a man again," said I. "You see what I am at present." And, pulling myself together, I rose to find my new friend quite agitated in his turn.
"I wish we had some more brandy," he sighed. "I'm afraid it's too late to get any now."
"And I'm glad of it," said I. "A man in my state ought not to look at spirits, or he may never look past them again. Thank goodness, there are other medicines. Only this morning I consulted the best man on nerves in London. I wish I'd gone to him long ago."
"Harley Street, was it?"
"Saw you on his doorstep, by Jove!" cried Rattray at once. "I was driving over to Hampstead, and I thought it was you. Well, what's the prescription?"
In my satisfaction at finding that he had not been dogging me intentionally (though I had forgotten the incident till he reminded me of it), I answered his question with unusual fulness.
"I should go abroad," said Rattray. "But then, I always am abroad; it's only the other day I got back from South America, and I shall up anchor again before this filthy English winter sets in.
Was he a sailor after all, or only a well-to-do wanderer on the face of the earth? He now mentioned that he was only in England for a few weeks, to have a look at his estate, and so forth; after which he plunged into more or less enthusiastic advocacy of this or that foreign resort, as opposed to the English cottage upon which I told him I had set my heart.
He was now, however, less spontaneous, I thought, than earlier in the night. His voice had lost its hearty ring, and he seemed preoccupied, as if talking of one matter while he thought upon another. Yet he would not let me go; and presently he confirmed my suspicion, no less than my first impression of his delightful frankness and cordiality, by candidly telling me what was on his mind.
"If you really want a cottage in the country," said he, "and the most absolute peace and quiet to be got in this world, I know of the very hing on my land in Lancashire. It would drive me mad in a week; but if you really care for that sort of thing - "
"An occupied cottage?" I interrupted.
"Yes; a couple rent it from me, very decent people of the name of Braithwaite. The man is out all day, and won't bother you when he's in; he's not like other people, poor chap. But the woman s all there, and would do her best for you in a humble, simple, wholesome sort of way."
"You think they would take me in?"
"They have taken other men - artists as a rule."
"Then it's a picturesque country?"
"Oh, it's that if it's nothing else; but not a town for miles, mind you, and hardly a village worthy the name."
"Yes - trout - small but plenty of 'em - in a beck running close behind the cottage."
"Come," cried I, "this sounds delightful! Shall you be up there?"
"Only for a day or two," was the reply. "I shan't trouble you, Mr. Cole."
"My dear sir, that wasn't my meaning at all. I'n only sorry I shall not see something of you on your own heath. I can't thank you enough for your kind suggestion. When do you suppose the Braithwaites could do with me?"
His charming smile rebuked my impatience.
"We must first see whether they can do with you at all," said he. "I sincerely hope they can; but this is their time of year for tourists, though perhaps a little late. I'll tell you what I'll do. As a matter of fact, I'm going down there to-morrow, and I've got to telegraph to my place in any case to tell them when to meet me. I'll send the telegram first thing, and I'll make them send one back to say whether there's room in the cottage or not."
I thanked him warmly, but asked if the cottage was close to Kirby Hall, and whether this would not be giving a deal of trouble at the other end; whereupon he mischievously misunderstood me a second time, saying the cottage and the hall were not even in sight of each other, and I really had no intrusion to fear, as he was a lonely bachelor like myself, and would only be up there four or five days at the most. So I made my appreciation of his society plainer than ever to him; for indeed I had found a more refreshing pleasure in it already than I had hoped to derive from mortal man again; and we parted, at three o'clock in the morning, like old fast friends.
"Only don't expect too much, my dear Mr. Cole," were his last words to me. "My own place is as ancient and as tumble-down as most ruins that you pay to see over. And I'm never there myself because - I tell you frankly - I hate it like poison!"Next