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Great Impersonation, The

CHAPTER X

For the first few tangled moments of nightmare, slowly developing into a live horror, Dominey fancied himself back in Africa, with the hand of an enemy upon his throat. Then a rush of awakened memories—the silence of the great house, the mysterious rustling of the heavy hangings around the black oak four-poster on which he lay, the faint pricking of something deadly at his throat—these things rolled back the curtain of unreality, brought him acute and painful consciousness of a situation almost appalling. He opened his eyes, and although a brave and callous man he lay still, paralysed with the fear which forbids motion. The dim light of a candle, recently lit, flashed upon the bodkin-like dagger held at his throat. He gazed at the thin line of gleaming steel, fascinated. Already his skin had been broken, a few drops of blood were upon the collar of his pyjamas. The hand which held that deadly, assailing weapon—small, slim, very feminine, curving from somewhere behind the bed curtain—belonged to some unseen person. He tried to shrink farther back upon the pillow. The hand followed him, displaying glimpses now of a soft, white-sleeved arm. He lay quite still, the muscles of his right arm growing tenser as he prepared for a snatch at those cruel fingers. Then a voice came,—a slow, feminine and rather wonderful voice.

"If you move," it said, "you will die. Remain quite still."

Dominey was fully conscious now, his brain at work, calculating his chances with all the cunning of the trained hunter who seeks to avoid death. Reluctantly he was compelled to realise that no movement of his could be quick enough to prevent the driving of that thin stiletto into his throat, if his hidden assailant should keep her word. So he lay still.

"Why do you want to kill me?" he asked, a little tensely.

There was no reply, yet somehow he knew that he was being watched. Ever so slightly those curtains around which the arm had come, were being parted. Through the chink some one was looking at him. The thought came that he might call out for help, and once more his unseen enemy read his thought.

"You must be very quiet," the voice said,—that voice which it was difficult for him to believe was not the voice of a child. "If you even speak above a whisper, it will be the end. I wish to look at you."

A little wider the crack opened, and then he began to feel hope. The hand which held the stiletto was shaking, he heard something which sounded like quick breathing from behind the curtains—the breathing of a woman astonished or terrified—and then, so suddenly that for several seconds he could not move or take advantage of the circumstance, the hand with its cruel weapon was withdrawn around the curtain and a woman began to laugh, softly at first, and then with a little hysterical sob thrusting its way through that incongruous note of mirth.

He lay upon the bed as though mesmerised, finding at his first effort that his limbs refused their office, as might the limbs of one lying under the thrall of a nightmare. The laugh died away, there was a sound like a scraping upon the wall, the candle was suddenly blown out. Then his nerve began to return and with it his control over his limbs. He crawled to the side of the bed remote from the curtains, stole to the little table on which he had left his revolver and an electric torch, snatched at them, and, with the former in his right hand, flashed a little orb of light into the shadows of the great apartment. Once more something like terror seized him. The figure which had been standing by the side of his bed had vanished. There was no hiding place in view. Every inch of the room was lit up by the powerful torch he carried, and, save for himself, the room was empty. The first moment of realisation was chill and unnerving. Then the slight smarting of the wound at his throat became convincing proof to him that there was nothing supernatural about this visit. He lit up half-a-dozen of the candles distributed about the place and laid down his torch. He was ashamed to find that his forehead was dripping with perspiration.

"One of the secret passages, of course," he muttered to himself, stooping for a moment to examine the locked, folding doors which separated his room from the adjoining one. "Perhaps, when one reflects, I have run unnecessary risks."

Dominey was standing at the window, looking out at the tumbled grey waters of the North Sea, when Parkins brought him hot water and tea in the morning. He thrust his feet into slippers and held out his arms for a dressing-gown.

"Find out where the nearest bathroom is, Parkins," he ordered, "and prepare it. I have quite forgotten my way about here."

"Very good, sir."

The man was motionless for a moment, staring at the blood on his master's pyjamas. Dominey glanced down at it and turned the dressing-gown up to his throat.

"I had a slight accident this morning," he remarked carelessly. "Any ghost alarms last light?"

"None that I heard of, sir," the man replied. "I am afraid we should have difficulty in keeping the young women from London, if they heard what I heard the night of my arrival."

"Very terrible, was it?" Dominey asked with a smile.

Parkins' expression remained immovable. There was in his tone, however, a mute protest against his master's levity.

"The cries were the most terrible I have ever heard, sir," he said. "I am not a nervous person, but I found them most disturbing."

"Human or animal?"

"A mixture of both, I should say, sir."

"You should camp out for the night on the skirts of an African forest," Dominey remarked. "There you get a whole orchestra of wild animals, every one of them trying to freeze your blood up."

"I was out in South Africa during the Boer War, sir," Parkins replied, "and I went big game hunting with my master afterwards. I do not think that any animal was ever born in Africa with so terrifying a cry as we heard the night before last."

"We must look into the matter," Dominey muttered.

"I have already prepared a bath, sir, at the end of the corridor," the man announced. "If you will allow me, I will show you the way."

Dominey, when he descended about an hour later, found his guest awaiting him in the smaller dining-room, which looked out eastwards towards the sea, a lofty apartment with great windows and with an air of faded splendour which came from the ill-cared-for tapestries, hanging in places from the wall. Mr. Mangan had, contrary to his expectations, slept well and was in excellent spirits. The row of silver dishes upon the sideboard inspired him with an added cheerfulness.

"So there were no ghosts walking last night?" he remarked, as he took his place at the table. "Wonderful thing this absolute quiet is after London. Give you my word, I never heard a sound from the moment my head touched the pillow until I woke a short while ago."

Dominey returned from the sideboard, carrying also a well-filled plate.

"I had a pretty useful night's rest myself," he observed.

Mangan raised his eyeglass and gazed at his host's throat.

"Cut yourself?" he queried.

"Razor slipped," Dominey told him. "You get out of the use of those things in Africa."

"You've managed to give yourself a nasty gash," Mr. Mangan observed curiously.

"Parkins is going to send up for a new set of safety razors for me," Dominey announced. "About our plans for the day,—I've ordered the car for two-thirty this afternoon, if that suits you. We can look around the place quietly this morning. Mr. Johnson is sleeping over at a farmhouse near here. We shall pick him up en route. And I have told Lees, the bailiff, to come with us too."

Mr. Mangan nodded his approval.

"Upon my word," he confessed, "it will be a joy to me to go and see some of these fellows without having to put 'em off about repairs and that sort of thing. Johnson has had the worst of it, poor chap, but there are one or two of them took it into their heads to come up to London and worry me at the office."

"I intend that there shall be no more dissatisfaction amongst my tenants."

Mr. Mangan set off for another prowl towards the sideboard.

"Satisfied tenants you never will get in Norfolk," he declared. "I must admit, though, that some of them have had cause to grumble lately. There's a fellow round by Wells who farms nearly eight hundred acres—"

He broke off in his speech. There was a knock at the door, not an ordinary knock at all, but a measured, deliberate tapping, three times repeated.

"Come in," Dominey called out.

Mrs. Unthank entered, severer, more unattractive than ever in the hard morning light. She came to the end of the table, facing the place where Dominey was seated.

"Good morning, Mrs. Unthank," he said.

She ignored the greeting.

"I am the bearer of a message," she announced.

"Pray deliver it," Dominey replied.

"Her ladyship would be glad for you to visit her in her apartment at once."

Dominey leaned back in his chair. His eyes were fixed upon the face of the woman whose antagonism to himself was so apparent. She stood in the path of a long gleam of morning sunlight. The wrinkles in her face, her hard mouth, her cold, steely eyes were all clearly revealed.

"I am not at all sure," he said, with a purpose in the words, "that any further meeting between Lady Dominey and myself is at present desirable."

If he had thought to disturb this messenger by his suggestion, he was disappointed.

"Her ladyship desires me to assure you," she added, with a note of contempt in her tone, "that you need be under no apprehension."

Dominey admitted defeat and poured himself out some more coffee. Neither of the two noticed that his fingers were trembling.

"Her ladyship is very considerate," he said. "Kindly say that I shall follow you in a few minutes."

Dominey, following within a very few minutes of his summons, was ushered into an apartment large and sombrely elegant, an apartment of faded white and gold walls, of chandeliers glittering with lustres, of Louise Quinze furniture, shabby but priceless. To his surprise, although he scarcely noticed it at the time, Mrs. Unthank promptly disappeared. He was from the first left alone with the woman whom he had come to visit.

She was sitting up on her couch and watching his approach. A woman? Surely only a child, with pale cheeks, large, anxious eyes, and masses of brown hair brushed back from her forehead. After all, was he indeed a strong man, vowed to great things? There was a queer feeling in his throat, almost a mist before his eyes. She seemed so fragile, so utterly, sweetly pathetic. And all the time there was the strange light, or was it want of light, in those haunting eyes. His speech of greeting was never spoken.

"So you have come to see me, Everard," she said, in a broken tone. "You are very brave."

He possessed himself of her hand, the hand which a few hours ago had held a dagger to his throat, and kissed the waxenlike fingers. It fell to her side like a lifeless thing. Then she raised it and began rubbing softly at the place where his lips had fallen.

"I have come to see you at your bidding," he replied, "and for my pleasure."

"Pleasure!" she murmured, with a ghastly little smile. "You have learnt to control your words, Everard. You have slept here and you live. I have broken my word. I wonder why?"

"Because," he pleaded, "I have not deserved that you should seek my life."

"That sounds strangely," she reflected. "Doesn't it say somewhere in the Bible—'A life for a life'? You killed Roger Unthank."

"I have killed other men since in self-defence," Dominey told her. "Sometimes it comes to a man that he must slay or be slain. It was Roger Unthank—"

"I shall not talk about him any longer," she decided quite calmly. "The night before last, his spirit was calling to me below my window. He wants me to go down into Hell and live with him. The very thought is horrible."

"Come," Dominey said, "we shall speak of other things. You must tell me what presents I can buy you. I have come back from Africa rich."

"Presents?"

For a single wonderful moment, hers was the face of a child who had been offered toys. Her smile of anticipation was delightful, her eyes had lost that strange vacancy. Then, before he could say another word, it all came back again.

"Listen to me," she said. "This is important. I have sent for you because I do not understand why, quite suddenly last night, after I had made up my mind, I lost the desire to kill you. It is gone now. I am not sure about myself any longer. Draw your chair nearer to mine. Or no, come to my side, here at the other end of the sofa."

She moved her skirts to make room for him. When he sat down, he felt a strange trembling through all his limbs.

"Perhaps," she went on, "I shall break my oath. Indeed, I have already broken it. Let me look at you, my husband. It is a strange thing to own after all these years—a husband."

Dominey felt as though he were breathing an atmosphere of turgid and poisoned sweetness. There was a flavour of unreality about the whole situation,—the room, this child woman, her beauty, her deliberate, halting speech and the strange things she said.

"You find me changed?" he asked.

"You are very wonderfully changed. You look stronger, you are perhaps better-looking, yet there is something gone from your face which I thought one never lost."

"You," he said cautiously, "are more beautiful than ever, Rosamund."

She laughed a little drearily.

"Of what use has my beauty been to me, Everard, since you came to my little cottage and loved me and made me love you, and took me away from Dour Roger? Do you remember the school chidden used to call him Dour Roger?—But that does not matter. Do you know, Everard, that since you left me my feet have not passed outside these gardens?"

"That can be altered when you wish," he said quickly. "You can visit where you will. You can have a motor-car, even a house in town. I shall bring some wonderful doctors here, and they will make you quite strong again."

Her large eyes were lifted almost piteously to his.

"But how can I leave here?" she asked plaintively. "Every week, sometimes oftener, he calls to me. If I went away, his spirit would break loose and follow me. I must be here to wave my hand; then he goes away."

Dominey was conscious once more of that strange and most unexpected fit of emotion. He was unrecognisable even to himself. Never before in his life had his heart beaten as it was beating now. His eyes, too, were hot. He had travelled around the word in search of new things, only to find them in this strange, faded chamber, side by side with this suffering woman. Nevertheless, he said quietly:

"We must send you some place where the people are kinder and where life is pleasanter. Perhaps you love music and to see beautiful pictures. I think that we must try and keep you from thinking."

She sighed in a perplexed fashion.

"I wish that I could get it out of my blood that I want to kill you. Then you could take me right away. Other married people have lived together and hated each other. Why shouldn't we? We may forget even to hate."

Dominey staggered to his feet, walked to a window, threw it open and leaned out for a moment. Then he closed it and came back. This new element in the situation had been a shock to him. All the time she was watching him composedly.

"Well?" she asked, with a strange little smile. "What do you say? Would you like to hold as a wife's the hand which frightened you so last night?"

She held it out to him, soft and warm. Her fingers even returned the pressure of his. She looked at him pleasantly, and once more he felt like a man who has wandered into a strange country and has lost his bearings.

"I want you so much to be happy," he said hoarsely, "but you are not strong yet, Rosamund. We cannot decide anything in a hurry."

"How surprised you are to find that I am willing to be nice to you!" she murmured. "But why not? You cannot know why I have so suddenly changed my mind about you—and I have changed it. I have seen the truth these few minutes. There is a reason, Everard, why I should not kill you."

"What is it?" he demanded.

She shook her head with all the joy of a child who keeps a secret.

"You are clever," she said. "I will leave you to find it out. I am excited now, and I want you to go away for a little time. Please send Mrs. Unthank to me."

The prospect of release was a strange relief, mingled still more strangely with regret. He lingered over her hand.

"If you walk in your sleep to-night, then," he begged, "you will leave your dagger behind?"

"I have told you," she answered, as though surprised, "that I have abandoned my intention. I shall not kill you. Even though I may walk in my sleep—and sometimes the nights are so long—it will not be your death I seek."


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