Book II. Chapter I. "Mr. Wingrave, From America"
"Four years ago tonight," Aynesworth said, looking round the club smoking room thoughtfully, "we bade you farewell in this same room!"
Lovell, wan and hollow-eyed, his arm in a sling, his once burly frame gaunt and attenuated with disease, nodded.
"And I told you the story," he remarked, "of--the man who had been my friend."
"Don't let us talk of Wingrave tonight!" Aynesworth exclaimed with sudden emphasis.
"Why not?" Lovell knocked the ashes from his pipe, and commenced leisurely to refill it. "Why not, indeed? I mean to go and see him as soon as I can get about a little better."
"If your description of him," Aynesworth said, "was a faithful one, you will find him changed."
Lovell laughed a little bitterly.
"The years leave their mark," he said, "upon us all--upon all of us, that is, who step out into the open where the winds of life are blowing. Look at me! I weighed eighteen stone when I left England. I had the muscles of a prize fighter and nerves of steel. Today I turn the scale at ten stone and am afraid to be alone in the dark."
"You will be yourself again in no time," Aynesworth declared cheerfully.
"I shall be better than I am now, I hope," Lovell answered, "but I shall never be the man I was. I have seen--God grant that I may some day forget what I have seen! No wonder that my nerves have gone! I saw a Russian correspondent, a strong brutal-looking man, go off into hysterics; I saw another run amuck through the camp, shooting right and left, and, finally, blow his own brains out. Many a night I sobbed myself to sleep. The men who live through tragedies, Aynesworth, age fast. I expect that I shall find Wingrave changed."
"I would give a good deal," Aynesworth declared, "to have known him when you did."
"You should be able to judge of the past," he said, "by the present. Four years of--intimate companionship with any man should be enough!"
"Perhaps!" Aynesworth declared. "And yet I can assure you that I know no more of Wingrave today than when I was first attracted to him by your story and became his secretary. It is a humiliating confession, but it is the truth."
"That is why you remain with him," Lovell remarked.
"I suppose so! I have often meant to leave, but somehow, when the time comes, I stay on. His life seems to be made up of brutalities, small and large. He ruins a man with as little compunction as one could fancy him, in his younger days, pulling the legs from a fly. I have never seen him do a kindly action. And yet, all the time I find myself watching for it. A situation arises, and I say to myself: Now I am going to see something different.' I never do, and yet I always expect it. Am I boring you, Lovell?"
"Not in the least!" Go on! Anything concerning Wingrave interests me."
"It is four years ago, you know, since I went to him. My first glimpse of his character was the cold brutality with which he treated Lady Ruth when she went to see him. Then we went down to his country place in Cornwall. There was a small child there, whose father had been the organist of the village, and who had died penniless. There was no one to look after her, no one to save her from the charity schools and domestic service afterwards. The church was on Wingrave's estate, it should have been his duty to augment the ridiculous salary the dead man had received. Would you believe it, Wingrave refused to do a single thing for that child! He went down there like a vandal to sell the heirlooms and pictures which had belonged to his family for generations. He had no time, he told me coldly, for sentiment."
"It sounds brutal enough," Lovell admitted. "What became of the child?"
"One of her father's relations turned up after all and took care of her," Aynesworth said. "Wingrave knew nothing about that, though. Then on the voyage across the Atlantic, there was a silly, pretty little woman on board who was piqued by Wingrave's indifference and tried to flirt with him. In a few days she was his slave. She was going home to her husband, and you would have thought that any decent fellow would have told her that she was a little fool, and let her go. But not Wingrave! She was landing with him at New York, but someone amongst the passengers, who guessed what was up, sent a Marconigram to her husband, and he met us at the landing stage."
"Nothing came of that, then?"
"No, but it wasn't Wingrave's fault. Then he began dealing with some shares in a mine--THE mine, you know. They were supposed to be worthless, and one boy, who was a little young to the game, sold him too many. Wingrave was bleeding these brokers for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the boy came and asked to be let off by paying his whole fortune to escape being hammered. Wingrave refused. I believe if the boy hadn't just been married, he'd have blown his brains out!"
"I don't envy you your job," he remarked. "Is there nothing to set down on the credit side of the ledger?"
"Not much," Aynesworth answered. "He is a fine sportsman, and he saved my life in the Rockies, which makes me feel a bit uncomfortable sometimes. He has a sense of justice, for he heard of this mine from a man in prison, and he has kept accounts showing the fellow's share down to the last halfpenny. But I have never yet known him to speak a kindly word or do a kindly deed. He seems intent upon carrying out to the letter his own principles--to make as many people as possible suffer for his own broken life. Now he is back here, a millionaire, with immense power for good or for evil, I am almost afraid of him. I wouldn't be Lady Ruth or her husband for something."
Lovell smoked thoughtfully for a time.
"Wingrave was always a little odd," he remarked, "but I never thought that he was a bad chap."
"Go and see him now!" Aynesworth said. "Tell me if you think he wears a mask or whether he is indeed what he seems."
The hall porter entered the room and addressed Aynesworth.
"Gentleman called for you, sir," he announced.
"It is Wingrave," Aynesworth declared. "Come and speak to him!"
They descended the stairs together. Outside, Wingrave was leaning back in the corner of an electric brougham, reading the paper. Aynesworth put his head in at the window.
"You remember Lovell, Mr. Wingrave?" he said. "We were just talking when your message came up. I've brought him down to shake hands with you."
Wingrave folded his paper down at the precise place where he had been reading and extended a very limp hand. His manner betrayed not the slightest interest or pleasure.
"How are you, Lovell?" he asked. "Some time since we met!"
"A good many years," Lovell answered.
"Finished your campaigning?" Wingrave inquired. "Knocked you about a bit, haven't they?"
"They very nearly finished me," Lovell admitted. "I shall pick up all right over here, though."
There was a moment's silence. Lovell's thoughts had flashed backwards through the years, back to the time when he had sat within a few feet of this man in the crowded court of justice and listened through the painful stillness of that heavy atmosphere, charged with tragedy, to the slow unfolding of the drama of his life. There had been passion enough then in his voice and blazing in his eyes, emotion enough in his twitching features and restless gestures to speak of the fire below. And now, pale and cold, the man who had gripped his fingers then and held on to them like a vise, seemed to find nothing except a slight boredom in this unexpected meeting.
"I shall see you again, I hope," Wingrave remarked at last. "By the bye, if we do meet, I should be glad if you would forget our past acquaintance. Sir Wingrave Seton does not exist any longer. I prefer to be known only as Mr. Wingrave from America."
"As you wish, of course," he answered. "I do not think," he added, "that you need fear recognition. I myself should have passed you in the street."
Wingrave leaned back in the carriage.
"Aynesworth," he said, "if you are ready, will you get in and tell the man to drive to Cadogan Square? Good night, Mr. Lovell!"
Lovell re-entered the club with a queer little smile at his lips. The brougham glided up into the Strand, and turned westwards.
"We are going straight to the Barringtons'?" Aynesworth asked.
"Yes," Wingrave answered. "While I think of it, Aynesworth, I wish you to remember this. Both Lady Ruth and her husband seem to think it part of the game to try and make a cat's paw of you. I am not suggesting that they are likely to succeed, but I do think it possible that one of them may ask you questions concerning certain investments in which I am interested. I rely upon you to give them no information."
"I know very little about your investments--outside the mine," Aynesworth answered. "They couldn't very well approach a more ignorant person. Are you going to help Barrington to make a fortune?"
Wingrave turned his head. There was a slight contraction of the forehead, an ominous glitter in his steel grey eyes.
"I think," he said, "you know that I am not likely to do that."
The two men did not meet again till late in the evening. Lady Ruth's rooms were crowded for it was the beginning of the political season, and her parties were always popular. Nevertheless, she found time to beckon Wingrave to her before they had been in the room many minutes.
"I want to talk to you," she said a little abruptly. "You might have come this afternoon as you promised."
Lady Ruth was a wonderful woman. A well-known statesman had just asked a friend her age.
"I don't know," was the answer, "but whatever it is, she doesn't look it."
Tonight she was almost girlish. Her complexion was delicate and perfectly natural, the graceful lines of her figure suggested more the immaturity of youth than any undue slimness. She wore a wonderful collar of pearls around her long, shapely neck, but very little other jewelry. The touch of her fingers upon Wingrave's coat sleeve was a carefully calculated thing. If he had thought of it, he could have felt the slight appealing pressure with which she led him towards one of the smaller rooms.
"There are two chairs there," she said. "Come and sit down. I have something to say to you."Next