The Kingom of the Blind

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 29


"A lady to see you, sir," Jarvis announced discreetly.

Granet turned quickly around in his chair. Almost instinctively he pulled down the roll top of the desk before which he was seated. Then he rose to his feet and held out his hand. He managed with an effort to conceal the consternation which had succeeded his first impulse of surprise.

"Miss Worth!" he exclaimed.

She came towards him confidently, her hands outstretched, slim, dressed in sober black, he cheeks as pale as ever, her eyes a little more brilliant. She threw her muff into a chair and a moment afterwards sank into it herself.

"You have been expecting me?" she asked eagerly.

Granet was a little taken aback.

"I have been hoping to hear from you," he said. "You told me, if you remember, not to write."

"It was better not," she assented. "Even after you left I had a great deal of trouble. That odious man, Major Thomson, put me through a regular cross-examination again, and I had to tell him at last--"

"What?" Granet exclaimed anxiously.

"That we were engaged to be married," she confessed. "There was really no other way out of it."

"That we were engaged," Granet repeated blankly.

She nodded.

"He pressed me very hard," she went on, "and I am afraid I made some admissions--well, there were necessary--which, to say the least of it, were compromising. There was only one way out of it decently for me, and I took it. You don't mind?"

"Of course not," he replied.

"There was father to be considered," she went on. "He was furious at first--"

"You told your father?" he interrupted.

"I had to," she explained, smoothing her muff. "He was there all the time that Thomson man was cross-examining me."

"Then your father believes in our engagement, too?"

"He does," she answered drily, "or I am afraid you would have heard a little more from Major Thomson before now. Ever since that night, father has been quite impossible to live with. He says he has to being a part of his work all over again."

"The bombs really did do some damage, then?" he asked.

She nodded, looking at him for a moment curiously.

"Yes," she acknowledged, "they did more harm than any one knows. The place is like a fortress now. They say that if they can find the other man who helped to light that flare, he will be shot in five minutes."

Granet, who had been standing with his elbow upon the mantelpiece, leaned over and took a cigarette from a box.

"Then, for his sake, let us hope that they do not find him," he remarked.

"And ours," she said softly.

Granet stood and looked at her steadfastly, the match burning in his fingers. Then he threw it away and lit another. The interval had been full of unadmitted tension, which suddenly passed.

"Shall you think I am horribly greedy," she asked, "if I say that I should like something to eat? I am dying of hunger."

Granet for a moment was startled. Then he moved towards the bell.

"How absurd of me!" he exclaimed. "Of course, you have just come up, haven't you?"

"I have come straight from the station here," she replied.

He paused.

"Where are you staying, then?"

She shook her head.

"I don't know yet," she admitted.

"You don't know?" he repeated.

She met his gaze without flinching. There was a little spot of colour in her cheeks, however, and her lips quivered.

"You see," she explained, "things became absolutely impossible for me at Market Burnham. I won't say that they disbelieved me--not my father, at any rate--but he seems to think that it was somehow my fault--that if you hadn't been there that night the thing wouldn't have happened. I am watched the whole of the time, in fact not a soul has said a civil word to me--since you left. I just couldn't stand it any longer. I packed up this morning and I came away without saying a word to any one."

Granet glanced at the clock. It was a quarter past ten.

"Well, the first thing to do is to get you something to eat," he said; ringing the bell. "Do you mind having something here or would you like to go to a restaurant?"

"I should much prefer having it here," she declared. "I am not fit to go anywhere, and I am tired."

He rang the bell and gave Jarvis a few orders. The girl stood up before the glass, took off her hat and smoothed her hair with her hands. She had the air of being absolutely at home.

"Did you come up without any luggage at all?" he asked.

She shook her head.

"I have a dressing-bag and a few things downstairs on a taxicab," she said. "I told the man to stop his engine and wait for a time--until I had seen you," she added, turning around.

There was a very slight smile upon her lips, the glimmer of something that was almost appealing, in her eyes. Granet took her hand and patted it kindly. Her response was almost hysterical.

"It's very sweet of you to trust me like this," he said. "Jarvis will bring you something to eat, then I'll take you round to your aunt's. Where is it she lives--somewhere in Kensington, isn't it? Tomorrow we must talk things over."

She threw herself back once more in the easy-chair and glanced around her.

"I should like," she decided, "to talk them over now."

He glanced towards the door.

"Just as you please," he said, "only Jarvis will be in with your sandwiches directly."

She brushed aside his protest.

"I was obliged," she continued, "to say that I was engaged to you, to save you from something--I don't know what. The more I have thought about it, the more terrible it has all seemed. I am not going to even ask you for any explanation. I--I daren't."

Granet looked at his cigarette for a moment thoughtfully. Then he threw it into the fire.

"Perhaps you are wise," he said coolly. "All the same, when the time comes there is an explanation."

"It is the present which has become such a problem," she went on. "I was driven to leave home and I don't think I can go back again. Father is simply furious with me, and every one about the place seems to have an idea that I am somehow to blame for what happened the other night."

"That seems to me a little unjust," he protested.

"It isn't unjust at all," she replied brusquely. "I've told them all lies and I've got to pay for them. I came to you--well, there really wasn't anything else left for me to do, was there? I hope you don't think that I am horribly forward. I am quite willing to admit that I like you, that I liked you from the first moment we met at Lady Anselman's luncheon. At the same time, if that awful night hadn't changed everything, I should have behaved just like any other stupidly and properly brought-up young woman--waited and hoped and made an idiot of myself whenever you were around, and in the end, I suppose, been disappointed. You see, fate has rather changed that. I had to invent our engagement to save you--and here I am," she added, with a little nervous laugh, turning her head as the door opened.

Jarvis entered with the sandwiches and arranged them on a small table by her side. Granet poured out the wine for her, mixed himself a whiskey-and-soda and took a sandwich also from the plate.

"Now tell me," he began, as soon as Jarvis had disappeared, "what is there at the back of your mind about my presence there at Market Burnham that night?"

She laid down her sandwich. For the first time her voice trembled. Granet realised that beneath all this quietness of demeanour a volcano was threatening.

"I have told you that I do not want to think of that night," she said firmly. "I simply do not understand."

"You have something in your mind?" he persisted. "You don't believe, really, that that man Collins, who was found shot--"

She glanced at the door.

"I couldn't sleep that night," she interrupted. "I heard your car arrive, I saw you both together, you and the man who was shot. I saw--more than that. I hadn't meant to tell you this but perhaps it is best. I ask you for no explanation. You see, I am something of an individualist. I just want one thing, and about the rest I simply don't care. To me, to myself, to my own future, to my own happiness the rest is very slight, and I never pretend to be anything else but a very selfish person. Only you know now that I have lied, badly."

"I understand," he said. "Finish your sandwiches and I will take you to your aunt's. To-morrow I will write to your father."

She drew a little sigh.

"I will do whatever you say," she agreed, "only--please look at me."

He stooped down a little. She seized his wrists, her voice was suddenly hoarse.

"You weren't pretending altogether?" she pleaded. "Don't make me feel a perfect beast. You did care a little? You weren't just talking nonsense?"

She would have drawn him further down but he kept away.

"Listen," he said, "when I tell you that I am going to write to your father to-morrow, you know what that means. For the rest, I must think. Perhaps this is the only way out. Of course, I like you but the truth is best, isn't it? I hadn't any idea of this. As a matter of fact, I am rather in love with someone else."

She caught at her breath for a moment, half closed her eyes as thought to shut out something disagreeable.

"I don't care," she muttered. "You see how low I have fallen--I'll bear even that. Come," she added, springing up, "my aunt goes to bed before eleven. You can drive me down there, if you like. Are you going to kiss me?"

He bent over her a little gravely and his lips touched her forehead. She caught his face suddenly between her hands and kissed him on the lips. Then she turned towards the door.

"Of course, I am horribly ashamed," she exclaimed, "but then--well, I'm myself. Come along, please."

He followed her down into the taxi and they drove off towards Kensington.

"How long have you known the other girl?" she asked abruptly.

"Very little longer than I have known you," he answered.

She took off her glove. He felt her hand steal into his.

"You'll try and like me a little, please?" she begged. "There hasn't been any one who cared for so many years--not all my life. When I came out--ever since I came out--I have behaved just like other properly, well-brought-up girls. I've just sat and waited. I've rather avoided men than otherwise. I've sat and waited. Girls haven't liked me much. They say I'm odd. I'm twenty-eight now, you know. I haven't enjoyed the last six years. Father's wrapped up in his work. He thinks he has done his duty if he sends me to London sometimes to stay with my aunt. She is very much like him, only she is wrapped up in missions instead of science. Neither of them seems to have time to be human."

"It must have been rotten for you," Granet said kindly.

Her hand clutched his, she came a little nearer.

"Year after year of it," she murmured. "If I had been good-looking, I should have run away and gone on the stage. If I had been clever, I should have left home and done something. But I am like millions of others--I am neither. I had to sit and wait. When I met you, I suddenly began to realise what it would be like to care for some one. I knew it wasn't any use. And then this miracle happened. I couldn't help it," she went on doggedly. "I never thought of it at first. It came to me like a great flash that the only way to save you--"

"To save me from what?" he asked.

"From being shot as a spy," she answered quickly. "There! I'm not a fool, you know. You may think I'm a fool about you but I am not about things in general. Good-bye! This is my aunt's. Don't come in. Ring me up to-morrow morning. I'll meet you anywhere. Good-bye, please! I want to run away."

He watched her go, a little dazed. A trim parlourmaid came out and, after a few words of explanation, superintended the disposal of her luggage in the hall. Then the taxicab man returned.

"Back to Sackville Street," Granet muttered.