The Malefactor

Book 1

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 4 - A Delicate Mission


Aynesworth was back in less than an hour. He carried under his arm a brown paper parcel, the strings of which he commenced at once to untie. Wingrave, who had been engrossed in the contents of his deed box, watched him with immovable face.

"The tailor will be here at two-thirty," he announced, "and the other fellows will follow on at half an hour's interval. The manicurist and the barber are coming at six o'clock."

Wingrave nodded.

"What have you there?" he asked, pointing to the parcel.

"Cigars and cigarettes, and jolly good ones, too," Aynesworth answered, opening a flat tin box, and smelling the contents appreciatively. "Try one of these! The finest Turkish tobacco grown!"

"I don't smoke," Wingrave answered.

"Oh! You've got out of it, but you must pick it up again," Aynesworth declared. "Best thing out for the nerves--sort of humanizes one, you know!"

"Humanizes one, does it?" Wingrave remarked softly. "Well, I'll try!"

He took a cigarette from the box, curtly inviting Aynesworth to do the same.

"What about lunch?" the latter asked. "Would you care to come round with me to the Cannibal Club? Rather a Bohemian set, but there are always some good fellows there."

"I am much obliged," Wingrave answered. "If you will ask me again in a few days' time, I shall be very pleased. I do not wish to leave the hotel just at present."

"Do you want me?" Aynesworth asked.

"Not until five o'clock," Wingrave answered. "I should be glad if you would leave me now, and return at that hour. In the meantime, I have a commission for you."

"Good!" Aynesworth declared. "What is it?"

"You will go," Wingrave directed, "to No. 13, Cadogan Street, and you will enquire for Lady Ruth Barrington. If she should be out, ascertain the time of her return, and wait for her."

"If she is out of town?"

"She is in London," Wingrave answered. "I have seen her from the window this morning. You will give her a message. Say that you come from me, and that I desire to see her tomorrow. The time and place she can fix, but I should prefer not to go to her house."

Aynesworth stooped down to relight his cigarette. He felt that Wingrave was watching him, and he wished to keep his face hidden.

"I am unknown to Lady Ruth," he remarked. "Supposing she should refuse to see me?"

Wingrave looked at him coldly.

"I have told you what I wish done," he said. "The task does not seem to be a difficult one. Please see to it that I have an answer by five o'clock-----"

Aynesworth lunched with a few of his particular friends at the club. They heard of his new adventure with somewhat doubtful approbation.

"You'll never stand the routine, old chap!"

"And what about your own work!"

"What will the Daily Scribbler people say?"

Aynesworth shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't imagine it will last very long," he answered, "and I shall get a fair amount of time to myself. The work I do on the Daily Scribbler doesn't amount to anything. It was a chance I simply couldn't refuse."

The editor of a well-known London paper leaned back in his chair, and pinched a cigar carefully.

"You'll probably find the whole thing a sell," he remarked. "The story, as Lovell told it, sounded dramatic enough, and if the man were to come back to life again, fresh and vigorous, things might happen, provided, of course, that Lovell was right in his suppositions. But ten or twelve years' solitary confinement, although it mayn't sound much on paper, is enough to crush all the life and energy out of a man."

Aynesworth shook his head.

"You haven't seen him," he said. "I have!"

"What's he like, Walter?" another man asked.

"I can't describe him," Aynesworth answered. "I shouldn't like to try. I'll bring him here some day. You fellows shall see him for yourselves. I find him interesting enough."

"The whole thing," the editor declared, "will fizzle out. You see if it doesn't? A man who's just spent ten or twelve years in prison isn't likely to run any risk of going there again. There will be no tragedy; more likely reconciliation."

"Perhaps," Aynesworth said imperturbably. "But it wasn't only the possibility of anything of that sort happening, you know, which attracted me. It was the tragedy of the man himself, with his numbed, helpless life, set down here in the midst of us, with a great, blank chasm between him and his past. What is there left to drive the wheels? The events of one day are simple and monotonous enough to us, because they lean up against the events of yesterday, and the yesterdays before! How do they seem, I wonder, to a man whose yesterday was more than a decade of years ago!"

The editor nodded.

"It must be a grim sensation," he admitted, "but I am afraid with you, my dear Walter, it is an affair of shop. You wish to cull from your interesting employer the material for that every-becoming novel of yours. Let's go upstairs! I've time for one pool."

"I haven't," Aynesworth answered. "I've a commission to do."

He left the club and walked westwards, humming softly to himself, but thinking all the time intently. His errand disturbed him. He was to be the means of bringing together again these two people who had played the principal parts in Lovell's drama--his new employer and the woman who had ruined his life. What was the object of it? What manner of vengeance did he mean to deal out to her? Lovell's words of premonition returned to him just then with curious insistence--he was so certain that Wingrave's reappearance would lead to tragical happenings. Aynesworth himself never doubted it. His brief interview with the man into whose service he had almost forced himself had impressed him wonderfully. Yet, what weapon was there, save the crude one of physical force, with which Wingrave could strike?"

He rang the bell at No. 13, Cadogan Street, and sent in his card by the footman. The man accepted it doubtfully.

"Her ladyship has only just got up from luncheon, sir, and she is not receiving this afternoon," he announced.

Aynesworth took back his card, and scribbled upon it the name of the newspaper for which he still occasionally worked.

"Her ladyship will perhaps see me," he said, handing the card back to the man. "It is a matter of business. I will not detain her for more than a few minutes."

The man returned presently, and ushered him into a small sitting room.

"Her ladyship will be quite half an hour before she can see you, sir," he said.

"I will wait," Aynesworth answered, taking up a paper.

The time passed slowly. At last, the door was opened. A woman, in a plain but exquisitely fitting black gown, entered. From Lovell's description, Aynesworth recognized her at once, and yet, for a moment, he hesitated to believe that this was the woman whom he had come to see. The years had indeed left her untouched. Her figure was slight, almost girlish; her complexion as smooth, and her coloring, faint though it was, as delicate and natural as a child's. Her eyes were unusually large, and the lashes which shielded them heavy. It was when she looked at him that Aynesworth began to understand.

She carried his card in her hand, and glanced at it as he bowed.

"You are the Daily Scribbler," she said. "You want me to tell you about my bazaar, I suppose."

"I am attached to the Daily Scribbler, Lady Ruth Barrington," Aynesworth answered; "but my business this afternoon has nothing to do with the paper. I have called with a message from--an old friend of yours."

She raised her eyebrows ever so slightly. The graciousness of her manner was perceptibly abated.

"Indeed! I scarcely understand you, Mr.--Aynesworth."

"My message," Aynesworth said, "is from Sir Wingrave Seton."

The look of enquiry, half impatient, half interrogative, faded slowly from her face. She stood quite still; her impassive features seemed like a plaster cast, from which all life and feeling were drawn out. Her eyes began slowly to dilate, and she shivered as though with cold. Then the man who was watching her and wondering, knew that this was fear--fear undiluted and naked.

He stepped forward, and placed a chair for her. She felt for the back of it with trembling fingers and sat down.

"Is--Sir Wingrave Seton--out of prison?" she asked in a strange, dry tone. One would have thought that she had been choking.

"Since yesterday," Aynesworth answered.

"But his time--is not up yet?"

"There is always a reduction," Aynesworth reminded her, "for what is called good conduct."

She was silent for several moments. Then she raised her head. She was a brave woman, and she was rapidly recovering her self-possession.

"Well," she asked, "what does he want?"

"To see you," Aynesworth answered, "tomorrow afternoon, either hee or at his apartments in the Clarence Hotel. He would prefer not to come here!"

"Are you his friend?" she asked.

"I am his secretary," Aynesworth answered.

"You are in his confidence?"

"I only entered his service this morning," he said.

"How much do you know," she persisted, "of the unfortunate affair which led--to his imprisonment?"

"I have been told the whole story," Aynesworth answered.

Her eyes rested thoughtfully upon his. It seemed as though she were trying to read in his face exactly what he meant by "the whole story."

"Then," she said, "do you think that anything but pain and unpleasantness can come of a meeting between us?"

"Lady Ruth," Aynesworth answered, "it is not for me to form an opinion. I am Sir Wingrave Seton's secretary."

"What is he going to do?" she asked.

"I have no idea," he answered.

"Is he going abroad?"

"I know nothing of his plans," Aynesworth declared. "What answer shall I take back to him?"

She looked at him earnestly. Gradually her face was softening. The frozen look was passing away. The expression was coming back to her eyes. She leaned a little towards him. Her voice, although it was raised above a whisper, was full of feeling.

"Mr. Aynesworth," she murmured, "I am afraid of Sir Wingrave Seton!"

Aynesworth said nothing.

"I was always a little afraid of him," she continued, "even in the days when we were friendly. He was so hard and unforgiving. I know he thinks that he has a grievance against me. He will have been brooding about it all these years. I dare not see him! I--I am terrified!"

"If that is your answer," Aynesworth said, "I will convey it to him!"

Her beautiful eyes were full of reproach.

"Mr. Aynesworth," she said, in a low tone, "for a young man you are very unsympathetic."

"My position," Aynesworth answered, "does not allow me the luxury of considering my personal feelings."

She looked hurt.

"I forgot," she said, looking for a moment upon the floor; "you have probably been prejudiced against me. You have heard only one story. Listen"--she raised her eyes suddenly, and leaned a little forward in her chair--"some day, if you will come and see me when I am alone and we have time to spare, I will tell you the whole truth. I will tell you exactly what happened! You shall judge for yourself!"

Aynesworth bowed.

"In the meantime?"

Her eyes filled slowly with tears. Aynesworth looked away. He was miserably uncomfortable.

"You cannot be quite so hard-hearted as you try to seem, Mr. Aynesworth," she said quietly. "I want to ask you a question. You must answer it? You don't know how much it means to me. You are Sir Wingrave Seton's secretary; you have access to all his papers. Have you seen any letters of mine? Do you know if he still has any in his possession?"

"My answer to both questions is 'No!'" Aynesworth said a little stiffly. "I only entered the service of Sir Wingrave Seton this morning, and I know nothing at all, as yet, of his private affairs. And, Lady Ruth, you must forgive my reminding you that, in any case, I could not discuss such matters with you," he added.

She looked at him with a faint, strange smile. Afterwards, when he tried to do so, Aynesworth found it impossible to describe the expression which flitted across her face. He only knew that it left him with the impression of having received a challenge.

"Incorruptible!" she murmured. "Sir Wingrave Seton is indeed a fortunate man."

There was a lingering sweetness in her tone which still had a note of mockery in it. Her silence left Aynesworth conscious of a vague sense of uneasiness. He felt that her eyes were raised to his, and for some reason, which he could not translate even into a definite thought, he wished to avoid them. The silence was prolonged. For long afterwards he remembered those few minutes. There was a sort of volcanic intensity in the atmosphere. He was acutely conscious of small extraneous things, of the perfume of a great bowl of hyacinths, the ticking of a tiny French clock, the restless drumming of her finger tips upon the arm of her chair. All the time he seemed actually to feel her eyes, commanding, impelling, beseeching him to turn round. He did so at last, and looked her full in the face.

"Lady Ruth," he said, "will you favor me with an answer to my message?"

"Certainly," she answered, smiling quite naturally. "I will come and see Sir Wingrave Seton at four o'clock tomorrow afternoon. You can tell him that I think it rather an extraordinary request, but under the circumstances I will do as he suggests. He is staying at the Clarence, I presume, under his own name? I shall have no difficulty in finding him?"

"He is staying there under his own name," Aynesworth answered, "and I will see that you have no difficulty."

"So kind of you," she murmured, holding out her hand. And again there was something mysterious in her eyes as she raised them to him, as though there existed between them already some understanding which mocked the conventionality of her words. Aynesworth left the house, and lit a cigarette upon the pavement outside with a little sigh of relief. He felt somehow humiliated. Did she fancy, he wondered, that he was a callow boy to dance to any tune of her piping--that he had never before seen a beautiful woman who wanted her own way?