The Malefactor

Book 2

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 7 - In The Toils


Wingrave did not speak for several moments after Aynesworth had entered the room. He had an engagement book before him and seemed to be deep in its contents. When at last he looked up, his forehead was furrowed with thought, and he had the weary air of a man who has been indulging in unprofitable memories.

"Aynesworth," he said, "be so good as to ring up Walters and excuse me from dining with him tonight."

Aynesworth nodded.

"Any particular form of excuse?" he asked.

"No!" Say that I have an unavoidable engagement. I will see him tomorrow morning."

"Anything else?" Aynesworth asked, preparing to leave the room.

"No! You might see that I have no visitors this evening. Lady Ruth is coming here at nine o'clock."

"Lady Ruth is coming here," Aynesworth repeated in a colorless tone. "Alone?"

"Yes."

Aynesworth shrugged his shoulders, but made no remark. He turned towards the door, but Wingrave called him back.

"Your expression, Aynesworth," he said, "interests me. Am I or the lady in question responsible for it?"

"I am sorry for Lady Ruth," Aynesworth said. "I think that I am sorry, too, for her husband."

"Why? She is coming of her own free will."

"There are different methods of compulsion," Aynesworth answered.

Wingrave regarded him thoughtfully.

"That," he said, "is true. But I still do not understand why you are sorry for her."

"Because," Aynesworth said, "I know the history of a certain event, and I know you. It is, I suppose, for this end that you made use of them."

Wingrave nodded.

"Quite right," he declared. "I think that the time is not far off when that dear lady and I can cry quits. This time, too, I see nothing to impair my satisfaction at the probable finale. In various other cases, as you might remember, I have not been entirely successful."

"It depends," Aynesworth remarked drily, "upon what you term success."

Wingrave shrugged his shoulders.

"I think," he said coldly, "that you are aware of what my feelings and desired course of action have been with regard to those of my fellow creatures with whom I have happened to come into contact. It seems to me that I have been a trifle unfortunate in several instances."

"As for instance?" Aynesworth asked.

"Well, to take a few cases only," Wingrave continued, "there was the child down at Tredowen whom you were so anxious for me to befriend. Of course, I declined to do anything of the sort, and she ought, by rights, to have gone to some charitable institution, founded and supported by fools, and eventually become, perhaps, a domestic servant. Instead of which, some relation of her father turns up and provides for her lavishly. You must admit that that was unfortunate."

"It depends upon the point of view," Aynesworth remarked drily. "Personally, I considered it a most fortunate occurrence."

"Naturally," Wingrave agreed. "But then you are a sentimentalist. You like to see people happy, and you would even help to make them so if you could without any personal inconvenience. I am at the other pole. If I could collect humanity into one sentient force, I would set my heel upon it without hesitation. I try to do what I can with the atoms, but I have not the best of fortune. There was Mrs. Travers, now! There I should have been successful beyond a doubt if some busybody hadn't sent that cable to her husband. I wonder if you were idiot enough to do that, Aynesworth?"

"If I had thought of the Marconigram," Aynesworth said, "I am sure I should have done it. But as a matter of fact, I did not."

"Just as well, so far as our relations are concerned," Wingrave said coldly. "I did manage to make poor men of a few brokers in New York, but my best coup went wrong. That boy would have blown his brains out, I believe, if some meddling idiot hadn't found him all that money at the last moment. I have had a few smaller successes, of course, and there is this affair of Lady Ruth and her estimable husband. You know that he came to borrow money of me, I suppose?"

"I guessed it," Aynesworth answered. "You should be modern in your revenge and lend it to him."

Wingrave smiled coldly.

"I fancy," he said, "that Lumley Barrington will find my revenge modern enough. I may lend the money they need--but it will be to Lady Ruth! I told her husband so a few minutes ago. I told him to send his wife to me. He has gone to tell her now!"

"I wonder," Aynesworth remarked, "that he did not thrash you--or try to."

Again Wingrave's lips parted.

"Moral deterioration has set in already," he remarked. "When he pays his bills with my money, he will lose the little he has left of his self-respect."

Aynesworth turned abruptly away. He was strongly tempted to say things which would have ended his connection with Wingrave, and as yet he was not ready to leave. For the sake of a digression, he took up a check book from the table.

"There are three checks," he remarked, "which I cannot trace. One for ten thousand pounds, another for five, and a third for a thousand pounds. What account shall I put them to?"

"Private drawing account," Wingrave answered. "They represent a small speculation. By the bye, you'd better go and ring up Walters."

"Do you wish the particulars entered in your sundry investment book?" Aynesworth asked.

Wingrave smiled grimly.

"I think not," he answered. "You can put them to drawing account. If you want me again this evening, I shall dine at the Cafe Royal at eight o'clock, and shall return here at five minutes to nine."

. . . . . . . . . . .

Lady Ruth was punctual. At a few minutes past nine, Morrison announced that a lady had called to see Mr. Wingrave by appointment.

"You can show her in," Wingrave said. "See that we are not disturbed."

Lady Ruth was scarcely herself. She was dressed in a high-necked muslin gown, and she wore a hat and veil, which somewhat obscured her features. The latter she raised, however, as she accepted the chair which Wingrave had placed for her. He saw then that she was pale, and her manner betrayed an altogether unfamiliar nervousness. She avoided his eyes.

"Did you expect me?" she asked.

"Yes!" he answered, "I thought that you would come."

Her foot, long and slender, beat impatiently upon the ground. She looked up at him once, but immediately withdrew her eyes.

"Why did you bring me here?" she asked in a low tone.

"My dear Lady Ruth!" he protested.

"If you want to play at being friends," she said, "for heaven's sake call me Ruth. You found it easy enough once."

"You are very kind," he answered. "Ruth, by all means."

"Now will you answer my question?" she said. "Do you mean--to help us?"

"Us--no!" he answered; "you--perhaps yes!" he added.

Then she looked at him, and found herself puzzled by the perfect impassivity of his features. Surely he would drop the mask now. He had insisted upon her coming!

"Perhaps?" she repeated. "What then--are the conditions?"

He bent over towards her. Curiously enough, there was, mingled with many other sensations, a certain sense of triumph in the thought, it was almost a hope, that at last he was going to betray himself, that he was going to admit tacitly, or by imputation, that her power over him was not wholly dead. It was a terrible situation--in her heart she felt so, but it had its compensations. Wingrave had been her constant attendant for months. He had seen her surrounded by men, all anxious to secure a smile from her; he had seen her play the great lady in her own house, and she played it very well. She knew that she was a past mistress in the arts which fascinate his sex, she understood the quiet speeches, the moods, every trick of the gamester in emotions, from the fluttering of eyelids to the unchaining of the passions. And he had loved her. Underneath it all, he must love her now. She was determined that he should tell her so. It was genuine excitement which throbbed in her pulses, a genuine color which burned in her cheeks.

"The conditions?" he repeated. "You believe, then, that I mean to make conditions?"

She raised her eyes to his, eloquent eyes she knew, and looked at him. The mask was still there--but he had moved a little nearer to her.

"I do not know," she said softly. "You must tell me."

There was a moment's silence. She had scarcely given herself credit for such capacity for emotion. He was on his feet. Surely the mask must go now! And then--she felt that it must be a nightmare. It was incredible! He had struck a match and was calmly lighting a cigarette.

"One," he said coolly, "is that Mademoiselle Violet employs no more amateur assassins to make clumsy attempts upon my life."

She sat in her place rigid--half frozen with a cold, numbing fear. He had sent for her, then, only to mock her. She had failed! They were not even to have the money! Speech was quite impossible. Then he continued.

"I will take your assent for granted," he said. "Do you know how much you require to free yourself?"

"About eight thousand pounds!" she answered mechanically.

He sat down and wrote a check, which he laid before her.

"You will have to endorse that," he remarked in a matter-of-fact tone. "Your name at the back will do instead of a receipt."

She sprang to her feet.

"Keep your money, " she cried. "I will not touch it. Please open the door for me! I am going."

"By all means--if you wish it," he answered undisturbed. "At the same time, I am curious to know why you came here at all if you did not intend to accept it."

She faced him, hot and angry.

"I did intend to accept it," she declared. "It is that or ruin. But you are too cruel! You make it--impossible."

"You surprise me," he answered. "I suppose you know best."

"For heaven's sake tell me," she cried passionately, "what has come to you, what manner of a man are you? You loved me once! Now, even, after all these years, you cannot deny it. You have gone out of your way to be with me, to be my companion wherever we are. People are beginning to smile when they see us together. I don't mind. I--for God's sake tell me, Wingrave! Why do you do it? Why do you lend me this money? What can I do for you? What do you want me to be? Are you as cold as a stone? Have you no heart--no heart even for friendship!"

"I would not seek," he answered, "to buy--your friendship with a check!"

"But it is yours already," she cried, holding out her hands. "Give me a little kindness, Wingrave! You make me feel and seem a perfect idiot. Why, I'd rather you asked me anything that treated me like this."

"I was under the impression," Wingrave remarked, "that I was behaving rather well. I wonder what would really satisfy you!"

"To have you behave as you are doing, and want to behave differently," she cried. "You are magnificent--but it is because you are indifferent. Will you kiss me, Wingrave?"

"With pleasure!" he answered.

She drew away from him quickly.

"Is it--another woman?" she asked. "The Marchioness?"

Her eagerness was almost painful. He did not answer her at once. She caught hold of his wrist and drew him towards her. Her eyes searched his face.

"The Marchioness," he said, "is a very beautiful woman. She does not, however, affect the situation as between you and me."

"If she dared!" Lady Ruth murmured. "Wingrave, won't you try and be friends with me?"

"I will try--certainly," he answered. "You would be surprised, however, if you could realize the effect of a long period of enforced seclusion upon a man of my--"

"Don't!" she shrieked; "stop!"

"My temperament, I was about to say," he concluded. "There was a time when I am afraid I might have been tempted, under such circumstances as these, to forget that you were no longer free, to forget everything that except we were alone, and that you--are as beautiful as ever you were!"

"Yes!" she murmured, moving imperceptibly a little nearer towards him.

He picked up the check and gave it to her.

"I am no actor," he said, looking at her steadily. "At present, I make no conditions. But--"

She leaned towards him. He took her face between his hands and kissed her on the lips.

"I may make them later," he said. "I reserve my right."

She looked at him for a moment, and dropped her veil.

"Please take me down to my carriage," she asked.