The Malefactor

Book 2

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 12 - Richardson Tries Again


"You saw--who that was?"

Lady Ruth's voice seemed to come from a greater distance. Wingrave turned and looked at her with calm curiosity. She was leaning back in the corner of the carriage, and she seemed somehow to have shrunk into an unusual insignificance. Her eyes alone were clearly visible through the semi-darkness--and the light which shone from their depths was the light of fear.

"Yes," he answered slowly, I believe that I recognized him. It was the young man who persists in some strange hallucination as to a certain Mademoiselle Violet."

"It was no hallucination," she answered. "You know that! I was Mademoiselle Violet!"

He nodded.

"It amazes me," he said thoughtfully, "that you should have stooped to such folly. That my demise would have been a relief to you I can, of course, easily believe, but the means--they surely were not worthy of your ingenuity."

"Don't!" she cried sharply. "I must have been utterly, miserably mad!"

"Even the greatest of schemers have their wild moments," he remarked consolingly. "This was one of yours. You paid me a very poor compliment, by the bye, to imagine that an insignificant creature like that--"

"Will you--leave off?" she moaned.

"I daresay," he continued after a moment's pause, "that you find him now quite an inconvenient person to deal with."

She shuddered.

"Oh, I am paying for my folly, if that is what you mean," she declared. "He knows--who I am--that he was deceived. He follows me about--everywhere."

Wingrave glanced out of the carriage window.

"Unless I am very much surprised," he answered, "he is following us now!"

She came a little closer to him.

"You won't leave me? Promise!"

"I will see you home," he answered.

"You are coming on to Hereford House."

"I think not," he answered; "I have had enough of society for one evening."

"Emily will be there later," she said quietly.

"Even Lady Emily," he answered, "will not tempt me. I will see you safely inside. Afterwards, if your persistent follower is hanging about, I will endeavor to talk him into a more reasonable frame of mind."

She was silent for a moment. Then she turned to him abruptly.

"You are more kind to me sometimes than I deserve, Wingrave," she remarked.

"It is not kindness," he answered. "I dislike absurd situations. Here we are! Permit me!"

Wingrave kept his word. He saw Lady Ruth to her front door, and then turned back towards his carriage. Standing by the side of the footman, a little breathless, haggard and disheveled-looking, was the young man who had attempted to check their progress a few minutes ago.

Wingrave took hold of his arm firmly.

"Get in there," he ordered, pointing to the carriage.

The young man tried to escape, but he was held as though in a vise. Before he well knew where he was, he was in the carriage, and Wingrave was seated by his side.

"What do you want with me?" he asked hoarsely.

"I want to know what you mean by following that lady about?" Wingrave asked.

The young man leaned forward. His hand was upon the door.

"Let me get out," he said sullenly.

"With pleasure--presently," Wingrave answered. "I can assure you that I am not anxious to detain you longer than necessary. Only you must first answer my question."

"I want to speak to her! I shall follow her about until I can!" the young man declared.

Wingrave glanced at him with a faint derisive smile. His clothes were worn and shabby, he was badly in need of a shave and a wash. He sat hunched up in a corner of the carriage, the picture of mute discomfort and misery.

"Do you know who she is?" Wingrave asked.

"Mademoiselle Violet!" the young man answered.

"You are mistaken," Wingrave answered. "She is Lady Ruth Barrington, wife of Lumley Barrington and daughter of the Earl of Haselton."

The young man was unmoved.

"She is Mademoiselle Violet," he declared.

The coupe drew up before the great block of buildings in which was Wingrave's flat. The footman threw open the door.

"Come in with me," Wingrave said. "I have something more to say to you."

"I would rather not," the young man muttered, and would have slouched off, but Wingrave caught him by the arm.

"Come!" he said firmly, and the youth obeyed.

Wingrave led the way into his sitting room and dismissed his servant who was setting out a tray upon the sideboard.

"Sit down," he ordered, and his strange guest again obeyed. Wingrave looked at him critically.

"It seems to me," he said deliberately, "that you are another of those poor fools who chuck away their life and happiness and go to the dogs because a woman had chosen to make a little use of them. You're out of work, I suppose?"

"Yes!"

"Hungry?"

"I suppose so."

Wingrave brought a plate of sandwiches from the sideboard, and mixed a whisky and soda. He set them down in front of his guest, and turned away with the evening paper in his hand.

"I am going into the next room for some cigarettes," he remarked.

He was gone scarcely two minutes. When he returned, the room was in darkness. He moved suddenly towards the electric lights, but was pushed back by an unseen hand. A man's hot breath fell upon his cheek, a hoarse, rasping voice spoke to him out of the black shadows.

"Don't touch the lights! Don't touch the lights, I say!"

"What folly is this?" Wingrave asked angrily. "Are you mad?"

"Not now," came the quick answer. "I have been. It has come to me here, in the darkness. I know why she is angry, I know why she will not speak to me. It is--because I failed."

Wingrave laughed, and moved towards the lights.

"We have had enough of this tomfoolery," he said scornfully. "If you won't listen to reason--"

He never finished his sentence. He had stumbled suddenly against a soft body, he had a momentary impression of a white, vicious face, of eyes blazing with insane fury. Quick to act, he struck--but before his hand descended, he had felt the tearing of his shirt, the sharp, keen pain in his chest, the swimming of his senses. Yet even then he struck again with passionate anger, and his assailant went down amongst the chairs with a dull, sickening crash!

Then there was silence in the room. Wingrave made an effort to drag himself a yard or two towards the bell, but collapsed hopelessly. Richardson, in a few moments, staggered to his feet.

He groped his way to the side of the wall, and found the knobs of the electric lights. He turned two on and looked around him. Wingrave was lying a few yards off, with a small red stain upon his shirt front. His face was ghastly pale, and he was breathing thickly. The young man looked at him for several moments, and then made his way to the side table where the sandwiches were. One by one he took them from the dish, and ate deliberately. When he had finished, he made his way once more towards where Wingrave lay. But before he reached the spot, he stopped short. Something on the wall had attracted his attention. He put his hand to his head and thought for a moment. It was an idea--a glorious idea.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Lady Ruth's maid stepped back and surveyed her mistress ecstatically.

"Milady," she declared, "has never, no never, appeared more charming. The gown, it is divine--and the coiffure! Milady will have no rivals."

Lady Ruth looked at herself long and earnestly in the glass. Her face reflected none of the pleased interest with which her maid was still regarding her. The latter grew a little anxious.

"Milady thinks herself a trifle pale, perhaps--a little more color?"

Lady Ruth set down the glass.

"No, thank you, Annette," she answered. "I shall do very well, I suppose. Certainly, I won't have any rouge."

"Milady knows very well what becomes her," the woman answered discreetly. "The pallor, it is the more distinguished. Milady cannot fail to have all the success she desires!"

Lady Ruth smiled a little wearily. And at that moment, there came a knock at the door. A servant entered.

"Someone wishes to speak to your ladyship on the telephone," the girl announced.

"On the telephone, at this time of night?" Lady Ruth exclaimed. "Ridiculous! They must send a message, whoever they are!"

"Parkins told them so, your ladyship," the girl answered; "but they insisted that the matter was important. They would give no name, but said that they were speaking from Mr. Wingrave's rooms."

Lady Ruth raised her eyebrows.

"It is very extraordinary," she said coldly, "but I will come to the telephone."