The Lost Lady by Melville Davisson Post
It was a remark of old Major Carrington that incited this adventure.
"It is some distance through the wood - is she quite safe?"
It was a mere reflection as he went out. It was very late. I do not know how the dinner, or rather the after-hours of it, had lengthened. It must have been the incomparable charm of the woman. She had come, this night, luminously, it seemed to us, through the haze that had been on her - the smoke haze of a strange, blighting fortune. The three of us had been carried along in it with no sense of time; my sister, the ancient Major Carrington and I.
He turned back in the road, his decayed voice whipped by the stimulus of her into a higher note
"Suppose the village coachman should think her as lovely as we do - what!"
He laughed and turned heavily up the road a hundred yards or so to his cottage set in the pine wood. I stood in the road watching the wheels of the absurd village vehicle, the yellow cut-under, disappear. The old Major called back to me; his voice seemed detached, eerie with the thin laugh in it.
"I thought him a particularly villainous-looking creature!"
It was an absurd remark. The man was one of the natives of the island, and besides, the innkeeper was a person of sound sense; he would know precisely about his driver.
I should not have gone on this adventure but for a further incident.
When I entered the house my sister was going up the stair, the butler was beyond in the drawing-room, and there was no other servant visible. She was on the first step and the elevation gave precisely the height that my sister ought to have received in the accident of birth. She would have been wonderful with those four inches added - lacking beauty, she had every other grace!
She spoke to me as I approached.
"Winthrop," she said, "what was in the package that Madame Barras carried away with her tonight?"
The query very greatly surprised me. I thought Madame Barras had carried this package away with her several evenings before when I had put her English bank-notes in my box at the local bank. My sister added the explanation which I should have been embarrassed to seek, at the moment.
"She asked me to put it somewhere, on Tuesday afternoon . . . . It was forgotten, I suppose . . . . I laid it in a drawer of the library table . . . . What did it contain?"
I managed an evasive reply, for the discovery opened possibilities that disturbed me.
"Some certificates, I believe," I said.
My sister made a little pretended gesture of dismay.
"I should have been more careful; such things are of value."
Of value indeed! The certificates in Madame Barras' package, that had lain about on the library table, were gold certificates of the United States Treasury - ninety odd of them, each of a value of one thousand dollars! My sister went:
"How oddly life has tossed her about . . . . She must have been a mere infant at Miss Page's. The attachment of incoming tots to the older girls was a custom . . . . I do not recall her . . . . There was always a string of mites with shiny pigtails and big-eyed wistful faces. The older girls never thought very much about them. One has a swarm-memory, but individuals escape one. The older girl, in these schools, fancied herself immensely. The little satellite that attached itself, with its adoration, had no identity. It had a nickname, I think, or a number . . . . I have forgotten. We minimized these midges out of everything that could distinguish them . . . . Fancy one of these turning up in Madame Barras and coming to me on the memory of it."
"It was extremely lucky for her," I said. "Imagine arriving from the interior of Brazil on the invitation of Mrs. Jordan to find that lady dead and buried; with no friend, until, by chance, one happened on your name in the social register, and ventured on a school attachment of which there might remain, perhaps a memory only on the infant's side."
My sister went on up the stair.
"I am glad we happened to be here, and, especially, Winthrop, if you have been able to assist her . . . . She is charming."
Charming was the word descriptive of my sister, for it is a thing of manner from a nature elevated and noble, but it was not the word for Madame Barras. The woman was a lure. I mean the term in its large and catholic sense. I mean the bait of a great cosmic impulse - the most subtle and the most persistent of which one has any sense.
The cunning intelligences of that impulse had decked her out with every attractiveness as though they had taken thought to confound all masculine resistance; to sweep into their service those refractory units that withheld themselves from the common purpose. She was lovely, as the aged Major Carrington had uttered it - great violet eyes in a delicate skin sown with gold flecks, a skin so delicate that one felt that a kiss would tear it!
I do not know from what source I have that expression but it attaches itself, out of my memory of descriptive phrases, to Madame Barras. And it extends itself as wholly descriptive of her. You will say that the long and short of this is that I was in love with Madame Barras, but I point you a witness in Major Carrington.
He had the same impressions, and he had but one passion in his life, a distant worship of my sister that burned steadily even here at the end of life. During the few evenings that Madame Barras had been in to dinner with us, he sat in his chair beyond my sister in the drawing-room, perfect in his early-Victorian manner, while Madame Barras and I walked on the great terrace, or sat outside.
One had a magnificent sweep of the world, at night, from that terrace. It looked out over the forest of pines to the open sea.
Madame Barras confessed to the pull of this vista. She asked me at what direction the Atlantic entered, and when she knew, she kept it always in her sight.
It had a persisting fascination for her. At all times and in nearly any position, she was somehow sensible of this vista; she knew the lights almost immediately, and the common small craft blinking about. To-night she had sat for a long time in nearly utter silence here. There was a faint light on the open sea as she got up to take her leave of us; what would it be she wondered.
I replied that it was some small craft coming in.
"Hardly that," I said, "from its lights and position it will be some swifter power-boat and, I should say, not precisely certain about the channel."
I have been drawn here into reminiscence that did not, at the time, detain me in the hall. What my sister had discovered to me, following Major Carrington's remark, left me distinctly uneasy. It was very nearly two miles to the village, the road was wholly forest and there would be no house on the way; for my father, with an utter disregard for cost, had sought the seclusion of a large acreage when he had built this absurdly elaborate villa on Mount Desert Island.
Besides I was in no mood for sleep.
And, over all probability, there might be some not entirely imaginary danger to Madame Barras. Not precisely the danger presented in Major Carrington's pleasantry, but the always possible danger to one who is carrying a sum of money about. It would be considered, in the world of criminal activities, a very large sum of money; and it had been lying here, as of no value, in a drawer of the library table since the day on which the gold certificates had arrived on my check from the Boston bank.
Madame Barras had not taken the currency away as I imagined. It was extremely careless of her, but was it not an act in character?
What would such a woman know of practical concern?
I spoke to the butler. He should not wait up, I would let myself in; and I went out.
I remember that I got a cap and a stick out of the rack; there was no element of selection in the cap, but there was a decided subconscious direction about the selection of the stick. It was a heavy blackthorn, with an iron ferrule and a silver weight set in the head; picked up - by my father at some Irish fair - a weapon in fact.
It was not dark. It was one of those clear hard nights that are not uncommon on this island in midsummer; with a full moon, the road was visible even in the wood. I swung along it with no particular precaution; I was not expecting anything to happen, and in fact, nothing did happen on the way into the village.
But in this attitude of confidence I failed to discover an event of this night that might have given the whole adventure a different ending.
There is a point near the village where a road enters our private one; skirts the border of the mountain, and, making a great turn, enters the village from the south. At this division of the road I heard distinctly a sound in the wood.
It was not a sound to incite inquiry. It was the sound of some considerable animal moving in the leaves, a few steps beyond the road. It did not impress me at the time; estrays were constantly at large in our forests in summer, and not infrequently a roaming buck from the near preserves. There was also here in addition to the other roads, an abandoned winter wood-road that ran westward across the island to a small farming settlement. Doubtless I took a slighter notice of the sound because estrays from the farmers' fields usually trespassed on us from this road.
At any rate I went on. I fear that I was very much engrossed with the memory of Madame Barras. Not wholly with the feminine lure of her, although as I have written she was the perfection of that lure. One passed women, at all milestones, on the way to age, and kept before them one's sound estimates of life, but before this woman one lost one's head, as though Nature, evaded heretofore, would not be denied. But the weird fortune that had attended her was in my mind.
Married to Senor Barras out of the door of a convent, carried to Rio de Janeiro to an unbearable life, escaping with a remnant of her inheritance in English bank-notes, she arrives here to visit the one, old, persisting friend, Mrs. Jordan, and finds her dead! And what seemed strange, incredible beyond belief, was that this creature Barras had thought only of her fortune which he had depleted in two years to the something less than twenty thousand pounds which I had exchanged for her into our money; a mere fragment of her great inheritance.
I had listened to the story entranced with the alluring teller of it; wondering as I now wondered, on the road to the village, how anything pretending to be man could think of money when she was before his eye.
What could he buy with money that equaled her! Ant yet this curious jackal had seen in her only the key to a strong-box. There was behind it, in explanation, shadowed out, the glamor of an empire that Senor Barras would set up with the millions in his country of revolutions, and the enthusiasms of a foolish mother.
And yet the jackal and this wreckage had not touched her. There was no stain, no crumpled leaf. She was a fresh wonder, even after this, out of a chrysalis. It was this amazing newness, this virginity of blossom from which one could not escape.
The word in my reflection brought me up. How had she escaped from Barras?
I had more than once in my reflections pivoted on the word.
The great hotel was very nearly deserted when I entered.
There was the glow of a cigar where some one smoked, at the end of the long porch. Within, there was only a sleepy clerk.
Madame Barras had not arrived . . . he was quite sure; she had gone out to dinner somewhere and had not come in!
I was profoundly concerned. But I took a moment to reflect before deciding what to do.
I stepped outside and there, coming up from the shadow of the porch, I met Sir Henry Marquis.
It was chance at its extreme of favor. If I had been given the selection, in all the world, I should have asked for Sir Henry Marquis at that decisive moment.
The relief I felt made my words extravagant.
"Marquis!" I cried. "You here!"
"Ah, Winthrop," he said, in his drawling Oxford voice, "what have you done with Madame Barras; I was waiting for her?"
I told him, in a word, how she had set out from my house - my concern - the walk down here and this result. I did not ask him at the moment how he happened to be here, or with a knowledge of our guest. I thought that Marquis was in Canada. But one does not, with success, inquire of a C.I.D. official even in his own country. One met him in the most unexpected places, unconcerned, and one would have said at leisure.
But he was concerned to-night. What I told brought him up. He stood for a moment silent. Then he said, softly, in order drat the clerk behind us might not overhear.
"Don't speak of it. I will get a light and go with you!"
He returned in a moment and we went out. He asked me about the road, was there only one way down; and I told him precisely. There was only the one road into the village and no way to miss it unless one turned into the public road at the point where it entered our private one along the mountain.
He pitched at once upon this point and we hurried back.
We had hardly a further word on the way. I was decidedly uneasy about Madame Barras by now, and Marquis' concern was hardly less evident. He raced along in his immense stride, and I had all I could manage to keep up.
It may seem strange that I should have brought such a man as Sir Henry Marquis into the search of this adventure with so little explanation of my guest or the affair. But, one must remember, Marquis was an old acquaintance frequently seen about in the world. To thus, on the spot so to speak, draft into my service the first gentleman I found, was precisely what any one would have done. It was probable, after all, that there had been some reason why the cut-under had taken the other road, and Madame Barras quite all right.
It was better to make sure before one raised the village - and Marquis, markedly, was beyond any aid the village could have furnished. This course was strikingly justified by every after-event.
I have said that the night was not dark. The sky was hard with stars, like a mosaic. This white moonlight entered through the tree-tops and in a measure illumined the road. We were easily able to see, when we reached the point, that the cut-under had turned out into the road circling the mountain to the west of the village. The track was so clearly visible in the light, that I must have observed it had I been thinking of the road instead of the one who had set out upon it.
I was going on quickly, when Marquis stopped. He was stooping over the track of the vehicle. He did not come on and I went back.
"What is it?" I said.
He answered, still stooping above the track.
"The cut-under stopped here."
"How do you know that?" I asked, for it seemed hardly possible to determine where a wheeled vehicle had stopped.
"It's quite clear," he replied. "The horse has moved about without going on."
I now saw it. The hoof-marks of the horse had displaced the dust where it had several times changed position.
"And that's not all," Marquis continued. "Something has happened to the cut-under here!"
I was now closely beside him.
"It was broken down, perhaps, or some accident to the harness?"
"No," he replied. "The wheel tracks are here broadened, as though they had skidded on a turn. This would mean little if the cut-under had been moving at the time. But it was not moving; the horse was standing. The cut-under had stopped."
He went on as though in a reflection to himself.
"The vehicle must have been violently thrown about here, by something."
I had a sudden inspiration.
"I see it!" I cried. "The horse took fright, stopped, and then bolted; there has been a run-away. That accounts for the turn out. Let's hurry!"
But Marquis detained me with a firm hand on my arm.
"No," he said, "the horse was not running when it turned out and it did not stop here in fright. The horse was entirely quiet here. The hoof marks would show any alarm in the animal, and, moreover, if it had stopped in fright there would have been an inevitable recoil which would have thrown the wheels of the vehicle backward out of their track. No moving animal, man included, stopped by fright fails to register this recoil. We always look for it in evidences of violent assault. Footprints invariably show it, and one learns thereby, unerringly, the direction of the attack."
He rose, his hand still extended and upon my arm.
"There is only one possible explanation," he added. "Something happened in the cut-under to throw it violently about in the road, and it happened with the horse undisturbed and the vehicle standing still. The wheel tracks are widened only at one point, showing a transverse but no lateral movement of the vehicle."
"A struggle?" I cried. "Major Carrington was right, Madame Barras has been attacked by the driver!"
Marquis' hand held me firmly in the excitement of that realization. He was entirely composed. There was even a drawl in his voice as he answered me.
"Major Carrington, whoever he may be," he said, "is wrong; if we exclude a third party, it was Madame Barras who attacked the driver."
His fingers tightened under my obvious protest.
"It is quite certain," he continued. "Taking the position of the standing horse, it will be the front wheels of the cut-under that have made, this widened track; the wheels under the driver's seat, and not the wheels under the guest seat, in the rear of the vehicle. There has been a violent struggle in this cut-under, but it was a struggle that took place wholly in the front of the vehicle."
He went on in his maddeningly imperturbable calm.
"No one attacked our guest, but some one, here at this precise point, did attack the driver of this vehicle."
"For God's sake," I cried, "let's hurry!"
He stepped back slowly to the edge of the road and the drawl in his voice lengthened.
"We do hurry," he said. "We hurry to the value of knowing that there was no accident here to the harness, no fright to the horse, no attack on the lady, and no change in the direction which the vehicle afterwards took. Suppose we had gone on, in a different form of hurry, ignorant of these facts?"
At this point I distinctly heard again the sound of a heavy animal in the wood. Marquis also heard it and he plunged into the thick bushes. Almost immediately we were at the spot, and before us some heavy object turned in the leaves.
Marquis whipped an electric-flash out of his pocket. The body of a man, tied at the hands and heels behind with a hitching-strap, and with a linen carriage lap-cloth wound around his head and knotted, lay there endeavoring to ease the rigor of his position by some movement.
We should now know, in a moment, what desperate thing had happened!
I cut the strap, while Marquis got the lap-cloth unwound from about the man's head. It was the driver of the cut-under. But we got no gain from his discovery. As soon as his face was clear, he tore out of our grasp and began to run.
He took the old road to the westward of the island, where perhaps he lived. We were wholly unable to stop him, and we got no reply to our shouted queries except his wild cry for help. He considered us his assailants from whom, by chance, he had escaped. It was folly to think of coming up with the man. He was set desperately for the westward of the island, and he would never stop until he reached it.
We turned back into the road:
Marquis' method now changed. He turned swiftly into the road along the mountain which the cut-under had taken after its capture.
I was at the extreme of a deadly anxiety about Madame Barras.
It seemed to me, now, certain that some gang of criminals having knowledge of the packet of money had waylaid the cut-under. Proud of my conclusion, I put the inquiry to Sir Henry as we hurried along. If we weren't too late!
He stopped suddenly like a man brought up at the point of a bayonet.
"My word!" He jerked the expression out through his tightened jaws. "Has she got ninety thousand dollars of your money!" And he set out again in his long stride. I explained briefly as I endeavored to keep his pace. It was her own money, not mine, but she did in fact have that large sum with her in the cut-under on this night. I gave him the story of the matter, briefly, for I had no breath to spare over it. And I asked him what he thought. Had a gang of thieves attacked the cut-under?
But he only repeated his expression.
"My word! . . . You got her ninety thousand dollars and let her drive away with no eye on her! . . . . Such trust in the honesty of our fellow creatures! . . . My word!"
I had to admit the deplorable negligence, but I had not thought of any peril, and I did not know that she carried the money with her until the conversation with my sister. There was some excuse for me. I could not remember a robbery on this island.
Marquis snapped his jaws.
"You'll remember this one!" he said.
It was a ridiculous remark. How could one ever forget if this incomparable creature were robbed and perhaps murdered. But were there not some extenuating circumstances in my favor. I presented them as we advanced; my sister and I lived in a rather protected atmosphere apart from all criminal activities, we could not foresee such a result. I had no knowledge of criminal methods.
"I can well believe it," was the only reply Marquis returned to me.
In addition to my extreme anxiety about Madame Barras I began now to realize a profound sense of responsibility; every one, it seemed, saw what I ought to have done, except myself. How had I managed to overlook it? It was clear to other men. Major Carrington had pointed it out to me as I was turning away; and now here Sir Henry Marquis was expressing in no uncertain words how negligent a creature he considered me - to permit my guest, a woman, to go alone, at night, with this large sum of money.
It was not a pleasant retrospect. Other men - the world - would scarcely hold me to a lesser negligence than Sir Henry Marquis!
I could not forbear, even in our haste, to seek some consolation.
"Do you think Madame Barras has been hurt?"
"Hurt!" he repeated. "How should Madame Barras be hurt?"
"In the robbery," I said.
"Robbery!" and he repeated that word. "There has been no robbery!"
I replied in some astonishment.
"Really, Sir Henry! You but now assured me that I would remember this night's robbery."
The drawl got back into his voice.
"Ah, yes," he said, "quite so. You will remember it."
The man was clearly, it seemed to me, so engrossed with the mystery that it was idle to interrogate him. And he was walking with a devil's stride.
Still the pointed query of the affair pressed me, and I made another effort.
"Why did these assailants take Madame Barras on with them?"
Marquis regarded me, I thought, with wonder.
"The devil, man!" he said. "They couldn't leave her behind."
"The danger would be too great to them?"
"No," he said, "the danger would be too great to her."
At this moment an object before us in the road diverted our attention. It was the cut-under and the horse. They were standing by the roadside where it makes a great turn to enter the village from the south. There is a wide border to the road at this point, clear of underbrush, where the forest edges it, and there are here, at the whim of some one, or by chance, two great flat stones, one lying upon the other, but not fitting by a hand's thickness by reason of the uneven surfaces.
What had now happened was evident. The assailants of the cut-under had abandoned it here before entering the village. They could not, of course, go on with this incriminating vehicle.
The sight of the cut-under here had on Marquis the usual effect of any important evidential sign. He at once ceased to hurry. He pulled up; looked over the cut-under and the horse, and began to saunter about.
This careless manner was difficult for me at such a time. But for his assurance that Madame Barras, was uninjured it would have been impossible. I had a blind confidence in the man although his expressions were so absurdly in conflict.
I started to go on toward the village, but as he did not follow I turned back. Marquis was sitting on the flat stones with a cigarette in his fingers:
"Good heavens, man," I cried, "you're not stopping to smoke a cigarette?"
"Not this cigarette, at any rate," he replied. "Madame Barras has already smoked it. . . . I can, perhaps, find you the burnt match."
He got the electric-flash out of his pocket, and stooped over. Immediately he made an exclamation of surprise.
I leaned down beside him.
There was a little heap of charred paper on the brown bed of pine-needles. Marquis was about to take up this charred paper when his eye caught something thrust in between the two stones. It was a handful of torn bits of paper.
Marquis got them out and laid them on the top of the flat stones under his light.
"Ah," he said, "Madame Barras, while she smoked, got rid of some money."
"The package of gold certificates!" I cried. "She has burned them?"
"No," he replied, "Madame Barras has favored your Treasury in her destructive process. These are five-pound notes, of the Bank of England."
I was astonished and I expressed it.
"But why should Madame Barras destroy notes of the Bank of England?"
"I imagine," he answered, "that they were some which she had, by chance, failed to give you for exchange."
"But why should she destroy them?" I went on.
"I conclude," he drawled, "that she was not wholly certain that she would escape."
"Escape!" I cried. "You have been assuring me all along that Madame Barras is making no effort to escape."
"Oh, no," he replied, "she is making every effort."
I was annoyed and puzzled.
"What is it," I said, "precisely, that Madame Barras did here; can you tell me in plain words?"
"Surely," he replied, "she sat here while something was decided, and while she sat here she smoked the cigarette, and while she smoked the cigarette, she destroyed the money. But," he added, "before she had quite finished, a decision was made and she hastily thrust the remaining bits of the torn notes into the crevice between these stones."
"What decision?" I said.
Marquis gathered up the bits of torn paper and put them into his pocket with the switched-off flash.
"I wish I knew that," he said.
"Which path they have taken," he replied; "there seem to be two branching from this point, but they pass over a bed of pine-needles and that retains no impression . . . . Where do these paths lead?"
I did not know that any paths came into the road at this point. But the island is veined over with old paths. The lead of paths here, however, was fairly evident.
"They must come out somewhere on the sea," I said.
"Right," he cried. "Take either, and let's be off. . . Madame's cigarette was not quite cold when I picked it up."
I was right about the direction of the paths but, as it happened, the one Marquis took was nearly double the distance of the other to the sea; and I have wondered always, if it was chance that selected the one taken by the assailants of the cut-under as it was chance that selected the one taken by us.
Marquis was instantly gone, and I hurried along the path, running nearly due east. There was light enough entering from the brilliant moon through the tree-tops to make out the abandoned trail.
And as I hurried, Marquis' contradicting expressions seemed to adjust themselves into a sort of order, and all at once I understood what had happened. The Brazilian adventurer had not taker the loss of his wife and the fortune in English pounds sterling, lying down. He had followed to recover them.
I now saw clearly the reason for everything that had happened: the attack on the driver, and my guest's concern to get rid of the English money which she discovered remaining in her possession; this man would have no knowledge of her gold certificates but he would be searching for his English pounds. And if she came clear of any trace of these five-pound notes, she might disclaim all knowledge of them and perhaps send him elsewhere on his search, since it was always the money and not the woman that he sought.
This explanation was hardly realized before it was confirmed.
I came out abruptly onto a slope of bracken, and before me at a few paces on the path were Madame Barras and two men; one at some distance in advance of her, disappearing at the moment behind a spur of the slope that hid us from the sea, and I got no conception of him; but the creature at her heels was a huge foreign beast of a man, in the dress of a common sailor.
What happened was over in a moment.
I was nearly on the man when I turned out of the wood, and with a shout to Madame Barras I struck at him with the heavy walking-stick. But the creature was not to be taken unaware; he darted to one side, wrenched the stick out of my hand, and dashed its heavy-weighted head into my face. I went down in the bracken, but I carried with me into unconsciousness a vision of Madame Barras that no shadow of the lengthening years can blur.
She had swung round sharply at the attack behind her, and she stood bare-haired and bare-shouldered, knee-deep in the golden bracken, with the glory of the moon on her; her arms hanging, her lips parted, her great eyes wide with terror - as lovely in her desperate extremity as a dream, as, a painted picture. I don't know how long I was down there, but when I finally got up, and, following along the path behind the spur of rock, came out onto the open sea, I found Sir Henry Marquis. He was standing with his hands in the pockets of his loose tweed coat, and he was cursing softly:
"The ferry and the mainland are patroled . . . I didn't think of their having an ocean-going yacht . . . ."
A gleam of light was disappearing into the open sea.
He put his hand into his pocket and took out the scraps of torn paper.
"These notes," he said, "like the ones which you hold in your bank-vault, were never issued by the Bank of England."
I stammered some incoherent sentence; and the great chief of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard turned toward me.
"Do you know who that woman is?"
"Surely," I cried, "she went to school with my sister at Miss Page's; she came to visit Mrs. Jordan. . . ."
He looked at me steadily.
"She got the data about your sister out of the Back Bay biographies and she used the accident of Mrs. Jordan's death to get in with it . . . the rest was all fiction."
"Madame Barras?" I stuttered. "You mead Madame Barras?"
"Madame the Devil," he said. "That's Sunny Suzanne. Used to be in the Hungarian Follies until the Soviet government of Austria picked her up to place the imitation English money that its presses were striking off in Vienna."