Chapter XXV. Jim Shepherd's Scare
 

It was, in its way, a pathetic sight upon which Laverick gazed when he stole into that shabby little sitting-room. Zoe had fallen asleep in a small, uncomfortable easy-chair with its back to the window. Her supper of bread and milk was half finished, her hat lay upon the table. A book was upon her lap as though she had started to read only to find it slip through her fingers. He stood with his elbow upon the mantelpiece, looking down at her. Her eyelashes, long and silky, were more beautiful than ever now that her eyes were closed. Her complexion, pale though she was, seemed more the creamy pallor of some southern race than the whiteness of ill-health. The bodice of her dress was open a few inches at the neck, showing the faint white smoothness of her flawless skin. Not even her shabby shoes could conceal the perfect shape of her feet and ankles. Once more he remembered his first simile, his first thought of her. She seemed, indeed, like some dainty statuette, uncouthly clad, who had strayed from a world of her own upon rough days and found herself ill-equipped indeed for the struggle. His heart grew hot with anger against Morrison as he stood and watched her. Supposing she had been different! It would have been his fault, leaving her alone to battle her way through the most difficult of all lives. Brute!

He had muttered the word half aloud and she suddenly opened her eyes. At first she seemed bewildered. Then she smiled and sat up.

"I have been asleep!" she exclaimed.

"A most unnecessary statement," he answered, smiling. "I have been standing looking at you for five minutes at least."

"How fortunate that I gave you the key!" she declared. "I don't suppose I should ever have heard you. Now please stand there in the light and let me look at you."

"Why?"

"I want to look at a man who has had supper with Mademoiselle Idiale."

He shrugged his shoulders.

"Am I supposed to be a wanderer out of Paradise, then?"

She looked at him doubtfully.

"They tell strange stories about her," she said; "but oh, she is so beautiful! If I were a man, I should fall in love with her if she even looked my way."

"Then I am glad," he answered, "that I am less impressionable."

"And you are not in love with her?" she asked eagerly.

"Why should I be?" he laughed. "She is like a wonderful picture, a marvelous statue, if you will. Everything about her is faultless. But one looks at these things calmly enough, you know. It is life which stirs life."

"Do you think that there is no life in her veins, then?" Zoe asked.

"If there is," he answered, "I do not think that I am the man to stir it."

She drew a little sigh of content.

"You see," she said, "you are my first admirer, and I haven't the least desire to let you go."

"Incredible!" he declared.

"But it is true," she answered earnestly. "You would not have me talk to these boys who come and hang on at the stage-door. The men to whom I have been introduced by the other girls have been very few, and they have not been very nice, and they have not cared for me and I have not cared for them. I think," she said, disconsolately, "I am too small. Every one to-day seems to like big women. Cora Sinclair, who is just behind me in the chorus, gets bouquets every night, and simply chooses with whom she should go out to supper."

Laverick looked grave.

"You are not envying her?" he asked.

"Not in the least, as long as I too am taken out sometimes."

Laverick smiled and sat on the arm of her chair.

"Miss Zoe," he said, "I have come because you told me to, just to prove, you see, that I am not in the toils of Mademoiselle Idiale. But do you know that it is half past one? I must not stay here any longer."

She sighed once more.

"You are right," she admitted, "but it is so lonely. I have never been here without May and her mother. I have never slept alone in the house before the other night. If I had known that they were going away, I should never have dared to come here."

"It is too bad," he declared. "Couldn't you get one of the other girls to stay with you?"

She shook her head.

"There are one or two whom I would like to have," she said, "but they are all living either at home or with relatives. The others I am afraid about. They seem to like to sit up so late and - "

"You are quite right," he interrupted hastily, - "quite right. You are better alone. But you ought to have a servant."

She laughed.

"On two pounds fifteen a week?" she asked. "You must remember that I could not even live here, only I have practically no rent to pay."

He fidgeted for a moment.

"Miss Zoe," he said, "I am perfectly serious when I tell you that I have money which should go to your brother. Why will you not let me alter your arrangements just a little ? I cannot bear to think of you here all alone."

"It is very kind of you," she answered doubtfully; "but please, no. Somehow, I think that it would spoil everything if I accepted that sort of help from you. If you have any money of Arthur's, keep it for a time and I think when you write him - I do not want to seem grasping - but I think if he has any to spare you might suggest that he does give me just a little. I have never had anything from him at all. Perhaps he does not quite understand how hard it is for me.

"I will do that, of course," Laverick answered, "but I wish you would let me at least pay over a little of what I consider due to you. I will take the responsibility for it. It will come from him and not from me."

She remained unconvinced.

"I would rather wait," she said. "If you really want to give me something, I will let you - out of my brother's money, of course, I mean," she added. "I haven't anything saved at all, or I wouldn't have that. But one day you shall take me out and buy me a dress and hat. You can tell Arthur directly you write to him. I don't mind that, for sometimes I do feel ashamed - I did the other night to have you sit with me there, and to feel that I was dressed so very differently from all of them."

He laughed reassuringly.

"I don't think men notice those things. To me you seemed just as you should seem. I only know that I was glad enough to be there with you."

"Were you?" - rather wistfully.

"Of course I was. Now I am going, but before I go, don't forget Monday afternoon. We'll have lunch and then go to your brother's rooms."

She glanced at the clock.

"Is it really so late?" she asked.

"It is. Don't you notice how quiet it is outside?"

They stood hand in hand for a moment. A strange silence seemed to have fallen upon the streets. Laverick was suddenly conscious of something which he had never felt when Mademoiselle Idiale had smiled upon him - a quickening of the pulses, a sense of gathering excitement which almost took his breath away. His eyes were fixed upon hers, and he seemed to see the reflection of that same wave of feeling in her own expressive face. Her lips trembled, her eyes were deeper and softer than ever. They seemed to be asking him a question, asking and asking till every fibre of his body was concentrated in the desperate effort with, which he kept her at arm's length.

"Is it so very late?" she whispered, coming just a little closer, so that she was indeed almost within the shelter of his arms.

He clutched her hands almost roughly and raised them to his lips.

"Much too late for me to stay here, child," he said, and his voice even to himself sounded hard and unnatural.

"Run along to bed. To-morrow night - to-morrow night, then, I will fetch you. Good-bye!"

He let himself out. He did not even look behind to the spot where he had left her. He closed the front door and walked with swift, almost savage footsteps down the quiet Street, across the Square, and into New Oxford Street. Here he seemed to breathe more freely. He called a hansom and drove to his rooms.

The hall-porter had left his post in the front hall, and there was no one to inform Laverick that a visitor was awaiting him. When he entered his sitting-room, however, he gave a little start of surprise. Mr. James Shepherd was reclining in his easy-chair with his hands upon his knees - Mr. James Shepherd with his face more pasty even than usual, his eyes a trifle greener, his whole demeanor one of unconcealed and unaffected terror.

"Hullo!" Laverick exclaimed. "What the dickens - what do you want here, Shepherd?"

"Upon my word, sir, I'm not sure that I know," the man replied, "but I'm scared. I've brought you back the certificates of them shares. I want you to keep them for me. I'm terrified lest they come and search my room. I am, I tell you fair. I'm terrified to order a pint of beer for myself. They're watching me all the time."

"Who are?" Laverick demanded.

"Lord knows who;" Shepherd answered, "but there's two of them at it. I told you about them as asked questions, and I thought there we'd done and finished with it. Not a bit of it ! There was another one there this afternoon, said he was a journalist, making sketches of the passage and asking me no end of questions. He wasn't no journalist, I'll swear to that. I asked him about his paper. 'Half-a-dozen,' he declared. 'They're all glad to have what I send them.' Journalist! Lord knows who the other chap was and what he was asking questions for, but this one was a 'tec, straight. Joe Forman, he was in to-day looking after my place, for I'd given a month's notice, and he says to me, "You see that big chap?' - meaning him as had been asking me the questions - and I says "Yes!' and he says, 'That's a 'tee. I've seed him in a police court, giving evidence.' I went all of a shiver so that you could have knocked me down."

"Come, come!" said Laverick. "There's no need for you to be feeling like this about it. All that you've done is not to have remembered those two customers who were in your restaurant late one night. There's nothing criminal in that."

"There's something criminal in having two hundred and fifty pounds' worth of shares in one's pocket - something suspicious, anyway," Shepherd declared, plumping them down on the table. "I ain't giving you these back, mind, but you must keep 'em for me. I wish I'd never given notice. I think I'll ask the boss to keep me on."

"Why do you suppose that this man is particularly interested in you?" Laverick inquired.

"Ain't I told you?" Shepherd exclaimed, sitting up. "Why, he's been to my place down in 'Ammersmith, asking questions about me. My landlady swears he didn't go into my room, but who can tell whether he did or not? Those sort of chaps can get in anywhere. Then I went out for a bit of an airing after the one o'clock rush was over to-day, and I'm danged if he wasn't at my 'eels. I seed him coming round by Liverpool Street just as I went in a bar to get a drop of something."

Laverick frowned.

"If there is anything in this Story, Shepherd," he said, "if you are really being followed, what a thundering fool you were to come here! All the world knows that Arthur Morrison was my partner."

"I couldn't help it, sir," the man declared. "I couldn't, indeed. I was so scared, I felt I must speak about it to some one. And then there were these shares. There was nowhere I could keep 'em safe."

"Look here," Laverick went on, "you're alarming yourself about nothing. In any case, there is only one thing for you to do. Pull yourself together and put a bold face upon it. I'll keep these certificates for you, and when you want some money you can come to me for it. Go back to your place, and if your master is willing to keep you on perhaps it would be a good thing to stay there for another month or so. But don't let any one see that you're frightened. Remember, there's nothing that you can get into trouble for. No one's obliged to answer such questions as you've been asked, except in a court and under oath. Stick to your story, and if you take my advice," Laverick added, glancing at his visitor's shaking fingers, "you will keep away from the drink."

"It's little enough I've had, sir," Shepherd assured him. "A drop now and then just to keep up one's spirits - nothing that amounts to anything."

"Make it as little as possible," Laverick said. "Remember, I'm back of you, I'll see that you get into no trouble. And don't come here again. Come to my office, if you like - there's nothing in that - but don't come here, you understand?"

Shepherd took up his hat.

"I understand, sir. I'm sorry to have troubled you, but the sight of that man following me about fairly gave me the shivers."

"Come into the office as often as you like, in reason, Laverick said, showing him out, "but not here again. Keep your eyes open, and let me know if you think you've been followed here."

"There's no more news in the papers, sir? Nothing turned up?"

"Nothing," replied Laverick. "If the police have found out anything at all, they will keep it until after the inquest."

"And you've heard. nothing, sir," Shepherd asked, speaking in a hoarse whisper, "of Mr. Morrison?"

"Nothing," Laverick answered. "Mr. Morrison is abroad."

The man wiped his forehead with his hand.

"Of course!" he muttered. "A good job, too, for him!"