The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter VI. A Peripatetic Providence
"Do you still pin your faith to the man in the street?"
It was Mr. Steel who stood at Rachel's elbow, repeating his question word for word; but he did not repeat it in the same tone. There was an earnest note in the lowered voice, an unspoken appeal to her to admit the truth and be done with proud pretence. And indeed the pride had gone out of Rachel at sight of him; a delicious sense of safety filled her heart instead. She was as one drowning, and here was a strong swimmer come to her rescue in the nick of time. What did it matter who or what he was? She felt that he was strong to save. Yet, as the nearly drowned do struggle with their saviours, so Rachel must fence instinctively with hers.
"I never did pin my faith to him," said she.
"Yet see the risk that you are running! If he turns round--if any one of them turns round and recognizes you--listen to that!"
It was only the second window, but a third and a fourth followed like shots from the same revolver. Rachel winced.
"For God's sake, come away!" he whispered, sternly.
And Rachel did come a few yards before a flicker of her spirit called a halt.
"Why should I run away?" she demanded, in sudden tears of mortification and of weakness combined. "I am innocent--so why should I?"
"Because they don't like innocent people; and there appear to be no police in these parts; and if you fall into their hands--well, it would be better for you if you had been found guilty and were safe and sound in Newgate now!"
That was exactly what Rachel had felt herself; she took a few steps more, but still with reluctance and irresolution; and once round the nearest corner, and out of that hateful street for ever, she turned to her companion in unconcealed despair.
"But what am I to do?" she cried. "But where am I to turn?"
"Mrs. Minchin," said Steel, "can you not really trust me yet?"
He stood before her under a street lamp, handsome still, upright for all his years, strong as fate itself, and surely kinder than any fate which Rachel Minchin had yet met with in the course of her short but checkered life. And yet--and yet--she trusted and distrusted him too!
"I can and I cannot," she sighed; and even with the words one reason occurred to her. "You have followed me, you see, after all!"
"I admit it," he replied, "and without a particle of shame. My dear lady, I was not going to lose sight of you to-night!"
"And why not?"
"Because I foresaw what might happen, and may happen still! Nay, madam, it will, if you continue to let your pride sit upon your common sense. Do you hear them now? That means the police, and when they're dispersed they'll come this way to King's Road. Any moment they may be upon us. And there's a hansom dropped from heaven!"
He raised his umbrella, the bell tinkled, the two red eyes dilated and widened in the night, then with a clatter the horse was pulled up beside the curb, and Steel spread his hand before the muddy wheel.
"Be sensible," he whispered, "and jump in! In a hansom you can see where you are going; in a hansom you can speak to the driver or attract the attention of any decent person on the sidewalk. Ah! you will trust me so far at last--I thank you from my heart!"
"Where to, sir?" asked the cabman through the roof.
And Rachel listened with languid curiosity; but that was all. She had put herself in this man's hands; resistance was at an end, and a reckless indifference to her fate the new attitude of a soul as utterly overtaxed and exhausted as its tired tenement of clay.
"Brook Street," said Steel, after a moment's pause--"and double-quick for a double fare. We shall be there in a quarter of an hour," he added reassuringly as the trap-door slammed, "and you will find everything ready for you, beginning with something to eat. I, at all events, anticipated the verdict; if you don't believe me, you will when we get there, for they have been ready for you all day. Do you know Claridge's Hotel, by the way?"
"Only by name," said Rachel, wearily.
"I'm glad to hear it," pursued Mr. Steel, "for I think you will be pleased. It is not like the ordinary run of hotels. Your rooms are your castle--regular self-contained flat--and you needn't see another soul if you don't like. I am staying in the hotel myself, for example, but you shall not set eyes on me for a week unless you wish to."
"But I don't understand," began Rachel, roused a little from her apathy. She was not suffered to proceed.
"Nor are you to attempt to do so," said her companion, "until to-morrow morning. If you feel equal to it then, I shall crave an audience, and you shall hear what I have got to say. But first, let me beg of you, an adequate supper and a good night's rest!"
"One thing is certain," said Rachel, half to herself: "they can't know who I am, or they never would have taken me in. And no luggage!"
"That they are prepared for," returned Steel; "and in your rooms you will find a maid who is also prepared and equipped for your emergency. As to their not knowing who you are at the hotel, there you are right; they do not know; it would have been inexpedient to tell them."
"Then at least," said Rachel, "I ought to know who I am supposed to be."
And she smiled, for interest and curiosity were awakened within her, with the momentary effect of stimulants; but Mr. Steel sat silent at her side. The cab was tinkling up Park Lane. The great park on the left, the great houses on the right, the darkness on the one hand, the lights on the other, had all the fascination of sharp contrasts--that very fascination which was Mr. Steel's. Rachel already discovered it in his face, and divined it in his character, without admitting to herself that there was any fascination at all. Yet otherwise she would have dropped rather than have done what she was doing now. The man had cast a spell upon her; and for the present she did feel safe in his hands. But with that unmistakable sense of immediate security there mingled a subtler premonition of ultimate danger, to which Rachel had felt alive from the first. And this was the keenest stimulus of all.
What was his intention, and what his object? To draw back was to find out neither; and to say the truth, even if she had not been friendless and forlorn, Rachel would have been very sorry to draw back now.
The raw air in her face had greatly revived her; the sights and lights of the town were still new and dear to her; she had come back to the world with a vengeance, to a world of incident and interest, with an adventure ready waiting to take her out of her past self!
But it was only her companion's silence which enabled Rachel to realize her strange fortune at this stage, and she had to put her question point-blank before she obtained any answer at all.
"If you insist upon hearing all the little details to-night," said Steele, with a good-humored shrug, "well, I suppose you must hear them; but I hope you will not insist. I have had to make provisions which you may very possibly resent, but I thought it would be time enough for us to quarrel about them in the morning. To-night you need rest and sustenance, but no excitement; of that God knows you have had enough! No one will come near you but the maid of whom I spoke; no questions will be put to you; everything is arranged. But to-morrow, if you feel equal to it, you shall hear all about me, and form your own cool judgment of my behavior towards you. Meanwhile won't you trust me--implicitly--until then?"
"I do," said Rachel, "and I will--until to-morrow."
"Then there are one or two things that I can promise you," said Steel, with the heartiness of a man who has gained his point. "You will not be compromised in any sort or kind of way; your self-respect shall not suffer; nothing shall vex or trouble you, if I can help it, while you remain at this hotel. And this I guarantee--whether you like it or not--unless you tell them, not a single soul in the place shall have the faintest inkling as to who you are. Now, only keep your why and wherefore till to-morrow," he concluded cheerily, "and I can promise you almost every satisfaction. But here we are at the hotel."
He thrust his umbrella outside, pointing to a portico and courtyard on the right; and in another moment Rachel was receiving the bows of powdered footmen in crimson plush, while Steel, hat in hand, his white hair gleaming in the electric light, led the way to the lift.
Rachel's recollection of that night was ever afterwards disjointed and involved as that of any dream; but there were certain features that she never forgot. There was the beautiful suite of rooms, filled with flowers that must have cost a small fortune at that time of year, and in one of them a table tastefully laid. Rachel remembered the dazzle of silver and the glare of napery, the hot plates, the sparkling wine, the hot-house fruit, and the deep embarrassment of sitting down to all this in solitary state. Mr. Steel had but peeped in to see that all was in accordance with his orders; thereafter not even a waiter was allowed to enter, but only Rachel's attendant, to whose charge she had been committed; a gentle and assiduous creature, quiet of foot and quick of hand, who spoke seldom but in a soothing voice, and with the delicate and pretty accent of the French-Swiss.
Rachel used to wonder whether she had shocked this mannerly young woman by eating very ravenously; she remembered a nervous desire to be done with that solitary repast, and to get to bed. Yet when she was there, in the sweetest and whitest of fine linen, with a hot bottle at her feet, and a fire burning so brightly in the room that the brass bedstead seemed here and there red-hot, then the sound sleep that she sorely needed seemed further off than ever, for always she dreamt she was in prison and condemned to die, till at length she feared to close her eyes. But nothing had been forgotten; and Rachel's last memory of that eventful day, and not less eventful night, was of a mild, foreign face bending over her with a medicine-glass and a gentle word.
And the same good face and the same soft voice were waiting for her when she awoke after many hours; the fire still burned brightly, also the electric-light, though the blind was up and the window filled with a dull November sky. It was a delicious awakening, recollection was so slow to come. Rachel might have been ill for days. She experienced the peace that is left by illness of sufficient gravity. But all she ailed was a slight headache, quickly removed by an inimitable cup of tea, that fortified her against the perplexing memories which now came swarming to her mind. This morning, however, enlightenment was due, and meanwhile Rachel received a hint, though a puzzling one, from the Swiss maid, as to the new identity which had been thrust upon her for the time being in lieu of her own.
"It was very sad for madame to lose all her things," cooed the girl, as she busied herself about the room.
"It was irritating," Rachel owned, beginning to wonder how much the other knew.
"But it was better than losing your life, madame!" the girl added with a smile.
And now Rachel lay silent. Could this amiable young woman know all? In one way Rachel rather hoped it was the case; it would be something to have received so much kindness and attention, even though bought and paid for, from one of her own sex who knew all there was to know, and yet did not shrink from her. But the young woman's next words dismissed this idea.
"When so many poor people were drowned!" said she. And the mystification increased.
Presently there was a knock at the outer door, which the maid answered, returning with Mr. Steele's card.
"Is he there?" asked Rachel, hastily.
"No, madame, but one of the servants is waiting for an answer. I think there is something written on the back, madame."
Rachel read the harmless request on the back of the card; nothing could have been better calculated to turn away suspicion of one sort or another, and there was obvious design in the absence of an envelope. But Rachel was not yet in the secret, and she was determined not to wait an hour longer than she need.
"What is the time, please?"
"I will see, madame."
The girl glided out and in.
"A quarter to ten, madame."
"Then order my breakfast for a quarter past, and let Mr. Steele be told that I shall be delighted to see him at eleven o'clock."