Chapter XV. Naida
 

Dusk was falling that evening. Gaily lighted cars offering glimpses of women in elaborate toilets and of their black-coated and white-shirted cavaliers thronged Piccadilly, bound for theatre or restaurant. The workaday shutters were pulled down, and the night life of London had commenced. The West End was in possession of an army of pleasure seekers, but Nicol Brinn was not among their ranks. Wearing his tightly-buttoned dinner jacket, he stood, hands clasped behind him, staring out of the window as Detective Inspector Wessex had found him at noon. Only one who knew him very well could have detected the fact that anxiety was written upon that Sioux-like face. His gaze seemed to be directed, not so much upon the fading prospect of the park, as downward, upon the moving multitude in the street below. Came a subdued knocking at the door.

"In," said Nicol Brinn.

Hoskins, the neat manservant, entered. "A lady to see you, sir."

Nicol Brinn turned in a flash. For one fleeting instant the dynamic force beneath the placid surface exhibited itself in every line of his gaunt face. He was transfigured; he was a man of monstrous energy, of tremendous enthusiasm. Then the enthusiasm vanished. He was a creature of stone again; the familiar and taciturn Nicol Brinn, known and puzzled over in the club lands of the world.

"Name?"

"She gave none."

"English?"

"No, sir, a foreign lady."

"In."

Hoskins having retired, and having silently closed the door, Nicol Brinn did an extraordinary thing, a thing which none of his friends in London, Paris, or New York would ever have supposed him capable of doing. He raised his clenched hands. "Please God she has come," he whispered. "Dare I believe it? Dare I believe it?"

The door was opened again, and Hoskins, standing just inside, announced: "The lady to see you, sir."

He stepped aside and bowed as a tall, slender woman entered the room. She wore a long wrap trimmed with fur, the collar turned up about her face. Three steps forward she took and stopped. Hoskins withdrew and closed the door.

At that, while Nicol Brinn watched her with completely transfigured features, the woman allowed the cloak to slip from her shoulders, and, raising her head, extended both her hands, uttering a subdued cry of greeting that was almost a sob. She was dark, with the darkness of the East, but beautiful with a beauty that was tragic. Her eyes were glorious wells of sadness, seeming to mirror a soul that had known a hundred ages. Withal she had the figure of a girl, slender and supple, possessing the poetic grace and poetry of movement born only in the Orient.

"Naida!" breathed Nicol Brinn, huskily. "Naida!"

His high voice had softened, had grown tremulous. He extended his hands with a groping movement The woman laughed shudderingly.

Her cloak lying forgotten upon the carpet, she advanced toward him.

She wore a robe that was distinctly Oriental without being in the slightest degree barbaric. Her skin was strangely fair, and jewels sparkled upon her fingers. She conjured up dreams of the perfumed luxury of the East, and was a figure to fire the imagination. But Nicol Brinn seemed incapable of movement; his body was inert, but his eyes were on fire. Into the woman's face had come anxiety that was purely feminine.

"Oh, my big American sweetheart," she whispered, and, approaching him with a sort of timidity, laid her little hands upon his arm. "Do you still think I am beautiful?"

"Beautiful!"

No man could have recognized the voice of Nicol Brinn. Suddenly his arms were about her like bands of iron, and with a long, wondering sigh she lay back looking up into his face, while he gazed hungrily into her eyes. His lips had almost met hers when softly, almost inaudibly, she sighed: "Nicol!"

She pronounced the name queerly, giving to i the value of ee, and almost dropping the last letter entirely.

Their lips met, and for a moment they clung together, this woman of the East and man of the West, in utter transgression of that law which England's poet has laid down. It was a reunion speaking of a love so deep as to be sacred.

Lifting the woman in his arms lightly as a baby, he carried her to the settee between the two high windows and placed her there amid Oriental cushions, where she looked like an Eastern queen. He knelt at her feet and, holding both her hands, looked into her face with that wondering expression in which there was something incredulous and something sorrowful; a look of great and selfless tenderness. The face of Naida was lighted up, and her big eyes filled with tears. Disengaging one of her jewelled hands, she ruffled Nicol Brinn's hair.

"My Nicol," she said, tenderly. "Have I changed so much?"

Her accent was quaint and fascinating, but her voice was very musical. To the man who knelt at her feet it was the sweetest music in the world.

"Naida," he whispered. "Naida. Even yet I dare not believe that you are here."

"You knew I would come?"

"How was I to know that you would see my message?"

She opened her closed left hand and smoothed out a scrap of torn paper which she held there. It was from the "Agony" column of that day's Times.

N. November 23, 1913. N. B. See Telephone Directory.

"I told you long, long ago that I would come if ever you wanted me."

"Long, long ago," echoed Nicol Brinn. "To me it has seemed a century; to-night it seems a day."

He watched her with a deep and tireless content. Presently her eyes fell. "Sit here beside me," she said. "I have not long to be here. Put your arms round me. I have something to tell you."

He seated himself beside her on the settee, and held her close. "My Naida!" he breathed softly.

"Ah, no, no!" she entreated. "Do you want to break my heart?"

He suddenly released her, clenched his big hands, and stared down at the carpet. "You have broken mine."

Impulsively Naida threw her arms around his neck, coiling herself up lithely and characteristically beside him.

"My big sweetheart," she whispered, crooningly. "Don't say it--don't say it."

"I have said it. It is true."

Turning, fiercely he seized her. "I won't let you go!" he cried, and there was a strange light in his eyes. "Before I was helpless, now I am not. This time you have come to me, and you shall stay."

She shrank away from him terrified, wild-eyed. "Oh, you forget, you forget!"

"For seven years I have tried to forget. I have been mad, but to-night I am sane."

"I trusted you, I trusted you!" she moaned.

Nicol Brinn clenched his teeth grimly for a moment, and then, holding her averted face very close to his own, he began to speak in a low, monotonous voice. "For seven years," he said, "I have tried to die, because without you I did not care to live. I have gone into the bad lands of the world and into the worst spots of those bad lands. Night and day your eyes have watched me, and I have wakened from dreams of your kisses and gone out to court murder. I have earned the reputation of being something more than human, but I am not. I had everything that life could give me except you. Now I have got you, and I am going to keep you."

Naida began to weep silently. The low, even voice of Nicol Brinn ceased. He could feel her quivering in his grasp; and, as she sobbed, slowly, slowly the fierce light faded from his eyes.

"Naida, my Naida, forgive me," he whispered.

She raised her face, looking up to him pathetically. "I came to you, I came to you," she moaned. "I promised long ago that I would come. What use is it, all this? You know, you know! Kill me if you like. How often have I asked you to kill me. It would be sweet to die in your arms. But what use to talk so? You are in great danger or you would not have asked me to come. If you don't know it, I tell you--you are in great danger."

Nicol Brinn released her, stood up, and began slowly to pace about the room. He deliberately averted his gaze from the settee. "Something has happened," he began, "which has changed everything. Because you are here I know that--someone else is here."

He was answered by a shuddering sigh, but he did not glance in the direction of the settee.

"In India I respected what you told me. Because you were strong, I loved you the more. Here in England I can no longer respect the accomplice of assassins."

"Assassins? What, is this something new?"

"With a man's religion, however bloodthirsty it may be, I don't quarrel so long as he sincerely believes in it. But for private assassination I have no time and no sympathy." It was the old Nicol Brinn who was speaking, coldly and incisively. "That-- something we both know about ever moved away from those Indian hills was a possibility I had never considered. When it was suddenly brought home to me that you, you, might be here in London, I almost went mad. But the thing that made me realize it was a horrible thing, a black, dastardly thing. See here."

He turned and crossed to where the woman was crouching, watching him with wide-open, fearful eyes. He took both her hands and looked grimly into her face. "For seven years I have walked around with a silent tongue and a broken heart. All that is finished. I am going to speak."

"Ah, no, no!" She was on her feet, her face a mask of tragedy. "You swore to me, you swore to me!"

"No oath holds good in the face of murder."

"Is that why you bring me here? Is that what your message means?"

"My message means that because of--the thing you know about--I am suspected of the murder."

"You? You?"

"Yes, I, I! Good God! when I realize what your presence here means, I wish more than ever that I had succeeded in finding death."

"Please don't say it," came a soft, pleading voice. "What can I do? What do you want me to do?"

"I want you to release me from that vow made seven years ago."

Naida uttered a stifled cry. "How is it possible? You understand that it is not possible."

Nicol Brinn seized her by the shoulders. "Is it possible for me to remain silent while men are murdered here in a civilized country?"

"Oh," moaned Naida, "what can I do, what can I do?"

"Give me permission to speak and stay here. Leave the rest to me."

"You know I cannot stay, my Nicol," she replied, sadly.

"But," he said with deliberate slowness, "I won't let you go."

"You must let me go. Already I have been here too long."

He threw his arms around her and crushed her against him fiercely. "Never again," he said. "Never again."

She pressed her little hands against his shoulders.

"Listen! Oh, listen!"

"I shall listen to nothing."

"But you must--you must! I want to make you understand something. This morning I see your note in the papers. Every day, every day for seven whole long years, wherever I have been, I have looked. In the papers of India. Sometimes in the papers of France, of England."

"I never even dreamed that you left India," said Nicol Brinn, hoarsely. "It was through the Times of India that I said I would communicate with you."

"Once we never left India. Now we do--sometimes. But listen. I prepared to come when--he--"

Nicol Brinn's clasp of Naida tightened cruelly.

"Oh, you hurt me!" she moaned. "Please let me speak. He gave me your name and told me to bring you!"

"What! What!"

Nicol Brinn dropped his arms and stood, as a man amazed, watching her.

"Last night there was a meeting outside London."

"You don't want me to believe there are English members?"

"Yes. There are. Many. But let me go on. Somehow--somehow I don't understand--he finds you are one--"

"My God!"

"And you are not present last night! Now, do you understand? So he sends me to tell you that a car will be waiting at nine o'clock to-night outside the Cavalry Club. The driver will be a Hindu. You know what to say. Oh, my Nicol, my Nicol, go for my sake! You know it all! You are clever. You can pretend. You can explain you had no call. If you refuse--"

Nicol Brinn nodded grimly. "I understand! But, good God! How has he found out? How has he found out?"

"I don't know!" moaned Naida. "Oh, I am frightened--so frightened!"

A discreet rap sounded upon the door.

Nicol Brinn crossed and stood, hands clasped behind him, before the mantelpiece. "In," he said.

Hoskins entered. "Detective Sergeant Stokes wishes to see you at once, sir."

Brinn drew a watch from his waistcoat pocket. Attached to it was a fob from which depended a little Chinese Buddha. He consulted the timepiece and returned it to his pocket.

"Eight-twenty-five," he muttered, and glanced across to where Naida, wide-eyed, watched him. "Admit Detective Sergeant Stokes at eight-twenty. six, and then lock the door."

"Very good, sir."

Hoskins retired imperturbably.