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   Chapter 25 A FRUITLESS ERRAND.

In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 11402

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


The merest trifles often have far-reaching results, and Jack's careless decision, prompted by a hungry stomach, made him the puppet of fate. The crossing at Blackfriars station is the most dangerous in London, and he did not reach the other side without much delay and several narrow escapes. It was a shoulder-and-elbow fight to the mouth of the dingy little court in which is the noted hostelry he sought, and then compensation and a haven of rest-the dining-room of the "Cheshire Cheese!" Here there was no trace of the fog, and the rumble of wheels was hushed to a soothing murmur. An old-world air pervaded the place, with its low ceiling and sawdust-sprinkled floor, its well-worn benches and tables and paneling. The engravings on the walls added to the charm, and the head waiter might have stepped from a page of Dickens. Savory smells abounded, and the kettle rested on the hob over the big fireplace, to the right of which Doctor Johnson's favorite seat spoke eloquently of the great lexicographer, who in time past was wont to foregather here with his friends.

Jack was too hungry to be sentimental. He sat down in one of the high-backed compartments, and, glancing indifferently at a man sitting opposite to him, he recognized the editor of the Illustrated Universe.

"By Jove!" Hunston cried, in surprise, "you're the very chap I want to see. Where have you been hiding yourself, Vernon? I searched for you high and low."

"I've not been out of town," said Jack. "I intended to look you up, or to send my address, but one thing and another interfered-"

"Yes, I understand," Hunston interrupted. "London is fresh to a man who has just come back from India. I hope you've had your fling, and are ready to do some work."

"As soon as you like," Jack replied.

"I'm glad to hear it-I was afraid you had given me the slip altogether. I want some of your sketches enlarged to double-page drawings, and I am thinking of issuing a photographic album of the snap-shots you took on the frontier."

"That's not a bad idea. I'll come in to-morrow."

"I'll expect you, then. You haven't a studio at present?"

"No."

"Well, I can give you a room on the premises to work in. By the bye, there is a letter for you at the office. It came this morning."

"I'll get it to-morrow. I don't suppose it's important."

"It is in a woman's handwriting," said Hunston, with a smile.

"A woman?" exclaimed Jack. "Where does it come from-England or abroad?"

"London postmark," was the reply.

Jack changed color, and a lump seemed to rise in his throat.

"It must be from Madge," he thought. "But why would she write to me?"

"If you would like the letter to-night-" Hunston went on.

"If it's no trouble," Jack replied, eagerly.

"None whatever. I must go back to the office, anyway."

Jack was impatient to start, and he no longer felt hungry. He ordered a light supper, however, and ate it hurriedly. He finished at the same time as Hunston, and they left the "Cheese" and plunged into the outer fog and crowds. A short walk brought them to the Universe building, which was just closing its doors to the public. Hunston turned up the gas in his office.

"Here you are," he said, taking a letter from a pigeon-hole over the desk.

Jack looked at it sharply, and disappointment banished hope. He scowled savagely, and an half-audible oath slipped from his lips. He had recognized Diane's peculiar penmanship. She was in London, contrary to promise, and had dared to write to him.

"Sit down," said Hunston. "Have a cigar?"

"No; I'm off," Jack answered dully, as he thrust the letter into his pocket unopened.

Hunston regarded him anxiously.

"Ill see you to-morrow?" he asked. "You know it's rather important, and I'll want one of the double pages by next Wednesday."

"I'll turn up," Jack promised, in an absent tone.

With that he hastened away, and as he trod the Strand his brain was in a confused whirl, and he was oblivious of the frothing life about him. He groped across Waterloo Bridge in the fog, and looked wistfully toward the black river. He did not care to read the letter yet. It was enough for the present to know that his wife had broken her word and returned to London, doubtless with the intention of demanding more money. He vowed that she should not have a penny. Fierce anger and resentment rose in his heart as he remembered, with anguish as keen as it had ever been, the blow Diane had dealt him.

"I will show her no mercy," he resolved.

In the privacy of his room, when he had locked the door and lighted the gas, he took out the letter. His face was dark and scowling as he tore it open, and read the few lines that it contained:

"DEAR JACK:-You will fly into a passion when you find that I am in London, but you won't blame me when you learn the reasons that have brought me back. I knew that you had returned from India, and I want to see you. Not having your address, I am sending the letter to the Universe office, and I hope it will be delivered to you promptly. Will you come to 324 Beak street, at half-past eight to-morrow night? The street door will be open. Go to the top of the stairs, and knock at the first door on the left. Do not fear that I shall ask for money, or make other demands. I have much to tell you, of the greatest importance to your future happiness. If you do not come you will regret it all your life. I will expect you. DIANE."

With a bitter laugh Jack flung the letter on a table. It was not written in French, for Diane was herself of English birth, though of her history before she came to Paris her husband was ignorant; she had never spoken to him of her earlier years, nor had

he questioned her about them.

"Does she think I am a fool, to be taken in so easily?" he said to himself. "It is a lie-a trick! Money is her game, of course. She wants to decoy me to her lodgings, and hopes to make me yield by threats of exposure. And yet she writes with a ring of sincerity-something like her old self in the first days of our marriage. Bah! it is only her cunning."

He read the letter again, and pondered it.

"It was written yesterday," he muttered. "The appointment is for to-night. What could she possibly have to tell me that concerns my future happiness? Nothing! And yet, if she should really be remorseful-By Jove! I will go! It can do no harm. But if I find that she has deceived me, and is playing the old game, by heavens! I'll-"

Passion choked his utterance, and he concluded the sentence with a mental threat. He suddenly remembered that he had promised to meet Sir Lucius Chesney at eight o'clock that night.

"I can't do it," he thought. "I'm not fit to talk to any man in this mood. And he would probably detain me more than half an hour. No, I'll write a short note to Sir Lucius, putting off the engagement, and leave it at Morley's."

Whether his decision was a wise one or not, was a question that Jack did not attempt to analyze. He proceeded to carry his plans into effect. It was then seven o'clock, and it took him twenty minutes to write the note to Sir Lucius and exchange his borrowed clothes for a dark suit of his own. He put Diane's letter into a side pocket, so that he might be sure of the address, and then left the house. He did not take a cab, preferring to walk.

He handed the note in at Morley's Hotel, and steered across Trafalgar square. At the top of the Haymarket, to his chagrin, he encountered Jimmie Drexell, who urged him to have a drink at Scott's; he could not well refuse, as it was nearly a fortnight since they had met.

A quarter of an hour slipped by. Jimmie asked a great many questions, but Jack was preoccupied and uneasy, and scarcely answered them. He finally tore himself away on the plea of an urgent engagement, and promised to call at the Albany the next day; he was reluctant to confide in his friend. A distant clock was striking eight-thirty as he turned up the Quadrant.

Regent street was noisy and crowded, but Beak street was gloomy and misty, depressing and lonely, in contrast. Jack found the right number, and as he hesitated before the house-the door of which was partly open-a man came abruptly out. He was tall and slim, dressed in dark clothes, and with a soft hat that concealed all of his features except an aquiline nose and a black beard and mustache. He stared hard at Jack for an instant, then strode rapidly off to the eastward and was lost in the fog.

"A foreigner, from his actions," thought Jack.

He pushed the door open, and mounted a steep and narrow staircase. Reaching the first landing, he saw a door on his left. At the bottom a faint streak of light was visible, but his low rapping brought no response. He rapped again-three times, and each louder-but with the same result.

"No use to keep this up," he concluded, vexatiously. "I am a few minutes late, and she has gone out, thinking that I would not come. There is no mistake about the room. I won't wait-I'll write to her to-morrow, and give her twenty-four hours to get out of London."

He went slowly down the dark stairs, and as he stepped into the street he brushed against a stout, elderly woman. With a muttered apology, he moved aside. The woman turned and looked after him sharply for an instant, then entered the house and closed the door.

Jack thought nothing of the incident. How to put in the evening was the question that concerned him. He was walking undecidedly down the Quadrant when he saw approaching an artist friend whom he did not care to meet. On the impulse of the moment he darted across the street, narrowly missing the wheels of a hansom, and in front of the Café Royal he ran into the arms of Victor Nevill.

"Hello, old chap; you are in a hurry!" cried Nevill. "What's up now? Seen my uncle?"

Jack was flushed and breathless.

"No; I couldn't manage it," he panted. "I left a note at Morley's for him. I had to make a call-party wasn't at home."

"Where are you bound for? Morley's?"

"No; it's too late. Shall we have some refreshment?"

"Sorry, but I can't," replied Nevill. "I'm going to a reception. Will you come to my rooms at eleven?"

"Yes, if I'm not too far away. But don't count on me. Good-night, in case I don't see you again."

"Good-night," echoed Nevill.

As he looked after Jack, the latter pulled out his handkerchief, and a white object fluttered from it to the pavement. He walked on, unconscious of its loss. Nevill hurried to the spot, and picked up a letter.

"A woman's!" he muttered, as he thrust it quickly into his pocket. "And the writing seems familiar. I'll examine this when I get a chance. Everything is fair in the game I am playing."

Jack wandered irresolutely to Piccadilly Circus, seeking distraction. In the American bar at the St. James' he met a man named Ingram, who suggested that they should go to see a mutual friend-an artist-who lived in Bedford Park. Jack agreed, and they drove in a cab. They found a lot of other men they knew at the studio, and whisky and tobacco made the hours fly. They left at two o'clock in the morning-a convivial party of five-and they had to walk to Hammersmith before they picked up a hansom. They dropped off one by one, and Jack was the only occupant when he reached Sloane street. It was long past four when the cab put him down at his lodgings on the Surrey side.

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