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   Chapter 5 A CALL FOR HELP

The Gloved Hand By Burton Egbert Stevenson Characters: 13773

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


"For heaven's sake, Swain," I said, "sit down and pull yourself together."

But he did not seem to hear me. Instead he read the letter through again, then he turned toward me.

"How did you get this, Mr. Lester?" he asked.

"I found it lying under the trees. It had been thrown over the wall."

"But how did you know it was thrown over by Miss Vaughan?"

"That was an easy guess," I said, sparring feebly. "Who else would attempt to conduct a surreptitious correspondence with a handsome young man?"

But he did not smile; the look of intensity in his eyes deepened.

"Come, Mr. Lester," he protested, "don't play with me. I have a right to know the truth."

"What right?" I queried.

He paused an instant, as though nerving himself to speak, as though asking himself how much he should tell me. Then he came toward me impulsively.

"Miss Vaughan and I are engaged to be married," he said. "Some persons may tell you that the engagement has been broken off; more than once, I have offered to release her, but she refuses to be released. We love each other."

The word "love" is a difficult one for us Anglo-Saxons to pronounce; the voice in which Swain uttered it brought me to my feet, with outstretched hand.

"If there's anything I can do for you, my boy," I said, "tell me."

"Thank you, Mr. Lester," and he returned my clasp. "You have done a great deal already in giving me this letter so promptly. The only other thing you can do is to permit me to stay here until to-night."

"Until to-night?"

"Miss Vaughan asks me to meet her to-night."

"In her father's grounds?"

"Yes."

"Unknown to him?"

"Yes."

"He is not friendly to you?"

"No."

I had a little struggle with myself.

"See here, Swain," I said, "sit down and let us talk this thing over calmly. Before I promise anything, I should like to know more of the story. From the glimpse I caught of Miss Vaughan, I could see that she is very beautiful, and she also seemed to me to be very young."

"She is nineteen," said Swain.

"Her father is wealthy, I suppose?"

"Very wealthy."

"And her mother is dead?"

"Yes."

"Well," I began, and hesitated, fearing to wound him.

"I know what you are thinking," Swain burst in, "and I do not blame you. You are thinking that she is a young, beautiful and wealthy girl, while I am a poverty-stricken nonentity, without any profession, and able to earn just enough to live on-perhaps I couldn't do even that, if I had to buy my clothes! You are thinking that her father is right to separate us, and that she ought to be protected from me. Isn't that it?"

"Yes," I admitted, "something like that."

"And I answer, Mr. Lester, by saying that all that is true, that I am not worthy of her, and that nobody knows it better than I do. There are thousands of men who could offer her far more than I can, and who would be eager to offer it. But when I asked her to marry me, I thought myself the son of a wealthy man. When I found myself a pauper, I wrote at once to release her. She replied that when she wished her release, she would ask for it; that it wasn't my money she was in love with. Then I came out here and had a talk with her father. He was kind enough, but pointed out that the affair could not go further until I had established myself. I agreed, of course; I agreed, too, when he suggested that it would only be fair to her to leave her free-not to see her or write to her, or try to influence her in any way. I wanted to be fair to her. Since then, I have not seen her, nor heard from her. But her father's feelings have changed toward me."

"In what way?"

"I thought he might be interested to know what I was doing, and two or three months ago, I called and asked to see him. Instead of seeing me, he sent word by a black-faced fellow in a white robe that neither he nor his daughter wished to see me again."

His face was red with the remembered humiliation.

"I wrote to Miss Vaughan once, after that," he added, "but my letter was not answered."

"Evidently she didn't get your letter."

"Why do you think so?"

"If she had got it, she would have known that you were no longer at 1010 Fifth Avenue. Her father, no doubt, kept it from her."

He flushed still more deeply, and started to say something, but I held him silent.

"He was justified in keeping it," I said. "You had promised not to write to her. And I don't see that you have given me any reason why I should assist you against him."

"I haven't," Swain admitted more calmly, "and under ordinary circumstances, my self-respect would compel me to keep away. I am not a fortune-hunter. But I can't keep away; I can't stand on my dignity. When she calls for aid, I must go to her, not for my own sake but for hers, because she needs to be protected from her father far more than from me."

"What do you mean by that?" I demanded.

"Mr. Lester," he said, leaning forward in his chair and speaking in a lowered voice and with great earnestness, "her father is mad-I am sure of it. No one but a madman would live and dress as he does; no one but a madman would devote his whole time to the study of the supernatural; no one but a madman would believe in the supernatural as he does."

But I shook my head.

"I'm afraid that won't do, Swain. A good many fairly sane people believe in the supernatural and devote themselves to its study-there is William James, for instance."

"But William James doesn't dress in flowing robes, and worship the sun, and live with a Hindu mystic."

"No," I smiled, "he doesn't do that," and I thought again of the mysterious light and of the two white-clad figures. "Does he live with a Hindu mystic?"

"Yes," said Swain, bitterly. "An adept, or whatever they call it. He's the fellow who kicked me out."

"Does he speak English?"

"Better than I do. He seems a finely-educated man."

"Is he a lunatic, too?"

Swain hesitated.

"I don't know," he said, finally. "I only saw him once, and I was certainly impressed-I wasn't one, two, three with him. I suppose mysticism comes more or less natural to a Hindu; but I'm convinced that Mr. Vaughan has softening of the brain."

"How old is he?"

"About sixty."

"Has he always been queer?"

"He has always been interested in telepathy and mental suggestion, and all that sort of thing. But before his wife's death, he was fairly normal. It was her death that started him on this supernatural business. He hasn't thought of anything else since."

"Are there any relatives who could be asked to interfere?"

"None that I know of."

I thought over what he had told me.

"Well," I said at last, "I can see no harm in your meeting Miss Vaughan and finding out what the condition of affairs really is. If her father is really mad, he may be a good deal worse now than he was when you saw him last. It would, of course,

be possible to have his sanity tested-but his daughter would scarcely wish to do that."

"No, of course not," Swain agreed.

"Her letter tells you nothing?"

"Nothing except that she is in great trouble, and wishes to see me at once."

"You are to go to the house?"

"No; there is an arbour in one corner of the grounds. She says that she will be there at eleven-thirty every night for three nights. After that, she says it will be no use for me to come-that it will be too late."

"What does she mean by 'too late'?"

"I have no idea," he answered, and turned to another anxious perusal of the letter.

I turned the situation over in my mind. Evidently Miss Vaughan believed that she had grave cause for alarm, and yet it was quite possible she might be mistaken. She was being urged to consent to something against her will, but perhaps it was for her own good. In any event, I had seen no indication that her consent was being sought by violence. There must be no interference on our part until we were surer of our ground.

"Well, Swain," I said, at last, "I will help you on one condition."

"What is that?"

"You will meet Miss Vaughan to-night and hear her story, but you will take no action until you and I have talked the matter over. She, herself, says that she has three days," I went on, as he started to protest, "so there is no necessity for leaping in the dark. And I would point out to you that she is not yet of age, but is still under her father's control."

"She is nineteen," he protested.

"In this state, the legal age for women, as for men, is twenty-one. The law requires a very serious reason for interfering between a child and its father. Moreover," I added, "she must not be compromised. If you persuade her to accompany you to-night, where would you take her? In no case, will I be a party to an elopement-I will do all I can to prevent it."

He took a short turn up and down the room, his hands clenched behind him.

"Mr. Lester," he said, at last, stopping before me, "I want you to believe that I have not even thought of an elopement-that would be too base, too unfair to her. But I see that you are right. She must not be compromised."

"And you promise to ask my advice?"

"Suppose I make such a promise, what then?"

"If you make such a promise, and I agree with you as to the necessity for Miss Vaughan to leave her father, I think I can arrange for her to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Royce for a time. There she will be safe. Should legal proceedings become necessary, our firm will help you. I want to help you, Swain," I added, warmly, "but I must be convinced that you deserve help. That's reasonable, isn't it?"

"Yes," he agreed, and held out his hand. "And I promise."

"Good. And now for the arrangements."

Two twelve-foot ladders were necessary, one for either side of the wall; but, beyond a short step-ladder, the place possessed none except the long one by which Godfrey and I had mounted into the tree. Swain suggested that this might do for one, but I felt that it would better stay where it was, and sent Hargis over to Yonkers to buy two new ones, instructing him to bring them back with him.

Then Swain and I reconnoitred the wall, and chose for the crossing a spot where the glass escarpment seemed a little less formidable than elsewhere.

"You can step from one ladder to the other," I pointed out, "without touching the top of the wall. A mere touch would be dangerous in the dark."

He nodded his agreement, and finally we went back to the house. Getting there, we found suddenly that we had nothing more to say. Swain was soon deep in his own thoughts; and, I must confess, that, after the first excitement, I began to find the affair a little wearying. Another man's love-affair is usually wearying; and, besides that, the glimpse which I had caught of Marjorie Vaughan made me think that she was worthy of a bigger fish than Swain would ever be. He was right in saying that there were thousands of men who had more to give her, and who would be eager to give.

I examined Swain, as he sat there staring at nothing, with eyes not wholly friendly. He was handsome enough, but in a stereotyped way. And he was only an insignificant clerk, with small prospect of ever being anything much better, for he had started the battle of life too late. Honest, of course, honourable, clean-hearted, but commonplace, with a depth of soul easily fathomed. I know now that I was unjust to Swain, but, at the moment, my scrutiny of him left me strangely depressed.

A rattle of wheels on the drive brought us both out of our thoughts. It was Hargis returning with the ladders. I had him hang them up against the shed where he kept his gardening implements, for I did not wish him to suspect the invasion we had planned; then, just to kill time and get away from Swain, I spent an hour with Hargis in his garden; and finally came the summons to dinner. An hour later, as we sat on the front porch smoking, and still finding little or nothing to say, Mrs. Hargis came out to bid us good-night.

"Mr. Swain can use the bedroom next to yours, Mr. Lester," she said.

"Perhaps he won't stay all night," I said. "If he does, I'll show him the way to it. And thank you very much, Mrs. Hargis."

"Is there anything else I can do, sir?"

"No, thank you."

"Mr. Godfrey will be here a little before midnight-at least, that's his usual time."

"We'll wait up for him," I said. "Good night, Mrs. Hargis."

"Good night, sir," and she went back into the house.

I have never passed through a longer or more trying hour than the next one was, and I could tell by the way Swain twitched about in his chair that he felt the tedium as much as I. Once or twice I tried to start a conversation, but it soon trickled dry; and we ended by smoking away moodily and staring out into the darkness.

At last Swain sprang to his feet.

"I can't stand this any longer," he said. "I'm going over the wall."

I struck a match and looked at my watch.

"It isn't eleven o'clock yet," I warned him.

"I don't care. Perhaps she'll be ahead of time. Anyway, I might as well wait there as here."

"Come on, then," I agreed, for I felt myself that another such hour would be unendurable.

Together we made our way back to the shed and took down the ladders. A moment later, we were at the wall. Swain placed his ladder against it, and mounted quickly to the top. As he paused there, I handed him up the other one. He caught it from my hands, lifted it over the wall, and lowered it carefully on the other side. As he did so, I heard him give a muffled exclamation of mingled pain and annoyance, and knew that he had cut himself.

"Not bad, is it?" I asked.

"No; only a scratch on the wrist," he answered shortly, and the next instant he had swung himself over the wall and disappeared.

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