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   Chapter 22 THE BOX OF MYSTERY

The Port of Adventure By A. M. Williamson Characters: 16833

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Again Angela was expecting Hilliard. They were to dine, and then she and Nick and Kate and the cat were going by train to El Porto, the gate of the Yosemite Valley. Angela was waiting in her sitting-room, as on that first evening there, when she had changed one decision for another all in a moment; but now she was in travelling dress, and a week had passed since that other night. It had been, perhaps, the happiest week of her life; but the week to which she was looking forward would be happier still. Afterward, of course, there would be an end. For the end must come. She was clear-sighted enough to realize that.

As she thought these things-and quickly put away the thoughts, since nothing must spoil this hour-there was a rap at the door, and she went to throw it open, confident that she would see Nick smiling at her, saying in his nice voice, "Well, are you ready?"

But it was not Nick. A bellboy of the hotel had brought up a large cardboard box which had arrived by post. The address was printed: "Mrs. May, Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco," and there were several stamps upon it; but Angela could not make out the postmark. She found a pair of scissors and cut the string. The box was tightly packed with a quantity of beautiful foliage, lovely leaves shaped like oak leaves, and of bright autumn colours, purple, gold, and crimson, though spring had hardly turned to summer.

She plunged her hands into the box, lifting out the gorgeous mass, looking for a card or note, but finding none. It was a pity that this mysterious gift had arrived just as she was going away. However, she was keeping on her rooms, and would leave instructions with the chambermaid to take great care of the beauties.

Some one else was tapping at the door now, and this time it was Nick. Angela's hands overflowed with their brilliant burden as she called aloud, "Come in!" and he came with the very words she had expected: "Well, are you ready?"

But they died on his lips, and it seemed to her, in the waning light, that his face grew pale.

"Drop that stuff, quick, Mrs. May!"

He flung the words at her, and Angela, bewildered and amazed, threw down the coloured leaves as if a tarantula hid among them.

"Have you got any ammonia?" Nick asked sharply.

"Yes."

"Go wash your hands in it while I use your telephone. Don't be frightened, but that's poison-oak, and I want to prevent it from hurting you."

"Can it-kill me?" Her face quivered.

"No. And it shan't do you any harm if I can help it. But be quick as you can. Keep your hands in the basin till I get what I'm sending out for."

Without another word Angela ran into the next room, and so to the bath. As she poured ammonia into the marble basin, feeling a little faint, she could hear Nick's voice at the telephone: "Send to the nearest drug store for some gamgee tissue, a bundle of lint, and a pint bottle of lime-water. This is a hurry call."

Angela's heart was thumping. It was horrible that there should be some one in the world-a lurking, mysterious some one-who planned in secret to do her dreadful harm. The incident seemed unreal. Whom did she know, on this side of the world, who could hate her so bitterly? She was afraid, as of eyes that she could not see, staring through the dark.

Nick called from the sitting-room: "How do you feel? Are you all right?" And when she answered "Yes," tried to reassure her. It began to look as if there were much to fear. Luckily he had come in time. Was she sure she hadn't held the leaves near her face? No. Then she might hope that there would be no trouble now. Already he had bundled the bunch of fire into a newspaper and it had been taken out of the room to be destroyed, like a wicked witch. Luckily there were people who could touch poison-oak and suffer no harm. Nick told Angela he "felt in his bones" that no evil thing could have power over her.

Soon, almost before she could have believed it possible, the messenger arrived with a strange assortment of packets from the chemist. Nick shouted that all was ready, and she went back to the sitting-room, her hands dripping ammonia. Kate had been summoned, and having just appeared, was about to empty a large flower bowl, which Nick had ordered her to wash. The Irish girl was pale, and looked dazed. She knew nothing yet of what had happened, but guessed at some mysterious accident to her mistress.

A great bouquet of roses which Nick had sent that morning now lay on a side table, and into the flower bowl they had adorned he poured the lime-water. In this he soaked the gamgee tissue (Angela had never heard of the stuff before), and bade her hold out both hands. Then he bound them quickly and skilfully, intent on what he was doing, though his head was bent closer to Angela's than it had ever been before, and the fragrance of her hair was sweet, as in his dreams of angels. As for her, she felt a childlike confidence in his ability to cure her, to save her from harm.

Over the tissue, wet with lime-water, Nick wrapped bandages of lint; and the operation finished, Angela was as helpless as if she had pulled on a pair of tight, thick gloves whose fingers would not bend.

"Does this mean that we aren't to go to-night?" she asked mournfully.

"I hope it doesn't mean that. But we can't be dead certain yet," answered Nick. He looked at her searchingly, his face drawn and anxious; but it relaxed as if he were suddenly relieved from some great strain as his eyes travelled over the smooth, pure features, and met her questioning gaze at last with assurance.

"If we are not certain soon, it will be too late to start, and I can't bear to put off going. I'm looking forward to the trip so much!" she said. "Shall we dine here? You'll have to feed me, I'm afraid." She laughed; but a slow flush crept up to Nick's forehead.

"Would you let me?"

"Yes. Why not? If you don't mind. Anything rather than miss our train-unless some horrid symptoms are coming on that you haven't the courage to tell me about. Ring for dinner, Kate. And you can go and have yours. We'll do everything exactly as if we expected to start."

"Sure, ma'am, don't make me leave the room till I've heard what Mr. Hilliard has to say. I'm that worried till I know the worst," Kate pleaded.

Angela smiled. "I'm just beginning to learn," she said, "that it's a mistake to think of the worst. I used to make a point of doing it, and it generally happened. Now-I expect the best!" She spoke to Kate, and looked at Nick. "But tell me what poison-oak can do."

Nick shivered. For an instant, a picture of that adored young face hideously disfigured turned him sick. And even her little white hands-no, it did not bear thinking of! But he controlled himself and tried to speak coolly.

"Why, it affects some people so their faces and hands swell up, and-and get red and spotted. Of course, that doesn't last many days: but-it isn't nice while it does last, and I-couldn't bear the thought of its happening to you. I just couldn't bear it! It isn't going to happen, though," he added hastily, seeing the colour leave her lips. "By this time you'd have begun to feel mighty bad, if you were in for trouble. You can't be easy to affect, for if you were, the poison might have gone to your face, without your even touching the leaves. Your hands don't burn, do they?"

"Only a little-from the ammonia."

"That saved them. If you feel all right in an hour more, you can have the bandages off, and the danger'll be over for good. Then we can start, unless the shock's been too much for you?"

"I'm too bewildered to be shocked," said Angela.

"Who could have played such a horrid practical joke on me? It's a little bit like-in a ridiculous way-the play of Adrienne Lecouvreur, where a woman is poisoned by a bouquet of flowers sent by a jealous rival. Only I haven't a jealous rival!"

Nick's face hardened. "I'm going to find out who did send the stuff. While you were in the other room I was looking at the wrapper of the box. I can't make out the postmark; but I reckon there are those who can, and I won't rest till I know."

"What can you do to find out?" asked Angela.

"I can put the best detective in San Francisco on to the job. He shall follow up the clues like a bloodhound, and hang on to them when he's got 'em, like a bulldog."

"Oh, but don't let's put off our journey!" Angela exclaimed. "I fee

l, if we do that, we'll never go. It has always--" she half-whispered, "seemed too good to come true."

"I'd rather do 'most anything than put off the trip," said Nick. "But there's time for everything. We don't leave the hotel till after nine. Dinner won't be ready for a bit; and if you'll let me, I'll go out now and see a man I've heard of-a very smart detective."

But Angela begged him to wait. She hated the thought of being left alone till she was sure that no ill effect need be feared from the poison. So Nick stayed, not unwillingly, and a simple dinner was ordered in haste.

Kate was sure that after what had happened she would have no appetite for dinner; but, like a true Irish girl, she was romantic to the core of her heart; and because she was deeply in love with her Tim, she had the "seeing eye" which showed her clearly what was in Nick Hilliard's heart for Angela.

Of course, he was not good enough for her lady; no man could be. But Kate had a sneaking kindness for Nick, the splendid giver of the golden bag, and would not, by offering her services as cutter-up-of-food for the queen, rob him of the privilege.

So Kate slipped out unobtrusively, and the privilege in question became Nick's. It was a joy, even a delirious joy, but it was also an ordeal; for as he fed her, Angela smiled at him. Each time that he proffered a spoonful of soup or a morsel of chicken she met his gaze with laughing eyes, roguish, under dark lashes, as the eyes of a child. The difficulty when this happened, as it did constantly, was to keep hands steady and mind calm, as if for the performance of a delicate surgical operation; because to drop a thing, or aim it wrongly, would have been black disgrace. And to ensure perfection of aim, attention must be concentrated upon the lady's lips as she opened them to receive supplies. It was to watch the unfolding of a rosebud into a rose while forbidden to touch the rose. And even monks of the severest brotherhoods may pluck the flowers that grow beside their cloisters.

Nick did not leave Angela until Kate had come back; then he and the Irish girl together unwound the bandages. There was a moment of suspense, but the hands were satin-smooth.

"It seems to be written that you shall save me always from horrors-ever since the night of the burglar," Angela said, when Kate had gone to the next room to dispose of the lint.

"I shall be like a child learning to walk alone when my journeyings with you come to an end."

There was his chance to say, "Must they come to an end?" But Kate was near; and besides, a snub from Angela might stop the "journeyings" then and there. So he answered with a mere compliment, as any man may, meaning nothing at all or a great deal. To save her from danger, it was worth while to have been born, he said. And he remembered, as he had remembered many times, how clear had been the call he had heard to go East; a call like a voice in his ears, crying, "Nick, I want you. Come." He was tempted to be superstitious, and to believe that unconsciously, in some mysterious way, Angela had summoned him to be her knight. To be even more, perhaps, in the end. Who could tell-yet?

It was a good sign, at all events, that she was reluctant to give up the trip; and Nick decided not to risk confiding in the police. Put the affair of the poison-oak into their hands, and they would lasso every one concerned, with yards of red tape! In that case, he and Mrs. May might be detained in San Francisco. No! A private detective would do the trick; and Nick had the name of one pigeon-holed in his brain: Max Wisler, a shrewd fellow, once employed with success by "old Grizzly Gaylor" when there had been a leakage of money and vanishing of cattle on the ranch. Nick went in search of Max Wisler now, in a taxi, and found him at the old address; a queer little frame house, in a part of San Francisco which had been left untouched by the great fire.

Wisler was at home, and remembered Hilliard. He was fair and fat, with a manner somewhat cold; unlit by enthusiasm; yet as he listened a gleam flashed out from his carefully controlled gray eyes, which hinted at hidden fires. He heard Nick to the end of the story, in silence, playing always with the leaves of a book which he had been reading-a volume of Fenimore Cooper's. Still he went on fingering the pages for a minute, when Hilliard paused expecting questions. Then he looked up suddenly, seeming literally to catch Nick's eye and hold it by force.

"What woman is jealous of this lady-Mrs. May?" he asked.

"I don't think she knows any woman in California, except Mrs. Falconer's sister-and a Miss Dene from England, an authoress who is travelling about with Mrs. Harland in Falconer's car."

"Ah! Mrs. Harland's out of the running. And that Miss Dene's gone East. I happened to see her start, yesterday. She had a collection of people giving her a send-off. Of course, she could have employed some one else to do the job, and keep out of the way herself. But-I guess we must look further. Now see here, Mr. Hilliard, a patient has got to be frank with his doctor if the doctor's to do any good. Are you engaged to marry Mrs. Gaylor, the widow of my old client?"

"Good Lord, no!" exclaimed Nick, scarlet to his forehead. "Such an idea never entered my head."

"Humph! Rumour's wrong, then. But that isn't to say it never entered her head. Does she know Mrs. May?"

"No," said Nick. "Surely you're not hinting--"

"I'm not hinting anything. I'm feeling my way in the dark."

"It isn't quite dark. You've got the paper that was round the box. I saw you looking at it, through a magnifying glass, just now."

"That postmark means the longest way round that we can take. Do you think any one with an ounce of brains would send poison from a place where she-or he, if you like-was known? No. She-or he-would go a long way, and a roundabout way. Or send a trusted messenger. Tell me straight, Mr. Hilliard, has Mrs. Gaylor got in her employ a confidential maid, or man?"

Nick, distressed and embarrassed, angry with the detective, yet unwilling to offend and put him off his work, knew not what to answer. There was Simeon Harp, of course, who would do anything for Carmen. But Nick could not, would not, play into Wisler's hands by mentioning the name of Harp, or telling of the old man's doglike devotion to his mistress. It was a detestable and vulgar suggestion which connected Mrs. Gaylor with this affair-detestable for every one concerned; for Carmen, for Nick; above all, for Angela.

"Mrs. Gaylor hasn't a servant who isn't loyal," he returned at last, evading Wisler's eye. "But you'd better get this notion out of your mind, to start with, or you'll find yourself on the wrong track. Mrs. Gaylor and I are good friends, no more. She doesn't know anything about Mrs. May; and if she did, there's nothing to make her jealous, even if-if we were warmer friends than we are."

"Sure she never heard of the lady?"

Nick hesitated. "I don't see how she can have heard. I haven't written to her since I-met Mrs. May."

"Ah, you haven't written to her since then. H'm! Does Mrs. Gaylor know Mr. Falconer and his sister, and their authoress friend Miss Dene?"

"Not Miss Dene. Come to think of it, I heard Miss Dene say she'd like to meet Mrs. Gaylor. She asked questions about her. But that's nothing."

"Perhaps they've been visiting back and forth since then."

"If they have, it hasn't come to my knowledge."

"Women do a lot of things that don't come to men's knowledge. That's one reason detectives exist. Well, you don't seem much inclined to help me, Mr. Hilliard, though you say you're anxious to get to the bottom of this little mystery as soon as possible."

"I am anxious. And if I don't help you, it's because I can't. I don't want you to lose yourself in the woods, and have to find your way back, to begin all over again."

"No. I don't want that, either," said Wisler, smiling his slow smile. "It's a long time since I got lost in the woods, and I'll do my best not to lose my reckoning this time. I must worry along without you, I see. But I'm not discouraged. When you've finished up this trip that you seem to think so important, I may have news for you, of one kind or another."

Nick looked at his watch. It was time to go back to the Fairmount if he meant to take Angela away that night.

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