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The Black Bag Part 33

Satisfied that they had not yet boarded the train, he stood aside, tortured with forebodings, while anxiously scrutinizing each individual of the throng of intending travelers.... Perhaps they had been delayed--by the _Alethea's_ lateness in making port very likely; perhaps they purposed taking not this but a later train; perhaps they had already left the city by an earlier, or had returned to England.

On time, the bell clanged its warning; the guards bawled theirs; doors were hastily opened and slammed; the trucks began to groan, couplings jolting as the engine chafed in constraint. The train and Kirkwood moved simultaneously out of opposite ends of the station, the one to rattle and hammer round the eastern boundaries of the city and straighten out at top speed on the northern route for the Belgian line, the other to stroll moodily away, idle hands in empty pockets, bound aimlessly anywhere--it didn't matter!

Nothing whatever mattered in the smallest degree. Ere now the outlook had been dark; but this he felt to be the absolute nadir of his misfortunes.

Presently--after a while--as soon as he could bring himself to it--he would ask the way and go to the American Consulate. But just now, low as the tide of chance had ebbed, leaving him stranded on the flats of vagabondage, low as showed the measure of his self-esteem, he could not tolerate the prospect of begging for assistance--help which would in all likelihood be refused, since his story was quite too preposterous to gain credence in official ears that daily are filled with the lamentations of those whose motives do not bear investigation. And if he chose to eliminate the strange chain of events which had landed him in Antwerp, to base his plea solely on the fact that he was a victim of the San Francisco disaster ... he himself was able to smile, if sourly, anticipating the incredulous consular smile with which he would be shown the door.

No; that he would reserve as a last resort. True, he had already come to the Jumping-off Place; to the Court of the Last Resort alone could he now appeal. But ... not yet; after a while he could make his petition, after he had made a familiar of the thought that he must armor himself with callous indifference to rebuff, to say naught of the waves of burning shame that would overwhelm him when he came to the point of asking charity.

He found himself, neither knowing nor caring how he had won thither, in the Place Verte, the vast venerable pile of the Cathedral rising on his right, hotels and quaint Old-World dwellings with peaked roofs and gables and dormer windows, inclosing the other sides of the square. The chimes (he could hear none but those of the Cathedral) were heralding the hour of seven. Listless and preoccupied in contemplation of his wretched case he wandered purposelessly half round the square, then dropped into a bench on its outskirts.

It was some time later that he noticed, with a casual, indifferent eye, a porter running out of the Hotel de Flandre, directly opposite, and calling a fiacre in to the carriage block.

As languidly he watched a woman, very becomingly dressed, follow the porter down to the curb.

The fiacre swung in, and the woman dismissed the porter before entering the vehicle; a proceeding so unusual that it fixed the onlooker's interest.

He sat rigid with attention; the woman seemed to be giving explicit and lengthy directions to the driver, who nodded and gesticulated his comprehension.

The woman was Mrs. Hallam.

The first blush of recognition passed, leaving Kirkwood without any amazement. It was an easy matter to account for her being where she was.

Thrown off the scent by Kirkwood at Sheerness, the previous morning, she had missed the day boat, the same which had ferried over those whom she pursued. Returning from Sheerness to Queensborough, however, she had taken the night boat for Flushing and Antwerp,--and not without her plan, who was not a woman to waste her strength aimlessly; Kirkwood believed that she had had from the first a very definite campaign in view. In that campaign Queensborough Pier had been the first strategic move; the journey to Antwerp, apparently, the second; and the American was impressed that he was witnessing the inception of the third decided step.... The conclusion of this process of reasoning was inevitable: Madam would bear watching.

Thus was a magical transformation brought about. Instantaneously lassitude and vain repinings were replaced by hopefulness and energy. In a twinkling the young man was on his feet, every nerve a-thrill with excitement.

Mrs. Hallam, blissfully ignorant of this surveillance over her movements, took her place in the fiacre. The driver clucked to his horse, cracked his whip, and started off at a slow trot: a pace which Kirkwood imitated, keeping himself at a discreet distance to the rear of the cab, but prepared to break into a run whenever it should prove necessary.

Such exertion, however, was not required of him. Evidently Mrs. Hallam was in no great haste to reach her destination; the speed of the fiacre remained extremely moderate; Kirkwood found a long, brisk stride fast enough to keep it well in sight.

Round the green square, under the beautiful walls of Notre Dame d'Anvers, through Grande Place and past the Hotel de Ville, the cab proceeded, dogged by what might plausibly be asserted the most persistent and infatuated soul that ever crossed the water; and so on into the Quai Van Dyck, turning to the left at the old Steen dungeon and, slowing to a walk, moving soberly up the drive.

Beyond the lip of the embankment, the Scheldt flowed, its broad shining surface oily, smooth and dark, a mirror for the incandescent glory of the skies. Over on the western bank old Tete de Flandre lifted up its grim curtains and bastions, sable against the crimson, rampart and parapet edged with fire. Busy little side-wheeled ferry steamers spanked the waters noisily and smudged the sunset with dark drifting trails of smoke; and ever and anon a rowboat would slip out of shadow to glide languidly with the current. Otherwise the life of the river was gone; and at their moorings the ships swung in great quietness, riding lights glimmering like low wan stars.

In the company of the latter the young man marked down the _Alethea_; a sight which made him unconsciously clench both fists and teeth, reminding him of that rare wag, Stryker....

To his way of thinking the behavior of the fiacre was quite unaccountable.

Hardly had the horse paced off the length of two blocks on the Quai ere it was guided to the edge of the promenade and brought to a stop. And the driver twisted the reins round his whip, thrust the latter in its socket, turned sidewise on the box, and began to smoke and swing his heels, surveying the panorama of river and sunset with complacency--a cabby, one would venture, without a care in the world and serene in the assurance of a generous _pour-boire_ when he lost his fare. But as for the latter, she made no move; the door of the cab remained closed,--like its occupant's mind, a mystery to the watcher.

Twilight shadows lengthened, darkling, over the land; street-lights flashed up in long, radiant ranks. Across the promenade hotels and shops were lighted up; people began to gather round the tables beneath the awnings of an open-air cafe. In the distance, somewhere, a band swung into the dreamy rhythm of a haunting waltz. Scattered couples moved slowly, arm in arm, along the riverside walk, drinking in the fragrance of the night. Overhead stars popped out in brilliance and dropped their reflections to swim lazily on spellbound waters.... And still the fiacre lingered in inaction, still the driver lorded it aloft, in care-free abandon.

In the course of time this inertia, where he had looked for action, this dull suspense when he had forecast interesting developments, wore upon the watcher's nerves and made him at once impatient and suspicious. Now that he had begun to doubt, he conceived it as quite possible that Mrs. Hallam (who was capable of anything) should have stolen out of the cab by the other and, to him, invisible door. To resolve the matter, finally, he took advantage of the darkness, turned up his coat collar, hunched up his shoulders, hid his hands in pockets, pulled the visor of his cap well forward over his eyes, and slouched past the fiacre.

Mrs. Hallam sat within. He could see her profile clearly silhouetted against the light; she was bending forward and staring fixedly out of the window, across the driveway. Mentally he calculated the direction of her gaze, then, moved away and followed it with his own eyes; and found himself staring at the facade of a third-rate hotel. Above its roof the gilded letters of a sign, catching the illumination from below, spelled out the title of "Hotel du Commerce."

Mrs. Hallam was interested in the Hotel du Commerce?

Thoughtfully Kirkwood fell back to his former point of observation, now the richer by another object of suspicion, the hostelry. Mrs. Hallam was waiting and watching for some one to enter or to leave that establishment.

It seemed a reasonable inference to draw. Well, then, so was Kirkwood, no less than the lady; he deemed it quite conceivable that their objects were identical.

He started to beguile the time by wondering what she would do, if...

Of a sudden he abandoned this line of speculation, and catching his breath, held it, almost afraid to credit the truth that for once his anticipations were being realized under his very eyes.

Against the lighted doorway of the Hotel du Commerce, the figures of two men were momentarily sketched, as they came hurriedly forth; and of the two, one was short and stout, and even at a distance seemed to bear himself with an accent of assertiveness, while the other was tall and heavy of shoulder.

Side by side they marched in step across the embankment to the head of the Quai gangway, descending without pause to the landing-stage. Kirkwood, hanging breathlessly over the guard-rail, could hear their footfalls ringing in hollow rhythm on the planks of the inclined way,--could even discern Calendar's unlovely profile in dim relief beneath one of the waterside lights; and he recognized unmistakably Mulready's deep voice, grumbling inarticulately.

At the outset he had set after them, with intent to accost Calendar; but their pace had been swift and his irresolute. He hung fire on the issue, dreading to reveal himself, unable to decide which were the better course, to pursue the men, or to wait and discover what Mrs. Hallam was about. In the end he waited; and had his disappointment for recompense.

For Mrs. Hallam did nothing intelligible. Had she driven over to the hotel, hard upon the departure of the men, he would have believed that she was seeking Dorothy, and would, furthermore, have elected to crowd their interview, if she succeeded in obtaining one with the girl. But she did nothing of the sort. For a time the fiacre remained as it had been ever since stopping; then, evidently admonished by his fare, the driver straightened up, knocked out his pipe, disentangled reins and whip, and wheeled the equipage back on the way it had come, disappearing in a dark side street leading eastward from the embankment.

Kirkwood was, then, to believe that Mrs. Hallam, having taken all that trouble and having waited for the two adventurers to appear, had been content with sight of them? He could hardly believe that of the woman; it wasn't like her.

He started across the driveway, after the fiacre, but it was lost in a tangle of side streets before he could make up his mind whether it was worth while chasing or not; and, pondering the woman's singular action, he retraced his steps to the promenade rail.

Presently he told himself he understood. Dorothy was no longer of her father's party; he had a suspicion that Mulready's attitude had made it seem advisable to Calendar either to leave the girl behind, in England, or to segregate her from his associates in Antwerp. If not lodged in another quarter of the city, or left behind, she was probably traveling on ahead, to a destination which he could by no means guess. And Mrs. Hallam was looking for the girl; if there were really jewels in that gladstone bag, Calendar would naturally have had no hesitation about intrusting them to his daughter's care; and Mrs. Hallam avowedly sought nothing else. How the woman had found out that such was the case, Kirkwood did not stop to reckon; unless he explained it on the proposition that she was a person of remarkable address. It made no matter, one way or the other; he had lost Mrs. Hallam; but Calendar and Mulready he could put his finger on; they had undoubtedly gone off to the _Alethea_ to confer again with Stryker,--that was, unless they proposed sailing on the brigantine, possibly at turn of tide that night.

Panic gripped his soul and shook it, as a terrier shakes a rat, when he conceived this frightful proposition.

In his confusion of mind he evolved spontaneously an entirely new hypothesis: Dorothy had already been spirited aboard the vessel; Calendar and his confederate, delaying to join her from enigmatic motives, were now aboard; and presently the word would be, Up-anchor and away!

Were they again to elude him? Not, he swore, if he had to swim for it. And he had no wish to swim. The clothes he stood in, with what was left of his self-respect, were all that he could call his own on that side of the North Sea. Not a boatman on the Scheldt would so much as consider accepting three English pennies in exchange for boat-hire. In brief, it began to look as if he were either to swim or ... to steal a boat.

Upon such slender threads of circumstance depends our boasted moral health.

In one fleeting minute Kirkwood's conception of the law of _meum et tuum_, its foundations already insidiously undermined by a series of cumulative misfortunes, toppled crashing to its fall; and was not.

He was wholly unconscious of the change. Beneath him, in a space between the quays bridged by the gangway, a number of rowboats, a putative score, lay moored for the night and gently rubbing against each other with the soundless lift and fall of the river. For all that Kirkwood could determine to the contrary, the lot lay at the mercy of the public; nowhere about was he able to discern a figure in anything resembling a watchman.

Without a quiver of hesitation--moments were invaluable, if what he feared were true--he strode to the gangway, passed down, and with absolute nonchalance dropped into the nearest boat, stepping from one to another until he had gained the outermost. To his joy he found a pair of oars stowed beneath the thwarts.

If he had paused to moralize--which he didn't--upon the discovery, he would have laid it all at the door of his lucky star; and would have been wrong.

We who have never stooped to petty larceny know that the oars had been placed there at the direction of his evil genius bent upon facilitating his descent into the avernus of crime. Let us, then, pity the poor young man without condoning his offense.

Unhitching the painter he set one oar against the gunwale of the next boat, and with a powerful thrust sent his own (let us so call it for convenience) stern-first out upon the river; then sat him composedly down, fitted the oars to their locks, and began to pull straight across-stream, trusting to the current to carry him down to the _Alethea_. He had already marked down that vessel's riding-light; and that not without a glow of gratitude to see it still aloft and in proper juxtaposition to the river-bank; proof that it had not moved.

He pulled a good oar, reckoned his distance prettily, and shipping the blades at just the right moment, brought the little boat in under the brigantine's counter with scarce a jar. An element of surprise he held essential to the success of his plan, whatever that might turn out to be.

Standing up, he caught the brigantine's after-rail with both hands, one of which held the painter of the purloined boat, and lifted his head above the deck line. A short survey of the deserted after-deck gave him further assurance. The anchor-watch was not in sight; he may have been keeping well forward by Stryker's instructions, or he may have crept off for forty winks. Whatever the reason for his absence from the post of duty, Kirkwood was relieved not to have him to deal with; and drawing himself gently in over the rail, made the painter fast, and stepped noiselessly over toward the lighted oblong of the companionway. A murmur of voices from below comforted him with the knowledge that he had not miscalculated, this time; at last he stood within striking distance of his quarry.

The syllables of his surname ringing clearly in his ears and followed by Stryker's fleeting laugh, brought him to a pause. He flushed hotly in the darkness; the captain was retailing with relish some of his most successful witticisms at Kirkwood's expense.... "You'd ought to've seed the wye'e looked at me!" concluded the _raconteur_ in a gale of mirth.

Mulready laughed with him, if a little uncertainly. Calendar's chuckle was not audible, but he broke the pause that followed.

"I don't know," he said with doubting emphasis. "You say you landed him without a penny in his pocket? I don't call that a good plan at all. Of course, he ain't a factor, but ... Well, it might've been as well to give him his fare home. He might make trouble for us, somehow.... I don't mind telling you, Cap'n, that you're an ass."

The tensity of certain situations numbs the sensibilities. Kirkwood had never in his weirdest dreams thought of himself as an eavesdropper; he did not think of himself as such in the present instance; he merely listened, edging nearer the skylight, of which the wings were slightly raised, and keeping as far as possible in shadow.

"Ow, I sye!" the captain was remonstrating, aggrieved. "'Ow was I to know 'e didn't 'ave it in for you? First off, when 'e comes on board (I'll sye this for 'im, 'e's as plucky as they myke 'em), I thought 'e was from the Yard. Then, when I see wot a bally hinnocent 'e was, I mykes up my mind 'e's just some one you've been ply in' one of your little gymes on, and 'oo was lookin' to square 'is account. So I did 'im proper."

Chapter end

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