AN UNEXPECTED MEETING

“With anxious dread have I avoided thee,
Thou haunting evil of my early days,
Yet by some trick of Fate we meet again;
I pray thee, sir, let me go far away.
And place the roaring seas between us twain,
There is but sorrow in our comradeship.”

It was the high road to the village of Garsworth, wide, deeply rutted,
and somewhat grass-grown, with a tall hedge of yellow-blossomed gorse
on the one side, and on the other a ragged, broken fence, over which
leaned a man absorbed in meditation, his eyes fixed upon the setting
sun.

The fence, rotten and moss-tufted, ran along the edge of a little
hill, the slope of which had been lately reaped, and was now covered
with bristly yellow stubble, variegated by bare-looking patches of
brownish earth.

At the bottom of the hill flowed the narrow river Gar, with its
sluggish waters rolling lazily along between the low mud banks,
bordered by rows of pollard willows and lush rank grasses which hid
the burrows of the water-rats. Beyond, towards the distant hills,
stretched the damp, melancholy fen-lands, with their long lines of
slimy ditches, still pools of black water, and scattered clumps of
stunted trees. Still further away appeared a scanty fringe of forest,
above which could be seen the square, grey tower of a church, and over
all glared an angry red sky barred with thin lines of heavy clouds,
looming intensely black against the accentuating crimson light behind.

An evil-looking scene it was, for over the brooding loneliness and
desolation of the fen-lands flared the fierce scarlet of the sunset,
turning the slender line of the river and the sombre pools of water to
the tint of blood, as though they had been smitten with the Egyptian
plague.

A chill wind, heavy with the unwholesome miasma of the fens was
blowing over the moist earth, and across the plain floated a vaporous
white mist, making the stunted trees look weird and spectral behind
its shadowy veil.

The man, leaning over the fence, took a cigarette out of his mouth and
shivered slightly.

“Ugh!” he muttered, with an uneasy shudder, “it’s like the Valley of
the Shadow of Death.” Then, replacing the cigarette, he continued
contemplating the uncanny-looking landscape to which the term was
singularly applicable.

It was a curious face upon which shone the red sunlight, being long
and narrow, with lantern jaws and a thin, hawk-like nose. Thread-like
black eyebrows in a straight line above piercing dark eyes and a
scanty black moustache twisted jauntily at the ends over
tightly-closed lips. Curly hair, the colour of ebony, worn longer than
usual, and touched at the temples with grey, appeared from under his
soft wideawake, around which was twisted a blue handkerchief with
white spots. A livid, cadaverous-looking face, with the haggard
expression of one who had lived a fast life; nevertheless it appeared
full of animation and nervous energy.

He was tall, being much above the average height, with sloping
shoulders and a slender, well-knit figure, clad in a rough suit of
grey homespun, which he wore with a certain natural grace. His feet
were well-shaped and neatly shod in tan-coloured boots, and his hands,
long and slender, were those of an artist.

Not strictly handsome, perhaps, but with a certain insolent dash of
recklessness about him which suited his Spanish-looking face, and
stamped him at once as a Bohemian. A man who cared for no one so long
as his personal desires were gratified, a man who would stop at
nothing to gratify those desires, in short, a man who had lived
forty-five years in the world without making a single friend; which
fact speaks for itself. A thorough scamp, ever on the edge of an
abyss, yet by some miracle never losing his balance, Basil Beaumont
had fascinated many men and women, but they always found his
friendship too expensive to maintain; therefore the result was ever
the same, they retired, sooner or later, on some pretext or another,
leaving him solitary and alone.

Mr. Beaumont was smoking a cigarette–he was always smoking
cigarettes–morn, noon, and night those deadly little rolls of paper
were between his thin lips, and though doctors warned him of the
danger to his nerves, he laughed at their croakings.

“Nerves, my dear sir,” he said lightly; “men in my position can’t
afford to have nerves; they are a luxury for the rich and foolish. Why
should I have nerves? I don’t drink; I don’t run away with other men’s
wives; I don’t fret over the unavoidable–bah! smoking is my one
redeeming vice.”

He had a number of other vices, however, as many young men found to
their cost. True, he himself did not drink, but he led others to do
so, nor did he covet his neighbour’s wife, yet he was by no means
averse to playing the part of Sir Pandarus of Troy, provided it was to
his own interest to do so. Moreover, he gambled.

It was in this terrible passion–rarely, if ever conquered–that he
found his greatest delight. The green cloth-covered table, the painted
hieroglyphics of the cards, the hopes, the fears, the gains, the
losses, were all to him but a representation of his daily life on a
small scale. He gambled with men as he gambled with cards, meeting
varied fortunes in both, and risking his luck as recklessly in the
game of Life as in the game of baccarat. He was a scamp, a scoundrel,
a blackleg of the deepest dye, bankrupt in pocket and in illusions;
yet he always kept within the limits of the law, and, moreover, sinned
in an eminently gentlemanly manner, which robbed the sordid, feverish
life he was leading of its most repulsive features.

Why this artificial man, who lived only in the glare of the gas-lamps,
and, owl-like, shunned the searching light of the day, had come to
such an out-of-the-way village as Garsworth was a puzzle, but
nevertheless a puzzle easy of solution. His object was two-fold. In
the first place, he had left London to escape the demands of
persistent creditors, and in the second, being a native of the dull
little hamlet, he had returned to visit the scenes of his youth not
seen by him for three-and-twenty years.

It was not a sentimental longing–no, Mr. Beaumont and sentiment had
long since parted company; but Garsworth was a dead and alive place
where no one would think of looking for him, so he could stay there in
safety until he saw a chance of arranging his pecuniary affairs and
leaving the Arcadia he detested for the London he loved.

An artist by profession, though he had not touched a brush for years,
he found it necessary to resume his old employment as a reason for his
sojourn in Garsworth, for the honest rustics were somewhat suspicious
of Basil Beaumont, his character having been none of the best when he
left his native place to seek his fortune. So he lived quietly at the
principal inn of the village, dawdled about the fields, sketched
picturesque landscapes in a desultory manner, and in the meantime
corresponded with a dear brother hawk in Town as to his chances of
return to the metropolis.

His cigarette burnt down rapidly as he leaned over the fence
thinking of his future, so throwing away the stump, he took out his
tobacco-pouch and a little book of rice paper, in order to manufacture
another, talking to himself meanwhile as is the fashion of solitary
men.

“Two weeks,” he said musingly, while he deftly rolled the tobacco in
his slender fingers, “two weeks in this blessed place–well, there’s
one good thing, the rest will do me good, and I’ll go back to Town as
steady as a rock; the medicine is disagreeable, but the result will be
excellent. What bad luck I’ve had lately–everything seems against me.
I’ll have to make a big effort to get some cash, or I’ll end my days
in a workhouse–ugh!” shivering again, “not that–God, how I dread
poverty! Never mind,” he went on gaily, shrugging his shoulders,
“there are plenty of fools in this world, and as everything was
created for a special purpose, I presume _le bon Dieu_ made fools to
feather clever men’s nests.”

He laughed softly at this cynicism, then, lighting the cigarette,
placed it in his mouth and resumed his soliloquy.

“Forty-five and still living on my wits. Ah, Basil, my friend, you’ve
been an awful fool, and yet, if I had to live my life over again, I
don’t know that I would act differently. Circumstances have been too
strong for me. With a certain income I might have been an honest man,
but Fate–pish!–why do I blame that unhappy deity whom men always
make a scapegoat for their own shortcomings? It’s myself, and none
other, I should curse. Well, well, rich or poor, honest man or
scoundrel, I’ll go with all the rest of my species through the valley
of the shadow.”

He raised his eyes once more to the melancholy scene before him, when
suddenly his quick ear caught the sound of footsteps coming briskly
along the road, and he smiled to himself as the invisible pedestrian
began to whistle “Garryowen.”

“Plenty of spirits,” he muttered, flicking the ash off his cigarette,
“or perhaps not enough, seeing he has to cheer himself with Irish
melodies.”

The footsteps came nearer, and shortly afterwards a man paused in the
centre of the road as he saw the still figure leaning indolently
against the fence. A fair-haired ruddy-faced man, of medium height,
arrayed in a walking suit, with a knapsack on his shoulder, and a
heavy stick in his hand.

“Hullo!” he cried, tapping his stick on the ground, “how far is it to
the village?”

Basil Beaumont started slightly when he heard the voice, then an evil
smile crossed his face as he turned lazily round to answer the
question.

“About one mile, Nestley,” he replied distinctly.

As he spoke the pedestrian gave a cry, and with a muttered oath sprang
forward to where the other stood.

“Beaumont!” he whispered, recoiling at the sight of that mocking,
Mephistophelean countenance smiling at his emotion.

“At your service,” said Beaumont, carelessly putting his hands in his
pockets. “And what are you doing in this part of the country, Doctor
Duncan Nestley?”

Nestley did not answer, but stared fixedly at the artist as if he were
turned into stone, but the other met his gaze steadily and seemed
rather amused at the scrutiny.

“You take a long time to recognise an old friend,” he observed at
length, blowing a thin wreath of smoke.

“Friend,” echoed Nestley, with a deep sigh, recovering himself. “Yes,
you were my friend, Basil Beaumont.”

“Why ‘were’?” asked the artist coolly.

“Because it was you who so nearly ruined my life,” replied Nestley in
a deep voice.

Beaumont smiled in a saturnine manner.

“I,” he said in a gibing tone. “My good fellow you do me too much
honour. I would never dare to ruin so celebrated an individual as
Duncan Nestley, F.R.C.S., and deuce knows what other letters of the
alphabet.”

The pedestrian turned on him fiercely, and, stepping forward,
confronted him with clenched fists. The artist never blenched, but
eyed his angry antagonist steadily. So Nestley, with all the wrath
dying out of his face, fell back into his former position with a
dreary laugh.

“You have the one virtue of a scoundrel, I see,” he said bitterly.
“Courage.”

“Man of one virtue and ten thousand crimes,” quoted Beaumont, easily.
“Faith, it’s something to have even one virtue in this degenerate age.
Where are you going?” he added, as Nestley turned away.

“Going?” echoed the doctor, fiercely. “Anywhere, so long as it is away
from you.”

Beaumont raised his eyebrows in affected surprise, then, shrugging his
shoulders, took out his watch.

“It is now between five and six o’clock,” he said, putting it back
again, “and it will be dark by the time we reach Garsworth, which is
the nearest village. I am staying there, but if you choose to go back
again in order to avoid the moral leper, I daresay you’ll reach
Shunton by twelve o’clock.”

“I’m not going with you,” reiterated Nestley, resolutely, as the
artist stepped into the road.

“‘Nobody axed you, sir,’ she said,” retorted Beaumont, with a sneer,
sauntering on. “Good-bye; a pleasant journey.”

Nestley looked at the sky, out of which the red light was rapidly
dying. A few stars glimmered in the pale flush of colour, and the
chill breeze was growing colder while the mists lay over the fen lands
like a thick white veil. He was cold and hungry, so the prospect of
getting something to eat and a night’s rest instead of trudging back
wearily to Shunton, decided him. He shook himself impatiently, made a
few steps forward, then paused irresolutely.

“Bah! Why should I mind?” he said angrily to himself. “Beaumont can do
me no harm now. After five years I hardly see how his influence can
affect me. I’ll chance it, anyhow.”

Away in the distance he could see the tall form of the artist
strolling easily along, so, having paused a moment to light his pipe,
he strode rapidly after him. Even as he did so there flashed across
his mind, with the rapidity of lightning, the phrase, “Lead us not
into temptation,” and a shiver, not caused by the chill wind, passed
over his body, but he dismissed the warning with an uneasy laugh and
walked on quickly in the track of his evil genius.