Hulloa, Leah

Then did “Rumour, painted full of tongues,” enter into Lady Jim’s
strictly private life and depart with half-truths for the bewildering
of gossips. In some marvellous way the news leaked out, as news will,
despite careful caulking of the human vessels containing it. Lord
James Kaimes, ran the babble, had been kidnapped by his medical
attendant, who, substituting an illegal corpse for that of the husband
he wished to supplant, had plotted to secure the wife. This was the
tune, correct enough; then came its variations. The hurdy-gurdy of
society ground out wonderful twiddles and twists of false notes,
distorting the original theme into a melody Leah herself would not
have recognised. Not that she heard any of the _fiortura_. Prudence
counselled a retreat to Firmingham pending the home-coming of Jim, and
thither, very wisely, she went. At this crisis of her fortunes Lady
Jim felt that she required the countenance of all truly respectable
people, however dull, and therefore sheltered like a maltreated chick
under Hilda Frith’s wing. To console the widowed and orphaned was her
obvious excuse,–so obvious, indeed, that she declined to make it.
Thus did she escape questions about the one engrossing topic of
drawing-room, club, and public-house bar.

Every one, from the lowest to the highest, talked exhaustively, and
the newspapers, cheap and costly, printed scandal with alluring
recklessness. Out of London E.C. issued halfpenny journals with lurid
headings over incomplete histories of the plot, invented on unsound
premises. These transparent fictions began with the Russian’s
snake-in-the-grass intrusion into the happy home of an attached
couple, and ended with a political cry for the exclusion of such
immoral aliens from the Island of the Blest, which is England. The
more expensive small-beer chronicles refused to believe that so
fantastic an occurrence could have happened in these enlightened
days of police-courts and publicity; but, nevertheless, supplied
middle-class breakfast-tables with equally doubtful data, out of which
to weave romances of the minor peerage. “The triangle of Dumas the
younger,” cried one scribe, with a fine disregard for meaning and
metaphor, “must never be sounded in our dear Motherland!” A sufficient
sample this of the stuff supplied. But, since the silly season
prevailed when reporters, one and all, were credited with March-hare
madness, such incongruities were pardoned, and the public gaped to
swallow full-sized camels.

The clubs buzzed like hives at swarming time, for their members
wondered at Jim’s adventure; wondered, also, how “so knowing a
Johnny”–so they put it–“could allow himself to be diddled by a
measly little foreign beast.” All were agog for the hero’s appearance,
and curious friends thirsted for a first-hand account of the enforced
Odyssey. Many speculated as to the probability of Jim being sobered by
untoward experience into becoming a truly respectable Duke, and a few
made original observations anent a much-quoted leopard and his
unchangeable spots. In this way was the statement that men are not
born gossips contradicted, for the Eveless Edens of St. James’s
Street, Pall Mall, and Piccadilly resembled a village sewing-class in
mid-career.

The drawing-rooms, as was natural, interested themselves chiefly in
Leah, and chafed that she should become an unexpected Duchess.
Hitherto Lady Jim’s skilful man[oe]uvring had saved her reputation,
but, as animals fall upon the wounded of their kind, so did the pack
of hounds she had never hunted with fling itself forward, full-voiced
and open-mouthed. Rejoicing women cried her sins on the housetop with
surprising details. She must have encouraged Dr. Demetrius shamefully,
else he never would have gone to such lengths, though why he should do
so for such a woman it was impossible to understand. They had never
admired her, said the pure-minded, and had always suspected her of
being no better than she should be. Poor Mr. Askew, too: had she not
put an end to a family matrimonial arrangement by her arts; had she
not inveigled him to Paris in the hope that he would marry her in
haste to repent at leisure? Certainly, aware of her character before
it was too late, he had sailed to the South Pole or the North Pole, or
to somewhere she could not follow, as she was certainly dying to do.
Her vanity was insatiable. She had flirted quite indecently with Sir
Billy Richardson, though he was but an infant lately breeched. Julia
Hengist had only snatched her lord from the claws of this harpy by the
merest, the very merest, chance. And the money she wasted! Oh! Why,
the bailiffs had twice and thrice been in the Curzon Street house.
Also, she was so lucky at bridge that she assuredly must cheat, and it
showed what a blackleg she was, that no one had ever caught her
cheating. Then her dresses were ridiculous for a woman with her poor
husband’s income. She had ruined him completely–that was why he ran
away, in a dying condition. And the money had not gone to discharge
lawful debts; she never paid anything, therefore she must have spent
the cash on some secret vice, which she certainly must have, since she
always posed as being so very correct. She ought to be cut; she ought
to be in gaol; whipping was too good for her; put her in a pillory and
throw stones at her. And let such a creature be anathema maranatha for
ever and ever and ever, Amen.

But for all this throwing of stones by ladies who were without sin,
Leah had her supporters in some, who must have been wicked, since they
declined to condemn her wholesale on hearsay evidence. These pointed
out that she had behaved admirably, when Jim’s supposed death had been
reported. The late Marquis of Frith was himself deceived by the
likeness of the corpse to his brother, though of course there were
family reasons for such a likeness. Also, the old Duke had paid the
Curzon Street debts, which so good a man would not have done had they
been of a questionable character. And the very respectable Hengists,
kind things, spoke highly of Lady Jim’s patience under trying domestic
difficulties caused by an unfaithful husband. Besides, Leah–poor,
dear, persecuted woman–was now the Duchess of Pentland, and could do
no wrong. She was a misunderstood angel. Hilda Frith doted on her, and
every one knew how very, very particular Hilda Frith was. To decry
a woman who had suffered so much, and who had so nobly borne
suffering, was a crime–worse, was a blunder, seeing that the latest
Duchess would assuredly sway society, to bless or damn at her good
pleasure. The peerage–the immaculate peerage of Great Britain and
Ireland–would stand or fall by Leah Pentland, as a perfect example of
what a titled woman should be.

In this way raged the war of tongues, while Lionel, in Mr. Hall’s
company, and with the assistance of Scotland Yard officials, sought
for the missing prodigal. Strange, playing the game with
characteristic stubbornness, refused to indicate the whereabouts of
his victim’s floating prison, and, as the _Stormy Petrel_ under a new
coat of paint, with readjusted rigging and bearing a prettier but
unknown name, could not be found in any shipping list, there appeared
little prospect of finding the kidnapped. The telegraph wires sizzled
in the air and under the sea, with messages to home and foreign ports;
bills with Jim’s portrait and a most flattering description were
scattered broadcast; a reward large enough to tempt Mammon himself was
offered in every journal, and in many languages; and the journals
themselves denounced the police authorities–who were merely mortal,
poor scapegoats–for not producing a mislaid nobleman in five minutes.
It was an enjoyable time for armchair critics, who, on insufficient
evidence, knew exactly what should be done, and blamed the police,
confronted with hard facts, for not doing it.

As to the culprit, he might have been Nero, Judas Iscariot, and
Captain Dreyfus rolled into one, from the obliquity which was heaped
upon him. Since he refused to produce his prisoner, inquisitive people
were frantic with annoyance. One enthusiast even suggested that
torture should be used to make him speak; another considered that so
recalcitrant a brute should be starved into submission; a third that
he should be offered a free pardon on condition that he sent back a
regretted Duke to his lonely wife. But Strange, chuckling over the
storm he had raised, hugged his secret close. Hall, the ducal lawyer,
knew what his terms were, and if Hall did not choose to accede he
would have to remain without an aristocratic client.

Hall, however, had no notion of losing the money with which the
accession of Lord James Kaimes to a wealthy title would probably fill
his pockets. Still, Strange’s terms were too preposterous to consider
for one moment. He had to consider them for a fortnight, all the same,
and finding that they did not vary, he came down to consult Lady Jim,
after a lengthy interview with the Rev. Lionel Kaimes at Lambeth.

Even though Jim had risen from the dead, Leah had not laid aside her
mourning. Indeed, she added fresh crape to show her grief for the
recent deaths, and greeted the lawyer with the air of one to whom life
is a burden. And so it was to her, at the moment. The funereal
atmosphere of the great house, the delicacy of her position until Jim
returned to tell her that all was safe, and the constant boredom of
listening to Hilda’s wordy lamentations–these things wore her out,
and Mr. Hall noted that she looked fatigued.

“Natural, very natural,” thought Mr. Hall, unfortunately aloud.

“What is natural?” asked Leah, seeing his eyes on her.

The man’s parchment cheeks reddened. “I beg your pardon, Duchess. I
did not intend to speak aloud; a trick of mine, when I am interested.
Bad habit–bad habit. I was thinking that you looked weary–natural,
very natural.”

“Weary!” Leah placed her elbows on the table which stood between them.
“I tell you what, Mr. Hall: unless you bring my husband back soon, I
shall take to drink.”

“My–dear–Duchess.”

“Well, and don’t men take to drink when they are worried? What better
can a poor woman do than imitate the lords of creation? You are so
inconsistent. What about my particular lord? Has that beast spoken
out?”

“No. He refuses to speak save on his own terms, which are, I may say,
preposterous–extremely so.”

Leah thought of the price to be paid for the imprisonment Strange was
now undergoing, and smiled dryly. “He is the kind of man who would ask
for the sun–and get it,” she added, as an afterthought.

“Whether he gets it is for you to determine, Duchess.”

“Oh!” She looked at him sharply. “Am I to arbitrate?”

“Quite so–quite so. A very well-chosen word–arbitrate.” He chuckled
heartily, and adjusted his pince-nez.

“And the joke, Mr. Hall?”

“It might almost be one, Duchess, so preposterous is the demand of
this man. He refuses to reveal the whereabouts of his Grace,
unless–prepare yourself for a surprise–unless he is set free. Now
then, Duchess”–Mr. Hall threw himself back in his chair, and flung
open his frock-coat–“is that not pre–pos–ter–ous?”

“I can’t see it myself,” replied Leah, coolly. “He seems to be a very
sensible man.”

“But–but–he ought to be punished.”

“I fear he would not agree with you there. Is this what you have come
to see me about?”

“Yes. All attempts to find the Duke have been made in vain: the
resources of civilisation are exhausted. Only one thing remains–to
accede to the prisoner’s terms. I saw the Reverend Lionel Kaimes, and
he agrees not to prosecute. Now I come to you—-”

“To ask me not to prosecute?”

“Exactly–exactly. The man attempted to blackmail you and the Reverend
Mr. Kaimes. If neither one of you will prosecute, the magistrate will
be obliged to dismiss the case for want of evidence. And then—-”

“Then Captain Strange–that is his name, isn’t it?–will send Jim
back.”

“I question it–I question it. Once free, he may again attempt to
blackmail–that is, he may refuse to surrender his prisoner without
money being paid.”

“I do not agree with you,” said Leah, mendaciously. “The man has had a
fright, and will not trust himself again into the lion’s mouth.
Besides, even if he did try to blackmail, we could refuse, and he
can’t keep my husband for ever on board his dirty little boat. A
prisoner who cannot be ransomed would be expensive to keep. Jim has an
enormous appetite.”

Hall smiled at the aristocratic jest. “True–true; you put the case
concisely–very concisely, I may say. The question is, whether it is
right to set the man free, and trust to an honour which I fear he does
not possess.”

Leah thought for a few minutes, playing her part to perfection. “It
appears that Captain Strange, very wisely, will not open his mouth so
long as he is shut up. If set free he promises to be amenable to
reason. Of two evils I choose the least, as Mr. Kaimes has done.”

“That means you will not prosecute?”

“Yes. Let the man go, and probably my husband will arrive within the
week. How can it be done?”

“Very easily. To-morrow, or the next day, Strange can be brought
before the magistrate; but as neither you nor Mr. Kaimes will appear,
the charge will be dismissed.”

“And then?”

“Then, my dear Duchess, he will vanish into the world, and we shall
have to trust to the honour of an admitted blackmailer. It is really a
terrible dilemma,” cried the lawyer, dismally, “and forms such an evil
precedent–oh, a most deadly blow at justice, I assure you.”

“Not at all,” contradicted Leah, coolly; “we can say that Captain
Strange turned King’s evidence.”

“But, my dear Duchess”

“What’s the use of talking?” she snapped impolitely. “I have told you
what to do. Go and do it.”

“Really—-”

“Pardon me if I am rude, but I am not fit to talk”; and she hurried
out of the room, glad that she had settled the matter thus. Hall
departed to London, reflecting that the rudeness of the Duchess was
quite explicable under the circumstances, but resenting it all the
same. To punish her he had a great mind to delay the return of the
Duke, until his good sense, or his avarice, told him that this would
be a costly price to pay for a petty revenge.

In this way Captain Strange triumphed, as most people can, by simply
holding his tongue. As no evidence was forthcoming, when he presented
himself before the magistrate, he could not be committed for trial,
and after a few formalities walked out of the dingy court a free man.
Hall followed him as quickly as was consistent with the dignity of a
Lincoln’s Inn Fields solicitor, but stepped into the open air to find
his bird had flown. Nor did inquiries at the third-rate Strand hotel
result in an interview. The buccaneer, warned of possible danger,
never reappeared to claim the carpet-bag which held a few shirts and
oddments. He disappeared, apparently into the air, as did Macbeth’s
fortune-tellers. Hall was vexed, as he had intended Strange should be
shadowed by detectives. Of this the astute sailor might have been
aware, as he gave no chance to the bloodhounds of the law. “And we
have to depend upon his honour about restoring the Duke,” thought
Hall, with anguish. It might have eased his mind had he known that the
dependence was really to be placed on six thousand pounds being paid
within a stated period. But of that he was ignorant, and Leah did not
think it necessary to comfort her legal adviser in any way.

Indeed, she needed comfort herself sorely, for when a week passed and
Jim did not reappear, she began to think that Strange was contriving
some new villainy. Perhaps he was about to put up his price, and Leah
was determined not to ransom Jim at any greater sum than that she had
already agreed to. The newspapers were filled with astonished
paragraphs about the inexplicable conduct of the authorities in
connection with Strange’s acquittal, and some kind friend sent the
most spiteful of these to the waiting wife. Leah did not read the
opinions of cranks set forth in inferior English and was much more
taken up with a letter from Katinka Aksakoff. It was not easy to
answer such a letter, yet she would be compelled to reply.

Mademoiselle Aksakoff wrote indignantly, saying that she did not
believe the statements of the papers concerning the conspiracy of
Constantine Demetrius. She denied that such a noble man would act in
so base a way, and reminded Leah of their conversation on the terrace
at Monte Carlo. “You then said that you did not love him,” complained
the letter, “and insisted that he did not love you. But if he
kidnapped your husband, so that you might be free to marry him, he
must love you and you have lied. But I cannot believe that you would
break my heart in this way, nor can I credit so honourable a man with
such conduct.” Katinka then went on to say that Demetrius had not been
seen since he crossed to Paris. Where was he? Did Lady Jim know? If
so, let her tell the writer, or else–then the epistle ended with a
vague threat about hunting out Demetrius and learning the truth. “And
when I do,” ran the final line, “your conscience will tell you if we
are to be friends or foes.” This challenge–as it truly was–came from
Paris, where Katinka was stopping at the Russian Embassy. It had been
registered, to ensure delivery.

A most unpleasant letter. Leah felt inclined to tear it up, but some
instinct told her that Katinka Aksakoff was a persistent girl, with
much obstinacy in her character. If no reply came she would probably
hasten to Firmingham for an interview, and Lady Jim did not care about
having the second honeymoon of herself and her restored husband spoilt
by the scene which would surely take place. After destroying several
sheets of note-paper she produced a concise reply, saying as little as
ever she could. Nevertheless, she was forced to say much she would
have preferred left unsaid. Captain Strange, said Lady Jim’s reply,
declared that Demetrius had so conspired. But he had been set free and
had disappeared. What he said might be true, or might not. Nothing
could be known for certain unless Lord James returned, and up to the
date of the letter he had not put in an appearance. Demetrius
certainly had come to Paris–not to see the writer, but to interview
M. Aksakoff about a possible pardon. At the Henri Trois Hotel the
doctor had been seized with a fit, and a Dr. Helfmann had taken charge
of him. “Since then,” wrote Lady Jim, “I have not seen him. However, I
enclose a letter which he sent me on the day I left Paris. It would
seem that he has gone to Russia.”

“And I hope Katinka will follow him there,” said Leah, after adding
a few Judas words of endearment. “Aksakoff might keep her on his
Volga estate. She’ll only make mischief if she comes to England. I’ll
warn her father of that”; and she did, for M. Aksakoff received a
letter, which hinted that his daughter might prove to be a possible
fire-brand. And so the matter, for the time being, ended.

But Jim had not yet arrived. Seven days passed, and the eighth night
since the buccaneer’s release closed in. Leah felt the strain
terribly, and hardly ate or slept. Hilda did what she could to cheer
her up, but, not knowing the whole truth, could do very little. Lady
Jim declined to take drugs, as her last experience of these had shown
her how they aged people, though that might have been her fancy. All
she could do, and did do, was to keep a tight rein on her emotions,
and beyond looking pale, and a trifle haggard, no one could have told
that she was in any way disturbed. Joan was a great comfort to her in
those days of strain, and so was Lionel, with his prophecies that all
would yet be well. But Leah had no one to whom she could tell the
whole shocking truth, and it was desperately trying to a woman, whose
nervous system was almost wrecked, to hold her tongue. These still
waters were running very deep.

She found a certain relief in motion, and while Hilda wept and wailed
that the bodies of her dear husband and his father had never been cast
ashore for Christian burial, Leah’s motor-car tore round the country
through storm and sunshine. She would not even take a chauffeur, but
engineered the machine herself. Providence, or the fetish that stood
to her in place of it, watched over her escapades. She met with no
accident, not even the most trivial, although in her reckless driving
she did her best to reduce the car to match-wood. Like a witch on a
broomstick she flew round the country, frantic and insistent, as
though she sought the enjoyment of some wizard Sabbath. The motor
flung mile after mile behind, with a buzz and a hum, and the speed of
a destroyer buffeting a rough sea. Leah, with her hand on the levers,
swooped down narrow lanes, spun furiously along the King’s highway,
crashed through scared villages, and raced the setting sun to the
verge of the astonished lands. It was the extreme danger of these
flights which delighted and strengthened her; and if she had a large
bill to pay for breaking every known law in the county policemen’s
note-books, it was easy for the Duchess of Pentland to pay for such
frolics. The thrill, the dash, the knowledge of power, the governance
of a flying bomb-shell–these things were worth double, treble,
quadruple the money. She was inebriated with danger, exalted by the
constant nearness of death, and, like a she-Satan, defiantly
self-sufficient, scorned both God and man. Of woman, needless to say,
she took no account whatsoever.

Then came one memorable night, riotously wild with wind and rain. With
gleaming lamps, at top speed, facing the wrath of conflicting elements
battling under a stormy sky, she drove her machine roaring up the
avenue. A quick turn of the hand and she stayed it, fuming and
whirring like a live thing, before the porch. Contrary to custom, the
door was open. Against the light she saw Lionel, and in a moment
guessed the inevitable. Leaving the chauffeur to attend to the
monster, this Mrs. Frankenstein sprang up the steps and dragged Lionel
under the glare of the electric lamp. A look into his face redoubled
the beat of her heart. There, sure enough, she saw what she expected
to see.

“Take me to him,” she breathed, still retaining her grip on his arm.

“But are you quite prepared? He is in the library, and—-”

Leah flung the curate away so forcibly that he staggered against the
wall. She was out of the hall, she was at the library door, she was in
the library itself, and all in two quick-drawn breaths.

“Hulloa, Leah,” said a well-known voice, in a well-known manner.

She did not answer, but stared with a bloodless face, possessed
entirely by the devil of hysteria. Then she dropped, without a cry or
a word. Like a blood-mare, she had held out to the winning-post, and
thus paid the price of victory.