It was with the greatest difficulty that Cleggett repressed a start. Another man might have shown the shock he felt. But Cleggett had the iron nerve of a Bismarck and the fine manner of a Richelieu. He did not even permit his eyes to wander towards the box in question. He merely sat and waited.
Lady Agatha, having brought herself to the point of revelation, seemed to find a difficulty in proceeding. Cleggett, mutely asking permission, lighted a cigarette.
"Oh--if you will!" said Lady Agatha, extending her hand towards the case. He passed it over, and when she had chosen one of the little rolls and lighted it she said:
"Mr. Cleggett, have you ever lived in England?"
"I have never even visited England."
"I wish you knew England." She watched the curling smoke from her tobacco as it drifted across the table. "If you knew England you would comprehend so much more readily some parts of my story.
"But, being an American, you can have no adequate conception of the conservatism that still prevails in certain quarters. I refer to the really old families among the landed aristocracy. Some of them have not changed essentially, in their attitude towards the world in general, since the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
They make of family a fetish. They are ready to sacrifice everything upon the altar of family. They may exhibit this pride of race less obviously than some of the French or Germans or Italians; but they have a deeper sense of their own dignity, and of what is due to it, than any of your more flighty and picturesque continentals. There are certain things that are done. Certain things are not done. One must conform or----"
She interrupted herself and delicately flicked the ash from her cigarette.
"Conform, or be jolly well damned," she finished, crossing one leg over the other and leaning back in her chair. "This, by the way, is the only decent cigarette I have found in America. I hate to smoke perfume--I like tobacco--and most of your shops seem to keep nothing but the highly scented Turkish and Egyptian varieties."
"They were made in London," said Cleggett, bowing.
"Ah! But where was I? Oh, yes--one must conform. Especially if one belongs to, or has married into, the Claiborne family. Of all the men in England the Earl of Claiborne is the most conservative, the most reactionary, the most deeply encrusted with prejudice. He would stop at little where the question concerned the prestige of the aristocracy in general; he would stop at nothing where the Claiborne family is concerned.
"I am telling you all this so that you may get an inkling of the blow it was to him when I became a militant suffragist. It was blow enough to his nephew, Sir Archibald, my late husband. The Earl maintains that it hastened poor Archibald's death. But that is ridiculous. Archibald had undermined his constitution with dissipation, and died following an operation for gravel. He was to have succeeded to the title, as both of the Earl's legitimate sons were dead without issue--one of them perished in the Boer War, and the other was killed in the hunting field.
"Upon Archibald's death the old Earl publicly acknowledged Reginald Maltravers, his natural son, and took steps to have him legitimatized. For all of the bend sinister upon his escutcheon, Reginald Maltravers was as fanatical concerning the family as his father. Perhaps more fanatical, because he secretly suffered for the irregularity of his own position in the world.
"At any rate, supported at first by the old Earl, he began a series of persecutions designed to make me renounce my suffragist principles, or at least to make me cease playing a conspicuous public part in the militant propaganda. As my husband was dead and there were no children, I could not see that I was accountable to the Claiborne family for my actions. But the Claibornes took a different view of it. In their philosophy, once a Claiborne, always a Claiborne. I was bringing disgrace and humiliation upon the family, in their opinion. Knowing the old Earl as I do, I am aware that his suffering was genuine and intense. But what was I to do? One cannot desert one's principles merely because they cause suffering; otherwise there could be no such thing as revolution.
"Reginald Maltravers had another reason for his persecution. After the death of Sir Archibald he himself sought my hand in marriage. I shall always remember the form of his proposal; it concluded with these words: 'Had Archibald lived you would have been a countess. You may still be a countess--but you must drop this suffragist show, you know. It is all bally rot, Agatha, all bally rot.' I would not have married him without the condition, for I despised the man himself; but the condition made me furious and I drove him from my sight with words that turned him white and made him my enemy forever. 'You will not be my countess, then,' he said. 'Very well--but I can promise you that you will cease to be a suffragist.' I can still see the evil flash of his eye behind his monocle as he uttered these words and turned away."
Lady Agatha shuddered at the recollection, and took a cup of tea.
"It was then," she resumed, "that the real persecution began. I was peculiarly helpless, as I have no near relations who might have come to my defense. Representing himself always as the agent of his father, but far exceeding the Earl in the malevolence of his inventions, Reginald Maltravers sought by every means he could command to drive me from public life in England.
"Three times he succeeded in having me flung into Holloway Jail. I need not tell you of the terrors of that institution, nor of the degrading horrors of forcible feeding. They are known to a shocked and sympathetic world. But Reginald Maltravers contrived, in my case, to add to the usual brutalities a peculiar and personal touch. By bribery, as I believe, he succeeded in getting himself into the prison as a turnkey. It was his custom, when I lay weak and helpless in the semistupor of starvation, to glide into my cell and, standing by my couch, to recite to me the list of tempting viands that might appear daily upon the board of a Countess of Claiborne.
"He soon learned that his very presence itself was a persecution.
After my release from jail the last time, he began to follow me everywhere. Turn where I would, there was Reginald Maltravers. At suffrage meetings he took his station directly before the speaker's stand, stroked his long blond mustache with his long white fingers, and stared at me steadfastly through his monocle, with an evil smile upon his face. Formerly he had, in several instances, prevented me from attending suffrage meetings; once he had me spirited away and imprisoned for a week when it fell to my lot to burn a railroad station for the good of the cause. He strove to ruin me with my leaders in this despicable manner.
"But in the end he took to showing himself; he stood and stared. Merely that. He was subtle enough to shift the persecution from the province of the physical to the realm of the psychological. It was like being haunted. Even when I did not see him, I began to THINK that I saw him. He deliberately planted that hallucination in my mind. It is a wonder that I did not go mad.
"I finally determined to flee to America. I made all my arrangements with care and--as I thought--with secrecy. I imagined that I had given him the slip. But he was too clever for me. The third day out, as one of the ship's officers was showing me about the vessel, I detected Reginald Maltravers in the hold. It is not usual to allow women so far below decks; but I had insisted on seeing everything. Perspiring, begrimed, and mopping the moisture from his brow with a piece of cotton waste, there he stood in the guise of a--of--a croaker, is it, Mr. Cleggett?"
"Stoker, I believe," said Cleggett.
"Stoker. Thank you. He turned away in confusion when he saw that he was discovered. I perceived that, designing to cross on the same ship with me, he had thought himself hidden there. He was not wearing his monocle, but I would know that sloping forehead, that blond mustache, and that long, high, bony nose anywhere."
Lady Agatha broke off for a moment. She was extremely agitated. But presently she continued: "I endeavored to evade him. The attempt was useless. He found me out at once. The persecution went on. It was more terrible here than it had been in England. There I had friends. I had hours, sometimes even whole days, to myself.
"But this was not the worst. A new phase developed. From his appearance it suddenly became apparent to me that Reginald Maltravers could not stop haunting me if he wished!"
"COULD not stop?" cried Cleggett.
"COULD not," said Lady Agatha. "The hunt had become a monomania with him. It had become an obsession. He had given his whole mentality to it and it had absorbed all his faculties. He was now the victim of it. He had grown powerless in the grip of the idea; he had lost volition in the matter.
"You can imagine my consternation when I realized this. I began to fear the day when his insanity would take some violent form and he would endeavor to do me a personal injury. I determined to have a bodyguard. I wanted a man inured to danger; one capable of meeting violence with violence, if the need arose. It struck me that if I could get into touch with one of those chivalrous Western outlaws, of whom we read in American works of fiction, he would be just the sort of man I needed to protect me from Reginald Maltravers.
"I did not consider appealing to the authorities, for I have no confidence in your American laws, Mr. Cleggett. But I did not know how to go about finding a chivalrous Western outlaw. So finally I put an advertisement in the personal column of one of your morning papers for a reformed convict."
"A reformed convict!" exclaimed Cleggett. "May I ask how you worded the ad.?"
"Ad.? Oh, advertisement? I will get it for you."
She went into the stateroom and was back in a moment with a newspaper cutting which she handed to Cleggett. It read:
Convict recently released from Sing Sing, if his reform is really genuine, may secure honest employment by writing to A. F., care Morning Dispatch.
"Out of the answers," she resumed, "I selected four and had their writers call for a personal interview. But only two of them seemed to me to be really reformed, and of these two Elmer's reform struck me as being the more genuine. You may have noticed that Elmer gives the appearance of being done with worldly vanities."
"He does seem depressed," said Cleggett, "but I had imputed it largely to the nature of his present occupation."
"It is due to his attempt to lead a better life--or at least so he tells me," said Lady Agatha. "Morality does not come easy to Elmer, he says, and I believe him. Elmer's time is largely taken up by inward moral debate as to the right or wrong of particular hypothetical cases which his imagination insists on presenting to his conscience."
"I can certainly imagine no state of mind less enjoyable," said Cleggett.
"Nor I," replied Lady Agatha. "But to resume: The very fact that I had employed a guard seemed to put Reginald Maltravers beside himself. He followed me more closely than ever. Regardless of appearances, he would suddenly plant himself in front of me in restaurants and tramcars, in the streets or parks when I went for an airing, even in the lifts and corridors of the apartment hotel where I stopped, and stare at me intently through his monocle, caressing his mustache the while. I did not dare make a scene; the thing was causing enough remark without that; I was, in fact, losing my reputation.
"Finally, goaded beyond endurance, I called Elmer into my apartment one day and put the whole case before him.
"'I will pay almost any price short of participation in actual crime,' I told him, 'for a fortnight of freedom from that man's presence. I can stand it no longer; I feel my reason slipping from me. Have I not heard that there are in New York creatures who are willing, on the payment of a certain stipulated sum, to guarantee to chastise a person so as to disable him for a definite period, without doing him permanent injury? You must know some such disreputable characters. Procure me some wretches of this sort!'
"Elmer replied that such creatures do, indeed, exist. He called them--what did he call them?"
"Gunmen?" suggested Cleggett.
"Yes, thank you. He brought two of them to me whom he introduced as----"
She paused. "The names escape me," she said. She called: "Elmer, just step here a moment, please."
Elmer, who was still putting ice into the oblong box, moodily laid away his tools and approached.
"What WERE the odd names of your friends? The ones who--who made the mistake?" asked Lady Agatha, resuming her seat.
Elmer rolled a bilious eye at Cleggett and asked Lady Agatha, out of that corner of his mouth nearer to her:
"Is th' guy right?"
"Mr. Cleggett is a friend of mine and can keep a secret, if that is what you mean," said Lady Agatha. And the words sent a thrill of elation through Cleggett's being.
"M' friends w'at makes the mistake," said Elmer, apparently satisfied with the assurance, and offering the information to Cleggett out of the side of his mouth which had not been involved in his question to Lady Agatha, "goes by th' monakers of Dopey Eddie and Izzy the Cat."
"Picturesque," murmured Cleggett.
"Picture--what? Picture not'in!" said Elmer, huskily. "The bulls got not'in' on them boys. Them guys never been mugged. Them guys is too foxy t' get mugged."
"I infer that you weren't always so foxy," said Cleggett, eyeing him curiously.
The remark seemed to touch a sensitive spot. Elmer flushed and shuffled from one foot to the other, hanging his head as if in embarrassment. Finally he said, earnestly:
"I wasn't no boob, Mr. Cleggett. It was a snitch got ME settled. I was a good cracksman, honest I was. But I never had no luck."
"I intended no reflection on your professional ability," said Cleggett, politely.
"Oh, that's all right, Mr. Cleggett," said Elmer, forgivingly. "Nobody's feelin's is hoited. And any friend of th' little dame here is a friend o' mine." The diminutive, on Elmer's lips, was intended as a compliment; Lady Agatha was not a small woman.
"Elmer," said Lady Agatha, "tell Mr. Cleggett how the mistake occurred."
Oratory was evidently not Elmer's strongest point. But he braced himself for the effort and began:
"When th' skoit here says she wants the big boob punched I says to m'self, foist of all: 'Is it right or is it wrong?' Oncet youse got that reform high sign put onto youse, youse can't be too careful. Do youse get me? So when th' skoit here puts it up to me I thinks foist off: 'Is it right or is it wrong?' See? So I thinks it over and I says to m'self th' big boob's been pullin' rough stuff on th' little dame here. Do youse get me? So I says to m'self, the big boob ought to get a wallop on the nut. See? What th' big gink needs is someone to bounce a brick off his bean, f'r th' dame here's a square little dame. Do youse get me? So I says to the little dame: 'I'm wit' youse, see? W'at th' big gink needs is a mont' in th' hospital.' An' the little dame here says he's not to be croaked, but----"
But at that instant Teddy, the Pomeranian, sprang towards the uncovered hatchway that gave into the hold, barking violently. Lady Agatha, who could see into the opening, arose with a scream.
Cleggett, leaping towards the hatchway, was just in time to see two men jump backward from the bottom of the ladder into the murk of the hold. They had been listening. Drawing his pistol, and calling to the crew of the Jasper B. to follow him, Cleggett plunged recklessly downward and into the darkness.