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Guilty!







From: The Crack Of Doom

As to protecting Natalie Brande from her brother and the fanatics with
whom he associated, it was now plain that I was powerless. And what
guarantee had I that she herself was unaware of his nefarious purpose;
that she did not sympathise with it? This last thought flashed upon me
one day, and the sting of pain that followed it was so intolerable, I
determined instantly to prove its falsity or truth.

I telegraphed to Brande that I was running down to spend a day or two
with him, and followed my message without waiting for a reply. I have
still a very distinct recollection of that journey, notwithstanding much
that might well have blotted it from my memory. Every mile sped over
seemed to mark one more barrier passed on my way to some strange fate;
every moment which brought me nearer this incomprehensible girl with
her magical eyes was an epoch of impossibility against my ever
voluntarily turning back. And now that it is all over, I am glad that I
went on steadfastly to the end.

Brande received me with the easy affability of a man to whom good
breeding had ceased to be a habit, and had become an instinct. Only once
did anything pass between us bearing on the extraordinary relationship
which he had established with me--the relation of victor and victim, I
considered it. We had been left together for a few moments, and I said
as soon as the others were out of hearing distance:

"I got your message."

"I know you did," he replied. That was all. There was an awkward pause.
It must be broken somehow. Any way out of the difficulty was better than
to continue in it.

"Have you seen this?" I asked, handing Brande a copy of a novel which I
had picked up at a railway bookstall. When I say that it was new and
popular, it will be understood that it was indecent.

He looked at the title, and said indifferently: "Yes, I have seen it,
and in order to appreciate this class of fiction fairly, I have even
tried to read it. Why do you ask?"

"Because I thought it would be in your line. It is very advanced." I
said this to gain time.

"Advanced--advanced? I am afraid I do not comprehend. What do you mean
by 'advanced'? And how could it be in my line. I presume you mean by
that, on my plane of thought?"

"By 'advanced,' I mean up-to-date. What do you mean by it?"

"If I used the word at all, I should mean educated, evolved. Is this
evolved? Is it even educated? It is not always grammatical. It has no
style. In motive, it ante-dates Boccaccio."

"You disapprove of it."

"Certainly not."

"Then you approve it, notwithstanding your immediate condemnation?"

"By no means. I neither approve nor disapprove. It only represents a
phase of humanity--the deliberate purpose of securing money or notoriety
to the individual, regardless of the welfare of the community. There is
nothing to admire in that. It would be invidious to blame it when the
whole social scheme is equally wrong and contemptible. By the way, what
interest do you think the wares of any literary pander, of either sex,
could possess for me, a student--even if a mistaken one--of science?"

"I did not think the book would possess the slightest interest for you,
and I suppose you are already aware of that?"

"Ah no! My telepathic power is reserved for more serious purposes. Its
exercise costs me too much to expend it on trifles. In consequence I do
not know why you mentioned the book."

To this I answered candidly, "I mentioned it in order to get myself out
of a conversational difficulty--without much success."

Natalie was reserved with me at first. She devoted herself unnecessarily
to a boy named Halley who was staying with them. Grey had gone to
London. His place was taken by a Mr. Rockingham, whom I did not like.
There was something sinister in his expression, and he rarely spoke save
to say something cynical, and in consequence disagreeable. He had "seen
life," that is, everything deleterious to and destructive of it. His
connection with Brande was clearly a rebound, the rebound of disgust.
There was nothing creditable to him in that. My first impression of him
was thus unfavourable. My last recollection of him is a fitting item in
the nightmare which contains it.

The youth Halley would have interested me under ordinary circumstances.
His face was as handsome and refined as that of a pretty girl. His
figure, too, was slight and his voice effeminate. But there my own
advantage, as I deemed it, over him ceased. Intellectually, he was a
pupil of Brande's who did his master credit. Having made this discovery
I did not pursue it. My mind was fixed too fast upon a definite issue to
be more than temporarily interested in the epigrams of a peachy-cheeked
man of science.

The afternoon was well advanced before I had an opportunity of speaking
to Natalie. When it came, I did not stop to puzzle over a choice of
phrases.

"I wish to speak to you alone on a subject of extreme importance to me,"
I said hurriedly. "Will you come with me to the sea-shore? Your time, I
know, is fully occupied. I would not ask this if my happiness did not
depend upon it."

The philosopher looked on me with grave, kind eyes. But the woman's
heart within her sent the red blood flaming to her cheeks. It was then
given to me to fathom the lowest depth of boorish stupidity I had ever
sounded.

"I don't mean that," I cried, "I would not dare--"

The blush on her cheek burnt deeper as she tossed her head proudly back,
and said straight out, without any show of fence or shadow of
concealment:

"It was my mistake. I am glad to know that I did you an injustice. You
are my friend, are you not?"

"I believe I have the right to claim that title," I answered.

"Then what you ask is granted. Come." She put her hand boldly into mine.
I grasped the slender fingers, saying:

"Yes, Natalie, some day I will prove to you that I am your friend."

"The proof is unnecessary," she replied, in a low sad voice.

We started for the sea. Not a word was spoken on the way. Nor did our
eyes meet. We were in a strange position. It was this: the man who had
vowed he was the woman's friend--who did not intend to shirk the proof
of his promise, and never did gainsay it--meant to ask the woman,
before the day was over, to clear herself of knowingly associating with
a gang of scientific murderers. The woman had vaguely divined his
purpose, and could not clear herself.

When we arrived at the shore we occupied ourselves inconsequently. We
hunted little fishes until Natalie's dainty boots were dripping. We
examined quaint denizens of the shallow water until her gloves were
spoilt. We sprang from rock to rock and evaded the onrush of the foaming
waves. We made aqueducts for inter-communication between deep pools. We
basked in the sunshine, and listened to the deep moan of the sounding
sea, and the solemn murmur of the shells. We drank in the deep breath of
the ocean, and for a brief space we were like happy children.

The end came soon to this ephemeral happiness. It was only one of those
bright coins snatched from the niggard hand of Time which must always be
paid back with usurious charges. We paid with cruel interest.

Standing on a flat rock side by side, I nerved myself to ask this girl
the same question I had asked her friend, Edith Metford, how much she
knew of the extraordinary and preposterous Society--as I still tried to
consider it--which Herbert Brande had founded. She looked so frank, so
refined, so kind, I hardly dared to put my brutal question to an
innocent girl, whom I had seen wince at the suffering of a maimed bird,
and pale to the lips at the death-cry of a rabbit. This time there was
no possibility of untoward consequence in the question save to
myself--for surely the girl was safe from her own brother. And I myself
preferred to risk the consequences rather than endure longer the thought
that she belonged voluntarily to a vile murder club. Yet the question
would not come. A simple thing brought it out. Natalie, after looking
seaward silently for some minutes, said simply:

"How long are we to stand here, I wonder?"

"Until you answer this question. How much do you know about your
brother's Society, which I have joined to my own intense regret?"

"I am sorry you regret having joined," she replied gravely.

"You would not be sorry," said I, "if you knew as much about it as I
do," forgetting that I had still no answer to my question, and that the
extent of her knowledge was unknown to me.

"I believe I do know as much as you." There was a tremor in her voice
and an anxious pleading look in her eyes. This look maddened me. Why
should she plead to me unless she was guilty? I stamped my foot upon the
rock without noticing that in so doing I kicked our whole collection of
shells into the water.

There was something more to ask, but I stood silent and sullen. The
woods above the beach were choral with bird-voices. They were hateful to
me. The sea song of the tumbling waves was hideous. I cursed the yellow
sunset light glaring on their snowy crests. A tiny hand was laid upon my
arm. I writhed under its deadly if delicious touch. But I could not put
it away, nor keep from turning to the sweet face beside me, to mark once
more its mute appeal--now more than mere appeal; it was supplication
that was in her eyes. Her red lips were parted as though they voiced an
unspoken prayer. At last a prayer did pass from them to me.

"Do not judge me until you know me better. Do not hate me without cause.
I am not wicked, as you think. I--I--I am trying to do what I think is
right. At least, I am not selfish or cruel. Trust me yet a little
while."

I looked at her one moment, and then with a sob I clasped her in my
arms, and cried aloud:

"My God! to name murder and that angel face in one breath! Child, you
have been befooled. You know nothing."

For a second she lingered in my embrace. Then she gently put away my
arms, and looking up at me, said fearlessly but sorrowfully:

"I cannot lie--even for your love. I know all."





Next: The Woking Mystery

Previous: A Telepathic Telegram



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