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HOME > Classical Novels > A Traitor in London > CHAPTER II. A SHOT IN THE DARKNESS.
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After many and fervent farewells, the lovers embraced and went home. It was understood that Harold should go to London that evening by the five o\'clock local from Chippingholt, which connected with the express at Langton Junction, some twenty miles away. After seeing his lawyer, he was to write her a full account of the interview, and arrange definitely the details for their marriage. Meanwhile, to set his mind at rest, Brenda promised to see as little of Van Zwieten as possible.

As her father was ill, she was compelled to play the part of hostess--an ungrateful one enough toward a guest she so disliked--but as the Dutchman had arranged to leave next morning, she hoped for so short a time to obey the laws of hospitality, and at the same time keep him at his distance. But even so the situation was a trying one, and Brenda relished it little.

The cottage was an unpretentious little place on the borders of Chippingholt, where the orchards began to stretch toward the woods. Scarse was not well off, and had been fortunate enough to obtain it at quite a nominal rental. He kept a cook and one housemaid, both of whom Brenda looked after; and despite his slender means, his style of living was in every way refined. The largest room in the house had been turned into a study, and here Brenda now found her father buried in blue-books, pamphlets and newspapers.

Scarse was a lean, tall an?mic-looking creature. His hair was quite white, his pallid and wrinkled face clean-shaven, and his whole aspect was one of peevishness and querulousness. In spite of the warmth he had ordered a fire to be lighted, and, wrapped in a llama wool dressing-gown, he crouched over it with the Daily Mail spread out upon his knees. He looked ill and cross, and seemed terribly feeble. Brenda was more than ever certain, now that she saw him, that Harold had been mistaken in thinking it was he whom he had met. He looked, she thought, more fit for bed than for walking.

"Come in, come in," he said in his thin, cantankerous voice. "Shut the door, Brenda; there is quite a draught."

"Are you no better, father?" she asked, coming toward him and taking his hand. Scarse snatched it away.

"Not a bit, my dear. This thing has a hold of me--I am aching all over. Of course it comes just to prevent my speaking at the Trafalgar Square meeting next week!"

"You can send an excuse."

"I can\'t and I won\'t," snapped her father. "This paper shows me how necessary it is for all men to protest against this unjust war, which has been forced upon the Boers. I must speak in favor of that honest, God-fearing band of farmers, who are in danger of being crushed by a capitalist war. I want to see Van Zwieten about this article. It is perfectly scandalous. Where is he?"

"I don\'t know. I\'ve not seen him all the afternoon."

"Is that the way you attend to your guests?"

"He is no guest of mine," cried Brenda, indignantly. "I can\'t bear the man. His mere presence is most objectionable to me."

"You are a foolish, strong-headed girl, Brenda. Van Zwieten wants to marry you, as I have told you, and he is----

"I won\'t marry him. I detest the man."

"And you fancy you are in love with that scamp of a Burton?" said Scarse, frowning.

"Harold is not a scamp, father. He is noble and honest, and everything that is good. I will marry no one but him."

"I shall never give my consent--never!"

"Then I must do without it," replied Brenda, determinedly. "I do not want to behave otherwise than as a daughter should, father, but I love Harold, and I hate Van Zwieten."

"Don\'t be silly," said the M.P., querulously. "Van Zwieten is well off. He is a good match for you. He can give you a good position."

"In the Transvaal, I suppose," scoffed Brenda.

"Yes. And where could you live better than in a new land, where the vices of civilization have not penetrated! I don\'t speak of Johannesburg, that sink of iniquity, but of Pretoria, and of those towns where the Boer element exists pure and simple, With your husband in the Government you can help him to build up an ideal state."

"I don\'t want to build up anything. Harold and I can be happy by ourselves."

"You shall never marry the scamp, I tell you," cried Scarse, angrily. "Let alone his character, which is bad, he is the cousin of that scoundrel Malet, who is a bigoted Imperialist--one who is doing his best to ruin this country by advocating annexation of all and everything. He is one of those who are urging on this war. I hate the man."

"Only because you differ from him in politics."

"No, on other grounds which do not concern you. I know Malet--none better--and I would gladly see him dead."

"Father!" Brenda was amazed at the savage energy of the old man. "What has Mr. Malet done to you that you should hate him so?"

"Never mind! I hate him and I hate that young Burton."

"Well, father," said Brenda, quietly, "you need not have shown it quite so plainly to-day. Harold said you met him this afternoon and cut him." This was a tentative remark, as Brenda was certain her father could not have been out.

"Met Burton!" said he, raising himself angrily. "What do you mean, child?"

"Were you not out to-day?"

"No, I have not left this room."

"But Harold said he saw you with a snuff-colored coat and a crape scarf round your throat. Father!" Brenda shrieked, "what is it?"

She might well ask. Scarse was always pale, but now he was deathly white. He reared himself out of his chair with a look of terror in his eyes. It was in broken sentences he spoke. "Did . . . Harold Burton . . . see me . . . with a crape scarf . . . to-day?"

"Yes, yes; but was it you, father? Why did you wear----"

"Hush! Say no more, Brenda. Go away."

A faint color was coming back to his face, and he began to look more like himself, less like a corpse. Brenda was about to demur at leaving him, but he stopped her with a peremptory gesture. "Go away, Brenda, I say."

"But won\'t you explain----"

"There is nothing to explain; go away."

She was obliged to obey, and reluctantly she left the room. She could not understand her father\'s emotion, nor could she understand the presence in Chippingholt of this man with the crape scarf, who so nearly resembled him as to be mistaken for him by Harold. So far as she knew her father had no relatives. But he had always been very reticent about his family affairs. She knew nothing of his connections or his past life. Her mother she could scarce remember. She had died when Brenda was a tiny child, and ever since that time she had been brought up by strangers far away from home. Up to the age of twenty she had been at a boarding-school, and there she had seen next to nothing of her father. A casual visit on his part, and a few casual questions as to her welfare--her mental welfare chiefly--that represented Brenda\'s experience of the domestic affections and a father\'s love. When she had come of age Scarse had sent for her, and had established her in the cottage at Chippingholt, giving her occasionally a week in London during the season. He retained his bachelor chambers in Start Street, Piccadilly, but never took her there, and ever kept her at arm\'s length when she hungered for sympathy and love. No wonder, then, that in the all-important matter of her marriage she felt no inclination to obey the man who had been to her but a father in name: and no wonder she had fallen in love with Harold Burton, and was bent now on linking her life with his. He was the one human being who had held out to her affection and sympathy, and from him she determined no earthly power should part her. Her father treated her as a pawn on the chessboard of life, to be moved about as best suited his own purpose. She regarded herself as a human being, with the right to consider her own happiness, and to work out her own destiny.

"Never will I marry Van Zwieten," she reiterated to herself as she dressed for dinner. "The man is a tyrant and a brute. Father has done nothing for me that I should sacrifice myself so for him. Together Harold and I will shape a new life for ourselves. If father\'s neglect has done nothing else for me, it has at least made me self-reliant."

As she expected, her father did not appear at dinner, alleging his megrims as the reason for his non-appearance. But Brenda had a very shrewd idea that the appearance of this unknown man, who so resembled him, had more to do with it. She felt sure there was some sort of mystery. Her father\'s life was altogether so secretive. But she did not let it disturb her, and dismissed it from her mind, until a chance remark from Van Zwieten again roused her curiosity.

The Dutchman was tall of stature--well over six feet, and stout in proportion. A well set-up figure assuredly, and what would be termed a fine animal. His hair and beard were of an ochre color, and his sleepy blue eyes, although seeming to observe nothing, on the contrary took in everything. His complexion was delicate as a woman\'s, and he was slow and soft of speech and movement. A casual observer might have set him down as lethargic and small-brained. But Brenda knew that he possessed a fund of energy and cunning and dogged determination which could be exerted to the detriment of those whom his sleepy looks deceived. Those blue eyes could sparkle with fire, that soft, low voice could ring out like a trumpet, and that huge frame could be active and supple as any serpent. Waldo van Zwieten he was called, and he had lived in London now for the past five years.

He spoke three or four languages, especially English, with wonderful purity and fluency. He appeared to have plenty of money, and for the most part devoted himself to cricket as an exhilarating pastime for an idle man. In the capacity of a crack batsman he was highly popular. No one deemed him anything but a lazy foreigner--good-natured, and loving England and the English sufficiently well to become an English subject in all but an official sense. But he had never taken out letters of naturalization.

He was correctly attired now in evening dress, and took his seat at the table in his usual sleepy fashion. His blue eyes rested with a look of admiration on Brenda, whose blonde beauty was more dazzling than ever in her dinner dress of black gauze and silk. She apologized for her father\'s absence, and winced at Van Zwieten\'s compliments.

"You leave me nothing to desire, Miss Scarse," said he. "I could wish for no more delightful position than this."

"Please don\'t," replied Brenda, annoyed. "I\'m sure you would rather talk politics to my father than nonsense to me."

"I never talk nonsense to any one, Miss Scarse; least of all to you. Thank you, I will take claret. By the way, it was rather unwise of Mr. Scarse to go out to-day with this cold upon him."

"He was not out to-day."

"Indeed, I think so. I saw him and spoke to him."

"You spoke to him? Had he a snuff-colored coat and a crape scarf on?"

"No; he was dressed as usual in his tweed suit."

Brenda looked at him sceptically. Her father had denied being out. Yet this man said he had actually spoken with him, but according to him he was not dressed like the man, Harold had described. Could two men be so much alike? And why had her father been so moved when she had related Harold\'s experience?

"Are you sure it was my father you spoke to?" she asked, after a pause.

Van Zwieten flashed a keen glance at her puzzled face, and was evidently as puzzled himself. "I am certain it was Mr. Scarse," he said quietly. "I had no reason to think otherwise. Why do you doubt my word?"

"My father denies having been out."

"In that case I should have said nothing. Mr. Scarse evidently has some reason for his denial. But cannot we select a more pleasant subject of conversation?"

"Such as what?" demanded Brenda, wondering at this sudden change.

"Yourself or Captain Burton. I saw him to-day."

"That is very likely," she replied, quietly divining Van Zwieten\'s intention. "Captain Burton is staying at the \'Chequers Inn.\' At least he was staying there, but he left for London at five."

"Oh, indeed! He must have changed his mind then, for it was after six when I saw him."

"I suppose he is privileged to change his mind," said Brenda. All the same she was puzzled to account for Harold\'s remaining at Chippingholt.

Thwarted in this direction, Van Zwieten tried another. He was bent on making Brenda confess an interest in Burton, so as to lead up to an explanation of his own feelings. "It is strange," said he, slowly, "that Captain Burton does not stay at the Manor."

"Why do you think it strange, Mr. van Zwieten?"

"Ach! is it not strange? His brother Wilfred stays there--he is there now. Mr. Malet is Captain Burton\'s cousin, and he is hospitable--not to me," added he, with a sleepy smile; "Mr. Malet does not like me."

Brenda ignored this last remark. "If you ask Captain Burton for his reasons I have no doubt he will gratify your curiosity," she said coldly.

"Oh, I do not care; it is nothing to me." Van Zwieten paused, then resumed very deliberately, "I do not like Captain Burton."

"Really! The loss is his."

"I do not like Captain Burton," repeated Van Zwieten, "because he likes you."

"What has that to do with me?" asked Brenda, injudiciously.

"Everything. I love you--I want to marry you!"

"You told me all about that, Mr. van Zwieten, and I told you I was unable to marry you. It was agreed that we should drop the subject."

"Captain Burton loves you and wants to marry you," pursued the big man, doggedly, "and so I do not like Captain Burton."

The situation was becoming embarrassing, but the man was evidently acting and speaking with a set purpose. "Please say no more, Mr. van Zwieten," said Brenda, trying to control her temper. Still he went on resolutely.

"When we are married we will see nothing of Captain Burton."

"That will never be. I shall never marry you."

"Oh, yes; your father is willing."

"But I am not." Brenda rose with a glance of anger. "How dare you take advantage of my father\'s absence to insult me?"

"I do not insult you," went on the Dutchman, with a quiet smile. "One does not insult one\'s future wife."

"I would rather die than marry you!" She walked to the door. "You have no right to speak to me like this. I refuse to see you again, and I shall tell my father of your behavior."

She swept out of the room in a fury, feeling herself helpless in the face of the man\'s persistency. Her departure, however, did not ruffle him in the least. He went on eating and smiling as though the interview had ended entirely to his satisfaction. After a good meal he lighted a cigar and went along to Mr. Scarse\'s study. The door was locked. He knocked, but there was no answer.

Van Zwieten was puzzled. There were matters connected with Mr. Scarse which he did not understand, and which he wished very much to understand. After pondering for a few moments, he put on a greatcoat, in spite of the warmth of the night, a smasher hat of the Boer style, and stepped out by the front door. Thence he passed round to the French windows which lighted the study. The blinds were down, and the yellow lamplight shone through them from within. Van Zwieten tried the catch of one window. It yielded, and he slipped into the room. The lamp, fully turned up, was on the table; some papers were spread out on the blotting-pad on the desk, but there was no one in the room. He glanced at the papers, but could gather nothing from them to account for the absence of Scarse. He reflected, and recollected what Brenda had said.

"A snuff-colored coat; a crape scarf!" he mused. "So!" Then he left the room, closed the window after him, and vanished stealthily as a cat into the blackness of the night.

Meanwhile Brenda had gone to her room furious with Van Zwieten and her father--with the former because he would persist in his attentions, with the latter because he exposed her to their annoyance. Not knowing that the Dutchman had gone out, she decided to remain upstairs, so as to avoid meeting him in the drawing-room. But her bedroom was so small, the night so hot, and she felt so restless, that eventually she decided to go up to Holt Manor and see Lady Jenny.

Gilbert\'s wife was a pretty, frivolous woman, with a good heart, a long tongue, and an infinite capacity for wasting money. Malet was devoted to her, and it was common talk that she could twist him round her finger. If she interested herself in the matter there might be a chance still of Harold\'s getting the money. Lady Jenny always declared, in her exaggerated way, that Brenda was the sweetest girl in the world, so, putting on her hat and cloak, Brenda determined to learn whether Lady Jenny really was her friend or merely a society acquaintance.

The night was moonless, hot, and almost without air. What the Scotch call uncanny. All day clouds had been rolling up from the south, and now the sky was an immense mass of bluish-black vapor hanging low over the dry and gasping earth. No breath of wind, no sound of life, human or animal. The earth lay dumb under that tent of gloom. Brenda felt stifled as she took the short way through the orchards. Knowing every inch of the ground, she made no mistake, and was occasionally aided by a vivid flash of lightning, which ran in sheets of sudden flame from east to west.

With her nimble feet and her knowledge of all the short cuts, it took her only twenty minutes to arrive at the Manor. She noted the time--nine o\'clock--for the village chimes rang out as she halted at the porch of the great house. Here she was doomed to disappointment, for Lady Jenny--as the servant informed her--had gone to the Rectory with Mr. Wilfred Burton.

"Mr. Malet went out for a stroll too, miss," said the butler, who knew her very well; "but any message----"

"Oh, no message, Roberts," said Brenda, hurriedly; "that is--I will call on Lady Jenny to-morrow. Good-night."

"Won\'t you have an umbrella, miss? It looks stormy."

"No, thank you; I shall no doubt reach home before the storm breaks. Good-night."

But she was wrong in thinking so. Hardly had she left the park gates when the storm came. A blue zig-zag flared across the dark sky, there was a crash of thunder, and on the wings of a bitterly cold wind came the rain. The storm was tropical in its suddenness and fury. The wind struck Brenda like a solid mass, and she had to grasp the trunk of an apple-tree near by to keep her feet. With a hiss and a shriek the rain shot down--one deluge of water, as though the windows of heaven were opened as in the days of Noah\'s flood. A furious wind tore at the tree-tops, rending boughs, clashing the branches together, and sending a myriad leaves flying abroad like swarms of bees. The drenching rain spattered and drummed on the woods, and in the open was driven in slanting masses of water by the force of the blast. Anxious to get under shelter, and terrified by the fierce lightning, Brenda kilted up her skirts and ran blindly through the trees at the risk of breaking her head. Her feet squelched in the soaking grass, and she was shaken and driven like a leaf by the furious gusts. Still on she stumbled in a dazed condition. It was a witch storm, and the powers of hell rode on the flying clouds.

Suddenly her foot tripped, and she fell full length on the grass, which was more like a morass. As she struggled to her knees the heavens overhead broke out in one dazzling sheet of flame, which for the moment threw a noonday light on the scene. There, under a tree, but a short distance away, Brenda saw a tall, dark, bulky figure standing. Hardly had the darkness shut down again when she heard a startled cry. Then a shot rang out with terrible distinctness, and then again the roaring of the tempest. Hardly knowing what she was doing, Brenda got on her feet, shaking and terrified. She ran forward. A second flare of lightning lighted the orchards with hell-fire, livid and blue. Almost at her feet she saw the body of a man. There came another deafening crash of thunder, and she staggered. A moment later and she lay senseless across the body of the unknown man shot in the darkness by an unknown hand.

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