Read CHAPTER XIV - A SICILIAN KNIFE of The Dictator , free online book, by Justin McCarthy, on ReadCentral.com.

The day had come when the Dictator was to dine with that ’happy warrior,’ the Soldier of Fortune.

Captain Sarrasin and his wife lived in an old-fashioned house on the farther fringe of Clapham Common. The house was surrounded by trees, and had a pretty lawn, not as well kept as it might be, for Captain Sarrasin and his wife were wanderers, and did not often make any long stay at their home in the southern suburbs of London. There were many Scotch firs among the trees on the lawn, and there was a tiny pool within the grounds which had a tinier islet on its surface, and on the tiny islet a Scotch fir stood all alone. The place had been left to Mrs. Sarrasin years and years ago, and it suited her and her husband very well. It kept them completely out of the way of callers and of a society for which they had neither of them any manner of inclination. Mrs. Sarrasin never remained actually in town while she was in London indeed, she seldom went into London, and when she did she always, however late the hour, returned to her Clapham house. Sarrasin often had occasion to stay in town all night, but whenever he could get away in time he was fond of tramping the whole distance say, from Paulo’s Hotel to the farther side of Clapham Common. He loved a night walk, he said.

Business and work apart, he and his wife were company for each other. They had no children. One little girl had just been shown to the light of day it could not have seen the daylight with its little closed-up eyes doomed never to open and then it was withdrawn into darkness. They never had another child. When a pair are thus permanently childless, the effect is usually shown in one of two ways. They both repine and each secretly grumbles at the other or if one only repines, that comes to much the same thing in the end or else they are both drawn together with greater love and tenderness than ever. All the love which the wife would have given to the child is now concentrated on the husband, and all the love the husband would have given to the infant is stored up for the wife. A first cause of difference, or of coldness, or of growing indifference between a married pair is often on the birth of the first child. If the woman is endowed with intense maternal instinct she becomes all but absorbed in the child, and the husband, kept at a little distance, feels, rightly or wrongly, that he is not as much to her as he was before. Before, she was his companion; now she has got someone else to look after and to care about. It is a crisis which sensible and loving people soon get over but all people cannot be loving and sensible at once and always and there does sometimes form itself the beginning of a certain estrangement. This probably would not have happened in the case of the Sarrasins, but certainly if they had had children Mrs. Sarrasin would no longer have been able to pad about the round world wherever her husband was pleased to ask her to accompany him. If in her heart there were now and again some yearnings for a child, some pangs of regret that a child had not been given to her or left with her, she always found ready consolation in the thought that she could not have been so much to her husband had the Fates imposed on her the sweet and loving care of children.

The means of the Sarrasins were limited; but still more limited were their wants. She had a small income he had a small income the two incomes put together did not come to very much. But it was enough for the Sarrasins; and few married couples of middle age ever gave themselves less trouble about money. They were able to go abroad and join some foreign enterprise whenever they felt called that way, and, poor as he was, Sarrasin was understood to have helped with his purse more than one embarrassed cause or needy patriot. The chief ornaments and curios of their house were weapons of all kinds, each with some story labelled on to it. Captain Sarrasin displayed quite a collection of the uniforms he had worn in many a foreign army and insurgent band, and of the decorations he had received and doubtless well earned. Mrs. Sarrasin, for her part, could show anyone with whom she cared to be confidential a variety of costumes in which she had disguised herself, and in which she had managed either to escape from some danger, or, more likely yet, to bring succour of some sort to others who were in danger.

Mrs. Sarrasin was a woman of good family a family in the veins of which flowed much wild blood. Some of the men had squandered everything early, and then gone away and made adventurers of themselves here and there. Certain of these had never returned to civilisation again. With the women the wild strain took a different line. One became an explorer, one founded a Protestant sisterhood for woman’s missionary labour, and diffused itself over India, and Thibet, and Burmah, and other places. A third lived with her husband in perpetual yachting no one on board but themselves and the crew. A steady devotion to some one object which had nothing to do with the conventional purposes or ambitions or comforts of society, was the general characteristic of the women of that family. None of them took to mere art or literature or woman’s suffrage. Mrs. Sarrasin fell in love with her husband, and devoted herself to his wild, wandering, highly eccentric career.

Mrs. Sarrasin was a tall and stately woman, with an appearance decidedly aristocratic. She had rather square shoulders, and that sort of repression or suppression of the bust which conies of a woman’s occupying herself much in the more vigorous pursuits and occupations which habitually belong to a man. Mrs. Sarrasin could ride like a man as well as like a woman, and in many a foreign enterprise she had adopted man’s clothing regularly. Yet there was nothing actually masculine about her appearance or her manners, and she had a very sweet and musical voice, which much pleased the ears of the Dictator.

Oisin mentioned the fact of his wife’s frequent appearance in man’s dress with an air of pride in her versatility.

‘Oh, but I haven’t done that for a long time,’ she said, with a light blush rising to her pale cheek. ’I haven’t been out of my petticoats for ever so long. But I confess I did sometimes enjoy a regular good gallop on a bare-backed horse, and riding-habits won’t do for that.’

‘Few men can handle a rifle as that woman can,’ Sarrasin remarked, with another gleam of pride in his face.

The Dictator expressed his compliments on the lady’s skill in so many manly exercises, but he had himself a good deal of the old-fashioned prejudice against ladies who could manage a rifle and ride astride.

‘All I have done,’ Mrs. Sarrasin said, ’was to take the commands of my husband and be as useful as I could in the way he thought best. I am not for Woman’s Rights, Mr. Ericson I am for wives obeying their husbands, and as much as possible effacing themselves.’

The Dictator did not quite see that following one’s husband to the wars in man’s clothes was exactly an act of complete self-effacement on the part of a woman. But he could see at a glance that Mrs. Sarrasin was absolutely serious and sincere in her description of her own condition and conduct. There was not the slightest hint of the jocular about her.

‘You must have had many most interesting and extraordinary experiences,’ the Dictator said. ’I hope you will give an account of them to the world some day.’

‘I am already working hard,’ Mrs. Sarrasin said, ’putting together materials for the story of my husband’s life not mine; mine would be poor work indeed. I am in my proper place when I am acting as his secretary and his biographer.’

‘And such a memory as she has,’ Sarrasin exclaimed. ’I assure your Excellency’ Ericson made a gesture as if to wave away the title, which seemed to him ridiculous under present circumstances, but Sarrasin, with a movement of polite deprecation, repeated the formality ’I assure your Excellency that she remembers lots of things happening to me ’

‘Or done by you,’ the lady interposed.

‘Well, or done by me; things that had wholly passed out of my memory.’

‘Quite natural,’ Mrs. Sarrasin observed, blandly, ’that you should forget them, and that I should remember them.’ There was something positively youthful about the smile that lighted up her face as she said the words, and Ericson noticed that she had a peculiarly sweet and winning smile, and that her teeth could well bear the brightest light of day. Ericson began to grow greatly interested in her, and to think that if she was a little of an oddity it was a pity we had not a good many other oddity women going round.

’I should like to see what you are doing with your husband’s career, Mrs. Sarrasin,’ he said, ’if you would be kind enough to let me see. I have been something of a literary man myself was at one time and I delight in seeing a book in some of its early stages. Besides, I have been a wanderer and even a fighter myself, and perhaps I might be able to make a suggestion or two.’

’I shall be only too delighted. Now, Oisin, my love, you must not object. His Excellency knows well that you are a modest man by nature, and do not want to have anything made of what you have done; but as he wishes to see what I am doing ’

‘Whatever his Excellency pleases,’ Captain Sarrasin said, with a grave bow.

‘Dinner is served,’ the man-servant announced at this critical moment.

‘You shall see it after dinner,’ Mrs. Sarrasin said, as she took the Dictator’s arm, and led him rather than accompanied him out of the drawing-room and down the stairs.

‘What charming water-colours!’ the Dictator said, as he noticed some pictures hung on the wall of the stairs.

’Oh, these? I am so pleased that you like them. I am very fond of drawing; it often amuses me and helps to pass away the time. You see, I have no children to look after, and Oisin is a good deal away.’

‘Not willingly, I am sure.’

’No, no, not willingly. Dear Oisin, he has always my approval in everything he does. He is my child my one child my big child so I tell him often.’

’But these water-colours. I really must have a good look at them by-and-by. And they are so prettily and tastefully framed so unlike the sort of frame one commonly sees in London houses.’

‘The frames yes well, I make them to please myself and Oisin.’

‘You make them yourself.’

’Oh, yes; I am fond of frame-making, and doing all sorts of jobs of that kind.’

By this time they had reached the dining-room. It was a very pretty little room, its walls not papered, but painted a soft amber colour. No pictures were on the walls.

‘I like the idea of your walls,’ Ericson said. ’The walls are themselves the decoration.’

‘Yes,’ she said, ’that was exactly our idea let the colour be the decoration; but I don’t know that I ever heard anyone discover the idea before. People generally ask me why I don’t have pictures on the dining-room walls, and then I have to explain as well as I can that the colour is decoration enough.’

’And then, I suppose, some of them look amazed, and can’t understand how you ’

‘Oh, indeed, yes,’ she answered.

The dinner was simple and unpretentious, but excellent, almost perfect in its way. A clear soup, a sole, an entree or two, a bit of venison, a sweet with good wines, but not too many of them.

‘You have a good cook, Mrs. Sarrasin,’ the Dictator said.

’I am made proud by your saying so. We don’t keep a cook I do it all myself am very fond of cooking.’

The Dictator looked round at her in surprise. Was this a jest? Oh, no; there was no jesting expression on Mrs. Sarrasin’s face. She was merely making a statement of fact. Ericson began to suspect that the one thing which the lady had least capacity for making, or, perhaps, for understanding, was a jest. But he was certainly amazed at the versatility of her accomplishments, and he frankly told her so.

‘You see, we have but a small income,’ she explained quietly, ’and I like to do all I can; and Oisin likes my cookery he is used to it. We only keep two maids and this man’ alluding to the momentarily absent attendant ’and he was an old soldier of Oisin’s. I will tell you his story some time it is interesting in its way.’

‘I think everything in this house is interesting,’ the Dictator declared in all sincerity.

Captain Sarrasin talked but little. He was quite content to hear his wife talk with the Dictator and to know that she was pleased, and to believe that the Dictator was pleased with her. That, however, he assumed as a matter of course everybody must be pleased with that woman.

After dinner the Dictator studied the so-called autobiography. It was a marvellously well-ordered piece of composition as far as it went. It was written in the neatest of manuscript, and had evidently been carefully copied and re-copied so that the volume now in his hands was about as good as any print. It was all chaptered and paged most carefully. It was rich with capital pencil sketches and even with etchings. There was no trace of any other hand but the one that he could find out in the whole volume. He greatly admired the drawings and etchings.

‘These are yours, of course?’ he said, turning his eyes on Mrs. Sarrasin.

’Oh, yes; I like to draw for this book. I hope it will have a success. Do you think it will?’ she asked wistfully.

‘A success in what way, Mrs. Sarrasin? Do you mean a success in money?’

’Oh, no; we don’t care about that. I suppose it will cost us some money.’

’I fancy it will if you have all these illustrations, and of course you will?’

’Yes, I want them to be in, because I think I can show what danger my husband has been in better with my pencil than with my pen I am a poor writer.’

‘Then the work is really all your own?’

’Oh, yes; he has no time; I could not have him worried. It is my wish altogether, and he yields to it only to please me. He does not care in the least for publicity I do, for him.’

The Dictator began to be impressed, for the first time, by a recognition of the fact that an absence of the sacred gift of humour is often a great advantage to mortal happiness, and even to mortal success. There was clearly and obviously a droll and humorous side to the career and the companionship of Captain Sarrasin and his wife. How easy it would be to make fun of them both! perhaps of her more especially. Cheap cynicism could hardly find in the civilised world a more ready and defenceless spoil. Suppose, then, that Sarrasin or his wife had either of them any of the gift if it be a gift and not a curse which turns at once to the ridiculous side of things, where would this devoted pair have been? Why, of course they would have fallen out long ago. Mrs. Sarrasin would soon have seen that her husband was a ridiculous old Don Quixote sort of person, whom she was puffing and booming to an unconscionable degree, and whom people were laughing at. Captain Sarrasin would have seen that his wife was unconsciously ‘bossing the show,’ and while professing to act entirely under his command was really doing everything for him was writing his life while declaring to everybody that he was writing it himself. Now they were like two children like brother and sister wrapped up in each other, hardly conscious of any outer world, or, perhaps, still more like two child-lovers like Paul and Virginia grown old in years, but not in feelings. The Dictator loved humour, but he began to feel just now rather glad that there were some mortals who did not see the ridiculous side of life. He felt curiously touched and softened.

Suddenly the military butler came in and touched his forehead with a sort of military salute.

‘Telegram for his Excellency,’ he said gravely.

Ericson took the telegram. ‘May I?’ he asked of Mrs. Sarrasin, who made quite a circuitous bow of utter assent.

Ericson read.

’Will you meet me to-night at eleven, on bridge, St. James’s Park. Have special reason. Hamilton.’

Ericson was puzzled.

‘This is curious,’ he said, looking up at his two friends. ’This is a telegram from my friend and secretary and aide-de-camp, and I don’t know what else Hamilton asking me to meet him in St. James’s Park, on the bridge, at eleven o’clock. Now, that is a place I am fond of going to and Hamilton has gone there with me but why he should want to meet me there and not at home rather puzzles me.’

‘Perhaps,’ Captain Sarrasin suggested, ’there is someone coming to see you at your hotel later on, for whose coming Mr. Hamilton wishes to prepare you.’

‘Yes, I have thought of that,’ Ericson said meditatively; ’but then he signs himself in an odd sort of way.’

‘Eh, how is that?’ Sarrasin asked. ’It is his name, surely, is it not Hamilton?’

’Yes, but I had got into a way years ago of always calling him “the Boy,” and he got into a way of signing himself “Boy” in all our confidential communications, and I haven’t for years got a telegram from him that wasn’t signed “Boy."’

Mrs. Sarrasin sent a flash of her eyes that was like a danger signal to her husband. He at once understood, and sent another signal to her.

‘Of course I must go,’ Ericson said. ’Whatever Hamilton does, he has good reason for doing. One can always trust him in that.’

Captain Sarrasin was about to interpose something in the way of caution, but his wife flashed another signal at him, and he shut up.

‘And so I must go,’ the Dictator said, ’and I am sorry. I have had a very happy evening; but you will ask me again, and I shall come, and we shall be good friends. Shall we not, Mrs. Sarrasin?’

‘I hope so,’ said the lady gravely. ’We are devoted to your Excellency, and may perhaps have a chance of proving it one day.’

The Dictator had a little brougham from Paulo’s waiting for him. He took a kindly leave of his host and hostess. He lifted Mrs. Sarrasin’s long, strong, slender hand in his, and bent over it, and put it to his lips. He felt drawn towards the pair in a curious way, and he felt as if they belonged to a different age from ours as if Sarrasin ought to have been another Goetz of Berlichingen, about whom it would have been right to say, ‘So much the worse for the age that misprizes thee’; as if she were the mail-clad wife of Count Robert of Paris.

When he had gone, up rose Mrs. Sarrasin and spake:

‘Now, then, Oisin, let us go.’

‘Where shall we go?’ Oisin asked rather blankly.

‘After him, of course.’

‘Yes, of course, you are quite right,’ Sarrasin said, suddenly waking up at the tone of her voice to what he felt instinctively must be her view of the seriousness of the situation. ’You don’t believe, my love, that that telegram came from Hamilton?’

’Why, dearest, of course I don’t believe it it is some plot, and a very clumsy plot too; but we must take measures to counterplot it.’

‘We must follow him to the ground.’

‘Of course we must.’

‘Shall I bring a revolver?’

’Oh, no; this will be only a case of one man. We shall simply appear at the right time.’

‘You always know what to do,’ Sarrasin exclaimed.

‘Because I have a husband who has always taught me what to do,’ she replied fervently.

Then the military butler was sent for a hansom cab, and Sarrasin and his wife were soon spinning on their way to St. James’s Park. They had ample time to get there before the appointed moment, and nothing would be done until the appointed moment came. They drove to St. James’s Park, and they dismissed their cab and made quickly for the bridge over the pond. It was not a moonlight night, but it was not clouded or hazy. It was what sailors would call a clear dark night. There was only one figure on the bridge, and that they felt sure was the figure of the Dictator. Mrs. Sarrasin had eyes like a lynx, and she could even make out his features.

‘Is it he?’ Sarrasin asked in a whisper. He had keen sight himself, but he preferred after long experience to trust to the eyes of his wife.

‘It is he,’ she answered; ‘now we shall see.’

They sat quietly side by side on a bench under the dark trees a little away from the bridge. Nobody could easily see them no one passing through the park or bound on any ordinary business would be likely to pay any attention to them even if he did see them. It was no part of Mrs. Sarrasin’s purpose that they should be so placed as to be absolutely unnoticeable. If Mr. Hamilton should appear on the bridge she would then simply touch Sarrasin’s arm, and they would quietly get up and go home together. But suppose what she fully expected that someone should appear who was not Hamilton, and should make for the bridge, and in passing should see her husband and her, and thereupon should slink off in another direction, then she should have seen the man, and could identify him among a thousand for ever after. In that event Sarrasin and she could then consider what was next to be done whether to go at once to Ericson and tell him of what they had seen, or to wait there and keep watch until he had gone away, and then follow quietly in his track until they had seen him safely home. One thing Mrs. Sarrasin had made up her mind to: if there was any assassin plot at all, and she believed there was, it would be a safe and certain assassination tried when no watching eyes were near.

The Dictator meanwhile was leaning over the bridge and looking into the water. He was not thinking much about the water, or the sky, or the scene. He was not as yet thinking even of whether Hamilton was coming or not. He was, of course, a little puzzled by the terms of Hamilton’s telegram, but there might be twenty reasons why Hamilton should wish to meet him before he reached home, and as Hamilton knew well his fancy for night lounges on that bridge, and as the park lay fairly well between Captain Sarrasin’s house and the region of Paulo’s Hotel, it seemed likely enough that Hamilton might select it as a convenient place of meeting. In any case, the Dictator was not by nature a suspicious man, and he was not scared by any thoughts of plots, and mystifications, and personal danger. He was a fatalist in a certain sense not in the religious, but rather in the physical sense. He had a sort of wild-grown, general thought that man is sent into the world to do a certain work, and that while he is useful for that work he is not likely to be sent away from it. This was, perhaps, only an effect of temperament, although he found himself often trying to palm it off on himself as philosophy.

So he was not troubling himself much about the doubtful nature of the telegram. Hamilton would come and explain it, and if Hamilton did not come there would be some other explanation. He began to think about quite other things he found himself thinking of the bright eyes and the friendly, frank, caressing ways of Helena Langley.

The Dictator began somehow to realise the fact that he had hitherto been leading a very lonely life. He was seldom alone had seldom been alone for many years; but he began to understand the difference between not being alone and being lonely. During all his working career his life had wanted that companionship which alone is companionship to a man of sensitive nature. He had been too busy in his time in Gloria to think about all this. The days had gone by him with a rush. Each day brought its own sudden and vivid interest. Each day had its own decisions to be formed, its own plans to be made, its own difficulties to be encountered, its own struggles to be fought out. Ericson had delighted in it all, as a splendid exhilarating game. But now, in his enforced retirement and comparative restlessness, he looked back upon it and thought how lonely it all was. When each day closed he had no one to whom he could tell all his thoughts about what the day had done or what the next day was likely to bring forth. Someone has written about the ’passion of solitude’ not meaning the passion for solitude, the passion of the saint and the philosopher and the anchorite to be alone and to commune with outer nature or one’s inner thought no, no, but the passion of solitude the raging passion born of solitude which craves and cries out in agony for the remedy of companionship of some sweet and loved and trusted companionship like the fond and futile longing of the childless mother for a child.

Eleven! The strokes of the hour rang out from Big Ben in the Clock Tower of Westminster Palace the Parliament House of which Ericson, in his collegiate days, had once made it his ambition to be a member. The sound of the strokes recalled his mind for the moment to those early days, when the ambition for a seat in Parliament had been the very seamark of his utmost sail. How different his life had been from what his early ideas would have constructed it! And now was it all over? Had his active career closed? Was he never again to have his chance in Gloria in Gloria which he had almost begun to love as a bride? Or was he failing in his devotion to his South American Dulcinea del Toboso? Was the love of a mortal woman coming in to distract him from his love to that land with an immortal future?

It pleased him and tantalised him thus to question himself and find himself unable to give the answers. But he bore in mind the fact that Hamilton, the most punctual of living men, was not quite punctual this time. He turned his keen eyes upon the Clock Tower, and could see that during his purposeless reflections quite five minutes had passed. ‘Something has happened,’ he thought. ’Hamilton is certainly not coming. If he meant to keep the appointment he would have been here waiting for me five minutes before the time. Well, I’ll give him five minutes more, and then I’ll go.’

Several persons had passed him in the meanwhile. They were the ordinary passengers of the night time. The milliner’s apprentice took leave of her lover and made for her home in one of the smaller streets about Broad Sanctuary. The artisan, who had been enjoying a drink in one of the public-houses near the Park, was starting for his home on the south side of the river. Occasionally some smart man came from St. James’s Street to bury himself in his flat in Queen Anne’s Mansions. A belated Tommy Atkins crossed the bridge to make for the St. James’s Barracks. One or two of the daughters of folly went loungingly by wandering, not altogether purposeless, among the open roads of the Park. None of all these had taken any notice of the Dictator.

Suddenly a step was heard near, just as the Dictator was turning to go, and even at that moment he noticed that several persons had quite lately passed, and that this was the first moment when the place was solitary, and a thought flashed through his mind that this might be Hamilton, who had waited for an opportunity. He turned round, and saw that a short and dapper-looking man had come up close beside him. The man leaned over the bridge.

‘A fine night, governor,’ he said.

‘A very fine night,’ Ericson said cheerily, and he was turning to go away.

‘No offence in talking to you, I hope, governor?’

‘Not the least in the world,’ Ericson said. ’Why should there be? Why shouldn’t you talk to me?’

‘Some gents are so stuck-up, don’t you know.’

‘Well, I am not very much stuck-up,’ Ericson said, much amused; ’but I am not quite certain whether I exactly know what stuck-up means.’

‘Why, where do you come from?’ the stranger asked in amazement.

’I have been out of England for many years. I have come from South America.’

’No you don’t mean that! Why, that beats all! Look here I have a brother in South America.

‘South America is a large place. Where is your brother?’

’Well, I’ve got a letter from him here. I wonder if you could tell me the name of the place. I can’t make it out myself.’

‘I dare say I can,’ said Ericson carelessly. ’Come under this gas-lamp and let me see your letter.’ The man fumbled in his pocket and drew out a folded letter. He had something else in his hand, as the keen eyes of the watching Mrs. Sarrasin could very well see.

‘Another second,’ she whispered to her husband.

The Dictator took the letter good-naturedly, and began to open it under the light of the lamp which hung over the bridge. The stranger was standing just behind him. The place was otherwise deserted.

‘Now,’ Mrs. Sarrasin whispered.

Then Captain Sarrasin strode forward and seized the stranger by the shoulder with one hand, and by his right arm with another.

‘What are you a-doin’ of?’ the stranger asked angrily.

’Well, I want to know who you are in the first place. I beg your Excellency’s pardon for intruding on you, but my wife and I happened to be here, and we just came up as this person was talking to you, and we want to know who he is.’

’Captain Sarrasin! Mrs. Sarrasin! Where have you turned up from? Tell me have you really been benignly shadowing me all this way?’ Ericson asked with a smile. ’There isn’t the slightest danger, I can assure you. This man merely asked me a civil question.’

The civil man, meanwhile, was wrestling and wriggling under Sarrasin’s grip. He was wrestling and wriggling all in vain.

‘You let me go,’ the man exclaimed, in a tone of righteous indignation. ‘You hain’t nothin’ to do with me.’

‘I must first see what you have got there in your hand,’ Sarrasin said. ‘See there it is! Look here, your Excellency look at that knife!’

Sarrasin took from the man’s hand a short, one-bladed, delicately-shaped, and terrible knife. It might be trusted to pierce its way at a single touch, not to say stroke, into the heart of any victim.

‘That’s the knife I use at my trade,’ the man exclaimed indignantly. ’I am a ladies’ slipper-maker, and that’s the knife I use for cutting into the leathers, because it cuts clean, don’t you see, and makes no waste. Lord bless you, governor, what a notion you have got into your ’ead! I shall amuse my old woman when I tell her.’

‘Why did you have the knife in your hand?’ Sarrasin sternly asked.

’Took it out, governor, jest by chance when I was taking put the letter.’

‘You don’t carry a knife like that open in your pocket,’ Sarrasin said sternly. ’It closes up, I suppose, or else you have a sheath for it. Oh, yes, I see the spring it closes this way and I think I have seen this pretty sort of weapon before. Well, look here, you don’t carry that sort of toy open in your pocket, you know. How did it come open?’

‘Blest if I know, governor you are all a-puzzlin’ of me.’

‘Show me the knife,’ the Dictator said, taking for the first time some genuine interest in the discussion.

‘Look at it,’ Sarrasin said. ‘Don’t give it back to him.’

The Dictator took the knife in his hand, and, touching the spring with the manner of one who understood it, closed and opened the weapon several times.

‘I know the knife very well,’ he said; ’it has been brought into South America a good deal, but I believe it is Sicilian to begin with. Look here, my man, you say you are a ladies’ slipper-maker?’

‘Of course I am. Ain’t I told you so?’

‘Whom do you work for?’

‘Works for myself, governor.’

‘Where is your shop?’

‘Down in the East End, don’t you know?’

‘I want to talk to you about the East End,’ Mrs. Sarrasin struck in with her musical, emphatic voice. ‘Tell me exactly where you live.’

‘Out Whitechapel way.’

’But please tell me the exact place. I happen to know Whitechapel pretty well.’

‘Off Whitechapel Road there.’

‘Where?’

He made a sulky effort to evade. Mrs. Sarrasin was not to be so easily evaded.

‘Tell me,’ she said, ’the name of the street you live in, and the name of any streets near to it, and how they lie with regard to each other. Come, don’t think about it, but tell me; you must know where you live and work.’

‘I don’t want to have you puzzlin’ and worritin’ me.’

’Can you tell me where this street is’ she named a street ’or this court, or that hospital, or the nearest omnibus stand to the hospital?’

No, he didn’t remember any of these places; he had enough to do mindin’ of his work.

‘This man doesn’t live in Whitechapel,’ Mrs. Sarrasin said composedly. She put on no air of triumph she never put on any airs of triumph or indeed airs of any kind.

‘Well, there ain’t no crime in giving a wrong address,’ the man said. ’What business have you with where I live? You don’t pay for my lodging, anyhow.’

‘Where were you born?’ Mrs. Sarrasin asked.

‘Why, in London, to be sure.’

‘In the East End?’

‘So I’m told I don’t myself remember.’

‘Well, look here, will you just say a few words after me?’

‘I ain’t got no pertickler objection.’

The cross-examination now had passed wholly into the hands of Mrs. Sarrasin. Captain Sarrasin looked on with wonder and delight Ericson was really interested and amused.

‘Say these words.’ She repeated slowly, and giving him plenty of time to get the words into his ears and his mind, a number of phrases in which the peculiar accent and pronunciation of the born Whitechapel man were certain to come out. Ericson, of course, comprehended the meaning of the whole performance. The East End man hesitated.

‘I ain’t here for playing tricks,’ he mumbled. ’I want to be getting home to my old woman.’

‘Look here,’ Sarrasin said, angrily interfering. ’You just do as you are told, or I’ll whistle for a policeman and give you into custody, and then everything about you will come out or, by Jove, I’ll take you up and drop you into that pond as if you were a blind kitten! Answer the lady at once, you confounded scoundrel!’

The small eyes of the Whitechapel man flashed fire for an instant a fire that certainly is not common to Cockney eyes and he made a sudden grasp at his pocket.

‘See there!’ Sarrasin exclaimed. ‘The ladies’ slipper-maker is grasping for his knife, and forgets that we have got it in our possession.’

‘This is certainly becoming interesting,’ Ericson said. ’It is much more interesting than most plays that I have lately seen. Now, then, recite after the lady, or confess thyself.’

It had not escaped the notice of the Dictator that when once or twice some wayfarer passed along the bridge or on one of the near-lying paths the maker of ladies’ slippers did not seem in the least anxious to attract attention. He appeared, in fact, to be the one of the whole party who was most eager to withdraw himself from the importunate notice of the casual passer-by. A man conscious of no wrong done or planned by him, and unjustly bullied and badgered by three total strangers, would most assuredly have leaped at the chance of appealing to the consideration and the help of the passing citizen.

Mrs. Sarrasin remorselessly repeated her test words, and the man repeated them after her.

‘That will do,’ she said contemptuously; ’the man was never born in Whitechapel his East End accent is mere gotten up stage-play.’ Then she spoke some rapid words to her husband in a patois which Ericson did not understand. The Whitechapel man’s eyes flashed fire again.

‘You see,’ she said to the Dictator, ’he understands me! I have been saying in Sicilian patois that he is a hired assassin born in England of Sicilian parents, and brought up, probably, near Snow Hill and this Whitechapel gentleman understood every word I said! If you give him the alternative of going to the nearest police-station and being charged, or of talking Sicilian patois with me, you will see that he prefers the alternative of a conversation in Sicilian patois with me.

‘I propose that we let him go,’ the Dictator said decisively. ’We have no evidence against him, except that he carries a peculiar knife, and that he is, as you say, of Sicilian parents.’

‘Your Excellency yourself gave me the hint I acted on,’ Mrs. Sarrasin said deferentially, ’when you made the remark that the knife was Sicilian. I spoke on mere guess-work, acting on that hint.’

‘And you were right, as you always are,’ Captain Sarrasin struck in with admiring eyes fixed on his wife.

‘Well, he is a poor creature, anyhow,’ the Dictator said and he spoke now to his friends in Spanish ’and not much up to his work. If he were worth anything in his own line of business he might have finished the job with that knife instead of stopping to open a conversation with me.’

‘But he has been set on by someone to do this job,’ Sarrasin said, ’and we might get to know who is the someone that set him on.’

‘We shall not know from him,’ the Dictator replied; ’he probably does not know who are the real movers. No; if there is anything serious to come it will come from better hands than his. No, my dear and kind friends, we can’t get any further with him. Let the creature go. Let him tell his employers, whoever they are, that I don’t scare, as the Americans say, worth a cent. If they have any real assassins to send on, let them come; this fellow won’t do; and I can’t have paragraphs in the papers to say that I took any serious alarm from a creature who, with such a knife in his hand, could not, without a moment’s parley, make it do his work.’

‘The man is a hired assassin,’ Sarrasin declared.

‘Very likely,’ the Dictator replied calmly; ’but we can’t convict him of it, and we had better let him go his blundering way.’ The Dictator had meanwhile been riveting his eyes on the face of the captive if we may call him so anxious to find out from his expression whether he understood Spanish. If he seemed to understand Spanish then the affair would be a little more serious. It might lead to the impression that he was really mixed up in South American affairs, and that he fancied he had partisan wrongs to avenge. But the man’s face remained imperturbable. He evidently understood nothing. It was not even, the Dictator felt certain, that he had been put on his guard by his former lapse into unlucky consciousness when Mrs. Sarrasin tried him and trapped him with the Sicilian patois. No, there was a look of dull curiosity on his face, and that was all.

‘We’ll keep the knife?’ Sarrasin asked.

’Yes; I think you had better keep the knife. It may possibly come in as a piece de justification one of these days. What’s the value of your knife?’ he asked in English, suddenly turning on the captive with a stern voice and manner that awed the creature.

‘It’s well worth a quid, governor.’

’Yes; I should think it was. There’s a quid and a half for you, and go your ways. We have agreed my friends and I to let you off this time, although we have every reason to believe that you meant murder.’

‘Oh, governor!’

‘If you try it again,’ the Dictator said, ’you will forfeit your life whether you succeed or fail. Now get away and set us free from your presence.’

The man ran along the road leading eastward ran with the speed of some hunted animal, the path re-echoing to the sound of his flying feet. Ericson broke into a laugh.

‘You have in all probability saved my life,’ the Dictator said. ’You two ’

‘All her doing,’ Sarrasin interposed.

‘I think I understand it all,’ Ericson went on. ’I have no doubt this was meant as an attempt. But it was a very bungling first attempt. The planners, whoever they were, were anxious first of all to keep themselves as far as possible out of responsibility and suspicion, and instead of hiring a South American bravo, and so in a manner bringing it home to themselves, they merely picked up and paid an ordinary Sicilian stabber who had no heart in the matter, who probably never heard of me before in all his life, and had no partisan hatred to drive him on. So he dallied, and bungled; and then you two intervened, and his game was hopeless. He’ll not try it again, you may be sure.’

‘No, he probably has had enough of it,’ Captain Sarrasin said; ’and of course he has got his pay beforehand. But someone else will.’

‘Very likely,’ the Dictator said carelessly. ’They will manage it on a better plan next time.’

‘We must have better plans, too,’ Sarrasin said warmly.

’How can we? The only wise thing in such affairs is to take the ordinary and reasonable precautions that any sane man takes who has serious business to do in life, and then not to trouble oneself any further. Anyhow, I owe to you both, dear friends,’ and the Dictator took a hand of each in one of his, ’a deep debt of gratitude. And now I propose that we consider the whole incident as vide, and that we go forthwith to Paulo’s and have a pleasant supper there and summon up the boy Hamilton, even should he be in bed, and ask him how he came to send out telegrams for belated meetings in St. James’s Park, and have a good time to repay us for our loss of an hour and the absurdity of our adventure. Come, Mrs. Sarrasin, you will not refuse my invitation?’

‘Excellency, certainly not.’

‘You can stay in the hotel, dear,’ Sarrasin suggested.

‘Yes, I should like that best,’ she said.

‘They won’t expect you at home?’ the Dictator asked.

‘They never expect us,’ Mrs. Sarrasin answered with her usual sweet gravity. ’When we are coming we let them know if we do not we are never to be expected. My husband could not manage his affairs at all if we were to have to look out for being expected.’

‘You know how to live your life, Mrs. Sarrasin,’ the Dictator said, much interested.

‘I have tried to learn the art,’ she said modestly.

‘It is a useful branch of knowledge,’ Ericson answered, ’and one of the least cultivated by men or women, I think.’

They were moving along at this time. They crossed the bridge and passed by Marlborough House, and so got into Pall Mall.

‘How shall we go?’ the Dictator asked, glancing at the passing cabs, some flying, some crawling.

‘Four-wheeler?’ Sarrasin suggested tentatively.

‘No; I don’t seem to be in humour for anything slow and creeping,’ the Dictator said gaily. ’I feel full of animal spirits, somehow. Perhaps it is the getting out of danger, although really I don’t think there was much’ and then he stopped, for he suddenly reflected that it must seem rather ungracious to suggest that there was not much danger to a pair of people who had come all the way from Clapham Common to look after his life. ‘There was not much craft,’ he went on to say, ’displayed in that first attempt. You will have to look after me pretty closely in the future. No; I must spin in a hansom it is the one thing I specially love in London, its hansom. Here, we’ll have two hansoms, and I’ll take charge of Mrs. Sarrasin, and you’ll follow us, or, at least, you’ll find your way the best you can, Captain Sarrasin and let us see who gets there first.’