Read CHAPTER XXVII of Jason, free online book, by Justus Miles Forman, on ReadCentral.com.

THE NIGHT’S WORK

The fourteen long hours dragged themselves by. They seemed interminable, but somehow they passed and the appointed time drew near. Ste. Marie spent the greater part of the afternoon reading, but twice he lay down upon the bed and tried to sleep, and once he actually dozed off for a brief space. The old Michel brought his meals. He had thought it possible that Coira might manage to bring the dinner-tray, as she had already done on several occasions, and so make an opportunity for informing him as to young Arthur’s state of mind. But she did not come, and no word came from her. So evening drew on and the dusk gathered and deepened to darkness.

Ste. Marie walked his floor and prayed for the hours to pass. He had candles and matches, and there was even a lamp in the room, so that he could have read if he chose, but he knew that the words would have been meaningless to him, that he was incapable of abstracting his thought from the night’s stern work. He began to be anxious over not having heard from Mlle. O’Hara. She had said that she would talk with Arthur Benham during the afternoon, and then slip a note under Ste. Marie’s door. Yet no word had come from her, and to the man pacing his floor in the darkness the fact took on proportions tremendous and fantastic. Something had happened. The boy had broken his promise, burst out upon O’Hara, or more probably upon his uncle, and the house was by the ears. Coira was watched even locked in her room. Stewart had fled. A score of such terrible possibilities rushed through Ste. Marie’s brain and tortured him. He was in a state of nervous tension that was almost unendurable, and the little noises of the night outside, a wind-stirred rustle of leaves, a bird’s flutter among the branches, the sound of a cracking twig, made him start violently and catch his breath.

Then at his utmost need came reassurance and something like ease of mind. He heard a sound of voices at the front of the house, and sprang to his balconied window to listen. Captain Stewart and O’Hara were walking upon the brick-paved terrace and chatting calmly over their cigars. The man above, prone upon the floor, his head pressed against the ivy-masked grille of the balcony, listened, and though he could hear their words only at intervals when they passed beneath him he knew that they spoke of trivial matters in voices free of strain or concern.

He drew back with a breath of relief, and at that moment a sound across the room arrested him, a soft scraping sound such as a mouse might make. He went where it was, and a little square of paper gleamed white through the darkness just within the door. Ste. Marie caught it up and took it to the far side of the room away from the window. He struck a match, opened the folded paper, and a single line of writing was there:

“He will go with you. Wait by the door in the wall.”

The man nearly cried out with joy.

He struck another match and looked at his watch. It was a quarter to ten. Four hours left out of the fourteen.

Once more he lay down upon the bed and closed his eyes. He knew that he could not sleep, but he was tired from long tramping up and down the room and from the strain of over-tried nerves. From hour to hour he looked at his watch by match-light, but he did not leave the bed until half-past one. Then he rose and took a long breath, and the time was at hand.

He stood a little while gazing out into the night. An old moon was high overhead in a cloudless sky, and that would make the night’s work both easier and more difficult, but on the whole he was glad of it. He looked to the east, toward that wall where was the little wooden door, and the way was under cover of trees and shrubbery for the whole distance save a little space beside the house. He listened, and the night was very still no sound from the house below him, no sound anywhere save the barking of a dog from far away, and after an instant the whistle of a distant train.

Ste. Marie turned back into the room and pulled the sheets from his bed. He rolled them, corner-wise, into a sort of rope, and knotted them together securely. Then he went to one of the east windows. There was no balcony there, but, as in all French upper windows, a wood and iron bar fixed, into the stone casing at both ends, with a little grille below it. It crossed the window space a third of the distance from bottom to top. He bent one end of the improvised rope to this, made it fast, and let the other end hang out. The east side of the house was in shadow, and the rolled sheet, a vague white line, disappeared into the darkness below, but Ste. Marie knew that it must reach nearly to the ground. He had made use of it because he was afraid there would be too much noise if he tried to climb down the ivy. The room directly underneath was the drawing-room, and he knew that it was closed and shuttered and unoccupied both by day and by night. The only danger, he decided, was from the sleeping-room behind his own, with its windows opening close by; but, though he did not know it, he was safe there also, for the room was Coira O’Hara’s.

He felt in his pocket for the pistol, and it was ready to hand. Then he buttoned his coat round him and swung himself out of the window. He held his body away from the wall with one knee and went down hand under hand. It was so quietly done that it did not even rouse the birds in the near-by trees. Before he realized that he had come to the lower windows his feet touched the earth and he was free.

He stood for a moment where he was, and then slipped rapidly across the open, moonlit space into the inky gloom of the trees. He made a half-circle round before the house and looked up at it. It lay gray and black and still in the night. Where the moonlight was upon it, it was gray; where there was shadow, black as black velvet, and the windows were like open, dead eyes. He looked toward Arthur Benham’s room, and there was no light, but he knew that the boy was awake and waiting there, shivering probably in the dark. He wondered where Coira O’Hara was, and he pictured her lying in her bed fronting the gloom with sleepless, open eyes, looking into those to-morrows which she had said she saw so well. He wondered bitterly what the to-morrows were to bring her, but he caught himself up with a stern determination and put her out of his mind. He did not dare think of her in that hour.

He turned and began to make his way silently under the trees toward the appointed meeting-place. Once he thought of the old Michel and wondered where that gnarled and withered watch-dog had betaken himself. Somewhere, within or without the house, he was asleep or pretending to sleep, and Ste. Marie knew that he could be trusted. The man’s cupidity and his hatred of Captain Stewart together would make him faithful, or faithless, as one chose to look upon it.

He came to that place where a row of lilac shrubs stood against the wall and a half-dead cedar stretched gnarled branches above. He was a little before his time, and he settled himself to listen and wait, his sharp ears keenly on the alert, his eyes turned toward the dark and quiet house.

The little noises of the night broke upon him with exaggerated clamor. A crackling twig was a thunderous crash, a bird’s sleepy stir was the sound of pursuit and disaster. A hundred times he heard the cautious approach of Richard Hartley’s motor-car without the wall, and he fell into a panic of fear lest that machine prove unruly, break down, puncture a tire, or burst into a series of ear-splitting explosions. But at last it seemed to him that he had waited untold hours and that the dawn must be nigh there came an unmistakable rustling from overhead and the sound of a hard-drawn breath. The top of the wall, just at that point, was in moonlight, and a man’s head appeared over it, then an arm and then a leg. Hartley called down to him in a whisper, and Ste. Marie, from the gloom beneath, whispered a reply. He said:

“The boy has promised to come with us. We sha’n’t have to fight for it.”

Richard Hartley said, “Thank God!” He spoke to some one outside, and then turning about let himself down to arm’s-length and dropped to the ground. “Thank God!” he said again. “The two men who were to have come with me didn’t show up. I waited as long as I dared, and then came on with only the chauffeur. He’s waiting outside by the car ready to crank up when I give the word. The car’s just a few yards away, headed out for the road. How are we to get back over the wall?”

Ste. Marie explained that Arthur Benham was to come out to join them at the wooden door, and doubtless would bring a key. If not, the three of them could scale fifteen feet easily enough in the way soldiers and firemen are trained to do it. He told his friend all that was necessary for the time, and they went together along the wall to the more open space beside the little door.

They waited there in silence for five minutes, and once Hartley, with his back toward the house, struck a match under his sheltering coat, looked to see what time it was, and found it was three minutes past two.

“He ought to be here,” the man growled. “I don’t like waiting. Good Lord, you don’t think he’s funked it, do you? Eh?”

Ste. Marie did not answer, but he was breathing very fast and he could not keep his hands still.

The dog which he had heard from his window began barking again very far away in the night, and kept it up incessantly. Perhaps he was barking at the moon.

“I’m going a little way toward the house,” said Ste. Marie, at last. “We can’t see the terrace from here.”

But before he had started they heard the sound of hurrying feet, and Richard Hartley began to curse under his breath. He said:

“Does the young idiot want to rouse the whole place? Why can’t he come quietly?”

Ste. Marie began to run forward, slipping the pistol out of his pocket and holding it ready in his hand, for his quick ears told him that there was more than one pair of feet coming through the night. He went to where he could command the approach from the house and halted there, but all at once he gave a low cry and started forward again, for he saw that Arthur Benham and Coira O’Hara were running together, and that they were in desperate haste. He called out to them, and the girl cried:

“Go to the door in the wall! The door in the wall! Oh, be quick!”

He fell into step beside her, and as they ran he said,

“You’re going with him? You’re coming with us?”

The girl answered him, “No, no!” and she sprang to the little, low door and began to fit the iron key into the lock.

The three men stood about her, and young Arthur Benham drew his breath in great, shivering gasps that were like sobs.

“They heard us!” he cried, in a whisper. “They’re after us. They heard us on the stairs. I stumbled and fell. For God’s sake, Coira, be quick!”

The girl fumbled desperately with the clumsy key, and dropped upon her knees to see the better. Once she said, in a whisper: “I can’t turn it. It won’t turn.” And at that Richard Hartley pushed her out of the way and lent his greater strength to the task.

A sudden, loud cry came from the house, a hoarse, screeching cry in a voice which might have been either man’s or woman’s, but was as mad and as desperate and as horrible in that still night as the screech of a tortured animal or of a maniac. It came again and again, and it was nearer.

“Oh, hurry, hurry!” said the girl. “Can’t you be quick? They’re coming.”

And as she spoke the little group about the wall heard the engine of the motor-car outside start up with a staccato roar and knew that the faithful chauffeur was ready for them.

“I’m getting it, I think,” said Richard Hartley, between his teeth. “I’m getting it. Turn, you beast! Turn!”

There was a sound of hurrying feet, and Ste. Marie spun about. He cried:

“Don’t wait for me! Jump into the car and go! Don’t wait anywhere! Come back after you’ve left Benham at home!”

He began to run forward toward those running feet, and he did not know that the girl followed after him. A short distance away there was a little open space of moonlight, and in its midst, at full career, he met the Irishman O’Hara, a gaunt and grotesque figure in his sleeping-suit, barefooted, with empty hands. Beyond him still, some one else ran, stumbling, and sobbed and uttered mad cries.

Ste. Marie dropped his pistol to the ground and sprang upon the Irishman. He caught him about the body and arms, and the two swayed and staggered under the tremendous impact. At just that moment, from behind, came the crash of the opened door and triumphant shouts. Ste. Marie gave a little gasp of triumph, too, and clung the harder to the man with whom he fought. He drove his head into the Irishman’s shoulder, and set his muscles with a grip which was like iron. He knew that it could not endure long, for the Irishman was stronger than he, but the grip of a nervous man who is keyed up to a high tension is incredibly powerful for a little while. Trained strength is nothing beside it.

It seemed to Ste. Marie in this desperate moment it cannot have been more than a minute or two at the most that a strange and uncanny miracle befell him. It was as if he became two. Soul and body, spirit and straining flesh, seemed to him to separate, to stand apart, each from the other. There was a thing of iron flesh and thews which had locked itself about an enemy and clung there madly with but one purpose, one single thought to grip and grip, and never loosen until flesh should be torn from bones. But apart the spirit looked on with a complete detachment. It looked beyond he must have raised his head to glance over O’Hara’s shoulder saw a mad figure staggering forward in the moonlight, and knew the figure for Captain Stewart. It saw an upraised arm and was not afraid, for the work was almost done now. It listened and was glad, hearing the motor-car, without the walls, leap forward into the night and its puffing grow fainter and fainter with distance. It knew that the thing of strained sinews received a crashing blow upon backflung head, and that the iron muscles were slipping away from their grip, but it was still glad, for the work was done.

Only at the last, before red and whirling lights had obscured the view, before consciousness was dissolved in unconsciousness, came horror and agony, for the eyes saw Captain Stewart back away and raise the thing he had struck with, a large revolver, saw Coira O’Hara, a swift and flashing figure in the moonlight, throw herself upon him before he could fire, heard together a woman’s scream and the roar of the pistol’s explosion, and then knew no more.