The Blunt Lead-Pencil
It must have been half an hour before reason came back. A strange man was there, lean and grey. A friend, I heard--a Healer.
All those old, old faces!
What had they done?
What could they do?--except telephone again to the police the vague and non-committal fact of a girl decoyed and lost to sight in the labyrinth of London.
They dared to think they could get me to bed. They found me, not a girl--more a wild animal!
Out, out I must go.
The outward struggle was matched by the one in my mind. Where should I go? To whom? There must be somebody who would care. Somebody who had Power to give effect to caring. Wildly my ignorance cast about. Who had Power?
The King--yes; and surely the Queen would "care." But who was I to reach the Queen? Her sentinels and servants would thrust me out.
All my crying would never reach the Queen. Then, the only thing that was left was for me to go out and cry the horror in the street.
They held the door while they told me there had been telephoning back and forth. And someone had already gone to Alton Street.
"Is that where Betty is?"
No. Alton Street was the nearest police-station. The person who had been sent there had not yet come back.
Then I, too, must go to Alton Street to learn what they were doing.
The power of the police still loomed immense. At Alton Street I would here they had already found Betty. She might even be there at this moment . . .
* * *
My aunt, the Healer and I driving through deserted streets. How long was it since I had been away from Bettina?
"Oh, not long," they said. And the police beyond a doubt had turned the time to good account.
I had a vision of the Betty I should find at
Alton Street. Fainting, ministered to by men, reverent of her youth and terror. . . .
* * *
A grimy room with a counter running down its length. No sign of Betty; only men in uniform grouped in twos and threes behind the counter.
They listened. Yes, my aunt's messenger "had been in." They shook their heads.
The Healer did most of the talking.
A man with a sallow face put a question now and then. He was the inspector. Although there were only policemen there besides ourselves, the inspector talked quite low, as though he was afraid someone might come to know a girl was lost.
"I can't hear what you are saying!" I said. "She is my sister. You must tell me what you are doing to find her."
They had so little to go upon. "The only clue, and that a very slight one," was the cabman. Could I remember what he was like?
The strangeness of the question! Taxi-drivers were as much alike to country eyes as the cabs they drove-- But why ask me? "Bring the man in, and let the inspector see him."
Then they told me. The man who was waiting there outside was not the one who had taken me to Lowndes Square.
But where was our "slight and only clue"?
They said that while they all ware busied over me, unconscious, the butler had paid the cabman and let him go. He had never thought to take the number. The slight, the only clue, was lost.
But no. The inspector said they would circulate an inquiry for a cabman who had brought a young lady of my description to Lowndes Square that night.
I tried to learn how long this would take--what we could do meanwhile. What had been already done.
They seemed to be saying things which had no meaning. Except one thing. The great difficulty was that I could not describe the outside of the house, nor even the general locality. Which way had we driven from Victoria?
I had no idea.
But surely I had looked about. What had I noticed as we drove away from the station?
I do not know whether at another time I might have answered better, but I could remember only a confused crowd of passengers, porters, taxi-cabs, and motors. Yes and the woman who had looked after us while she asked her way of a policeman.
Why had she looked after us?
I could no more tell them that than I could tell why both she and the policeman had followed us with such unfriendly eyes.
"Ah!" --the inspector exchanged glances with the Healer-- "a possible clue there."
I could not imagine what he meant. I could not believe that he meant anything when I saw the expressionless yellow face turned to Mrs. Harborough to say that "in any case" the Victoria policeman would not be on duty now. The inspector talked about what they would do tomorrow.
"To-night--to-night; what can we do to-night?"
He brought a piece of yellow paper. He put the questions over again, and this time he wrote the answers down with a stump of worn lead-pencil. The glazed paper was like the man, it
took impressions grudgingly; it held them very faint.
While the blunt lead-pencil laboured across the sheet, something that other man had said to me in the house of horror flashed back across my mind. I had not believed him at the time, still less now, in the presence of the guardians of the City--all these grave and decent people.
Shamefaced I asked Mrs. Harborough if the inspector knew of "any house where a woman takes young girls."
She and all the rest were one as silent as the other, till I steadied my voice to say again, this time to the man himself: "You have no knowledge, then, of 'such a place'?"
"I don't say that," he answered.
I looked at him bewildered. "You mean you do know of a house--a house where--"
He hesitated too. "We know some," he said.
"You don't mean there are many?"
Again the hesitation. "Not many of the sort you describe." He took up the stump of pencil hurriedly and held it poised. "Try to recollect some landmark," he said-- "some building, some statue that you passed."
I did my best to obey--to wrench my mind away from the inside of that place where Betty was . . . to think of what we had seen on the way.
"Did you drive through the Park?" said my aunt.
"No," the inspector answered for me, "she wouldn't take them through the Park; she would go as fast as possible--by side streets--"
But I told them we had passed the Park. We had seen flower-beds through a tall iron railing. She said it was Hyde Park, and the flowers were on our left.
"Hamilton Place. Park Lane." The inspector punctuated my phrases. "Driving north. You crossed Oxford Street?"
I could not say. Other questions, too, I had no answer for. I held my head between my hands trying to force the later impressions out--trying to recover something of that drive I seemed to have taken a hundred years ago in some other state of being. And as I stood so, sobbing inwardly and praying God to let me remember, I heard the inspector say the most horrible thing of all. And it was the horrible thing that gave me
a moment of hope. He told my aunt that the police kept a list of "these houses."
He said the police were "expected to have an eye on such places." And no one contradicted him.
"Even if there are many," I burst out-- "you have all these policemen here. You have hundreds more. Those houses in the list must all be searched--"
They would do what they could, he said.
I did not know why they should at the same time speak of doing all they could, and yet should look so hopeless. But I saw that nobody moved. My two companions talked in undertones. The men in uniform still stood in twos and threes. One near a high desk drummed with his fingers on an open book. The Healer folded his thin long hands upon the counter. In that horrible stillness I said suddenly, "Look at the clock!" The clock's hands too were folded, praying people to notice it was midnight.
They stirred a little at my voice. They looked at me and at the clock. The inspector said they were waiting for Mrs. Harborough's messenger.
The messenger had gone out with a constable to make inquiry at the nearest cab shelter.
Why had they not told us that before!
My two companions followed me, talking low.
* * *
We were driven to a little wooden house, set close against the curb. Two or three men inside, and one behind an urn was pouring coffee.
Yes, yes, a gentleman had "called." Each one there had been questioned. Others, besides, who had been in and out. No one had taken a lady to Lowndes Square that night.
The door shut behind us. We were out again, in the street.
Two taxi-cabs in the rank, and ours at the curb? Besides our driver and ourselves not a soul afoot, outside the little wooden shelter. Betty--Betty, what am I to do? I looked up at the houses. In almost any one of them must be some good man, who, if he knew, would help me. But the houses were curtained, and dark.
The silence of the streets seemed a deeper silence than any the country knows. The only sound, my two companions whispering. "He" would no doubt be waiting for them at Lowndes
Square, they said. Could they mean, then, to go home . . . ?
Betty--Betty-- I looked up again at the houses--houses of great folk, I felt sure. Officials, perhaps; equerries; people about the Court--people whose names we had often seen in the paper as going here and there with the King and Queen. People who would not be turned back at any time of night if they went to the Palace on an errand of life and death. Should I run along the street ringing at all the bells?
I may have made some movement, for Mrs. Harborough took my arm and drew me towards the cab. No, the people in the great houses would be sleeping too far away from those blank doors. Deafness had fallen on the world, and on the houses of good men a great darkness.
A light--at last, a light! shining out of a house on a far corner which had been masked by the cab shelter. And people awake there, for a taxi waited at the door--the door of hope. Above it an electric burner made a square of brightness. In that second of tense listening, my foot on the step of the cab, a raised voice reached me faintly.
I dragged my arm free and went, blind and stumbling, towards the sound. I shall find someone to go to the Queen. . . . !
The Healer had followed quickly: "What are you doing! That's a public-house."
They took me back, they put me in the cab. I hardly knew why I resisted, except that I was looking wildly about for someone to appeal to, and I kept childishly repeating: "The Queen . . . the Queen."
While Mrs. Harborough was being helped into the cab after me, I leaned out of the window on the opposite side, looking up the street and down. The wind blew cold on my wet face.
"The Queen, the Queen! Oh, why are you Queen of England, if you can't help Betty?"
The door of the public-house opened, and a man reeled out. A man in chauffeur's dress. A man--with crooked shoulders!
I remembered now.
I opened the cab-door on my side, and tore across the street with voices calling after me.
The unsteady figure had stooped down by the waiting taxi, and set the machinery whirring.
"Tell me," I bent over him. "Are you the
man who brought me to Lowndes Square an hour or so ago?"
The man looked up. As the cab light fell on his face, I recognised him.
Oh, God, the relief!
End Chapter XXX
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