The Broken Road

Chapter XXVIII

The Thief

A.E.W. Mason

VIOLET OLIVER was harassed that night as she had never before been harassed at any moment of her easy life. She fled to her room. She stood in front of her mirror gazing helplessly at the reflection of her troubled face.

“What shall I do?” she cried piteously. “What shall I do?”

And it was not until some minutes had passed that she gave a thought to whether her window on this night was bolted or not.

She moved quickly across the room and drew the curtains apart. This time the bolt was shot. But she did not turn back to her room. She let the curtains fall behind her and leaned her forehead against the glass. There was a moon to-night, and the quiet garden stretched in front of her a place of black shadows and white light. Whether a thief lurked in those shadows and watched from them she did not now consider. The rattle of a rifle from a sentry near at hand gave her confidence; and all her trouble lay in the house behind her.

She opened her window and stepped out. “I tried to speak, but he would not listen. Oh, why did I ever come here?” she cried. “It would have been so easy not to have come.”

But even while she cried out her regrets, they were not all the truth. There was still alive within her the longing to follow the difficult way—the way of fire and stones, as it would be for her—if only she could! She had made a beginning that night. Yes, she had made a beginning though nothing had come of it. That was not her fault, she assured herself. She had tried to speak. But could she keep it up? She turned and twisted; she was caught in a trap. Passion had trapped her unawares.

She went back to the room and bolted the window. Then again she stood in front of her mirror and gazed at herself in thought.

Suddenly her face changed. She looked up; an idea took shape in her mind. “Theft,” Ralston had said. Thus had he explained the unbolted window. She must lock up what jewels she had. She must be sure to do that. Violet Oliver looked towards the window and shivered. It was very silent in the room. Fear seized hold of her. It was a big room, and furtively she peered into the corners lest already hidden behind some curtain the thief should be there.

But always her eyes returned to the window. If she only dared! She ran to her trunks. From one of them she took out from its deep hiding-place a small jewel-case, a jewel-case very like to that one which a few months ago she had sealed up in her tent and addressed to Kohara. She left it on her dressing-table. She did not open it. Then she looked about her again. It would be the easy way—if only she dared! It would be an easier way than trying again to tell her lover what she would have told him to-night, had he only been willing to listen.

She stood and listened, with parted lips. It seemed to her that even in this lighted room people, unseen people, breathed about her. Then, with a little sob in her throat, she ran to the window and shot back the bolt. She undressed hurriedly, placed a candle by her bedside and turned out the electric lights. As soon as she was in bed she blew out the candle. She lay in the darkness, shivering with fear, regretting what she had done. Every now and then a board cracked in the corridor outside the room, as though beneath a stealthy footstep. And once inside the room the door of a wardrobe sprang open. She would have cried out, but terror paralysed her throat; and the next moment she heard the tread of the sentry outside her window. The sound reassured her. There was safety in the heavy regularity of the steps. It was a soldier who was passing, a drilled, trustworthy soldier. “Trustworthy” was the word which the Commissioner had used. And lulled by the soldier’s presence in the garden Violet Oliver fell asleep.

But she waked before dawn. The room was still in darkness. The moon had sunk. Not a ray of light penetrated from behind the curtains. She lay for a little while in bed, listening, wondering whether that window had been opened. A queer longing came upon her—a longing to thrust back the curtains, so that—if anything happened—she might see. That would be better than lying here in the dark, knowing nothing, seeing nothing, fearing everything. If she pulled back the curtains, there would be a panel of dim light visible, however dark the night.

The longing became a necessity. She could not lie there. She sprang out of bed, and hurried across towards the window. She had not stopped to light her candle and she held her hands outstretched in front of her. Suddenly, as she was half-way across the room, her hands touched something soft.

She drew them back with a gasp of fright and stood stone-still, stone-cold. She had touched a human face. Already the thief was in the room. She stood without a cry, without a movement, while her heart leaped and fluttered within her bosom. She knew in that moment the extremity of mortal fear.

A loud scratch sounded sharply in the room. A match spurted into flame, and above the match there sprang into view, framed in the blackness of the room, a wild and menacing dark face. The eyes glittered at her, and suddenly a hand was raised as if to strike. And at the gesture Violet Oliver found her voice.

She screamed, a loud shrill scream of terror, and even as she screamed, in the very midst of her terror, she saw that the hand was lowered, and that the threatening face smiled. Then the match went out and darkness cloaked her and cloaked the thief again. She heard a quick stealthy movement, and once more her scream rang out. It seemed to her ages before any answer came, before she heard the sound of hurrying footsteps in the corridors. There was a loud rapping upon her door. She ran to it. She heard Ralston’s voice.

“What is it? Open! Open!” and then in the garden the report of a rifle rang loud.

She turned up the lights, flung a dressing-gown about her shoulders and opened the door. Ralston was in the passage, behind him she saw lights strangely wavering and other faces. These too wavered strangely. From very far away, she heard Ralston’s voice once more.

“What is it? What is it?”

And then she fell forward against him and sank in a swoon upon the floor.

Ralston lifted her on to her bed and summoned her maid. He went out of the house and made inquiries of the guard. The sentry’s story was explicit and not to be shaken by any cross-examination. He had patrolled that side of the house in which Mrs. Oliver’s room lay, all night. He had seen nothing. At one o’clock in the morning the moon sank and the night became very dark. It was about three when a few minutes after passing beneath the verandah, and just as he had turned the corner of the house, he heard a shrill scream from Mrs. Oliver’s room. He ran back at once, and as he ran he heard a second scream. He saw no one, but he heard a rustling and cracking in the bushes as though a fugitive plunged through. He fired in the direction of the noise and then ran with all speed to the spot. He found no one, but the bushes were broken.

Ralston went back into the house and knocked at Mrs. Oliver’s door. The maid opened it.

“How is Mrs. Oliver?” he asked, and he heard Violet herself reply faintly from the room:

“I am better, thank you. I was a little frightened, that’s all.”

“No wonder,” said Ralston, and he spoke again to the maid. “Has anything gone? Has anything been stolen? There was a jewel-case upon the dressing-table. I saw it.”

The maid looked at him curiously, before she answered. “Nothing has been touched.”

Then, with a glance towards the bed, the maid stooped quickly to a trunk which stood against the wall close by the door and then slipped out of the room, closing the door behind her. The corridors were now lighted up, as though it were still evening and the household had not yet gone to bed. Ralston saw that the maid held a bundle in her hands.

“I do not think,” she said in a whisper, “that the thief came to steal any thing.” She laid some emphasis upon the word.

Ralston took the bundle from her hands and stared at it.

“Good God!” he muttered. He was astonished and more than astonished. There was something of horror in his low exclamation. He looked at the maid. She was a woman of forty. She had the look of a capable woman. She was certainly quite self-possessed.

“Does your mistress know of this?” he asked.

The maid shook her head.

“No, sir. I saw it upon the floor before she came to. I hid it between the trunk and the wall.” She spoke with an ear to the door of the room in which Violet lay, and in a low voice.

“Good!” said Ralston. “You had better tell her nothing of it for the present. It would only frighten her”; as he ended he heard Violet Oliver call out:

“Adela! Adela!”

“Mrs. Oliver wants me,” said the maid, as she slipped back into the bedroom.

Ralston walked slowly back down the corridor into the great hall. He was carrying the bundle in his hands and his face was very grave. He saw Dick Linforth in the hall, and before he spoke he looked upwards to the gallery which ran round it. Even when he had assured himself that there was no one listening, he spoke in a low voice.

“Do you see this, Linforth?”

He held out the bundle. There was a thick cloth, a sort of pad of cotton, and some thin strong cords.

“These were found in Mrs. Oliver’s room.”

He laid the things upon the table and Linforth turned them over, startled as Ralston had been.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“They were left behind,” said Ralston.

“By the thief?”

“If he was a thief”; and again Linforth said:

“I don’t understand.”

But there was now more of anger, more of horror in his voice, than surprise; and as he spoke he took up the pad of cotton wool.

“You do understand,” said Ralston, quietly.

Linforth’s fingers worked. That pad of cotton seemed to him more sinister than even the cords.

“For her!” he cried, in a quiet but dangerous voice. “For Violet,” and at that moment neither noticed his utterance of her Christian name. “Let me only find the man who entered her room.”

Ralston looked steadily at Linforth.

“Have you any suspicion as to who the man is?” he asked.

There was a momentary silence in that quiet hall. Both men stood looking at each other.

“It can’t be,” said Linforth, at length. But he spoke rather to himself than to Ralston. “It can’t be.”

Ralston did not press the question.

“It’s the insolence of the attempt which angers me,” he said. “We must wait until Mrs. Oliver can tell us what happened, what she saw. Meanwhile, she knows nothing of those things. There is no need that she should know.”

He left Linforth standing in the hall and went up the stairs. When he reached the gallery, he leaned over quietly and looked down.

Linforth was still standing by the table, fingering the cotton-pad.

Ralston heard him say again in a voice which was doubtful now rather than incredulous:

“It can’t be he! He would not dare!”

But no name was uttered.

The Broken Road - Contents    |     Chapter XXIX - Mrs. Oliver Rides Through Peshawur

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