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CHAPTER I A MYSTERIOUS MISSION
From the main thoroughfare of Bayswater, where the shops display their goods and the tides of life run strongly, Crook Street extends its long line of ugly dwellings to a considerable distance. Its shape suggests a shepherd's crook,--hence undoubtedly the name--as it finally terminates in a curved cul de sac, the end of which is blocked by Number One hundred and eleven. This is an imposing, if somewhat dilapidated mansion, standing in its own limited grounds, which are surrounded by a high crumbling wall of brick, more or less overgrown with grimy ivy. There is a small front garden, planted with stunted shrubs; a narrow passage on either side of the house, screened midway by green-painted trellis-work, and--at the back--a worn-out lawn, dominated by a funereal cedar. Beneath this, through rain and sunshine, is a rustic table and a rustic seat, where the boarders have afternoon tea in summertime. Everywhere there is a feeling of dampness.

The mansion is of Georgian architecture, square and heavy, greatly in need of a coat of paint, which it has not received for years. With its discoloured surface, once white, its cheap stucco scaling off in leprous patches, its trails of moss and soot, never to be washed off by any rain, however violent, it looks a tumbledown, ruinous sort of dwelling. Or, as an imaginative boarder once suggested, it is like a derelict hulk, stranded in a stagnant backwater of Life's mighty River. It is certainly doleful, and infinitely dreary, only securing inhabitants by reason of the unusually cheap board and lodging to be obtained under its weather-worn roof.

Mrs. Sellars, who rented this sad suburban dwelling, euphoniously called it "The Home of Art," and in a seductive advertisement invited any male or female connected with music, literature, painting, poetry, and more particularly with the drama, to enjoy the refinements of an ?sthetic abode at the moderate cost of twenty shillings a week, inclusive. As the house was shabbily comfortable, and its mistress was a retired actress of cheery manners, still indirectly connected with the stage, the bedrooms of The Home of Art were generally occupied by youths and maidens, ambitious of renown. There were very few really old people, as Mrs. Sellars--although elderly herself--did not care for the aged, who had no future, but loved to gather the young and aspiring round her hospitable table. And that same table truly deserved the kindly term, for the slatternly, good-natured woman supplied far better food in far larger quantities than the rate of payment allowed. Indeed, it is questionable if Mrs. Sellars made any profit whatsoever, as nearly all the boarders were juvenile and hungry. But what they paid, together with the landlady's small private income, kept things going in a happy-go-lucky fashion, which was all that was necessary. The children--as Mrs. Sellars called her boarders--adored "Ma," as the boarders called Mrs. Sellars, and with good reason, for she gave one and all largely what money could not buy. She advised, she sympathized, she nursed, she scolded, and to her the children came with their troubles, great and small, for aid and consolation. It was no wonder that with such a blessed helper of humanity, the ruinous old suburban boarding-house was usually filled to its greatest capacity.

But full as The Home of Art was last November, on one night of that foggy month it was empty from seven o'clock until midnight of all the boarders. A third-floor lodger--the lean youth with bright and bird-like eyes--had not only written a play, which Ma pronounced magnificent, but the same was to be produced on this very evening at a suburban theatre. Of course, this was a red-letter day--or, rather, night--at The Home of Art, and equally of course, Mrs. Sellars led forth her children to occupy boxes and stalls and pit and dress-circle on the great occasion. By her advice the friends of the playwright were thus fairly distributed throughout the house so that they might applaud vehemently at the right moment and stir up the public to enthusiasm. Even the cook and the parlour-maid, the housemaid and a decayed butler, who had fallen, through drink, from Mayfair to Bayswater, put on their best clothes and departed for the night's entertainment. Already the supper--and a very good supper, too--was laid out in the shabby dining-room, and would be eaten at midnight by the boarders, when they returned with Ma and the successful playwright. And assuredly he would be successful--no one had any doubt on that point, for Mrs. Sellars had long since infected all her lodgers with her constant optimism. With Ma as the head of the house, the atmosphere could scarcely fail to be cheerful. Even debts, duns, difficulties, disappointments and suspense could not, and never did, damp the hopeful spirits of the little community. And Ma, with her unfailing good humour and helpful nature, was responsible for this happy state of affairs.

When the occupants of The Home of Art departed for the Curtain Theatre, two people remaining behind had the entire house to themselves. One was Mrs. Pentreddle, who had sprained her ankle on the previous day, and could not leave the sofa on which she lay in the drawing-room with any degree of comfort, and the other was Patricia Carrol, the out-of-work Irish governess, who had arranged to stop and look after the old lady. And Mrs. Pentreddle was really old, being not far short of sixty. She was the landlady's sister, who had come up from Devonshire on a visit six days before the exodus to the theatre: a tall, gaunt, grim woman, wholly unlike Mrs. Sellars in looks and disposition. No one would have believed the two women to be sisters had not the relationship been vouched for by Ma herself. "Martha never was like me," said Mrs. Sellars, when her boarders commented on the dissimilarity, "always as heavy as I was light. Comedy and Tragedy, our Pa called us in the old days. Not that Martha ever had any turn for the stage. It was only Pa's way of talking. Martha's a killjoy, poor dear, as her late husband was drowned at sea and her only child's a sailor also, who likewise may find his grave in the vast and wandering deep. She's housekeeper to Squire Colpster, of Beckleigh, in Devonshire, and knows more about managing servants than I've ever forgotten." And, as usual, she finished with her jolly laugh.

Mrs. Pentreddle certainly was no favourite with the boarders, as her lean and anxious, wrinkled and pallid face, her hard black eyes and melancholy dark garments impressed them unpleasantly. She spoke very little, but constantly maintained a watchful attitude, as though she was expecting something to happen or someone to tap her on her shoulder. As a rule she kept to Mrs. Sellars' private sitting-room, which pleased everyone, as the dour woman was such a wet blanket. But on the night of the play she insisted upon being carried down to the drawing-room in spite of the sprained ankle, which should have kept her in bed. Mrs. Sellars remonstrated, but the sister from Devonshire had her own way, saying that the first floor was preferable to the second, as it was less dismal and more comfortable. "One would think that Martha expected something to happen," said cheerful Mrs. Sellars, when she set out for the theatre with her train, "and was afraid to be too far away from the nearest policeman!" This remark was afterwards remembered when something did happen, as emblematic of Ma's prophetic powers.

The drawing-room was a large apartment with a fire-place at one end and a door leading from the hall at the other. One side was taken up by the windows, heavily curtained, and the other by large folding doors, usually closed, which gave admission to the dining-room. Outside, a narrow iron-railed balcony ran in front of the three windows from the entrance door to the corner of the house, and below this was the basement. Within, the room was fairly comfortable in a shabby, slatternly sort of way, although overcrowded with furniture of the Albert period, which had been picked up at various sales. Indeed, the entire house was furnished with the flotsam and jetsam of auction-room derelicts of prosperous days. In the drawing-room were rep-covered chairs, two horse-hair sofas, several round tables, each poised on its shaky leg, fender-stools, Berlin-wool screens, a glittering glass chandelier, and on either side of the handsome marble time-piece which stood on the mantel-shelf, antique green ornaments with dangling prisms of glass. The walls were covered with faded scarlet flock paper, the floor with a worn red carpet, bestrewn with bunches of poppies mingled with wheat-ears, and the three windows were draped with stained, ragged, crimson curtains of rich brocade. Mrs. Sellars was very proud of those gorgeous curtains, but they were distinctly out of date--a matter of indifference to those who occupied The Home of Art, in spite of its name.

One of the horse-hair sofas had been drawn to the fire, and Mrs. Pentreddle lay thereon, with her hard black eyes fixed on the leaping flames. Outside, the night was chilly and damp, the air was thick with fog, and even in the drawing-room could be heard the dripping of water from the ivy clothing the surrounding wall. In spite of its being in London, the house was markedly isolated, and only occasionally did a policeman venture down the curved cul de sac. But within, all was shabbily warm and comfortable, and Mrs. Pentreddle's grim face relaxed into more pleasant lines. Nothing could be heard but the dripping of the water, the ticking of the clock and the occasional fall of a morsel of coal from the grate. But shortly the almost silence became oppressive, and Mrs. Pentreddle spoke in her harsh voice.

"It's very kind of you to stay with me, Miss Carrol," she said, glancing sideways at her companion; "few young ladies would do that when a theatre-treat is offered to them."

The girl addressed raised her eyes from the evening paper which she had been reading and smiled. Patricia Carrol's smile was delightful, and displayed such white teeth that her beauty was enhanced. But even when her face was in repose, she looked an extremely pretty girl, and was one of those richly-coloured Irish brunettes, who remind the observer of a peach ripening against a mellow brick wall. Her hair was bluish black, of a wavy quality which lent itself admirably to the style of coiffure which she affected, and her eyes were sea-blue, of that wonderful Irish tint which goes so well with dark tresses. Her admirable figure was clothed plainly, but tastefully, in a Prussian blue serge dress, perfectly cut, and worn with a charming natural grace. Her hands and feet were slim and aristocratic, and her whole air was one of repose and good-breeding. She was a flower of civilization, and should have bloomed amidst more fitting surroundings than the shabby drawing-room could afford. Yet she was only a poor little governess seeking for employment, and even when Mrs. Pentreddle spoke to her, she had been searching the columns of the newspaper in the hope of finding a situation.

"Oh, I am very pleased to stay with you, Mrs. Pentreddle," she said, with her charming smile. "I have too many troubles to care about going to a play. I would only take them with me, and then would scarcely enjoy the performance."

"That is true," replied the elder woman, examining the girl closely; "and yet you should have no troubles at your age and with your looks."

Patricia coloured and shook her head. "My looks are really against me," she said, somewhat sadly; "ladies don't like to engage me on that account. If I were ugly and old I should be better able to get what I want."

"What do you want, Miss Carrol?" asked Mrs. Pentreddle, abruptly.

"Fifty pounds a year as a nursery governess if I can get it," replied the girl promptly, "or even thirty, so long as I can get a situation. If it were not for dear, kind Mrs. Sellars I don't think I could hold out. She's an angel, and lets me stay here for ten shillings a week until I can get something to do. Bless her!"

"How did you come to this?" asked Mrs. Pentreddle, still abruptly.

Miss Carrol coloured, for she did not like to whimper about her misfortunes to strangers. "It's a long story," she said evasively; "all you need know is that my father was a Colonel in the army, and that when he died his pension ceased and I was left penniless. But I have had a good education, and I hope to get a situation as a governess."

"Won't your friends assist you?"

"I have no friends," said the girl simply; "when I left the world I was brought up in, I left my friends for ever."

"I don't think so; you will go back to them some day," said Mrs. Pentreddle encouragingly, although the expression of her iron face did not soften; "but, meanwhile, if you wish to earn a five-pound note----" she hesitated.

The newspaper slipped from Patricia's lap to the ground and she looked surprised. "I don't understand!"

"If you will do an errand for me I will give you five pounds."

"Oh, I can do an errand for you without taking money."

"I don't ask-you to: this is rather a dangerous errand. But I think you are brave, and I know that you are hard up----"

Patricia interrupted. "I have enough money to go on with," she said, flushing.

"At ten shillings a week!" retorted Mrs. Pentreddle, unpleasantly. "Well, please yourself!"--she turned over on the sofa--"I have given you the chance."

Miss Carrol thought hard during the silence which ensued. Certainly, in her pauper condition, five pounds would be a god-send, and, as she had determined to lay aside all pride when she gave up the position to which her birth entitled her, she considered that she might as well take what she could get at this difficult stage of her fortunes. For five pounds she would do much, but---- "Is the errand an honest one?" she asked suddenly with a catch in her voice. The thought had just struck her.

"Perfectly honest," said Mrs. Pentreddle coldly. "What is there about me that you should think me capable of asking you to do something wrong?"

"Nothing at all," confessed Miss Carrol frankly; "but if you wish me to go on a mysterious errand, it is only natural that I should desire to hear everything about it."

Mrs. Pentreddle carefully lowered her injured foot to the ground, and sitting up very straight, folded two thin hands on her lap. "You shall hear," said she quietly, "only I must request you to keep your own counsel."

Patricia nodded. "That goes without the saying," was her answer, and she again wondered if the five pounds could be earned honestly.

"I came up to London to go on this errand myself," explained the old lady slowly, "but this sprain has prevented my keeping an appointment which must be kept to-night. As the matter is important, I am willing to pay you the money on your return with It."

"It? What is 'It'?"

"A small deal box you can easily carry in your hand. A man will give it to you if you will stand at nine o'clock by the right-hand corner of that bridge which crosses the Serpentine. On this side, remember, before you cross the bridge. Nine o'clock, and you must hold this"--she fished amongst the cushions of the sofa and produced a small bull's-eye lantern, the glass of which was pasted over with red paper. "This is the signal."

"The signal?" echoed Miss Carrol, rather nervously, for all this mystery did indeed hint at something criminal.

"Oh, you needn't turn so white," said Mrs. Pentreddle scornfully. "What I ask you to do is perfectly straightforward. There is nothing wrong about it."

Patricia still hesitated, vaguely afraid to be implicated in such unusual doings. "If you will explain further, Mrs. Pentreddle----"

"There is nothing more need be explained just now," interrupted the other woman imperiously; "when you return with the box, you shall know all. What I am requesting you to do can harm no one, but can benefit someone."

"Yourself?"

"No! That is, in a way, perhaps. But you can judge for yourself when I am able to tell you my reason. That will be when you return. If five pounds is not sufficient, I can give you ten, although I can ill afford it."

"I am satisfied with five," said Patricia quickly, and flushing again, for even in her poverty she shrank from taking money. "I don't like mysteries, and only accept your offer as I need money very badly. But for all the wealth in the world I would not go if I thought that there was anything wrong," and she looked searchingly at her companion.

"How many times do you need me to assure you that there is nothing wrong," said Mrs. Pentreddle, impatiently; "you are singularly suspicious for a girl of your years. All that is necessary is for you to receive this tiny box from the man who will hand it to you."

"How shall I know the man?"

"There is no need for you to know him at all. The red light of the lantern will assure him that you are the person who is to receive the box. Well?"

Miss Carrol rose nervously and ran her fingers through her hair, as she walked up and down the long room. Her instinct told her to refuse a mission about which she knew so little, but the prospect of earning five pounds in this easy manner was so alluring, that she could not find it in her heart to decline. After all, Mrs. Pentreddle was the sister of the woman who had been, and was, so kind to her, and in every way appeared to be an almost aggressively respectable person. It was worth risking, she thought, and at this moment, as though to clinch the matter, Mrs. Pentreddle's voice broke in on her uneasy meditations.

"I can't wait much longer," said the old woman; "if you won't do what I ask, perhaps you will telephone to the nearest office, asking that a messenger-boy may be sent to get what I want. It will certainly be cheaper."

This proposal banished Patricia's last scruple, as, if a messenger-boy could be employed, the errand, mysterious as it seemed, could not have anything to do with criminal matters. Miss Carrol picked up the lantern, with its faked red glass. "I shall go at once," she declared hurriedly, for now she feared lest she should lose the money, "but who will attend to your foot while I am away, Mrs. Pentreddle?"

"I can stay here, as I am doing. Rest is the sole thing which can cure my sprain. You will only be away an hour, more or less. It is a quarter past eight now, and the distance to the Serpentine bridge is not far. Nine o'clock is the hour. You know exactly what you have to do," and she repeated her instructions, to which the girl listened carefully.

"I am to show the red light standing on this side of the Serpentine at the right-hand corner of the bridge," she said slowly, to be sure that she knew what she had to do. "I understand. What shall I say to the man?"

"Nothing. He will simply place a box in your hand and walk away. All you have to do is to bring the box to me, and then you shall know all about the matter which strikes you as being so strange. Don't lose any time, please."

Indeed, there was no time to be lost, as it would take Patricia some minutes to get her out-of-door things on. She ran up the stairs, and assumed boots in place of slippers, a heavy cloak as the night was damp, a plain cloth toque, and gloves. She then took her umbrella in one hand, the lantern, unlighted, in the other, and descended to say a few last words to Mrs. Pentreddle; or, rather, to hear them, for the old lady gave her no opportunity of speaking. For such a grim, unemotional woman, Mrs. Pentreddle seemed quite excited, although she tried to keep herself calm. But a vivid spot of red was certainly showing itself on either pale cheek.

"Show the red light and wait in silence," she directed; "do nothing more, and say nothing at all. Then when you receive the box come back with it at once to me. You thoroughly understand?"

"I thoroughly understand."

"I am glad. Finally, let me assure you once more that there is nothing dishonest or even wrong about the errand I am sending you on."

There was nothing more to be said, and Patricia departed. When she closed the front door of The Home of Art, and found herself in the street, she became aware that the night was damp and dense with fog. The gas-lights, however, shone blurred and vague through the white mists, so there was no need for her to use the lantern. No one was about, not even a policeman--in the curve of the cul de sac at all events; but when she passed into the straight line of Crook Street, she almost fell into the arms of a constable who was standing under a lamp. Patricia paused to ask a question.

"Will the fog get worse, officer?"

"I think it will, miss," said the man, touching his helmet and bending to look at her face. "I should advise you not to go far."

"I am only going to the Park to see a friend," answered Miss Carrol, heedlessly; and then remembering that it was a complete stranger whom she had to see, and one to whom she was not even to speak, she regretted having been so doubtfully truthful. "What is the time?" she asked, to cover her confusion.

"Half-past eight o'clock, miss," said the constable, consulting a fat silver watch. "Best go home again, miss. You might get lost in this fog, and in the Park there are some rough characters about."

"Oh, I am all right, thank you," said Patricia with a bright smile, and passed along. All the same she now began to feel uncomfortable, and to realize that Hyde Park on a foggy November night was not exactly the place for a young lady. Only the desire to earn the coveted five pounds nerved her to do that which she had agreed to do.

Crook Street is not far from the main entrance to the Park on the Bayswater side, and, as the fog grew thin further on, Patricia found herself speedily on the broad path which leads directly to the Serpentine bridge. She knew this portion of the Park extremely well, as, having much time on her hands, she frequently wandered about the grassy spaces on idle afternoons. There were few people about, as the night was so disagreeable, and those she saw moved swiftly past her. Occasionally she caught a glimpse of vague forms under the trees: but she never looked closely at these night-prowlers, but, keeping in the middle of the path, moved steadily to her destination. At last she came to the bridge and took up her station at the right-hand corner on this near side. Having come to the end of her journey she lighted the lantern.

Across the water the broad bridge stretched weirdly, vanishing into the fog, which here grew denser, like the Bridge of Life in the Vision of Mirza. Patricia had read Addison's fantastic story in some school-book, and it was suggested to her again by the sight before her. People came out of the mist and disappeared into it again: some passed, unconscious of the quiet figure at the corner, while others peered into her face. But no one addressed her, much to her relief, and the ruddy light of her lantern shone like an angry star. Then the expected happened in one moment and quite without preparation.

A man came swiftly over the bridge--so swiftly, that it might have been said that he was running. She had no time to see what he was like in looks, or how he was dressed, before he caught sight of the red light and stopped for one moment to thrust a small box into her hand. Then he darted away to the left and disappeared along the bank on the Bayswater side. That was all!


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