'Uneasy Lies The Head'
Jessie crushed the paper carelessly in the palm of her hand. Her impulse was, of course, to destroy the letter, seeing that the possession of it was not unattended with danger, but there was no chance at present. The thing would have to be burnt to make everything safe.
"How long since the note came?" she asked the footman with an assumption of displeasure. "Really, these tradespeople are most annoying."
The footman was understood to say that the note had only just arrived, that it had been left by the young person herself with an intimation that she would return presently. To all of this Jessie listened with a well-acted impatience.
"I suppose I shall have to put up with it," she said. "You know where to ask the girl if she comes. That will do. What were we talking about, Captain Hope?"
It was all admirably done, as Ronald Hope was fain to admit. But he did not like it, and he did not hesitate to say so. He wanted to know what it all meant. And he spoke as one who had every right to know.
"I can hardly tell you," Jessie said unsteadily. "Events are moving so fast to-night that they are getting on my nerves. Meanwhile, you seem to know General Maxgregor very well--you say that you are anxious to obtain a post in the Asturian service. That means, of course, that you know something of the history of the country. The character of the king, for instance----"
"Bad," Hope said tersely, "very bad indeed. A drunkard, a roué
, and a traitor. It is for the queen's sake that I turn to Asturia."
"I can quite understand that. Queen Margaret of Asturia seems very fortunate in her friends. Look at this. Then put it in your pocket, and take the first opportunity of destroying it."
And Jessie handed the mysterious note to Ronald, who read it again with a puzzled air.
"That came from Vera Galloway," the girl explained. "She is close by, but she does not seem to have finished her task yet. Why I am here playing her part I cannot say. But there it is. This letter alludes to General Maxgregor, who is upstairs in one of the rooms in close attendance on the King of Asturia, who is suffering from one of his alcoholic attacks. Do you think that it is possible for anybody to see into the room?"
"Certainly," Ronald replied. "For instance, there are terraces at the end of the garden made to hide the mews at the back from overlooking the grounds. An unseen foe hidden there in the trees, with a good glass, may discover a good deal. Vera Galloway knows that, or she would not have sent you that note. You had better see to it at once."
Jessie hurried away, having first asked Hope to destroy the note. The door of the room containing the king was locked, and Jessie had to rap upon it more than once before it was opened. A voice inside demanded her business.
"I come with a message from the queen," she whispered. She was in a hurry, and there was always the chance of the servants coming along. "Please let me in."
Very cautiously the door was opened. General Maxgregor stood there with a bottle in his hand. His face was deadly pale, and his hand shook as if he had a great fear of something. The fear was physical, or Jessie was greatly mistaken.
"What has happened?" she asked. "Tell me, what has frightened you so terribly?"
"Frightened!" Maxgregor stammered. It seemed odd at the moment to think of this man as one of the bravest and most dashing cavalry officers in Europe. "I don't understand what you mean?"
With just a gesture of scorn Jessie indicated the cheval glass opposite. As Maxgregor glanced at the polished mirror he saw a white, ghastly face, wet with sweat, and with a furtive, shrinking look in the eyes. He passed the back of his hand over his moist forehead.
"You are quite right," he said. "I had not known--I could not tell. And I have been passing through one of the fiercest temptations that ever lured a man to the edge of the Pit. You are brave and strong, Miss Galloway, and already you have given evidences of your devotion to the queen. Look there!"
With loathing and contempt Maxgregor indicated the bed on which the King of Asturia was lying. The pitiful, mean, low face and its frame of shock red hair did not appeal to Jessie.
"Not like one's recognized notion of royalty," she said.
"Royalty! The meanest beggar that haunts the gutter is a prince compared to him. He drinks, he gambles, he is preparing to barter his crown for a mess of pottage. And the fellow's heart is hopelessly weak. At any moment he may die, and the heart of the queen will be broken. Not for him, but for the sake of her people. You see this bottle in my hand?"
"Yes," Jessie whispered. "It might be a poison and you--and you----"
"Might be a poisoner," Maxgregor laughed uneasily. "The reverse is the case. I have to administer the bottle drop by drop till it is exhausted, and if I fail the king dies. Miss Galloway, when you came into the room you were face to face with a murderer."
"You mean to say," Jessie stammered, "that you were going to refrain from--from----"
"That was it, though you hesitate to say the word. I had only to get rid of the contents of that bottle and let it be tacitly understood that the patient had taken his medicine. In an hour he would be dead--his heart would have given way under the strain. The world would have been well rid of a scoundrel, and I should never have been found out. The queen would have regained her freedom at the loss of Asturia. And I would have consoled her--I could have healed her wound."
The last words came with a fierce indrawing of the speaker's breath. One glance at his face, and Jessie knew everything. She could feel for the long-drawn agony of the strong man's temptation. She loved herself, and she could realize it all. There was nothing but pity in her heart.
"I understand," she said. "Oh, I understand perfectly. I came in time to save you. General Maxgregor, this matter must never be alluded to between us again. The temptation is past now, I am certain. A brave and good soldier like you---- But I am forgetting. I did not come to you from the queen as I said, because the queen has already departed. I had an urgent message from some unknown friend who desires me to say that you have left the blind up."
"Bless me! and is that really a fact?" Maxgregor exclaimed. "And it is quite possible for any one to see into this room from the terrace at the end of the garden. I used to play here as a boy. There are many spies about to-night. I am glad you reminded me."
Maxgregor crossed over to the window and laid his hand on the blind. As he stood there with the light behind him his figure was picked out clear and sharp. The blind came down with a rush, there was a little tinkle of glass, and the general staggered back with his hand to his shoulder. A moan of pain escaped him as he collapsed into a chair.
"What is it?" Jessie asked anxiously. "Pray tell me, what is the matter? That broken glass----"
"'What is it?' Jessie asked anxiously."
"A bullet," Maxgregor whispered between his teeth, that were clenched in pain. "As I stood in the window somebody fired at me from the garden. It must have been a watcher hidden amongst the trees on the terrace. A little more to the left and my career had been ended."
The man had obtained a grip of himself now, but he was evidently suffering intense pain. A dark stain of red broke out on the left side of his coat.
"I have been hit in the shoulder," he said. "I have no doubt that it is little more than a flesh wound, but it is bleeding, and I feel faint. I once lay on the battlefield all night with such a wound, so that I can put up with it. Please leave me alone for a moment; do not think of me at all. It is just the time for the king to have another dose of those drops. There is no help for it now, Miss Galloway. You must stay and give the king his medicine until it is all gone. Meanwhile, I can only sit here and suffer. For Heaven's sake never mind me."
Jessie took the bottle from the hand of the stricken man and walked to the bed. She marvelled at the steadiness of her own hand. The drops fell on the lips of the sleeping man, who was now breathing regularly. Half an hour passed, and then the bottle was empty.
"I have done my task," Jessie said. "What next? Shall I call Lord Merehaven----"
"Not for worlds," Maxgregor whispered fiercely. "He must not know. We must wait till the house is quiet. There is no occasion ... how faint and giddy I am! If there was only one man whom I could trust at this critical moment!"