[Colonel Annesley’s Story]

THE CROSSING FROM DOVER TO Calais had been rough; a drizzling rain fell all the time, and most of the passengers had remained below. Strange to say, they were few enough, as I saw on landing. It was a Sunday in late July, and there ought to have been a strong stream setting towards Central Europe. I hardly expected to find much room in the train; not that it mattered, for my place was booked through in the Lucerne sleeping-car of the Engadine express.

Room! When I reached the siding where this train de luxe was drawn up, I saw that I was not merely the first but the only passenger. Five sleeping-cars and a dining-car attached, with the full staff, attendants, chef, waiters—all lay there waiting for me, and me alone.

“Not very busy?” I said, with a laugh to the conductor.

Parbleu,” replied the man, polyglot and cosmopolitan, like most of his class, but a Frenchman, or, more likely from his accent, a Swiss. “I never saw the like before.”

“I shall have a compartment to myself, then?”

“Monsieur may have the whole carriage if he wishes—the whole five carriages. It is but to arrange.” His eyes glistened at the prospect of something special in this obvious scarcity of coming tips.

“The train will run, I hope? I am anxious to get on.”

“But assuredly it will run. Even without monsieur it would run. The carriages are wanted at the other end for the return journey. Stay, what have we here?”

We stood talking together on the platform, and at some little distance from the railway station, the road to which was clear and open all the way, so that I could see a little party of four approaching us, and distinguish them. Two ladies, an official, probably one of the guards, and a porter laden with light luggage.

As they came up I discreetly withdrew to my own compartment, the window of which was open, so that I could hear and see all that passed.

“Can we have places for Lucerne?” It was asked in an eager, anxious, but very sweet voice, and in excellent French.

“Places?” echoed the conductor. “Madame can have fifty.”

“What did I tell madame?” put in the official who had escorted her.

“I don’t want fifty,” she replied, pettishly, crossly, “only two. A separate compartment for myself and maid; the child can come in with us.”

Now for the first time I noticed that the maid was carrying a bundle in her arms, the nature of which was unmistakable. The way in which she swung it to and fro rhythmically was that of a nurse and child.

“If madame prefers, the maid and infant can be accommodated apart,” suggested the obliging conductor.

But this did not please her. “No, no, no,” she answered with much asperity. “I wish them to be with me. I have told you so already; did you not hear?”

Parfaitement, as madame pleases. Only, as the train is not full—very much the reverse indeed—only one other passenger, a gentleman—no more—”

The news affected her strangely, and in two very different ways. At first a look of satisfaction came into her face, but it was quickly succeeded by one of nervous apprehension, amounting to positive fear. She turned to talk to her maid in English, while the conductor busied himself in preparing the tickets.

“What are we to do, Philpotts?” This was said to the maid in English. “What if it should be—”

“Oh, no, never! We can’t turn back. You must face it out now. There is nothing to be afraid of, not in that way. I saw him, the gentleman, as we came up. He’s quite a gentleman, a good-looking military-looking man, not at all the other sort—you know the sort I mean.”

Now while I accepted the compliment to myself, I was greatly mystified by the allusion to the “other sort of man.”

“You think we can go on, that it’s safe, even in this empty train? It would have been so different in a crowd. We should have passed unobserved among a lot of people.”

“But then there would have been a lot of people to observe us; some one, perhaps, who knew you, some one who might send word.”

“I wish I knew who this passenger is. It would make me much easier in my mind. It might be possible perhaps to get him on our side if he is to go with us, at least to get him to help to take care of our treasure until I can hand it over. What a burden it is! It’s terribly on my mind. I wonder how I could have done it. The mere thought makes me shiver. To turn thief! Me, a common thief!”

“Stealing is common enough, and it don’t matter greatly, so long as you’re not found out. And you did it so cleverly too; with such a nerve. Not a soul could have equalled you at the business. You might have been at it all your life,” said the maid, with affectionate familiarity, that of a humble performer paying tribute to a great artist in crime.

She was a decent, respectable-looking body too, this confederate whom I concluded was masquerading as maid. The very opposite of the younger woman (about her more directly), a neatly dressed unassuming person, short and squat in figure, with a broad, plain, and, to the casual observer, honest face, slow in movement and of no doubt sluggish temperament, not likely to be moved or distressed by conscience, neither at the doing or the memory of evil deeds.

Now the conductor came up and civilly bowed them towards their carriage, mine, which they entered at the other end as I left it making for the restaurant, not a little interested in what I had heard.

Who and what could these two people be with whom I was so strangely and unexpectedly thrown? The one was a lady, I could hardly be mistaken in that; it was proved in many ways, voice, air, aspect, all spoke of birth and breeding, however much she might have fallen away from or forfeited her high station.

She might have taken to devious practices, or been forced into them; whatever the cause of her present decadence she could not have been always the thief she now confessed herself. I had it from her own lips, she had acknowledged it with some show of remorse. There must surely have been some excuse for her, some overmastering temptation, some extreme pressure exercised irresistibly through her emotions, her affections, her fears.

What! this fair creature a thief? This beautiful woman, so richly endowed by nature, so outwardly worthy of admiration, a despicable degraded character within? It was hard to credit it. As I still hesitated, puzzled and bewildered, still anxious to give her the benefit of the doubt, she came to the door of the buffet where I was now seated at lunch, and allowed me to survey her more curiously and more at leisure.

“A daughter of the gods, divinely tall and most divinely fair.”

The height and slimness of her graceful figure enhanced by the tight-fitting tailor-made ulster that fell straight from collar to heel; her head well poised, a little thrown back with chin in the air, and a proud defiant look in her undeniably handsome face. Fine eyes of darkest blue, a well-chiseled nose with delicate, sensitive nostrils, a small mouth with firm closely compressed lips, a wealth of glossy chestnut hair, gathered into a knot under her tweed travelling cap.

As she faced me, looking straight at me, she conveyed the impression of a determined unyielding character, a woman who would do much, dare much, who would go her own road if so resolved, undismayed and undeterred by any difficulties that might beset her.

Then, to my surprise, although I might have expected it, she came and seated herself at a table close to my elbow. She had told her companion that she wanted to know more about me, that she would like to enlist me in her service, questionable though it might be, and here she was evidently about to make the attempt. It was a little barefaced, but I admit that I was amused by it, and not at all unwilling to measure swords with her. She was presumably an adventuress, clever, designing, desirous of turning me round her finger, but she was also a pretty woman.

“I beg your pardon,” she began almost at once in English, when the waiter had brought her a plate of soup, and she was toying with the first spoonful, speaking in a low constrained, almost sullen voice, as though it cost her much to break through the convenances in thus addressing a stranger.

“You will think it strange of me,” she went on, “but I am rather awkwardly situated, in fact in a position of difficulty, even of danger, and I venture to appeal to you as a countryman, an English officer.”

“How do you know that?” I asked, quickly concluding that my light baggage had been subjected to scrutiny, and wondering what subterfuge she would adopt to explain it.

“It is easy to see that. Gentlemen of your cloth are as easily recognizable as if your names were printed on your back.”

“And as they are generally upon our travelling belongings.” I looked at her steadily with a light laugh, and a crimson flush came on her face. However hardened a character, she had preserved the faculty of blushing readily and deeply, the natural adjunct of a cream-like complexion.

“Let me introduce myself in full,” I said, pitying her obvious confusion; and I handed her my card, which she took with a shamefaced air, rather foreign to her general demeanour.

“Lieut.-Colonel Basil Annesley, Mars and Neptune Club,” she read aloud. “What was your regiment?”

“The Princess Ulrica Rifles, but I left it on promotion. I am unattached for the moment, and waiting for reëmployment.”

“Your own master then?”

“Practically, until I am called upon to serve. I hope to get a staff appointment. Meanwhile I am loafing about Europe.”

“Do you go beyond Lucerne?”

“Across the St. Gothard certainly, and as far as Como, perhaps beyond. And you? Am I right in supposing we are to be fellow travellers by the Engadine express?” I went on by way of saying something. “To Lucerne or further?”



“PROBABLY.” THE ANSWER WAS GIVEN with great hesitation. “If I go by this train at all, that is to say.”

“Have you any doubts?”

“Why, yes. To tell you the truth, I dread the journey. I have been doing so ever since—since I felt it must be made. Now I find it ever so much worse than I expected.”

“Why is that, if I may ask?”

“You see, I am travelling alone, practically alone that is to say, with only my maid.”

“And your child,” I added rather casually, with no second thought, and I was puzzled to understand why the chance phrase evoked another vivid blush.

“The child! Oh, yes, the child,” and I was struck that she did not say “my” child, but laid rather a marked stress on the definite article.

“That of course increases your responsibility, “ I hazarded, and she seized the suggestion.

“Quite so. You see how I am placed. The idea of going all that way in an empty train quite terrifies me.”

“I don’t see why it should.”

“But just think. There will be no one in it, no one but ourselves. We two lone women and you, single-handed. Suppose the five attendants and the others were to combine against us? They might rob and murder us.”

“Oh, come, come. You must not let foolish fears get the better of your common sense. Why should they want to make us their victims? I believe they are decent, respectable men, the employes of a great company, carefully selected. At any rate, I am not worth robbing, are you? Have you any special reason for fearing thieves? Ladies are perhaps a little too reckless in carrying their valuables about with them. Your jewel-case may be exceptionally well lined.”

“Oh, but it is not; quite the contrary,” she cried with almost hysterical alacrity. “I have nothing to tempt them. And yet something dreadful might happen; I feel we are quite at their mercy.”

“I don’t. I tell you frankly that I think you are grossly exaggerating the situation. But if you feel like that, why not wait? Wait over for another train, I mean?”

I am free to confess that, although my curiosity had been aroused, I would much rather have washed my hands of her, and left her and her belongings, especially the more compromising part, the mysterious treasure, behind at Calais.

“Is there another train soon?” she inquired nervously.

“Assuredly—by Boulogne. It connects with the train from Victoria at 2.20 and the boat from Folkestone. You need only run as far as Boulogne with this Engadine train, and wait there till it starts. I think about 6 p.m.

“Will that not lose time?”

“Undoubtedly you will be two hours later at Basle, and you may lose the connection with Lucerne and the St. Gothard if you want to get on without delay. To Naples I think you said?”

“I did not say Naples. You said you were going to Naples,” she replied stiffly. “I did not mention my ultimate destination.”

“Perhaps not. I have dreamt it. But I do not presume to inquire where you are going, and I myself am certainly not bound for Naples. But if I can be of no further use to you I will make my bow. It is time for me to get back to the train, and for my part I don’t in the least want to lose the Engadine express.”

She got up too, and walked out of the buffet by my side.

“I shall go on, at any rate as far as Boulogne,” she volunteered, without my asking the question; and we got into our car together, she entering her compartment and I mine. I heard her door bang, but I kept mine still open.

I smoked many cigarettes pondering over the curious episode and my new acquaintance. How was I to class her? A young man would have sworn she was perfectly straight, that there could be no guile in this sweet-faced, gentle, well-mannered woman; and I, with my greater experience of life and the sex, was much tempted to do the same. It was against the grain to condemn her as all bad, a depredator, a woman with perverted moral sense who broke the law and did evil things.

But what else could I conclude from the words I had heard drop from her own lips, strengthened and confirmed as they were by the incriminating language of her companion?

“Bother the woman and her dark blue eyes. I wish I’d never come across her. A fine thing, truly, to fall in love with a thief. I hope to heaven she will really leave the train at Boulogne; we ought to be getting near there by now.”

I had travelled the road often enough to know it by heart, and I recognized our near approach only to realize that the train did not mean to stop. I turned over the leaves of Bradshaw and saw I had been mistaken; the train skirted Boulogne and never entered the station.

“Well, that settles it for the present, anyhow. If she still wants to leave the train she must wait now until Amiens. That ought to suit her just as well.”

But it would not; at least, she lost no time in expressing her disappointment at not being able to alight at Boulogne.

We had hardly passed the place when her maid’s (or companion’s) square figure filled the open doorway of my compartment, and in her strong deep voice she addressed a brief summons to me brusquely and peremptorily:

“My lady wishes to speak to you.”

“And pray what does ‘my lady’ want with me?” I replied carelessly, using the expression as a title of rank.

“She is not ‘my lady,’ but ‘my’ lady, my mistress, and simply Mrs. Blair.” The correction and information were vouchsafed with cold self-possession. “Are you coming?”

“I don’t really see why I should,” I said, not too civilly. “Why should I be at her beck and call? If she had been in any trouble, any serious trouble, such as she anticipated when talking to me at the buffet, and a prey to imaginary alarms since become real, I should have been ready to serve her or any woman in distress, but nothing of this could have happened in the short hour’s run so far.”

“I thought you were a gentleman,” was the scornful rejoinder. “A nice sort of gentleman, indeed, to sit there like a stock or a stone when a lady sends for you!”

“A lady!” There was enough sarcasm in my tone to bring a flush upon her impassive face, a fierce gleam of anger in her stolid eyes; and when I added, “A fine sort of lady!” I thought she would have struck me. But she did no more than hiss an insolent gibe.

“You call yourself an officer, a colonel? I call you a bounder, a common cad.”

“Be off!” I was goaded into crying, angrily. “Get away with you; I want to have nothing more to say to you or your mistress. I know what you are and what you have been doing, and I prefer to wash my hands of you both. You’re not the kind of people I like to deal with or wish to know.”

She stared at me open-mouthed, her hands clenched, her eyes half out of her head. Her face had gone deadly white, and I thought she would have fallen there where she stood, a prey to impotent rage.

Now came a sudden change of scene. The lady, Mrs. Blair, as I had just heard her called, appeared behind, her taller figure towering above the maid’s, her face in full view, vexed with varying acute emotions, rage, grief, and terror combined.



“WHAT’S ALL THIS?” SHE CRIED in great agitation. “Wait, do not speak, Philpotts, leave him to me.... Do you go back to our place this instant; we cannot be away together, you know that; it must not be left alone, one of us must be on guard over it. Hurry, hurry, I never feel that it is safe out of our sight.

“Now, sir,” Mrs. Blair turned on me fiercely, “will you be so good as to explain how I find you quarrelling with my maid, permitting yourself to cast aspersions, to make imputations upon two unprotected women?”

“How much have you overheard?” I asked, feeling very small already. My self-reproach was aroused even before I quailed under the withering contempt of her tone.

“Enough to expect ample apology. How dare you, how dare you say such things? What you may imagine, what unworthy idea you may have formed, is beyond me to guess, but you can know nothing. You can have no real reason for condemning me.”

“Let me admit that, and leave the matter there,” I pleaded. I could not bring myself to tell her that she was self-condemned, that she was the principal witness against herself. It would have been too cruel, ungenerous, to take an unfair advantage. Why should I constitute myself her judge?

She looked at me very keenly, her eyes piercing me through and through. I felt that she was penetrating my inmost thoughts and turning me inside out.

“I will not leave it at that. I insist upon your speaking plainly. I must know what is in your mind.”

“And if I refuse, distinctly, positively, categorically; if I deny your contention, and protest that I have nothing to tell you?”

“I shall not believe you. Come, please, let there be no more evasion. I must have it out. I shall stay here until you tell me what you think of me, and why.”

She seated herself by my side in the narrow velvet seat of the small compartment, so close that the folds of her tweed skirt (she had removed her ulster) touched and rubbed against me. I was invaded by the sweet savour of her gracious presence (she used some delightful scent, violette ideale, I believe), by putting forth my hand a few inches I might have taken hers in mine. She fixed her eyes on me with an intent unvarying gaze that under other conditions would have been intoxicating, but was now no more than disquieting and embarrassing.

As I was still tongue-tied, she returned to her point with resolute insistence.

“Come, Colonel Annesley, how long is this to go on? I want and will have an explanation. Why have you formed such a bad opinion of me?”

“How do you know I have done so?” I tried to fence and fight with her, but in vain.

“I cannot be mistaken. I myself heard you tell my maid that you wished to have nothing to say to us, that we were not your sort. Well! why is that? How do I differ from the rest of—your world, let us call it?”

“You do not, as far as I can see. At least you ought to hold your own anywhere, in any society, the very best.”

“And yet I’m not ‘your sort.’ Am I a humbug, an impostor, an adventuress, a puppet and play-actress? Or is it that I have forfeited my right, my rank of gentlewoman, my position in the world, your world?”

I was silent, moodily, obstinately silent. She had hit the blot, and could put but one interpretation upon it. I saw she guessed I knew something. Not how much, perhaps, but something to her discredit. She still was not satisfied; she would penetrate my reserve, overcome my reticence, have it out of me willy nilly, whether I would or no.

“You cannot surely refuse me? I have my reasons for desiring to know the very worst.”

“Why drive me to that?” I schooled myself to seem hard and uncompromising. I felt I was weakening under the subtle charm of her presence, and the pretty pleading of her violet eyes; but I was still resolute not to give way.

“If you will only tell me why you think such evil I may be able to justify myself, or at least explain away appearances that are against me.”

“You admit there are such appearances? Remember, I never said so.”

“Then on what do you condemn me? You do condemn me, I am certain of it,” she insisted, seeing my gesture of negation. “Are you treating me fairly, chivalrously, as a gentleman and a man of honour should? How can you reconcile it to your conscience?”

“Some people talk very lightly of conscience, or use it when it is an empty meaningless word,” I said severely.

“You imply that I have no conscience, or that I should feel the qualms, the prickings of conscience?”

“After what you’ve done, yes,” I blurted out.

“What have I done? What do you know of it, or what led me to do it? How dare you judge me without knowing the facts, without a shadow of proof?” She sprang to her feet and passed to the door, where she turned, as it were, at bay.

“I have the very best proof, from your own lips. I heard you and your maid talking together at Calais.”

“A listener, Colonel Annesley? Faugh!”

“It was forced on me. You stood under my window there.” I defended myself indignantly. “I wish to heaven I had never heard. I did not want to know; your secrets are your own affair.”

“And my actions, I presume?” she put in with superb indifference.

“And their consequences, madam,” but the shot failed rather of effect. She merely smiled and shook her head recklessly, contemptuously. Was she so old a hand, so hardened in crime, that the fears of detection, arrest, reprisals, the law and its penalties had no effect upon her? Undoubtedly at Calais she was afraid; some misgiving, some haunting terror possessed her. Now, when standing before me fully confessed for what she was, and practically at my mercy, she could laugh with cool and unabashed levity and make little of the whole affair.

If I had hoped that I had done with her now, when the murder was out, I was very much mistaken. She had some further designs on me, I was sure. She wanted to make use of me, how or in what way I could not imagine; but I soon perceived that she was anxious to be friends. The woman was in the ascendant, and, as I thought, the eternal feminine ever agog to attract and subjugate the male, she would conquer my admiration even if she could not secure my esteem.

Suddenly, and quite without my invitation or encouragement, she reseated herself by my side.

“See, Colonel Annesley, let us come to an understanding.” She said it quite gaily and with no shadow of apprehension left in her, not a sign of shame or remorse in her voice. Her mood had entirely changed. She was débonnaire, frolicsome, overflowing with fun.

“What do you mean to do? Give me into custody? Call in the gendarmes at the next station? Have me taken red-handed with the—stolen property—the ‘swag,’ you know the word, perhaps, in my possession?”

“I am not a police officer; it’s not my business,” I answered gruffly. I thought this flippancy very much misplaced.

“Or you might telegraph back to England, to London, to Scotland Yard: ‘The woman Blair in the Engadine express. Wire along the line to authorities, French and Swiss, to look out for her and arrest preparatory to extradition.’”

“I would much rather not continue this conversation, Mrs. Blair.”

“I am not ‘Mrs. Blair,’” she cried, laughing merrily as at a tremendous joke. “It is only one of my aliases. I am better known as Slippery Sue, and the Countess of Plantagenet, and the Sly American, and dashing Mrs. Mortimer, and—”

“Oh, please, please spare me. It does not matter, not a row of pins, what you are called. I would rather not have the whole list,” I interrupted her, but could not check her restless tongue.

“You shall hear, you must know all about me and my famous exploits. I was the heroine of that robbery at Buckingham Palace. I was at the State Ball, and made a fine harvest of jewels. I have swept a dozen country-houses clean; I have picked pockets and lifted old lace from the shop counters, and embezzled and forged—”

“And turned pirate, and held up trains, and robbed the Bank of England,” I added, falling into her humour and laughing as she rose to her full height; and again her mood changed, dominating me with imperious air, her voice icily cold in manner, grave and repellent.

“Why not? I am a thief; you believe me to be a common thief.”



I WAS TOO MUCH TAKEN aback to do better than stammer out helplessly, hopelessly, almost unintelligibly, a few words striving to remind her of her own admission. Nothing, indeed, could take the sting out of this, and yet it was all but impossible to accuse her, to blame her even for what she had done.

She read that in my eyes, in my abashed face, my hands held out deprecating her wrath, and her next words had a note of conciliation in them.

“There are degrees of wrong-doing, shades of guilt,” she said. “Crimes, offences, misdeeds, call them as you please, are not absolutely unpardonable; in some respects they are excusable, if not justifiable. Do you believe that?”

“I should like to do so in your case,” I replied gently. “You know I am still quite in the dark.”

“And you must remain so, for the present at any rate,” she said firmly and sharply. “I can tell you nothing, I am not called upon to do it indeed. We are absolute strangers, I owe you no explanation, and I would give you none, even if you asked.”

“I have not asked and shall not ask anything.”

“Then you are willing to take it so, to put the best construction on what you have heard, to forget my words, to surrender your suspicions?”

“If you will tell me only this: that I may have confidence in you, that I may trust you, some day, to enlighten me and explain what seems so incomprehensible to-day.”

“I am sorely tempted to do so now,” she paused, lost for a time in deep and anxious thought; and then, after subjecting me to a long and intent scrutiny, she shook her head. “No, it cannot be, not yet. You must earn the right to my confidence, you must prove to me that you will not misuse it. There are others concerned; I am not speaking for myself alone. You must have faith in me, believe in me or let it be.”

She had beaten me, conquered me. I was ready to be her slave with blind, unquestioning obedience.

“As you think best. I will abide by your decision. Tell me all or nothing. If the first I will help you, if the latter I will also help you as far as lies in my power.”

“Without conditions?” And when I nodded assent such a smile lit up her face that more than repaid me, and stifled the doubts and qualms that still oppressed me. But, bewitched by the sorcery of her bright eyes, I said bravely:

“I accept service—I am yours to command. Do with me what you please.”

“Will you give me your hand on it?” She held out hers, gloveless, white and warm, and it lay in mine just a second while I pressed it to my lips in token of fealty and submission.

“You shall be my knight and champion, and I say it seriously. I may call you to fight for me, at least to defend and protect me in my present undertaking. The way is by no means clear. I cannot foresee what may happen on this journey. There are risks, dangers before me. I may ask you to share them. Do you repent already?”

She had been watching me closely for any sign of wavering, but I showed none, whatever I might feel in my inmost heart.

“I shall not disappoint you,” was what I said, and, in a firm assured voice, added, “You have resolved then to travel forward in this train?”

“I must, I have no choice. I dare not tarry by the way. But I no longer feel quite alone and unprotected. If trouble arises, I tell you candidly I shall try to throw it on you.”