I had put my hand between the bars to pat the glossy, heaving flank. He pulled it back, with a serious face.
“I assure you that he is not safe. Don’t imagine that because I can take liberties with him anyone else can. He is very exclusive in his friends—aren’t you, Tommy? Ah, he hears his lunch coming to him! Don’t you, boy?”
A step sounded in the stone-flagged passage, and the creature had sprung to his feet, and was pacing up and down the narrow cage, his yellow eyes gleaming, and his scarlet tongue rippling and quivering over the white line of his jagged teeth. A groom entered with a coarse joint upon a tray, and thrust it through the bars to him. He pounced lightly upon it, carried it off to the corner, and there, holding it between his paws, tore and wrenched at it, raising his bloody muzzle every now and then to look at us. It was a malignant and yet fascinating sight.
“You can’t wonder that I am fond of him, can you?” said my host, as we left the room, “especially when you consider that I have had the rearing of him. It was no joke bringing him over from the centre of South America; but here he is safe and sound—and, as I have said, far the most perfect specimen in Europe. The people at the Zoo are dying to have him, but I really can’t part with him. Now, I think that I have inflicted my hobby upon you long enough, so we cannot do better than follow Tommy’s example, and go to our lunch.”
My South American relative was so engrossed by his grounds and their curious occupants, that I hardly gave him credit at first for having any interests outside them. That he had some, and pressing ones, was soon borne in upon me by the number of telegrams which he received. They arrived at all hours, and were always opened by him with the utmost eagerness and anxiety upon his face. Sometimes I imagined that it must be the Turf, and sometimes the Stock Exchange, but certainly he had some very urgent business going forwards which was not transacted upon the Downs of Suffolk. During the six days of my visit he had never fewer than three or four telegrams a day, and sometimes as many as seven or eight.
I had occupied these six days so well, that by the end of them I had succeeded in getting upon the most cordial terms with my cousin. Every night we had sat up late in the billiard-room, he telling me the most extraordinary stories of his adventures in America—stories so desperate and reckless, that I could hardly associate them with the brown little, chubby man before me. In return, I ventured upon some of my own reminiscences of London life, which interested him so much, that he vowed he would come up to Grosvenor Mansions and stay with me. He was anxious to see the faster side of city life, and certainly, though I say it, he could not have chosen a more competent guide. It was not until the last day of my visit that I ventured to approach that which was on my mind. I told him frankly about my pecuniary difficulties and my impending ruin, and I asked his advice—though I hoped for something more solid. He listened attentively, puffing hard at his cigar.
“But surely,” said he, “you are the heir of our relative, Lord Southerton?”
“I have every reason to believe so, but he would never make me any allowance.”
“No, no, I have heard of his miserly ways. My poor Marshall, your position has been a very hard one. By the way, have you heard any news of Lord Southerton’s health lately?”
“He has always been in a critical condition ever since my childhood.”
“Exactly—a creaking hinge, if ever there was one. Your inheritance may be a long way off. Dear me, how awkwardly situated you are!”
“I had some hopes, sir, that you, knowing all the facts, might be inclined to advance——”
“Don’t say another word, my dear boy,” he cried, with the utmost cordiality; “we shall talk it over tonight, and I give you my word that whatever is in my power shall be done.”
I was not sorry that my visit was drawing to a close, for it is unpleasant to feel that there is one person in the house who eagerly desires your departure. Mrs. King’s sallow face and forbidding eyes had become more and more hateful to me. She was no longer actively rude—her fear of her husband prevented her—but she pushed her insane jealousy to the extent of ignoring me, never addressing me, and in every way making my stay at Greylands as uncomfortable as she could. So offensive was her manner during that last day, that I should certainly have left had it not been for that interview with my host in the evening which would, I hoped, retrieve my broken fortunes.
It was very late when it occurred, for my relative, who had been receiving even more telegrams than usual during the day, went off to his study after dinner, and only emerged when the household had retired to bed. I heard him go round locking the doors, as custom was of a night, and finally he joined me in the billiard-room. His stout figure was wrapped in a dressing-gown, and he wore a pair of red Turkish slippers without any heels. Settling down into an arm-chair, he brewed himself a glass of grog, in which I could not help noticing that the whisky considerably predominated over the water.
“My word!” said he, “what a night!”
It was, indeed. The wind was howling and screaming round the house, and the latticed windows rattled and shook as if they were coming in. The glow of the yellow lamps and the flavour of our cigars seemed the brighter and more fragrant for the contrast.
“Now, my boy,” said my host, “we have the house and the night to ourselves. Let me have an idea of how your affairs stand, and I will see what can be done to set them in order. I wish to hear every detail.”
Thus encouraged, I entered into a long exposition, in which all my tradesmen and creditors from my landlord to my valet, figured in turn. I had notes in my pocket-book, and I marshalled my facts, and gave, I flatter myself, a very businesslike statement of my own unbusinesslike ways and lamentable position. I was depressed, however, to notice that my companion’s eyes were vacant and his attention elsewhere. When he did occasionally throw out a remark it was so entirely perfunctory and pointless, that I was sure he had not in the least followed my remarks. Every now and then he roused himself and put on some show of interest, asking me to repeat or to explain more fully, but it was always to sink once more into the same brown study. At last he rose and threw the end of his cigar into the grate.
“I’ll tell you what, my boy,” said he. “I never had a head for figures, so you will excuse me. You must jot it all down upon paper, and let me have a note of the amount. I’ll understand it when I see it in black and white.”
The proposal was encouraging. I promised to do so.
“And now it’s time we were in bed. By Jove, there’s one o’clock striking in the hall.”
The tingling of the chiming clock broke through the deep roar of the gale. The wind was sweeping past with the rush of a great river.
“I must see my cat before I go to bed,” said my host. “A high wind excites him. Will you come?”
“Certainly,” said I.
“Then tread softly and don’t speak, for everyone is asleep.”
We passed quietly down the lamp-lit Persian-rugged hall, and through the door at the farther end. All was dark in the stone corridor, but a stable lantern hung on a hook, and my host took it down and lit it. There was no grating visible in the passage, so I knew that the beast was in its cage.
“Come in!” said my relative, and opened the door.
A deep growling as we entered showed that the storm had really excited the creature. In the flickering light of the lantern, we saw it, a huge black mass coiled in the corner of its den and throwing a squat, uncouth shadow upon the whitewashed wall. Its tail switched angrily among the straw.
“Poor Tommy is not in the best of tempers,” said Everard King, holding up the lantern and looking in at him. “What a black devil he looks, doesn’t he? I must give him a little supper to put him in a better humour. Would you mind holding the lantern for a moment?”
I took it from his hand and he stepped to the door.
“His larder is just outside here,” said he. “You will excuse me for an instant won’t you?” He passed out, and the door shut with a sharp metallic click behind him.
That hard crisp sound made my heart stand still. A sudden wave of terror passed over me. A vague perception of some monstrous treachery turned me cold. I sprang to the door, but there was no handle upon the inner side.
“Here!” I cried. “Let me out!”