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CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.
WHICH IS IN MANY WAYS AMAZING.
Walker was puzzled, distinctly puzzled. He had, I found, strapped up my wound during my unconsciousness after probing it and injecting various antiseptics, I suppose. He had also called in consultation Sir Charles h.o.a.re, the very distinguished surgeon of Charing Cross Hospital, and both of them had been greatly puzzled over my symptoms.
When, an hour later, I was sufficiently recovered to be able to talk, Walker held my wrist and asked me how it all happened.
After I had explained as well as I could, he said--
"Well, my dear fellow, I can only say you've been about as near to death as any man I've ever attended. It was just a case of touch and go with you. When Seton first called me and I saw you I feared that it was all up. Your wound is quite a small one, superficial really, and yet your collapsed condition has been most extraordinary, and there are certain symptoms so mysterious that they have puzzled both Sir Charles and myself."
"What did the fellow use?"
"Not an ordinary knife, certainly. It was evidently a long, thin-bladed dagger--a stiletto, most probably. I found outside the wound upon the cloth of your overcoat some grease, like animal fat. I am having a portion of it a.n.a.lysed and do you know what I expect to find in it?"
"Poison," was his reply. "Sir Charles agrees with me in the theory that you were struck with one of those small, antique poignards with perforated blades, used so frequently in Italy in the fifteenth century."
"In Italy!" I cried, the very name of that country arousing within me suspicion of an attempt upon me by Dawson or by his close friend, the Monk of Lucca.
"Yes; Sir Charles, who, as you probably know, possesses a large collection of ancient arms, tells me that in mediaeval Florence they used to impregnate animal fat with some very potent poison and then rub it upon the perforated blade. On striking a victim the act of withdrawing the blade from the wound left a portion of the envenomed grease within, which, of course, produced a fatal effect."
"But you surely don't antic.i.p.ate that I'm poisoned?" I gasped.
"Certainly you are poisoned. Your wound would neither account for your long insensibility nor for the strange, livid marks upon your body.
Look at the backs of your hands!"
I looked as he directed and was horrified to find upon each small, dark, copper-coloured marks, which also covered my wrists and arms.
"Don't be too alarmed, Greenwood," the good-humoured doctor laughed, "you've turned the corner, and you're not going to die yet. You've had a narrow squeak of it, and certainly the weapon with which you were struck was as deadly as any that could be devised, but, fortunately, you had a thick overcoat on, besides other heavy clothing, vests and things, all of which removed the greater part of the venomous substance before it could enter the flesh. And a lucky thing it was for you, I can tell you. Had you been attacked like this in summer, you'd have stood no chance."
"But who did it?" I exclaimed, bewildered, my eyes riveted upon those ugly marks upon my skin, the evidence that some deadly poison was at work within my system.
"Somebody who owed you a very first-cla.s.s grudge, I should fancy,"
laughed the surgeon, who had been my friend for many years and who used sometimes to come out hunting with the Fitzwilliams. "But cheer up, old chap, you'll have to live on milk and beef-tea for a day or two, have jour wound dressed and keep very quiet, and you'll soon be bobbing about again."
"That's all very well," I replied, impatiently, "but I've got a host of things to do, some private matters to attend to."
"Then you'll have to let them slide for a day or two, that's very certain."
"Yes," urged Reggie, "you must really keep quiet, Gilbert. I'm only thankful that it isn't so serious as we at first expected. When the cabman brought you home and Glave tore out for Walker, I really thought you'd die before he arrived. I couldn't feel any palpitation of your heart, and you were cold as ice."
"I wonder who was the brute who struck me!" I cried. "Great Jacob! if I'd have caught the fellow, I'd have wrung his precious neck there and then."
"What's the use of worrying, so long as you get better quickly?" Reggie asked philosophically.
But I was silent, reflecting that in the belief of Sir Charles h.o.a.re an old Florentine poison dagger had been used. The very fact caused me to suspect that the dastardly attack had been made upon me by my enemies.
We, of course, told Walker nothing of our curious quest, for the present regarding the affair as strictly confidential. Therefore he treated my injury lightly, declaring that I should quickly recover by the exercise of a little patience.
After he had left, shortly before midday, Reggie sat at my bedside and gravely discussed the situation. The two most pressing points at that moment were first to discover the whereabouts of my well-beloved, and secondly to go out to Italy and investigate the Cardinal's secret.
The days pa.s.sed, long, weary, gloomy days of early spring, during which I tossed in bed impatient and helpless. I longed to be up and active, but Walker forbade it. He brought me books and papers instead, and enjoined quiet and perfect rest. Although Reggie and I still had our little hunting box down at Helpstone we had not, since Blair's death, been down there. Besides, the season in the lace trade was an unusually busy one, and Reggie now seemed tied to his counting-house more than ever.
So I was left alone the greater part of the day with Glave to attend to my wants, and with one or two male friends who now and then looked in to smoke and chat.
Thus pa.s.sed the month of March, my progress being much slower than Walker had at first antic.i.p.ated. On a.n.a.lysis a very dangerous irritant poison had been discovered mixed with the grease, and it appeared that I had absorbed more of it into my system than was at first believed--hence my tardy recovery.
Mrs. Percival, who at our urgent request still remained at Grosvenor Square, visited me sometimes, bringing me fruit and flowers from the hothouses at Mayvill, but she had nothing to report concerning Mabel.
The latter had disappeared as completely as though the earth had opened and swallowed her. She was anxious to leave Blair's house now that it was occupied by the usurpers, but we had cajoled her into remaining in order to keep some check upon the movements of the man Dawson and his daughter. Ford had been so exasperated at the man's manner that, on the fifth day of the new _regime_, he had remonstrated, whereupon Dawson had calmly placed a year's wages in banknotes in an envelope, and at once dispensed with his further services, as, of course, he had intended to do all along.
The confidential secretary was, however, a.s.sisting us, and at that moment was making every inquiry possible to ascertain the whereabouts of his young mistress.
"The house is absolutely topsy-turvy," declared Mrs. Percival one day, as she sat with me. "The servants are in revolt, and poor n.o.ble, the housekeeper, is having a most terrible time. Carter and eight of the other servants gave notice yesterday. This person Dawson represents the very acme of bad manners and bad breeding, yet I overheard him remarking to his daughter two days ago that he actually contemplated putting up for the Reform and entering Parliament! Ah! what would poor Mabel say, if she knew? The girl, Dolly, as he calls her, the common little wench, has established herself in Mabel's boudoir, and is about to have it re-decorated in daffodil yellow, to suit her complexion, I believe, while as for finances, it seems, from what Mr. Leighton says, that poor Mr. Blair's fortune must go entirely through the fellow's hands."
"It's a shame--an abominable shame!" I cried angrily. "We know that the man is an adventurer, and yet we are utterly powerless," I added bitterly.
"Poor Mabel!" sighed the widow, who was really much devoted to her. "Do you know, Mr. Greenwood," she said, with a sudden air of confidence, "I have thought more than once since her father's death that she is in possession of the truth of the strange connexion between her father and this unscrupulous man who has been given such power over her and hers.
Indeed, she has confessed to me as much. And I believe that, if she would but tell us the truth, we might be able to get rid of this terrible incubus. Why doesn't she do it--to save herself?"
"Because she is now in fear of him," I answered in a hard, despairing voice. "She holds some secret of which she lives in terror. That, I believe, accounts for the sudden manner in which she has left her own roof and disappeared. She has left the fellow in undisputed possession of everything."
I had not forgotten Dawson's arrogance and self-confidence on the night he had first called upon us.
"But now, Mr. Greenwood, will you please excuse me for what I am going to say?" asked Mrs. Percival, settling her skirts after a brief pause and looking straight into my face. "Perhaps I have no right to enter into your more private matters in this manner, but I trust you will forgive me when you reflect that I am only speaking on the poor girl's behalf."
"Well!" I inquired, somewhat surprised at her sudden change of manner.
Usually she was haughty and frigid in the extreme, a scathing critic who had the names of everybody's cousins aunts and nephews at her fingers'
"The fact is this," she went on. "You might, I feel confident, induce her to tell us the truth. You are the only person who possesses any influence with her now that her father in dead, and--permit me to say so--I have reason for knowing that she entertains a very strong regard for you."
"Yes," I remarked, unable to restrain a sigh, "we are friends--good friends."
"More," declared Mrs. Percival, "Mabel loves you."
"Loves me!" I cried, starting up and supporting myself upon one elbow.
"No, I think you must be mistaken. She regards me more as a brother than a lover, and she has, I think, learnt ever since the first day we met in such romantic conditions, to regard me in the light of a protector.
"No," I added, shaking my head, "there are certain barriers that must prevent her loving me--the difference of our ages, of position and all that."
"Ah! There you are entirely mistaken," said the widow, quite frankly.
"I happen to know that the very reason why her father left his secret to you was in order that you might profit by its knowledge as he had done, and because he foresaw the direction of Mabel's affections."
"How do you know this, Mrs. Percival?" I demanded, half inclined to doubt her.
"Because Mr. Blair, before making his will, took me into his confidence and asked me frankly whether his daughter had ever mentioned you in such a manner as to cause me to suspect. I told him the truth of course, just as I have now told you. Mabel loves you--loves you very dearly."