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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lighted Way - Chapter 22. The Refugee's Return
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The Lighted Way - Chapter 22. The Refugee's Return Post by :markbc Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :3264

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The Lighted Way - Chapter 22. The Refugee's Return

CHAPTER XXII. THE REFUGEE'S RETURN

Sabatini's attitude of indolence lasted only until they had turned from the waterway into the main river. Then he sat up and pointed a little way down the stream.

"Can you cross over somewhere there?" he asked.

Arnold nodded and punted across towards the opposite bank.

"Get in among the rushes," Sabatini directed. "Now listen to me."

Arnold came and sat down.

"You don't mean to tire me," he remarked.

Sabatini smiled.

"Do you seriously think that I asked you to bring me on the river for the pleasure of watching your prowess with that pole, my friend?" he asked. "Not at all. I am going to ask you to do me a service."

Arnold was suddenly conscious that Sabatini, for the first time since he had known him, was in earnest. The lines of his marble-white face seemed to have grown tenser and firmer, his manner was the manner of a man who meets a crisis.

"Turn your head and look inland," he said. "You follow the lane there?"

Arnold nodded.

"Quite well," he admitted.

"At the corner," Sabatini continued, "just out of sight behind that tall hedge, is my motor car. I want you to land and make your way there. My chauffeur has his instructions. He will take you to a village some eight miles up the river, a village called Heslop Wood. There is a boat-builder's yard at the end of the main street. You will hire a boat and row up the river. About three hundred yards up, on the left hand side, is an old, dismantled-looking house-boat. I want you to board it and search it thoroughly."

Sabatini paused, and Arnold looked at him, perplexed.

"Search it!" he exclaimed. "But for whom? For what?"

"It is my belief," Sabatini went on, "that Starling is hiding there. If he is, I want you to bring him to me by any means which occur to you. I had sooner he were dead, but that is too much to ask of you. I want him brought in the motor car to that point in the lane there. Then, if you succeed, you will bring him down here and your mission is ended. Will you undertake it?"

Arnold never hesitated for a moment. He was only too thankful to be able to reply in the affirmative. He put on his coat and propelled the punt a little further into the rushes.

"I'll do my best," he asserted.

Sabatini said never a word, but his silence seemed somehow eloquent. Arnold sprang onto the bank and turned once around.

"If he is there, I'll bring him," he promised.

Sabatini waved his hand and Arnold sped across the meadow. He found the motor car waiting behind the hedge, and he had scarcely stepped in before they were off. They swung at a great speed along the narrow lanes, through two villages, and finally came to a standstill at the end of a long, narrow street. Arnold alighted and found the boat-builder's yard, with rows of boats for hire, a short distance along the front. He chose one and paddled off, glancing at his watch as he did so. It was barely a quarter of an hour since he had left Sabatini.

The river at this spot was broad, but it narrowed suddenly on rounding a bend about a hundred yards away. The house-boat was in sight now, moored close to a tiny island. Arnold pulled up alongside and paused to reconnoiter. To all appearance, it was a derelict. There were no awnings, no carpets, no baskets of flowers. The outside was grievously in need of paint. It had an entirely uninhabited and desolate appearance. Arnold beached his boat upon the little island and swung himself up onto the deck. There was still no sign of any human occupancy. He descended into the saloon. The furniture there was mildewed and musty. Rain had come in through an open window, and the appearance of the little apartment was depressing in the extreme. Stooping low, he next examined the four sleeping apartments. There was no bedding in any one of them, nor any sign of their having been recently occupied. He passed on into the kitchen, with the same result. It seemed as though his journey had been in vain. He made his way back again on deck, and descended the stairs leading to the fore part of the boat. Here were a couple of servant's rooms, and, though there was no bedding, one of the bunks gave him the idea that some one had been lying there recently. He looked around him and sniffed--there was a distinct smell of tobacco smoke. He stepped lightly back into the passageway. There was nothing to be heard, and no material indication of any one's presence, yet he had the uncomfortable feeling that some one was watching him--some one only a few feet away. He waited for almost a minute. Nothing happened, yet his sense of apprehension grew deeper. For the first time, he associated the idea of danger with his enterprise.

"Is any one about here?" he asked.

There was no reply. He tried another door, which led into a sort of pantry, without result. The last one was fastened on the inside.

"Is Mr. Starling in there?" Arnold demanded.

There was still no reply, yet it was certain now that the end of his search was at hand. Distinctly he could hear the sound of a man breathing.

"Will you tell me if you are there, Mr. Starling?" Arnold again demanded. "I have a message for you."

Starling, if indeed he were there, seemed now to be even holding his breath. Arnold took one step back and charged the door. It went crashing in, and almost at once there was a loud report. The closet--it was little more--was filled with smoke, and Arnold heard distinctly the hiss of a bullet buried in the woodwork over his shoulder. He caught the revolver from the shaking fingers of the man who was crouching upon the ground, and slipped it into his pocket. With his other hand, he held his prisoner powerless.

"What the devil do you mean by that?" he cried, fiercely.

Starling--for it was Starling--seemed to have no words. Arnold dragged him out into the light and for a moment found it hard to recognize the man. He had lost over a stone in weight. His cheeks were hollow, and his eyes had the hunted look in them of some wild animal.

"What do you want with me?" he muttered. "Can't you see I am hiding here? What business is it of yours to interfere?"

Arnold looked at him from head to foot. The man was shaking all over; the coward's fear was upon him.

"What on earth are you in this state for?" he exclaimed. "Whom are you hiding from? You have been set free. Is it the Rosario business still? You have been set free once."

Starling moistened his lips rapidly.

"They set me free," he muttered, "because one of their witnesses failed. They had no case; they wouldn't bring me up. But I am still under surveillance. The sergeant as good as told me that they'd have me before long."

"Well, at present, I've got you," Arnold said coolly. "Have you any luggage?"

"No! Why?"

"Because you are coming along with me."

"Where?"

"I am taking you to Count Sabatini," Arnold informed him. "He is at his villa about ten miles down the river."

Starling flopped upon his knees.

"For the love of God, don't take me to him!" he begged.

"Why not?"

"He is a devil, that man," Starling whispered, confidentially. "He would blow out my brains or yours or his own, without a second's hesitation, if it suited him. He hasn't any nerves nor any fear nor any pity. He will laugh at me--he won't understand, he is so reckless!"

"Well, we're going to him, anyhow," Arnold said. "I don't see how you can be any worse off than hiding in this beastly place. Upstairs and into the boat, please."

Starling struggled weakly to get away but he was like a child in Arnold's hands.

"You had much better come quietly," the latter advised. "You'll have to come, anyway, and if you're really afraid of being arrested again, I should think Count Sabatini would be the best man to aid your escape."

"But he won't let me escape," Starling protested. "He doesn't understand danger. I am not made like him. My nerve has gone. I came into this too late in life."

"Jump!" Arnold ordered, linking his arm into his companion's.

They landed, somehow, upon the island. Arnold pointed to the boat.

"Please be sensible," he begged, "now, at any rate. There may be people passing at any moment."

"I was safe in there," Starling mumbled. "Why the devil couldn't you have left me alone?"

Arnold bent over his oars.

"Safe!" he repeated, contemptuously. "You were doing the one thing which a guilty man would do. People would have known before long that you were there, obviously hiding. I think that Count Sabatini will propose something very much better."

"Perhaps so," Starling muttered. "Perhaps he will help me to get away."

They reached the village and Arnold paid for the hire of his boat. Then he hurried Starling into the car, and a moment or two later they were off.

"Is it far away?" Starling asked, nervously.

"Ten minutes' ride. Sabatini has arranged it all very well. We get out, cross a meadow, and find him waiting for us in the punt."

"You won't leave me alone with him on the river?" Starling begged.

"No, I shall be there," Arnold promised.

"There's nothing would suit him so well," Starling continued, "as to see me down at the bottom of the Thames, with a stone around my neck. I tell you I'm frightened of him. If I can get out of this mess," he went on, "I'm off back to New York. Any job there is better than this. What are we stopping for? Say, what's wrong now?"

"It's all right," Arnold answered. "Step out. We cross this meadow on foot. When we reach the other end, we shall find Sabatini. Come along."

They turned toward the river, Starling muttering, now and then, to himself. In a few minutes they came in sight of the punt. Sabatini was still there, with his head reclining among the cushions. He looked up and waved his hand.

"A record, my young friend!" he exclaimed. "I congratulate you, indeed. You have been gone exactly fifty-five minutes, and I gave you an hour and a half at the least. Our friend Starling was glad to see you, I hope?"

"He showed his pleasure," Arnold remarked dryly, "in a most original manner. However, here he is. Shall I take you across now?"

"If you please," Sabatini agreed.

He sat up and looked at Starling. The latter hung his head and shook like a guilty schoolboy.

"It was so foolish of you," Sabatini murmured, "but we'll talk of that presently. They were civil to you at the police court, eh?"

"I was never charged," Starling replied. "They couldn't get their evidence together."

"Still, they asked you questions, no doubt?" Sabatini continued.

"I told them nothing," Starling replied. "On my soul and honor, I told them nothing!"

"It was very wise of you," Sabatini said. "It might have led to disappointments--to trouble of many sorts. So you told them nothing, eh? That is excellent. After we have landed, I must hand you over to my valet. Then we will have a little talk."

They were in the backwater now, drifting on toward the lawn. Starling shrank back at the sight of the two women.

"I can't face it," he muttered. "I tell you I have lost my nerve."

"You have nothing to fear," Sabatini said quietly. "There is no one here likely to do you or wish you any harm."

Fenella came down to the steps to meet them.

"So our prodigal has returned," she remarked, smiling at Starling.

"We have rescued Mr. Starling from a solitary picnic upon his house-boat," Sabatini explained, suavely. "We cannot have our friends cultivating misanthropy."

Mr. Weatherley, who had returned from the boat-builder's, half rose from his chair and sat down again, frowning. He watched the two men cross the lawn towards the house. Then he turned to Ruth and shook his head.

"I have a great regard for Count Sabatini," he declared, "a great regard, but there are some of his friends--very many of them, in fact--whose presence here I could dispense with. That man is one of them. Do you know where he was a few nights ago, Miss Lalonde?"

She shook her head.

"In prison," Mr. Weatherley said, impressively; "arrested on a serious charge."

Her eyes asked him a question. He stooped towards her and lowered his voice.

"Murder," he whispered; "the murder of Mr. Rosario!"

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