The Novel of the Dark Valley (part 3/3)

I got on the cars the next day, and in three weeks I was in London; again almost penniless. But from that time my fortune seemed to change. I made influential friends in all directions; bank directors courted my company, and editors positively flung themselves into my arms. I had only to choose my career, and after a while I determined that I was meant by nature for a life of comparative leisure. With an ease that seemed almost ridiculous I obtained a well-paid position in connection with a prosperous political club. I have charming chambers in a central neighborhood close to the parks; the club chef exerts himself when I lunch or dine, and the rarest vintages in the cellar are always at my disposal. Yet, since my return to London, I have never known a day’s security or peace; I tremble when I awake lest Smith should be standing at my bed, and every step I take seems to bring me nearer to the edge of the precipice. Smith, I knew, had escaped free from the raid of the vigilantes, and I grew faint at the thought that he would in all probability return to London, and that suddenly and unprepared I should meet him face to face. Every morning as I left my house, I would peer up and down the street, expecting to see that dreaded figure awaiting me; I have delayed at street corners, my heart in my mouth, sickening at the thought that a few quick steps might bring us together; I could not bear to frequent the theatres or music halls, lest by some bizarre chance he should prove to be my neighbor. Sometimes, I have been forced, against my will, to walk out at night, and then in silent squares the shadows have made me shudder, and in the medley of meetings in the crowded thoroughfares, I have said to myself, “It must come sooner or later; he will surely return to town, and I shall see him when I feel most secure.” I scanned the newspapers for hint or intimation of approaching danger, and no small type nor report of trivial interest was allowed to pass unread. Especially I read and re-read the advertisement columns, but without result. Months passed by and I was undisturbed till, though I felt far from safe, I no longer suffered from the intolerable oppression of instant and ever present terror. This afternoon as I was walking quietly along Oxford Street, I raised my eyes, and looked across the road, and then at last I saw the man who had so long haunted my thoughts.

* * * * *

Mr. Wilkins finished his wine, and leaned back in his chair, looking sadly at Dyson; and then, as if a thought struck him, fished out of an inner pocket a leather letter case, and handed a newspaper cutting across the table.

Dyson glanced closely at the slip, and saw that it had been extracted from the columns of an evening paper. It ran as follows:–

WHOLESALE LYNCHING.–SHOCKING STORY.

A Dalziel telegram from Reading (Colorado) states that advices received there from Blue Bock Park report a frightful instance of popular vengeance. For some time the neighborhood has been terrorized by the crimes of a gang of desperadoes, who, under the cover of a carefully planned organization, have perpetrated the most infamous cruelties on men and women. A Vigilance Committee was formed, and it was found that the leader of the gang was a person named Smith, living in Blue Rock Park. Action was taken, and six of the worst in the band were summarily strangled in the presence of two or three hundred men and women. Smith is said to have escaped.

* * * * *

“This is a terrible story,” said Dyson; “I can well believe that your days and nights are haunted by such fearful scenes as you have described. But surely you have no need to fear Smith? He has much, more cause to fear you. Consider, you have only to lay your information before the police, and a warrant would be immediately issued for his arrest. Besides, you will, I am sure, excuse me for what I am going to say.”

“My dear sir,” said Mr. Wilkins, “I hope you will speak to me with perfect freedom.”

“Well, then, I must confess that my impression was that you were rather disappointed at not being able to stop the man before he drove off. I thought you seemed annoyed that you could not get across the street.”

“Sir, I did not know what I was about. I caught sight of the man, but it was only for a moment, and the agony you witnessed was the agony of suspense. I was not perfectly certain of the face; and the horrible thought that Smith was again in London overwhelmed me. I shuddered at the idea of this incarnate fiend, whose soul is black with shocking crimes, mingling free and unobserved amongst the harmless crowds, meditating perhaps a new and more fearful cycle of infamies. I tell you, sir, that an awful being stalks through the streets, a being before whom the sunlight itself should blacken, and the summer air grow chill and dank. Such thoughts as these rushed upon me with the force of a whirlwind; I lost my senses.”

“I see. I partly understand your feelings, but I would impress on you that you have nothing really to fear. Depend upon it, Smith will not molest you in any way. You must remember he himself has had a warning; and indeed from the brief glance I had of him, he seemed to me to be a frightened-looking man. However, I see it is getting late, and if you will excuse me, Mr. Wilkins, I think I will be going. I dare say we shall often meet here.”

Dyson walked off smartly, pondering the strange story chance had brought him, and finding on cool reflection that there was something a little strange in Mr. Wilkins’s manner, for which not even so weird a catalogue of experiences could altogether account.

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