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The Bronze Bell

Louis Joseph Vance





  F. E. Z.

  Chatelaine of Juniper Lodge

  This story is dedicated by one to whom her hospitality, transplantedfrom its Kentucky home, will ever remain a charming memory.



























  Breaking suddenly upon the steady drumming of the trucks, the prolongedand husky roar of a locomotive whistle saluted an immediategrade-crossing.

  Roused by this sound from his solitary musings in the parlour-car ofwhich he happened temporarily to be the sole occupant, Mr. David Amberput aside the magazine over which he had been dreaming, and looked outof the window, catching a glimpse of woodland road shining whitebetween sombre walls of stunted pine. Lazily he consulted his watch.

  "It's not for nothing," he observed pensively, "that this railroadwears its reputation: we are consistently late."

  His gaze, again diverted to the flying countryside, noted that it hadchanged character, pine yielding to scrub-oak and second-growth--theragged vestments of an area some years since denuded by fire. This,too, presently swung away, giving place to cleared land--arable acresgolden with the stubble of garnered harvests or sentinelled withunkempt shocks of corn.

  In the south a shimmer of laughing gold and blue edged the fadedhorizon.

  Eagerly the young man leaned forward, dark eyes the functions ofwaiting-room and ticket and telegraph offices. From its eaves dependeda weather-worn board bearing the legend: "Nokomis."

  The train, pausing only long enough to disgorge from the baggage-car atrunk or two and from the day-coaches a thin trickle of passengers,flung on into the wilderness, cracked bell clanking somewhatdisdainfully.

  By degrees the platform cleared, the erstwhile patrons of the road andthe station loafers--for the most part hall-marked natives of theregion--straggling off upon their several ways, some afoot, a majorityin dilapidated surreys and buckboards. Amber watched them go withunassumed indifference; their type interested him little. But in theircompany he presently discovered one, a figure so thoroughly foreign andaloof in attitude, that it caught his eye, and, having caught, held itclouded with perplexity.

  Abruptly he abandoned his belongings and gave chase, overtaking theobject of his attention at the far end of the station.

  "Doggott!" he cried. "I say, Doggott!"

  His hand, falling lightly upon the man's shoulder, brought him squarelyabout, his expression transiently startled, if not a shade truculent.

  Short and broad yet compact of body, he was something round-shouldered,with the stoop of those who serve. In a mask of immobility,full-colored and closely shaven, his lips were thin and tight, his eyessteady, grey and shallow: a countenance neither dishonest norrepellent, but one inscrutable. Standing solidly, once halted, thereremained a suggestion of alertness in the fellow's pose.

  "Doggott, what the deuce brings you here? And Mr. Rutton?"

  Amber's cordiality educed no response. The grey eyes, meeting eyesdark, kindly, and penetrating, flickered and fell; so much emotion theybetrayed, no more, and that as disingenuous as you could wish.

  "Doggott!" insisted Amber, disconcerted. "Surely you haven't forgottenme--Mr. Amber?"

  The man shook his head. "Beg pardon, sir," he said; "you've got my nyme'andy enough, but I don't know _you_, and--"

  "But Mr. Rutton?"

  "Is a party I've never 'eard of, if you'll excuse my sayin' so, nomore'n I 'ave of yourself, sir."

  "Well!" began Amber; but paused, his face hardening as he looked theman up and down, nodding slowly.

  "Per'aps," continued Mr. Doggott, unabashed, "you mistyke me for mybrother, 'Enery Doggott. 'E was 'ome, in England, larst I 'eard of 'im.We look a deal alike, I've been told."

  "You would be," admitted Amber drily; and, shutting his teeth upon hisinherent contempt for a liar, he swung away, acknowledging with a curtnod the civil "Good-arfternoon, sir," that followed him.

  The man had disappeared by the time Amber regained his kit-bag andgun-case; standing over which he surveyed his surroundings with someannoyance, discovering that he now shared the station with none but theticket-agent. A shambling and disconsolate youth, clad in a three-days'growth of beard, a checked jumper and khaki trousers, this personlounged negligently in the doorway of the waiting-room and, caressinghis rusty chin with nicotine-dyed fingers, regarded the stranger inNokomis with an air of subtle yet vaguely melancholy superiority.

  "If ye're lookin' for th' hotel," he volunteered unexpectedly, "thereaint none;" and effected a masterly retreat into the ticket-booth.

  Amused, the despised outlander picked up his luggage and followedamiably. "I'm not looking for the hotel that aint," he said, plantinghimself in front of the grating; "but I expected to be met by someonefrom Tanglewood--"

  "Thet's the Quain place, daown by th' ba-ay," interpolated the youthfrom unplumbed depths of mournful abstraction.

  "It is. I wired yesterday--"

  "Yeour name's Amber, aint it?"

  "Yes, I--"

  "Well, Quain didn't get yeour message till this mornin'. I sent a kiddaown with it 'baout ten o'clock."

  "But why the--but I wired yesterday afternoon!"

  "I knaow ye did," assented the youth wearily. "It come through raoundclosin' time and they wa'n't nobody baound that way, so I held itover."

  "This craze for being characteristic," observed Mr. Amber obscurely,"is the only thing that really stands in the way of Nokomis becoming athriving metropolis. Do you agree with me? No matter." He smiledengagingly: a seasoned traveller this, who could recognise the futilityof bickering over the irreparable. Moreover, he had to remind himselfin all fairness, the blame was, in part at least, his own; for he hadthoughtlessly worded his telegram, "Will be with you to-morrowafternoon"; and it was wholly like Quain that he should have acceptedthe statement at its face value, regardless of the date line.

  "I _can_ leave my things here for a little while, I presume?" Ambersuggested after a pause.

  The ticket-agent stared stubbornly into the infinite, making no signtill a coin rang on the window-ledge; when he started, eyed theoffering with fugitive mistrust, and gloomily possessed himself of it."I'll look after them," he said. "Be ye thinkin' of walkin'?"

  "Yes," said Amber over his shoulder. He was already moving toward thedoor.

  "Knaow yeour wa-ay?"

  "I've been here before, thank you."

  "Fer another quarter," drawled the agent with elaborate apathy, "I'dleave the office long enough to find somebody who'd fetch ye daown in arig for fifty cents."

  But Amber was already out of ear-shot.

  Crossing the tracks, he addressed himself to the southward-stretchinghighway. Walking briskly at first, he soon left behind therailway-stati
on with its few parasitic cottages; a dip in the land hidthem, and he had hereafter for all company his thoughts, the desultoryroad, a vast and looming sky, and bare fields hedged with impoverishedforest.

  A deep languor brooded over the land: the still, warm enchantment of anIndian Summer which, protracted though it were unseasonably into theIdes of November, had yet lost nothing of its witchery. There was nowind, but now and again the air stirred softly, and when it stirred wascool; as if the earth sighed in sheer lassitude. Out of a cloudlesssky, translucent sapphire at its zenith fading into hazy topaz-yellowat the horizon, golden sunlight slanted, casting shadows heavy andcolourful; on the edge of the woodlands they clung like thin purplesmoke, but motionless, and against them, here and there, a clump ofsumach blazed like a bed of embers, or some tree loath to shed itsautumnal livery flamed scarlet, russet, and mauve. The peace of thehour was intense, and only emphasised by a dull, throbbingundertone--the muted murmur of the distant sea.

  Amber had professed acquaintance with his way; it seemed rather to beintimacy, for when he chose to forsake the main-travelled road he didso boldly, striking off upon a wagon-track which, leading across thefields, delved presently into the heart of the forest. Here it ransnakily and, carved by broad-tired wheels and beaten out by slowlyplodding hoofs in a soil more than half sand, glimmered white asrock-salt where the drifting leaves had left it naked.

  Once in this semi-dusk made luminous by sunlight which touched andquivered upon dead leaf and withered bush and bare brown bough likesplashes of molten gold, the young man moved more sedately. The hush ofthe forest world bore heavily upon his senses; the slight and stealthyrustlings in the brush, the clear dense ringing of some remote axe, anattenuated clamour of cawing from some far crows' congress, but servedto accentuate its influence. On that windless day the vital breath ofthe sea might not moderate the bitter-sweet aroma of decay that swambeneath the unmoving branches; and this mournful fragrance of dyingAutumn wrought upon Amber's mood as might a whiff of some exquisiterare perfume revive a poignant memory in the bosom of a bereaved lover.His glance grew aimless, his temper as purposeless, lively anticipationgiving way to a retrospection tinged with indefinable sadness.

  Then into the silence crept a sound to rouse him from his formlessreverie: at first a mere pulsing in the stillness, barely to bedistinguished from the song of the surf; but presently a pounding, everlouder and more insistent. He paused, attentive; and while he waitedthe drumming, minute by minute gaining in volume, swept swiftly towardhim--the rhythmic hoofbeats of a single horse madly ridden. When it wasclose upon him he stepped back into the tangled undergrowth, makingroom; for the track was anything but wide.

  Simultaneously there burst into view, at the end of a brief aisle oftrees, the horse--a vigorous black brute with white socks andmuzzle--running freely, apparently under constraint neither of whip norof spur. In the saddle a girl leaned low over the horn--a girl witheyes rapturous, face brilliant, lips parted in the least of smiles. Afold of her black habit-skirt, whipping out, almost snapped in Amber'sface, so close to him she rode; yet she seemed not to see him, and verylikely did not. A splendid sketch in black-and-white, of youthfulspirit and joy of motion: so she passed and was gone....

  Hardly, however, had the forest closed upon the picture, ere a cry, aheavy crashing as of a horse threshing about in the underbrush, and awoman's scream of terror, sent Amber, in one movement, out into theroad again and running at a pace which, had he been conscious of it,would have surprised him.

  A short fifty yards separated him from the bend in the way round whichthe horse and its rider had vanished. He had no more than gained thispoint than he was obliged to pull up sharply to avoid running into thegirl herself.

  Although dismounted, she was on her feet, and apparently uninjured. Shestood with one hand against the trunk of a tree, on the edge of a smallclearing wherein the axes of the local lumbermen had but lately beenbusy. Her horse had disappeared; the rumble of his hoofs, diminuendo,told the way he had gone.

  So much Amber comprehended in a single glance; with a second he soughtthe cause of the accident, and identified it with a figure so _outre_and bizarre that he momentarily and excusably questioned the testimonyof his senses.

  At a little distance from the girl, in the act of addressing her, stooda man, obese, gross, abnormally distended with luxurious and sluggishliving, as little common to the scene as a statue of Phoebus Apollo hadbeen: a babu of Bengal, every inch of him, from his dirty red-and-whiteturban to his well-worn and cracked patent-leather shoes. His body wasenveloped in a complete suit of emerald silk, much soiled and faded,and girt with a sash of many colours, crimson predominating. His hands,fat, brown, and not overclean, alternately fluttered apologetically andrubbed one another with a suggestion of extreme urbanity; his lips,thick, sensual, and cruel, mouthed a broken stream of babu-English;while his eyes, nearly as small and quite as black as shoe-buttons--eyes furtive, crafty, and cold--suddenly distended and becamefixed, as with amazement, at the instant of Amber's appearance.

  Instinctively, as soon as he had mastered his initial stupefaction,Amber stepped forward and past the girl, placing himself between herand this preposterous apparition, as if to shield her. He was neitheroverly imaginative nor of a romantic turn of mind; but, thecircumstances reviewed, it's nothing to his discredit that heentertained a passing suspicion of some curious conspiracy against thegirl, thought of an ambuscade, and with quick eyes raked thesurroundings for signs of a confederate of the Bengali.

  He found, however, nothing alarming, no indication that the man werenot alone; nor, for that matter, could he reasonably detect in thefellow's bearing anything but a spirit of conciliation almost servile.None the less he held himself wary and alert, and was instant to haltthe babu when he, with the air of a dog cringing to his master's feetfor punishment, would have drawn nearer.

  "Stop right there!" Amber told him crisply; and got for responseobedience, a low salaam, and the Hindu salutation accorded only topersons of high rank: "Hazoor!" But before the babu could say more theAmerican addressed the girl. "What did he do?" he inquired, withoutlooking at her. "Frighten your horse?"

  "Just that." The girl's tone was edged with temper. "He jumped out frombehind that woodpile; the horse shied and threw me."

  "You're not hurt, I trust?"

  "No--thank you; but"--with a nervous laugh--"I'm furiously angry."

  "That's reasonable enough." Amber returned undivided attention to theBengali. "Now then," he demanded sternly, "what've you got to say foryourself? What do you mean by frightening this lady's horse? What areyou doing here, anyway?"

  Almost grovelling, the babu answered him in Urdu: "Hazoor, I am yourslave--"

  Without thinking Amber couched his retort in the same tongue: "Countyourself lucky you are not, dog!"

  "Nay, hazoor, but I meant no harm. I was resting, being fatigued, inthe shelter of the wood, when the noise of hoofs disturbed me and Istepped out to see. When the woman was thrown I sought to assist her,but she threatened me with her whip."

  "That is quite true," the girl cut in over Amber's shoulder. "I don'tthink he intended to harm me, but it's purely an accident that hedidn't."

  Inasmuch as the babu's explanation had been made in fluent, vernacularUrdu, Amber's surprise at the girl's evident familiarity with thattongue was hardly to be concealed. "You understand Urdu?" he stammered.

  "Aye," she told him in that tongue, "and speak it, too."

  "You know this man, then?"

  "No. Do you?"

  "Not in the least. How should I?"

  "You yourself speak Urdu."

  "Well but--" The situation hardly lent itself to such a discussion; hehad the babu first to dispose of. Amber resumed his cross-examination."Who are you?" he demanded. "And what is your business in this place?"

  The fat yellowish-brown face was distorted by a fugitive grimace ofdeprecation. "Hazoor, I am Behari Lal Chatterji, solicitor, of theInner Temple."

  "Well? And your business he

  "Hazoor, that is for your secret ear." The babu drew himself up,assuming a certain dignity. "It is not meet that the message of theBell should be uttered in the hearing of an Englishwoman, hazoor."

  "What are you drivelling about?" In his blank wonder, Amber returned toEnglish as to a tongue more suited to his urgent need of forcibleexpression. "And, look here, you stop calling me 'Hazoor.' I'm no morea hazoor than you are--idiot!"

  "Nay," contended the babu reproachfully; "is it right that you shouldseek to hoodwink me? Have I not eyes with which to see you, ears thatcan hear you speak our tongue, hazoor? I am no child, to be playedwith--I, the appointed Mouthpiece of the Voice!"

  "I know naught of your 'Voice' or its mouthpiece; but certainly you areno child. You are either mad, or insolent--or a fool to be kicked." Andin exasperation Amber took a step toward the man as if to carry intoeffect his implied threat.

  Alarmed, the babu cringed and retreated a pace; then, suddenly, raisingan arm, indicated the girl. "Hazoor!" he cried. "Be quick--the womanfaints!" And as Amber hastily turned, with astonishing agility the babusprang toward him.

  Warned by his moving shadow as much as by the girl's cry, Amber leaptaside and lifted a hand to strike; but before it could deliver a blowit was caught and a small metallic object thrust into it. Upon this hisfingers closed instinctively, and the babu sprang back, panting andquaking.

  "The Token, hazoor, the Token!" he quavered. "It is naught butthat--the Token!"

  "Token, you fool!" cried Amber, staring stupidly at the man. "What inthunder----!"

  "Nay, hazoor; how should I tell you now, when another sees and hears?At another time, hazoor, in a week, or a day, or an hour, mayhap, Icome again--for your answer. Till then and forever I am your slave,hazoor: the dust beneath your feet. Now, I go."

  And with a haste that robbed the courtesy of its grace, the Bengalisalaamed, then wheeled square about and, hitching his clothing roundhim, made off with a celerity surprising in one of his tremendous bulk,striking directly into the heart of the woods.

  For as much as a minute he was easily to be followed, his head andshoulders rising above the brush through which he forged purposefully,with something of the heedless haste of a man bent on keeping apressing engagement--or a sinner fleeing the wrath to come. Not oncedid he look back while Amber watched--himself divided betweenamusement, annoyance, and astonishment. Presently the trees blotted outthe red-and-white turban; the noise of the babu's elephantine retreatdiminished; and Amber was left to knit his brows over the object whichhad been forced upon him so unexpectedly.

  It proved to be a small, cubical box, something more than an inchsquare, fashioned of bronze and elaborately decorated with minuterelief work in the best manner of ancient Indian craftsmanship.

  "May I see, please?" The voice of the girl at his side recalled toAmber her existence. "May I see, too, please, Mr. Amber?" she repeated.