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The Sign of the Stranger

William Le Queux

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  The Sign of the StrangerBy William Le QueuxPublished by Ward, Lock and Co Ltd, London, Melbourne and Toronto.This edition dated 1913.

  The Sign of the Stranger, by William Le Queux.


  ________________________________________________________________________THE SIGN OF THE STRANGER, BY WILLIAM LE QUEUX.



  The shabby stranger seated himself familiarly in a nook beside thewide-open chimney of the tap-room, and stretched out his long thin legswith a sigh.

  "I want something to eat; a bit of cold meat, or bread and cheese--anything you have handy--and a glass of beer. I'm very tired."

  The village publican, scanning the stranger's features keenly, movedslowly to execute the command and lingered over the cutting of the meat.The other seemed to read the signs like a flash, for he roughly drewout a handful of money, saying in his bluff outspoken way--

  "Be quick, mister! Here's money to pay for it." The meal was verynimbly and swiftly placed before him; and then the landlord, with aglance back at me seated in his own little den beyond, turned off thesuspicion with a remark about the warmth of the weather.

  "Yes, it is a bit hot," said the stranger, a tall, thin, weary-lookingman of about forty, from whose frayed clothes and peaked hat I put downto be a seafarer. "Phew! I've felt it to-day--and I'm not so strong,either."

  "Have you come far, sir?" deferentially inquired the innkeeper who,having taken down his long clay, had also taken measure of his customerand decided that he was no ordinary tramp.

  The other stopped his eating, looked Warr, the publican, full in theface in a curious, dreamy fashion, and then sighed--

  "Yes, a fair distance--a matter of ten or eleven thousand miles."

  The landlord caught his breath, and I noticed that he looked still moreearnestly into the stranger's weather-beaten face.

  "Ah! maybe you've been abroad--to America?" he remarked, striking amatch and holding it in his fingers before lighting his pipe.

  "I have, and a good many other places as well," answered the trampthoughtfully, resting and trying the point of the knife on the hard dealtable before him. "I'm a wanderer--I am, but, by Jove!" he added, "itis real good to see these green English fields once again. When I wasout yonder I never thought I'd see them any more--these old thatchedhouses, the old church, and the windmill that generally wants a sail."

  "You speak as though you know Sibberton--" the landlord said, and thenhe stopped uneasily.

  The customer, who saw in an instant that his slip of the tongue hadnearly betrayed him, answered--

  "No, unfortunately I don't. I--well, I've never been in these partsbefore." And from where I stood I detected by the man's keen, dark eyesthat he was not speaking the truth. The innkeeper, too, was puzzled.

  "This place seems a pretty spot," the shabby wayfarer went on. "How faris it to Northampton?"

  "Twelve miles."

  The stranger sighed, glanced across at the old grandfather clock, andwent on eating. There was silence after this, broken only by thebuzzing of the flies against the window close to him, and the placing oradjusting of the tumblers which Warr had gravely begun to polish.

  "Let's see," remarked the stranger reflectively at last, "if this isSibberton, the old Earl of Stanchester lives here, I suppose?"

  "He did live here, but he died a year ago."

  "And young Lord Sibberton has come into the property--eh? Why, he mustbe one of the richest men in England," the fellow remarked withsomething of a sneer.

  "They say he is," was Warr's reply.

  Mention of the name of Stanchester caused me to prick my ears, for I hadbeen private secretary to the old Earl and was now acting in that samecapacity to the young man who had recently succeeded to the estates.

  "And his sister, the fair one--Lady Lolita they call her--is she marriedyet?" inquired the half-famished man.

  "No. She still lives with her brother and his wife up at the Hall."

  The stranger grunted, and I noticed that he smiled faintly for the firsttime, but just at that moment he turned and catching sight of my backthrough the half-opened door, started slightly and appeared to besomewhat embarrassed.

  Why did he make that inquiry regarding Lolita, I wondered? My father,Sir George Woodhouse, having been an intimate friend of the old Earl's,and his aide-de-camp when he was Viceroy of India, I had been taken intothe latter's confidential service as soon as I came down from Cambridge,and for the past ten years had lived as a careless bachelor in apleasant old ivy-covered house at the end of the village, being treatedmore as one of the Stanchester family than as the millionairelandowner's confidential secretary. The present Earl had been atCambridge with me, and there was a strong bond of friendship between us.

  "Yours has been a strange life," said the publican at last, in order toobtain more details of the stranger and his motive for inquiring afterthe people at the Hall.

  "It has; I've drifted half over the world, but the passion for wanderingis now pretty well worn out of me," wearily responded the other, takinga sip at his beer. "They say there's no place like home. I used tothink so when the ship was steaming over the blue sea at nights with allasleep below and the clear stars shining over me. I don't think I shalllive long; that's why I'm back again once more in England. But," headded, "we were talking of Lol--er, I mean Lady Lolita. Isn't she evenengaged?"

  "Not that I know of," answered the innkeeper. "If she were, some of theservants would be sure to chatter. There ain't much as goes on up atthe Hall without me knowing it."

  The estimable Warr was right. The tap-room of the _Stanchester Arms_was the village forum where the footmen, stablemen, kennel-hands andothers employed in the Earl's great establishment assembled nightly todrink beer and discuss the gossip of the day.

  "Ah! I suppose she's just as beautiful as ever?" remarked the strangerreflectively. His voice quivered oddly, and he rose wearily, brushingthe knees of his frayed and shiny trousers. "She's one of the prettiestwomen in all England," added the ragged wayfarer, whose inquiries seemedto me to be made with some distinct purpose.

  "She's lovely," declared Warr. "The papers often have portraits of her.Perhaps you've seen them?"

  "Yes, I have," he answered, and the words came out with something like agroan.

  At that instant there reached our ears the familiar jingle of harnessbells, and Warr, turning quickly, cried--

  "Why, she's just coming along! You'll see her in a moment!" And theyboth dashed to the small diamond-paned window which looked out upon thevillage street.

  The stranger stood with his dark eyes peering out, his body drawn backas though fearing recognition, until a few moments later, when a smartvictoria and pair of chestnuts dashed passed, and lolling within,beneath a pale blue sunshade, was the sweet-faced woman in whitereturning to the Hall after making afternoon calls.

  "Ah!" he gasped as the marvellous beauty of that countenance burst uponhim, and was next instant lost to view as the jingling bells receded."You're right!" he said, turning from the window sadly, his faceblanched. "She's more beautiful than ever--she's absolutely lovely!"

  The man was a mystery. He attracted me.

  The publican remained gravely silent, utterly at a loss to understandthe stranger's meaning, while at that moment the latter apparentlyrecollected my proximity, for he looked across towards where I, havinghad business with the innkeeper, still stood awaiting his return.

  Suddenly turning to Warr, he said--

  "I notice you have a gentleman in the parlour, there. I wonder whe
theryou would give me just a couple of minutes alone? I want to ask you aquestion."

  The landlord again glanced suspiciously at the mysterious stranger, butseeing the earnest, determined look upon his grizzled face, ratherreluctantly consented, and conducted his customer across the lowentrance-hall to a room on the opposite side, the door of which heclosed behind them.

  What transpired therein was in secret, but about five minutes later Iheard the door open again, and the stranger, with heavy tread, walkfirmly to the door.

  "You won't forget the name," he called back to Warr in a strange hardvoice just before he went forth. "Richard Keene--K-e-e-n-e."

  "I've promised.