'I am of a very nervous habit; a long course of the dumb ague has undermined my constitution. But I know you have money; it may be still the saving of me; and oh, dear young gentleman, in pity's name be expeditious!' Challoner, sincerely uneasy as he was, could scarce refrain from laughter; but he was himself in a hurry to be gone, and without more delay produced the money. 'You will find the sum, I trust, correct,' he observed 'and let me ask you to give me a receipt.'
But the man heeded him not. He seized the money, and disregarding the sovereigns that rolled loose upon the floor, thrust the bundle of notes into his pocket.
'A receipt,' repeated Challoner, with some asperity. 'I insist on a receipt.'
'Receipt?' repeated the man, a little wildly. 'A receipt? Immediately! Await me here.'
Challoner, in reply, begged the gentleman to lose no unnecessary time, as he was himself desirous of catching a particular train.
'Ah, by God, and so am I!' exclaimed the man with the chin-beard; and with that he was gone out of the room, and had rattled upstairs, four at a time, to the upper story of the villa.
'This is certainly a most amazing business,' thought Challoner; 'certainly a most disquieting affair; and I cannot conceal from myself that I have become mixed up with either lunatics or malefactors. I may truly thank my stars that I am so nearly and so creditably done with it.' Thus thinking, and perhaps remembering the episode of the whistle, he turned to the open window. The garden was still faintly clear; he could distinguish the stairs and terraces with which the small domain had been adorned by former owners, and the blackened bushes and dead trees that had once afforded shelter to the country birds; beyond these he saw the strong retaining wall, some thirty feet in height, which enclosed the garden to the back; and again above that, the pile of dingy buildings rearing its frontage high into the night. A peculiar object lying stretched upon the lawn for some time baffled his eyesight; but at length he had made it out to be a long ladder, or series of ladders bound into one; and he was still wondering of what service so great an instrument could be in such a scant enclosure, when he was recalled to himself by the noise of some one running violently down the stairs. This was followed by the sudden, clamorous banging of the house door; and that again, by rapid and retreating footsteps in the street.
Challoner sprang into the passage. He ran from room to room, upstairs and downstairs; and in that old dingy and worm-eaten house, he found himself alone. Only in one apartment, looking to the front, were there any traces of the late inhabitant: a bed that had been recently slept in and not made, a chest of drawers disordered by a hasty search, and on the floor a roll of crumpled paper. This he picked up. The light in this upper story looking to the front was considerably brighter than in the parlour; and he was able to make out that the paper bore the mark of the hotel at Euston, and even, by peering closely, to decipher the following lines in a very elegant and careful female hand:
'DEAR M'GUIRE,--It is certain your retreat is known. We have just had another failure, clockwork thirty hours too soon, with the usual humiliating result. Zero is quite disheartened. We are all scattered, and I could find no one but the SOLEMN ASS who brings you this and the money. I would love to see your meeting.--Ever yours,
Challoner was stricken to the heart. He perceived by what facility, by what unmanly fear of ridicule, he had been brought down to be the gull of this intriguer; and his wrath flowed forth in almost equal measure against himself, against the woman, and against Somerset, whose idle counsels had impelled him to embark on that adventure. At the same time a great and troubled curiosity, and a certain chill of fear, possessed his spirit. The conduct of the man with the chin-beard, the terms of the letter, and the explosion of the early morning, fitted together like parts in some obscure and mischievous imbroglio.