It was on the stroke of noon when he awoke. Dismally searching in his pockets, he found himself reduced to half-a-crown; and when he had paid the price of his distasteful couch, saw himself obliged to return to the Superfluous Mansion. He sneaked into the hall and stole on tiptoe to the cupboard where he kept his money. Yet half a minute, he told himself, and he would be free for days from his obseding lodger, and might decide at leisure on the course he should pursue. But fate had otherwise designed: there came a tap at the door and Zero entered.
'Have I caught you?' he cried, with innocent gaiety. 'Dear fellow, I was growing quite impatient.' And on the speaker's somewhat stolid face, there came a glow of genuine affection. 'I am so long unused to have a friend,' he continued, 'that I begin to be afraid I may prove jealous.' And he wrung the hand of his landlord.
Somerset was, of all men, least fit to deal with such a greeting. To reject these kind advances was beyond his strength. That he could not return cordiality for cordiality, was already almost more than he could carry. That inequality between kind sentiments which, to generous characters, will always seem to be a sort of guilt, oppressed him to the ground; and he stammered vague and lying words.
'That is all right,' cried Zero--'that is as it should be--say no more! I had a vague alarm; I feared you had deserted me; but I now own that fear to have been unworthy, and apologise. To doubt of your forgiveness were to repeat my sin. Come, then; dinner waits; join me again and tell me your adventures of the night.'
Kindness still sealed the lips of Somerset; and he suffered himself once more to be set down to table with his innocent and criminal acquaintance. Once more, the plotter plunged up to the neck in damaging disclosures: now it would be the name and biography of an individual, now the address of some important centre, that rose, as if by accident, upon his lips; and each word was like another turn of the thumbscrew to his unhappy guest. Finally, the course of Zero's bland monologue led him to the young lady of two days ago: that young lady, who had flashed on Somerset for so brief a while but with so conquering a charm; and whose engaging grace, communicative eyes, and admirable conduct of the sweeping skirt, remained imprinted on his memory.
'You saw her?' said Zero. 'Beautiful, is she not? She, too, is one of ours: a true enthusiast: nervous, perhaps, in presence of the chemicals; but in matters of intrigue, the very soul of skill and daring. Lake, Fonblanque, de Marly, Valdevia, such are some of the names that she employs; her true name--but there, perhaps, I go too far. Suffice it, that it is to her I owe my present lodging, and, dear Somerset, the pleasure of your acquaintance. It appears she knew the house. You see dear fellow, I make no concealment: all that you can care to hear, I tell you openly.'
'For God's sake,' cried the wretched Somerset, 'hold your tongue! You cannot imagine how you torture me!'
A shade of serious discomposure crossed the open countenance of Zero.
'There are times,' he said, 'when I begin to fancy that you do not like me. Why, why, dear Somerset, this lack of cordiality? I am depressed; the touchstone of my life draws near; and if I fail'--he gloomily nodded--'from all the height of my ambitious schemes, I fall, dear boy, into contempt. These are grave thoughts, and you may judge my need of your delightful company. Innocent prattler, you relieve the weight of my concerns. And yet . . . and yet . . .' The speaker pushed away his plate, and rose from table. 'Follow me,' said he, 'follow me. My mood is on; I must have air, I must behold the plain of battle.'
So saying, he led the way hurriedly to the top flat of the mansion, and thence, by ladder and trap, to a certain leaded platform, sheltered at one end by a great stalk of chimneys and occupying the actual summit of the roof. On both sides, it bordered, without parapet or rail, on the incline of slates; and, northward above all, commanded an extensive view of housetops, and rising through the smoke, the distant spires of churches.