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Title: A Front of Brass Author: Fred Merrick White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1000231.txt Language: English Date first posted: June 2010 Date most recently updated: June 2010 This eBook was produced by: Lyn and Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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Hubert Grant stood on the veranda looking over the garden at Ledge Point. Just for the moment he was glad enough to be alone. He wanted to stand there and contemplate his new possession. Everything there was his—the rainbow trout in the pool in the Dutch garden, the starry flowers of the anemones in the larch woods behind the house. And he had paid for it all with his own hard-earned money!
Ledge Point was his ideal of what a country retreat should be. The house was modern, no doubt, but the fact had its advantages, and the rambling white front was covered with a tender green that presently would bear its tribute of blossoms. The big houseplace opened on two sides into a conservatory where the flowers gleamed all the year round. Here were treasures of oak and china and silver gathered by the late owner for many years. To the left was a cosy study; on the right a drawing-room in white and carmine charmingly furnished. Grant's eyes softened a little as he thought of the drawing-room. May Leverton would be presiding over that some of these early days.
Grant had bought the place as much for her as for himself. He had purchased it only a few days before just as it stood, from his partner old Paul Spencer, and he had paid for it with a cheque drawn upon his own private account.
"I'm selling it you cheap," Mr. Spencer had said. "Four thousand pounds is very little. The house cost more than that, to say nothing of the furniture. Ledge Point has been a hobby of mine, as you know, but I shall not need it any more. My doctor tells me that I must live almost entirely in the South of France in future. That means practically giving the whole control of the business into your hands, Grant."
"No hurry for that, sir," Grant hastened to say.
"Perhaps not. But still it has to be done. We must have a big talk over the money side of affairs before long. I've always looked after the money department, as you know. That was part of our original contract. Why, for all you may know to the contrary, the firm of Spencer and Grant may be on the verge of bankruptcy."
Hubert Grant smiled at the suggestion. "I certainly have not worried about that," he said. "There is nobody whose name for sound finance stands higher than yours."
"All the same, you will have to know very shortly, Grant. You are inclined to trust people just a little too far. For instance, it would have been far wiser if you had refrained from paying me for this place till after the conveyance was signed. If anything went wrong with me you would simply lose your money."
Grant smiled again. He was not in a business mood at that moment.
"After all, one can't live entirely without sentiment," he said. "I had a whim to call this place mine. And if I can't trust you, who am I to put my faith in?"
"You have some thought of getting married, I suppose?"
Grant's face flushed slightly. The lines about his square firm jaw hardened. His was not exactly a handsome face, but the regular features were attractive. He had, moreover, that suggestion of physical and moral strength that goes so far with most women. They know by instinct that here was a man who would not fail in the hour of trial, who would stand before the world with a front of brass. He stood upon the veranda in fine contract to his companion.
"I am going to be married," he said. "There are reasons why the matter must be kept a secret for the present, and therefore I am telling you this much in confidence. When the time comes I am going to marry the daughter of Sir Bruce Leverton."
A smile, quick, elusive, sinister almost, crossed Paul Spencer's face. He huddled up in a big deck chair sunning himself on the balcony, he was a little, dried-up man, with a skin like badly tanned leather, his high yellow forehead was bald, he had long ropy hands that trembled as he carried a cigar to his lips. Yet, despite his age, his teeth were wonderfully sound and firm, his eyes shrewd and clear. He had a way of laughing to himself in a sardonic fashion; much as he loved company, he was as secretive as an oyster as to his own affairs. He passed more or less as an invalid, yet on occasions he should sit at the bridge table till daylight. He would take out a gun, protesting that a walk of a mile was dangerous to him, yet at the end of a day over the moors he was as fresh as any of them. And he was reported to be worth a million of money.
Who he was and where he came from nobody knew. He had no relations, he managed the financial side of the business, and Grant knew no more about it than the junior office boy. There were moments when Paul Spencer repelled him. He had one of those old feelings upon him now. For Spencer was smiling in his sinister fashion like some elderly Mephistopheles.
"Do you find the matter so amusing?" he asked, coldly.
Spencer ceased to smile. His leathery features grew grave again.
"It always amuses me to hear a young man talk of getting married," he said. "Didn't some wise man define marriage as an insane desire to keep somebody else's daughter? Well, I suppose that it is necessary for the propagation of the race. But Bruce Leverton's child! My dear fellow, Leverton would never consent!"
"I am aware of it," Grant replied. "My father did Leverton a great wrong. My father betrayed and nearly ruined the best friend he ever had. But that is no fault of mine. I have never been in company with Sir Bruce, and so far as I know he has never so much as seen me. And that is all the greater reason why he should not judge me by my father's standard."
"So you have met his daughter and made love to her? That's very like you, Grant—very like you indeed. And does the young lady know that you are—well, the son of your father?"
"She does. Upon my word, I hardly know why I am discussing this matter with you. It is hardly a subject that is likely to be of interest to a hard-cured bachelor like yourself."
The sinister smile was on Spencer's face again. His deep-set eyes twinkled.
"On the contrary, I am deeply interested." he said. "Some of these early days you will understand why. Now, let me tell you of something more than passing moment. Leverton is a big man in his way. He aspires to belong to the country and his place, Grant Lea, which is not far from here, is a fine old mansion. But he really cannot afford to live in it, and very frequently he is hard pressed for money. I make it a point of knowing these things because they are useful in business. I am telling you this because—well, because you may be able to use the information to your advantage."
Grant shook his head. He did not approve of some of his partner's methods.
"There will be no occasion," he said. "I am going to ask no favour of Sir Bruce Leverton, and I am not going to put pressure on him in the way you suggest. If he refuses his consent to my marriage with his daughter I shall make her my wife all the same. We shall set up housekeeping here, and I can give May everything that she has been accustomed to. Still, the engagement is a secret for the present, and I need not ask you to respect my confidence."
Grant walked to the far side of the balcony with an air of finality. So far as he was concerned the subject under discussion was closed. Spencer watched him with a queer gleam in his eyes. The hard, leathery face was wrinkled with malice; the mouth was cold and cruel. And with it was that furtive mirth that rendered the whole face so hideously repulsive.
"Very well, my boy," he said, "I'll say no more about it. Let us take a walk together round the estate so that I can show you the full extent of your possessions. There is a summer-house on the edge of the cliff beyond the pines that is a very favourite retreat of mine. It is one of the quietest and most beautiful spots that I know."
Grant followed his partner through the charming grounds with a pleased feeling of possession upon him. The Dutch garden was a blaze of yellow tulips, and daffodils and hyacinths edged with masses of some mauve creeper; beyond this the long festoons of roses were bursting into leaf. The young May afternoon was soft and balmy; the air was heavy with the fragrance of white lilac. Away to the left the massed stem of the larches trembled in a sheet of verdure. Up the slope at the end of the woods was a small chalet in the form of a summer-house surrounded by the yellow flare of the gorse, and beyond this again the dancing blue haze of the Channel. The wide stretch of sea lay blue, 200 ft. below.
"Now. What do you think of that?" Spencer asked with some pride. "This is the one thing that makes Ledge Point perfect. It's a little dangerous, perhaps, and if you take my advice you will have the cliff fenced in. You can see for yourself what a sheer drop it is. But for solitude and beauty the place is very hard to beat."
Grant was silent for a moment. He stood there drinking in the marvellous restfulness and beauty of it all. And what an ideal home it would make for May Leverton. What a pleasant surprise it would be when he brought her here for the first time.
"Yes, you are a lucky young fellow." Spencer murmured as if he had read Grant's thoughts. "On the whole I should say that you—well, what is it?"
A servant stood there with a telegram on a tray.
"I found this in the letter-box, sir," the man said. "Perhaps the telegraph boy could not make anybody hear. We were all out in the garden, sir."
Spencer snatched at the orange-coloured envelope eagerly. He appeared to be strangely agitated over it. For a business man accustomed to such things, his agitation was astounding. His fingers shook as he tore off the cover, Grant could see the hard leathery face grow pale.
"There is no answer, Jenner," Spencer said in a hard dry voice.
"Grant, I've got to go over to Fairford on urgent business. I have to meet a man there at once. It is a very unpleasant matter that I had forgotten all about years ago. A trifling indiscretion—. My dear fellow, as you grow older you will find how inconvenient these indiscretions become. I'll try and get back to dinner, but I can be by no means certain about that. If I'm not back by half-past 10, I shall be glad if you will come as far as this place and look for me."
"I—I beg your pardon," Grant stammered. "I am afraid I don't understand—"
"Of course you don't," Spencer said irritably. "How should you? My dear boy, this is a matter of life and death to me. We all have our troubles and anxieties, and they are generally none the less acute because they are of our own making. I wish I could take you into my confidence, but that is impossible. Now, will you do as I suggest? If I am not back by half-past 10 will you come as far as this particular spot and look for me?"
Grant promised in a dazed kind of way. The thing was unexpected, dramatic, inexplicable! Here was black and bitter trouble, perhaps disgrace, for this model of respectability! What did it all mean, and where was it all going to end? Grant was still asking himself this question, when Spencer had turned away and was hurrying along in the direction of the house.
A moment or two later and the big car that Spencer always drove himself was hurrying along the road towards Fairford. The fateful telegram had fallen on a patch of young gorse and lay there fluttering in the breeze. In a mechanical way Grant took it up. The message was by no means a long one, but it was very curt and to the point:—
Must see you at once at the old place in Fairford. You had better not fail.
That was all. There was no name at the end of this insolent missive. It had evidently been sent by a man accustomed to be obliged.
With the tissue still open in his hand, Grant made his way back slowly and thoughtfully to the house. He was filled with an uneasy sense of coming danger.
By the front door stood a visitor asking questions of Jenner. There was something oddly familiar about the girl to Grant. He half stopped to listen.
"But surely you must the mistaken," the visitor was saying. "Mr. Spencer expects me. I am perfectly certain that he would not have disappointed me. I have come a long way, and—"
"I'm very sorry, miss," Jenner interrupted respectfully. "But my master has been called away to Fairford on unexpected business. It is just possible that he may not get back to-night. If it is any thing to do with business, I am quite sure that my master's partner, Mr.—"
"Oh, it is quite a private affair," the girl said. "I suppose I must call again to-morrow. I am sorry to have given you all this trouble."
The pretty girl with the slim graceful figure turned away with a suggestion of disappointment. As she disappeared round a bend in the drive, Grant followed. He was no longer in doubt now, he knew his ground exactly. He stretched out his hands and laid it on the girl's shoulder.
"May," he said quietly. "May, what are you doing here?"
The girl turned with something like a cry of fear on her lips. The pretty face was deadly pale; the dark gray eyes were full of tears. They were tears of disappointment, as Grant could see. But all the fear and anger were lost now in the pink confusion of the girl's cheeks. From chin to brow the blushes glowed on her face.
"I might ask you the same question," she stammered. "What are you doing here?"
"You forget that Mr. Spencer is my partner. I came down here this week-end on business that concerns you as much as it does me. I had forgotten for the moment that your father's place was so close at hand. And Mr. Spencer never told me that you were in the habit—"
"Oh, I'm not. I'm not," May Leverton protested. "I have never been here before. At the present moment I am supposed to be shopping in Fairford. I came over on my machine. You must not say a word about this to anybody. Hubert."
"But if Mr. Spencer and your father are friends!"
"They are not. My father dislikes Mr. Spencer exceedingly. He does not trust him. Mr. Spencer has never been over to Grant Lea. All the same. I had to come."
"But why, dear? Surely you can confide in me." May Leverton shook her head sorrowfully. There was a pleading look in her eyes.
"Indeed I can't, Hubert," she murmured. "If I had guessed that you were here I should not have come near the place. It is hateful to me to have a secret from you, but it cannot be helped. I have given my promise now, and I cannot go back on it. I have to see Mr. Spencer on the most urgent matter unless it is possible that—"
May's voice trailed away in a whisper, her eyes were far away. Grant could see that her little hands were clenched in a sudden determination. He began to realise that there was a determination here that he had not dreamt of.
"You look as if you were contemplating something desperate," he said. The girl laughed unsteadily. Then the tears crept into her eyes again.
"Oh, I am," she said, desperately. "What am I talking about? But I suppose I must wait now with what patience I am capable of. Don't think badly of me, dear, there is nothing to be ashamed of so far as I am concerned. And—and how glad I am to see you again."
May forced the tears back from her eyes; a charming smile broke out on her face. It was all quiet and secluded there, so that Grant took her in his arms and kissed her passionately. All the jealous uneasy doubts had faded away—it was impossible to look down into the clear depths of the gray eyes turned so lovingly upon him and harbour unearthly suspicions any longer.
"It is a most, delightful surprise," he said. "I'll take my good fortune as I find it, and not waste time in asking questions, May. Are you in a great hurry?"
May hesitated. The day was fair and smiling, and the main she loved was by her side.
"I ought to go back at once," she said. "I really ought, dear boy. But it is such a lovely day, and it is so very long since I saw you last. Well, half an hour."
"I'll try and show you the beauties of the place in that time," Grant smiled. "You have no idea what a most delightful house it is, May. I fell in love with it from the start, and I have been coveting it ever since. How would you like to live here altogether, child?"
May smiled softly as she pressed her lover's arm. There was absolutely nothing wanting here to make the place perfect. She stood presently in the summer house looking out over the hazy blue of the sea. A little sigh of mingled pleasure and anxiety escaped her.
"It is a little paradise." she said. "It is wasted on a man like Mr. Spencer."
"Do you think so, May? Spencer is very artistic. No man without great taste and feeling could have designed so perfect a spot as this."
May shuddered as if she suddenly found the day cold and bleak. "The Borgias were people of taste," she said. "And yet what a set of cold-blooded wretches they were! Hubert, you may not know it, but Mr. Spencer is a bad man. He is your partner, and you may think lightly of him as a good business hand, but he is a bad man. Some day you will find it out. Oh! I cannot tell you how this knowledge came my way, but it is true. For the present my lips are sealed because the secret is not altogether mine. Please don't press me."
Grant kissed the anxious look away. "I am not going to, darling," he said. "And please do not let us waste our precious time in a discussion on the merits of Mr. Spencer. If I could buy this place, how would you like to live here?"
"I could be happy with you anywhere," the girl said, simply. "It would be lovely, dear. But that is far too good to be true. And there is my father to bring round first."
Grant set his jaw firmly. "I shall know how to deal with him when the time comes," he said. "After all is said and done, it is not fair of him to punish me for the faults of other people. Now, if I could induce my partner to sell me this dear little place, do you suppose that Sir Bruce—?"
But May was not hopeful. All the grave anxiety was in her eyes as she turned her face in the direction of Grant Lea a little later on. There was likely to be many a day of black and bitter trouble before she called herself Mrs. Hubert Grant.
And Grant had plenty of food for reflection when once he was alone. It came to him with significant force that he had never really liked his partner. But hitherto he had regarded him as a model of honour and fairness. Now he began to have his doubts. May Leverton had not hesitated to say that Spencer was a bad man, and apparently she was in a position to prove her statement.
Grant thought all this over as he sat in the garden till the light began to fail and it was time to dress for dinner. There was no sign of Spencer's return, and Hubert decided to go on without his host. He sat there in the big house-place with the shaded lights, the dinner-table and the masses of yellow spring flowers in the old blue vases. All around him was the dull gleam of ancient oak, the atmosphere of refinement and artistic feeling that he liked so well. And how perfect it would have all been had only May been seated at the other end of the table! But that would come one of these early days, Hubert told himself.
He took his coffee and cigar presently on the balcony with the shaded lights behind him. On the table there he had thrown down the telegram which had so greatly distressed Paul Spencer. He took it up again idly now, and began to turn it about in his fingers. He wondered as to what manner of man the message had come from.
"There is no reason why you should wait up any longer, Jenner," he said to the butler who had come to see if any thing more was needed. "I have all that I require, thank you. If your master is not back by half-past 10 I will see that the house is locked up."
Jenner retired respectfully. It was an early household as a rule, and the servants were generally in bed by half-past 10. Grant sat there with the telegram in his hand. Then something in the postmark attracted his attention, and he regarded the paper more carefully.
"Very odd," he said to himself. "I quite thought that this was the 6th May. I should lave been prepared to swear to that. And this telegram is post-marked the 5th. I suppose I'm wrong. Still—"
Just for a moment Hubert was inclined to let the matter pass. Then he rose from his chair and went into the dining-room. By the side of the old-fashioned fireplace a calendar hung. He bent down and looked at it long and carefully.
"I'm right, after all." he said. "This is Saturday the 6th May. And the postmark on a telegram that is obviously sent out from London this morning is post-marked a day wrong. Now, fancy a post office official making a mistake like that! I have never heard of such a thing before. I'll put this in my pocket and—well, Jenner?"
Jenner stood there quiet and respectful as usual. He had discarded most of his clothing, and appeared now in his pyjamas.
"I beg your pardon for disturbing you, sir," he said, "but there is a burglar in the library. Shall I and tell the police, or shall you and me, sir, tackle the person? It is not much in my line, being by nature a timid man, sir; but if you like—?"
Grant jumped hurriedly from his seat, his face hard and set.
"Come along." he whispered. "We shall be able to manage him between us."
"Beg pardon, sir," Jenner murmured. "It isn't a he at all, sir—it's a woman!"
Hubert was inclined to be amused. The correctness and solemnity of Jenner's manner by no means disguised his nervousness. The man was white and frightened. On the other hand Grant regarded the situation with a certain feeling of amusement. The idea of a lady burglar was distinctly a novel one. Doubtless one of the maids had come prowling about in the darkness, and Jenner had magnified her into a professional thief.
"Better make sure first," Hubert suggested. "It seems hardly possible that anybody should come here whilst so many lights are burning. Your burglar is not noted for audacity. Go and ask her what she wants. She is probably a house maid."
"I think not, sir," Jenner said quite firmly. "I don't make those mistakes, sir. I have been in service with the best families too long sir. It is a lady."
"You mean that you have seen her face?"
"Well, no, sir. I can't go so far as that. But with my experience it is impossible to make a mistake. There's a certain delicacy of perfume that the lower classes can't get. Even a lady's maid, who ought to know better, always over does it. And the way she carries her clothes. I shall be very much obliged if you will come this way, sir."
Hubert rose from his chair. It seemed to him that Jenner's philosophy had gone far enough. He was no longer amused; on the contrary he was vexed with himself for having wasted so much valuable time. Even in this interval the daring thief might have got away with some plunder of price. And a troubled doubt began to assail Hubert. There was something very wrong about this house, some thing sinister in connection with his partner. May Leverton had come here on a more or less desperate errand, and here was another woman on a similar quest apparently. Unless it might be that the two women—
The mere suggestion sent the blood humming through Hubert's head. The idea was preposterous and absurd, and yet stranger things had happened. It would be just as well perhaps to take this matter out of Jenner's hands altogether. Even if his suspicions were groundless, there was no necessity for Jenner to know too much. Taking it for granted that the intruder was a lady; the fact was almost in itself a proof that she was here on some desperate enterprise not necessarily connected with common robbery.
"We will go and investigate," Hubert said with a gaiety he was not altogether feeling. "I don't think there will be any occasion for us to arm ourselves. I'll go in front."
Jenner did not contest the point; he appeared quite content to fall modestly in the background and leave the whole affair to Grant.
The door of the library was open, and in the darkness somebody could be heard moving about. In a corner by a window stood the big safe. A moment later a match flared out; there was a sudden jingling of keys and the click of a lock. A pale, pretty, desperately frightened face stood out just for an instant in a luminous bath of light.
It was only for an instant, but it was quite long enough for Hubert. All his wits were alert and vigorous now. In the dim rays of the match he could make out Jenner with his hand on the switch ready to flood the room with the gleam of electrics.
Without the slightest hesitation, Grant's right arm shot out, and landed heavily on Jenner's temple. He went down like a log without a groan. The whole thing was too quick and clever for the servant to guess from what quarter the assault came.
He dropped on the carpet with a heavy thud. A muffled scream came from the figure by the safe. She darted headlong in the direction of the door, and as she passed him, Hubert caught her by the arm. She moaned piteously as Grant held her tight.
"You are quite safe," he whispered. "Absolutely there is no danger. But what possessed you to do it, what peculiar form of madness is this, May?"
The girl trembled from head to foot in a violent fit of sobbing. She was fighting hard with a wild desire to burst out into hysterical laughter. Grant's soothing words prevailed at length.
"I had to come," she whispered. "I meant to return when I left you this afternoon. It—it was a great shock to me to find you here at all. I did not expect anything of the kind. And I had to deceive you. Because the secret is not altogether mine."
Grant felt his way across the room and turned on the lights. May drew back in horror at the sight of Jenner lying there white and unconscious on the floor.
"Somebody has killed him," she cried. "He is dead."
"Not so much noise," Grant said. "The servants are all safe in bed, and it would be a great pity to disturb them. The man is all right. It was he who discovered that you were in the house. He had not recognised you when you lighted that match, but he would have done so had I not taken strong measures and knocked him senseless. He is beginning to move."
At a sign from Grant, May darted back behind the curtains. Jenner struggled to his feet.
"What happened?" he asked. "Where am I, sir?"
"Somebody must have struck you a blow," Grant exclaimed glibly. "It was quite sudden. In the confusion of the moment it is difficult to follow these things. There is nobody here now, and it would be a waste of time to try catch the thieves. I'll telephone the police in the morning. In the meantime you had better go to bed."
Jenner needed no further persuasion. The man was horribly frightened. He was anxious enough to have all the trouble and danger off his hands. If Mr. Grant was going to sit up until Mr. Spencer returned, he would like to retire. His head ached terribly, and in his present condition he would be quite useless.
Hubert watched Jenner disappear up the stairs, he heard the butler's room door closed and locked before he returned to the library. From the gentle draught that swayed the curtains to and fro he gathered that the windows were open. Obviously May had come that way. He whispered her name, and she came timidly towards him.
"You are very angry with me?" she asked, imploringly.
"I don't think so," Hubert said quietly. "It is all so strange and unexpected that I don't know what to think. Surely it must be some desperate trouble that impels you to do this daring thing! Won't you confide in me now, May? Won't you tell me everything?"
"I hardly know how I can look you in the face," May murmured. "There is no necessity, dearest. If it helps your courage we will talk in the dark. Perhaps it would be as well for us to do so in any case. I am expecting Mr. Spencer back soon, and I am quite sure that you don't want to see him at this hour."
"Oh, no, no," May shuddered, "I came this afternoon to try to persuade him to do me a favour. It was a great disappointment for me to find that he was away. Not that I believed for a moment that he would listen to anything that I had to say. It was when I was talking to you that I made up my mind. As I went away I looked in through the window of this room, and I saw that Mr. Spencer had left his keys on his desk."
Grant started. He had not noticed this oversight himself. It was very unlike his partner to do anything like that. But then he had been greatly distressed and agitated by that mysterious telegram, he had gone off without the least delay.
"You desired to rob Mr. Spencer's safe?" he asked. "Why?"
There was a long pause before May replied. Hubert could feel her trembling from head to foot. He waited patiently; he soothed her, with loving words and assurances of his loyalty to her.
"I am sure that you sorely need a friend," he said. "You are in some dreadful trouble that is caused by no fault of your own. And who better could you have to tell than me? I am not your husband yet, but I am going to be. Tell me, dearest."
A long sigh came from Mary's lips.
"How good, you are to me!" she murmured. "How nobly you treat me! And yet my conduct could not appear to you in a worse light. You are justified in regarding me as a common thief and never speaking to me again."
"I am quite certain that you are not to blame, May. I am quite certain that you are trying to shield somebody else. Who is it?"
"My—my mother," May whispered. "I ought not to have told you, but I could not keep it to myself any longer. It is only fair that you should be told. In that safe are my mother's jewels, or at least the jewels that my mother was taking care of."
"Taking care of! Then they are not here at all. Pray go on."
"I will try to make the matter plain, Hubert. Mr. Spencer is a scoundrel. There is no man whom I regard with more contempt and loathing. He—he wanted to marry me."
"To marry you! But where, how, when—I am amazed to hear this."
"We met frequently in London last winter. Mr. Spencer is a rich man, and he became very friendly with my mother. It was not right, because my father hates the man. You have heard me speak of my mother frequently. She is not bad, only foolish and frivolous, and very fond of getting into smart society. To do that nowadays it is necessary to gamble recklessly. And my mother has always had a weakness that way. She lost large sums of money, and Mr. Spencer paid them for her. But he always wanted security. He had her own jewels one by one. But that is not the worst. When Lady Mossingford had to go abroad suddenly to see her boy, who was dangerously ill in Paris, she was staying with us at Grant Lea. She left a large portion of her jewels in my mother's charge, and—and—"
May paused as if unable to proceed. Hubert kissed her tenderly.
"Let me finish," he said. "In a fit of madness your mother pledged those gems to get money to pay her gambling debts, and Spencer knows whom they belong to. He is using his knowledge as a lever to get your mother to force you to marry him. You came here this afternoon to try to induce Mr. Spencer to do the proper thing, and you found me here instead. And when you happened to see the keys on the desk, you made the desperate resolve of coming back to try to get possession of those gems. And all the time I have been in absolute ignorance as to what was going on. I told my partner this afternoon that I was going to marry you, and he took it as if it was the most ordinary piece of news. And all this time I have been the partner of an infernal scoundrel without dreaming of the fact. Why didn't you tell me?"
May was crying quietly, with her head on Hubert's shoulder.
"I did not dare to," she said. "I was afraid of making mischief between you. I see now how weak and foolish I have been. And I had my mother to think of. I only found out how bad things were quite by accident. At the present moment I am supposed to be in bed and asleep. I came by the road along the cliffs in the moonlight, and I am going back presently the same way. But I must have those jewels. It is a vile and dishonourable thing to do, but my mother is the first consideration. You will help me, Hubert?"
Grant hesitated. The situation was hedged with difficulties.
"We must take time," he said. "If you—but come outside. Let us go down the grounds in the direction of the cliffs. Unless I am greatly mistaken, Spencer has come back. I am quite sure that I heard his steps in the dining room."
Somebody was moving about the dining room certainly. Followed by May, Grant crept into the garden and made his way towards the cliffs.
"Wait for me," he said. "Stay here and have patience. I'll be back presently."
He hurried back to the house and into the dining-room. The lights were fully on; the blinds were drawn and by the table stood a figure in evening dress. To Grant's surprise he saw that the intruder was not Spencer, but a stranger.
"There is some mistake here," he said. "You are—"
"Very much at your service, sir," the stranger said. "Be so good as to be seated. You want naturally to know my name. Then call me Smith—Mr. John Smith—of London."
The stranger appeared to be fully cognisant of the fact that he was master of the situation. To further emphasize the fact he laid a small ivory handled revolver on the table before him. There was a coolness about the whole proceeding that deprived Grant of the power of speech for a moment. He saw a little fat man with a tiny waxed moustache, a glass in his right eye, and a general suggestion of the middle aged dandy with him. There are scores of such men to be seen everyday in the service clubs in St. James's-street, but in this case there was an air of grimness and determination which there was no mistaking. The voice of the stranger was mincing and affected, but behind the falsetto an uneasiness that had almost a menace in it.
"Am I to understand that I am practically a prisoner?" Grant asked.
The little man screwed his glass still more firmly in his right eye. His hand fell on the butt of the revolver with a suggestion of familiarity with weapons.
"That is an exceedingly luminous idea of yours," he said. "For the time being you are a prisoner. And in your own house too. But, believe me, I have no idea of violence—that is if you are reasonable. The less resentment you show, the quicker I shall be finished. I have come to give you some exceedingly valuable advice."
"You might have come in a more conventional form," Hubert retorted.
"I might, yes," Mr. Smith said thoughtfully. "But there are strong reasons why I should not do any thing of the kind. Mr. Spencer is your partner, I understand?"
"That is common knowledge, sir. Will you please go on?"
"I pray you not to be impatient. Now, has it ever occurred to you that Mr. Spencer is not exactly what he appears to be? His name stands high in the city—he is supposed to be a very rich man. I use the word 'supposed' advisedly. I have the best of reasons for believing that Mr. Paul Spencer is not a rich man at all. In fact he is a defaulter. The firm of Spencer, Grant, and Scarsdale is hopelessly insolvent. In a few days this will be common property. It is exceedingly hard on Mr. Philip Scarsdale, who is only a sleeping partner, but he is not quite blameless. He ought to have insisted upon seeing that the money was correct. So should you for that matter."
"Mr. Spencer has always looked after the financial side of the business," Grant said.
"Oh, I know that. He has showed you forged balance-sheets and forged bank books. He has been doing that sort of juggling for years. The time comes when that kind of thing has to stop, and the time has come now. The money you paid for this house goes with the rest. You were a great fool not to have a proper conveyance of the property. Not that it would have mattered much, as your creditors will take everything."
Grant stood there listening in a kind of dull amazement. Who was this man who spoke in such confident terms of his private affairs?
"I have only your word for all this," he said. "Precisely. I expected you to say that. It is only natural that I should be expected to prove my bona-fides. All the same you will pardon me if I prefer to remain more or less anonymous. I am going to speak now of one or two transactions that will open your eyes."
The speaker proceeded to tick off certain items on his fingers. He mentioned the names of clients, he spoke freely of their business, he seemed to have all the figures at the end of his tongue. In the light of these revelations certain vague suspicions of Grant's became damning facts. He began to understand presently how desperate the position was.
"Have I said enough?" the stranger said curtly. "If you are not satisfied, I will go on. There is no transaction of your firm which is concealed from me."
"The whole thing is amazing," Hubert cried. "My partner—"
"Your partner is a scoundrel. In a day or two everybody will know him for a rascal of the worst possible type. I am sorry for you, and I am sorry for Philip Scarsdale. But you are by no means blameless in the matter. You have allowed this to go on for all these years without asking questions. After the figures are investigated you will all stand in the dock together. People will say hard things about you."
"They will," Grant agreed moodily. "If I could confront you with Paul Spencer—"
"That you will never do. Paul Spencer does not set foot in this house again. Within a very short time he will be on his way abroad. He has a trouble of his own, and by this time the police are after him. Is the name of Robert Morton familiar to you?"
"As an acquaintance," Grant said. "A man more or less of a failure in business, who has lately taken up politics. A poor conceited creature!"
"You are absolutely wrong, Mr. Grant. That silly manner of Morton's is assumed to hide the man's wonderful cunning and cleverness. He is one of the most dangerous and unscrupulous men that I ever met. He is mainly responsible for Spencer's downfall. I believe that once he was out of the way Spencer could have saved the situation. And this great enemy of his will be yours also. Still, I can help you here. You will get some letters and papers through the post, and I hope you will study them carefully."
"I suppose I ought to thank you?" Grant asked.
"My dear sir, if you knew every thing, you would thank me on your knees. And if you wish to see your late partner again you must go as far as the summer house on the cliff. I fancy you were asked to go there to-night at half-past 10 if he did not come back. You may take my word for it that he will not come back."
Hubert glanced mechanically at the clock. It was a few minutes past the hour of ten. There was yet time to hear more of the mysterious business.
"I am much obliged to you for the hint," he said. "If you have nothing further to say to me, I will go now, I have much to discuss with Mr. Spencer."
The stranger clicked the lock of his revolver significantly.
"I am not here entirely for your benefit," he said drily. "It must be plain to your intelligence that I am taking risks in coming here at all. At half-past ten precisely I shall permit myself the pleasure of taking off the embargo that keeps you here. In ten minutes from now I shall relieve you of my presence. In all probability we shall never meet again. You are annoyed and angry with me now, but the time will come when you will bless the day that introduced you to the man who calls himself Mr. Smith, of London. Did I say Mr. John Smith?"
Grant nodded sullenly. He was in no mood to be grateful. There was something in the man's manner that he resented. And all the while May was waiting for him in the garden. She was not likely to turn her face in the direction of Grant Lea so long as matters remained in the present state of uncertainty. And with it all was the danger that her absence from home might be discovered. Any silly little accident might bring this about.
"You are causing me great inconvenience," Grant said. "If I could go at once—"
"You can't go at once. You must give me your word to remain here till the clock strikes the half hour. If you break it, you must take the consequences. If you move a yard from the house till the proper moment you will pay for your broken promise with your life."
As the last word was uttered the electric lights went out suddenly leaving the room plunged into black darkness.
As Grant's dazzled eyes, assisted by the moon outside, began to discern the familiar surroundings he became aware of the fact that he was alone.
The mysterious Mr. Smith had vanished as strangely as he had come. The leaden monster crept on till the half hour struck with a noise and unexpectedness that set all Grant's nerves throbbing. He made a dash for the door for the garden beyond. It lay still and peaceful in the moonlight, there was no sign of May anywhere. She was no longer standing in the place where Grant had left her. Possibly she had got tired of waiting, and gone home, perhaps she was hiding somewhere close by. Grant called her softly by name, but no reply came. And there was no time to lose.
He made his way through the garden and up the slope leading to the summer house. The clear moonlight shone across the wide expanse of sea, a figure standing on the edge of the cliff loomed out clear like a cameo. It needed no second glance to tell Grant that the solitary figure was that of Paul Spencer. It was very strange that a man presumably a fugitive from justice should expose himself in that bold, careless way.
"Better get into the summer house," Grant called out. "I'm coming up."
"I'm waiting for you," Spencer replied. "I dare say you think—"
The sentence was never finished. With the words on his lips Spencer staggered back with his hand to his side as a revolver shot rang out. A stifled groan escaped him; he lurched forward, then backwards and disappeared headlong over the steep cliff into the sea two hundred feet below.
With a feeling of horror and sickness upon him Grant looked down to the silent flood lapping peacefully on the granite rocks. He called and called again, but nothing came but the hoarse echo of his own frightened voice.
Grant stood there looking down long and anxiously. The whole thing had happened with such dramatic suddenness that he felt almost inclined to doubt the evidence of his senses. And yet he had clearly hard the voice of his partner, he had seen Spencer's familiar figure picked out with vivid distinctness in the moonlight. He had heard the quick crack of the revolver shot, he had seen Spencer roll and disappear over the edge of the cliff.
Paul Spencer was dead beyond all doubt. Probably the bullet from the revolver had been sufficient to account for the victim, but the fall from the cliff had removed all uncertainty. There was not a ledge or a spur on the face of the rocks to break the force of the descent. A hundred yards or more to the right was a winding path leading to the beach, and Grant risked it. But his search was all in vain. The tide was fairly high, and it still washed the foot of the cliff. There was nothing for it now but to hurry back to the house and give the alarm.
As Hubert reached the garden. May flashed into his mind again. He was anxious and worried about her. Had she gone home? Had she got tired of waiting for him? Or was she still hiding close by? There was no satisfactory way of answering these questions as far as Hubert could see. He would have to wait. The amazing complexity of the tangle bewildered him. A few hours before and there was no suspicion of trouble at all. A few hours ago he had been the proud and happy owner of Ledge Point, with the prospect of fair years before him. And now he doubted whether or not he could call the house his own. Certainly he had no right to do so if half of the mysterious 'Mr. Smith's' story was true.
Clearly May had gone home. It was no use wasting further time looking for her. The thing to do now was to find the cold-blooded author of the murder. Grant dismissed the idea that Mr. Smith himself might be the author of the crime. If that extraordinary individual had intended anything of the kind he could never have been so rash as to make himself known to anybody at Ledge Point. Clearly Paul Spencer had had more enemies than one.
But something must be done. Hubert made his way back to the quiet house where the lights were still burning, and called up the Fairford police on the telephone. It seemed to him to be much more prudent not to disturb the house-hold. At the end of a long weary hour Inspector Manley put in an appearance.
"This seems to be a very extraordinary affair, sir," he said. "Will you please to give me the details all over again?"
Hubert explained at length. He said nothing as to the presence of Mr. Smith. Clearly Smith had had no hand in the tragedy, and to drag in his name would merely precipitate the financial scandal that Hubert was anxious to avoid. It was not a very prudent decision, but there was not much time to think.
"Mr. Spencer had enemies?" Manley asked.
"So it would seem," Grant said, guardedly. "I never suspected it till this afternoon. My partner struck me as a very respectable man. He had no vices or extravagances, and he was very particular as to the company he kept."
"Did he say anything after that telegram came?"
"I fancy not. Oh, yes, he did—he said something as to old indiscretions, and the way they came back to people years afterwards. He was evidently alluding to something that happened in his early manhood. The telegram seemed to agitate him very much."
"I suppose you did not happen to see the telegram, sir?" Manley asked.
"Indeed, I did," Grant explained. "As a matter of fact, I have it in my pocket at the present moment. Mr. Spencer dropped it, and I packed it up meaning to return it to him when he got back here. Would you like to have a look at it?"
Inspector Manley expressed a keen desire to do so. He puzzled over the flimsy pink paper for some little time. It was plain that he made nothing out of it.
"I'll keep this, sir, if you don't mind," he said. "I see the telegram was despatched from London. That makes the sender very difficult to trace. There is a distinct threat in the message, and it is quite clear from what you say that Mr. Spencer was afraid of the person who sent the curt summons to him. Was he of a nervous disposition?"
"Quite the contrary," Grant explained. "I have seldom met a man with more moral and physical courage. Keep the telegram, by all means, Inspector. And when you have examined it carefully, tell me if you find anything peculiar about it."
The inspector rose and made his way to the door.
"You may depend upon it that we shall leave nothing undone to get at the bottom of the affair," he said. "I will come round and see you in the morning."
"I should prefer to wait till night so far as I am concerned," Hubert said. "I must be at the office all day to-morrow. I shall have my unfortunate partner's business to see to as well as my own."
The inspector had no objection to make. By breakfast-time the whole countryside seemed to have heard of the tragedy. Idle groups began to collect in the roads. One or two journalists had already arrived athirst for information. Grant turned the keys in the door of the living rooms and handed them to Jenner.
"I don't suppose you will ever see your master again," he said. "They tell me that bodies lost off the cliffs here are never recovered. But that won't prevent you being pestered by a lot of vulgar sightseers who will ask you questions. They will want to photograph the house both inside and out. Don't let them do anything of the kind, Jenner. And don't part with those keys unless the police ask for them."
Grant caught a fairly early train to town, and 11 o'clock saw him in the city. It seemed to him that one or two business acquaintances eyed him curiously as he walked along. There was a significant whispering and a raising of eyebrows. Was the story public property already, Grant wondered? He did not know that there had been whispers as to the status of his firm for days past. It is one of the things the party most intimately connected never hears of until too late. But there was no mistaking the significance of these glances now. The full force of the mysterious Mr. Smith's warning came home to Hubert at that moment.
He strode into his private office and rang the bell. A flurried-looking clerk answered the summons.
"Send Mr. Raybold to me at once," Hubert said curtly. Mr. Spencer's confidential clerk appeared presently. There was nothing about the business of the firm that this man did not know. He was a tall, stout man, bald, pompous, slow of speech, the very essence of subordinate respectability.
"You have heard the news Raybold?" Grant asked.
Raybold bowed. His florid face was ghastly pale, a fine bead of perspiration gathered on his head. He put out a trembling hand imploringly.
"You must not blame me, sir," he whined. "It was no fault of mine. I implored Mr. Spencer to take you into his confidence over and over again, but he would not hear of it. For the last two years I have seen matters going from bad to worse. Of course, I know that Mr. Spencer had been speculating wildly. But he always said that it would come right—he had one big thing that was going to make a million. Lord, what a time it has been!"
Raybold wiped his heated face with a palsied hand.
"Then I suppose that everything has gone?" Grant asked.
"It's worse than that, sir," Raybold explained. "It isn't only our money. There is some fifty thousand pounds the other side belonging to clients. Some of them have been lately making a fine to-do about their money. And there were nasty letters from solicitors who threatened proceedings."
"And not one word was said to me about it!"
"That was Mr. Spencer's orders, sir. You were not to be told anything. He hoped to get the money back over those East Quogga mining concessions."
"That is the concession that Mr. Cardella was so anxious to get from us?"
"Quite so, sir. And he'll get the concession now unless we can find the money. It's only a matter of another week. Mr. Cardella's man, Robert Morton, has been working against us. People say he is a fool, but I know better."
Hubert frowned thoughtfully. He was of Raybold's opinion. Despite his silly manner, Robert Morton was no fool. And Hubert had the mysterious Mr. Smith's assurance that Morton was somewhat at the bottom of this conspiracy. Cardella was a government official, a prominent member of the House of Commons with none too sweet a reputation. There were those who declared that he used his official knowledge to put money into his pocket. Morton was a member of the House, too, with a reputation as an organiser. Grant began to see how the pit had been prepared.
"Do you suggest that we are likely to be prosecuted?" he asked.
"It might come to that, sir." Raybold said hoarsely. "We might be able to prove that Mr. Spencer had been queer for some time. But then people will say that you ought to have looked into matters more closely. Cardella and Morton know pretty well how matters stand, and they will try to pull you down this week if possible. If they do, the Quogga concession falls into their hands quite naturally. It might not be difficult to get one of Mr. Spencer's clients to apply for a warrant against you. You'd probably get bail after a day or two, but that would be too late. In the meantime we should break up altogether."
Hubert flashed round on the stumbling, hesitating Raybold.
"Speak out," he commanded, "tell me the whole truth. It is quite evident that you are concealing something from me. Criminal proceedings have been threatened?"
"Yes, sir; that is so, sir," Raybold stammered. "A client named Jenkins. We owe him some seven thousand pounds. Personally, I believe that Cardella and Morton sent him here on purpose to lose his money. They knew full well that Mr. Spencer would appropriate it. That is the quarter where the danger lies."
Grant listened moodily enough. A feeling of hopeless, impotent rage possessed him. He was like a child who was kept in the dark. All this mystery and intrigue was going on all around him, and he was entirely ignorant of the thing. He had known something, of course, of the Quogga concession out of which the firm was going to make a fortune. And they had been duped and fooled in this way by Cardella and Morton.
"Well, it's useless to cry over spilt milk," Hubert said. "I shall gain nothing by telling you that you are as great a knave as my late partner. Had you been an honest man you would have come to me and told me all this. Leave me, please. Before you go send a telegram to Mr. Scarsdale, and say his presence is urgently needed here at once. This disgrace is hard upon me; it is still harder on Mr. Scarsdale."
Raybold vanished eagerly. On the whole the dreaded interview had not been so bad as he had expected. Grant sat there moodily stubbing a pen into his blotting pad. The whole thing was terribly hard on Philip Scarsdale, who was a sleeping partner in the business, with no knowledge whatever of what was going on. Hubert was still thinking the matter over when Inspector Manley was announced. The officer had the fateful telegram in his hand.
"I ran up to London with this, sir," he said. "You asked me if I noticed anything peculiar about the telegram, and I have. It's the mistake in the date you mean. That's why I came up to town to make inquiries. And now I have found something stranger still."
"What is that?" Grant asked.
"Why, it is not a genuine message, sir. The form is correct and so is the envelope and the stamp. But the message itself has never been through the post office at all!"
Hubert forgot his troubles in this new sensation.
"Stop a moment," he said. "Let me clearly understand the matter. The telegram is a forgery?"
"In a manner of speaking yes, sir. Somebody contrived to obtain possession of the proper form and the proper envelope. When this was done it would not be a very difficult matter to forge the date stamp. I dare say I should have allowed the whole thing to pass but for that mistake in dating the telegram the wrong day."
"And how do you propose that that happened?"
"Well, it's only a theory, sir, but I fancy that I can explain that matter easily enough. The date stamp was forged in one piece. I mean it wasn't a die that could be changed. Something happened to put off the sending of the telegram, for a day, and there was no time to have another die cut. Therefore the person who is at the bottom of this queer business had to chance it. He took the risk of the mistake passing, and in nine cases out of ten it would have done so. When I came up to London with the telegram I knew that there was something queer about it, and I was quite prepared for the post office to repudiate the whole thing, which they did. No message like that was handed in at East Strand yesterday."
"And that is as far as you have puzzled it out up to now, I suppose?"
"Quite right, sir. I thought that I would come and let you know. If you are returning to Ledge Point this evening I'll tell you what my theory is."
Grant was, however, by no means certain as to that point, and Inspector Manley took his departure fairly well pleased with his own astuteness. He had hardly left the office before Philip Scarsdale came in. He looked anxious and uneasy.
"I got your telegram," he said. "I came up as quickly as possible. I heard all sorts of rumours as I came along. The popular theory is that Spencer committed suicide because he could not face his creditors. Is that really so?"
"Paul Spencer did not commit suicide, anyway," said Hubert. "The man was murdered. I saw the thing with my own eyes. I didn't see the murderer, of course, or he would have been in the hands of the police before now."
Scarsdale intimated that he should like to hear the story. He listened coldly and critically enough. There was something in his manner that irritated Grant.
"Do you imagine that I am not telling the truth?" he asked.
"What I think does not matter in the least," Scarsdale retorted. "It is what the coroner and Jury will say when they come to view the body. Some people might insinuate that you got Spencer out of the way so that you could put all the blame on him."
The hot blood rushed to Grant's face.
"Are you one of those people?" he asked pointedly. "Years ago when you stood under the shadow of disgrace for a time one man believed in you. He stood up for you when the woman who is now your wife turned from you. Appearances were pretty black, but that one man never wavered. And when the whole vile conspiracy was exposed—"
"I beg your pardon," Scarsdale cried. "I ought not to have allowed you to remind me of that, Hubert. Still, when a man looks like losing everything, he is apt to forget his friends. Tell me in as many words whether we are ruined or not?"
"More than that," Hubert replied. "We are disgraced. For all I know to the contrary, there may be a warrant out for my arrest at the present moment. And yet I can honestly swear that I am as innocent of wrong-doing as yourself. Raybold will tell you so. Spencer managed all the money side of the business; there never seemed any lack of capital. Mind you, I am not excusing myself. I ought to have insisted upon a sight of the books. And here was I not dreaming of a thing that was well known to Cardella and Morton."
"You mean Morton, the member of Parliament? He is going to dine with Sir Bruce Leverton to-night, and we are driving him over. He has never been there before, and Sir Bruce wanted to see him in connection with some political work. He always struck me as being—"
"I know he did," Grant said grimly. "But he isn't. That silly stupid way of his is assumed. If you watch him carefully to-night you will see."
"I shan't," Scarsdale said wearily. "I shan't go. I shall send my wife instead, and get her to introduce Morton to Sir Bruce. As you can imagine, this has been a blow for me. I suppose that there will be nothing saved out of the wreck?"
"On the contrary," Grant explained, "there is a good deal to be found. If I had had time to work at East Quogga concession I could have saved the situation. But Cardella and his satellite, Morton, are far too clever for that. Their game is to break us up at once, and bring the old house down with a crash. They have a man ready to apply for a warrant against me, and they may have made the application already. By the time I had explained my position and procured bail, the mischief will have been done. Those two rascals will have got the Quogga concession into their hands, and secure a fortune."
"You mean that if you can be free for a day or two—"
"Precisely. If you can help me here I fancy I can see my way clear."
"Then I will. I'll call on Wainwright on my way home, and tell him to be ready for you in case you are on the look out for a hiding place. I am taking it for granted that there is nothing left of Spencer's fortune. You have looked into his safe?"
Grant started. The question had given him an idea. He had quite forgotten all about the safe at Ledge Point. The keys of the library had been handed over to Jenner, who had instructions not to part with them except at the request of the police. And in all probability the police had not needed them. Spencer's safe was actually open, or at least the key was in the door. Here was a splendid chance to help May Leverton. At any hazard the must be free of her trouble. And the safe at Ledge Point might disclose something of real practical value.
"That is very good of you," Grant said. "I'll telephone my landlady to pack a bag for me, and leave it at Charing Cross Station to be called for. You shall take it down as far as Wainwright's place near Fairford, and leave it there for me. I have a little scheme in my mind, the details of which are not quite clear yet, but I dare say I shall puzzle it out before dark. What time do you dine at Leverton's to-night?"
"Half-past eight. Lady Leverton is nothing if not fashionable."
Philip Scarsdale went on his way presently leaving Hubert to his own troubled thoughts. An hour later he was called to the telephone. He recognised Scarsdale's voice.
"I'm calling you up from the Junior National," he said. "Morton has just gone out with a man called Jenkins. I happened to hear a word of two of their conversation. They are going to Bow-street to take out a warrant against you. I'm telephoning Wainwright."
The message ceased, and Hubert reached for his hat and coat. He called a taxicab presently, and got out at Charing Cross. Thence he took a bus to Victoria, and travelled down to Clapham Junction. Here he left the station, and started to walk to Grange Park, where he could get a local that would land him four miles from Ledge Point.
He managed to creep into the grounds at length. The early April night was closing in, though it was only a little past six. It was a dull evening, with a cold wind from the east. Making his way with great caution, Hubert reached the terrace at length. He had the satisfaction of seeing that the catch of the library window was pushed back. A moment later he had dashed across the terrace, and was in the room.
The door was locked. Jenner had evidently remembered his instructions. So far, so good. The keys were in the safe, and Grant pulled back the door. There was only one package in the safe so far as Grant could see—a square neat package, with Lady Leverton's name on it. Without the slightest hesitation, Hubert slipped it in his pocket. His one idea was to make his way to Fairford to the residence of the man who was awaiting him. As he turned to go a telegram on the mantelpiece attracted his attention. It was addressed to himself. No doubt Jenner had put it there for safety.
He tore the flap open carefully, so that he could stick it down again. The message was from May asking for the package in the safe at once. It was a matter of life and death that it should be delivered at Grant Lea that same night.
An hour later Grant burst in upon his friend Wainwright. He wanted to know if his bag had come; he wanted to use the telephone without delay. His manner was eager and excited, but there was something of the air of the conqueror about him.
"That's all right," he said, presently. "I've managed to get the better of Morton for the time being at any rate. And now I should like to see my room, and have my dinner clothes."
"But you don't want dress clothes to-night," Wainwright protested.
"Oh, yes, I do," Grant exclaimed. "I'm dining out this evening. It will be a pleasant surprise for some of them later on. I am going to do myself the honour and pleasure of joining Sir Bruce Leverton's dinner party this evening."
"You must be mad," Wainwright protested.
Philip Scarsdale had taken the blow manfully enough. He had gone to town with an uneasy feeling that matters were far from well with the firm of Spencer, Grant, and Scarsdale, but he had not been prepared to find that positive ruin stared him in the face.
It meant that he had lost everything. Ever since his marriage a comfortable income of some thousands per annum had reached him regularly from that little gold mine in the city. He had trusted his partners implicitly. He had developed his perfect little estate; he had spent all his income in the comfortable belief that he was justified in doing so.
And he believed Grant now; he took his word without the slightest hesitation. The two were old friends in business, though oddly enough, Grant had never visited at Scarsdale's house. He knew Mrs. Scarsdale by repute, he knew of the trouble that once had threatened to ruin Scarsdale's happiness, but he had never met Ellen Scarsdale face to face.
Scarsdale's thoughts were gloomy enough as he made his way homewards. It seemed like some uneasy dream to see his wife standing there in the drawing-room impatiently waiting his return. She was dressed ready to go out; she came forward with a smile on her face. Then she started back as she saw the hopeless misery in her husband's eyes.
"What is it, Philip?" she asked. "What is the matter? Are you ill or—"
She could not say the word, and Scarsdale saved her the necessity.
"Ruin!" she gasped. "Ruin! You mean to say that there is nothing—nothing—"
Ellen Scarsdale paused as if unable to proceed. It seemed absolutely impossible that Philip could be telling the truth. She glanced around her own perfectly-appointed drawing-room; she could not possibly blend the startling information with her surroundings. She could catch a glimpse of her own long slim figure in a mirror opposite—a graceful outline in white, with shining points of flame in the dark hair.
She could hear outside in the drive the jingle of harness, and the impatient scraping of horse's feet. To her right hand lay the exquisite confection in lace and satin and fur which she was going to wear in the brougham presently.
And here was Philip splashed and mud-stained, still in a suit of rough tweeds, his face pale and agitated. Long ago he should have been suitably attired in the evening garb of modern civilisation.
"But, I don't understand at all, Phil," the young wife said with a catch in her voice. "I thought you were so rich. You have always told me that I need not give any consideration at all to money matters. Now you tell me—"
With a gesture of despair, Scarsdale rose from his chair, and placed the room with a monotony which began to jar on the nerves of his fair companion.
"Oh, it is exactly as I have said," he muttered. "There will be nothing saved from the wreck."
"But how did you hear it?" Ellen asked. "Grant told me. I blame myself bitterly now that I have taken so little interest in the business. But they always assured me how perfectly safe it was, and, indeed, have always hinted to me that they preferred my room to my company."
"Still, I don't quite understand," Ellen said. "What could you possibly have to do with it?"
"I hardly understand myself," Philip said ruefully. "As far as I can understand some two hundred thousand pounds of our clients' money was passed on to Spencer to invest. Instead of doing that he seems to have spent it all, and forged deeds to show that the thing was all right. Now the whole story has come out. Spencer has committed suicide. It is a dreadful business."
Ellen Scarsdale was beginning slowly to comprehend. The prospect was so terrible that the pretty mouth drooped and the clear gray eyes filled with tears.
"For heaven's sake, don't do that," Scarsdale said hoarsely. "Don't blame me now. I have nothing to do with it."
"I'll try to be brave, Phil," the girl said with an effort. "But this is a terrible shock to me. You know how passionately fond I am of beautiful things, and how proud I am of my lovely old house. And to think it will all have to go! At the same time there is something in your manner that suggests that you have not told me everything. As your wife—"
"Oh, yes, I know that," Phillip said despairingly. "You are quite right—there are things connected with this unfortunate affair which I cannot tell to anybody. I am pledged to secrecy. At the same time there is something that you must acquit me—"
"Disgrace!" the girl cried.
"There is disgrace and dishonour behind this thing which is infinitely worse than the loss of all our money. Do not tell me that my own husband—"
"No, no," Scarsdale cried. "I swear to you that so far as I am concerned none have the right to use my name disdainfully."
"But I am your wife," Ellen Scarsdale protested. "And if you refuse to tell me all, I must draw—"
Scarsdale crossed the room and took his wife's slender hands in his. The pressure of his fingers was so strong that the flashing sapphires and diamonds cut into the girl's flesh and left little livid marks there. She looked up proudly into her husband's face. She saw a light almost like madness in his eyes.
"Let me remind you of something," he said, hoarsely. "You have known me nearly all my life; can you point to one act of mine of which I need to be ashamed? I hate to have to remind you of the past, Nell, but you compel me to do it. It is a thousand pities that with so sweet and generous a nature as yours, you cannot eradicate from it that vein of suspiciousness which gives you as much pain as it does me. Three years ago it was nearly brought home to me that I was guilty of cheating at cards at the club at Landford. An ingenious plot—"
"Oh, don't, Phil; please don't!" Ellen Scarsdale said brokenly. A vivid crimson stained her face, she hung her head piteously. "You promised me never to refer to that shameful doubt of mine again."
"But, my dear girl, you forced me to it," Scarsdale cried passionately. "You came to me after the cloud had passed away, for I should never have come to you, though never for a moment did I cease to love you. You came to me, and—well, we need not speak of that any more."
"But why humiliate me like this?" Ellen said. "Because, my dear, you humiliate me. You promised me then that you would trust me in the future whatever happened, however appearances might be against me. And here, the first time that I am compelled to keep a secret from you, you look at me in that cold suspicious manner which cuts me—"
"Oh, you are right—you are right, and I am a thousand times wrong!" Ellen exclaimed. "I know it is no fault of yours, and I am not going to blame you for a moment. If we have to dispose of everything and leave our lovely old house I will try to show you how brave and uncomplaining I can be. But I shall never forgive Hubert Grant for dragging you into this. He must be a bad man—"
"You are quite mistaken," Scarsdale said as he glanced hastily at the clock. "I trust Grant implicitly. If you are going to get to Levertons in time for dinner you will have to leave at once."
Ellen fairly started. She had forgotten all about his dinner engagement at Sir Bruce Leverton's, though she had been waiting impatiently half an hour before for Scarsdale's home-coming.
"But you will come along," she pleaded.
"My dearest girl, I cannot. Believe me, I would if I could, but I am expecting some letters here to-night that must be answered at once. There is just a shadow of a chance that we may right this thing yet by keeping a brave face before the world. I want you to go to this dinner as if nothing had happened. I want you to be brave and smiling at your sunny self. Morton may be here at any moment, and it is quite easy to make an excuse for me."
"I had quite forgotten all about Mr. Morton," Ellen said with an equanimity which cost her an effort, "and I will do everything I can. It will be a terrible ordeal driving four miles on a dark night with a chattering magpie like Robert Morton. I am quite at a loss to understand why you induced Sir Bruce to allow you to bring a man to dinner whom our kind host has never seen."
"It is a question of politics," Scarsdale explained. "With all his chattering inanities, Morton will be a very useful man to Sir Bruce in the coming electoral campaign."
At the same moment a footman entered the room bearing a telegram which he handed to his master. A little smile played about Scarsdale's lips.
"You are well out of one worry, at any rate," he said. "Morton has been detained at the last moment, as this telegram from Landlord proves. To cut it short, Morton can't go to the dinner to-night, and he has asked me to convey his regrets to Sir Bruce."
"Oh, that's all right." Ellen sighed. "It would have been a terrible ordeal for me to have to meet all those people with such a burden on my mind. Mind you, I am not complaining."
Scarsdale kissed his wife passionately. He was glad in spite of everything to notice her stern determination and strength of purpose. More than once he had wondered in his dreamy speculative way what kind of a helpmate Ellen would make if adversity fell upon them. In his heart of hearts he had not been sanguine that she would prove of high courage, but he began to think differently now. All the girl's whiteness of face and agitated expression of features had vanished. She stood there bold and resolute, a dash of colour in her cheeks, a brilliant light in her gray eyes. In some subtle way she seemed to have grown older, more matronly, and yet, in a fashion, still more beautiful. Perhaps it was the awakening of the woman who rises to sublime heights in the hour of need.
"I could not love you more than I do," Scarsdale said unsteadily, "but never till this moment have I admired you in the way I admire you now. There is something about the pose of your head, the flash of your eyes, that gives me new strength and courage. I feel that we are going to win, and that we shall pull through in spite of every thing. I wish I could tell you—"
The words were not finished, for Ellen had her hand upon her husband's mouth.
"Do not say any more." she said. "I am having a liberal education to-night, and now as I have nearly five miles to drive, and it is close on 8 o'clock, I will ask you to see me into the carriage."
"You can trust me implicitly," Scarsdale replied. "I know it is a commonly accepted axiom that a man tells his wife everything, and in nine cases out of ten it is only right that he should, but in this instance I am in honour bound to keep my own counsel. I know you will not tempt me."
"Not for worlds," Ellen cried. "I know that I shall hear everything when the time comes, and I know that, come what may, you will emerge from this matter with clean hands."
Scarsdale appeared as if about to say something, then checked himself. On that point he did not feel in the least sanguine. True, he had been no more than a mere passenger in the business of his firm, but on the other hand, he had signed documents, terribly compromising documents, without so much as looking at them, and he had sufficient knowledge of worldly affairs to know that a judge and jury might take a harsh view of his conduct. In his imaginative way he had already conjured up visions of the detective's hands upon his shoulder and himself standing in the dock. He turned away from the contemplation of these gloomy things and offered his arm to his wife. If she could smile and be brave, it was a poor thing if he could not do the same.
"Come along," he said almost gaily. "Let me wrap you up well, for it is a cold night, and a great deal of wind is blowing. Poor little girl, it will be some time, I expect, before you ride behind a pair of blood horses wrapped up in furs again."
Ellen was in the carriage at length, snugly ensconsed in her warm wraps, and trying to conceal behind a smile the sinking of her heart. She forced a word or two to her lips, then, as the carriage shot into the darkness, she dashed the tears from her eyes.
"I must be brave," she murmured. "For his sake, I must be brave and resolute. To think that I should go so far as to accuse Phil of actual dishonour."
The brougham flashed along in the darkness of the night bearing its fair burden in the direction of the residence of Sir Bruce Leverton, which fine old country house stood some five miles distant from Scarsdale place. As she drove along with the fresh crude air on her face, Ellen gradually recovered her courage. She had fully made up her mind to show Philip what she was made of, though she bitterly regretted the repetition of that suspicious bias which had come near to wrecking her own life three years before. She recalled now how she had forced her pride down and actually gone out of her way to see Philip and implore his forgiveness. She recollected that incident as vividly as if it had only been yesterday. How stern he had been at first, and yet with a look in his eyes that belied his manner, and how noble and forgiving he had been long before a confession was made, how he had almost commanded her never to refer to it again. It would be almost as well perhaps for adversity to come so that Ellen could prove herself in deeds as well as words.
The wind was rising higher, there was no moon, and the sky was tilled with ragged clouds. Darker and darker it grew until presently in the narrow throat of a lane the brougham almost stopped. There had been something approaching a gale the previous night and the roadway was strewn with broken branches. Presently a figure appeared out of the gloom and held up his hand for a signal for the coachman to stop. Ellen could hear words passing.
"What is the matter?" she said with her head out of the window. "Has anything gone wrong here?"
The muffled figure by the roadside muttered something to the effect that a branch of a tree lay across the road a little further on, and that progress was impossible until it had been removed. Already the coachman and footman were down from their seats and without much trouble managed to drag the obstacle away. Vaguely alarmed, Ellen had had the carriage door open so that she could see what was taking place, as far as it was possible to see anything in the gloom. Once the path was clear the stranger intimated that he would close the door. He gave a sharp command to the coachman, and the brougham plunged on, but not before the stranger had entered the brougham and coolly closed the door behind him. Ellen, more indignant than alarmed, would have pulled the check string had not the stranger anticipated her movement.
"I implore you to do nothing rash," he said in a pleasant even voice. "Please do not imagine that I am a modern equivalent of Dick Turpin and other famous knights of the road. As a matter of fact, I am making my way to Grant Lea, as I have most important business there. You will pardon me, I am sure."
The speaker struck a match and held it in front of his face. It was by no means a bad type of face, fairly handsome and refined, and lighted by a pair of dark resolute eyes. The mouth was partially concealed under a dark trim moustache, but all the same, the power of it was there. Ellen gave a little gasp.
"Hubert Grant," she exclaimed. "I recognise you from your photograph. Really, could audacity go any further? If I did my duty I should stop the brougham at once and insist upon detaining you until the police have been communicated with."
Grant smiled sadly. "If I ask you to believe that I am innocent as your husband himself, would you believe me?" he asked.
"Why should I?" Ellen cried indignantly. "Why do you treat me as if I were a child? Your partner has gone to his account with his crimes on his bead, and you are a fugitive from justice—"
"Possibly," Grant went on in the same quiet fashion. "Nobody could possibly know all the circumstances of the case except myself. And your husband knows if I can only keep clear of the law for the next few days; there is just a possibility that I may right the wrong yet and save everybody from loss. If, on the other hand I fall into the hands of the police then the ruin is complete and irrecoverable. It is in your hands to give me the chance that I need. Will you do it?"
"You must be mad," Ellen exclaimed, "to come to me of all women with such a story as this—"
"You may believe me or not, but I am as innocent of wrong intent as yourself," Grant replied. "I know you refuse to believe me, I know you will betray me and regret it ever afterwards. And now I am going to make an appeal to your woman's nature. I am going to remind you of an episode that happened in your own past. Do not forget the time when you declined to believe in the honour of your own husband, and nearly wrecked his happiness because of your unworthy suspicions."
"How dare you?" Ellen gasped. "How dare—"
"I dare, because I am a desperate man with his back to the wall. I swear to you that all I say about myself is true. I will ask you to give me the benefit of the doubt as you would have given it to Philip Scarsdale three years ago. You should have learnt the lesson then, that however terribly appearances may be against one, there may always be an answer to the charge. I implore you by all that you hold sacred and holy to give me the chance that I need. Believe me, I would never have given you pain by alluding to that episode in Scarsdale's life if I had not hoped to have touched your heart thereby. Appearances were terribly against him, and everybody thought him guilty. You cannot look me in the face and say that you were not absolutely sure of it."
"I cannot," Ellen blushed and faltered. "Oh, why do you—"
"I am compelled," Grant went on. "No slur has ever been put upon my character till now, no breath of suspicion touched Scarsdale till the time I speak of. And yet, in the face of absolute proof of guilt, he was innocent. I declare to you with all the force in my power that I am innocent also. I declare to you that if you gave me this chance I have an opportunity of righting the wrong. That is why I am here to-night. I knew that your husband would not accompany you to-night, because he expects an important visitor. I also was aware of the fact that Mr. Morton was coming along with you, and I managed to get him out of the way by a simple ruse that I need not go into now. It was perhaps fortunate that the branch of a broken tree barred your progress, but I had another scheme or two for getting into your brougham. I dare not walk because I feel convinced that there is a trap waiting for me a little later on. It is absolutely necessary that I should see May Leverton to-night."
"I cannot do it," Ellen cried. "It is impossible that I should mix myself up with this affair. It may seem foolish, no doubt, it may sound utterly illogical and absurd, but I have a kind of feeling that you are telling me the truth."
"Well. God bless you for that." Grant said, allowing something like emotion for the first time. "It is good when all the world is against one to feel that there is one person left, who is disposed to listen to the other side of the story, but I implore you, I will go on my knees to you if you like, to get me inside Grant Lea just for one hour this evening. I must see May, indeed, she is expecting me. If you will consent to this arrangement, you will be the means of averting a great deal of misery and sorrow."
"But how can I possibly do it?" Ellen asked. She was yielding in spite of herself; she was being carried away by Grant's pleas. "How can I do this preposterous thing? I am dining with Sir Bruce to-night. He has an exceedingly large party for his birthday celebration, and all invited guests—"
"Precisely," Grant said eagerly. "That is exactly where your opportunity comes in. If May were only here I am certain she would add her protestations to mine. The time is close at hand—"
"But I can do nothing to help you," Ellen said. "I can do no more then take you to the front door at Grant Lea."
"You must do more, you really must." Grant said hoarsely. "It is absolutely imperative that I should find my way into the house, and that in a legitimate fashion. I should like you to fall in with my suggestion. There is a certain amount of risk about it."
"Tell me what it is?" Ellen asked. She was curious and interested in spite of herself. "What wild idea is it?"
"That I should come as Mr. Morton," Grant suggested coolly. "Pray do not interrupt me. I thought this all out to-day, and fortune favoured me in the knowledge that circumstances would prevent your husband being present at the dinner to-night. Then, I adopted the expedient which has sent Mr. Morton off on a wild goose chase to the other end of England. Morton is a man who has only one object in view, and that is the making of money. I have so arranged it that he is likely to be detained some time in the North—after the end of the week he can come back and welcome. Do you follow?"
"Precisely," Ellen said trying to speak coldly. "You are asking me to play a disgraceful trick upon a dear old friend of the family, and be party to introducing under his roof a man who is a fugitive from justice. I must aid in this disgraceful proceeding, and be the means of bringing you to Grant Lea as an honoured guest. It seems incredible that you should dare to breach such an idea to me."
"And yet there is no other way out of it. As I told you before it is absolutely imperative that I should see May to-night."
"Does she know that you are coming?" Ellen asked.
"Her life's happiness depends upon it."
"Oh, indeed," Ellen said scornfully, "May is a great friend of mine, and I had no idea up to now that she was a consummate actress. Why, if you walked into the drawing-room and I had the hardihood to introduce you as Mr. Morton, May would betray herself at once. No, no, you must not ask me to do this thing. Even if the imposture were never discovered, I should blush with shame whenever I think of it. Besides, if every thing goes as smoothly as you say it may, Sir Bruce is bound to know sooner or later."
"Ah, then it would not matter," Grant said eagerly. "I should have saved the situation, and Sir Bruce would thank you as heartily as he would subsequently thank me. And now, my dear lady, do let me try once more to persuade you to undertake what I ask. You will never, never regret it, and after all is said and done whatever Sir Bruce might think, you have been guilty of no more than an act of impertinence. See, here are the lights of the house—"
"No, no," Ellen cried. "I really cannot listen to you any longer. When we reach the portico you can get out of the brougham, and I will try to forget this extraordinary adventure. Besides myself and my husband, none shall ever know of it."
Further conversation was prevented by the sudden pulling up of the carriage, and before the door could be opened by the footmen a portly figure in evening dress had rushed down the steps, he held out a hand through the carriage window and grasped Ellen's fingers with a heartiness and fervour which was embarrassing.
"So you have come at last," Sir Bruce cried. "It is so late that I began to fear that some accident had happened to you. Come along. This gentleman, I presume is Mr. Morton."
A cruel crimson stained Ellen's cheeks. She could feel the hot blood burn and sting to the roots of her hair. It seemed to her that never before had woman been placed in such a trying predicament. Duty was plain before her, too, honour and honesty impelled her to speak the truth, and denounce the man who had thrust his company where it was the least wanted.
"Hello, Philip hasn't come," Sir Bruce went on cheerfully. "How is that? Has he been detained?"
Ellen found voice to speak at last. She wondered if her old friend noticed how strained and hoarse her tones were.
"He was kept at the last moment by most important business," she said. "He told me to say how sorry he was—"
"Oh, well, it doesn't much matter," Sir Bruce replied. "I can manage to do without Phil so long as he has sent you to take his place. At the same time, I was getting very anxious about you. Come along in. Mr. Morton, I am very pleased to meet you. It was very good of you to come over at so short a notice."
Now was the time to speak or never. Grant had alighted from the brougham and seemed to be hesitating just a moment whether he should take Sir Bruce's hand or not. Lady Leverton bustled forward and kissed Ellen affectionately in her own warm-hearted way.
"Do come up to the fire and warm yourself," she cried. "You are as pale as a ghost. I hear that Phil could not come. Is that Mr. Morton who came with you? He seems a nice type of man as far as I can judge, and not at all like the effeminate chatterbox Phil described him to be."
"He is a stranger in the neighbourhood," Ellen said faintly. "For my part, I am disposed to like the man."
Lady Leverton was rambling on, but Ellen was not paying the least attention. She managed to ask presently what had become of May, and why she was so late in appearing.
"May is always late, as you know," Lady Leverton said. "I think I can hear her coming down the stairs now."
Ellen could stand the strain no longer. "I'll go and meet her," she said. "There is a little matter I want to speak to her about. You will excuse me, I know."
Ellen reached the hall just in time to intercept a slight graceful figure in white coming down the stairs. Usually May Leverton was sunshine itself. Her pleasant face was welcome everywhere, and her charm of manner was equal to her charm of features. But as the light fell on her face now, Ellen could see that she was deathly pale, and that there were rings under her eyes that spoke eloquently of tears. The pitiful face lighted slightly as Ellen came forward and kissed her friend.
"Surely you can't go into the drawing-room looking like that," she whispered. "You would not be recognised. Never before have I seen you without a smile upon your face. What is the matter?"
"I cannot tell you," May whispered. "At least, I cannot tell you here. My father knows nothing of my trouble. I have striven to conceal it from him, but there are moments when the pain is more than I can bear. Stay here with me a minute or two and I will try to regain my self-possession. Perhaps later on in the evening I may get a chance to tell you everything. If I do not confide in somebody I shall lose my reason."
"I think I can guess something of it." Ellen said. "Fate has so ordained it that I have been brought in to share your secret. You are in bitter trouble over Hubert Grant."
"You have guessed it," May said in a frightened whisper. "But who told you? How could you possibly—?"
"There is no time to discuss that," Ellen interrupted. "Never mind how I know it. The dinner gong will ring in a minute, and then it will be too late. Mr. Grant is in the drawing-room at the present moment posing as Mr. Morton, who has been got out of the way by an ingenious little scheme devised by your lover. Do you understand that?"
"He came with you?" May murmured. "You brought him? How good and kind it was of you to—"
"Nothing of the kind," Ellen said impatiently. "He thrust himself upon me in such a manner that I had to act a lie and play a part which is strictly dishonourable. And all this to aid a man who has helped to reduce us to the point of ruin. But my indignation gets the better of me and makes me forget how critical the situation is. That is all you have to remember—that 'Mr. Morton' is really your lover, and you are to act us it you had never seen him before. My cheeks burn with shame when I think of the part that I am playing, but it is too late for remorse now."
May murmured something in the way of thanks. Once in the drawing-room her manner came as something in the way of a revelation to Ellen. She had never looked for self control in May, and was surprised how perfectly she ruled her feelings.
The dinner proceeded smoothly enough as such things do in well appointed households. There was a babel and chatter of voices, the clash of knives and forks and the soft footsteps of well-trained servants. It seemed almost impossible to identify that fine old Jacobean dining-room with the elements of a tragedy. Surely crime and dishonesty could have no connection with the rose tinted lights and banks of flowers upon the table. It seemed impossible to believe that the man opposite with the dark moustache was almost within the grasp of the law. From the top of the table came broken fragments of a conversation which gripped Ellen and made her almost breathless.
"A most disastrous affair," one of the elderly ladies were saying. "It seems a dreadful thing that men calling themselves gentlemen can stoop to such meanness. They say that the poor creature is absolutely penniless. Ten thousands a year gone in one fell swoop. Of course, the boys will have to leave Oxford and Eton and turn out to get their own living. Thank goodness, my husband never had the least faith in lawyers. He always insisted on keeping all his securities at his bank. If Lady Barrington had done the same thing I am perfectly certain—"
"You don't mean to say that Lady Barrington is in the Spencer smash," Sir Bruce cried.
"Well, I am sorry to hear that. I thought that in this country, at any rate, there were none of Spencer and Grant's unfortunate clients. By the way, have they got hold of the missing man yet? You have just come down from town, Mr. Morton, is there anything fresh to tell?"
The stranger looked up and shook his head. Ellen was glad enough at length when Lady Leverton rose from the table and gave the signal for a move to the drawing-room. Once in the drawing-room May came up and led her away under a pretence of examining some new flower in the conservatory.
"I don't know how I existed through dinner," the girl said. "Nobody noticed it, but I have not had a mouthful of anything to eat. To see him sitting there opposite me as if nothing had happened was terrible. And yet I feel, in spite of everything, that Hubert is innocent of the terrible charge that hangs over his head. But I suppose he will have an opportunity of explaining presently. Nell, you must so contrive it that we can be left alone together."
"I will do that if I can," Ellen promised. "I have embarked so far on a career of duplicity that a little thing like that cannot matter, and like you, though against my better judgment, I have a feeling that Mr. Grant is more sinned against than sinning. But surely, Sir Bruce and Lady Leverton know something of the friendship between Hubert Grant and yourself?"
"Indeed they don't, my dear Nell. You forget that for the best part of the past year my people have not been in London at all. They don't even know yet that I have met Mr. Grant. There is a prejudice against him. We had a fancy to keep our engagement a secret till Hubert had come down here and I could introduce him. I hope you will not blame me."
"You cannot be any more surprised than I was," Ellen replied. "I recognised Mr. Grant from his photograph. Phil could not come this evening, as he was detained on some wretched business connected with the failure of Spencer and Grant."
"One moment," May said eagerly. "I did not have time to discuss the point before dinner. You hinted at the fact that Phil was more or less involved in the downfall. I do hope that you have not suffered any very great loss."
"My dear, we are absolutely ruined," Ellen said calmly. "Not only have we lost everything but I am afraid that Phil is involved in something like disgrace as well. But we need not go into that yet, because I really do not know. You were asking me just now how I came in contact with Mr. Grant, and what strange circumstances brought him here. I suppose he planned the whole thing in his mind, knowing perfectly well that Phil could not get here to-night. He managed to get Mr. Morton out of the way, then waited for my brougham on the road. The rest was quite easy. I was so taken by surprise that I just did nothing, and when once that man began to plead with me, I was foolish enough to hesitate, and once I hesitated I was lost. But in justice to myself, I may say that I refused to be a party to this imposture till we reached your house. Unluckily, Sir Bruce was rather anxious about me, and he was standing on the doorstep when we got here. He jumped at once to the natural conclusion that Mr. Grant was Mr. Morton, and the two were shaking hands together before I could get a word out. Oh, I know that my duty was quite plain. I know exactly what I should have done. But what woman with a heart in her bosom could have behaved in any other way. Filled with shame and humiliation as I was, I allowed the imposture to pass, I held my tongue and the thing was done. What Sir Bruce will say when he knows the truth—"
"Don't let us talk about that," May said with a catch in her voice. "You acted just like the noble creature that you are, and I am perfectly certain that in the end good will come of it. You are the only one I have to confide in at the present moment, and if you are cold and distant to me—"
"I am neither cold nor distant," Ellen said, "and I will do all I can to help you. And now, as I hear the voices of the man in the drawing-room, we had better return for the present."
It was some considerable time before Ellen managed to bring about the meeting between Hubert Grant and May. It seemed to Ellen's guilty fancy that she was being watched and suspected. But the opportunity came at length when an adjournment was made to the billiard room, and the rest of the party sat down to the intolerable, and inevitable game of bridge. Ellen excused herself under the plea of a headache, which was by no means a fiction on her part, and Grant appeared to be deeply immersed in some Parliamentary papers which he had just been discussing with his host. A moment later, the trio were in the conservatory together.
"Don't be any longer than you can help," Ellen said wearily. "I have ordered the brougham for half-past ten. I have had some pleasant evenings here, some of the pleasantest in my life. But I never expected the time to come when I should be counting the minutes previous to my departure from Grant Lea."
Ellen turned away without another word, and went back to the drawing-room.
It was quiet and subdued in the conservatory. The shaded lights invited confidence. The thick belts of palms and flowers hid the lovers from view. For a time they were absolutely silent. Grant holding May's hands in his and looking down into her white sad face. An unsteady smile wavered on her lips.
"Aren't you going to kiss me?" she asked.
"I hardly dare to," Grant said hoarsely. "Oh, I know what you would say. I know how good and true and loyal you are. You would tell me, if I would let you, that this terrible thing would make no difference to us. Is not that so, dearest?"
"A thousand times yes," May whispered. "I was stunned when I saw this morning's paper. It seemed incredible to me that such a thing could happen to a firm like yours. I felt sure that you would be the first to stand up and defend your character, and I must say I was disappointed—"
"Of course you would be disappointed." Grant said sadly. "It was the action of a scoundrel for me to run away and hide myself in the way I did. I will explain presently if I have time. But we are wasting the precious minutes. I had to hit upon this idea after getting your telegram. I suppose you managed to get home safely last night?"
"It was awful," May said sadly. "It was most difficult for me to get back without being discovered. And now as to yourself?"
Grant bent down and kissed May's white lips passionately.
"I cannot help it," he said, contritely. "I am most grateful to know that there is one person who still believes in me. Let me tell you, my dearest girl, there was nobody more utterly overwhelmed than myself when I heard the news of my partner's frauds. So far as I knew, there was no reason whatever why my partner should take his own life. Our man Raybold has known what had been going on for the last two years. He showed me, that not only were we absolutely bankrupt, but that an enormous amount of money belonging to our clients had disappeared. There are other complications which I need not go into, because you would not understand them."
"Perhaps not," May sighed. "I know nothing about business, but with you who are so keen and clever, it is quite another thing. It seems almost impossible to believe that all this could go on without our knowledge. I may be wrong—"
"No, it is quite natural," Grant went on. "You see, in most big offices, the financial side of the business is conducted by one partner alone. I had the most implicit trust in Spencer. His reputation stood exceedingly high in the city, and I was under the impression that he had a large private income of his own. As a matter of fact, he must have been bankrupt when I went into the firm. And the worst of if is that scores and scores of forged leases and mortgages and such things have passed through my hands. There are letters and documents bearing my signature which, tendered as evidence against me in a court of justice, would inevitably mean a long term of imprisonment. It would not be the slightest use for me to say that I knew nothing of what was going on, for no judge or jury would dream of believing me. Unfortunately for me, I am of somewhat of an extravagant nature, and this would tell against me also."
"Is that all you have to tell me?" May said in a somewhat disappointed tone. "I thought that perhaps you had made some extraordinary discovery calculated to—"
"I am coming to that," Grant said. "As you may be aware, my late partner has a small suite of rooms in town where he stays when he is detained late on business. You see, when I found out all these dreadful things I had just over an hour in which to act and make up my mind what to do, and in my late partner's flat I certainly found something which startled me greatly. I cannot tell you what it is, because as yet I cannot speak definitely myself. Before I could put my plan into execution, I had undergone a most unpleasant interview with regard to a client who eagerly wanted the chance to pull us down. Quite by accident, too, Scarsdale discovered that this client had applied for and obtained a warrant for my arrest. I could see at once that it was absolutely fatal to my new scheme for me to fall into the hands of justice. There was no time to take the papers I had discovered to the one person who might throw some light upon them, so I determined to fly and come down here and see you at the first opportunity. Your telegram gave me the information I needed. It is a very lamentable thing how a man's friends fall away from him at the first breath of misfortune. With you it is so different."
"Yes, it is different with me," May said. There were tears of sympathy in her eyes, her sensitive lips quivered. "I will do anything you ask me to do. I will forget all my own troubles—''
"I fancy I have settled those at any rate, dearest," Grant smiled. "I have not time to tell you everything, because the story is a long one. I have here a packet which I now give into your charge with a paper full of definite instructions as to what is to be done. The mission is not without a certain element of danger, and I am putting my whole future into your hands. If your task is successful, then I shall come boldly forward and demand an investigation of the whole affair. But for the next day or two it is imperatively necessary that I should be at liberty to follow up my discovery, as nobody else could do it. You will understand how anxious I am to prove my innocence, even if it is only for your sake. When I come to think of it—"
"You have discovered something out of the ordinary," May cried. "I know you have by your manner. Won't you tell me what it is?"
"I dare not," Grant rallied. "In the first place, I want you to appear as a perfectly innocent party who knows nothing of the facts of the case. But this I may tell you—I have made a discovery so terrible and so startling that I am almost afraid to think of it myself. But I cannot tell you what it is at present, May. I am sure that when you know everything, as you must sooner or later, you will feel convinced that I acted for the best. Now, it only remains for me to give you the packet and ask you to act on the instructions which you will find inside. I suppose you will have no difficulty in getting up and down to London without a lot of inquisitive questions being asked."
"Oh, no, there will be no trouble about that," May said. "My aunt, Mrs. Mayfield, is always glad to see me, and indeed I often run up to her house for a day or two when I have nothing else to do. You need not have any uneasiness on that score, but I am troubled about yourself, Hubert. Ellen Scarsdale will be leaving for home very shortly, and you will have to accompany her in the brougham, at any rate part of the way home. What are you going to do with yourself afterwards? It is a terrible torture for me to think that you are absolutely homeless and houseless—"
"Not quite that," Grant said with a tender smile. "I am not absolutely without friends, or I should not be here to-night. You see, I had to have some shelter for my head or I could not have changed into evening dress as I have done. As a matter of fact, an old companion of mine is at present in Fairford, ostensibly down here for a few days' holiday. I am sharing his lodging, and he, it was, who drove me to the spot where I intercepted Mrs. Scarsdale's carriage. When I leave here presently I shall only go as far as the lodge gates with Mrs. Scarsdale, for the dogcart will be waiting for me in the road. I hope you will not be awake at night thinking of me as a homeless wanderer, for really I am nothing of the sort. Now, is there anything else that you would like to say to me before we go back to the drawing-room? Bless my soul, I am forgetting a most important part of my mission here. Those diamonds that—"
"Presently," May whispered. "It is really terrible to think about myself just now. Do not go for a few minutes yet. Goodness knows when I shall see you again."
They lingered a few moments longer talking of their personal affairs till the clock struck the half-hour after ten, and Ellen in the drawing-room rose to her feet with a deep sigh of relief. The dreadful evening was over at length, and she was free to depart now without any questions on the part of her host and hostess. From where she seated she could see dimly into the recesses of the conservatory. She could just make out the forms of May and Grant as they came towards her. It was very still and quiet in the drawing-room, so quiet indeed that voices of servants could be heard in the hall and some third party protesting vigorously and demanding to see Sir Bruce Leverton without delay. As the sound of that voice broke on Ellen's ears all the blood seemed to leave her heart and she stood there as if she were turned to stone.
"Very well, very well," her strained ears caught Sir Bruce's voice a moment later. "Some extraordinary mistake, of course. If you won't mind standing there I will go and speak to Mrs. Scarsdale. I won't detain you a moment."
The voice made some reply, and Sir Bruce came along hurriedly in the direction of the drawing-room. At the same moment, Grant and May stood under the alcove leading to the conservatory.
"Back a moment," Ellen whispered. "Go back into the conservatory. Something very dreadful has happened. Ask no questions, but do what I tell you without delay."
The two figures vanished obediently.
Almost before they had done so, Sir Bruce came into the drawing-room. There was a puzzled expression on his face. He looked just a little excited and annoyed. He crossed over to Ellen, and laid his hand on her arm.
"Most curious thing," he said. "Here is a man looking like a gentleman turned up claiming to be Mr. Morton. Come out and convince him that he is the imposture I take him to be."
The strange tragedy resulting in the disappearance of Paul Spencer did not pass unnoticed in the City of London. Spencer had been a power there for many years, and the story of the crime produced a grave impression. It came, too, just at a time when there was something in the nature of a financial crisis, so that quite early in the day sinister rumours were in the air. Paul Spencer had not been shot at all; he had committed suicide. The only one who had witnessed his death was his own partner, and surely no man ever had a more strange or unlikely story to tell!
Long before midday the city had made up its mind. The firm of Spencer and Grant was hopelessly bankrupt, and the senior partner had made away with himself. Robert Morton brought the news to Julius Cardella in the latter's private room at Lexington House. Here the great financier presided over upwards of a thousand employees, transacting business all over the world.
And yet five years ago Cardella had not been heard of. He had come mysteriously out of nowhere, and taken his place amongst London's great capitalists. He was supposed to have done something amazing in the Argentine Republic, which resulted in a million or two. He had a house in Park Lane, a 'cottage' on the coast near Fairford, and a dozen other establishments in various parts of the country. He had given a million for an historic picture gallery, and last, but not least, he was the husband of Carmen Sandoris, the greatest tragic actress the world had ever seen. There was some thing dazzlingly romantic about this man's position. He sat at his desk—a little swarthy man with keen beady eyes and curly hair, looking as little like the accepted portrait of the capitalist as possible. Asked as to his nationality, he would have said that he was a Spaniard—as a matter of fact he was a pure Cockney, and had been born in a mews in Bermondsey.
He looked up quickly as Morton came in, the latter, immaculately dressed, stood out in vivid contrast to his companion. There was an air of silly affectation about him that made him usually the butt of his companion's wit. But the man was keen and shrewd, and unscrupulous enough where his own ends were concerned. He posed for a city failure, but there were one or two people who knew better than that.
"I suppose you know all about it?" he asked. Cardella nodded. He motioned Morton to a chair.
"I read it in an early addition of some evening paper as I came here," Cardella said. "Is there anything fresh since this morning?"
"No fresh news, if that is what you mean. But people are talking, of course. There is a rumour to the effect that Spencer committed suicide because he could not face his creditors. They say that the concern is hopelessly bankrupt, and that Grant engineered the whole swindle."
"All of which you contradicted, of course," Cardella said, with a sardonic grin. "Of course. I'm so very fond of Grant. He's always so nice to me! For once rumour speaks the truth, as you and I can tell. It ought to, seeing that we have devoted the last year or more to smashing up Spencer and Grant. We've got our man ready. The only question now is as to when we had better apply for a warrant. It's a big triumph for us."
Cardella made no response to this exulting remark. He had worked almost solely for this for many months past, and the prize would be enormous. But there was a moody look on his face and just a gleam of anxiety in his shifty eyes.
"I don't want to risk it," he said. "There are one or two little things requiring attention. If you don't hear from me to the contrary, move after lunch. That Quogga business is not quite in order yet. And we must get that concession whatever happens. There are millions in it if properly worked, and nobody knows how to work it as we do. Lord knows I want the money. If I wasn't so anxious I should laugh. It's only by sheer impudence and bluff that I have kept my word up so far. People trust me as if I were a god. If they only knew! What a yelping pack I should have at my heels! Still, if the Quogga affair comes off all right I shall be really a rich man. Now you go down to-night as arranged with Scarsdale and dine with Sir Bruce Leverton. You must get him to come in. His name will be useful. If he declines, drop him a hint as to his wife's bridge debts and Lady Mossingford's jewellery. But he is pretty sure to bite without that. After the dinner party is over, drive to my place near Fairford, and see me. I'm going down there till Monday. For once in a way I'm going to have the week-end to myself. I really want rest and time to think. There will be no body else but my wife and my self."
Morton nodded as he rose from his chair. He was feeling on more than usually good terms with himself. Everything was going his way. Cardella sat there for a long time in gloomy thought. There were hundreds of people who envied his position, thousands who had followed his advice implicitly. And yet not one would have changed places with him had they known. He was standing as perilously near to the dock as Hubert Grant, unless the great coup turned out successfully. He was still puzzling out the smaller points in the problem when the door of the office opened, and Carmen Cardella came in.
She looked very superb, very disdainful and beautiful as she crossed the room. All the fire and passion of the South slumbered in her eyes; the lips that might have softened and grown tender for some one favoured man were compressed now. Here was a lovely volcano cased in ice. Cardella rejoiced in the presence of this tropical beauty, but her heart was not his. He would have been startled could he have looked into it.
"This is quite an unexpected honour," he said.
"It is not an honour at all," the woman said, coldly. "I had to come. I have been down to the theatre to hear the new play read. My part was so disappointing that I have resigned it. And I can't lunch with your friends as you suggest. I quite forgot that I had promised to lunch with my old friend John Smith. Give me some money."
Carmella's eyes gleamed dangerously just for a moment.
"Keep it up," he said. "Play the game for all that it is worth. Ask for a thousand pounds when I don't know which way to turn for a shilling!"
"A thousand pounds is just the sum I am asking for."
"Only that!" Cardella sneered. "And to think that five years ago you were glad to get a few shillings a week as chambermaid in a fit-up company! You don't help me a bit. You are going to throw up a part worth two hundred pounds a week simply because you don't care for it. I tell you I'm getting sick of the whole thing. Why did you marry me?"
The woman's eyes flashed for a moment. Her face was full of scorn.
"Because I was a woman," she said. "I don't know what I am now. At any rate I have kept to my part of the bargain, which is more than you can say. To a certain extent I have made you what you are. Heavens, how proud of my handiwork I should be!"
"So should your friend, Mr. John Smith," Cardella laughed. "He discovered you. But for him you would still have been wasting your talents on fit-up companies. The eccentric gentleman who can't write plays has a fine eye for genius. He must have wasted some hundreds of thousands on unsuccessful productions, but he has given the world a few actresses. Go and lunch with him by all means if you like. Ask him, down to Fairford if he cares to come. I might get him into some of my little ventures. Or you might ask him to lend you some cash. You won't get any out of me to-day."
Carmen Cardella went off presently none the richer for her visit. A great car in green and gold was waiting for her in the street below. A little crowd had gathered round watching her respectfully. Everybody there knew who she was; there was hardly an errand boy in the street who did not know her history.
She went along, calm, dignified, unsmiling, her placid beauty glowing in the sunshine, a great storm of rage and passion simmering in her heart. There were times when she hated the world and herself and her husband. Cardella she hated worst of all. There was no interval of indifference or toleration where he was concerned. Every moment of her waking hours this hate grew in strength and volume. She came at length to her destination—a block of flats in Brunswick Gardens. She got out of the electric lift on the second floor, and asked a discreet-looking man servant for Mr. John Smith.
Mr. Smith was awaiting Mrs. Cardella. He came forward jauntily with the inevitable glass in his eye, the absurd little moustache carefully waxed. He was a figure for a comic paper, the sort of character made for a stage comedy. But Mrs. Cardella's manner was cordial enough.
"I am charmed, I am delighted," the little man said. "I hardly expected, after all, that I should have the honour of lunching with you here. What can I do to show my appreciation?"
Carmen Cardella dropped into a chair, and slowly pulled off her gloves.
"That is very easily done," she said with one of her rare smiles. "Be natural. Be yourself as I have seen you on more than one occasion. You can be both brave and sensible if you like."
"Very well," Mr. Smith said, with a sudden change of manner. "Only I am bound to keep it up so long as my man is in the room. My dear lady, you do not properly feel for me. I have a certain amount of money of my own; I have good health, no anxieties. But I have one great ambition which must remain for ever unsatisfied. As you know, it is the dream of my life to write a successful play. Of course, I could hire a theatre and produce a piece as I have done before now. And the dismal failure of it! I spend thousands on managers, I lend them money, but they will not look at anything of mine. Therefore I have fallen back upon the human drama. I construct plots for living actors with the world for their stage. If any of my friends are in trouble they come to me, and out of their story I construct a comedy or melodrama, as the case may be."
"My fortune is behind this, as was the fortune of my poor friend Paul Spencer until everything was gone. You did not know, perhaps, that he had a mania for the theatre. He spent thousands on his hobby without anybody knowing it; in fact I did the spending for him. And when his story had to be told I constructed a plot for him. A most fascinating pursuit! And a very strange thing that that drama should be mixed up with yours. On the whole I should say that this is the most successful living drama I ever handled."
"You are a most wonderful man," Mrs. Cardella smiled.
"I'm a wonderful old bore," Mr. Smith cried. "Still, I have had my successes, and you are one of them, gracious lady. I gave to the world the greatest tragic actress of her time."
"And one of the most unhappy of her time, dear friend."
"Ah, my beautiful one, we cannot have it both ways. Cardella—"
"Yes, you have laid your hand on the sore as you can always do. I was happier in the old days than I am now. I had a man who loved me, and whom I loved. Then Cardella came along. He plotted to get Carl out of the way; he hounded him on to his death. My lover was never the criminal they made him out to be. There was no blood on his hands. But he died the death of a murderer all the same, and I was desolate. I suppose that is why I married Julius Cardella. I did not dream, I never expected to discover his black treachery. He knew that I did not love him, but I was negatively happy till I made the great discovery."
"He does not know, he does not guess?" Smith asked eagerly.
"He guesses nothing. I am an actress, my friend. And the finest piece of acting in the world has ever seen takes place with my home in Park Lane for a setting. I marvel at my own strength, at my own self-restraint. But I am waiting, waiting. When the proper time comes I shall know how to bring down the curtain."
Carmen Cardella had risen to her feet, her slender figure swayed; the fine voice had dropped to a clear whisper. She seemed to forget the presence of her companion for the moment. She was the living breathing embodiment of a great master passion. She was a woman waiting for her vengeance. It seemed to Smith that he had never seen anything like it before.
"I owe nothing to that man," she said. "The debt is on the other side. Oh, if you could only realise how absolutely vile and worthless he is!"
"I am not altogether blind," Smith said drily. "I am watching that drama with great interest. When the smash comes it will be a stupendous one. And you will be independent of it, dear lady, because you have your art to fall back on. I am the man in the comedy-drama who appears at the psychological moment. It is for me to prevent the bloated capitalist from ruining the hero and incidentally the heroine also. Have you seen Morton lately?"
"He is at Park Lane most evenings. I take no interest in the man. I dislike him."
"A dangerous man, a very dangerous man. But as a character in the play, decidedly interesting. Is he going down to Fairford to-day for the week-end?"
"Yes. I met him as I was getting into my car just now. He told me that he would have the pleasure of staying with me. He dines out to-night with those Leverton people, going there with the Scarsdales. Afterwards he comes on to us."
Smith beamed as he carefully polished his eye-glass. "I should very much like to be of the party," he said. "There are certain interesting developments that I desire to watch. May I plead for an invitation?"
"It would be doing me a favour," Mrs. Cardella said. "I shall only be too pleased if you will come down with me. There is ample room in my car."
Smith was disconsolate; it was most unfortunate that he had business which would detain him in London till nearly 8 o'clock. With a little luck he might manage possibly with the aid of his own car, to get to Fairford in time for dinner. If he happened to be a little late they were not to wait for him.
"And now, my dear lady, let us go in to luncheon," he said. "Let us try to forget all our trials and troubles for an hour or so. I can promise you an ample reward a little later on. You shall see how truth and honour triumph over darkness and chicanery. The story is so excellent that I am sanguine of making a successful play out of it."
"To be continued in our next," Carmen Cardella smiled. "My husband will be equally glad to see you. He hopes that you may be induced to take part in some of his ventures. It was he who suggested that you should come down with me."
Smith smiled drily. Something seemed to amuse him.
"He need not be anxious," he said. "There is one little venture of his in which I shall most decidedly take a part, and not a small one either. Now let us two lunch."
It was fortunate, perhaps, for Mr. Smith that dinner at the 'cottage' near Fairford was late that night. Cardella had been detained on business longer than he had expected, in consequence of which it was nearly 9 before he sat down to the evening meal. Mr. Smith had arrived only a few minutes before, having barely had time to change into evening dress. His car showed signs of hard wear, he had lost his way, and come along by roads that were none too good. He appeared to be on excellent terms with himself—his eye gleamed with a certain suggestion of amusement. Mrs. Cardella sat unusually silent and thoughtful, as she always did when her husband introduced business. It was some time past 10 before she rose wearily from the table, and returned to the drawing-room.
"I am going to bed," she said. "It is quite late now, and business does not interest me."
"Only the tangible results of it," Cardella sneered. "You are never blind to them, Carmen. But Mr. Smith will recognise a good thing when he sees it."
Carmen Cardella swept out of the room without a reply. Cardella pushed the silver cigar box across the table, and intimated that the port stood at Smith's elbow.
"We might just as well sit here and talk as anywhere else," he said. "It is quite the pleasantest room in the house. I hate a poky little place like this."
"So different from what you have been accustomed to," Smith said drily. The touch of satire in the words flew harmlessly over Cardella's head. He looked anxious and moody.
"I should be quite contented with it. Upon my word, you capitalists puzzle me. You have more money than you can possibly, spend, and yet you worry yourselves into all sorts of nervous disorders getting more. There was that little affair you were telling me about just now, for instance."
Cardella brightened up, his manner became animated.
"A little gold mine," he said, "And quite safe. If I had not a high regard for you I should never have mentioned it. Even Morton knows nothing about it. Why not come in? A matter of ten thousand will not hurt you if you lose it, and if you win you treble your capital in a week. If you will let me have your cheque by Wednesday—"
"Perhaps the check will come before Wednesday," Smith said absently. "Really, I beg your pardon. I was thinking of something else. But my dear sir, your ventures are not always successful. There was that little business at San Remo, for instance. Only in those days you did not call yourself Cardella. Your name was a little less striking and picturesque, I fancy. Let me see—what was it? I was at San Remo at the time, because it was just then that I had the good fortune to see your wife on the stage there."
Cardella started slightly. He was not expecting anything like this.
"Isn't there some mistake here?" he asked.
"I fancy not," Smith said in his most amicable manner. "I am not making any comment on the business in question. I am perhaps a little old-fashioned in my views of what is called commercial morality. If you have any more flights of imagination of the same kind, you will be so good as to count me out."
Cardella muttered something under his breath. Matters were not going at all satisfactorily from his point of view. He was making the same mistake as other clever men of his class frequently indulge in—he took every other man he met for a fool. And he did not like the cool, calm searching eye turned upon him behind Smith's eyeglass.
"Then I cannot tempt you to join me?" he asked.
"Not at present, Cardella. I waste the greater part of my income, I admit; but I get a vast amount of enjoyment out of the expenditure. If—"
Cardella rose hastily from his chair, and put his cigar down. Out side in the hall the telephone bell was rippling impatiently. It rang again and again.
"I'll ask you to excuse me for a moment," Cardella said. "I expect all the servants have gone to bed. They usually do unless we have a lot of people staying here."
Smith nodded carelessly; the subject was of no interest to him. Cardella strode into the hall and took down the receiver. He placed it to his ear.
"Hello," he said. "Hello. Yes, this is Fairford Cottage. Mr. Cardella? You are talking to him at the present moment. Who are you? Oh, Sir Bruce Leverton. Yes, Sir Bruce. Yes. Yes. Mr. Robert Morton. What? Why, I understand—"
Cardella paused. At the same moment there was a sudden click, and the hall lights faded away leaving the place in darkness. Something cold and round was pressed to Cardella's left temple, and a hoarse voice came menacingly to his ear.
"If you move or speak you are a dead man," the voice said. "You are getting a message from Sir Bruce Leverton. He wants to know whether or not Robert Morton is dining with him. There has been some kind of mistake. Now say what I tell you to say, or you will not speak many more words on this side of the grave. Say that Morton should have arrived in company with Mrs. Scarsdale. Now then, say it!"
Cardella repeated the message mechanically. With that cold metal ring pressing on the side of his head he had no alternative. As he hung the receiver up and the bell rang off the cold pressure relaxed, the dim threatening form vanished. In a paroxysm of rage, Cardella flew for the switch. Once he had the light on and his freedom to act he would soon put matters right. The rascal who had dared this audacious thing really was no more than a reckless fool after all. The light was on again now, and Cardella snatched for the receiver. The flex attached to it came off in his hand; the cord had been clean cut, it was useless. There was no possibility of using the instrument now; it would take hours before it could possibly be available for conversation again. Cardella dashed the thing down in a fit of rage and fury; he turned to see that Smith was regarding him with calm curiosity through his eyeglass.
Events were not standing still at Grant Lea. The bombshell had fallen and exploded at Hubert Grant's feet, shattering his schemes into fragments. The startling unexpectedness of it left him utmost petrified for the moment. It was the very unexpectedness that kept him silent. He looked from Sir Bruce's placid unsuspicious features into the deadly whiteness of May's face. For her sake more than his own he would have to see this thing through.
At any rate Sir Bruce did not suspect him. There was comfort in this reflection. Sir Bruce regarded it either as a mistake, or an impudent attempt at impersonation on the part of some audacious stranger. Probably it was a practical joke. It was just as well perhaps to adopt this view of the matter. Hubert found his voice at last.
"Some friend of mine amusing himself," he said lightly. "A practical joke. Not altogether good taste in the circumstances, but then some people have no consideration. I understand that you have seen the individual in question. Sir Bruce?"
"Oh, I've seen him right enough," Leverton said. "And I'm bound to say that he looks a gentleman. A well-dressed man, with a rather pronounced drawl. Affected, some people might call it. Seems to be very much in earnest, too."
Hubert's courage failed him for the moment. He was half hoping that the thing might turn out to be a mistake after all. But Sir Bruce's description of Morton tallied too closely for that. He recognised the tremendous nature of the task before him.
"And where is my double at the present moment?" he asked. "In the library. I have just come away from him."
"Really! Well, if you don't mind, perhaps you will let him stay there for a little longer. A few minutes' reflection may convince him of his folly. Unless, of course, you feel that he is the genuine article and I the impostor."
"That is absurd," Sir Bruce cried. "This man comes here with a mere assertion. You came under my roof with my friend, Mrs. Scarsdale."
Hubert's conscience pricked him again. If this thing became an open scandal he would involve Ellen Scarsdale as well as the others.
"I am sorry that you should have had this unpleasantness, Sir Bruce," he said. "It is very unfortunate, especially as this is my first visit here. Will you leave that man to me? Will you permit me to see him alone? I can save you trouble that way."
Sir Bruce hesitated just for a moment. Easy going as he was, he always avoided unpleasantness if he could. He smiled at the idea now.
"You have not told anybody else?" Hubert asked. "Positively nobody. The servants don't know. I thought it just as well not to—"
"Quite so," Hubert said eagerly. "Very wise of you. If you will leave the matter to me I will get rid of the intruder without further bother. It is just possible that he is some unfortunate who is wandering in his mind. You can trust me implicitly."
Sir Bruce expressed his thanks. If he had any suspicions they were troubling him no longer. May turned with a little broken cry, and clasped her lover's arm.
"What does it mean?" she whispered. "What terrible new misfortune is this?"
"Courage, courage, darling," Hubert said. "When things are going badly against one, these little troubles are certain to come. Beyond question the real Robert Morton is here. I thought that I had got him safely out of the way. By a judicious use of the telephone I imagined that I had induced him to take a journey North. I was not afraid of the man personally; I was merely going to use him as a channel for getting here to see you. It was a wild and foolish thing to do, of course, but time was pressing, and I had to see you. And all this time I have forgotten the box which I have for you in my pocket. It came but of Spencer's safe."
A glad cry came from May's lips.
"The jewels!" she whispered joyfully. "Lady Mossingford's gems."
"I presume so. I have not opened the packet which you will see is addressed to Lady Leverton. It was a considerable risk on my part, but I went down to Ledge Point this afternoon on purpose to see what was in the safe. The idea came to me from a chance remark dropped by Scarsdale. I managed to get into the library without being seen. I found your telegram waiting for me, and I contrived to read the message and fasten the envelope down again so that it would be impossible to see that it had been tampered with. Your message was so urgent that I had to come here. I racked my brains for some ingenious way in which I could manage to see you without risk. Things had gone too far for me to show myself openly. Then it occurred to me that I might pass myself off for Morton here. I knew that he was coming here with the Scarsdales. If I could get him out of the way I could take his place. It was a mad idea, but I could think of nothing else. By using the telephone I managed to get Morton out of the way. I knew that Philip Scarsdale would never consent to my scheme, so I waylaid Mrs. Scarsdale, and almost forced her to bring me here. Of course the whole thing is bound to be found out sooner or later, but that will make very little difference. The one thing I did not expect was that Morton would turn up in this fashion."
May turned a pale anxious face to her lover. "What do you propose to do?" she asked.
"Oh, I am going to see Morton. Now that things have gone so far it is absolutely impossible for me to do anything else. If I disappeared suddenly I should leave Mrs. Scarsdale in a very serious position, and a very painful one. By showing myself to Morton I shall have to more or less confess my hiding place. But I am going to bluff it out."
Hubert rose from his seat with on air of determination. After all his plan had been so far successful, inasmuch as he had saved Lady Leverton. And no doubt he would have no great difficulty in finding another hiding place.
But May was by no means so sanguine. The truth would have to be told. Her mother must help her. Lady Leverton was not playing her favourite game at that moment. This homely after-dinner Bridge was unattractive. She liked the excitement and anxiety of the big stakes. She was by no means a bad woman, merely a foolish one who is led away by ostentation and display. She liked to speak of her smart friends, to be on the top of the tide. It was an expensive amusement for her with her recklessness and impulsive temperament.
She never dreamt for a moment that most of those 'friends' of hers were semi-professional sharpers who looked upon her as absolute plunder. Even now she would not look her troubles in the face. In her kindly flighty way she hoped for the best even at this moment when Lady Mossingford was under her roof and a request for the jewels was only a question of a few hours.
Nevertheless she paled and started a little as May touched her arm. There was a hard look in the girl's eyes, a certain pallor of feature that caused Lady Leverton's heart to beat a little faster. She followed her daughter into the hall.
"What is the trouble?" she asked. "My dear child, have you seen a ghost?"
"Something like it," May said bitterly, "Mother, I want you to help me. I want you to put aside all your little pleasures and try and realise that I am in a serious trouble."
The ready tears rose to Lady Leverton's eyes. She had an easy flow of sympathy for most people.
"I am quite sure, my dear, that I am ready to do anything," she said. "What is the matter?"
"Oh, it is not altogether personal. There are other people involved in it as well as me. Indeed, you are responsible for most of it."
"My dear child! Really, you appear to forget—"
"Mother, I am forgetting nothing," May cried passionately. "There are certain things that I should be only too glad to put out of my mind. Lady Mossingford's diamonds for instance."
Lady Leverton started. Very pale and agitated, she waited for May to proceed.
"I found it out more or less by accident," the girl went on. "I had my suspicions after a certain conversation with Mr. Spencer. He asked me to marry him—that vile old man asked me to become his wife! And you encouraged him."
Lady Leverton said nothing. It seemed as if the world were slipping away from under her feet. It seemed to her as if she had never known her daughter before. Here was May transformed almost beyond recognition. Her face was hard and her eyes accusing.
"I am glad you do not deny it," May went on. "I dare say you think that this is a strange conversation to take place just now, but you will see the absolute necessity of it presently. I say that you encouraged Mr. Spencer. He had your approval. Not that you liked him, but because you were in his power. He lent you money to pay your bridge debts, but not one penny did he advance without security. And then there came a time when you were in desperate need of cash. You had nothing to fall back on but the jewels that Lady Mossingford left here before she was called away to Paris. In your sanguine way you took them and pledged them to Paul Spencer. You did not mean to do anything wrong, of course. You were quite sure that luck would turn, and that you would redeem the stones. But your luck did not turn. It would have been strange otherwise with some of the women you play with. Why I heard one of the finest bridge players in London say openly that he would not sit down with some of your friends. But I need not go into that. You lost your money, Mr. Spencer is dead, and Lady Mossingford is here. What are you going to do?"
Lady Leverton wept softly. She was the most unfortunate unhappy creature in the world.
"Oh, no you are not," May said drily. "I am going to help you, and in return you are going to help me. The stones are in my pocket at the present moment. At my instigation they were stolen from Mr. Spencer's safe at Ledge Point. I should have stolen them myself, but for a mischance. But I got a friend to act for me, and he came here a little time ago and put the diamonds into my hands. He is under our roof at the present moment."
"Really!" Lady Leverton stammered. She was trying to collect her scattered senses. "I hope you thanked him properly. What a risk he must have taken."
"That is a mild way of putting it," May said. "Mind you, my friend knows everything. He knows who the jewels belonged to, and how they found their way into Paul Spencer's safe. I had to tell him, because he had every right to know. I am speaking of Hubert Grant."
Lady Leverton found her wits at last. Understanding was coming to her.
"But my dear child!" she exclaimed. "Hubert Grant! The son of the man who almost ruined your father. Paul Spencer's partner! A man who is a fugitive from justice. Everybody says that he is an utterly unprincipled rascal."
"What everybody says is wrong," May retorted coldly. "But you heard what was said at dinner. There was only one opinion. I did not even know that you were acquainted with Hubert Grant."
"I did not tell you for many reasons. I thought you would disapprove, and in any case I knew that my father would. At first I was prejudiced against Hubert. But I heard so many things to his credit. And gradually my opinion changed. It seemed harsh and unreasonable to judge him by his father. And that is how I became engaged to him."
Lady Leverton lifted her head helplessly. All this was terrible.
"Your father will not hear of it," she said. "And yet this man has saved my—has done me a great service. Really, I must thank him. Did I understand you to say that he was in the house? But that must be a mistake on my part. This has been such a startling business that I do not properly grasp it even yet. If he were in the house—"
"He is in the house," May said in a fierce whisper. "He has been here all the evening—he dined with us. Only he did not call himself Hubert Grant. The gentleman passing here as Mr. Morton is Mr. Hubert Grant. And now do you understand?"
"It might be worse," Lady Leverton said, with a sigh of relief.
"It is worse," May went on. "The real Morton has turned up, and demands to be confronted with the man who has answered his name. They are at present together in the library. You can see the danger of the situation. I want you to help me. I fancy I can see a way to save the situation yet. But I cannot do so without your assistance."
Hubert was feeling calm and cool enough as he walked in the direction of the library. Fate was doing its worst so far as he was concerned, and there was even a certain grim curiosity as to what was going to happen next. At any rate he had fulfilled his mission so far as May was concerned. He was going to be exposed, it would be very unpleasant for Ellen Scarsdale, but Sir Bruce Leverton was a just man, and he would know how to lay the blame on the proper shoulders, Morton was pacing up and down the library in a fussy frame of mind. His dignity had been outraged; he did not feel that he was being properly treated by these people. For the most part he was a scheming, cunning little rascal, he knew now to take slights where business was concerned, but apart from that he had an exceedingly good opinion of himself and his social position. And here he was being treated like an impostor, and so to speak, put by for identification. He had not the slightest idea as to the real facts of the case. He had been tricked by a telephone message, and but for a trivial accident by this time he would have been far on his way to the North. As the door of the library opened he turned round angrily.
"Really, Sir Bruce." he said. "Considering that I have come all this distance for—"
His jaw dropped; there was some thing like terror in his eyes as they encountered Grant. He stepped back as if expecting something in the shape of physical violence.
"Hubert Grant," he stammered. "Now perhaps you will be able to explain the extraordinary—"
"I beg your pardon," Grant said. "What did you say that your name was?"
"Oh, drop all that nonsense. You know perfectly well what my name is. You have not lived all these years in the city without knowing something of Robert Morton. Besides—"
"But, my dear sir, there is some mistake here. I am Robert Morton. Between ourselves, I am that precious scamp. To a certain extent I was a failure in the city till I came in contact with Julius Cardella. I have been exceedingly useful to him, and before long I am going to get my reward. It mainly consists in a share of the Quogga concession. Now that the firm of Spencer and Grant are down we come in, you know. Between ourselves, we practically wrecked Spencer and Grant. We took advantage of our knowledge, we found out what Spencer was doing, and we had a tool of ours ready to apply for a warrant against two of the firm when the time had come. As a matter of fact, we are two of the greatest scamps in the city, which is saying a great deal. But we have not won yet, we shall not feel quite safe until Hubert Grant is laid by the heels. And we are going to find that a difficult matter."
Morton listened open-mouthed to this strange medley. He was getting over his sense of fear now. It was hardly possible that Grant would assault him in another man's house. It was quite clear now that for some reason Grant was impersonating him.
"But this is all nonsense," he protested.
"I think not. I was the first Richmond in the field. Nobody knows either of us here, and Mrs. Scarsdale will vouch for my identity."
"But Mrs. Scarsdale knows perfectly well that you are not me," Morton cried. "I will go and see her at once, and she shall come and confess—"
Grant laid a grip of steel on the speaker's arm.
"Don't move," he said quietly. "If you try to leave the room or ring the bell, I'll kill you. You are puzzled to know what I am doing here, and why I am passing in your name. Sooner or later you will learn that to your discomfiture. It is a great consolation to me to be able to use you to such advantage. At the present moment I am fighting for my freedom. Every hour is of the utmost importance to me. If I can keep clear of a gaol for the next week I shall win. I shall be able to take up that Quogga concession, and everybody will be paid. Inevitably I shall make a fortune. And I shall show the world what part Cardella and yourself have taken in the business. So far as Grant Lea is concerned, you are wasting your time here. Sir Bruce Leverton regards you as an impostor; he has left me to deal with you as I think fit. If I advise him to have you kicked out of the house he will have you kicked out of the house. You will have your remedy afterwards, of course, but for the time being I am quite master of the situation."
"Oh, are you," Morton sneered, "When I insist upon seeing Mrs. Scarsdale—"
"My good fellow, it will not be the slightest use for you to insist upon seeing Mrs. Scarsdale. As you are regarded here as an impudent impostor, any suggestion of that kind would be resented as so much insolence. From your point of view the best thing to be done is to go as far as Fairford and tell the police that I am here. I shall certainly not be here when they arrive, but you will have the consolation of knowing that I have been driven out of the house. On the other hand, Sir Bruce Leverton has given me a free hand to do as I please with you. He would not be in the least annoyed if I kicked you out of the place. How I itch to do it!"
Hubert came forward with his hands clenched. The wild light of a righteous indignation blazed in his eyes.
"If I consulted my own inclination," he said, "I should thrash you within an inch of your life. Certainly I shall never have a better opportunity. My fingers are itching to be at you."
Morton shrank back. Physical pluck was not one of his virtues.
"Don't you dare to touch me!" he said, hoarsely. "I—I am armed."
Grant burst into a sardonic laugh.
"You miserable little liar!" he exclaimed. "I don't believe that you ever handled a weapon in your life. You would not dare to carry a revolver in your pocket. The longer you stay here the less able shall I be to control my feelings. Why do you remain? Why don't you go? What is the use of staying on here where you are cutting so sorry a figure? You can return again to-morrow with witnesses and restore your precious reputation in the eyes of Sir Bruce. Every dog has his day, and this happens to be mine. Now, will you go or shall I put you out?"
"It was all very hard," Morton muttered. "Could he see Sir Bruce just for a moment? In fact, he was not going to leave the house till he had done so."
There was a certain determination about him now.
Grant shrugged his shoulders carelessly. After all, he was absolute master of the situation. Morton had already said as much as he could. And Sir Bruce might decline to see him.
"Very well," he said. "Stay here and I will fetch my host. But you are doing yourself no good by the folly. And you are giving me time."
"That is going to come," Morton said with an ugly grin on his face.
Hubert passed out of the room without retort. He could afford to smile at that sort of thing. Sir Bruce had evidently forgotten all about his strange visitor, for he had been inveigled to one of the card tables, where he was engaged in a rubber. As Grant stood at the drawing-room door, uncertain, as to what to do next, Lady Leverton came up and touched him on the arm. There were traces of tears in her eyes; her face was pale and agitated. What new trouble was here, Hubert wondered.
"Come as far as the hall with me," Lady Leverton whispered. "I have something important to say to you. May has been telling me everything. Oh! What a lot I owe you, Mr. Grant."
Hubert started. It was a veritable evening of surprises, and this was not the least of them. He was wondering why it was that May had suddenly confided in her mother? Perhaps she had feared for an exposure of the whole thing, perhaps she was anxious to have an ally on her side.
"Indeed!" he said, guardedly. "Then it is useless for me to pretend to be anybody but myself to you. There are many reasons why I had to do this thing, but there is no time to explain now. But as I have been the means of doing you some little service—"
"Little service! You have saved my good name. You have saved me from the consequences of one of the most wicked things a woman ever did. I have had a lesson I am not likely to forget. After to-night I am never going to gamble again. But I did not bring you here with the selfish idea of talking of myself. I want to help you if I can. If necessary I will tell my husband the whole truth. I want him to realise what you have done for us. When he finds out—"
"Is there any necessity?" Grant asked softly. "Sir Bruce must find out who I am sooner or later, but there is no necessity for his doing so to-night. Nothing will be gained by it. And, besides, think of what a cruel position Mrs. Scarsdale would stand in! But for her generosity and kindness I should not have been here at all. It would be a poor return—"
"But that man!" Lady Leverton protested. "The man in the library, the real Morton—"
"Sir Bruce refuses to recognise him as such," Hubert argued. "It has been left with me to deal with the fellow just as I like. He asked to see Sir Bruce just for a moment, and I came to find him. I see that he is playing cards, and it is impossible to disturb him. The least thing I can do is to go back to the library and give him his dismissal. I can say that Sir Bruce flatly refuses to see him. After he has gone I dare not linger many moments."
"But you will give me ten minutes," Lady Leverton said eagerly. "You are not in all that danger for the present. Do come back and let me thank you."
Grant gave the desired assurance before he returned to the library.
Morton appeared to have become more resigned, for he was seated with his back to the door reading a. book. So engrossed was he that he did not look up as Grant entered.
"It is quite useless." the latter said; "Sir Bruce is playing cards and refuses to be interfered with. He has left everything to me. And I am to say—"
"Quite right!" a mincing, affected voice said. "He could have done no better."
Grant started as the speaker rose. Morton had vanished, and in his place was—
"Mr. Smith!" Grant stammered. "Mr. Smith, may I ask what this means? And what has become of Mr. Robert Morton who was here a few minutes ago?"
"That," said Smith, "is a matter that requires a little explanation."
Julius Cardella crept from the telephone into the dining-room, with his knees knocking together, and a dry patch at the back of his threat. The man was hard enough when no physical danger was at hand. He could face an angry meeting of defrauded shareholders without a flutter—the thought of it would not have affected His appetite. But in a moment of actual peril like this be became as a frightened child. He dropped into a chair, and grasped a glass of brandy. Mr. John Smith appeared to be lost in dreaming meditations.
"A diabolical outrage," Cardella gurgled. "Most audacious thing I ever heard of."
"I beg your pardon," Smith said absently. "I was thinking. A splendid idea for a situation flashed into my mind directly you had gone. It is more or less connected with the telephone. For the purpose of stage effort the telephone is not exploited half enough. You have a beautifully arranged room like this—"
"Yes, yes; I'll listen to all that presently," Cardella said testily. His courage was coming back to him now under the stimulus of the brandy.
"My dear sir, there are more important things in the world than the situations in stage plays."
"Not to me," Smith said. "I want nothing else to do. I long to play the hero in a living drama, where I can control all the characters and make them do as I please—especially when all the time they think they are doing exactly as they please. If I can't get it acted, at any rate I can get some of my dramas performed."
"Well, here is a situation for you at any rate," Cardella said savagely. "I am sitting here talking business to you in the most natural way. Everybody has gone to bed, and so far as I knew to the contrary the house is locked up securely. The telephone bell rings, which is nothing very alarming. I find that a neighbour of mine, Sir Bruce Leverton, needs to speak to me. He has a few questions to ask as to my friend Morton. I am about to reply when the light goes out and a revolver is pressed to my forehead by some unseen antagonist. I am invited to reply as this ruffian desires or have my brains blown out. In the circumstances, hesitation is foolish. I do as I am told."
"With the knowledge that you can repair the mistake after your visitor has gone?" Smith chuckled.
"Well, I had not overlooked that," Cardella went on. "But as soon as the interview was finished I discovered that the receiver had been cut away from the instrument with the rapidity of lightning. I was powerless to do anything further."
An enthusiastic smile lighted up Smith's face.
"Excellent," he cried. "Most excellent! Really a fine situation. I should have been proud to have been the author of it myself. Where did you get it from?"
"Get it from," Cardella snarled. "Do you suppose I waste my time—why, what I am telling you has just happened to me. Took place in the hall now."
"What, here? Under your own roof?" Smith cried. "Is it possible? Whilst I am dreaming of possibilities the real thing is actually taking place. Upon my word, I should like to meet that man. How did he get here? Which way did he escape?"
Cardella intimated that that was exactly the problem that puzzled him. He had no intention of sitting down again until his mind was easy on that score. It was impossible to communicate with the police so long as the telephone was out of order.
"The best thing we can do is to go and see," Smith said. "But look here, Cardella—there is more here than meets the eye. Your mysterious visitor must have known that Sir Bruce Leverton was probably calling you over the telephone. He must have had some very urgent reasons for compelling you to make up a story. In other words he has some knowledge of your private affairs."
Cardella started. The point had escaped him for a moment. He looked anxious and restless.
"You are probably right." he said. "But one thing at a time. I can't possibly be easy in my mind till I am satisfied that that fellow is no longer in the house."
But no signs of the audacious visitor were to be seen. One of the long French windows in the morning-room was unfastened, and slightly open. Beyond all doubt that man had come and gone that way. He might have been lurking about the morning-room for hours, seeing that nobody had been there since the darkness had fallen. Satisfied in his mind now that the intruder had vanished, Cardella turned back towards the dining-room. Smith dodged in front of him.
"Just one more cigarette," he suggested. "And one more glass of brandy and soda. Allow me to make yours. Ah, you are not wise to take quite so much brandy, my friend."
Cardella Smiled as he lifted the glass which Smith had prepared for him to his lips. He lighted a cigarette and lay back in his chair. Presently the half-smoked cigarette dropped from his fingers on to the carpet, and burned there with a thin spiral stream of smoke. Smith sat there looking on curiously through his eyeglass. He seemed not unlike some amiable elderly Cupid. As he stooped cautiously to pick up the smouldering cigarette, a snore broke from Cardella. On the instant Smith's expression charged altogether.
"That is all light, my friend," he muttered. "That little pinch of gray powder in your glass will give the 60 minutes I need. Positively the drama is breathing with situations. They came crowding almost too fast one on the heels of the other. And to think that I stand here the master of all these puppets! This is far better than watching my own play from the stalls."
The mincing accent was no longer there, the whole expression of the man's face changed. He passed out into the hall and whistled softly. A moment later and Mrs. Cardella came out of the dining-room. She was clad in some dead black wrap, her long dusky hair was over her shoulders, the beautiful face was white and set. Only the slumbering fire in the eyes of the wild tornado of passion seething underneath.
"You have managed it?" she whispered.
"My Lady Macbeth, yes," Smith replied. "Pardon me, but you remind me of Lady Macbeth at the present moment strongly. Reynold's portrait, you know."
"There is a resemblance in more ways than one," Mrs. Cardella said bitterly. "Lady Macbeth despised her husband from the bottom of her heart. I hate and loathe and despise mine. I want him to know that I have discovered everything. I want to tell him when the time comes that I have lived for revenge on the man who killed my lover. I want to see him pulled into the dust, disgraced, dishonoured, a pauper fleeing from justice. And you promised to give me all that—"
The words came in a thrilling whisper. They seemed to burst from the woman's full heart like a mountain flood overflowing its banks. Smith regarded her admiringly.
"What a situation," he murmured. "And what an exponent of the character. I am obliged to you for your assistance, my dear madam, but I must confess that my conscience does not altogether approve of the methods I am compelled to adopt. To induce a woman to betray her husband—"
"I have no husband," Mrs. Cardella said coldly. "Cardella is the man I live with. Oh, I married him, of course, but that is nothing. I did not know then how I had been deceived. My heart was dead within me, and I did not care what became of me. If there is any betrayal it is all on his side. And I am going to help you, because by so doing we insure the happiness of a dear little girl who is so foolish as to admire me. All the same I am not doing it entirely for her sake. You are sure that May Leverton will benefit?"
"I can lay my hand on my heart and swear to that," Smith said. "May Leverton's whole happiness is at stake. At the present moment the man she loves is keeping out of the way for fear of arrest on a charge of fraud. Hubert Grant is innocent enough. But your husband and that rascal Morton have so engineered it that Grant's guilt appears to be overwhelming. If he is arrested, he is certain to be committed, and therefore something valuable in the way of business will pass from Grant to Cardella. If Cardella loses this he cannot carry on much longer."
"You mean that he is on the verge of ruin! It seems impossible!" Mrs. Cardella glanced round the room. Smith could see what was passing in her mind.
"So you would imagine," he said "This house does not suggest ruin. Neither does the magnificent mansion of yours in Park Lane. When a man is believed to be a millionaire, nobody ever wants money from him. Cardella's position is what I tell you."
"Yes. Yes. And what do you want me to do?"
"I want you to get me Cardella's keys. He has further mischief afoot to-night, though he does not look it as he sleeps so peacefully there. But he expects Morton here before midnight and there is something like an adventure before them. I gave him a passing drug, because an hour or so is sufficient for my purpose, and because I want him to wake presently and fancy that he has had no more than a nap. When he comes to himself he will imagine that I have gone to bed. When Morton comes it will be quite another matter. The keys?"
"They are round his neck," Mrs. Cardella explained. "Attached to a gold cord. The key you need is the little one with the gold disc on the top. And the safe is in his dressing-room. Is there anything else that I can do for you?"
Smith professed himself to be perfectly satisfied so far. He dexterously loosened the stud in the shirt of the sleeper and fumbled inside for the keys. They came up presently, three of them on a ring from which it was an easy matter to detach them.
"If you will remain here till I come back I shall be obliged," Smith said. "There is little chance of Cardella waking for some half-hour more, but one can never quite tell."
He slipped away and came presently to Cardella's dressing-room. Here a small steel-fronted safe had been let into the wall. The tiny key turned in the well-oiled lock without a sound. For some time Smith was busy with the mass of papers inside. He chuckled presently as he came to the thing he needed, and thrust it into his breast pocket.
"Now in the metaphor of youth, we shan't be long," he said. "That is what the low comedian would say, and it is emphatically the part of the low comedian that I am acting at the present moment. Another two days and the long suspense is over."
Cardella was still sleeping peacefully as Smith returned to the dining-room. The key was replaced about his neck, and the stud fastened again. Mrs. Cardella looked eagerly at her companion. He tapped his breast pocket significantly after the best traditions of the stage.
"I have the papers," he said gleefully. "I have discovered everything that I need. All that you have to do now is to go to bed and leave the rest to me. Perhaps you will be so good as to lock my bedroom door, and hide the key under the mat outside. I want it to be assumed that I have gone to sleep. Morton must be more or less assured of that when he gets here."
"You are going out again?" Mrs. Cardella asked in some surprise.
"It is absolutely necessary that I should do so," Smith explained. "I may be a couple of hours; on the other hand I may not be back before daybreak. But my absence must not be noticed. Let me wish you good-night."
Smith took Mrs. Cardella's cold limp hand in his, and gallantly carried it to his lips. He was still acting up to the best instincts of the stage. Withal he was intensely pleased with himself. Everything was going splendidly; he was playing the part of the god in the car entirely to his own satisfaction. When he stepped out into the night a little later his appearance was changed beyond all recognition. There was a large lump between his shoulders; he wore a gray slack wig and a lot of straggling beard and whiskers. There was a suggestion of dissipation about him, a flavour of spirits. He might have been some one-time prosperous solicitor or professional man who had come down through drink. In the road a small dark car was waiting him.
The driver saluted as be came up.
"I came as soon as possible, Watkins," Smith said. "What do you think of this?"
"Shouldn't have known you from Adam, sir," the chauffeur said. "Perfect disguise, sir. You didn't say which way you wanted to go."
"Grant Lea. Stop at the lane behind the avenue. I'll get out there and walk to the house. After that I'll get you to drive me to Ledge Point. Possibly we shall find ourselves in London by daylight. But that depends upon circumstances."
Hot, and sore, and angry, Morton paced up and down the library, awaiting Grant's return. He had never expected a humiliation of this kind. He was at a loss, too, to understand what it all meant. He would have given a great deal to know why Grant was impersonating him in this audacious manner. He wondered if Scarsdale had anything to do with it. Certainly Mrs. Scarsdale must be a party in the fraud. But why had she been dragged into the matter, and what did anybody expect to gain by it? If Sir Bruce Leverton deliberately chose to be a blind fool, then he must take the consequences of his folly. If the worst came to the worst, Morton decided to make his way by road as far as Scarsdale's place and tell him everything. This course would be the means of giving Mrs. Scarsdale an uncomfortable hour or so on her return home. There was some extraordinary conspiracy afoot here that Morton did not like at all. Still he had all the cards in his hands, and—He came to himself with a shock, and the knowledge that somebody was tapping on the window. As he pushed the casement back he saw a shaggy gray beard and a mass of hair about a face that was none too clean. An odour of stale tobacco and spirits filled the air.
"Who are you and what do you want with me?" Morton demanded.
"It doesn't matter in the least who I am," the shabby stranger said. "I want to do you a good turn if I can, though your manner is not inviting. If you take my advice you will stop hanging about here and get over to Cardella at once. Sir Bruce won't see you."
Morton started. All this was both unexpected and unpleasant.
"Who are you?" he asked. "What is your name? And what do you know of Cardella."
"Oh, he's not the only scamp of my acquaintance," the stranger laughed harshly. "Now, don't you hang about here asking useless questions. There's danger in the air so far as Cardella and yourself are concerned. Things have been happening to-day."
"You don't mean to say that Clarkson has been talking?" Morton blurted out.
"I'm not saying anything about Clarkson or anybody else. Of course if you like to waste your time hanging about here trying to get a plaster for your wounded dignity, it's no affair of mine. Stay by all means, and leave Cardella to go to Ledge Point alone. He'll have to go over there at once if he means to save the situation."
Morton was really impressed. Whoever the gray stranger was he knew a good deal. Beyond all doubt, too, he spoke words of wisdom.
"You're right," he said. "I'll go at once. I'll get there in an hour at the outside." Morton closed the window behind him, and vanished into the night.
When Smith slipped into the library a few minutes later his disguise had vanished. He was once more the fat chubby ridiculous Cupid in the eyeglass that Grant had met at Ledge Point. He sat himself down very calmly in a chair waiting for Grant to return. He had listened at the window long enough to know that Grant would come back presently, and that he would come by himself. The problem was working out exactly as Smith had anticipated.
Grant came at length, and Smith worked his little surprise. Once that was done he reverted to business again. He laid an impressive hand on Grant's breast.
"I am responsible for getting rid of Morton," he said. "In fact I came over here entirely to take that fellow off your hands. He will not trouble you again this evening. You will be able to tell Sir Bruce that you made short work of the impostor."
"Where has be gone!" Hubert asked. "If he has gone as far as Philip Scarsdale's—"
"Oh, you can make your mind quite easy on that score," Smith smiled. "Morton has not gone off to make mischief between Scarsdale and his wife. He has returned to Cardella's, where I am supposed to be in bed and asleep at the present moment. I am Cardella's guest, but not his friend. He asked me down to try and get some money out of me. Instead of that, I am making use of him. What use I have made you will know all in good time."
"You are a most extraordinary man, Mr. Smith," Hubert murmured.
"Well, I am," Smith said modestly. "I am the god in the car at any rate. I am a born dramatist suffering at the hands of a ring of managers. Though I have stooped to bribe them with lavish entertainments, they will have none of my works. Perhaps I am a little too realistic. So I am forced to play such dramas with the world for my stage. I like to take up a set of puppets and play them for all they are worth. The drama I have in hand now is the love affair of two young people who are persecuted by two ruffians. The hero is in danger of arrest. If he is arrested, he is ruined. If he can keep clear of gaol for a day or two, the ruffians are defeated. It is part of try business to defeat the ruffians."
"Meaning Cardella and Morton, I suppose?" Grant asked.
"Precisely. That was the great problem before me. I had to work out the play on logical lines and beat rascality at the same time. So far I have been fairly successful. We have got through two acts and now the excitement begins in earnest. Will you come and help me?"
"That all depends as to where you want me to go?"
"Well, I don't want you to stay here at any rate. I suppose that everybody will be going in a short time now. Morton is out of the way, but he may take it in his head to tell a passing policeman that Hubert Grant is at Grant Lea. As to me, I am going to Ledge Point—to look for the ghost. Come along with me in my car. Whether we are successful or not, I can promise you a good deal of exciting sport before morning."
Hubert hesitated. He was in no mood for sleep, he could not rest. And the funny little man with the eyeglass was evidently his friend.
"Very well," he said. "I will trust you. Our first introduction was not a very promising one, but I feel that you are kindly disposed towards me."
"My dear sir," Smith protested. "You are the hero of the drama. As the author of the whole thing, I must be fond of my hero. It is my positive duty to see that you and the heroine wind up everything happily. Now come along."
"I'll come with pleasure," Grant said heartily. "I suppose it is useless to ask who you really are?"
"I am Mr. John Smith—of London," the other said drily. "I told you this quite candidly the first time we met. Now go and say goodbye to Miss Leverton, and explain to Sir Bruce that you have got rid of Morton. You can make what excuse to Mrs. Scarsdale you like."
It was no difficult matter to get away. Sir Bruce was still absorbed in his whist, and had nothing to say. Lady Leverton was not to be seen. May was in the conservatory, white and troubled.
"I have been so anxious about you, dearest," she whispered.
"I could not get back before," Hubert explained. "At any rate I managed to get rid of that fellow. I fairly bluffed him. I am quite sure that Sir Bruce is satisfied. Anyway Morton has gone, and you will see that it is not safe for me to remain here any longer."
"But what are you going to do? Where will you stay until—until—"
"Until the danger is past? If I can manage for a couple of days I shall be all right, I fancy now that the sky is not quite so black as it was. I have found an unexpected friend in the shape of a queer eccentric little man who calls him self John Smith, of London. He has a passion for acting. From what he says I gather that he knows you."
Something like a smile flickered across May's pale and anxious face.
"I know him," she said. "But he did not call himself 'John Smith' when I met him—I forgot his name. He has a silly manner, and a silly eyeglass, but he really is a clever little man, and I am sure he is really brilliant. I forget where I met him, but he took me in to dinner. But how does he come to be mixed up in this business?"
Hubert shook his head. The question was beyond him. It came to him now that he was wasting time. It was quite secluded in the conservatory, and the temptation of May's lips was handy.
Ten minutes later Grant and his eccentric companion were speeding down the country lanes in the direction of Ledge Point. They did not drive up to the house, but dismounted in a lane close by. They crept across the lawn to the side of the house which was all in darkness.
"We will sit down by the side of these shrubs, and await events," Smith said. "It is just possible that we may have our journey for our own pains, but I don't think so. We may not see the ghost to-night, but that is only a question of patience. You had better not smoke."
Grant clipped his cigarette case back in his pocket again.
They lay under a belt of shrubs on a heap of rugs from the motor, so that it was quite warm and snug. For a long time there was no word spoken, no sound broke the silence till a twig on the gravel snapped like a pistol shot. As Grant glanced up eagerly he saw two forms standing out dimly against the gray of the house. They stood there some little time talking in whisper, then there was a scrape of a match and a tiny point of blue flame flashed out.
"Who do you make this out to be?" Smith asked.
Grant made no reply for a moment.
One of the intruders moved before the light, so that the features stood out clear and bold for the fraction of a second.
"Cardella," Grant whispered. "Cardella for certain. And the other man is Morton. What do they want—?"
"They are looking for the ghost, too," Smith chuckled.
There was no help for it so far as Morton was concerned. The whole evening had been a series of humiliations for him. There was the consolation of knowing that sooner or later he would be able to re pay Hubert Grant, but that was a poor solace for his wounded vanity. And now here was another complication that worried him exceedingly. Who was the man with the ragged gray beard? How did he come into the picture? And why did Cardella chose such a messenger?
Morton dismissed a suspicion of blackmail. The seedy man could not have been after money, or he would have shown his hand. He had merely delivered his strange message and departed. The more Morton thought the matter over, the more uneasy he became. Perhaps he had better get away at once and see Cardella. Nothing could be gained by staying where he was. And Cardella might be in real need of his assistance. But how to get as far as Fairford without assistance was quite another matter. Perhaps it was possible to obtain some sort of conveyance in the village. If not it would be necessary to walk the whole distance along an unknown road, and at that time of night the task could not possibly be accomplished under the hour.
Down the road a brilliant light was shining, and Morton made his way towards it. He found a car there with the driver sitting on the step and humming to himself as he smoked a cigarette. A sudden inspiration came to Morton. The man had the air of one who anticipated some considerable wait. Perhaps he would like to earn a trifle.
"Anything the matter, my man?" he asked.
"No, sir," the chauffeur replied. "I'm waiting for the governor. Likely to be long? Well, probably he may be another half hour or so. Looks like rain now, doesn't it?"
It did. The moon was partly obscured by a rack of scurrying clouds, the wind was rising, and there was a decided drop in the atmosphere. Morton glanced down at his patent leather boots. Here was one extra reason for getting to Fairford without delay.
"Would you like to earn half a sovereign?" he asked.
The chauffeur responded suitably enough. He was by no means averse, provided that there was nothing wrong about it. What could he do for the gentleman?
"Take me as far as Fairford," Morton suggested. "You'll get there and back in twenty minutes easy."
"Take you as far as Fairford Park," the chauffeur amended. "I dare not quite risk the whole way. If you walk through the Park you'll get to Fairford as soon as if I drove you round the long way of the road. If you're on, jump in."
Morton hesitated no longer. Ten minutes later he was the poorer by ten shillings, but he was within a few minutes' walk of Cardella's cottage. He would have been a little less complacent in his mind, perhaps, had he known that the mysterious stranger with the ragged beard was the owner of the car. But that was mercifully kept from him. He could not possibly mistake the way, the chauffeur had told him. If he followed the left avenue through the park he would come to the residential end of Fairford in a few minutes. By way of a feeler, Morton mentioned the name of Cardella's cottage.
"I know it," the chauffeur said. "Why, the garden actually opens on to the park! You'll see the name in gold letters on the gate. Good night, sir, and thank you."
A fine rain was beginning to fall now; the wind was rustling in the tree tops. Morton hurried along to escape the worst of the coming storm. He found the gate at length, and turned into the garden. A figure stood in the pathway before him—the tall slender figure of a woman who seemed to be hesitating as to what to do next. Morton watched her furtively. It was in the nature of the man to do so. Useful knowledge was frequently gained in that way. Then gradually it dawned upon him that the figure in black was none other than Mrs. Cardella. It was only for a moment or two that she hesitated before making her way back to the house. She crept along till she came to the long drawing-room windows, and pulling one of those back slipped into the house as noiselessly as a ghost. After Morton had pressed the bell once or twice, more of less impatiently, the door was opened by Mrs. Cardella herself. She was in her evening dress of some shimmering black with diamonds like stars in her hair. She looked tranquilly scornful as usual, her glance passing over Morton's head.
"I was reading in my room, and I heard the bell ring," she said. "My husband seems to have gone to sleep in the dining-room. Will you come inside?"
Morton began to wonder if he had not made some mistake. There was not the slightest suggestion of hurry or confusion about Mrs. Cardella. And yet there was no forgetting the beautiful slenderness of that perfect figure. And if he was wrong, who, then, was the woman who had made such a furtive entrance to the house? But Morton asked no questions. He had a great admiration for Mrs. Cardella's talent, and beauty, but he hated and disliked her. She always treated him with such cold indifference. He had a feeling in her presence as if he were a dishonest footman who had been found out, and was sure that she regarded him as a knave and a charlatan. In his underhand way he would have gone far to do her some injury.
"In the dining-room," she said. "He is just waking up. You know the way."
Without a further word she turned her back on him. Morton set his teeth together. Some of these days the woman should pay for all this. Meanwhile he had other matters to think of. He found Cardella rubbing his eyes sleepily and fumbling with a cigarette.
"What time is it?" the latter asked. "And what's become of Smith? Funny thing that I should drop off in this fashion. How did you get on?"
"We'll come to that presently," Morton said impatiently. "One thing at a time. I got here as soon as I could. Where did you get your messenger from?"
"What messenger? I never sent any message for you."
"Bosh. The fellow came to Grant Lea. He looked in at the library window. He said that you needed me at once, and I came. A wild looking chap, with a lot of straggling hair on his face."
"I haven't the remotest idea what you are talking about," Cardella exclaimed. "I sent no message for you and I certainly don't know anybody who answers to that description. What do you make of it?"
Morton helped himself uneasily to a whisky and soda.
"Then there's something wrong here altogether," he said. "We've got enemies, Cardella, as you know, and they seem to be on the side of young Grant. And he has some precious schemes of his own. I'll tell you what a game he played on me this evening."
Cardella was distinctly amused at Morton's story. He could imagine the latter's feelings. But the situation had its serious side as he did not fail to see.
"Somebody is evidently playing a deep scheme on us," he said. "Grant appears to have found friends in unexpected quarters, Morton. The sooner we act the better. We have made a little too sure of our position. We thought that once Spencer was out of the way we could get the Quogga concession as a matter of course. But we can't do anything without the preliminary charter from the chief of the tribe. I know it isn't at Spencer's office, because I bribed Raybold to see. I have come to the conclusion that we shall find what we want at Ledge Point. We'll walk over to Ledge Point presently and make sure."
"We can't get into the house at this time of night," Morton protested. "Oh, yes, we can," Cardella said with a significant wink. "I'll see to all that. But after this move on the part of the foe it won't do to wait any longer. We shall get into the house quite easily, and what is more we shall be welcomed."
"You've got all our papers, of course, you've got all those bills that were stolen from Spencer's safe? Lord, what a complicated business it is altogether!"
"I've got everything," Cardella said. "I ought perhaps to have destroyed those bills. They would be highly dangerous in the hands of a third party. But on the other hand when once Grant is safe in gaol for a term of years we shall be able to turn those bills into money, my lad. Nobody but we know that the firm of Spencer and Grant is really solvent."
"Well, we need not go into that," Morton muttered. "Have you got Clarkson's letters here? I am going to put the screw on Clarkson; I don't believe he is doing the right thing by us. Give me those two letters, and I'll take them to London with me to-morrow."
Cardella nodded approvingly. He placed his hand under the white expanse of his shirt front and produced his bunch of keys. He proceeded to detach the little one with the gold top. He looked at this with a frown on his face.
"I don't understand this at all," he said. "Somebody has been tampering with this key. There is a little disc on the top that moves with the days of the week. As this is Saturday the number on the disc should be 6. It is No. 1 instead. As sure as fate somebody has had the key in his hand since I dressed for dinner."
"Oh, you have made some mistake," Morton said carelessly. "Or perhaps the machinery has gone wrong."
Cardella clicked a little spring and the seven numbers spun round smoothly. A dark and troubled look came into his eyes.
"I make no mistakes in these matters," he said. "I am positively certain that I am right. The last time I used the key was just before dinner. But to make assurance doubly sure—"
He rose abruptly from his chair, and left the room. He came back presently with a white face and an unholy rage blazing in his black eyes. He fairly trembled with passion.
"We've been robbed," he said hoarsely. "The letters are gone. So are the bills. They were all in their places this afternoon. We have a very deep and cunning gang to deal with here. How did they manage to get at my safe? How did they contrive to get hold of my key between dinner time and now? Not a soul but you knew that I carried the key round my neck, and you only knew it the last few moments. I can't think who has betrayed me unless it is—is—"
He paused, and his speech died away to a mutter. He was brooding over something in his mind. A black and bitter suspicion gathered in his eyes.
"It's all very strange," he went on. "That business at the telephone. Then the messenger who came for you. And now the papers have gone. Nobody could have touched the key till I fell asleep in my chair after dinner. I wonder if I was drugged? I wonder if that man Smith had anything to do with it. It seems impossible that a congenital idiot like that—but one can never tell. And he was alone with me. He might have pretended to go to bed early. In a case like this one hardly knows who to suspect. I'll go and make sure."
Cardella strode up the stairs two at a time. The door of Smith's room was locked. He tapped on the panels once or twice more and more loudly, but no reply came. In a sudden fit of exasperation, he stepped back and lunged at the door with his shoulder. The wood gave way with a crash.
At the same moment Mrs. Cardella appeared in the corridor. She stood there regarding the breaking of the door with cold and distant displeasure.
"What is the meaning of this midnight madness?" she demanded.
"It was necessary for me to see Smith," Cardella explained sullenly. "Something has happened that may make all the difference to my fortunes. I have been robbed, robbed since dinner. When we sat down to our wine after you left the dining-room everything was in order. I did what I have never done before—I fell asleep in my chair. I have been drugged. Nobody could possibly have done this but Smith—"
"With all his little peculiarities. Mr. Smith is a gentleman."
"Handsome is as handsome does," Cardella said bitterly. "I shall be quite ready to listen to what Smith has to say. Now, if you will stand aside. Oh, I expected this!"
The bedroom was empty; there was no sign of John Smith to be seen! Cardella turned on his wife a searching glance that had something of murder in it.
"He could not have done this without my keys," he said hoarsely. "And he would never have known where to find the keys if somebody had not told him. I thought that nobody knew but myself, but I had forgotten one other. I must have a few words with you presently."
Mrs. Cardella turned a cold and scornful face to her husband.
"Very well," she said. "I shall be ready for you. I shall be glad if you will make a little less noise—it is apt to alarm the servants."
She turned coldly on her heel, and closed the door of her room behind her. Cardella watched her with his hand drawn up as if he were clutching something.
"It's true, it's true," he hissed. "If it's true, my lady, look to yourself."
Morton listened moodily enough. It looked as if the thoughtfully planned scheme was discovered. The loss of those letters and bills was terrible. And the real author of the mischief was not far off. All Morton's hatred of Mrs. Cardella raged and boiled in his heart now.
"Look here," he said, hoarsely, "I may offend you, but I've got something to suggest. I know your wife is a wonderful woman, and that you think there is nobody like her in the world. But do you always feel that you can trust her? Do you honestly believe that she cares for you?"
The questions found Cardella silent. That his wife did not care for him he knew. She had never made any disguise of her feelings on that point. He brooded darkly.
"Do you mean to suggest," he asked, "that she took my keys?"
"Curse it all—yes!" Morton cried. "Who else could have done so? If she didn't take the keys, she told Smith where to find them. I believe that she is in the conspiracy. Ask her what she was doing in the garden to-night. Ask her why she disguised herself, and why she sneaked in by means of the drawing-room window. I saw the whole thing myself. I should have said nothing about it but for this business. Don't waste any further time."
Cardella rose slowly from his seat. He was seeing many things now beyond the trouble of the moment. He was asking himself questions. If his wife had betrayed him in this matter then she was going to suffer. She was a sort of passion with him; his admiration for her was sincere. But in a case like this, the desire for vengeance swallowed up everything else. He would like to see her stripped of everything, walking in the streets begging her bread. For the moment he forgot her profession. He called her loudly from the drawing-room where he had turned on the lights.
She came in her cold slow deliberate way, and flung herself into a chair. She asked no questions, she could see quite plainly that she was face to face with a crisis in her life.
"Will you be as brief as possible, please?" she said.
"I shall do things in my own way!" Cardella said. "Why have you betrayed me?"
"Surely you are the last person in the world to reproach anybody with that."
"Oh, I can assure you that you will gain nothing by taking that line. I am not going to ask you what you were doing outside to-night, because that is a minor matter. I am going to ask you if you took my keys to-night? Did you give them to Smith?"
Cardella looked for something in the way of prevarication. The reply staggered him.
"I told him where to find them," the woman said indifferently. "That is all I had to do in the matter. And in the same circumstances I should do it again. It is useless to try legitimate methods with men like Robert Morton and yourself. You must be fought with your own weapons. You were about to do a great wrong to a young man whose happiness is bound up with a girl I am fond of. Mr. Smith told me the whole story. He asked me to help him. I did not think—"
"That the thing would come out so soon. Otherwise, I suppose, you would not have dared—"
"Dared! I dare anything! I dare to stand before you now and tell you what I think! I was glad to have the chance of righting the foul wrong! I was glad to be able to help an innocent girl to regain her lost happiness. And I was glad to get even with you at last!"
Some of Cardella's passion faded away. He had not expected to find an electric force like this.
His rage and anger was nothing compared with the raging tornado of the woman's hate, expressed, though it was in words clear and cold and cutting. Here was something he had not expected.
"Listen!" the woman went on. "I know everything. I even know that you are a worse scoundrel than I took you for. To gain your own ends you would send an innocent man to gaol. Mr. Smith told me. It is to him that I owe my chance in life. He has ever been a good friend to me. After I married you I found out why I lost my lover. You did not shoot him or poison him, but you murdered him all the same. You got him out of the way so that you could marry me. And after I became your wife I found it out. Ah! If you only realised my feelings, if you had only known you would not have dared to stay by me. The miracle to me is that I did not kill you. I planned to do so more than once. I disguised my feelings. I pretended to be your friend. It was my finest piece of acting. But I did not kill you, because you would not have known, and I should have been deprived of my vengeance. By that time I had begun to see the kind of man that you are. I found out the way to do you a deadly mischief. My plan of vengeance will hurt you most of all. And I have taken it."
Cardella stood there listening. Admiration and hate struggled within him for the mastery.
"Do you realise what all this means?" he asked hoarsely. "You can't stay here after what—"
"Stay here! Do you suppose I want to stay? Do you suppose I could stay after this? Man, I should rise up in the middle of some night and murder you. To morrow—"
"No," Cardella yelled. "To-night, now! Stripped of your jewels and your dresses. Into the pouring rain, out into the world without a penny in your pocket. Do you understand that, Jezebel? Has that gone home to the right place, you handsome thief? Does that appeal to you?"
Beside himself with rage, the man strode across the room and dealt the woman a savage blow full on the forehead. She staggered back before the force of the assault; she would have fallen but for a table close behind her. The white flesh showed the cruel scar red and livid, but no cry of pain came from Mrs. Cardella's lips. Her features never changed.
"I fancy I understand everything," she said. "I am not surprised. It only wanted you to play the coward like that to pile up the measure of your loathsome vices."
She turned without another word and crossed to the window. Here she stood for a moment and tore the jewels from her hair. One by one she crashed the glittering diamonds from her fingers and flung them with a gesture of scorn and contempt to the far side of the room.
"There," she cried, "I am free at last. I could not take anything that belongs to you. I am only sorry that I have to take this dress with me. Sell those stones and pay your creditors with the money. They no more belong to you than they do to me. And that is all I have to say."
She pushed back the catch of the window and stalked out into the night. The rain had ceased to fall, but it was still wild and black. Just as she was, in that thin dress and dainty shoes, she walked as in a waking dream. Her head was aching horribly; she was very, very tired. She would turn in at some house and ask for a night's shelter. Then the earth seemed to rise up and meet her, and she remembered no more.
Cardella walked slowly back to the dining-room. He was filled with shame and anger and a certain dread. How far had this thing gone? And was it possible to find some remedy for things. He glanced at his companion who seemed to regard him with marked displeasure.
"Well, you've made a fine mess of it," he said. "I heard everything. I simply couldn't help it. I'm not very scrupulous myself, but when it comes to laying hands upon a woman—"
"Curse you, be quiet, or I'll lay hands on you," Cardella screamed in a sudden fury. "You heard what she said. She has betrayed me—betrayed me because I got her lover out of the way and married her. Anyway, she's gone, and she's not likely to do any further mischief so far as we are concerned."
"You were a great fool to let her go like that. People are certain to talk."
"Let 'em talk. And they'll have something to talk about with a vengeance unless we make a move soon. We shall have to go over to Ledge Point at once. We must get those papers to-night. Its any odds that Smith does not find out what has happened yet. He will probably think that I am still ignorant of my loss. If we can get hold of him and have him back here, why—"
Cardella paused significantly. Morton knew exactly what was passing in the mind of his chief. If Smith in ignorance of the unexpected turn of events had appeared at that moment it would have gone hard with his especially as Mrs. Cardella was no longer in the house.
"A little courage now and all will be well," Cardella went on. "We must manage to get on the track of Smith by daylight. It's just possible that he may come back here. In that case the sooner we are up to Ledge Point and back the better."
"Are we going to commit burglary then?" Morton asked.
"No, we are not," Cardella muttered. "Oh, come along. When there is any danger about you are a pretty bad starter. And the delay of an hour may be fatal."
Stung by this, Morton rose to his feet. It was no great way to Ledge Point, and it was still less than one o'clock in the morning when the destination was reached. With the air of a man who knows exactly what he is doing, Cardella strode on till the house loomed before him. He was looking for a side door, and he had to strike a match to find it. He had his finger on the bell. A minute or two later and a white frightened face appeared.
"Well, Jenner," Cardella said. "Glad to see us, eh? Thought perhaps that we were never coming? We have been detained on business of importance, and could not get here before. Put up the lights."
Jenner murmured something in an uncertain voice. He was horribly white and nervous, plentiful beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead. He stood there with the door open, and the brilliant stream of light behind him, so that the watchers on the lawn could see everything.
"What does it all mean?" Grant asked his companion. Smith chuckled.
"That is exactly what we are here to find out," he said. "You can see for yourself what a faithful servant Jenner has proved. He has been bribed, of course. But we shall hear and see a great deal more if we are inside the house. Come along."
"Into the house?" Grant asked. "You actually mean it?"
"Of course I do, my dear fellow. Everything is arranged. The flats are joined properly and the scene is set. Unless I am mistaken it will be a most interesting performance."
The bridge tables in the drawing-room at Grant Lea were breaking up. With a deep sigh of thankfulness Ellen Scarsdale realised that the hour for departure was at hand. Never could she remember a more trying evening. There was an air of unreality about it, too. A few hours before she had been busy in her garden, a happy woman with hardly a cloud on the horizon. She had been thinking how wonderfully nice the flowers looked; the house itself had never appeared to better advantage. And all this was only a matter of some seven hours ago. It seemed almost impossible to believe that she had gone through all this worry and anxiety since then. The world and her place in it had changed entirely. She was filled with a restless anxiety that amounted to terror. Anything to get away home, to save the shame that loomed before her. She was afraid as yet to dwell upon what might happen afterwards—the present was bad enough in all conscience. She gathered up her skirts presently, and began to look about for Hubert Grant. There was still a certain amount of desultory conversation going on; guests were lingering over their farewells.
"Where is my—I mean Mr. Grant?" Ellen whispered to May.
"I ought to have told you before," May said. "Only you were playing cards and I could get no opportunity. Hubert has gone away. Somebody came and fetched him. Of course you heard that Mr. Morton had been here? Dreadful, wasn't it? Fortunately my father behaved quite nicely. He did not want to have any fuss. He sent Hubert to see Mr. Morton. It was like one of those funny scenes in a comedy—only it wasn't at all funny so far as we were concerned."
"But there was some kind of disturbance?" Ellen Scarsdale asked.
"There wasn't. When Hubert got back to the library Mr. Morton had vanished. He just walked out of the house without saying another word. No doubt he was most fearfully disrupted. Then somebody came along and wanted Hubert at once. I don't know what it was all about, but he had to go."
"He went off without saying good-bye to anybody?"
"My dear Ellen, he had to. There was not a moment to be lost. He asked me to tell you. He also asked me to make his apologies to my father."
Mrs. Scarsdale folded her hands in despair. She had a desire to burst into hysterical laughter. In spite of everything, there was a suggestion of wild farce in the situation.
"I shall break down, I know I shall," she said. "My dear child, will you see if my carriage is ready. Positively I have remained here chattering till everybody else has gone. And now I have actually got to apologise to Sir Bruce for the rudeness of my companion—"
Sir Bruce came across the room towards Ellen Scarsdale. She was the last guest left. Lady Leverton was in the hall chattering to a little group getting ready for their car. There was something grave, almost stern, in Leverton's face as he came up.
"What has become of Mr. Morton?" he asked.
"I—I don't know," Mrs. Scarsdale stammered. "I understand that somebody sent for him. Very important business he told May that it was. You were engaged."
"Yes, I was engaged," Sir Bruce said thoughtfully. "It was a strange affair altogether. You bring a stranger here who calls himself Robert Morton, and then another claimant to the same name makes his appearance. When I see him he makes a startling accusation. Had not my house been full of guests, I should have investigated the charge at once. But you see I was in rather an awkward position. I could not have anything like a scandal when my friends were here. I sent your—I mean Mr. Morton, to see the other man, and I hear later that the other man has discreetly retired. Whether he was frightened or whether he deemed discretion to be the better part of valour I don't know. But I am not quite satisfied. I fancy you could tell me more if you liked, Ellen."
Mrs. Scarsdale looked up with a startled expression on her face. Sir Bruce looked grave enough, but the kindly tone of his voice touched the girl to tears. She covered her face with her hands, she leant forward, her whole frame shaking with sobs.
"I am a wretch," she said, "a deceitful little wretch! How did you find me out?"
"My dear child, the expression of your face. You have been most miserably unhappy all the evening. Of course I make due allowance for the loss of all your money. But that would not frighten you, that would not keep you looking over your shoulder all the time end starting as everybody came into the room. Why not tell me all about it, Ellen. Who was your friend?"
"You have guessed that he was not Mr. Morton at all?"
"I have had my suspicions, yes. And you have confessed them. I am quite sure that you would not willingly do me an injury. The deception was forced on you."
"Oh, it was. Not that that is any excuse. I was taken unawares, carried off my feet. When I left home I was alone in the brougham. When I got here, my companion was with me pleading passionately that I should pass him off as Robert Morton. If you had been a woman and had heard what he had to say you would have done the same. The very urgent reasons—"
Ellen Scarsdale paused suddenly.
Sir Bruce's face had grown hard and stern. She wondered what it was that had changed his mood like this. Leverton was turning the events of the evening over rapidly in his mind. He recalled the fact that he had found the alleged Morton and May in closest conversation. He began to grasp things dimly and unpleasantly.
"I know that you can never forgive me," Ellen cried. "If I tell you everything—"
"That is exactly what I want you to do. Did those urgent reasons that I spoke of have anything to do with my daughter? Did you smuggle a lover under my roof?"
Mrs. Scarsdale had no reply. She sat there with her face averted. She could not see that May was standing in the doorway listening to every word. The girl came forward now, her face deadly pale, but there was a resolute light in her eyes.
"I am to blame father," she said. "It was my lover who was here to-night."
"Oh, I did not mean to betray you," Ellen cried. "I did not mean to shrink. But Sir Bruce was so good and kind that—that I had to say something. It was all my fault."
"It wasn't," May said. "You only followed the dictates of your own kind heart. In your case I should have behaved just the same. You had better go, dear. I will explain. And when I have done I can, I fancy, promise you that my father will hold you blameless."
Sir Bruce nodded his head gravely. He offered Ellen his arm and put her in the brougham. The grasp of his hand was just as friendly as it had ever been.
"I shall not blame you," he said. "I am quite sure that at the worst you have been no more than thoughtless. And you women are so terribly swayed by sentiment. Good-night."
But Sir Bruce was feeling more stern and hard as he returned to the drawing-room. May stood there awaiting him. Lady Leverton was upstairs with Lady Mossingford, who had retired for the night. May could guess what her mother had to say to Lady Mossingford.
"Well," Sir Bruce said. "What have you to say to me, May?"
"Oh, I know that I have done wrong. I know that I have behaved abominably. But I meant to tell you at the first favourable opportunity, father. I hoped to make you forget your prejudice against—"
"Oh, then the young man is not altogether desirable. Some acquaintance you made in London, I suppose. I am bound to confess that I liked the look of this impersonator of Mr. Morton's. He looked like a gentleman, he is very nice to the eye, and he has an honest, resolute face. But, on the other hand, a man who would consent to play so dishonourable a trick upon a perfect stranger—"
"But my dear father, it was absolutely necessary to do so," May protested.
"Really! Well, one lives and learns. I cannot conceive a set of circumstances in which one man enters the house of another, under an assumed name, and sits down to a dinner to which he has not been invited. My dear child, will you kindly favour me with a few more details of the history of this strange and fascinating young man who hypnotises Mrs. Scarsdale into bringing him here and induces you to deceive me in this fashion. What is his proper name?"
The question was asked now, and it would have to be answered. For the first time May bent her head. The hot blood flowed into her face.
"Hubert Grant," she whispered. "Hubert Grant. And he is the only man I could ever care for."
Sir Bruce fairly started. His eyes filled with horror and loathing.
"Hubert Grant," he gasped. "The felon. The broken bankrupt who is a fugitive from justice. The man for whose apprehension a warrant has been issued! His father was once my friend. He served me as few men have ever been served before. Like father, like son! And you allowed him to come here, to take my hand, to sit down at my table with honourable people! To think that my own child should so for humiliate me. May I could not have believed this."
The tears were running freely down May's cheeks. It was worse than she had expected.
"I met him in London," she said sadly. "I did not guess who he was at first. And by the time that I found out I—I loved him. And he asked me to be has wife. We had to keep the engagement a secret until we could be sure that you would consent. We wanted you to realise that Hubert was quite different from his father. And I am quite sure—"
"And this is the way the fellow proves his worth? But why this madness? What had you to gain by such a lunatic scheme? Suppose Grant had been recognised by one of my guests! And is there something that you are still keeping from me?"
It was bitterly hard and cruel for the girl to bear. From her own side, she had made full confession. But she could not justify herself and Grant further without implicating other people. A passionate fit of subbing almost choked her. The air of the room was hot and stifling. She crossed over and flung two of the windows leading to the lawn wide open. Oh, if her father only knew, if he only realised for whom this danger had been run! But she could not speak; he must think the worst of her.
Her mother—Lady Leverton was in the room. Her pleased smile gave way to a frightened look.
"What have you two been quarreling about?" she asked. "And May in tears. Why?"
Leverton proceeded to explain. He was facing two white-faced women now instead of one. Lady Leverton stood with her hands on the back of a chair holding on so tightly that her knuckles stood out white and clear from the hand. For she could understand—
"That is all I know so far." Sir Bruce exclaimed. "Of course there is a good deal more to be told. I might have given my consent in the ordinary way but not like this—why was this done? Why am I flouted and insulted in this way and my guests humiliated. That I insist upon being told."
Sir Bruce spoke sternly enough now. May's sobs broke out afresh. She gave one pitiful pleading glance in the direction of her mother, then she hid her face in her hands again.
Lady Leverton swayed unsteadily. It was some time before she could speak.
"I can tell you that," she said. "It was done to save me. There was no other way."
A little broken cry came from May's lips. Sir Bruce stood there a picture of astonished indignation.
"To save you!" he echoed. "What can you possibly have to do with it?"
"It was a matter of money," Lady Leverton went on. "Bridge debts. I have been gambling, Bruce. I have been gambling on and off for a long time. The others were too sharp and clever for me. I was desperately in debt. When Lady Mossingford went to Paris from here to see her son she gave her diamonds into my charge. And I pawned them—I borrowed money on them from Paul Spencer. I had to get those gems back to-night. I had to! And Spencer was dead, and they were in his safe. May found everything out. I did not know that there was anything between her and Hubert Grant. But she said she would help me. Her scheme was partly hers and partly Grant's. And Lady Mossingford has her jewels back."
Sir Bruce listened in a kind of dream. Events were crowding too thick and fast for him to grasp them as they passed. The whole system seemed to be crumbling under his feet. An hour or two ago and he had not dreamt of anything of this kind. And now he was indebted to a fellow for the honour of his house. But for Grant his name would have been a by-word in the country.
"I'll say nothing more to-night," he said. "I am tired and worn out. I never expected anything so utterly humiliating as this. And so I am the debtor of Hubert Grant. I shall be able to appreciate perhaps later on what he has saved me. But a thief like that—"
"No, no," May said. She stood in the shadow of the open window. "Hubert is no thief. He is the victim of an infamous conspiracy. All the world will know before long that he is innocent of this wicked charge. I implore you not to be so hard, father."
"Nobody would be more pleased to know this is so," Sir Bruce murmured. "But who is to prove it? Is there a body in the wide world who can do so?"
A hand thrust May aside and a woman came into the room. Mrs. Cardella stood there with flaming eyes and heaving breast. A livid red scar stood out on her white forehead.
"Yes," she said. "Yes, Sir Bruce. I am one of the persons in the world who can prove it."
"We shall certainly do much better in the house," Smith whispered. "I have a pretty fair idea as to what those rascals are up to, and I want to be quite sure. The fact of your knowing the house so well is of great assistance to me. I'm afraid that Cardella has found me out."
"Found you out in what way?" Hubert asked. "That I have robbed him. He was bound to discover that sooner or later, but on the whole, it would have been better if the discovery had been postponed till to-morrow. Still, I had to discount that. You will see presently what we are here for. Meanwhile will you please make a note of the fact that the honest Jenner is in the pay of Cardella. What would Spencer say to that?"
"He always said that there never was a servant like Jenner," Hubert murmured. "Yes—he told me so, times out of number. We argued the matter often. Personally, I don't believe that there is such a thing as a really honest 'gentleman's gentleman.' According to the traditions of the stage, such a creature does not exist. And this business is being run entirely on stage traditions. I am exceedingly glad that I fetched Morton away from Grant Lea this evening."
There was no chance now for further conversation. It was no easy matter to follow the conspirators without being discovered. They made their way as far as the dining-room, where Jenner put up the lights. Fortunately the hall had been reduced to darkness again.
Standing there close to come old leather hangings. Smith and his companion could see and hear all that was going on. Jenner produced some glasses and a bottle of champagne, there was the scraping of matches and the smell of cigarette smoke.
"I didn't expect you gentlemen to-night," Jenner said in his most respectful manner.
"And I didn't expect to come," Cardella explained. "But I have been robbed of some valuable papers, and thus it becomes necessary to act without delay. A man who is actually my guest got hold of my keys. There is a patent arrangement in one of the keys, and if a stranger tampered with it—"
Smith chuckled. The conversation seemed to amuse him.
"So that's how he found it out," he whispered to Hubert. "I was wondering why he had got so soon on the track of the thief. I ought to have guarded against that. But then one can't think of everything. After all, it only precipitates matters, and you will be out of your misery all the sooner."
But Hubert did not appear to be listening. He was deeply interested in what was taking place in the dining room. He could see Jenner standing there rubbing one hand over the other, a pleased grin on his face.
"Quite right, gentlemen," he said; "I am entirely at your service. But there is a good deal of danger for me—a great deal more danger than you imagine. You see, the police hold me responsible for the safety of everything here. They have sealed up all the boxes and the safe—"
A cry of anger broke from Cardella.
"Curse it all!" he muttered. "I had forgotten that. I don't care a rap about the safe, because there is nothing of any value in there. Spencer knew that it would be opened first thing, and the old fox would choose some other hiding place for his papers. But that police seal is an awkward matter."
"Couldn't we take an impression of it?" suggested Morton.
"Possibly," Cardella said. "If we had some wax it might be done. Then we could get a die cut in the course of tomorrow, and Jenner could re-seal the boxes. There's a certain amount of risk, of course, but I don't suppose that the police will come along making trouble within the next day of so. Jenner will not object to that for a few hours, I'm sure."
"Jenner isn't going to do anything of the kind!" that individual said with a sudden change of manner. "I'm not a man of courage, and I don't mind saying so. I'm a gentleman's servant, I am, and I make my money according to the rules of the game. Mr. Cardella promised me L100 if I would let him have the run of the place for a day or two and no questions asked. If any seals are broken the risk is not going to be mine, and don't you forget it."
"Our friend does not appear to trust us," Morton said.
"He doesn't!" Jenner responded, curtly. "Not half. All the boxes you speak of are in the cellar. There are perhaps a dozen of them altogether. Whether the police counted them or not I do not know. But I am a bit of a carpenter, and I've got a good chest of tools. I daresay there are some of them boxes which I could open and close again and nobody any the wiser."
"Oh, come—that's more promising." Cardella said in a mollified voice. "Where are the boxes?"
"They are in the cellar—in the wine cellar, in fact. To my certain knowledge, most of them have not been looked at for years. It's just possible that some of the cases are full of wine. There's a good stock of the best in the cellar, though my master did not drink much. If you'd come this way I'll show you, and you can help yourselves."
Grant and his companion stepped discreetly behind the leather hangings as the two came out into the hall, guided by Jenner, and made their way to the cellars.
This part of the house was large and commodious; there were many angles and corners which Jenner proceeded to flood with light. Standing at the top of the steps the watchers could see what was going on.
"I think that we shall do all right here," said Smith. "We can see everything without the slightest chance of being seen. And if necessary, we can lock those fellows in. It would take them hours to get out, and meanwhile we could summon the police. A new sensation it would be for the City to-morrow. The millionaire Julius Cardella charged with burglary!"
"Is that what you are going to do?" Hubert asked. "Well, the temptation is pretty strong," Smith chuckled. "It would serve them right. But on the other hand, it would spoil my play altogether. It would ruin one of the most interesting situations ever invented by a dramatist. You see, I have to be ready for emergencies, and I understand the exact moment to turn them to account. We shall do better than that."
"What do these people expect to find here?" Hubert asked.
"Buried treasure, of course," Smith responded with the same dry chuckle. "Bars of silver and nuggets of gold concealed in an old wine case. Bottles full of diamonds, perhaps. What they are really looking for are certain papers connected with the Quogga concession. Cardella knows that Paul Spencer was as secretive as a magpie. Personally, I believe that those papers are down here. It is very good of those people to save us all this trouble."
One or two boxes had been discovered and discarded as obviously of no importance. A long talk followed as to the prudence of opening them.
"Oh, let's make a start on something," Morton said, impatiently. "We shall be here all night, else. Now what is in this case with the queer lettering all over it?"
Jenner explained that it had contained, or did contain Tokay. Morton pushed the case over with his foot. There was a rattle of bottles inside, but the box itself was curiously light.
"Funny thing," Cardella said. "The case is carefully sealed, and yet those bottles must be empty. And Tokay is one of those rare and extravagant wines that people only drink out of glasses as big as a thimble. Very few people indeed can afford to touch it, and yet these bottles are empty. My good Jenner, I have a very strong and lively curiosity to see inside that case."
"It isn't me who is stopping you, sir," Jenner said with a grin.
"Very well, then. The police appear to have done their work effectually. Fancy sealing a case like this. But an expert carpenter could remove the bottom and put it back again so neatly as to avoid all suspicion. Go and fetch your tools. Also some of those wire nails."
Jenner produced one or two tools from his pocket. He carefully pulled the bottom off the case, and exposed the black wide-mouthed bottles inside. They were loosely corked, so that it was not a difficult matter to remove the stopper with the hand. Jenner bustled away to get nails and hammer. Morton drew one of the corks, and turned the bottle upside down. A shower of neatly folded papers fell to the floor, and Cardella took them carefully. As he proceeded to spread out one after another his dark eyes gleamed, his hands shook strangely.
"Look at these," he whispered. "Lord love the man, look at these! Bonds, bills, coupons. Every one of them good stuff and worth money on the market. Open another bottle and see what you can find before Jenner comes back. Upon my word, we have stumbled upon a fortune."
"Same here," Morton said hoarsely. "The same story. Now, what in the name of goodness, does all this mean? Put your papers back again, shove in the corks and replace the bottles. Not a word of this to Jenner. Then we'll kick the box back in its place and come back here to-morrow night and carry the whole lot away. It won't be a difficult matter to get rid of Jenner for an hour or two. And now let us have a hunt round everywhere for those other papers."
At the same time Jenner bustled back into the cellar. He looked inquiringly at his fellow conspirators. With a contemptuous kick Cardella indicated the box.
"Nail it up," he said. "Nothing there but a lot of papers, redeemed bonds and the like. Wonder why a business man like Spencer kept all that rubbish. Besides, it wastes our precious time. Have you got anything likely over there, Morton?"
Jenner paused with his hammer in his hand.
In the stillness of the house the rippling purr of the electric bell on the front door came with a startling effect. A minute later and the bell rang again. This time it lasted for the best part of a minute. Jenner listened with a white set face.
"Go and answer it." Cardella suggested. "What are you frightened about? It's very late, of course, but that it no reason why somebody shouldn't—go and answer it."
Jenner crept shakily up the stairs.
With a chuckle, Smith watched him pass.
"I should like to share your secret," Hubert said.
"One moment, my boy, only one moment," Smith whispered. "This is positively splendid. It is a development beyond my wildest dreams. Worthy of Pinero at his best. Ah, my young friend, you are going to see something like a curtain now."
Sir Bruce Leverton forgot his own troubles for the moment. He knew in some vague way that Mrs. Cardella was in deep and bitter distress. She spoke in a distant fashion, as if she were not fully conscious of what she was saying. She pressed her hand to her head.
"You will pardon me," she said. "I did not mean to come here at all. I—I was out for a walk. Then I saw the light in the window, and it attracted me...........like the moth is attracted by the candle."
Leverton came forward courteously enough. He offered his arm to the speaker, and led her to a chair. He could see the raindrops glistening on her dress and sparkling like a silver powder on her glorious hair. And he could see, too, the trouble in her eyes.
"You are not quite yourself," he said, soothingly. "Do sit down for a time and rest. Would you like to have a doctor? I see you have met with an accident."
Mrs. Cardella passed a weary hand over her scarred forehead.
"That is no accident," she said quietly. "My husband did it. He struck me."
Leverton suppressed a groan. There are some occasions when all the tact and delicacy in the world is lost, and this was one of them. He looked helplessly at his wife and daughter. Then was the time when a woman's touch was needed. The poor creature was wet; her thin shoes were soaked and broken. What was going to be the end of this amazing night, Leverton wondered.
"My dear," he said awkwardly. "Mrs. Cardella must change her dress. Her shoes, too—"
"I don't notice it," the woman said. "I am not cold. I walked out of the house just as I was. I had not the least idea what I was doing. I can't go back there again."
She said this as if it were the most natural thing in the world. She had forgotten that these people were absolute strangers to her. She could remember nothing but her desire for vengeance, and the knowledge that she could say a good word for Hubert Grant. Then it came back to her.
"I am ashamed of myself," she went on. "I should not give you all this worry. To come into the house of strangers like this! You who have never called upon me!"
Lady Leverton flushed a little uncomfortably. She had never called on Mrs. Cardella for what appeared to her to be perfectly natural reasons. She admired and respected Mrs. Cardella as a beautiful woman and one of the most distinguished ornaments of her profession, but Cardella's wife was quite another thing. The man's reputation was too evil; he kept the wrong class of associates. But all these silly little shibboleths were forgotten now.
"I have always been anxious to know you," Lady Leverton murmured. "But—"
"Yes, I quite understand. As Cardella's wife? Exactly. In the circumstances I should have done the same thing. But I am going back to the stage again. I shall never live with him any more. Can you imagine a man marrying a woman that he hates? No? But you can imagine a woman marrying a man that she loathes. We are like that. And when he found out he struck me."
Lady Leverton rose. She was feeling the strain of it all. And deep down in her frivolous kindly heart was a fine pity for this unhappy woman.
"Come up to my room," she urged. "I have a fire there. We will give you some dry clothing and make you comfortable for the night. It will be a great pleasure to help you."
Mrs. Cardella smiled gratefully. The wild look was fading from her eyes, her beauty seemed to grow warmer.
"You are very kind," she said. "All the same I ought not to have come here. Perhaps I should have done something foolish if I had not seen the light. Such a feeling of absolute loneliness. It was good to hear voices, to see a room like this, so refined and yet so like home. But I never had one. You cannot possibly have a home in Park Lane."
Sir Bruce smiled bitterly. Grant Lea had been very little like home the last hour or so. Mrs. Cardella caught his eye, and seemed to read his thoughts.
"I'd like to get these wet things off," she said. "I am beginning to feel the cold. And when I have done so, I shall be glad to come down again and convince Sir Bruce that I have only told the truth so far as Hubert Grant is concerned. And I can prove it."
Sir Bruce murmured something appropriate. Once he was alone he paced up and down the room a prey to anxious and disturbing thought. He had always taken a great pride in his house and his family. He did not fail to recognise the importance of his position. Of late he had been getting a little behindhand, but that appeared to be due to his wife's growing extravagances. He had not imagined that his money had been diverted from its legitimate sources to pay his wife's gambling debts. He regarded May as a heart-whole child who some day or another would marry in her proper station. And here, in the course of an hour or so, the whole fabric had come tumbling about his ears. Both his daughter and his wife had disgraced themselves beyond measure.
There was some allowance to be made for May. She was young and romantic, she had been led away by the good looks and fascinating ways of Hubert Grant. And yet she had made a good many sacrifices, and ran some risks to save her mother's good name. Thank God that that disgrace had been averted. The situation had been saved in the nick of time. And yet all these efforts would have been wasted had it not been for Hubert Grant. In spite of all the danger and trouble before him, he had turned aside to do May this incomparable service!
Leverton could see quite clearly now why Grant had come there masquerading as Robert Morton. He had gained nothing by it personally, but he had saved the honour of the house of Leverton. He had looked a fine manly fellow, too! There was nothing of his father about him. He ought not to have done it, of course, but did not the end justify the means? Whilst hardly as yet aware of the fact, Leverton was making excuses for Grant. At any rate all his bitter feeling had passed away. His mood was growing almost complacent when Lady Leverton and Mrs. Cardella came back.
"I am quite myself now," the latter said. "Really. I don't know how to thank you. I came down again even at this late hour to speak of Hubert Grant. I told you that he was the victim of a conspiracy. The men who planned out the conspiracy are my husband and Robert Morton. They set themselves out some time ago deliberately to ruin the firm of Spencer and Grant. They found out something about Mr. Spencer, and drove him away from England. At least they so worked upon his feelings that he committed suicide. People say that he fell over the cliff, but I don't believe it. He committed suicide because he could not stand the persecution any longer. And he could not face his partner, either. He had speculated till all his funds of the firm were exhausted."
"This is your opinion, Mrs. Cardella?" Sir Bruce asked.
"No. I have no opinions. But I have some vague knowledge of business methods. It would be impossible to live in an atmosphere like mine for some time without learning something. I believe that I am quite an authority on the shady side of finance. I used to listen. I had my own reasons for doing so. But how I came to marry my husband, and how I am going to punish him for his black treachery to me will not interest you. It is no story for a happy household like this. But I listened! I used to listen at nights when my husband and Robert Morton were planning their schemes in the smoking room. If necessary, I could go into the witness-box and tell a story that would cause the magistrates to dismiss Hubert Grant on the spot. He is as innocent as his partner Philip Scarsdale."
"But why should this thing be done?" Leverton asked. "Oh, I can even tell you that. Cardella and his accomplice were after some big concession. They expected to make millions out of it. But they could not work till the firm of Spencer and Grant was down. Even then it became necessary to get Grant out of the way. If they could put him in gaol even for a little time the plot was to be successful. And Hubert Grant knew this. He knew that if he could carry on a little longer he could raise money on the concession and pay the debts of the firm. It was a race between the two, with odds on Cardella and his companion in crime. I ought to know all this, for I have heard it discussed times enough."
Leverton paced up and down the room listening intently to the story.
"A most remarkable state of things," he said. "It becomes quite plain to me that I have greatly misjudged Mr. Grant. Perhaps I am prejudiced—but that is an old story. Something must be done."
"Something is being done," Mrs. Cardella replied. "The matter is in very capable hands, Sir Bruce. There is a man who calls himself John Smith. He is eccentric, and it is his pose to look like the typical middle-aged idiot of the stage. He has a mania for stage plays which he cannot write. But he has a fine eye for a situation, and he knows how to adopt it. He works out what he calls living dramas with real characters, and he is engaged on this particular case. He is a rich man, too, so that he has no need to worry about funds."
"I should very much like to see your friend," Leverton smiled.
"Oh, I hope you will before long. He has mentioned your name to me. He knows your daughter, and he has a very high opinion of Hubert Grant. He was the best friend I ever had. I was struggling hard for a living when we first met. He picked me out from a poor travelling company, and he gave me a chance. And now, as I am very tired—"
"A thousand pardons." Sir Bruce murmured. "Your story is so interesting that I am forgetting all my good manners. I hope you will have a good night. And if there is anything I can do for you in the morning I shall be most happy."
Sir Bruce was alone at length. The house was quiet now, and all the servants had retired. As a rule Leverton kept early hours, but not to-night. The crowded events of the evening had left him restless and eager. The idea of sleep was utterly out of the question. He paced up and down the room trying to piece the scattered bits of the puzzle together. It was borne in upon him presently that somebody was tapping on the window. A grim smile crowned his face. Here was some further complication, of course. Possibly Cardella had come looking for his wife. In that case—
But Leverton was mistaken. He threw open the window, and the light fell upon the troubled anxious face of Philip Scarsdale. The latter appeared to have something heavy on his mind.
"I've had a lot of trouble Leverton," he said. "Of course, you have heard all about the unfortunate business of my firm. Everybody has done so by this time. If I get out of the mess without the loss of my good name I shall be a fortunate man. That is why I did not come and dine with you this evening. I sent my wife instead, and with her Robert Morton was to have come, or at least I was under the impression—"
"I know all about that," Leverton smiled. "You might have come all the same."
"Really I couldn't. I had a telegram from a man asking me to see him on the most urgent business connected with the affairs of my firm. He came to my house this evening after Ellen had gone. A most amazing little man called John Smith. He says that he is going to set everything right. And certainly he is no fool, though he does his best to give one that impression. But all this is by the way. I thought I had as much trouble and misery as any man could carry, but it seems that I was wrong. When my wife got back she made a confession to me that filled me with dismay. I am alluding to her extraordinary folly in allowing herself to be made the tool of Hubert Grant. I never dreamt that Grant could be guilty of such a glaring breach of good taste. If he had come back with my wife to-night I should have done him a mischief."
"Not if you had known everything," Leverton said gently.
Scarsdale gazed open-mouthed at the speaker.
"I—I beg your pardon," he stammered. "Do I understand that you approve of Mr. Grant's conduct?"
"Sounds amazing, doesn't it?" Leverton smiled. "Now you would not believe that an action of that kind could be justified. But it was, and I am under the deepest debt of gratitude to Grant. I cannot for certain reasons give you all the facts of the case, but Grant has done me a service to-night that I could not possibly repay him in the course of a lifetime. If I stripped myself of all I possess, the debt would still be against me. And he could see no other way. He worked the matter out skillfully and executed it with a wonderful boldness and dash. But for him I should have received a blow from which I should have never recovered. And it was a happy weakness on your wife's part that gave Grant the chance he needed. If you come to apologise for all this—"
"My dear fellow, I am here at this unearthly hour partly for that purpose. But go on—"
"Really there is little more to say. I nave misjudged Grant. I have learnt to-night that he is the victim of a conspiracy between Cardella and Robert Morton—the very man who was to have been my guest to-night. Mrs. Cardella at the present moment is under my roof. I have been listening to a very strange story from her. If we can keep Grant safe between us for another day or two the situation will be saved. The whole thing reads like some exciting romance."
"That is exactly what it is," Scarsdale said. "I am taking a hand, too. There is a great deal more here than meets the eye. Just before I said good-night to my wife and started to walk here I got this telegram, by special messenger from Fairford. It is most mysterious. It is unexpected, too, and I don't quite know whether I had better ignore it or not."
Scarsdale produced the message from his pocket. He handed it over to Leverton. There was only a few words on it, but they did not err on the side of ambiguity.
Go into Fairford at once (it said) and call at 17, John-street. Ask to see Clarkson, and tell him that everything is ready. Bring the parcel to Ledge Point.
"Now, what on earth do you make of that?" Leverton asked.
"I don't make anything out of it," said Scarsdale. "It looks to me like the word of my eccentric friend John Smith. It is just his jerky way of doing things. He loves mysteries as a conjuror loves them. He wants to puzzle you all the time and be in the secret himself. That is what he calls dramatic effect. When he left me comparatively early this evening he said that perhaps he would send me a telegram very late this evening. That has obviously been despatched per telephone. You can't telegraph from Fairford late at night, but they take in messages and you have to pay extra for delivery."
"I see," Leverton said, thoughtfully. "And you can make nothing whatever out of this?"
"Absolutely nothing—except the name of Clarkson. We had a man called Clarkson in our firm for some years. He was a clever man who took to drink, and we had to discharge him. For some time past now he has been getting a precarious living by using our private information."
"Um!—just the kind of man that Cardella and Morton would like to get hold of."
"By Jove! I never thought of that." Scarsdale exclaimed. "This is evidently the Clarkson that the mystic telegram alludes to. I think, on the whole, I had better go. I don't like the address much."
Sir Bruce was of the same opinion. Fairford was by the way of being something of a port and down by the side of the docks were streets with a very queer reputation. It would be obviously out of the question to seek the assistance of the police and for a moment Scarsdale hesitated. He wished with all his heart that his friend John Smith had been a little more explicit. But here might be a matter on which his future happiness—perhaps his whole reputation rested.
"I think I'll go," he said. "I am in no mood for sleep, and an adventure with a spice of danger in it would be a fine tonic. So, if you don't mind, I'll get along, Leverton."
"Stop a minute," Leverton cried. "I don't feel a bit more inclined to sleep than you do. Two heads are better than one in a case of this sort, and therefore I'll come with you. But not dressed as we are. It would never do to go prowling about in the streets of Fairford in evening kit. Come up with me to my dressing-room and I'll rig you out with some of my old duck shooting tweeds and a cap. If we tie a handkerchief round our necks and leave off collars we shall look the part all right. Wonderful how different a man looks when he leaves off his collar."
The change was made presently, and Scarsdale and Leverton regarded each other with mutual satisfaction. An artistic touch or two with a little dust and the disguise was complete.
"I fancy we shall do," Leverton said. "We might be two tramps out of work. At any rate, both of us have a pretty good idea of taking care of ourselves. Now come along."
It was a fairly long tramp into Fairford, and by the time the town was reached it was past 1 o'clock. They made their way in the direction of the docks, and presently by the light of a street lump they made out the name of the street they had come in search of. It was by no means an inviting-looking place, narrow and dark, open to the water on one side. Most of the houses had lights in them, and the great majority appeared to be let as common lodgings, for every other window had a card to the effect that good beds could be had there. No. 17 was about the middle of the street, the door was wide open, and a feeble gas jet flared in the passage.
"Shall we knock or walk in?" Leverton asked.
"I don't quite know what the etiquette is," Scarsdale said, drily. "I don't suppose the class of people who sleep in a house like this trouble to knock much. We'll chance it and walk in."
At the end of the passage a fat greasy woman with a terribly black eye awaited them. The atmosphere was impregnated by a strong odour of gin. The place was stifling to a degree. The woman stood blocking the passage, her hands on her hips, and a suspicious gleam in the bleary eye.
"Now, then, my lads," she said, "is it a doss or a sleep by the kitchen fire?"
Scarsdale hesitated for a moment. He had to guess at the meaning of this cryptic sentence. He rightly judged the woman to ask whether or not they required a bed or merely to pass an hour or two by the kitchen fire till they were ready to go further.
"Snooze by the fire," Scarsdale said roughly. "We're looking for a mate, mother."
The woman nodded and held out her hand. Into it Leverton put a shilling, with an intimation that she might keep the change. She led the way into the kitchen, and vanished, only to re-appear presently with two pots of muddy looking ale. Then she winked and presently took herself off. The long, low kitchen, with the black ceiling, reeked abominably of stale humanity, but it was empty for the moment, and for this the adventurers were grateful.
"Heavens—to think that people can live in a place like this," Leverton gasped. "You'll find a pipe and some pretty strong tobacco in that coat of yours. I'm glad I brought mine. Pour some of the beer through that hole in the floor there, and they'll imagine that we have drunk it."
They sat and smoked for some time in silence. The closeness of the place brought the free play of sweat out on their faces, so that the dirt made little channels down their cheeks, and gave them a semblance of the true nomadic air. Scarsdale began to grow impatient at last.
"This is all very well," he said. "But like the farmer in the story, we don't seem to be getting any further. I wonder if it would be safe to ask for Clarkson or if we had better wait till some of the regular patrons of this hotel come along."
"Better wait," Leverton said prudently. "Somebody's sure to come along presently." Half an hour later and the room began to fill up. First came a sturdy-looking beggar with a leg in a sling, and an arm strapped. He bore on his breast an inscription to the effect that he was the victim of a recent colliery accident. With a surly nod in the direction of the two figures by the fire, he proceeded to remove the bandages and discard the placard. He stood up sound in every limb as he took some slices of bacon from his pocket.
"If you don't want all the fire, give me a chance," he said. "I've got my supper to cook."
He tossed the bacon on to a gridiron, and transferred it presently to a small loaf of bread, which he cut up with the aid of a pocket knife. For drink he produced a flask of gin, which he drank out of the bottle. After that he displayed a packet of cigarettes that Scarsdale's experienced eye recognised as the finest Egyptians.
"Never had such a day," he grumbled. "Nothing but coppers, except a shilling from a soft little bit of a girl outside the theatre. Haven't taken eight bob all day."
"Things are getting worse and worse," Leverton said feelingly. "It isn't eight bob you'd be getting if I had my way."
The beggar cocked an eye suspiciously, but said nothing. By this time the kitchen was beginning to fill up. There were women as well as men, and, if possible, their language was worse of the two. Scarsdale laid a warning hand upon Leverton's arm.
"The telegram is all right," he whispered. "There's Clarkson by the door—the man with the seedy frock suit and the red nose. I don't suppose he will recognise me for a moment, but we shall have to be careful. Let's get a little nearer and see if we can hear what he is saying."
Clarkson was sitting there nervously talking to some equally broken down specimen of humanity, and sharing a pot of muddy beer with him. It was not difficult to follow his conversation.
"Boy, there's money in it," the other man was saying. "Don't tell me you don't know who he is."
"Have I ever said anything of the sort?" Clarkson said sulkily. "There may be money in it. Lord, send there is, for I want it badly enough. I've been served something shameful, Arthur. But I've got my eye upon them. It's all very well for Cardella and Morton—"
"Here, stow that! You don't know who might be listening."
"Listening!" Clarkson sneered. "A lot of people here likely to be interested in the doing of the great Julius Cardella, millionaire. But I can't make the old man out at all. For the life of me I can't imagine what his game is. He swears he hasn't got any money, but every morning he produces ten bob from somewhere. I've searched the room. I've laid awake at night, but I can't find out where he hides it. He dare not show up anywhere and so far he is in my power. And I'll not deny that the few shillings I screw out of him every day are useful."
"And you haven't got a notion who he really is, Charlie?"
"How should I?" Clarkson asked. "I don't know, and don't care, so long as he keeps me going in beer and cigarettes. Besides, I share his rooms here, and that is better than dossing with all the scum. Costs a bob a night that does, but it's worth the money."
"Well, you go and draw a bob from him now," the other man suggested. "I've got plenty of cigarettes, and I'll share with you if you'll touch old mother Dutch downstairs for two quarts of beer. I've got a real perishing throat on me to-night. Get along. Charlie."
Clarkson rose and went into the dingy passage. As he crept up the stairs, Scarsdale and Leverton followed him. He did not appear to be in the least suspicious until he paused with his hand on the knob of a door and the others paused in their turn.
Scarsdale laid a hand upon his arm and he fairly started. He turned with a snarl.
"Don't make a fuss," Scarsdale said. "I recognise you, Clarkson. I am Mr. Scarsdale. If you open your mouth to raise an alarm I shall knock you down. So this is the room of the millionaire who had the spending of half a sovereign per-day. We should like to go inside." "You can't do it," Clarkson said defiantly. "This is an outrage, sir. I don't even know the name of the gentleman inside. He is a very good friend to me, and I ask no questions. If you are going to force your way in I shall give the alarm. And there are half a dozen fellows down there who only want the word said and—well, there's been murder done here before now."
"Not to-night," Scarsdale said calmly. "Will you kindly open that door at once or presently—"
A voice rose from the inside, a loud voice demanding to know who was there.
Scarsdale's face changed to a look of blank amazement. Then he laughed grimly.
"I never expected this," he said. "This is the crowning surprise of a most amazing night. Open the door, Clarkson. The game is up, my good fellow."
It was strange that the disappearance of Paul Spencer did not create the sensation that it might have done. There were all the elements of a 'popular' mystery, but as a matter of fact outside business circles there was very little comment. Only the lynx eye of Scotland Yard was turned steadily that way. The officials there had their own theory, of course, but as yet they had made little progress.
They did not even know as much as Inspector Manley from Fairford, and his discovery he had kept to himself up to a certain point. If he had any luck here it might mean some big promotion. If he could only work it out, he had the clue of the mystery. He was certain that the solution lay in that forged telegram. But he could not say why any criminal should forge a telegram when it was so easy to get a false message in an assumed name through the Post Office. Why had the miscreant gone to all this apparently unnecessary trouble?
Manley puzzled over it till be came to the decision of taking Scotland Yard into his confidence. He walked down there and asked to see one of the inspectors, Mr. Townley was disengaged. He had been one of Manleys superior officers years ago before ill-health had driven him from London into the country. Townley received him cordially.
"Glad to see you again, Manley," he said. "Last time you were here you looked like a ghost. We gave you about a year to live."
"And I have been five years in charge of Fairford now," Manley laughed. "I was never more fit in my life. And that is why I am anxious to get back to London again. I should like Lenon's job. If I could pull off something clever—the Paul Spencer case for instance!"
"You might get it—yes. Queer case that. Something very wrong there. Still, it's in your district and a real good chance for you. Do you know anything?"
"Nothing really tangible," Manley replied. "But I have got a bit of information which I have kept to myself so far. On the day of Spencer's death he was greatly upset by the receipt of a telegram that took him to Fairford. To all practical purposes he was never seen again. I have that telegram and it is a forgery. It has never been through the Post Office."
"That's a funny thing," Townley said thoughtfully. "Now, what particular object—"
"I know you would say that. I quite agree with you. When I can find that out I shall probably have the solution of the matter in my pocket. The telegram was printed on the right paper with the right ink and despatched in the right envelope. The forgery of the date stamp was an easier matter than the procuring of Government paper and envelopes. Nobody sells envelopes such as telegrams are put up in and nobody sells that class of paper. The average man could not steal it out of a post office, because it is not in the department where the public are admitted."
"An employee might have taken it?"
"He might, of course. But I don't think so. A criminal who would take all this trouble over a forged telegram would hardly take a telegraph clerk—a girl, mind—into his confidence. My logic is a bit fine drawn, but it sounds natural."
"It certainly does," Townley admitted. "You think that the paper was stolen from the makers."
"I do. Bank of England paper has been stolen before now. So has the paper that postal orders are printed on. Post Office Savings Bank Books again. I recollect when I was here years ago that one or two of our regular 'customers' made a hobby of that kind of thing."
"They did. But it doesn't pay now," Townley said. "There are so many tests that the game is hardly worth the candle. There may be a certain amount of it amongst the betting fraternity. New tricks are constantly being played upon the bookmakers."
"That's it." Manley cried. "That's exactly the class of man I'm after. Give me the name and address of one and I'll make a start at once."
Townley rang his bell and a clerk appeared. He took certain instructions and entered presently with a big volume and a packet of photographs. At the end of half an hour Manley knew a great deal as to the career of certain criminals connected with racecourses. In the course of the afternoon he found himself seated in a dreary looking public-house off the Edgeware-road. He was eyed a little askance by the questionable gang lounging against the counter, but a word from the landlord reassured his customers. The landlord was just a little uncomfortable himself, but he quite appreciated the wisdom of keeping in with the police. He conveyed the general impression that Manley was a bookmaker who deemed it prudent to lie low for the moment. At the end of an hour the man that Manley was waiting for lounged in. He was fashionably dressed, he wore a profusion of cheap jewellery, and his shiny hat was on one side. Apparently he was enjoying one of his rare bursts of financial prosperity.
"Anybody here been to see me?" he asked.
The landlord jerked his thumb in the direction of Manley and winked. The new comer turned pale. He did not altogether approve of the look of Manley. Nevertheless he swaggered across the room with his cigar cocked at a knowing angle and addressed Manley with insolent familiarity. The other bar loungers absorbed in 'sport' were not interested.
Manley fixed his man with a cold eye.
"Sit down, my lad," he said. "Sit down and order what you please. I am not after you this time, so you can make yourself at home."
"And who the blazes may you be?" the flashy man demanded.
"My name is Manley. I am connected with the police. But you have already guessed that or I am greatly mistaken. I was at Scotland Yard when you and 'Rat' Kelly and Red Logan were picked up over the robbery of that bank paper. In fact I arrested Kelly myself. You got out of that very well. You might just us well have had 10 years, Charlie."
Charlie Corner nodded amiably. He was accustomed to be talked to in this way. He was an unscrupulous ruffian and not at all nice in his methods, but he respected the law and cringed before it.
"That's right, sir," he said. "I remember you now. I thought I knew your face. Gave me a regular turn directly I entered the bar. What can I do for you, sir?"
"Well, you can answer a few questions and answer them truthfully. I am looking for a man who secretly has been purchasing Bank paper. Have you got any?"
"No, I haven't—too dangerous a game. Besides, it isn't much use nowadays. I knew a man who had some Bank of England papers for years. He offered to sell the whole lot for a fiver and couldn't get that. So he put it on the fire. I've chucked it, too."
"Um!" Manley said, dubiously. "Well, I'll take your word for it. But it isn't bank paper I am after so much as the stuff that telegrams are printed on—envelopes and the like. That's a game that pays anyhow, especially if you can hit upon some new scheme for swindling a bookmaker. We know all about altering the time on a telegram, but what looks like a bona-fide telegram on bona-fide paper—"
Mr. Corner gasped. He favoured Manley with a look of intense admiration. It was a suggestion entirely after his own heart, and afforded him inspiration for a purely new swindle. He would not have felt quite so easy had he known that Manley was reading him like an open book.
"I have heard of something of the kind being done," he said. "Of course, the paper can be got."
"Well, take that for granted," Manley said sharply. "Can you give me the name of a man who has some? It's long odds that there is only one man in London. There generally is only one man who supplies the funds for these sorts of schemes. I don't want to do him any harm; I want to warn him and get him to give up his supply. He won't give it me all, of course, but I have to chance that. Give me his address and if it is at all right I'll send you five pounds."
Corner was ready to produce the address without the slightest hesitation. He was not the kind of man to uphold the tradition that there is honour amongst thieves. He would have been one of the first of his profession, scornfully to repudiate the suggestion.
"All right," he said. "I'll write the address down for you. Of course, you won't give me away, mister. It would be as much as my life was worth. Still, they are over at Croydon and not at all likely to come across me. East Croydon it is and thank you."
A little later, and Manley was at Croydon. He was not in the least surprised to find himself in a good-class stationer's shop with an excellent stock more or less up-to-date. But there was a good deal of dust about and a conspicuous absence of assistants for so large an establishment. A slim girl came forward to serve the customer.
"Have you been here very long," he asked. "What has become of Mr.—I forget his name."
"I have only been here a few weeks," the slim assistant said. "Mrs. Kerr bought the business a year or so ago. No—there is not much doing. We are cut about by that big co-operative chemist and bookseller on the other side of the road. I am afraid that Mrs. Kerr will lose her money. We cannot compete with those cutting co-operative prices."
"Mrs. Kerr—Mrs. Kerr!" Manley said, thoughtfully. "I fancy I know her. I used to be in the trade myself. Could I possibly speak to her for a moment?"
There was no objection, and Mrs. Kerr came forward. Manley measured her with his eye. He was just a little surprised to find a woman engaged in the business. She stood there quiet and respectful enough, but with just a suggestion of defiance on her face. The slim assistant was waiting upon a customer who had come along in search of pocket-books.
"I am looking for some paper," Manley suggested.
"Notepaper, sir?" the shopkeeper asked.
"Oh, yes; I have a good stock. Now let me see."
Obviously she knew little or nothing about her own shop. She stared about her vaguely.
"It won't do. Mrs. Kerr," Manley said, pleasantly. "No use with me, you understand. I am too old a hand at the game. You know the paper I'm after. I want some of the paper that telegrams are sent out on and some envelopes to match. Also a date stamp with movable figures. They tell me that this is the only place round London where I can get it."
A queer little cry came from Mrs. Kerr's lips. She pressed her hand to her side.
"I am more or less connected with Scotland Yard," Manley said. "It is not the least use for you to protest, because I am absolutely certain of my ground. Now I am not here to do any harm. If you will give all the information you possess on a certain subject I will see that you don't suffer. If Scotland Yard raid your premises in a week's time looking for illicit paper and find it, don't say you have not been warned."
Mrs. Kerr capitulated at his discretion. A thin smile trembled on her lips.
"What can I do for you, sir?" she asked. "I am quite certain that any information I can give you—"
"That's right. That's the spirit in which to take it. Now have you sold any paper lately?"
"Not more than four sheets and as many envelopes the last eight months," the woman protested. "An old gentleman came in the other day and asked for some paper."
"But you don't part with your stock-in-trade to casual old gentlemen who come and ask for it."
"Oh, well sir, he had an introduction. He said that Mr. Clarkson had told him."
"And who may Mr. Clarkson be? Is he one of your regular customers?"
"He used to be at one time. I believe that he is a clerk or was a clerk in a good position in the city. I like to know who I am dealing with. But Clarkson has been drinking lately and I heard it said that Spencer, his employer, had discharged him. He has been mixed up with horses and racing all his life. He had a great scheme on—but I need not go into that."
"Quite right," said Manley cheerfully. "Don't let me pry into your secrets. I dare say that this Mr. Clarkson has letters sent to him here. Yes, I thought so. Where is he now?"
"At a place called Fairford. I send the letters on to a street there, but I should say from the address that it is no better than a common lodging-house. Here it is, see."
Manley whistled softly as he looked at the address. Mrs. Kerr's estimate had not been very wide of the mark. And Manley registered a vow that before nightfall, if possible, at any rate before daybreak, he would see Clarkson at that address. He knew something of the man, too—he had not been in Fairford all these years without hearing of Clarkson, who was confidential clerk to Mr. Spencer, of Ledge Point. Clarkson, before his downfall had been there for week-ends.
"I fancy that is about all I need," Manley said. "What was the old gentleman like?"
Mrs. Kerr apparently had a good memory and a fair eye for detail. She gave Manley a description of her customer that pleased him very much, in fact, the more he thought it over the more pleased he was. He quitted the shop in a very pleasant frame of mind.
"Good day," he said. "Remember my warning. A snug business like this will pay you far better in the long run than, well, business of another kind."
With this benign expression of his good will Manley made his way back to the station.
"It's a complicated business still," he told himself. "But I have had a real lucky day, and unless things go very much against me I shall have the tangles all out in a day or two. It was a real piece of good fortune stumbling up against Clarkson in this way. I wonder if he really understands, or is he merely a pawn in the game? If so, what is he doing at Fairford? And why?"
Manley chuckled to himself as he lighted a cigar.
"And why did Mr. Spencer take all that trouble? Why did he go out of his way to forge a telegram and send the blessed thing to himself?"
Manley asked himself the question again and again. Why had Paul Spencer taken all this trouble and why had he addressed that telegram to himself. There was very little doubt that he had adopted such a course. He had discovered where the paper was to be obtained from his disreputable clerk Clarkson, and the rest had emanated from his disordered brain. More or less from the first, Manley had suspected suicide here, and now he began to be pretty sure of it. If he had known anything of the movements of the eccentric John Smith he might have modified his views, but then no such person existed so far as he was concerned.
Paul Spencer had thrown himself over the cliff in sight of his partner, and the revolver shot that had so impressed Grant was a theatrical effect merely. Spencer had put himself out of the way in such a manner as pointed to a violent end. He had escaped the stigma of suicide. There are many madmen who take their lives and yet are sane enough to desire a decent burial. Doubtless Paul Spencer was one of them. To all practical purposes, then, Manley had solved the mystery. Spencer had committed suicide. The suggestion that he had been murdered was absurd. All the same there were one or two little points to be cleared up before Manley laid the result of his investigations before Scotland Yard. He had to sec Clarkson first. He could not imagine what the discharged clerk was doing in Fairford. His presence there was more or less suspicious. He might be up to some mischief. But the first thing was to prove beyond a doubt that Spencer's mysterious telegram was a forgery. A visit to the post office at Fairford would settle that question. Manley called there without delay.
The postmaster was quite definite in his statement. No such message had been received on the day of Mr. Paul Spencer's death. It was open for Manley to inspect the file if he liked. But Manley was satisfied. The assurance of the Post master was good enough for him.
"I am much obliged to you," he said. "There is no need to trouble you any further. This is more or less of a secret, so please say nothing about it."
It was very late before Manley made his next move. A good deal of work needing urgent attention had presented itself in his absence. Clarkson could wait. It was long past midnight before Manley found himself adjacent to the Fairford docks. There had been a good deal of trouble in the case of a Norwegian sailor, but that was satisfactorily arranged.
Manley walked into the common lodging house and asked for the landlady. She came to him amiably enough. It was no part of her policy to quarrel with the police. Mr. Manley was quite welcome to all the information that she could give him. At the mention of Clarkson's name she looked puzzled. Evidently it conveyed nothing to her.
"Haven't got anybody of that name here, sir," she said.
"Perhaps not," Manley admitted. "At least not under that name. He's a man about 40, seedy looking, and dressed in frock coat and silk hat. Like a broken-down clerk."
All this was more or less guess work, but it served the purpose. The woman's face cleared.
"I know him," she said. "Only he calls himself Dent. He's only been here two days. He shares the same room with the foreign gentleman with the white hair."
"Um. One of your aristocratic customers who has a private sitting and bed room. What's he like?"
The woman didn't know. He was rather old, he had white hair, and the man Dent had told her he was a foreigner who understood very little English. He looked after his own room, indeed in a common lodging-house the cleaning out of the rooms was a mere fiction. Manley listened with interest. He had made up his mind to interview the white haired old gentleman who spoke very little English. His experience told him that the presence of such a man close to the docks frequently meant a fugitive escaping from justice. He asked a few more questions about Clarkson and his ways and habits when he left the house. Clarkson was not in, and he did not say that he was coming back again.
He met his man later on in the street outside the lodging-house. He was quite sure that the seedy looking individual in the shabby frock coat was Clarkson. He touched him on the shoulder. Clarkson started and cried out. The man was horribly afraid of something.
"What do you want with me?" he swaggered. "And who are you, anyway?"
"Your name is Clarkson?" Manley asked. "Late in the employ of Spencer and Grant?"
"Nothing of the kind," Clarkson said. "My name is Dent. I am a man of private means."
"With a weakness for passing your time in common lodging-houses," Manley said dryly. "Now I happen to be the chief of the Fairford police, and I warn you if you persist in calling yourself Dent, I shall regard that as what diplomatists call an 'unfriendly act,' and I will take measures accordingly. I shall be compelled to ask you to accompany me to the police station. But if you tell me freely that you are Clarkson I can make it easy for you. I won't even say anything about your friend, Mrs. Kerr, of East Croydon. Now are yon going to be sensible?"
Clarkson suddenly decided that he was.
Manley carried too many guns for him altogether.
"I don't mind admitting that I'm down on my luck," he said. "My own fault, perhaps. Too much drinking and betting. But I was a good servant to the firm for many years. What can I do for you?"
"For the present, nothing," Manley said. "Go as far as the police station and wait for me. I've got a good many questions to ask you in relation to that stationer's shop in East Croydon. If I am not back at the end of half an hour, return and meet me at your lodgings. No, I don't want you to go back for anything; I want you to get down to the police station as soon as possible."
Clarkson shuffled off more or less uncomfortably. He was very disturbed and uneasy in his mind. He mistrusted all this sudden friendliness on the part of the police. It did not occur to him that Manley had contrived all this with the intention of getting an interview with the white haired old gentleman who had so poor a knowledge of the English language. Manley called for the landlady again and made his meaning quite clear. He wanted to know where the elderly gentleman was to be found and as to the rest he could interview him himself.
He knocked at the door of the room twice before any reply came. Somebody was shifting about inside, somebody who was trying to fasten the door. Manley was just a little too quick for that. He pushed his way into the bedroom. There were a few sticks of furniture; a chair or two, and a couple of uninviting-looking beds against the wall. The lavatory arrangements were primitive; a cracked piece of looking-glass was nailed up over the fireplace. It was not luxurious, but as much as the ordinary man could expect for sixpence per night.
A slender white man with a mass of white hair and eyes hidden by big spectacles stood before Manley. He seemed to be horribly frightened, for he was trembling from head to foot. For a man who could afford nothing better in the way of lodging than this he was remarkably well dressed. His boots were good, and across his waistcoat was a gold chain. He made some poor show of indignation.
"Not a bit of use," Manley said. "Unless I am greatly mistaken you know me. I am pretty sure you recognised me by the aid of that miserable lamp of yours. And you understand every word that I say, though you pretend to know no English. Take that wig off!"
"This is an outrage!" the stranger protested in English as good as Manley's own. "It is no business of yours that I prefer to live in a place like this."
"Oh, yes, it is," Manley said, coldly. "I am the head of the police here. You are obviously in disguise and in hiding; moreover, you have taken up your temporary abode somewhere near the docks! That is just what a man would do who was trying to escape from justice. I should be lacking in my duty if I did not interfere. I may be wrong, of course, and if so, I shall be happy to apologise."
The stranger protested again. He discarded his angry manner, he became affecting. Manley dropped into one of the chairs and watched him. On the whole he was enjoying himself. Something like half an hour passed, then there was the sound of somebody coming up the stairs. The door burst open, and Clarkson came in closely followed by Sir Bruce Leverton and Philip Scarsdale.
"Ah, I thought so," Scarsdale exclaimed. "I could have sworn that—but who is this. I begin to be afraid that we have made some mistake, after all. Oh, Manley, what are you doing here?"
"I am probably here on the same errand as yourself, sir," Manley said. "I am investigating into the matter of the disappearance of Mr. Spencer, and that has led me to this house. I was just having a most interesting argument with this gentleman when you came in. It was he who called out to you. I want his assistance, and I am sanguine that I shall have it."
Manley spoke with one eye on Clarkson who had dropped discontentedly on one of the chairs.
"It's all up," he said, with a grin. "It's all up; you may as well admit it."
"Really. I fancy that our friend is right," Manley said cheerfully. "All the same, it is impossible to settle the affair here. We had better have a cab and go as far as Ledge Point."
The stranger in the white hair broke out furiously. As he grew calmer he snatched his wig from his head and dashed it on to the floor. The big spectacles followed.
Scarsdale cried in astonishment. "Spencer!" he said. "Paul Spencer! Now, what is the meaning of this? We all thought—"
"Don't you think that we had better go as far as Ledge Point first," Manley suggested. "This in no place for a long explanation. Besides, there are so many things to be settled."
Scarsdale suddenly thought of his telegram. He had been asked to go to Ledge Point that night. Doubtless there was some urgent reason for the message. "I should prefer it," he said. "I don't suppose that Mr. Spencer has any objection?"
Spencer said nothing. He appeared to have resigned himself to the inevitable. They drove in silence as far as Ledge Point and Manley rang the bell. He rang it again before the frightened face of Jenner looked out into the garden. Then Jenner gave a loud yell and dropped into a chair. His teeth were chattering with abject terror.
"Mr. Spencer!" he stammered. "It's either the master come back or his ghost!"
Jenner stood there shaking and quivering, his eyes dilated with terror. There was something about him that suggested guilt. He pulled himself together presently and made some effort at happiness at the sight of his master. But it was all wasted so far as Paul Spencer was concerned. He moved like a man in a dream, he was taking not the slightest interest in the proceedings. It was questionable as to whether he was aware of the fact that he was in his own house.
"That will do," Scarsdale said. "We will hear what you have to say presently. Meanwhile is there anybody in the house besides yourself? I have good reasons for asking."
Jenner appeared puzzled, as if he did not quite understand the question. He was gaining time; he strained his ears to catch any sound that might come from the cellar.
"There are the maidservants, sir," he said respectfully. "As a rule you see, sir—"
"Is there anybody in the house?" Scarsdale thundered. "You are found out, my friend: it is no use for you to profess this innocence. Are there any visitors here?"
Smith came forward, bland and mincing as usual. This was the moment of his triumph. To look at him, stout, florid, with the glass in his eye it was hard to realise that his brain had devised the whole thing. The fat little man was the hero of the hour.
"Let me answer the question for you," he said. "I am John Smith—of London. You may have heard of me."
"I think I have had that honour," Scarsdale smiled. "Very good, sir. In that case we can get on. I have taken a great interest in this business, in fact I began to take an interest in it before Mr. Spencer vanished. I may go further and say that indirectly I am the cause of that mysterious disappearance. I shall have a good deal to say about it presently—in fact, the explanation of the whole story rests with me. But I cannot do myself justice unless I have a proper and complete audience. Jenner, produce the rest of the audience."
"I beg your pardon, sir," said the bewildered Jenner. "I don't quite follow you, sir."
"I said produce the rest of the audience. Partly owing to my endeavours and partly owing to a series of favourable circumstances, everybody interested in the fortunes of Spencer and Grant, and the fortunes of Mr. Grant and the lady he is going to marry are here. Fetch the other two."
"If you would only speak a little more plainly, sir," Jenner stammered.
"Surely my words are plain enough," Smith said gaily. "I want the other two. I need the gentlemen who are at the present moment in the cellar. It is a strange place to receive your guests, Jenner, but then there is no accounting for tastes. Bring Mr. Cardella and Mr. Morton from the cellar."
The fit of terror was on Jenner again. He was wondering where the little man got his knowledge from. He shuffled off presently in the direction of the basement.
"It's not in the least wonderful," Smith said with a smile. "Mr. Grant and myself have been here quite a long time. I knew that Cardella would have to come here. I had to take the chance of his coming to-night, but my calculations were quite correct. That is why I sent you that telegram, Mr. Scarsdale, I hope you did not seem it a liberty."
"Not at all," Scarsdale murmured. "On the contrary, I owe you something for sending it."
Hubert Grant advanced towards Leverton, and made a motion as if to hold out his hand.
"Let me apologise, too," he said. "I don't suppose you will ever forgive me for my conduct to-night, Sir Bruce, but I had to behave in the way I did. It may sound cheap and theatrical to say that the happiness of three people depended upon it, but that is no more than the actual truth. Unfortunately for myself I shall never be able to say more than this. If you think that you can—"
"I have already done so," Leverton interrupted, "I know exactly what I have to thank you for. But don't let us say anything more about it for the present. This is not the time nor place. So long as we are in the presence of your unfortunate partner, Mr. Spencer—"
Sir Bruce concluded with a lowering of his voice and shrug of his shoulders.
Hubert was too amazed to reply for a moment. Leverton knew everything—he could not have spoken like that otherwise. He must have learnt the whole of the bitter truth in some way after Grant had left Grant Lea. The way in which he alluded to Spencer proved that. And he was right, too. This was no time and place to discuss the reasons that had taken Grant to Grant Lea that evening. There were other and different matters to discuss first.
Jenner was coming with his guests. Morton approached with his head in the air and an uneasy swagger. Cardella looked more dangerous. His dark eyes gleamed, his hands were clenched.
"What does all this mean?" Smith asked, "Gentlemen, explain yourselves."
"I'll have an explanation with you presently," Cardella said meaningly. "We came here in search of certain information. It is not perhaps quite regular, but the matter was pressing. Jenner allowed us to search for what we wanted in the cellar. We have not found it. Good night, gentlemen."
"Very weak," Smith said with a critical head on one side. "Not what one expects from the chief villain of the piece. We cannot let it pass at that."
"Stand aside," Cardella said threateningly. "We have no further business, here. Do you hear what I say? You are not going to try and detain us."
"I have no right to do so," Smith smiled. "Nor has Mr. Grant, nor Sir Bruce Leverton, nor Mr. Scarsdale. But there is a gentleman there who can do so if he pleases. Mr. Cardella, Mr. Morton. Let me introduce you to Inspector Manley, head of the Fairford police."
Cardella started uneasily. All Morton's swagger dropped away from him.
"That is so," Manley said. "I'm afraid I must ask you for something more satisfactory. I find you here in the dead of the night hunting amongst Mr. Spencer's effects. The mere fact that Jenner admitted you and is part of the conspiracy does not make matters any better."
"It looks unfortunate," Cardella admitted. "But as we have taken nothing away—"
"Because you could not find it," Smith interrupted. "You are guilty of burglary. You are guilty of breaking open a case, for I saw the thing done. Mr. Grant and myself have been in the house as long as you have. We have seen and heard everything."
"It's a lie," Cardella muttered. "You have just come in with the others."
"Really! Jenner, go down to the cellar and bring up the case of Tokay. I mean the box that at one time contained Tokay. These friends of yours have deceived you. There is no wine in the case, it is true, but it contains something of still greater value. I am going to prove to Mr. Cardella that I have been in this house since he arrived himself."
Something like an oath broke from Cardella's lips. It was impossible to fight the thing any further. He nodded sullenly as Jenner looked to him for instructions. The servant disappeared only to return a little later on with the box in his arms and a chisel.
"Now open that," Smith commanded. "It doesn't matter about police seals so long as we have Mr. Manley in the house. Break it open and take out the bottles...There! Now, Mr. Manley will you take those papers from the bottles and let Mr. Grant examine them. He has more than a faint idea as to what they are, because the case has been opened in his sight once before this evening."
The papers were duly handed round. Hubert's eyes dilated. Here was practically all the missing wealth of the firm of Spencer and Grant. There was enough here to pay every creditor and set the firm up on its legs again.
Grant looked at Spencer for an explanation. He seemed to comprehend dully what was wanted of him. His full measure of intelligence was returning.
"Presently," he muttered, "presently I'll tell you everything, when those rascals have gone."
He lapsed into moody indifference again. No doubt an explanation of this amazing conduct would be forthcoming all in good time. Smith was the first to speak.
"This is one of the best situations in the play," he said. "Here we have the hero restored to his fortune again, and the very men who have done it are those who tried to do him the most harm. That is a fine instance of what man calls 'poetical justice.' After what has happened, there will not be much chance of Mr. Cardella getting the Quogga concession."
"I owe you this," Cardella said furiously. "But for you...And you came into my house as a guest. You drugged me in my own dining-room, you stole my keys and burgled my safe. And you are acting now as if you were proud of it. Proud of it!"
"So I am!" Smith said genially. "On the whole I should say that this was the proudest moment of my life. This is the finest play I ever constructed, and it has worked out without a hitch. Every character has dropped into his place naturally, he has required very little prompting, either. And the best of it is that you are powerless to do any further harm. After what I have said and in view of the papers that I have obtained from your safe, I can compel you to leave England. If you came to stand in the dock with your confidant Clarkson it is just possible—"
"That will do," Cardella said. "It's no use going on, Morton. If these people prosecute—"
"I am not going to prosecute," Spencer said suddenly, "I am going to do nothing."
Smith nodded approvingly. The whole thing was working out as it should. Spencer was not going to prosecute. A story of a sort would have to be told, but on the other hand Cardella had lost everything. There was going to be a resounding smash, so far as he was concerned, in a few days.
"In that case there is no occasion for us to remain," he said.
"Precisely," Smith replied. "You are very fortunate, and I make no apologies for the way in which I have treated you. Nor need I have any anxiety as to your future. You will get on wherever you are, though I need not suggest that your future career will not trouble London very much. I take it that you understand my meaning."
Cardella nodded sulkily as he left the house, followed by Morton. Smith turned upon the trembling Jenner and ordered him to bed.
"We shall not need you any further," he said. "I have no doubt Mr. Spencer will know how to deal with you in the morning. I am very sorry, gentlemen, to monopolise the whole stage in this way, but you see that it has been more or less necessary. You can see for yourselves how matters have gone. When I knew that Mr. Spencer had sent that bogus telegram to himself—"
"But how did you know that, sir?" Manley asked. "I flattered myself that that was my discovery. I found out where Mr. Spencer got his paper from. I have the name of the woman who supplied it."
"Yes, but the original idea was mine," Smith smiled. "Mr. Spencer consulted me in the first place. I could see that he was depressed and out of sorts. He acted like a man on the verge of ruin. He asked me to dine with him, he discussed plots and plays with me. It was a most interesting discussion. He put a case to me of a man who wanted to get away from his creditors, to disappear in such a manner as to suggest that he had either been murdered or had committed suicide. I don't mind confessing that the thing took a firm hold on me. I began to see my way clear. I came down here, I saw how an 'accident' could be arranged on the edge of the cliff and how the unfortunate could slip away afterwards leaving no trace behind. I worked out that telegram business. I had more or less forgotten the thing when I heard that Mr. Spencer had been killed. He had fallen over the cliff, he had been shot, he had had a mysterious and disturbing telegram. And then in a flash I realised that Mr. Spencer was not dead at all. He had merely put my scheme into practice. At first I looked upon it as a joke, but it was no laughing matter. I realised that when I saw what the thing meant to Mr. Grant and a certain young lady who shall be nameless. I was more or less responsible for what had happened, and it was my bounden duty to set it right. One must always have a certain amount of luck in these matters. My luck existed in the fact that I knew Mrs. Cardella intimately. When I found that her husband was at the bottom of the whole business I knew exactly what to do. And I have enjoyed it. I enjoyed the way in which I puzzled Mr. Grant on the night of Mr. Spencer's death. I enjoyed fooling Morton and Cardella. I actually made the latter reply to Sir Bruce here on the telephone exactly what I had to say. All the time I have controlled everything and made things go as I wished. If there are any more questions you would like to ask me shall be pleased to answer them."
But Smith's explanation seemed quite complete. The main interest now lay with Spencer. Why had he done this thing? Why had he given way when his firm was quite solvent? And why did he want to make it appear as if he were dead?
"The whole thing becomes perfectly plain," Scarsdale said thoughtfully. "We shall begin to realise later on what a deep debt of gratitude we owe to Mr. Smith. He has saved our good name and our happiness. But surely Mr. Spencer has something to say."
Spencer appeared to be struggling to arouse himself from a fit of apathy. He passed his hand over his forehead with the air of a man who is in brain worry.
"I am very tired," he said. "I am so tired that I can hardly keep my eyes open. I shall be greatly obliged if you will wait till the morning. I don't think that my story will be found to be very much less interesting than that of Mr. Smith. But I can't tell it you to-night. We shall all of us be better for a good night's rest."
The city of London had two sensations ready for consumption on the Monday. To begin with the great house of Cardella was done, and it became known in the course of the day that there would be nothing for the creditors. Cardella himself was nowhere to be found, it was understood that he had already started for South America on important business.
The offices were closed; already creditors were in possession in Park Lane. They had also raided his other residences.
Mrs. Cardella had had a quarrel with her husband and was going back to the stage. She had the sympathy of everybody. But she was not going to remain in England; she was not going to stay in London till people had had a chance to forget. She had closed with a tempting offer from America and was to sail without delay.
The story of the Quogga concession began to spread. Late on Monday afternoon, the warrant for Grant's arrest was withdrawn, and Hubert was back at the office again. By night fall everybody who was interested in such matters knew the story of the conspiracy.
On Tuesday it was common knowledge that Paul Spencer was at home again. The man had been frightened to death by Cardella, and he had vanished, leaving people under the impression that he had been murdered. He had been half mad with terror, he had taken a fortune along with him, and the fortune was now back in the business again.
Confidence in the firm of Spencer and Grant was returning. On every side Hubert was receiving sympathy. Before the end of the week everything was going on quite smoothly. But Spencer did not appear, it was understood that the City of London would see him no more. Something had happened to his brain, he had had a nervous breakdown, and he was going to live in the South of France for the future. It was a sensation for a day or two, and then it was forgotten for something else. The truth was known only to Scarsdale and Grant. The former came over to Ledge Point early the next day and met Grant there. It was perhaps prudent for Hubert to remain at home until his solicitors could satisfy the prosecutor that nothing was to be gained by the execution of the warrant.
Spencer joined the others after breakfast, looking terribly ill and worn. He had become an old man all at once. His eyes looked tired and weary.
"You are going to tell us all about it?" Scarsdale suggested.
"After all, there is very little to tell," Spencer said. "My nerves gave way. I got thinking and thinking over the plot that Smith suggested to me until I felt that I was bound to carry it out. My first step was to forge that telegram. I got the paper through Clarkson. I had a hold on Clarkson and I had a pretty shrewd idea that he knew all there was to be known on the subject of telegraphic frauds. At any rate, I got the paper and forged the telegram. To disappear was easy. I wanted a witness and so I arranged it that Grant should see my 'murder' really I did not fall over the cliff. I dropped on to a clump of bushes. I had a cord round my waist."
"But who fired that shot?" Grant asked.
"Why, I fired it myself. After that I pitched the revolver into the sea. I lay on those bushes until it was safe to get away. I had my disguise ready. I was going to slip away to some foreign part where I could enjoy the money of the firm. Cardella could not touch me then. I was terribly afraid of Cardella, I can't say why. But I was. I always felt that sooner or later he would break us down. And when I started for the Continent I suddenly recollected that I had left all the securities behind me in the cellar. I had come back for them. I went to Fairford in a common lodging house, and there it was that Clarkson found me. I had quite forgotten Clarkson. After the story of the telegram came out he guessed what I had done. He was a bit lucky to find me, but find me he did. Of course, his idea was to blackmail me, to live on me in future. Still, he could do nothing, and I could do nothing until I came back and took the box out of the cellar. I think Raybold must have known something, too, for he seems to be as big a scamp as the others. Now don't ask me why I did this, because I really couldn't tell you. Why do men commit strange and unaccountable acts? Why did I try to induce a young and innocent girl like May Leverton to marry me? Why did I prey upon the vanity and folly of her mother? By the way, Grant, that reminds me that in my desk—"
"That is already done," Grant said curtly. "Everything is settled and nobody is any the wiser. Scarsdale will excuse me if I don't talk secrets before him."
"Then I must not say any more on that account," Spencer went on. "My carefully laid plot seems to have turned out a complete and absolute failure."
"It would have been successful enough but for Smith," Grant said. "It might have been a great deal worse. And now what are you going to do? In common fairness to Scarsdale and myself—"
"Yes. I know exactly what you are going to say. There is not the slightest necessity to do so. I shall never show my face in London again. I am going off to the South of France to a little spot there where I shall end my days. All I ask for is half my usual share of the business, and you can get our solicitors to draw up the necessary deeds as soon as you like."
Scarsdale went back home feeling that the world was a pleasant place to live in after all. It was a glorious day, too, and the sunshine was getting on his head. He had gone off before his wife was down, and he found her anxiously awaiting his return. She took heart of grace from his smiling face.
"Something good has happened," she said. "Has Sir Bruce forgiven me?"
Scarsdale took Ellen in his arms and kissed her fondly.
"There is nothing to forgive," he said. "Had you not acted as you did, the whole course of our lives would have been changed. And they would have been changed for the worse. After all is said and done you did nothing very wrong, Nell. It was foolish, perhaps, and impulsive, but you acted for the best. You allowed your sentimental feelings to get the better of you. And what would this dreary old world of ours be without a little flavour of sentiment!"
"It will be about all we have left," Ellen said sadly. "Indeed, it won't, my dear. As a matter of fact, we are going to be a little better off than hitherto. But let us go in the garden and I'll tell you everything. I must have a cigarette. After that I will tell you one of the most remarkable stories I have ever heard."
Ellen listened with rapt interest to the story that Scarsdale had to tell. It sounded like some fairy tale. The world looked all the fresher for it afterwards.
"It's really wonderful," Ellen said "It seems almost impossible. And so we owe the whole of this to Mr. John Smith. We must have him down here to stay with us; we must make a tremendous fuss of him. But what about Hubert Grant and May Leverton?"
"Oh, I daresay that will come all right," Scarsdale laughed. "Grant seems to have done Leverton some tremendous service so far as I could gather. I don't know what it is, but something quite out of the common. He can't very well refuse his consent after that. I shouldn't be surprised if May came over with a happy story to tell."
Scarsdale turned out to be a true prophet. It was a day or two later that May rode over to see Ellen. She was beaming with happiness and joy. Her face was sufficient for Mrs. Scarsdale.
"I guess," she said, as she kissed the girl fondly, "your father has given his consent."
"That is it," May laughed happily. "Hubert dined with us last night. He did a thing for us that my father can never forget. And he did it at a time when he was in great danger. And you helped him, you darling! Without you he couldn't have done it at all. I can't tell you what it was, for it is more or less of a family secret. I went to the station with Hubert this morning, and he is going to have us all to dinner at Ledge Point to-night. Mr. Smith is coming down, too. And, of course, the thing will not be complete without you two. I hope you will not mind accepting an informal invitation like this."
"My dear child, we will come with the greatest possible pleasure," Ellen replied. "I am sure Philip will be as delighted as myself. How fortunately everything has turned out for us all. And now come down the garden and look at my roses. They are better than yours."
It was quite a happy little party that gathered together at Ledge Point the same evening. It was just as well, perhaps, that Paul Spencer was not there. He had already started for the South of France without saying good-bye to anybody. John Smith was there beaming with delight and taking a fatherly interest in the young people. It seemed to him that he was more or less responsible for their happiness, and, indeed, they were quite ready to give him credit for his success.
"We owe you a good deal more than I can possibly say," Sir Bruce exclaimed. Dinner was over now, and they were smoking their cigarettes and drinking their coffee on the balcony.
"The more I think over the whole thing the more remarkable it seems. A regular play, a drama, my dear sir."
"The finest ever written!" Smith laughed. "If I could only put it down on paper, I should make a fortune out of it. But, of course, those confounded managers would say that it was not true to life, and that it was not convincing. They always say that about—my plays. And yet I never constructed a single incident that was not founded on fact, and be hanged to 'em!"
"Those young people do not take the same view," Sir Bruce laughed.
"No—because they are filled with the proper sentiment!" Smith cried. "What a setting to the play this place is! And how happy they ought to be here!"
May and Hubert were thinking the same thing as they walked side by side down the garden. For them it had been a wonderful evening—the most wonderful day in their lives. They were very silent for some time—the silence of perfect understanding and perfect companionship.
"What a difference a few days make!" May said at length.
"Don't they?" Hubert agreed. "A week ago and we were as far apart as the poles. Four days ago and it looked as if our life's happiness was gone for good. And almost before we turn round you are here, and your father is sitting yonder on the balcony smiling approval on me. But we should never have accomplished this without our good friend, John Smith."
"I have not forgotten your courage and resolution." May said, with a tender smile. "We should have had to wait a long time if you had not faced your trouble so nobly. After all, there are worse things for a man than a stout heart and a Front of Brass."
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