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Title: The Honour of his House Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1000581h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2010 Date most recently updated: October 2010 This eBook was produced by: 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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The mists rolled back discreetly, the pearly curtain lifted demurely, as if conscious of the splendour that it concealed, then the turrets of Borne Abbey raised their carved pinnacles into the blue of the summer morning. The long white mantle folded itself slowly backward, and the house stood in view like some perfect picture with the great sweep of its famous beech trees behind. Where a moment before there had been nothing visible but the thin grey envelope of the mist and dew, stood now a long, low house, a miracle of cunning architecture, stained to a fine red-brown by the deft hand of the passing centuries. For this you cannot buy or manufacture, for it comes only with the passage of the years, and many a storm and many a shine goes to the exquisite making of it.
And there is nothing finer or more beautiful on the English countryside than Borne Abbey. It has all the strength and weight of a cathedral, with the grace and finish given it by such masters of the art of building as Christopher Wren and Inigo Jones and Pugin. Add to this the poetry in stonework of a Grinling Gibbons, and there stands out the faint picture of what Borne Abbey is like.
Indeed, the place had an atmosphere of its own. It lay there in the sunshine, glistening in the early moisture like some mythological beauty, fresh from a bath of sea spray, the sky bent, blue and grey and opalescent, behind the wondrous carvings and the quaint beauties of the twisted chimney stacks. For a whole three hundred feet the south front stretched itself along its flank of velvet lawns where the flowers were rioting in their beds, and beyond all this, the park extended almost to the sea. It looked like what it was, a cradle of heroes and men who have left their mark upon the blood-stained pages of history.
For nearly four hundred years the Cranwallis family had lived here, lords of broad acres and suzerain of a many goodly manors. Here was a house, at least, where the modern millionaire came not, and the plutocrat gave no trouble. It would never have occurred to Egbert Cranwallis, eighth Earl of Sherringborne, that such a possibility or such a contingency might arise. He knew that certain peers of his, drifting along the tide of modern democracy, had come under the glamour of the cheque book, but then, in their cases, poor men, it was oft-times a matter of sheer necessity. So far as he was concerned he had his rent roll, he could afford to play the part of the grand seigneur, and, to do him justice, he played it exceedingly well. It was no acting on his part, it was a clear dispensation of Providence, and he would know how to give an account of his stewardship when his time came to answer the roll-call.
The Cranwallises had always been men of affairs, and the present head of the family was no exception to the rule. He had no particular affection for politics; au contraire, he rather disliked them. He would infinitely have preferred to pass his time at Borne Abbey, but he had a profound respect for his responsibilities, and that was why he found himself at fifty-five a Cabinet Minister, holding the portfolio of Foreign Affairs. As Lord Palmerston said with regard to the Garter, there was no d....d merit about it, but if Sherringborne was not brilliant, he was sound and he was safe.
For the rest, he was a widower with one son and one daughter; the latter, Lady Edna, who kept his house and reigned over the Abbey with a despotism no less despotic because the little hand was sheathed so carefully in the velvet glove.
Lady Edna had all the good looks of the Cranwallises. She was tall and slight and dark, a little too haughty, perhaps, but then, what would anyone have in a daughter of a semi-regal house like that? Perhaps it was the shortness of her upper lip, and the slight aquiline curve of her nose which endowed her features with that faint suggestion of hauteur that a good many people found repellent, not to say awe-inspiring. But these, for the most part, were strangers—there was not a man or woman or child on those broad acres who did not worship the ground that Lady Edna trod on.
It was perhaps not altogether the girl's own fault, since this sort of thing had been her native air. From the very beginning she had been taught unconsciously that the human race consisted of men and women and Cranwallises. There were just a few others, perhaps, whose names were to be found in the fascinating works of Debrett and Burke, but these were few and far between; thus Lady Edna led a comparatively secluded life, indeed. Baron Rupert de la Croisa was wont to say that there was a distinct flavour of the cloister about her. But then the Baron was a privileged individual, a licensed old friend with a terrible tongue, and his declaration that Lady Edna would some day marry entirely outside her own station was a thing that he kept to himself. We shall come to Baron de la Croisa presently.
But, after all said and done, it was a great position and a great responsibility for a girl who had barely attained her twenty-first year. But, be that as it might, Lady Edna had entertained Royalty at Borne Abbey, she was pleasantly familiar with Ambassadors, and she treated Cabinet Ministers with a serene contempt that most of them undoubtedly merited. She floated on the crest of the wave serenely, a marvel of capacity; she would cheerfully have undertaken to share the responsibilities of a kingdom, and, beyond question, she would have done it well.
She came out in the garden now, from under the shadow of the great Norman archway, with the storied device of the Cranwallises cut deep in the stone over her glossy head. She stood there, chin up, inhaling the sweetness and fragrance of the morning, filled with the joy and vigour of life, and wondering vaguely why she felt so happy and uplifted. Then she passed across the lawns by the busy gardeners and returned presently with her arms filled with blooms all wet with the dew of the morning. McKillop, the Scotch gardener, sighed impotently as he contemplated this desecration of his peculiar province. He had tried once to induce Lady Edna to a proper sense of her position, but that had been four years ago, when he had first come. He had showed fight, of course, for he came from a race that always did. The combat had been a short and decisive one, and now McKillop could only sigh and bend his head before a force that had ruthlessly trodden down all the traditions of his ancient craft. It would, perhaps, have surprised the wilful beauty of the household had she known that McKillop regarded her as a dangerous radical with designs upon the fabric of society. And now he stood and pretended to enjoy it when Lady Edna congratulated him upon his roses.
"They are very fine, McKillop," she said. "But I have seen better. The Baron's, for instance."
McKillop, being a Scotchman and an honest man, admitted the charge with an inward groan. One of the crosses he had to bear lay in the fact that Baron de la Croisa could grow better roses than his own. And this man was a mere foreigner, forsooth, a sort of Spaniard who had come into the neighbourhood from somewhere on the Spanish Main, and, when he and McKillop had first met, the upstart's knowledge of roses had been nil.
Lady Edna turned from the discomfited McKillop and made her way down the long beech avenue till she stopped at the lodge gates and exchanged a word or two with the old woman who lived there. Then for a moment, attracted by something she saw in the road, she passed beyond the big hammered-iron gates that Quentin Matays himself had forged, and stood there looking across to the sea. Early as it was, a touring car came hurling down the road and pulled up almost at Lady Edna's feet. A dark, flashing, handsome face, lighted up by a pair of mischievous eyes, looked out of the window and accosted Lady Edna in a voice that had nothing lacking in audacity about it.
"Am I on my way to Lamport?" the visitor said. "My man is not quite sure, and I am a stranger here."
Lady Edna recoiled slightly. She knew well enough who was the beautiful woman speaking to her. She had met Senora Garrados once in a London drawing-room when that light of the stage was giving a charity performance under the roof of a duchess. She had been shocked and scandalised at the abandon of the performance, but then Lady Edna made no secret of her old-fashioned views on this point though she had frozen into herself later on when this dancing creature had had the audacity to address her in tones of absolute familiarity, and, strangely enough, the duchess and her entourage had seen nothing strange in the proceeding. But Lady Edna's manner had been marked enough, and the woman in the car had not forgotten it.
The two recognised one another with that instant hostility that only women possess. Lady Edna stood there, cold and statuesque in her classic beauty, and perhaps quite misunderstanding the humorous twinkle in the dancer's eyes.
"You are on the right road," she said haughtily. "It is impossible to make a mistake."
"I think we have met before," Ninon Garrados threw herself back in her seat and said.
"I think not," Lady Edna said icily. "Indeed, I hope not. You must be mistaken."
With that the car moved on. Ninon Garrados threw herself back in her seat and laughed whole-heartedly to her companion.
"Now, what do you think of that, Coralie?" she said. "What your Tennyson calls Lady Vere de Vere. But some day she will wake up, and then, if the right man comes along, ah, well, then we shall see things. She is a great lady, but she is not born yet. I have seen them before."
"But have you met her?" the girl called Coralie asked.
"Oh, I have met her, yes. In Society, bien entend. She seems to think I am just a circus girl. But that, of course, my dear Coralie, is the fault of her bringing up. I should not wonder, some day if Lady Edna Cranwallis and myself became good friends. But she will have to be born first, oh, yes. She could not believe, of course, that Ninon Garrados, the dancing girl, could be the daughter of a Spanish grandee. Ah, she has yet much to learn. But a splendid woman, my dear Coralie, a splendid woman when the right man comes along."
"She was very rude," Coralie smiled.
The dazzling Spaniard showed her teeth in a gleam which the great world had learned to know so well.
"Not rude, mia cara," she said. "So great a lady could never be rude. I wonder what she would say if she knew that, by the raising of my little finger, I could be her sister-in-law. Is she aware, think you, that Lord Shorland, her brother, is one of my little Pomeranians? I wonder if it would be worth while. It's a great title, and Borne Abbey is a fine historic estate. I might do worse, Coralie, I might do worse. And with me to train him, Shorland has distinct possibilities. It would make quite a play, my child."
"With you for the heroine," Coralie said. "I should like to be there to see the third act."
Lord Sherringborne had dispatched his bacon with a due regard to the traditional surrounding toast and marmalade. He had finished his coffee and, with a cigarette, was disposed to talk. For the most part, he enjoyed his week-ends more than those days when the calls of State summoned him to London. He did not see the necessity for an overworked legislature to be sitting in July, and was inclined to criticise the Premier who was mainly responsible for this condition of things.
"You had better tell Sir James Pallisser so yourself," Lady Edna smiled. "I don't see why you should choose me as medium for your criticism. But as Sir James is coming down here this evening for the week-end, can't you try and persuade him yourself of the necessity for a holiday?"
Lord Sherringborne wiped his white moustache thoughtfully. He looked just a little uneasy and disturbed, and he was not meeting his daughter's direct gaze quite so steadily as usual.
"Well—er—the fact is, things are not quite what they should be," he said. "Of course, I can't enter into details, I tell you too many Cabinet secrets as it is. But the Premier isn't coming down here at all to-day. There has been some breakdown in connection with stupid trouble in Tortina, and it looks as if America and Japan might come to loggerheads with regard to those Islands off the coast of Tortina. Nothing like a rupture, of course, but it's rather a complicated business, and I really ought to be in town looking after it. But Pallisser prefers to handle it himself, and that's why he's kept in town. But you can read his letter if you like."
"Then we shall be entirely alone this week-end," Lady Edna cried. "How jolly—I mean, how nice. I haven't had you entirely to myself since Easter."
It was a pretty enough compliment in its way, but for once Lord Sherringborne did not seem to appreciate it.
"Well, not exactly," he said with some hesitation. "You see, I have telegraphed to young Saltburn to come down. I don't think you have met Philip Saltburn."
Lady Edna partly rose from the table. The smile had died out of those glorious eyes of hers, and her face had suddenly grown hard and cold.
"Is this a joke, father?" she asked.
"Is it a Joke; my dear, why a joke? I am not given to what Shorland calls 'leg pullin.' Of course, in my peculiar position, I have—er—to make myself agreeable to many people—"
"In London," Lady Edna corrected. "Yes, but this is an entirely different matter. None of that class have ever been down here before. Besides, what possible connection can there be between us and these Saltburns? Oh, I know all about the father. I know that forty years ago he started in life selling glue or tin-tacks, or something equally revolting and necessary. I know that he is a great financier, with offices in every capital in Europe—sort of Rothschilds—Lady Marchborough says. But it is not very complimentary to the Rothschilds to mention them in the same breath. But really, my dear father, the audacity of these people is getting beyond all bearing."
"Unfortunately," Sherringborne sighed, "unfortunately, we can't do without them."
"Fortunately we can do without them here," Lady Edna said, with some austerity. "Oh, I quite recognise their power and importance. Baron de la Croisa said the other night that a handful of capitalists over a plate of filberts and a bottle of port could change the map of Europe if they liked. But with all their power none of them has yet succeeded in getting an invitation to Borne Abbey, and I am rather surprised—"
Sherringborne shuffled uneasily in his chair.
"My dear, you have no sympathy with modern thought. It is absolutely necessary for the Government to keep on the right side of Saltburn. He's got that Tortina business in the hollow of his hand, and really his son is quite a decent young fellow. Oxford and Eton, a really first-class shot, and a straight rider to hounds. I shouldn't be at all surprised if Saltburn decides to buy 'The Chantrey'—"
Lady Edna passed her hand across her face as if she were suffering from a particularly hideous form of nightmare. In a faint, small voice she asked Sherringborne if she heard him correctly. Was she to understand that 'The Chantrey' was actually in the market? She refrained from asking her father why he had dared to contemplate such a step without consulting her, but that was what her tone inferred, and the fact was not lost upon his Majesty's Minister for Foreign Affairs.
"What was the good of it?" he asked. He spread out his hands as if he were addressing a hostile gathering in the House of Lords.
"I ask you as a sensible girl what we make per annum out of 'The Chantrey'? It's a beautiful old house, and, of course, it has been the family dower-house for centuries. Look at the land there, what poor stuff it is. Nothing but gorse and heather—seven or eight thousand acres for a few sheep to starve on. If I sell the place to Saltburn we shan't even know that he's there. And I understand he is prepared to pay quite a fancy price for it."
"A fancy price," Lady Edna echoed scornfully. "My dear father, where do you pick up your expressions? It sounds like a ticket on a ready-made mantle in a Bond-street shop. If we are in need of money, which we are not—"
"Then we are exceedingly fortunate, my dear," Sherringborne said in his mildest manner. "I suppose you don't realise what an expensive luxury Shorland is?"
"I suppose Teddy is extravagant," Lady Edna admitted with the air of a sovereign asking Parliament for a grant for some pampered prince. "I shouldn't so much mind if he were a little more careful with his acquaintances. But then those society papers exaggerate so. I read a ridiculous story a few days ago about Shorland and that South American dancer. Something idiotic about a diamond necklace. By the way, I saw her this morning. Her car pulled up, and she asked me the way. A common, flaunting creature."
"Ah, there you are a little prejudiced," Sherringborne said. "I thought she was—er—I mean, believe she is quite well connected."
"And leads that sort of life?"
"Well, why not, my dear. It can be quite respectable, and it means quite a fabulous income, so far as I know. Ninon Garrados goes everywhere."
"Yes, I suppose she does. But she doesn't come here, and, of course, that story of the diamond necklace is a fable."
Sherringborne smiled a little guiltily as he lighted a fresh cigarette. It was not for him to say that he had the bill for those diamonds in his pocket at the very moment. He was almost ashamed to tell Lady Edna how frank the old family solicitor had been on the subject of Shorland's extravagance. But this was not likely to affect his daughter much, for she had regarded the Cranwallis exchequer to be as limitless as the sea. Where mere money was concerned her contempt was wholehearted, not to say picturesque.
"Does Teddy owe so much?" she asked carelessly.
"Over thirty thousand pounds," Sherringborne said. "And this is by no means the first time. Even our exchequer cannot stand it. My dear Edna, I really don't know where the money is coming from. The lawyers tell me that I can't cut down any more timber."
"You can't, you can't. Why?"
"Oh, it's all very well to talk like that, but the estate is not mine to do what I like with. I am merely what the law calls a tenant for life. And so, you see, this money must be paid. It would never do for a man in my position to have Shorland's debts thrown in my face. And that is why I have made up my mind to sell 'The Chantrey.'"
Sherringborne spoke with a resolution that he was far from feeling, and had Lady Edna been less wrapped up in her contemplation of the family dignity she would have seen how hard and grey her father's face had grown. She would see that there was something here beyond financial worries.
"Saltburn has offered me at least four times the value of the place," he went on. "Indeed, I don't understand why he wants to buy it at all. And I shall be glad, my dear, if you won't say any more about it. You will, of course, make Mr. Philip Saltburn's brief stay here as pleasant as possible."
Lady Edna inclined her head graciously. She was a loyal and dutiful daughter enough, but she was not pleased, and as the day wore on she began to be conscious of an uneasy feeling that something was going to happen, that her father was concealing material facts from her. The day slipped on decorously, as it always did at Borne Abbey, luncheon was a thing of the past, and Lady Edna was sitting down to tea quite alone in the great hall waiting for Sherringborne, who was out somewhere on the estate. She sat there in the cool brown silence, with the little flecks of light cast here and there from the armour round the walls, waiting, half-unconsciously, for the coming visitor. She had gone off into a day-dream of her own when she became aware of the fact that a footman was standing behind her with a young man by his side. He was a tall, well-knit young man with a face bronzed almost to the hue of mahogany, with the tinge of health showing beneath it like the rosy side of a winter apple. A masterful man, too, for his lips were close set and his grey eyes steadfast.
"I am Philip Saltburn," he said, respectfully enough, though his tone was easy and self-reliant. "It is a great pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Edna."
Philip Saltburn held out his hand with a frank suggestion of equality that touched Lady Edna's pride at once. Seeing that this young man was her guest, there was nothing for it but to yield her hand with what grace she could. And with it all she caught herself thinking what a firm grip Saltburn had, and what a deal of conscious power lay in those brown fingers of his.
Not a handsome man, Lady Edna decided, but his features were good and regular. He looked so wonderfully healthy and wholesome, and, strangely enough, quite like one to the manner born. Positively, there were no points in this young man's armour to pick holes in. His flannel suit was well-cut and quiet in texture, his grey silk tie was knotted with the careful carelessness that usually goes with a well-dressed man who is not even aware of the fact that he is well dressed.
With those few words he dropped into one of the great carved Cromwellian chairs and began to talk quite easily and naturally. He appeared to have travelled far and wide, he seemed to have studied most things that mattered to advantage. And though Edna had been steeping in an atmosphere of art from her childhood, her own knowledge of the great English masters around her was nothing like so wide and comprehensive as that of her guest. He put her right upon a minor point or two quite without a suggestion of superiority.
Clearly it was impossible to patronise this young man. He absolutely refused to see any line of social demarcation between himself and his beautiful hostess. He would probably have dismissed the suggestion with a smile.
"I have travelled a great deal," he said. "You see, I was born in Australia. My father emigrated there nearly fifty years ago. When I was old enough for school I divided my time between Eton and Heidelburg, finishing up at Oxford. It has been a pleasant life but I have never known what it is to have a home; still, I have had dreams of a place like this, and that is why I am so anxious to get 'The Chantrey.' I happened to see it some time ago, and fell in love with the place, and my father is buying it to please me."
Lady Edna sat there, looking thoughtfully into the flower-decked fireplace. Possibly this young man meant nothing offensive, but the time had come to show him that matters were going too far.
"I am afraid I am not concerned with that," she said haughtily. "The Earl was telling me something about it at breakfast time, but I am very much afraid, Mr. Saltburn, that I could not possibly give my consent."
"Indeed," Saltburn said with twinkling eyes. "Then I am afraid we shall have to do without it."
There was no antagonism in Philip Saltburn's clear eyes. He lay back in his chair, crossing his legs, and smilingly contemplating the cut of his neat brown shoe. Obviously a difficult man to anger, and still more difficult to turn from his point. Lady Edna regarded him with smouldering eyes. She would not lose her temper, of course, but really this young man must be made to understand.
"I beg your pardon," she said coldly.
"And I beg yours," Saltburn said. "But, you see, the thing is as good as done. Of course, I should like to have your approval, but if you withhold it, then I can only deplore your point of view. What a charming old hall this is. There is nothing that shows pictures off so well as warm, brown old oak. And may I trouble you for another cup of this delicious tea. We are great tea drinkers in Australia, but we never get any like this. I expect that beautiful Queen Anne silver makes the difference."
Lady Edna murmured something vague in reply. She had an uneasy feeling that there was something wrong in her attack, and she was uneasily conscious that she had come in contact with a force. Clearly this young man was not going to be routed by the feudal method. Perhaps he was a radical, but, in that case, he would have had no sympathy with old oak and Queen Anne silver and the works of the great English masters. Clearly it was useless to try and snub him, to open his eyes to the awful gulf that lay between a Cranwallis and a Saltburn. Perhaps it might be possible to let him down gently, to send him away with a clear impression that money was not everything, and that a Cranwallis was as far above him as the misty star is beyond the flight of the moth.
She would not, perhaps, have been so tranquil beneath the armour of her exclusiveness could she have looked into Saltburn's mind, for over the edge of his Sevres cup he was studying her with the calm critical approval of a polished man of the world.
For Saltburn was acquainted with foreign courts. As the only son of that great financial magnate, William Saltburn, he found all houses were open to him, he had basked in the smiles of royalty itself. And he was not dazzled, he was too serene and level-headed for that. He had his own ideals, he knew exactly the type of woman whom some day he hoped would rule over the dainty and refined home which he saw late at night behind the blue drift of his cigarette smoke.
And here it seemed to him that he had found the very thing that he was looking for. Phil Saltburn was no snob, it was no exhilaration, to him to find himself mixing with the great ones of the earth; his critical faculty was too keen and clear for that.
But he had never yet seen anyone who set his pulses beating and moved him to such a warm regard as Lady Edna was doing. He liked her pose, he liked the haughty stamp of her beauty, the curve of her lips, and the aquiline chiselling of her nose. She might have been one of Tennyson's heroines, and Saltburn had always had a weakness for the women of that great Victorian. As he sat there, balancing his tea cup, he was drifting to the conclusion that there was no occasion to go any farther, but there was no hurry, and, as far as he knew, there was no one in the way.
He came down to dinner in the same frame of mind, where he sat with Sherringborne and his daughter in the Rubens dining-room to a meal which was none the less elaborate because it was so exceedingly simple. Half a dozen servants in the Cranwallis livery moved noiselessly about the room; the shaded lamps under the quaint pictures picked out the exuberant flesh colourings of the great Flemish artists. Silver and glass were priceless in their way, and it seemed to Saltburn that he had never seen such peaches and grapes before. Not that he was in the least impressed. He stood in no awe even of the magnificent family butler, who, before now, had impressed a Cabinet Minister.
Lady Edna sat there, dressed almost severely in black, her arms and shoulders shining like ivory in the shaded lights. There was just one diamond flashing in her hair, an old ring or two on her slim fingers. From under her half-closed lashes she surveyed her guest. She was a little disappointed, perhaps, that she could find no flaw in his social exterior. Even the trying act of peeling and eating one of the Cranwallis peaches gave her no loophole for criticism.
"This is a wonderful old place of yours," Saltburn said. "I have been wandering about the grounds and admiring them, but what strikes me most forcibly are those amazing old yew hedges of yours."
"Yes, we pride ourselves on our hedges," Sherringborne said. "They were planted in the reign of Elizabeth, mostly by Sir Walter Raleigh, I believe. They have been useful for the purposes of defence more than once. Nothing could get through them. They are impregnable."
"It would certainly be a matter of time," Saltburn observed. "I think I could manage it if I wanted to. It would be a matter of breaking one branch after another just as John Halifax suggested when the question was put to him by Phineas Fletcher. Do you remember the incident, Lady Edna?"
Lady Edna looked up from her peach languidly.
"I recall it," she said. "But I never cared much for that class of literature. In spite of his many virtues, John Halifax was essentially a middle-class man. The story of his successful career might have appealed to Samuel Smiles, but it certainly does not to me."
"There you are wrong," Saltburn said. "It is astonishing what little interest people in your position take in the middle classes. You ought really to read more good English literature. It is clearly a duty that you owe us."
Lady Edna smiled faintly. Really, Philip Saltburn was an amusing young man. A little later on, perhaps, she would be able to show him that there was another point of view.
"I am sorry you think my education has been neglected," she said. "And you do, don't you?"
"I am perfectly certain of it," Saltburn said in a tone that had no possible suggestion of offence in it. "It is not good for anyone to lead an aloof life in these days. Of course, yours is an ideal existence here, but none of us ever knows what change time may bring. For instance, it would never have occurred to you a month ago that you would be entertaining the son of a man who started life scaring crows from an English wheatfield."
This was so true, such a thrust in the chink of her cold armour that Lady Edna rose and swept from the room as nearly on the verge of rudeness as ever she had been in her life. Saltburn watched her with a strange gleam in his eyes. Then Sherringborne rose somewhat wearily from the table.
"I will get you to excuse me for an hour or two," he said. "I have to see a friend on a little matter of business. You can finish your duel with Lady Edna meanwhile."
The brilliant primrose of the summer twilight had not yet faded in the west as Sherringborne stepped out on to the terrace and made his way along one of the trim avenues that led across the park. He looked a little older and less jaunty now, his head was bowed, and a mass of little wrinkles were netted around his eyes. He passed under those ancestral elms and beeches, he saw the deer creeping through the bracken in shadowy procession.
So far as he could see, he was suzerain of all the broad acres around him. There were farms and homesteads and cottages where every man called him overlord, and made him homage. And what reigning house in Europe could say more than that?
And yet Sherringborne looked as little like a happy man as needs be as he walked on his own soil that evening. He came presently to a little path, running between wide belts of shrubs, then he opened a wicket gate which gave upon a very beautiful and charming old world garden. It lay there secluded by the big forest trees; everywhere were well-kept grass paths between wide beds of roses. There were roses everywhere in the full panoply of their summer beauty. Up the slope stood a tiny creeper-clad cottage with latticed windows.
The place itself was a perfect embodiment of peace and quietness. One could imagine an artist or a poet living there secluded from the world and by the world forgotten. The door of the cottage stood invitingly open, and, bending over a few choice specimens of potted roses, two men appeared to be engaged in a heated argument. One of them stood up as Sherringborne approached and extended his hand.
"Now we will leave his lordship to arbitrate," he said. "Francois says this is nothing less than a Dijon rose, I contend that it is exceedingly impertinent on his part to contradict an expert so distinguished as myself."
"Francois is an impertinent scoundrel," Sherringborne smiled. "Incidentally, he is the only man I know who is not really afraid of Baron de la Croisa."
"Ah," the other said. "The hero and his valet over again. True now as ever it was."
With that the Baron threw back his head and laughed with the heartiness of a boy. He made a distinguished figure as he stood there in his plain evening dress, a little knot of ribbon striking a crimson note against the lapel of his coat. He was not a tall man, but he made the most of his inches; his thin, ascetic face might have belonged to a distinguished statesman or scholar. His shrewd brown eyes twinkled with humour, a thick thatch of white hair on his head resembled nothing so much as a doormat. In his left eye he wore a glass with a tortoise shell rim. He retained it with the manner of a man who is thoroughly accustomed to the use of the monocle.
A little old man with a ridiculously fierce grey moustache stood by—the type of man who has old soldier written on him in the plainest possible words. And Francois was a character in his way. He was cook and house keeper and eke laundress, too, to Baron de la Croisa; he worshipped his master with an almost dog-like devotion, though his criticisms of that distinguished individual never lacked anything on the score of frankness.
"Francois, you may retire," the Baron said. "The debate is adjourned for the present. Do you know, Sherringborne, that there are times when I am almost sorry Francois saved my life. He seems to think I belong to him ever since. To this day, I am sure it is a lasting wonder to Francois that my beloved Tortina once entrusted her destinies to my hands. But come in, my dear old friend, come in. You look worried and anxious. I am sure you have come here to consult me about something."
So saying, the Baron led the way into the cottage. It was a tiny affair with but one living room, and a kitchen on the other side of the door which was Francois' own private property. There were but two bedrooms and a bathroom overhead, and the sitting-room itself was furnished with almost Spartan simplicity. But there was a Persian carpet on the stone floor, the inglenook was priceless in its way, and on the bare deal table, scrubbed to a snowy whiteness, were a pair of carved branch candlesticks unmistakably the work of Cellini himself.
Along the ledge over the fireplace were china ornaments in black and gold, rare bits of the Ming Dynasty. There were pictures, too, on the whitewashed walls, a Corot, a Masonnier, and over the fireplace an exquisite Rembrandt. The Baron formed part of the picture, too, despite the correct severity of his evening dress. Anyone else would have been grotesquely out of place there, but de la Croisa struck the right note.
"Sit down," the Baron said hospitably. "Sit down and tell me all about it. Positively I have not seen a civilised being for over a week. Oh, I'm not grumbling, honestly, I am much more happy than I should be if I were back in the arena again. Providence never intended me for politics. I am too sensitive—what you call too thin-skinned. Ah, my friend, you did a great kindness to me when you placed this cottage at the disposal of a disappointed man. Perhaps I was fortunate to have escaped from Tortina with an income just sufficient for my modest wants and a few things like these to satisfy my artistic instincts."
He waved his white hand airily towards the pictures on the wall, his glance at the candlesticks was almost affectionate.
"You ought to have stayed on," Sherringborne said. "If you had remained in Tortina, Santa Anna and the present man, Altheos, would never have dared to do what they have just done. You would have beaten them, my friend, you would have beaten them, and had you done so you would have saved me a vast amount of trouble and anxiety. Because, if you were at the head of affairs there now we should never have had all this bother with Japan over those concessions." The Baron looked up swiftly.
"Ah," he cried, "There is trouble, then?"
"More than enough, my dear fellow. It's a thing I never anticipated. The whole crisis came on the Foreign Office like a bombshell. There was not a single cloud on the horizon. Those concessions of mine that I paid so much for looked like proving a gold mine. You see, though I am Foreign Minister, I thought I could handle them, for apparently Tortina was quite beyond our sphere of influence. And I am afraid I plunged rather heavily, and that I did more or less acting on William Saltburn's advice."
Again the Baron looked up suddenly.
"That man is a wolf," he said. "That man is out for himself. He thinks of nothing but money, and, mark you, it is all the same to him where it comes from. And so that long, greedy hand of his has reached as far as Tortina, has it? Well, many a hand has been burnt there, and why not Saltburn's? But go on, my friend, I interrupt you. I understand you are interested in Tortina concessions."
"Deeply interested," Sherringborne murmured. "So deeply that my financial future is in peril. And that is not the worst of it, Baron. I am a Minister of the Crown. I hold an almost sacred office and there has been no slur on the fair fame of an English Cabinet Minister since the days of Walpole. What would people say if they knew that the Foreign Minister had an interest in Tortina concessions? My enemies might say that I had used exclusive diplomatic information to put money in my pocket. And yet, three months ago, who could have blamed me for what I did? But now it is different. Japan has interfered because she claims a voice in the administration of those islands off the coast of Tortina, and Washington is alarmed. There are only two things before me. One is to cut my loss, which would mean leaving Borne Abbey, and the other to put myself in the hands of the Premier."
"Sir James Pallisser doesn't know of this?" the Baron asked.
"Not yet," Sherringborne went on. "But I must tell him. You understand, I have done nothing wrong, and even yet the trouble may be averted. There can be no question of armed strife between Japan and America, but if Washington is obstinate, then my speculation in Tortina concessions must be made public. It would be disastrous for me, Baron. I should lose practically all I have, at a moment when my boy has placed a load of debt round my neck. Disgraceful debts, some of them, which must either be paid or I must leave the Ministry."
It was a long time before the Baron replied. Then he looked into the face of his friend and his words came dropping like little bits of ice.
"And Saltburn?" he said. "Will Saltburn allow you to drop him? Remember the man you have to deal with. It is evident that he has been using you as a pawn in the game and if you come between him and his prey he will break you, Sherringborne, like a butterfly. I know that man. I knew him when I was president of the Tortina Republic, and I know that it was his money which was behind the revolution that drove me out of the country that I, a Spaniard, had practically made."
Sherringborne rose to his feet. He paced up and down the little sitting-room, his face white and wet.
"My God," he cried. "De la Croisa, I never thought of that. And here I have his son under my very roof at the present moment. And what about our old friend, El Murid? Surely he can save the situation? He remains in Tortina still, and in memory of the days when we were at Eton together he will do what he can for me. Because, you see, he knows the truth. He has the documents that would save my political reputation. Can't you get in touch with him? Can't you tell him the facts? Is it possible to persuade him to come to England? Because there is no great hurry. These negotiations may take a long time, and I may save both my fortune and my name yet."
"Then you haven't heard," the Baron said slowly, "You don't know that El Murid is dead?"
"Dead," Sherringborne cried. "El Murid dead?"
He dropped into a chair, all white and shaking, and a fine bead of moisture stood on his forehead.
"I only heard this afternoon," the Baron went on. "It came to me in an underground way, as these things often do. Our dear old friend is not only dead; it is worse than that. El Murid committed suicide two days ago."
"Ah, then, it is even worse than I feared," Sherringborne cried. "He was a brave man, always reckless of his own life, and always deficient in moral courage. He was just the same at Eton. I knew him well, Baron, we were the very best of friends. Can't you see what a terrible thing it is for me? It cuts the last prop from under my feet. Nothing can be gained now by disguising the truth. What can we do?"
"Only wait," the Baron said. "Only wait, and hope for the best. If we could get hold of El Murid's papers, then it is just possible that—I wonder—"
For a moment or two the Baron paced the floor in deep thought, while Sherringborne watched him with anxious eyes.
"Yes," the Baron said thoughtfully. "There is just a chance. But I can tell you nothing yet."
"Ruin," Sherringborne murmured. "Absolute ruin."
De La Croisa closed the door softly and lighted the candles in the great silver branches. As the crocus flames grow up one by one, so did the expression on Sherringborne's face stand out all the more white and ghastly. After all, it seemed to de la Croisa that his was the better part and the more noble portion. He had lost all, or nearly all, that men in his class value. His ambition lay buried underneath the roots of his beloved roses. Yet, all the same, his sympathy for Sherringborne was deep and sincere. His voice trembled a little as he laid his hand upon his friend's shoulder.
"This is very bad, my dear old comrade," he said. "Tell me all about it. How did it happen?"
Sherringborne spread out his hands helplessly. There was no sign of the lord of the manor here now, no suggestion of the smooth, strong man, who held, to a certain extent, the fate of England in his hands. For the nonce, he was an old man, with the red sword of a great trouble hanging over his head.
"I don't know," he replied. "It would be difficult to say. I am all misty and confused. I don't seem to be able to think coherently. I suppose it was Shorland's extravagance that started it. You see, I had paid over sixty thousand pounds for him already, and my expenses appear to be enormous. Not but what I should have had enough if it had not been for that wretched boy of mine. I began to feel alarmed. It was about the time that I first met Saltburn. In a way I rather like the man. He is so strong—so self-reliant—I never met a man who reminded me so much of Cecil Rhodes. It was he who first hinted of the possibilities of Tortina Concessions. And, after all, one must have one's money somewhere. I bought largely. I suppose I must have invested something like a hundred and fifty thousand pounds. I believed all that Saltburn said. I began to see my way towards clearing half a million.
"And now?" de la Croisa asked significantly. "And now I look like losing two hundred thousand. But that isn't the worst. There is going to be a big scandal over this, Baron. One or two of the financiers will be accused of fomenting this trouble for their own benefit—"
"They won't mind that," the Baron murmured. "In the present singular condition of society a thing of that sort is regarded with a certain amount of admiration—I mean admiration of the financier, of course. But the world says hard things of public men who dabble in these kind of adventures. They will say especially hard things about a Cabinet Minister who lends himself to this class of financing. They will say—"
"Oh, I know what they will say," Sherringborne exclaimed. "They will say I have been using my position to make money. They will point out me as the only man in the English Administration who has done this disgraceful thing since the days of Walpole. And the worst of the whole thing is that it is true. If everything had gone well, no one would have been any the wiser, no one would have cared. But as it is—"
Sherringborne paused as if unable to go any further. There was no blinking facts, there was no sophistry to varnish such a terrible indiscretion. And yet it had all seemed so safe, so sure, and certain. Even a distinguished nobleman occupying a great public position must do something with his money. Sherringborne had a reputation for hard common-sense, but, as a matter of fact, in business matters he was a perfect child. He thought moodily now of another great nobleman who had been recently dragged through the mud at the heels of an unscrupulous financier, but then, the nobleman in question had kept clear of politics.
He would have to resign his position, he would have to make a clean breast of the whole transaction to Sir James Pallisser, the Premier. The Opposition Press would get hold of this thing, they would not fail to make the most of it. In his mind's eye he could see the headlines of the posters staring him in the face, he could hear the yelp of the whole Opposition pack in the House of Commons. And yet he had gone into this simply as clean business, and never dreaming for a moment that the whole thing was to be elevated so soon into an international problem.
"Can't you suggest something?" he said. The Baron shook his head sorrowfully. There was nothing to suggest. They could only sit there, discussing the matter in all its bearings, and the more the vexed question was threshed out the blacker and more repulsive it seemed.
"I must be getting back home," Sherringborne said wearily. "I'll come over again to-morrow afternoon when my head is a bit clearer. Good-night, my dear old Baron."
It was not yet quite dark as Sherringborne retraced his footsteps through the park. He could hear the wind rustling amongst the beeches, he saw the pheasants scuttling across the drive: a covey of partridges rose from under his feet and went drumming away over the bracken. A belated labourer passed him, touching his hat in humble homage. It was all his, so far as he could see, even the beasts of the field and the birds of the air seemed to come under his sway.
A great possession, no doubt, a fine possession, but just at that moment he had it in his heart to change places with the humblest hind on his estate. He had an uneasy feeling that he was being made a puppet in the great game of financial chess which Saltburn was playing, but the reflection brought no consolation to him. He could see now how foolish he had been; he could see no palliation for his conduct.
Just for one moment trees and sky and earth and air seemed blended in one whirling mist, then his brain cleared again and he crept on, trembling strangely in every limb. A nausea gripped him, a kind of physical sickness that he had never felt before.
He put all these painful thoughts away from him with an effort. There was something like a smile on his face as he walked into the drawing-room where Lady Edna and Philip Saltburn were seated. A clock somewhere was chiming the hour of eleven with the sound of silver bells. Lady Edna more or less successfully concealed a yawn beneath her hand.
"You are very late," she said. "We have been wondering what had become of you. I am quite sure that Mr. Saltburn is getting tired of my society."
"You don't really mean that," Saltburn replied. "In any case, one would be a long time before one tired of a place like Borne Abbey."
Lady Edna hesitated a minute, then she held out her hand as she said good night to Saltburn. He rose, in his turn, and asked his host to excuse him.
"Late hours do not agree with me," he said. "You won't think me rude if I go to bed, will you? No, thank you, I won't take anything. I make it a rule to touch nothing after dinner. I think you said breakfast at half-past eight."
Sherringborne murmured his regrets politely. At the same time he was relieved that there was no necessity to sit there opposite his young guest making conversation. He wanted to be alone now. He longed for the seclusion of the library where he could think matters out. There were details in connection with the lamentable suicide of El Murid which he was aching to hear. It might be possible at this late hour to get some information from London.
He walked over restlessly in the direction of the telephone, he would call up Sir James Pallisser and see if the Premier knew anything. As he stood there with his listless hand upon the receiver, the bell of the telephone purred rapidly and so startlingly and unexpectedly that Sherringborne fell back. He could hardly recognise his own voice as he asked the usual question. Then there came above the humming of the wires the soft, smooth utterance of Sir James Pallisser himself.
"Is that you, Sherringborne?" he asked. "Oh, it is. I am very glad to have got you. Are you doing anything particular to-morrow? You are not. Oh, very well. I beg your pardon. Oh, yes. Well, I want to see you pretty badly, and I should like to bring Grant and Featherstone with me. I got my secretary to send a note round to the papers saying that we are spending the week-end at Borne Abbey. I suppose you can put us all up?"
"Delighted," Sherringborne said huskily.
"Yes, I thought you wouldn't mind. After all, there is nothing significant in the fact that two or three of us are spending a week-end with you. We'll motor down early to-morrow."
"Is there anything seriously wrong?" Sherringborne asked.
"Seriously, do you say? Oh, yes, I am afraid so. I suppose you haven't heard that El Murid is dead—committed suicide, poor fellow. Oh, you know it, do you? Who told you? De la Croisa? Very strange how the Baron gets hold of everything. I suppose he didn't happen to know any of the circumstances of the case. I am afraid it is a bad business altogether. If there was one honest man connected with Tortina it was El Murid. And I am very much afraid he has been speculating deeply with public money."
"Never," Sherringborne whispered. "Never."
"Ah, well," the voice at the other end of the 'phone said. "You knew the man intimately. Far better than I did. But can't you see this is a most unpleasant business for us?"
Still Sherringborne said nothing. He might have spoken then and saved himself many a sleepless hour, but he could not unburden himself over the wire.
"I shall see you to-morrow," he said. "And then we shall be able to go into the matter, thoroughly."
"You are right there," the Premier replied.
"Between ourselves, I believe that Saltburn is at the bottom of the whole business. Oh, may I bring him with me to-morrow?"
"By all means," Sherringborne said, and hoped that his voice conveyed nothing to his listener.
Lady Edna protested against the whole thing indignantly. There was reproach even in the way she handed her father his breakfast coffee. Sherringborne had passed a restless night, and, in consequence, made no appearance at the breakfast table until the others had finished. Already Philip Saltburn had set out to explore the park, so that father and daughter were alone.
"I think it is great presumption on Sir James's part," Lady Edna said coldly. "Of course, one is always glad to see him and Mr. Grant and Mr. Featherstone. But, really, Sir James had no right to ask that other man down. It is not fair to me. Fancy expecting me to entertain Mr. Saltburn."
"There are worse catastrophes," Sherringborne said wearily.
"My dear father, this isn't a catastrophe, it's an outrage. It has always been our boast that no people of that sort have ever entered the doors of Borne Abbey—at least, I don't mean it is exactly a boast, because the Cranwallises are not given to that kind of thing. We have simply ignored people of Mr. Saltburn's type."
"You don't understand," Sherringborne said with an air of one who is addressing an intelligent child. "There is a serious crisis which may have an effect on the Government itself. There is trouble in Tortina and El Murid, the only man we could trust there, has committed suicide."
"Oh, I am grieved," Lady Edna said. "Such a nice man, too. And quite an Englishman in his way. The last time he was here he was telling me of some boyish adventures you and he had together when you were at Eton. He was such a splendid shot, too. But why do you look at me like that? Surely there is nothing really wrong?"
"I am afraid so," Sherringborne murmured.
"It looks to me very like a big disgrace. Murid was bold and over sanguine—just the sort of man who would deliberately take his chances and reckon on his revolver in the case of failure. He was a fatalist, too. I am afraid, Edna, there is going to be a great deal of trouble over this. Of course, you don't understand business, but there are many millions of English money in Tortina securities which most people will now regard as hopelessly lost. It is a hopeless tangle, and I can't explain to you how this new bother between the United States and Japan is likely to seriously affect many innocent people in England. I suppose that is why Pallisser is bringing Saltburn down here. For the most part we are perfect children in such matters, and I expect Saltburn is going to explain."
Lady Edna was silent, if not convinced. After all said and done, her father occupied a great public position, and it was no more than his duty to see that these poor people were not robbed; but, on the other hand, the more thought of William Saltburn's presence there was an outrage on her dignity and self respect.
She had seen the man once in a London drawing-room, she had been repelled by his strong, heavy face, and the boom of his voice. He had seemed to dominate everybody there, he had held the whole room with a magnetism of a strong, and, so Edna thought, brutal nature. He had been a new type to this haughty young aristocrat, a repellant, fascinating kind, in form something between a shark and a tiger. She had wondered why one born to the purple like the Duchess of Cantyre could possibly have tolerated such a creature as Saltburn. And now he was actually coming down here, to Borne Abbey, above all places in the world.
"Very well, father," she said with proud humility. "Of course, I will do my best to make myself civil to the man. It will only be for a few hours at the outside. It is very fortunate that there are no women guests here, so that there will be no necessity for me to come in to dinner. As the dinner will be more or less political, you won't want me."
Sherringborne accepted the compromise eagerly enough. His career as a statesman had taught him the value of the compromise, and he was in no mood then for anything in the nature of a fight.
It was past the luncheon hour; indeed, it was nearly tea-time before two motor cars drew up under the great archway of the Abbey and the expected guests alighted. Lady Edna stood in the hall to receive them, smiling and gracious, so far as Pallisser and his colleagues were concerned. She swept Saltburn a frigid bow, and did not appear to see his outstretched hand. But she noticed the blunt, thick fingers clearly enough, she saw the coarse nails that had been bitten to the quick, and the fact was not lost upon her that Saltburn's palm was none too clean.
But if he felt anything he gave no sign, but stood there, a short square figure, with a hard red face and grim mouth, smiling with a certain cynical approval that had something of the auctioneer about it.
"Nice place you've got here, Sherringborne," he said. "Ah, Phil, how are you? Enjoying yourself, my lad? After all said and done, there's nothing like a fine old English home. I should like to wash my hands, Sherringborne, I suppose I can."
Lady Edna shivered. A wave of crimson swept over her face. She set her little teeth together with her eyes on Philip Saltburn. She noticed he was smiling to himself as if something amused him. She made a gesture in the direction of the bell.
"Oh, don't ring on my account, missie," Saltburn said. "I can find my way. There is a lavatory at the back of the great staircase, isn't there?"
"How do you know that," Sherringborne asked. "You've never been here before."
Just for a moment Saltburn showed signs of confusion.
"Oh, I must have read about it, I suppose," he said. "Once show me a house, and I could go over it blindfold a year after-wards. Come along with me, Phil, and give me a lead in case I make a mistake."
Philip Saltburn followed obediently enough. He stood while Saltburn stripped off his coat and bared a pair of arms that would have done justice to a navvy. He plunged his red face into the marble basin, and scrubbed himself until that coarse skin of his shone again. Then he turned to his son with a certain unmistakable pride and affection. He was proud of Philip, proud of his style and his manner, and of the friends that he made. But it was characteristic of the man that he never said so.
"Well, how are you getting on?" he asked. "Topping place this, isn't it? Handsome gel, too. That's the type of woman you want, old chap; that's the class you've got to marry into. Get hold of one of the first flight and settle down and found a family. You needn't worry about money—I'll see to that. You'll find her devilish stand-offish, of course, but I like that sort—dash it, there is an atmosphere about the whole place you can't buy. No change whatever in the last fifty years, except the electric light, and that is an improvement."
Philip looked inquiringly at his father.
"But you've never been here before," he said.
"Oh, haven't I?" the financier said. "It's a dead secret, my boy, but you had to know it sooner or later, and that's one of the reasons why I came down here to-day. Fifty years ago I was in the kitchen here. I cleaned the boots, my son. I used to regard the butler in those days as a much bigger man than Sherringborne. But that's all between you and me, and need never go any further. Look here, Phil, when I was a boy here I was a bit of a poacher. Only a rabbit or two, for the sport of the thing, but they got hold of me, and they gave me six months. That turned me against the whole tribe. When I came out I swore I'd be even with them some day, and, by the Lord Harry! it's coming true. I've got Sherringborne and Borne Abbey in the hollow of my hands. I can smash 'em like an eggshell if I like. But that's not my game. When you were born I swore that you should some day marry the present man's daughter, and, by Heaven, you shall. When I saw you and Lady Edna side by side just now that old dream came back. We'll humble her pride, my boy, we'll show her what a power William Saltburn is. Bring her nose down to the grindstone and make her grateful to know that a fine young chap like Philip Saltburn is ready to pick her up again. But, of course, if you've got your eye on somebody else—"
Philip Saltburn smiled.
"That's just like you," he said. "You think that you and your money can do everything."
"By Gad, you're right there," the financier cried. He worried his thick mat of hair with a pair of brushes; his coarse features shone as if they had been varnished. "You can do anything with money. But what do you think of the young woman? Is it good enough? Will she do?"
"My dear father," Philip protested. "You speak as if I was going to buy a horse."
"Well, it's much the same thing, isn't it? You'll have to put it on a business footing or the girl won't look at you. Oh, I know these swells. It'll have to be a bargain, my boy, and one she can't possibly wriggle out of. That's the way we do things in the city."
Philip listened with disgust and a feeling of despair. He knew it was almost impossible to bring his father round to his own view, but, at any rate, he must try, unless the ruins of his hopes were to lie about his feet.
"Lady Edna is charming," he said. "It isn't only her beauty that attracts me, it's her mind as well. She's a class apart, a survival, if you like, but an exquisite survival, and if I am fortunate enough to win her for my wife I shall regard myself as one of the luckiest of men."
William showed his strong teeth in a grin. "Then, dash it all, you shall marry her," he said. "Never mind what she says, I shall come in at the proper time."
Philip Saltburn fairly winced. He was fond enough of his father, he admired his many sterling qualities, but that brutal bluntness jarred him terribly now. There were many ways of arriving at the definite issue without that crudeness of speech which was almost a vice, as far as the capitalist was concerned.
He had been a successful man all his life, he was used to giving and taking blows, and he loved to fight for the pure joy of it. With him finesse and diplomacy were mere symbolic, and, because of this, he had gone direct to the point.
And, with it all, he had an almost boundless ambition. No man knew better the value of money, and money to him meant power, and nothing else. Personally, his habits were the simplest, and he could work for fourteen hours at a stretch on a biscuit and a cup of tea. He could smoke the best of cigars if they were offered him, but, if there was no tobacco to be had, it was all the same to him. Nothing mattered except money and good health, and the ability to lay out his millions to the best advantage.
He knew perfectly well that kings were powerless without it, and that an army might be paralysed for the need of it. By the side of a great capitalist a statesman or a general was a mere child. Money, money was everything. The time would come when he and others of his clan would be masters of the world, and they were showing it now in the way in which they were engineering that embroglio in Tortina. And Saltburn was perfectly frank in his aim—he talked of it in the hall at tea-time, he discussed it until the dinner bell rang. It was nothing to him that Lady Edna sat regarding him with a certain contemptuous disdain. The long purple lash swept her cheek as she listened, merely tolerating this crude specimen of humanity, and Philip writhed uneasily as he saw what was passing through her mind. He was a shrewd young man enough in his way, he knew the great world and its traditions far better than his father, and he was not blind to the fact that the noisy capitalist was doing his cause more harm than good.
For William Saltburn, from Lady Edna's point of view, would have been a terrible and monstrous affliction in the way of a father-in-law. It seemed to Philip that he could see these thoughts in the sleepy droop of her eyelids, and the slightly disdainful curve of her lips as she listened. He was glad enough when the first dinner bell rang and that big voice ceased to magnetise Saltburn's fellow guests.
Sir James Pallisser seemed to be frankly amused. Sherringborne was absorbed in a reverie, and the other two Government members listened with a boredom that they were at no pains to conceal. Occasionally Saltburn's keen eye flashed over them. His mode of address was contemptuously familiar and his opinion of them too thinly veiled. Lady Edna rose and Philip followed to open the door for her.
"I will get you to excuse me," she said. "It will be better, perhaps, if I do not come down to dinner. You are going to talk politics, and politics always give me a headache. They seem to lead to nothing but argument."
Sherringborne came out of his reverie.
"There will be seven of us altogether," he said. "I have asked de la Croisa to come over, Pallisser."
"I am glad to hear it," the Premier said heartily. "I always enjoy a chat with the Baron. Do you happen to know him, Mr. Saltburn? A most charming and entertaining companion."
"I met him once," Saltburn said abruptly. "Old-fashioned, exploded type of politician, sort of dancing master statesman. A man who would argue with scrupulous politeness and call you out if you disputed his facts after-wards. He's the man that made such a mess of Tortina. But for him we shouldn't have had all this trouble between Japan and the States. Plenty of brains, but too impulsive."
The last dinner bell rang out through the great house presently—the one note of noise in that peaceful place where everything seemed to run on oiled wheels, and where trouble and care had apparently no rest for the sole of its foot. Saltburn took it all in as he came down the great marble staircase, he saw the legendary pictures on the walls, the flesh pink statuary, and the glowing cabinets, wrought by master hands. He saw the servants in their resplendent liveries moving about the house silently and discreetly like an army of soldiers in a fortress where discipline is the watchword of it all.
Yet, the air of it all, the nameless something which is so impressive, had no effect upon him. He liked it, he admired it, he would have given a good round sum of his beloved money to catch such an atmosphere in a home of his own. But he could afford to leave all that presently to Philip and his future daughter-in-law, Lady Edna Cranwallis. It was characteristic of the man that he should regard this business as good as settled. He was in one of his most amiable moods when the footman pushed up the big oak chair behind him, and he unfolded his napkin.
Dinner was served in the great oak dining room, the walls of which were hung with a Beauvais tapestry which had a history of its own. The shaded lights twinkled in the fretted roof. There were points here and there in the darkness where art treasures obtruded themselves with a certain discreetness which was an art in itself. The table was decorated with gold and silver and flowers, loose and moist and feathery. The well-trained servants moved silently, there was no sound except the murmuring conversation round the dinner table. There was an air and an environment here, a certain brooding of the spirit of the centuries, which gave the entertainment a singular charm in the eyes of Philip Saltburn.
He was interested in all the men about him, but most of all he was interested in de la Croisa. The Baron was wearing the colour of an order round his neck, the ribbon across his breast gleamed dully red. He knew something about this man, of course, knew what de la Croisa might have been had he chosen to be supple and court popular opinion. He knew that he was listening to a man now, whose conversation was witty to a degree and whose converse sparkled with epigrams. And he felt, too, that behind all the light some laughter de la Croisa was watching all that was going on with the keen, discriminating eye of a hawk.
So far as Philip could see, most of the conversation at the dinner table was being monopolised by the Baron and his father. It was the same presently when the long elaborate meal drew to a close and cigars were lighted. It was the same again when a move was made to the drawing-room.
"We must not altogether forget our charming hostess," Sir James said. "Sherringborne, if you don't mind, I should prefer to have my coffee in the drawing-room."
Sherringborne did not appear to hear. The suggestion was repeated twice before it conveyed itself to his intelligence.
"By all means, my dear fellow," he murmured. "What do you other people say? Then come along."
Lady Edna looked up with a smile from the book she was reading. She sat in a remote corner near a window, the curtains of which were not yet drawn, the fading primrose light of the July evening fell upon her face. Philip Saltburn crossed over to her. Sooth to say, he was just a little tired of the rasping boom of his father's voice. It seemed to him that that dominating personality was singularly out of place here. The room was large enough to get away almost outside the region of Saltburn's environment. Philip could see now that Lady Edna was regarding his father somewhat as if she were a naturalist with a new specimen on the plate of a microscope.
"What are you reading?" he asked.
"An autobiography," Lady Edna explained. "It is the life story of a successful man, a man who made his way from the ranks—that is, a capitalist. I always had a weakness for natural history."
"The type is new to you?" Philip asked quietly.
Lady Edna smiled as her eyes were turned in William Saltburn's direction.
"It was," she said demurely.
The room was faintly tinged with the fragrance of coffee. Then it seemed to Philip that Lady Edna was paying scant attention to what he was saying. She was listening, and yet not listening, to what was going on at the other end of the room. De la Croisa was speaking now, he lay back in an arm-chair, his legs crossed, his long, thin finger-tips pressed together. Once more the talk had drifted into a duel between de la Croisa and Saltburn.
"You are not altogether a fool," Saltburn said approvingly.
"Ah, I thank you," the Baron responded. "Quite so, my friend. According to this shrewd judge, I am not the fool he took me for. Behold, it is a great compliment to the poor old failure who has to take refuge in growing roses. It takes brains to grow roses. But that is a mere detail. And now, my friend Saltburn, with your permission, I will ask you a question. You say that the Tortina Islands business should be left to the financiers?"
"Only an idiot could suggest anything else," Saltburn said bluntly.
"Meaning yourself, perhaps?" the Baron asked blandly.
"With Van Troop of New York, we could settle it in a day. It's largely a question of bluff after all. These things always are. But we shall have to be trusted."
De la Croisa twinkled like a child.
"And Japan?" he asked. "The innocent Jap? Ah, you would not take advantage of those children at Tokio, and all the cards would be on the table, of course?"
De la Croisa spoke lightly, almost flippantly, yet the eyes which he turned upon Saltburn had a challenge in them. Saltburn's red face turned a shade crimson. He mopped his huge forehead.
"That is a clever shot," he said.
"No, my friend, it was no shot at all. You go soon to Tokio to see the Emperor, you will have to explain to him how it is that South America has seized this opportunity to make trouble. It is very unfortunate for us that poor El Murid is out of the way because he might have thrown a lurid light upon this complication. The Emperor will be annoyed, he will probably scent a breach of faith. It is possible that he may say that you have brought this about for your own purposes. He may remark that Santa Anna is a poor man or that he was a poor man till a comparatively recent date, in fact, there is no end to the things the Emperor may say to you. But on these things it will be possible to speak more plainly when we have seen El Murid's private papers. You made a bad debt there, Mr. Saltburn."
"Put it plainly," Saltburn said. "You might just as well accuse me openly—"
"Ah, a thousand pardons," de la Croisa said in tones of exquisite politeness. "You mistake me. I am grieved, I am desolated. Let me hasten to say that I make no accusation against anybody. I merely stated that our late friend El Murid was deeply in your debt, and that it was impossible to get to the bottom of it until his papers came to be overhauled. Then we shall see many things. I—the poor broken-down public servant with nothing but my roses and my cottage—tell you so. And there is going to be trouble in Washington. There is going to be trouble everywhere. Now, Mr. Saltburn, here is the chance to show your power. If I were a great capitalist, do you know what I should do? I should say to him—"
Saltburn was leaning eagerly forward to listen now. His wide lips were parted, there was a fine perspiration on his forehead. Then de la Croisa broke into a gay laugh.
"Well, go on," Saltburn said impatiently, "I am listening. I don't often pay anyone the compliment of doing that."
"Ah, no," de la Croisa exclaimed. "Possibly I have already said too much. But if I had those papers—"
"Ah, El Murid's, eh? I don't mind telling you I have seen to that. A friend of yours, wasn't he?"
"He was at Eton with our host and myself," de la Croisa explained. "An honest, straightforward man, and a capital sportsman. Isn't that so Sherringborne?"
But Sherringborne did not appear to be listening. There was a strangely vacant look in his eyes, his lips were twitching. De la Croisa asked the question twice before Sherringborne's eyes were turned in his direction.
"Oh, yes," he said. His voice was strained and hard, yet with a peculiar tremble in it that caused Sir James Pallisser to turn in his direction. "Oh, yes," he went on, "it was a chaffinch's nest with three eggs in it. Now, don't you think it is a singular fact that a chaffinch should build a nest in a candlestick? But you can see for yourselves there it is! A nest made of moss and horsehair, right under one of those branches."
"Good heavens! Sherringborne," Sir James exclaimed. "What's the matter? What are you talking about? Here, hold up."
But Sherringborne had fallen forward, his head hanging on his breast. All the light of life and reason seemed to have gone out of his eyes now. He was an old, old man, suddenly senile and broken.
"Can't you see it for yourself?" he asked petulantly. "It is there yonder, on the candlestick, and it is full of El Murid's papers. You must get those papers for me, Pallisser, take them out of the nest when the bird is not looking. If I don't get them I am ruined. I shall be disgraced."
He lifted his head suddenly, his eyes shining now with a new and restless fire.
"You must listen to me, my lords," he said. "I desire to crave your indulgence for a minute. For the last twenty years I have sat in your lordship's house. I have played a prominent part in the Councils of the Nation, and I must confess that this accusation has taken me entirely by surprise. Because I am not guilty my lords. For five hundred years there have been Cranwallises at Borne Abbey, and until the present moment—"
He broke off again, half-conscious of the horrified looks of those around him. They stood, one or another, as if to shield him from the eyes of his daughter. Lady Edna lay back in her chair talking quietly to Philip Saltburn, utterly unconscious of the ghastly tragedy which was being played only a few feet away.
"Pull them out, I say," Sherringborne said, querulously. "Pull the papers out of the chaffinch's nest. Do you hear, Pallisser? I shall be ruined, and the Government will be disgraced, and all because—because—El Murid's letters—the letters I wrote to him."
There was a silence, long and slow and painful. In the recess by the window Lady Edna sat chatting with Philip. The murmur of his voice reached the others, it seemed strangely inconsequent, so hideously out of place. It was as well, perhaps, that most of the lights there were shaded, that it was only possible for those close to him to see the ghastly, twitching greyness of Sherringborne's face. In the presence of a tragedy like this the little group standing round it seemed to be paralysed. Even William Saltburn had no suggestion to make, he could only regard his host with an expression of mingled pity and contempt.
"What is it?" Pallisser whispered to de la Croisa. "Do you know anything, Baron? Can you think of the cause of this dreadful business? What had we better do?"
De la Croisa shook his head. He could explain, no doubt, but in the presence of Saltburn he was silent.
"It is only conjecture, my dear Sir James," he said. "So far as I can see there is only one thing to be done, and that is to send for a doctor without delay. There is some serious brain trouble here—the result of a mental shock, I should say."
"What were we talking about?" Sherringborne went on in the same curious shrill treble. "What was the subject under discussion? I can't think of anything. Oh, yes, El Murid and those papers, and the nest—the nest."
He said no more, for suddenly the left side of his face drew up with a hideous contortion, his left hand hung limply by his side. Then, very slowly, he dropped to his knees, and lay on the carpet. He was breathing stentoriously now, the ghastly pallor on his cheeks had given place to a dull mottled redness.
"By heavens, he is dead," Featherstone cried. "What fools we are to stand gaping like this. Lady Edna!"
She had heard, for, on the spur of the moment Featherstone had called out the words with a hoarse horror; they rang from one end of the saloon to the other. Lady Edna's book slipped from her fingers, and went crashing to the floor. She came across the room now swiftly, her dress trailing behind her, her face all soft and tender and apprehensive. She took in at a glance what had happened; there was no occasion to ask any questions.
Just for the moment her brain moved half-unconsciously, for she was not used to trouble, and it had come upon her all too swiftly.
She was trying to tell herself that her father had been suddenly stricken down, and that for the first time in her life she was face to face with death. She knelt there all heedless of her dress, she raised the limp, grey head, and rested it on her knee. There were tears in her eyes now, her lips were trembling as she glanced up at the little group standing round her.
"How did it happen?" she murmured. "But why do I waste time asking questions? Sir James, will you ring the bell and ask them to send for a doctor at once; and don't you think it would be as well to lift my poor father on to a sofa? Shorland ought to be sent for, too."
"We will hope," Pallisser murmured, "we will hope, Lady Edna, that it is not so serious as all that."
"Oh, but it is. You know that it is—I can see that by the expression of your face. Please ring the bell."
The household was all in commotion now. It was as if the oiled wheels had left the track, as if the whole perfect machinery had fallen out of gear. There were sounds of voices in the house, a confused murmur of servants as they hurried from room to room, and, above it all, the sharp incongruous note of the telephone bell.
They had the stricken man upstairs now. He was lying partially undressed on his bed, still breathing stentoriously. The mottled red on his face had struck a deeper purple hue. Downstairs in the drawing-room, William Saltburn stood by the fireplace, his hands behind his back, reckoning up his chances. He was the only one there who did not seem in the least impressed by the tragedy. By his side stood Philip, tugging irresolutely at his moustache. So far as he was concerned he was profoundly shocked and impressed. He was recalling other conversations which had led up to the distressing scene which he had lately witnessed. He had more than an uneasy impression that his father was at the bottom of the whole ghastly business.
"What do you think of it?" William Saltburn asked.
"I don't know," Philip murmured. "It is all so unutterably sad. It seems an awful thing for the master of all this to be fighting for this life upstairs like an ordinary human being."
"Common lot," Saltburn exclaimed. "Got to come to us all sooner or later. What has become of the Baron? Has he gone home? Do you know I should like to get hold of that chap—just the sort of man I could make use of. Poor, isn't he? They tell me he lives in a little cottage here on about a pound a week. Funny idea for a man of his ability. But those Latins are rum chaps when their vanity is touched. Anyway, I'd give a hundred thousand pounds if I could get de la Croisa to place his services at my disposal. And you can tell him so if you like. You get on better with that class of old swell than I do."
"I should be sorry to," Phillip murmured. "I should expect the Baron to run me through the body. But, look here, father, is there really anything in this Tortina business? I don't want to be personal, but if our host is in trouble through dabbling in some scheme of yours, why—"
"You mind your own business," Saltburn growled. "Don't you come meddling in things you don't understand. Your game is to play pretty and make yourself agreeable to the ladies."
Philip stood there, profoundly dissatisfied. He might have said more, only the door opened at that moment, and de la Croisa came in.
"I think he is a bit better now," he said in answer to Philip's inquiry. "The doctor has come, and the first thing he did was to turn us all out of the room. Lady Edna would like to speak to you, Mr. Philip. You will find her in the library."
Philip needed no second bidding. He closed the door quietly behind him, leaving the Baron and his father confronting each other. Saltburn's red, aggressive face was strongly combative now. The Baron was regarding him through narrowed eyelids, his glance appeared to sparkle like steel.
"Well, are you satisfied?" he asked. "My dear Mr. Saltburn, there are times when it is necessary to sink the method of diplomacy and give nature a chance. It would be foolish on my part to close my eyes to what has taken place to-night. Tell me, why you should go out of your way to make all this trouble with my old friend Sherringborne. Surely he has done you no harm?"
"That is not the question," Saltburn responded.
"Perhaps not. But it is important from my point of view. This, I presume, is what you call business. There are people like myself who could give it quite another name. Fifty or sixty years ago when gentlemen settled their differences in a proper and orthodox manner I should have been compelled to call you out for this. I should have had infinite satisfaction in running you through the body and subsequently repairing to my cottage with a clear conscience. But now it is the fashion to employ lawyers to do these things for one. Still, it is an easy negotiation after all. You have only to revert to your original scheme with regard to the finances of my friend Santa Anna. Do you follow me?"
"Oh, I'm all there," Saltburn said bluntly. "I am ready to answer to the crack of the whip if you can find it. But can you find it? In the hands of Japan—"
"My dear friend," the Baron said softly, his eyes were half-closed now, he appeared to be examining the painted ceiling with critical approval, "my dear friend, is there not a Scotch poet who sings that there are hills beyond Pentland and seas beyond Firth? It is precisely the same with international politics. It is well for you to shield yourself behind that plea that this new policy on Japan's part calls for reconsideration of your position. But it is just possible that there are forces which may induce the Mikado to take another view of the matter. Now, in all your travels, have you ever been as far as Japan?"
Saltburn looked frankly puzzled. He was phenomenally quick at grasping a point, but palpably he was at sea here. And he did not like the cynical superiority of the Baron's smile.
"No, I haven't," he said. "I believe it is a beautiful country all the same. And certain to go ever farther than it has."
"Aye, and that before long, too," the Baron said with a sudden change of voice. "I suppose you have heard of the Prince Ito? He is at present in London, and—now, my dear friend, do you want me to say more?"
Something like an oath broke from Saltburn's lips. He began to understand now the power and significance of the force which was arrayed against him.
"I haven't thought of that," he muttered. "Strange as it may seem. Ito had never entered my calculations for a moment. And I have never met the Prince. Have you?"
"He is a friend of mine, of course. They are all friends of mine, Mr. Saltburn. Ah, the old man tending his roses in his country garden is not entirely forgotten yet. I don't want to interfere with your plans, but, I think, I really think, my friend, that this sad business will be settled on an amicable basis yet. A true patriot like yourself—"
"Patriotism be hanged," Saltburn broke out furiously. "It's only the fool and the socialist who prates of patriotism. And you may be assured of one thing—whatever happens—"
Saltburn's strident voice died away in a growl as the door opened, and Pallisser, accompanied by the others, came in. De la Croisa lifted his eyebrows interrogatively.
"Very bad," the Premier said. "Very bad indeed. The symptoms are exceedingly grave, and fresh complications may supervene at any moment. On the other hand, it is just possible that Sherringborne may be comparatively himself within a week. But it would be criminal to be too sanguine. Featherstone, I wonder if you would lend Lady Edna your car? She has taken it into her head that she would like to fetch Shorland herself."
"What, alone?" Featherstone asked significantly. "Of course she can have the car with pleasure, but it would be far more advisable for one of us to go. You see, Shorland is not the kind of man to put himself out for other people's convenience. I don't suppose Lady Edna will approve of some of his associates if he happens to be giving a supper-party or something of that kind, which is exceedingly likely. I don't think—well, you know what I mean, Sir James. Between ourselves, Shorland is a vicious young scamp, and as heartless and selfish as they make them."
The Premier shook his head doubtfully. He had heard many of these stories, which are usually the last to come to the ears of those most concerned. Lord Sherringborne was aware that his son was reckless and extravagant. But of the kind of life that he was leading Lady Edna knew nothing. She was entirely outside a world of that kind. As the little group of men stood there debating the point, Lady Edna came in.
"My father appears to be quieter now," she explained. "The doctor has asked me to keep away as much as possible. He has managed to get hold of two nurses who have just arrived. But, really, Shorland ought to know, he would be terribly distressed and hurt if he thought that we were keeping him in the dark." The others exchanged glances. "Of course, I know he is very wild and foolish, but with all his faults he is devoted to his father and to me. I must do something, Sir James, I really can't stay here. This inaction is positively maddening. Do lend me your car, Lord Featherstone. I can be back again in two or three hours at the outside."
Featherstone hesitated. He ventured to suggest that he should go himself.
"It would be far better," he said, "for a man to undertake this thing."
But Lady Edna would have none of it, nothing would please her except that she should undertake the journey personally. She was still pressing the point home when Philip Saltburn came in. He was already dressed for a journey, he was wearing a big motor-coat over his dress clothes. He seemed to have taken the whole matter into his own hands as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
"I have taken the liberty of borrowing your car, Featherstone," he said. "I have managed to get Lord Shorland's address in London, and with any luck I shall be back here by midnight. I understand that Lady Edna wants to go, but, of course, that is out of the question. It is impossible."
Lady Edna flashed a challenge from moist eyes.
"I shall be glad of your assistance," she said, "but, all the same, understand that I am going with you."
There was no more to be said or done, for Lady Edna's voice had in it the final accent.
Standing there, regarding her with a glance not altogether of approval, Philip Saltburn was trying to persuade himself that this decision had not filled him with pleasure. He had taken the whole thing into his hands in his strong, capable way; it never occurred to him that Lady Edna might be anxious to dispense with his services.
But she said nothing further; she hurried out of the room, only to return a moment or two later equipped for the journey. It was a fine, still night, with the moon riding high in the heavens; there was no occasion for anything extraordinary in the way of warm clothing.
They were slipping along the country lanes presently, the great car moving noiselessly at something over 30 miles an hour. The clear, white light of the moon shone on Lady Edna's face, and Philip could see how soft and tender it looked now. From the first he had admitted Lady Edna's beauty, but now there was an added womanliness to it which gave her a new charm in his eyes. It was gratifying to him to find that she had these moods, that, after all, she was nothing more than a woman with all a woman's weakness and charm.
"You are bearing it bravely," he murmured.
"I hope so," Lady Edna replied. There was no note of scorn in her voice now, she did not resent the pity, which at any other time would have called for contempt. "You see, it is so new to me. I have never had a great trouble before, and my mother died before I was old enough to understand things."
"You don't remember her?" Saltburn asked. "Very little. She was quiet and self-contained—so very different to Shorland and myself. I think that was my father's only trouble, too—till this one."
Philip seemed to understand. He had heard of Lord Sherringborne's marriage—that it had been merely a matter of family convenience, and that the death of his wife was no more than a source of profound regret to him. All his life had been arranged for him, everything had gone smoothly, and that was why, perhaps, he had gone down before the first great catastrophe which had come so unexpectedly into the sphere of his well ordered existence.
There are some natures to whom trouble is insupportable, and apparently Sherringborne's was one of these. Philip wondered to himself if Lady Edna guessed how deep the wound was, and how sore the trouble was likely to be. He wondered if she had contemplated even for a moment the suggestion of disgrace to the noble house of Cranwallis for the shadow of a sinister catastrophe to smirch its proud escutcheon. But though Lady Edna's face was sad and the tears welled into her fine eyes, there was no suggestion of this upon her features. She seemed to be wrapped up entirely in her consideration for her father. She spoke as to the way in which the news was to be broken to Shorland, she pictured him as helping her to sustain her trouble.
In spite of the depth of his sincerity, Philip smiled grimly. He knew something of the kind of life that Shorland was leading. He had heard the various stories. He was acquainted by sight at any rate, with some of Shorland's choice associates. He only hoped that to-night might prove an exception to the rule, and that Lord Sherringborne's heir might be found in comparatively respectable company. It was, at best, but a remote contingency, and when at length the lights of London began to twinkle in sight Philip began to regret that he had not come on his errand alone.
The mere fact of it being Sunday night was in Shorland's disfavour. London was comparatively empty, too, most of the great houses in the West were closed, so that Shorland would be more or less compelled to seek his recreation in the half-world which appears to hold so strange a fascination for the guilded youth of his kin.
It was exactly as Philip feared. The discreet man-servant at Shorland's rooms confessed an utter ignorance as to his master's movements. A few words from Philip, direct and to the point seemed to refresh his memory. He thought but he was not quite sure, that his lordship was supping with a few friends at the "Caversham." Philip groaned in spirit.
"I wish you would stay here, Lady Edna, and let me go to the 'Caversham' alone," he said. "It is not exactly the place where you would feel at ease. Oh, I don't mean to say that it isn't well conducted. But you will understand what I mean."
It was apparent from the inquiring look in Lady Edna's eyes that she didn't. Of this phase of existence she knew nothing. The glades of pleasure were but a name to her, her only impression of them was derived from society novels, of a certain class, and even these Lady Edna had been pleased to regard as a gross libel on her set. She shook her head resolutely.
"I am sure my brother, would not frequent any place I could not go to," she said. "You have been very kind and thoughtful so far, Mr. Saltburn. Surely you are not going—"
Philip set his teeth together. After all, he had made his protest, and perhaps it would be no great disadvantage in the long run for Lady Edna to learn something about the ways of her brother and his mode of living. He climbed back in the car again and gave orders to be driven straight to the "Caversham."
London might have been empty as it pleased the great world to believe, but there was no sign of any slackness of business either outside or inside the "Caversham." The big dining-rooms were filled with people resplendent in evening dress, there were women so daringly gowned that Lady Edna shrank back, half ashamed, and wholly disdainful.
There were men here, the like of which she had not seen before, red-faced, loudly-spoken men displaying a large amount of white shirt, and an overplus of jewellery. The scene looked gay enough, the glades of pleasure appeared to possess an attraction of their own, but with it all the gaiety was forced, there was something that rang hollow in the laughter of the women and the mirth of the men.
"I think you are right," Lady Edna faltered. "I ought to have allowed you to come here alone. Still, now I am here—"
Philip asked to see the manager. He had a few words in private with that functionary, then he came back with a grave air and a face stern and disapproving.
"You had better go back to the car, Lady Edna," he said. "Your brother is upstairs with a party that consists mainly, I understand, of ladies connected with a theatrical company in which he is interested. There is also, I understand, a Spanish woman—a wonderful dancer—"
"Oh, I know," Lady Edna murmured. She flushed crimson to the roots of her hair. "I—I have already heard of this woman, Ninon Garrados. But it is no time to be particular, Mr. Saltburn. I am coming with you."
She swept up the crimson-carpeted stairs along the corridors which seemed hot almost to the point of suffocation. It appeared quiet and decorous enough here except when a door a little way off opened suddenly and a wild cackle of laughter broke out and then stopped again as the door closed as if a lid had been shut down on it.
Lady Edna shuddered. She half-hesitated for a moment, then went on with a new courage and resolution. A waiter flung the door back and displayed a room where half-a-score of people were supping. The lights on the table were somewhat obscured by cigarette smoke, the flowers were already fading, and across the white tablecloth was a splash of crimson where somebody had overturned a decanter of wine.
It seemed to Lady Edna to be a panorama, a kind of dissolving view of smoke and flowers and lights with a few vacuous, foolish, yet refined faces of men peeping out here and there, and behind it the women, preening in all the colours of the rainbow, a mass of gleaming necks and throats and shoulders, and with it all that cackle of laughter that sounded too false and hollow, in a word, theatrical. Saltburn strode resolutely into the room and grasped Shorland by the shoulder. The latter's handsome face flushed with annoyance. His weak mouth shaped itself into a forced defiance. His eyes were slightly blurred, he swayed just a little as he rose to his feet.
"Now, don't make a scene," Saltburn said curtly. "Your sister is with me. She insisted upon coming. Your father has had a paralytic stroke and he may be dead at the present moment. We have a motor outside. Now come along."
The words seemed to cut through the thick atmosphere, the shrill scream of laughter died away. A dazzlingly pretty woman with a mass or dark hair rose from her seat and stood beside Shorland. Saltburn knew who she was perfectly well. More than once he had seen Ninon Garrados, the dancer, who had made so great an impression upon London. She was dainty and fascinating enough in her way, but just then her eyes were a trifle hard. She smiled in Saltburn's face.
"What is it Teddy?" she asked. "Oh, your father. Poor old gentleman. Had I better come?"
Lady Edna's face flamed.
"Is the woman mad?" she said. "Don't you understand? Oh, to think that I should ever have to stoop—"
"Drop that," Shorland stammered. "Dreadful shock to me, don't you know. But you mustn't talk like that Edna, you must be more civil to this lady. Perhaps I had better introduce you properly. Lady Edna Cranwallis—Lady Shorland. Mr. Saltburn, let me present you to my wife!"
The scarlet flame on Lady Edna's face ebbed to a deadly whiteness. It seemed as if some one had struck her an unexpected blow. All her pride seemed to have left her for the moment. She stood there looking helplessly through the blue wreaths of cigarette smoke at the gaudy butterflies collected round the table. But, be that as it might, they were behaving decorously enough now. One or two of them had risen, and with murmured regrets were making their way towards the door. It seemed as if Lord Shorland had not yet grasped the full meaning of Saltburn's words. And, apparently, Lady Edna had forgotten it in the face of that tremendous statement of her brother's.
"This is an ill time to jest," she said.
"Who's jesting?" Shorland asked. He spoke with all the truculent fierceness that is born of alcohol. "Do you mean to insult this lady?"
Lady Edna turned helplessly to Saltburn.
"I don't understand," she said. "I don't know what my brother means. And now all those people have gone, perhaps you will try and get him to explain."
The room was quite empty by this time, except for the four people interested. The others had faded away and for their consideration Saltburn felt grateful.
"Your sister has asked you a question," he said.
"Who—who the devil are you?" Shorland asked abruptly. "And what have you got to do with it. Some one I seem to have met before. One of my creditors, I expect."
With a sudden spurt of rage Saltburn brought his hand down on Shorland's shoulder. He could have strangled him cheerfully at that moment. But that he was not altogether sober was no excuse in Saltburn's eyes. It seemed almost incredible to believe that this weak and vacuous-looking youth with weak irresolute face was the future Lord Sherringborne. It seemed strange that a race of feudal lords like the Cranwallises with their long, honourable record of soldier, priest and statesman should have produced a decadant like this. He seemed to fit in well enough with this artificial atmosphere of wine and exotic flowers and the acrid pungency of cigarettes.
He fairly winced now under Saltburn's grip.
"Pull yourself together man," the latter said. "Your father has had a dangerous seizure and you must come at once if you wish to see him alive."
"Is that so?" Shorland asked. "Why didn't you say so before. And I know who you are now. You are the Convict!"
"We will let it pass at that if you like," Saltburn said quietly. "You must come at once. We have a car outside, and we can get back to Borne Abbey by daylight."
Shorland raised no objection. He did not express the least regret or sorrow, indeed, as yet, he was still obviously annoyed at this interruption of his pleasure. He turned to the woman by his side more or less eagerly.
"You can come along, Ninon?" he said. Lady Edna seemed to freeze again.
"Is not this jest carried far enough?" she asked.
The famous dancer smiled. It seemed to Saltburn that she was enjoying the situation. She was perfectly self-possessed.
"It is no jest," Shorland said with a dignity that would have been comical under any other circumstances. "I tell you that this lady is my wife. We were married yesterday morning. You'll see it for yourself in all the papers to-morrow. Ninon, let me introduce you to my sister, Lady Edna. Edna, this is Lady Shorland."
There was a certain weak dignity about it all which was sufficiently amusing. Lady Edna stood there as if trying to get a grasp on the situation. She was very white, there was a certain horror and disgust in her eyes, so frank and undisguised that it brought a faint tinge of colour into the face of the woman opposite. She could read Lady Edna like an open book, she knew exactly what was passing in her mind. And she was not blind, either, to the knowledge that she was mistress of the situation. She bowed and smiled, but she made no attempt to extend her hand.
"You are naturally surprised," she said. "And perhaps somewhat disappointed. Well, that is quite simple under the circumstances. Lady Edna, I am not apologising, you understand. And I am sorry to hear this bad news of Lord Sherringborne. I think in the circumstances, Ted, that I had better stay where I am."
"You're coming along," Shorland said mulishly.
"I think not," Lady Shorland said. "Do please be reasonable. I shall be glad enough to come down to Borne Abbey latter on, but just now I should be decidedly in the way. I wish you good night, Lady Edna. Mr. Saltburn, do you mind calling a cab for me?"
It was not at all badly done, as Saltburn was bound to admit. From his point of view, she was no more than a brilliant insect that is bred on a dustheap, but he was to change his opinion presently. Just now she shone in comparison with Shorland, there was no denying the fact that she was behaving rather well. At any rate, she was out of the way now, and Saltburn was able to return to his companions. Shorland's mood appeared to have changed for he welcomed Saltburn with a friendly smile.
"I thought I recognised you," he said. "I felt quite sure that you were the Convict. Edna, Saltburn and myself were at Oxford together. We weren't in the same set—"
"I hadn't that honour," Saltburn said quietly.
"Yes, we were a bit too rapid for you," Shorland said inanely. "Still, the Convict isn't a bad sort. He got me out of a tight place once. By Jove, it's a funny thing that you, above all men, should be here with my sister. Shows how times change, doesn't it? And for myself, I don't care a rap about the class distinction. If I find a chap or a woman who is amusin', I don't care a hang where they are born. But hadn't we better get on?"
Saltburn was nothing loth. It was no easy matter for him to disguise the contempt which he was feeling for this chattering popinjay who seemed to realise nothing of the trouble which had fallen on his house. It was a relief presently when Shorland went to sleep in the car and they heard no more from him during the rest of the journey. Lady Edna sat there, pale and silent. It was a long time before she spoke.
"You have been very good to me," she said. "I hardly know how to thank you. I thought I had had trouble enough already. But I never expected a shameful disclosure like this. I didn't know, either, that you had met my brother before. I am afraid he was very rude to you."
"I don't think he intended to be," Saltburn said. "After all, he only called me by the nickname by which I was known to my friends, and if you ask me what that name means, I am afraid I can't tell you. I have an idea, of course, but for the sake of my own peace of mind I have never inquired into the name too closely."
With this Lady Edna had to be content. She was afraid in the same way that the subject was distasteful to Saltburn and she felt sorry that she had alluded to it. She was thankful enough presently when the wide, grey front of Borne Abbey loomed out in the morning mists and the car pulled up at length.
Lord Sherringborne was no better and no worse. A couple of nurses were in attendance upon him now, and the great specialist who had been hastily summoned had passed his opinion. No doubt Lord Sherringborne had had a shock of some kind, perhaps he was a little overworked. But on the other hand, his constitution and the care he had taken of himself were in his favour, and if no complications arose, there was no reason why he should not recover. But it would be a long process, and, meanwhile, it was essential that he should be kept quite quiet.
All these details Lady Edna derived from the Baron who had remained at Borne Abbey pending her return. De la Croisa had slipped home for a bath and change, and he looked now as fresh and alert as if he had had a sound night's sleep.
He was full of kindly sympathy. He was only too ready and willing to do anything that he could. And ever since Lady Edna could remember, de la Croisa had been more or less like a second father to her. She allowed him to take everything into his hands now, she concealed nothing from him. It was a matter of deepest pain to her that Shorland should have accepted the situation with such easy philosophy. He had expressed no regret, he had shown no feeling. On the contrary, he had merely remarked that he was devilish tired, and that he would be good for nothing till he had been to bed.
"I could have put up with the one trouble," Lady Edna said. "Trouble is bound to come to us all sooner or later, dear Baron. But this disgrace is terrible."
Baron de la Croisa started. Just for a moment he was afraid that Lady Edna was referring to her father's trouble.
"Oh, I had quite forgotten," he said. "Saltburn told me. And so Shorland has succeeded at last in crowning his folly. Saltburn tells me that he has actually married the Spanish dancer. It is a queer world, my dear child, and you will be surprised to hear that scores of well-bred young men will be disposed to regard Shorland as what they term 'a devilish lucky chap.' He will be quite a hero in his own set for some time. And, after all, it isn't a new thing. Our aristocracy to-day is considerably embellished by recruits from the music-hall stage. And the singular part of it is that these women make quite good wives. Now, honestly speaking, don't you think that any woman is good enough for Shorland?"
"But a dancer!" Lady Edna gasped. "A woman who displays her limbs to vulgar people for so much a week. Oh! I don't deny that she is pretty and fascinating, and I don't deny that she behaved quite well last night. She might have come here with Shorland, and, though the temptation must have been great, she declined. I suppose there are worse specimens of her class than Ninon Garrados."
The Baron pricked up his ears.
"Oh. Ninon Garrados," he exclaimed. "I knew that there was a Spanish dancer, of course, but, I wasn't aware that she was the Garrados. Our dear Shorland his secured a greater prize than I thought. He has covered the family with glory. Really, this is not so bad as it looked. There are several houses in England, and quite great houses, too, where Ninon Garrados is a welcome guest."
Lady Edna lifted her shoulders scornfully.
"I suppose that is possible," she said. "I have read of such things. You mean the houses where they entertain new millionaires—dreadful creatures who do atrocious things at the table and are quite unacquainted to the use of the fork. But those sort of people never come here. It's all very well of you, my dear Baron, to take this cynical view of of it, but then, unfortunately for me, I don't possess your sense of humour. I thought we had gone too far when Mr. Saltburn was allowed to come here."
"Now, don't you say a word against him," the Baron said. "My dear Edna, Philip Saltburn is a fine young fellow. And you have already told me yourself how well he behaved last night. I understand that it is necessary for him to stay in their neighbourhood a little longer, because he is negotiating in your father's absence with your lawyers as to the sale of 'The Chantrey.'"
"I had forgotten that," Lady Edna said. "Indeed, I had hoped that my father had changed his mind."
"Well, you see," the Baron said deliberately, "it is a matter of business after all. And even people in the Earl of Sherringborne's position need money to pay their debts. And I happen to know that our dear Shorland's little amusements have been a great source of expense of late. Besides, your father won't be able to think of business for months to come. And that being so, where do you suppose the thousand or so a week to keep this place up is coming from? I know it seems incredible that a girl in your position should need money, but there it is. And that is why we are so anxious to get this matter of 'The Chantrey' pushed through."
Lady Edna listened with an uneasy feeling that something had gone wrong in the scheme of creation. She was learning her lesson rapidly enough now, but these distracting elements, coming so swiftly on the top of one another, disturbed her mental balance and left her for the first time in her life anxious and uneasy.
"As you will," she said. "I suppose you mean that Mr. Saltburn had better stay here?"
"No," de la Croisa said. "I don't suppose he would if you asked him. In fact, he has already made arrangements to put up at the hotel. He is worth making a friend of, Edna. I have a high opinion of that young man—despite his father."
It seemed to Shorland that he had a distinct grievance with the decrees of Providence. In the first place, he hated the country, and could see no beauty in Borne Abbey beyond its rent-roll and as a source of income for his rapid and unwholesome pleasures. So long as the Earl remained in the present critical condition it was imperative that Shorland should remain where he was.
It came as a shock to him, too, to find that at present, at any rate, it was impossible for him to obtain any money. The first interview he had with the family solicitor convinced him of that. The lawyer in question was somewhat of an autocrat in his way, he belonged to the heredity of family attorneys, and he possessed, moreover, an unpleasant habit of speaking his mind.
"It is utterly impossible my lord," he said. "I couldn't possibly go to the length of guaranteeing you any further funds at present. I may remind you that his lordship has twice within the last two years freed you at a cost of nearly 40,000 pounds. Lord Sherringborne is not a careful man, and your conduct is seriously embarrassing. You have your own way of raising money."
"Not another penny," Shorland said. "The Jews are fighting shy of me just now. I suppose I shall have to put up with it. But you really must let me have a couple of thousand, Gascoigne."
"I can't do it," Gascoigne said firmly.
"But, my dear fellow, you must. If I don't get it within a week I shall be in a devil of a mess. It's worse than a debt of honour."
But Gascoigne was polite but firm. He had done all he could, and he was not prepared to do any more.
"Then I shall ask some of my pals down here," Shorland said. "There are one or two who would give their ears to get an invitation down to Borne Abbey. They'd fork out the money cheerfully enough to be able to read in the 'Morning Post' that they were the guests of the Earl of Sherringborne. They wouldn't do for you, Gascoigne, and I expect that Lady Edna would kick up no end of a fuss. But so long as my father is laid up I am master of the house, and, by gad, I'll do as I like. I'll get my wife, and some of the right sort down here, and we'll show the natives a thing or two. Now, what will you have, Gascoigne? Brandy and soda, or a glass of champagne?"
Gascoigne packed up his papers and departed without even taking the trouble to acknowledge this hospitable invitation. There was trouble in Borne Abbey later on when Shorland announced his intention to Lady Edna at lunch time. He had fortified himself freely, and his intellect was none too clear. When he made the announcement Lady Edna listened in cold horror.
"You can do as you like as regards your wife," she said. "I suppose we shall have to make the best of this unhappy business. The only consolation is that it might have been worse. But I decline to receive any of your men friends here. The Baron has been telling me of one or two of them. You quite understand that?"
"I shall do just as I like," Shorland said obstinately. "And if you don't choose to meet them you can go somewhere else. In fact, the thing is already done. They will all be here on Friday night in time for dinner. Good lord, anyone would think you were royalty the way you talk. Besides, I am bound to get money from somewhere. It's the only way I can see."
"I think I begin to understand," Lady Edna said coldly. "You are going to blackmail these dreadful creatures. They won't lend you money in the ordinary way, but in return for an invitation here they are willing to accommodate you."
Shorland let it pass easily enough. As he was fond of boasting, there was no false pride about him. But even he was stung presently into a certain noisy explosive anger by the cold cutting contempt which Lady Edna poured out upon him. He raised his voice shrilly, it seemed to Lady Edna that he was disgustingly vulgar. And to this quarrel, quite inadvertently, Philip Saltburn came upon the scene.
He would have withdrawn with an apology for his intrusion, but it was too late now. And just for the moment Lady Edna was stripped of every rag of her family pride and dignity. She was prepared to go to any length to prevent this outrage. It seemed to her that here was disgrace to a noble name which would presently be discussed, from one end of England to another. And she was willing now, to grasp at any stray straw which would keep her floating on the muddy torrent.
"Don't go away, Mr. Saltburn," she said. "I am in great distress, and possibly you could help me. My brother insists upon inviting various people here—"
"Yes, and I'm going to," Shorland interrupted. "Saltburn knows one or two, by reputation, at any rate."
"Possibly," Saltburn said. "But if I may be allowed to give a little advice, I don't think—"
"What the deuce has it go to do with you?" Shorland demanded. "This is a pretty nice thing, to come from a man of your type in my own house. Fancy the Convict talking to me like this. Fancy Saltburn dictating to anybody. Let me tell you that you are devilishly lucky to be at Borne Abbey at all. Oh, I know what I am talking about. Why, fifty years ago Saltburn's father helped to wash the dishes in the kitchen here. Oh, it's true enough. I was told that long ago by one of the old chaps who used to help in the stables. And old Saltburn got into trouble over a poaching affair and they transported him. And now he comes back with his pocket full of money as if the whole place belonged to him. And here is his son, a pal of my own sister's, actually telling me whom I shan't invite to Borne Abbey. And before you say anything else about my friends, Edna, perhaps you will be a bit more careful of your own."
Shorland screamed this all out in the shrill, angry, tone of the weak man, emboldened by the stimulant of the moment. Saltburn stood there without so much as moving a muscle. There was nothing to show that he was feeling the sting of this outrageous insult except a certain quiver of his eyelids.
The whole thing was so uncalled for, and so bitterly unjust, that Saltburn would have been quite within his right to resent it physically. Yet it seemed to Edna that he was behaving very well indeed. She was beginning to understand now the difference between blood and manhood.
"Oh, this is shameful," she cried. "It is unpardonable. It would be worse if it were true, of course."
"It's quite true," Saltburn said quietly. "I didn't know that anybody here remembered my father. I suppose when he began to make his reputation certain of the older servants here would recollect. And he did not change his name because, after all, he had done nothing really to be ashamed of. To-day it would merely amuse a bench of magistrates. But, of course, we don't proclaim this thing on the housetops; why should we?"
"But the unwarrantable insult remains the same," Lady Edna said. "I decline to stay here and hear a guest of mine outraged in this way. Shorland, you must apologise."
But that was not Shorland's way. He shook his head obstinately. It was only when Lady Edna flounced indignantly from the room that Shorland began to realise that he had gone too far. Perhaps there was something in Saltburn's expression that disturbed him.
"You brought that on yourself," he muttered. "And, after all, it's no business of yours."
"That I am prepared to admit," Saltburn said quietly. "But Lady Edna asked me a plain question, and I had to answer it. Now, look here, Shorland, I don't choose to mix with the sweeps that you are fond of, but I know a good deal about them, and I know a good deal about you. You're going to ask Lionel Marx and some of that lot down here so that you can borrow money off them on the strength of their being your guests. I know you want money badly, and that's why you are going to insult your sister in this way, Now, for her sake, and to save her from this unspeakable disgrace I am prepared to make a bargain with you. How much do you want?"
"Oh, a couple of thousand pounds," Shorland said. "I say, you're a good chap, after all. Upon my word, I'm sorry I made such a fool of myself. You'll let me have the cash, and Marx and his lot can go to the devil so far as I'm concerned. Of course, I don't really want these bounders down here. I'll write and tell my wife to put them off. Of course she's a different matter."
"Precisely," Saltburn said in the same cold way. "I have nothing whatever to say as regards Lady Shorland. If you write her ladyship, as you suggest, I'll let you have a cheque in the course of the day. But only on that condition."
Shorland protested in his florid way that Saltburn was one of the best. He wanted to shake hands, he was profuse in his expressions of friendship, and exceedingly anxious that Shorland should partake of something of a spirituous nature. He escorted his guest down the drive as if they had been bosom friends. It was with an uneasy feeling that Lady Edna met her brother on his return.
"So Mr. Saltburn accepted your apology," she asked.
"Oh, that's all right," Shorland said carelessly, "I was an ass to talk to him like that. And he's a real good chap."
Lady Edna suddenly froze again.
"He persuaded you, then," she said. "You mean to say that those people aren't coming?"
"Just as well they shouldn't," Shorland said jauntily.
"Ah, I begin to see. Mr. Saltburn made a bargain with you. To save this great disgrace he lent you the money you want; you don't need to trouble to deny it. Well, I suppose I shall get used to these humiliations in time. At any rate, I can't blind myself to the fact that I owe Mr. Saltburn a debt I shall find it difficult to repay. And yet, it seemed to me a little time ago—"
Lady Edna turned away as if unable to say more. She was beginning to realise now how utterly impossible it is for even the great ones of the earth to get beyond their environment.
And she was beginning to realise, too, what de la Croisa had meant when he had more than once spoken of Saltburn as one of the salt of the earth. At any rate, Saltburn had saved her from the crowning shame, and by comparison the burden of receiving Lady Shorland was an easy one.
She came on the Friday afternoon, beautifully dressed, marvellously self-possessed, and prepared to enjoy the novelty of the situation. She was clever enough to make no offer of friendship as far as Lady Edna was concerned, and the haughty young chatelaine of the Abbey was bound to confess that there was nothing the matter with her manners.
She had behaved herself as if to the manor born through the long and trying dinner; she might have been accustomed to being waited on by a retinue of servants from her cradle. She could sing very well, and play brilliantly, so that de la Croisa, coming along the terrace, and looking through the windows, applauded softly.
"I have come to pay homage to the future Lady Sherringborne," he said. "She seems to be quite at home here, I—"
The Baron broke off suddenly. Then he examined the brilliant figure at the piano through his eyeglass. There was a peculiar smile on his eyeglass as he walked into the drawing-room.
It was only just for a moment that de la Croisa stood there taking in the figure of the woman, then he came into the room with his old easy way, and that charming suggestion of his being absolutely at home. They all looked happy and comfortable enough, and outwardly, at any rate there was but little sign of the shadow of the great tragedy that lay over the house of Cranwallis.
Here were all the shaded lights, the banks of artistically arranged flowers, the palms and the pictures and the statuary which made up the smooth and harmonious whole which gave the Pink Drawing-room at Borne Abbey its nameless charm. It was not yet quite dark, so that from the windows it was possible to see the wide sweep of the park and the spreading landscape beyond. It was the kind of thing to recall Tennyson's "haunts of ancient peace," and "immemorial elms."
There was nothing, either, to indicate that the woman sitting at the piano was not part and parcel of the picture. At any rate, she looked dainty enough in her simple black lace dress, she wore none of the jewellery with which the pink paragraphists usually credited her. She was sensible enough to know that no diamonds were needed, and indeed, she was playing her part very well.
She had chosen a song which suited her voice—a charming little fragment which she sang in the purest French. Even Lady Edna seemed to be pleased, for she sat there listening attentively. In a distant corner of the room Shorland lounged over a pile of sporting papers. There was a cigarette in his mouth, and a long glass of amber-coloured fluid stood by his side. He appeared to be the only discordant note in the harmony. Palpably he was bored by the whole thing. There was just a flicker of contempt in de la Croisa's eyes as he regarded Shorland.
"Quite a charming domestic interior," he said to Saltburn. "You seem to have settled down very comfortably. I shouldn't wonder if Lady Shorland were a success."
"She sings very nicely," Saltburn said.
"Yes, and very correctly, too," de la Croisa replied. "Honestly now, doesn't she look as if she were born in the purple? And after all, my dear fellow, what does it matter? At any rate, she is far too good for Shorland, and I shouldn't be at all surprised if, in the course of time, our little singer doesn't become a very great lady indeed. There is only one thing which puzzles me."
"And what is that?" Saltburn asked. "Well, why she married Shorland, to be sure. Do you suppose she cares a rap about him? Do you suppose she doesn't know that he is a weak fool without a single redeeming quality? And there's a woman who might have married a Grand Duke; it would have only been a morganatic marriage, of course, but still, that has its advantages. And as the Grand Duchess Alexis, for example, our fascinating Ninon might have gone a long way."
"You know something about her then?"
"Oh, yes, I know something about her, my dear fellow. There are few prominent people of whom I am in ignorance. When I was in the world of politics I found it greatly to my advantage to cultivate the Ninons of my acquaintance. I will go over and speak to her presently. I wonder if she's altogether forgotten me."
"You know her personally then?" Saltburn asked.
"I think I may say so. It is quite ten years since we met, and she was a child of fifteen then. It was not long before I left the world and came down here to devote myself to my beloved roses. But I never forgot a face, and you must admit that Lady Shorland's is a striking one."
The song came to an end here, and the singer rose from the piano. She came across in the direction of the windows, then she pulled up and regarded de la Croisa with a puzzled expression. Obviously she was asking herself where she had met him before. She was wondering where this neat little man with the white hair and the speck of ribbon in his buttonhole had last come in contact with her. Then it seemed to Saltburn that Lady Shorland's face grew just a little anxious and frightened.
"Will you introduce me?" de la Croisa said.
"I came over from the cottage this evening only to have the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Lady Shorland."
Saltburn made the introduction formally enough. He could see quite plainly that de la Croisa was not adverse to being left alone with his fair companion. Saltburn turned his head and moved across to the little table where Lady Edna was seated. At the same time de la Croisa indicated the wide stretch of country outside the long French windows.
"That is a charming prospect," he said. "I am glad to think that your introduction to a typical English landscape should have been made here. And don't you think it rather a pity to stay indoors on a night like this?"
"Do you want to speak to me?" Lady Shorland said.
"It would be a great happiness," the Baron murmured. "It would be a singular favour for an old man like myself."
Lady Shorland tossed her head slightly. She swept along in front of de la Croisa who made way for her to pass. It was mild enough out on the terrace so that there was no occasion for a wrap.
It was still and peaceful, too, with a thousand fragrant scents upon the summer air. As they paced side by side up and down the terrace the subdued yellow gleam of the shaded lamps glistened on Lady Shorland's hair and gave her skin an opalescent hue like warm ivory.
"Now then," she said. "Please go on."
"But why speak to me like that?" de la Croisa asked. "I came to-night with an olive branch, not a sword. You will think that perhaps I was surprised when I saw you here this evening, but I am not. I have lived too long and seen too many strange things to believe in what you call coincidences. Coincidences are the everyday things in life. It is the commonplace which is so startling. But it is too perfect a night to talk philosophy. Now tell me, why is it that you married Shorland?"
"Have you any right to ask?" Lady Shorland replied.
"Well, no; but you see, I am an old man, and consequently privileged. And, besides, I knew your mother quite well, to say nothing of your father, who was one of my greatest friends. But still, I am bound to say that I did not expect to find my old friend's daughter in the person of Ninon Garrados."
"Oh, I remember you," Lady Shorland said. "And you are connected with certain early episodes of my life. It was good of you, of course, to try and heal the differences between my father and my mother. I was only a child at the time, but I was old enough to think then as I think now—that my mother was never meant to be the wife of a statesman—if you can call my father a statesman. I know you think that he was one of the best of men. But he never understood me, and that is why, when my mother died, I chose to follow a stage career. And now my father is dead it is useless to rake up those scandals."
"You know how he died?" de la Croisa asked. "Oh, yes, he took his own life. If I were an ordinary daughter, perhaps—but then, we never were friends. Don't think me heartless or unkind, Baron—"
She broke off abruptly, and de la Croisa could see that her lips were trembling.
"Oh, I felt it," she went on. "It was a shock when I read the story in the papers. Perhaps, if I had understood my father better—"
"But you value his good name?" the baron urged. "It was a great one in Spain once. But I was rude enough to ask you just now why you married Shorland."
Lady Shorland shrugged her shoulders carelessly.
"What can it possibly matter?" she asked.
"Well, as it happens, it matters a great deal. You may be surprised to hear that your father's fortunes and those of the house of Cranwallis are bound up in the most amazing fashion. But again I will come to this presently. I want to help you and I want to help my friend Sherringborne at the same time, and you could be of the greatest assistance."
Lady Shorland was interested in spite of herself.
"Is that really so?" she asked, "Well, a clever man like yourself ought to know. I remember years ago hearing my father say that you were the most brilliant statesman he had ever met."
"That will possibly be the verdict of history," de la Croisa said. "But I am too old to be touched by the compliments of even a pretty woman like yourself. My great task now is to save the good name and reputation of Egbert Cranwallis, whom you know as the Earl of Sherringborne. And that brings me to the point again. Why did you marry Shorland?"
"I hardly know," Lady Shorland said indifferently. "One does these things on the spur of the moment. And you have it in mind that I might have married a Grand Duke. Well, I had my choice even in that exalted sphere But, you see, I wanted to be the wife of an English nobleman. There is something almost unique about a position like that. And fancy being mistress of a house like Borne Abbey. You mustn't forget, Baron, that I am an artist to my finger tips. I have only been here a few hours, but I love this place. There are things here which bring the tears to my eyes. Just look at its artistic beauty, look at the romance and refinement of it all. Ah, it is worth even a greater sacrifice than that of being tied to a fool like Shorland. And I shall make a man of him yet. At any rate, I shall be mistress of a great historic house, I shall have a great fortune behind me. You see, I am quite candid with you. And you must admit that it is not an ignoble ambition. These people here may despise me at present, but it won't be for long. And that is why I deliberately chose Shorland instead of a picturesque Grand Duke who could never have given me a home like this."
"I am glad you have spoken plainly," de la Croisa said. "So you think that everything is smooth here. You think that before very long you will be Lady Sherringborne and one of the powers of the land. Well, I have no doubt you will be a brilliant success. But, my dear Ninon, there are lions in the path. How would you like it presently to find it was necessary to let Borne Abbey and the other two places of the family and to live in dingy lodgings somewhere for a number of years till all the family debts were paid, and the estates unencumbered? You have resided in England quite long enough to know that a score of our great families are suffering from this financial blight. My dear, I am not painting a fancy picture."
"It isn't true," Lady Shorland exclaimed.
"Oh, but it is. I never spoke a truer word in my life. Now, mind, I am trusting you. I am betraying the confidence of the best friend I ever had. And I am doing all this because some day you will be Lady Sherringborne, and I feel sure you will help me in every way that lies in your power. There is not a financial disaster, but absolute disgrace. Yet, bad as the outlook is, it can be saved, and you, by a strange trick of fate, are the only woman who can do it. I know you will help me, because you have ambition and courage, and because you will not sit quietly down and allow these great advantages to slip through your fingers."
Lady Shorland was interested enough now. She stood beside her companion with dilated eyes and parted lips.
"You are a man of honour," she said. "And I know you would not deceive me. You must tell me more, please."
"Not much more," de la Croisa said. "I have given you an outline of the position. You know that Sherringborne is a politician as well as a great nobleman, and politicians, occasionally do very foolish things. Besides, people are beginning to talk already. Sherringborne has certain enemies who do not hesitate to say that he has been using official information for Stock Exchange purposes."
"Ah," Lady Shorland said breathlessly. "Ah! Go on."
"Now, you are woman of the world enough to know what that means. It isn't true, of course, Sherringborne has been rash and—well, I needn't go any further. He has an unscrupulous enemy who is one of our greatest financiers and when the pinch comes this financier will not hesitate to use any weapon that comes to hand."
"I know. William Saltburn. Yes?"
"And now I am going to surprise you," de la Croisa went on. "There were two people in this mad venture of Sherringborne's—himself and your father. Unfortunately your father is dead. It is well, perhaps, for my scheme, that nobody knows that you are the daughter of the man who was called El Murid."
"Go on," Lady Shorland said. "That secret has been well kept at any rate, and now, what do you want me to do? I see that you have some proposition to make."
De la Croisa lowered his voice impressively.
"I want you to go to Tortina," he whispered. "I want you to go there with proofs of your identity and put in a claim for all your father's belongings. I will see that the path is made smooth for you. You must lay your hands on all his papers without delay. If you fail to do so certain documents will be made public, and Lord Sherringborne will be ruined. And then you will have to face the dingy lodgings for many a long day to come. Now, take your time, don't answer hurriedly. Are you going to be Lady Sherringborne in effect as well as name, or are you going to let the matter drift entirely? Only I must know to-night."
Lady Shorland stood there for a long time, taking in thoughtfully all that de la Croisa had to say. She was luminous-minded enough to see that he was speaking the truth. And she could see plainly enough, too, that all the advantages for which she had made so great a sacrifice would slip through her fingers unless she made an effort to retain them.
She had thought the whole matter out carefully. She had made up her mind that her darling ambition should be to preside over some great English house and attach herself to some great territorial title. She recognised that the chances were few and far between, and therefore she decided to sweep Shorland into her net almost the very day in which she came into contact with him, and all the more because of Lady Edna's open contempt for her.
She would know how to behave with Shorland when the time came. He had a glittering coronet to offer her, one of the most famous ones in the history of her adopted country. Nobody stood higher than the Cranwallises, no name was more deeply inscribed in the pages of history. There was great wealth, too, which was a great asset of considerable importance in the eyes of Ninon Garrados. She would have preferred, of course, to have been married at Westminster Abbey with all the pomp and circumstance, but that was out of the question. Still, she was married, and almost in the first blush of her ambition, it looked as if the whole glittering structure was crumbling at her feet.
"Let us plainly understand one another," she said. "You say that my father and Lord Sherringborne were mixed up in some debatable business which means ruin if the matter becomes public. All this is set out in certain papers, belonging to my father which it is of the utmost importance that I should recover. Very well, I will try to do what you suggest. It won't be a difficult matter for me to get to St. Lucia without arousing suspicion, I have sung and danced in the capital of Tortina, the capital where I was born, and none of them guessed that I was the daughter of a one-time President of the Tortina Republic."
It was half an hour later that de la Croisa turned his face thoughtfully in the direction of his cottage. The famous silver candlesticks were lighted on the table, and the faithful Francois was seated there waiting to see if his master needed anything else before retiring for the night. De la Croisa's eyes were gleaming and there was a certain reckless, youthful gaiety about him which aroused all the old soldier's suspicions.
"What is it now, my master?" he asked. "What are you going to do? I have not seen that look on your face since that night in St. Lucia twelve years ago—"
"It matters nothing," the Baron cried gaily. "Francois, I am going out into the world again. I am going to wear my armour once more, and try a fall with a foe who is worthy of my steel. We go out, my good friend, to fight for the honour of a noble house that stands in dire peril from the machination of its foundings. To-morrow I go to London."
Francois crossed himself piously.
"Then heaven have mercy on us," he said. "If you say it will be done, it will be done. I come with you, of course?"
"No, Francois. On this occasion I go alone. You will have to stay and look after the roses. I don't know when I shall be back, indeed, I may have to go as far as St. Lucia itself. But for the moment that is on the knees of the gods. You will pack my portmanteau, just a few simple things. Now, don't stop to ask any further questions."
It seemed to be strange to the Baron to find himself in the rush and the whirl of the world again. It seemed strange to him to be passing through the public thoroughfares that he had known so well in his earlier days and to feel that no soul hurrying by should recognise him. For here, to a certain extent, was a new generation, to whom the name of de la Croisa was no more than a shadow.
But the Baron had enough to occupy his mind without brooding over these things. He dined later on, alone, at his hotel, then he made his way on foot to one of the streets leading off Grosvenor-square. Here he stopped at a certain house and sent in his card. There came to him presently a little man, in evening dress, which contrasted so curiously with the oriental type of his features, and the strange droop in the corners of his eyelids. He came forward with a smile and shook de la Croisa's hand with every appearance of cordiality and friendship.
"You are surprised to see me?" the Baron asked.
"Well, not quite that," the other said. "You see, we Japanese are surprised at nothing. But, at the same time, it is an unexpected pleasure. The last time we met was in Paris, when I was representing my country there. And to you I owed a debt of gratitude which I shall never be able to repay."
"And that, my dear Prince Ito, is why I am here this evening. Now, I think you can trust me. And I think, when I ask you certain pertinent questions, you will be disposed to answer me. For instance, how long will it be before your Tortina islands policy is really disclosed?"
Prince Ito smiled significantly.
"Sit down, my dear friend, sit down," he said. "Permit me to offer you a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Ah, Tortina could have done with a few more statesmen like you. And I have not forgotten the many lessons that you taught me. I was no more than a raw boy when I came to you, and there were others, too, in various capitals, learning the great game. But we benefited by our lessons, and—"
The speaker broke off and elevated his shoulders.
"But I am talking secrets," he resumed. "I know I can trust you, of course. And now, my dear Baron, what can I do to help you in that little matter between your friend Sherringborne and the man who is called William Saltburn?"
"Delightful," the Baron murmured. "My dear Prince, I always said you were the most remarkable man of my acquaintance. It is a great pleasure to me to know that you are an old pupil of mine in the great game of diplomacy. I knew that when you found yourself at the head of the Japanese Intelligence Department you would be controlling one of the most stupendous machines in the world. So you know all about poor Sherringborne and the terrible mistake he made in connection with the Tortina Concessions?"
"Yes, I know that," Prince Ito said, as if he were mentioning the most casual thing in the world. "I may say that for some time past I have been following the career of Mr. Saltburn with interest. In the world of finance that man is a Napoleon. He will aspire some day to control the capitals of Europe. His ambition is to be able to prevent a war, or fan one into flame just to suit his purpose. And, some day, he will produce a capital big enough to do it. At the same time, my dear Baron, you will doubtless see what a dangerous man this would be. There is one mistake he makes, that he is disposed to underrate the intelligence of his opponents. In the great building up of an Empire like ours, we have to foresee all contingencies. And amongst them we have certainly foreseen a man like William Saltburn. You know, for example, that at the present time he is practically controlling the finances of—"
"That is no secret to me," de la Croisa murmured.
"On the other hand, it is to the interests of this country, and to the interests of Lord Sherringborne in particular, to prevent any complications just now between Japan and America. On the other hand, that's exactly what Saltburn wants to bring about. And so it happens that, though quite friendly on the surface, Sherringborne and Saltburn are at daggers drawn, and there is the bitterest enmity between them. It is personal to a certain extent, too. Perhaps you are not aware of the fact that before Saltburn was transported for poaching nearly 50 years ago he was a boy in the kitchen at Borne Abbey. Amongst his other plans he wants to marry his son to Lady Edna Cranwallis."
"Now that," de la Croisa cried, "is charming. What a race you are. And to what a marvellous pitch have you brought your intelligence. But then I always said that Japan would control the East one day. And the strange part of the whole thing is this—Saltburn is not taking you into his calculations at all. It seems amazing that so clever a man should be guilty of such oversight."
Prince Ito shrugged his shoulders carelessly. "Napoleon had his Moscow," he said. "And we are but human after all. We make less mistakes because we divide our responsibilities, but Saltburn trusts nobody; it is his boast that he manages entirely by himself. Still, we can put him on one side for the moment. I know all about El Murid and those letters of his. I can quite see why you are so anxious to regain possession of them. And, by the way, how did you manage to get hold of El Murid's daughter? I mean the dancer who married Lord Shorland the other day. She's the one to help you."
"That is already arranged," de la Croisa explained. "She will be on her way to Tortina in a day or two. But that is not exactly what I came here to talk to you about. I think I have got a pretty good idea of your policy. If you can keep Japan and America on good terms, then Sherringborne is saved. Out of sheer self-defence, Saltburn will have to reconsider his position."
Prince Ito bent forward and laid his hand upon de la Croisa's knee. His face was quivering with excitement now, his voice had sunk to a husky whisper.
"It is the old game of bully and brag," he said. "America thinks we are afraid of her, that we are born enemies. Ah, that is where they are wrong, Baron. I am telling you this, and I am placing my good name in your hands."
"It is safe with me," the Baron said. "Then there will be no trouble over the Tortina Islands? In which case Saltburn—"
"Will be powerless," the Prince murmured. "And perhaps ruined."
De la Croisa smiled. He had heard enough.
To the great relief of Francois, de la Croisa returned to the cottage a day or two later as if nothing had happened, and as if he had merely been away on a little holiday. He gave no suggestion that he had been back to the great world again, and that he had been taking a hand once more in high politics. He had all the gaiety and carelessness of a child, he could speak of nothing but the roses, which he said had been neglected by Francois in his absence.
"Green fly, green fly," he said gaily. "Actually I can detect evidences of green fly on the trees which we got from Nice last year. It is a most extraordinary thing that I can trust nobody. What have you been doing, Francois? I hope you are not contemplating matrimony?"
The old soldier shook his head solemnly. He was too overjoyed to see his master back again to defend himself against so unwarrantable a charge. He hoped that the Baron had not been getting into mischief. And Francois's fears began to vanish presently when he saw the Baron in his shirt sleeves wandering from one rose bush to another examining the fragrant petals through a pocket microscope. Not till after lunch time did the Baron betray any interest in outside matters. After the meal was over he made his way to Borne Abbey in search of the latest news of Sherringborne. One of the nurses came down to see him.
"His lordship is much better," she said. "He has taken a decided turn. He is still very ill, and we have some difficulty in making him understand what we are saying. At the same time he has intervals of an hour or so when he is quite himself."
"Does he see the newspapers?" de la Croisa asked.
"Oh, sir, the doctor said it wouldn't much matter. But it was a great mistake, because on Monday morning he happened to see a paragraph relating to the marriage of Lord Shorland."
"Oh, indeed," the Baron exclaimed. "That was very unfortunate. I hope he is none the worse for it."
"I don't think so," the nurse said. "His lordship seemed to be somewhat blunted in his perceptions, but he understood perfectly well, and he expressed a desire to see his son. In fact, he has seen both Lord Shorland and her ladyship. And he is most anxious to meet you, Baron. I was coming across to fetch you."
De la Croisa smiled with the air of a man who is not altogether displeased. He found Lord Sherringborne sitting up in bed, near the open window, where he could command a fine prospect of the park. On the whole his illness had left less effects upon him than de la Croisa had expected. He was weak and shaky enough, and there was a peculiar nervous affection on the left side of the face, but Sherringborne's eyes were clear, and he welcomed the Baron effusively.
"Oh, I think I am better," he said. "They are making a good deal too much fuss, de la Croisa. They don't seem to realise how necessary it is that I should know exactly what is going on. I shall be far better and easier in my mind if you will be good enough to tell me the worst."
"Oh, there is no worst," the Baron said. "For the moment things stand just where they were. And, if it is any consolation to you, you have the sympathy of the whole nation. And meanwhile I have not been idle. I have had an interview with Ito and one or two of the others, and with a fair amount of good fortune we shall be able to get the best of Saltburn yet."
Sherringborne clutched convulsively at the bed-clothes.
"That's right," he whispered. "Strangle the scoundrel. Take him by the throat and choke him. I tell you, men like that belong to the worst type of criminals. They would sacrifice everything to their ambition. For the sake of power and money they would see their country ruined, they would watch innocent women and children die of starvation."
"Steady, steady," the Baron whispered softly. "My dear fellow, this is not the way to get well. Now you know perfectly well that you can entrust your affairs in my hands."
"Implicitly," Sherringborne said gratefully. "With my knowledge of international affairs I can get the best of a mere financier like Saltburn. And Ito is on my side, too. He knows all about it, my friend. That is the most brilliant intellect in international politics to-day. When I called upon Ito he knew exactly what I had come for. He knows how you stand as regards Saltburn and the Tortina Concessions. My dear Sherringborne, you really have no cause to fear. My lips are sealed, because I promised Ito I would say nothing. Ah, you are getting excited again."
Sherringborne controlled himself with an effort.
"Go on," he said. "I see what you mean. In that case, Saltburn's scheme would be checked. Japan would no longer have any use for him if her hands were full, then we should be able to lay our hands upon the Tortina finances, and rearrange them as Cromer rearranged the monetary conditions of Egypt. You see what that means, Baron? Instead of being disgraced, I shall be looked upon as one of the greatest benefactors this country has ever had. But there is always the danger of those papers of poor El Murid's."
"Ah, you are better than I thought," de la Croisa said. "That's exactly what I wanted to speak to you about. Directly I came here the other night and recognised your new daughter-in-law as El Murid's daughter, I began to see my way. And Ito saw it, too. If this is not a direct intervention of Providence, then I am greatly mistaken. Of course, it is rather a blow to you, but then our dear Shorland might have done worse."
"He might," Sherringborne said with a sour smile. "In fact, I have been dreading some terrible faux pas for the last year or two. Of course, I have known for some time, that this marvellous dancer was the daughter of our friend El Murid. And directly my brain got sufficiently clear I began to see my way. That's why I sent for my daughter-in-law with a view to seeing what she was like. And, on the whole, I was agreeably disappointed. That woman would adapt herself, Baron. She will find her place and, before very long, she will take a very high position indeed. She is just the kind of fascinating, audacious creature to find favour even with royalty. And she has the courage, too. Now don't you think it would be just as well to take her into our confidence and send her as far—"
"My dear Sherringborne, you are paying me a dubious compliment," de la Croisa interrupted. "Do you suppose I have been idle all this time? Now, I have had a chat with Lady Shorland. She's all you describe her, and a little more. I asked her a series of questions. I put her a conundrum which I thought she might have had some difficulty in answering. Without wishing to hurt your parental feelings, I wanted to know why so brilliant a creature and beautiful a woman married a man like Shorland. She might have married a Grand Duke, you know. But she had an ambition to be the head of some great British historic family. It seemed to me to show nice discrimination."
"Go on," Sherringborne said quietly. "Well, I applauded her sentiments. Then I ventured to point out to her that there was a strong possibility of the little programme falling to the ground. It was a desperate remedy, I know, but I had to tell her pretty well everything. She saw the point in the twinkling of an eye. And she volunteered to go out to St. Lucia and get possession of her father's papers. And she'll do it, too. You see, no one will suspect that she is thinking of anything but her professional engagements. And she will come back with those papers, and the situation will be saved. Then we shall be able to dictate terms to Saltburn. Does the idea amuse you?"
For Sherringborne was laughing quietly.
"It isn't that," he said. "Since I have been lying here you would be astonished to know how my point of view has broadened. When a man is born to the purple like myself, he is apt to get a notion that the scheme of creation has been designed for his own particular benefit. A month or two ago I should have been shocked at the mere idea of welcoming a professional dancer under my roof. But what I was thinking of was Edna's feelings. She is making the best of it, poor girl. She thinks now that Lady Shorland will begin to realise the responsibilities of her position. She believes that all the pride and glory of Borne Abbey must make an impression, and what she will say when she hears Shorland's wife is going ostensibly on a professional tour I tremble to think."
"It is sad, isn't it?" de la Croisa said gravely. "But the thing is inevitable. I came over here this morning as much to see Lady Shorland as yourself. Everything is more or less ready, and now, as I think you have talked long enough, I will go before the doctor comes and turns me out. I will look in again to-night."
"Come and dine here," Sherringborne said. "I should like to hear, after-wards, what has happened. And really, you have taken quite a weight off my mind."
Lady Edna was out somewhere, and Shorland had gone off in his car to a race meeting somewhere in the neighbourhood. De la Croisa found Lady Shorland in a morning room, deeply engaged in her correspondence.
She welcomed the Baron with a smile. "I have been hoping to see you," she said. "I was beginning to think you had basely deserted me."
"On the contrary, I have been doing great things," the Baron said. "Up to now, everything is going splendidly. The rest is more or less in your hands. Now, have you made any arrangements?"
Lady Shorland pointed to two telegrams on the table.
"It is all settled," she said. "I've just had this wire from my agent, but I inspired the contract. There are great doings at St. Lucia in a fortnight's time. But then there are always great doings at St. Lucia. But this is some big feast, and the President is entertaining largely. He is delighted at the idea that Ninon Garrados should perform before his guests, and I am assured of a great reception. That's very amusing, isn't it? And he has not the slightest idea who I am."
De la Croisa chuckled.
"Only a day or two ago I was looking forward to the delights of a rural life, and here am I back again in the limelight more prominently than ever. Oh, I shall enjoy the adventure; in fact, I am looking forward to it with the greatest possible pleasure. But what, my dear Baron, am I to say to Lady Edna?"
Baron de la Croisa was frankly amused. Lady Edna would be displeased if she could have seen her old friend at that moment. Possibly he was looking forward to Lady Shorland's thunderbolt with cynical amusement. But then, as he explained to his companion, he was an old man, and his pleasures were few.
"What will Shorland say?" he asked.
"What does it matter what he says? I should say that he would be rather glad. In the present state of his finances it's no bad thing to have a wife who can lend him a hand financially. I expect that's the view he will take of it. But our dear Edna will freeze me. She will pour a cold cataract of contempt over me. Upon my word, I really dread telling her."
"Let me do it," the Baron said eagerly. "Don't deprive me of a new sensation like this. I promised to dine here this evening and see Sherringborne after-wards. Now, Lady Edna is one of the most delightful creatures in the world. You have no idea what a noble woman she is. But she has been clad in her splendid isolation too long. She has come to regard the universe as a world of royalty, Cranwallises, and the rest of the inhabitants of the globe. If we could only induce her to believe—"
"Can't Philip Saltburn do that," Lady Shorland said demurely. "He's just the man for the job."
"Oh, so you've noticed that, too," de la Croisa said. "As a matter of fact, it would be the best thing that could happen. Lady Edna doesn't know that she would be a lucky girl if she became Philip Saltburn's wife, but it's a fact all the same. Now you will let me tell Lady Edna to-night, won't you?"
"It's a privilege which I cheerfully resign," Lady Shorland said. "You shall make the announcement after dinner, and you shall break the news your own way. What a comedy it would make! And how I should like to play a part in it myself."
De la Croisa presently went off cheerfully enough in the direction of his cottage. He felt that his morning had not been wasted. He had the additional pleasure, too, of finding amongst his roses one which appeared to be an entirely new species. For the next hour or two Francois and himself discussed this treasure, to the exclusion of everything else.
"It will make our reputation," Francois said. "You will be known to posterity—"
"Greatness thrust upon me," the Baron laughed. "And to think that I have been wasting my years in the muddy atmosphere of politics! But one lives and learns, Francois."
The lamps were lighted in the dining-room, and the servants moved silently and swiftly about, and dinner was at length drawing to a close. Lady Edna sat in her father's accustomed place talking quietly with de la Croisa, whilst Shorland was babbling to his wife as to the luck which had attended his day's racing.
He had pushed his glass and dessert plate to one side, and moodily lighted a cigarette. This was an innovation which found scant favour in Lady Edna's eyes. At any other time she would have resented it as a breach of tradition, but she had found herself allowing many things to pass lately. She seemed to realise that her authority was waning now, and that she no longer presided over the house as a goddess might have done.
She was, perhaps, unconsciously grateful that Lady Shorland showed no disposition whatever to usurp her authority. The latter obliterated herself entirely; she was discreet enough to refer things to Lady Edna, and to behave exactly as if she had been a guest in the house. Philip Saltburn watched her, not without approval. He had a certain democratic contempt for the pretensions which Lady Edna unconsciously claimed, and, indeed, he could not see much to find fault with in the air and manner of the new Lady Shorland.
De la Croisa turned to her presently, for she had said something about roses, which immediately attracted the Baron's attention.
"By the way," he said, "you've not seen mine yet. Positively I've found a new specimen. It will be at its best in about a week's time. Now, suppose you come over next Thursday and give me the pleasure of lunching with me."
Lady Shorland looked reproachfully at the speaker.
"Why do you make that suggestion?" she asked. "You know perfectly well I shan't be here."
Lady Edna looked interested.
"Are you going away?" she asked. Lady Shorland made no reply, though she glanced mischievously at the Baron. He had promised valiantly enough to launch the thunderbolt, and his fellow-conspirator had not the slightest intention of coming to his assistance.
"Ah," he said gaily. "It is not an easy matter to get out of professional engagements." Lady Edna sat upright, she began to understand what the Baron was saying. She turned in her most frigid way to her sister-in-law.
"I am afraid I don't quite follow," she said.
"What does the Baron mean by 'professional engagements?' Surely you don't contemplate the possibility of continuing—"
Words failed her for the moment. The mere suggestion of a Cranwallis by marriage figuring on the stage was insupportable.
"This is supposed to be a democratic country," the Baron said. "There is a popular delusion to the effect that it is the land of liberty. As a matter of fact, it is nothing of the kind. And even in the case of the most exalted it is impossible to break a contract. If one tried that the law steps in with a threat of contempt of court. Now, contempt of court, my dear Edna, means that if you refuse to carry out a contract you go to gaol. And I am sure you would not like to see Lady Shorland in gaol, languishing in a prison cell."
"Some way must be found," Lady Edna said calmly.
"No way can be found," Lady Shorland laughed. She was being stung into opposition now, by the icy hostility of the other's manner. "And, besides, I am not disposed to break my word. I am rather looking forward to my trip. If I go to Tortina this week St. Lucia is waiting for me. You would think nothing of it if I happened to be, Melba, for instance. And what is the difference? Besides, my beloved Shorland and myself have our living to get. I cannot argue it, Edna."
"The situation is impossible," Lady Edna cried.
"Oh; really? You will find it quite possible. And I always keep my promise. A promise is as sacred to me as if I, too, had been born a Cranwallis."
A warm reply trembled on Lady Edna's lips. She was on the verge of a passionate outbreak. Then she turned coldly away and moved in the direction of the door. Shorland looked up from his cigarette and laughed in a feeble kind of way.
"There'll be some fun in the drawing-room presently," he said. "I expect they'll make the fur fly. Edna's got a good pluck of her own, but she won't find Ninon far round the corner when it comes to that sort of thing. I say, let's follow and see the fun. I wouldn't miss it for anything."
The response of the listeners was not enthusiastic, so that Shorland sat there sulkily with the declaration that some men had no keenness where sport was concerned. Meanwhile, Lady Edna was standing, haughty and dignified, in the drawing-room waiting for a chance to speak her mind. Lady Shorland dropped into a chair and fanned herself languidly.
"Very warm, don't you think?" she said.
"I had not noticed it," Lady Edna said. "And now I shall be glad of an explanation. Why are you doing this thing? Why are you going out of your way to bring disgrace upon us? You know perfectly well that you can spare us the humiliation if you like. For my brother's sake I was prepared to make the best of an intolerable situation—"
"Stop," Lady Shorland cried. "You are going too far. Do you think I am going to submit to be spoken to like this by one who, as far as the ways of the world go, is a mere child? Anybody would think that I was some unspeakable creature whom Shorland had plucked out of the gutter. And if Shorland cannot support me, I must support myself."
"We are not paupers," Lady Edna retorted.
"Aren't you? Well, I'm not sure of that. Shorland has no money and at present no means of getting it. You don't suppose I am going to sit quietly down and be a dependent in this house as if I came here by favour? And I am not doing this thing entirely for my own benefit. Cold and distant as you are, and unpleasant as you make things for me, I am sorry for you."
"Sorry," Lady Edna, gasped. "Sorry for me?"
"Oh, I am speaking plainly enough. I mean every word I say. And I am sorry for you because you are living in a fool's paradise. You think all this splendour and display is real, you are proud to believe that Borne Abbey is built on a solid foundation and that nothing can shake your position. I tell you, you are quite wrong. The whole thing might collapse at any moment like a house of cards. Ah, you little know how near you are to ruin and disgrace which will be talked of from one end of England to another. Everything has been kept from you. You are like a child playing with a box of bricks in a house of mourning. Why, if I liked, I—I could tell you—"
Lady Shorland broke off abruptly. She was suddenly conscious that her outburst of anger was carrying her too far. She could see pain, as well as anger, in Lady Edna's white, set face. And, looking round at all this magnificence, at all the refined artistic splendour of the centuries, it was hard to realise that the hand of shame and trouble was clutching for it all.
Lady Edna was asking herself questions, too. Was it possible that she was being treated as a child? Was it possible that certain truths were being kept back from her? She began to see now that there might be something horribly tangible behind her father's illness.
"Go on," she said. "Pray continue. I am all attention. It is humiliation enough for me to feel that a comparative stranger like yourself should have received confidences of which I appear to be unworthy. Go on, I am learning my lesson."
"No," Lady Shorland said quietly. "I have already said too much. You goaded me to it, but I ought to have been wise enough to have held my tongue. But there is one thing which I may promise you—when I have fulfilled my engagement at St. Lucia I will never take another. I am going there not to please myself, but to do my best to remove disgrace and humiliation which threaten you all. And now, don't worry yourself any more about it. Look after the servants and your poor, and your flowers, and don't interfere with things which you cannot understand, for after all, you are no more than a child, and you don't know any better."
Lady Edna stood there, utterly at loss for a reply. She stood there, immersed in her own painful thoughts, and hardly conscious of the fact that she was not alone. It was not an easy process to fit together the pieces of this disjointed puzzle, but slowly and by degrees they began to resolve themselves into their places.
A wild feeling of passionate rebellion which for a time had raged in the girl's heart began to dissolve and fuse into a certain nameless fear. There was anger in it, too, a certain reasonable revolt against the way in which, she had been treated.
She went off presently up to her father's bedroom. It was just possible that he was awake and that he might feel disposed to give her the confidence which, up to now, he had withheld. She found him sitting among the pillows reading a copy of the "Times." He looked brighter and stronger than he had for some days past, and he welcomed Edna pleasantly enough.
"Come in," he said. "My nurse has left me for a moment. Yes, I am feeling a great deal better to-day. De la Croisa brought me some news this morning which has cheered me up. Oh, you need not mind worrying me if anything is troubling you."
"Well, I am greatly worried," Lady Edna admitted. "I have been talking to my—to my sister-in-law. I quite thought that when she married Shorland she would give up the stage. And now she actually tells me that she has accepted an engagement in Tortina within a few weeks."
Sherringborne lifted his brows.
"And have you been interfering?" he asked. "You have been making yourself unpleasant to her?"
"I certainly spoke my mind," Lady Edna admitted. "In fact, we both lost our tempers. That woman had the audacity to hint that there was a great disgrace hanging over our house, and that she was going to St. Lucia to prevent it. I say nothing as to that absurd statement, as to my being treated as a mere child, but of course I know I ought not to be worrying you now, but at any cost this thing must be stopped. Promise me that you will interfere."
Lady Edna glanced half imploringly at her father, but she was surprised at the look of deep displeasure in his eyes.
"You're a fool," he said harshly. "You are a silly child, and don't know what you are talking about. Who asked you to interfere? Do you suppose the whole world was designed for your own special benefit? And you talk about disgrace. Well, there is disgrace. And we shall both be fortunate if we escape. Now unless you wish—but I'm not going to discuss the matter. You must be civil to Shorland's wife; you must be civil to young Saltburn, to everybody. Do you understand?"
No reply came from Lady Edna's lips. It seemed to her as if the whole world were slipping under her feet. Disgrace! And the house of Cranwallis! Oh, the thing was impossible!
Disgrace! It seemed almost impossible to identify such a word with Borne Abbey. Lady Edna looked around her and saw nothing on every side except the outward and visible greatness of the Cranwallises.
And yet she had heard the word from her father's own lips, and there was nothing either in his manner to suggest that he was suffering from a delusion. And he had never spoken to his daughter like this before. His manner had been harsh and rude, and there was something furtive in the way he spoke, as if he were a party to a mean and underhand thing of which he was ashamed.
It seemed to Lady Edna that she had read something like this before. She had a vague idea that she could remember a daughter who had had such a father and how disappointed she had been in him.
And then, again, there was the suggestion that Ninon Garrados was in some way necessary to the fortunes of the family. The idea was grotesque, ridiculous. Why, there was nobody in the house who had heard her name a fortnight ago. And now Edna had it on the authority of her father that this woman was going off hot-foot to St Lucia, of all places in the world, with a view to saving the family name.
It struck Edna for a moment that her father was wandering in his mind. She was quite prepared to believe that he was suffering from some great trouble which he had kept entirely to himself, and which was the cause of his breakdown. But the rest were mere chimera, a mere figment of disordered imagination.
But Lady Edna did not dare to ask any further questions. She could see how excited the Earl was, and in any case the return of the nurse put an end to further conversation. It was a restless night that Lady Edna passed, but her gloomy thoughts were somewhat lightened by the morning. For she could see no signs of trouble about the house. Everything seemed to be progressing as usual, and the great establishment was running easily on oiled wheels. Here was the big staff of servants with a small army of gardeners, and in the suite of apartments given over to Sherringborne's political affairs were the half-dozen or so of smart, well-bred, well groomed secretaries.
And here, too, were the clerks and the busy rattle of the typewriters. A constant stream of messages was running to and fro quite the same as usual; and here, too, were the morning papers with their sympathetic allusions to Sherringborne's illness and the hope that he would soon be himself again. And here were Lady Edna's own private letters with appeals to her charity and all the rest of it.
And here was the wide stretch of gardens and the park beyond and the ancestral deer under the shadows of the beeches. Oh, it seemed impossible to identify all this with trouble and disgrace of any kind.
And yet, at the same time, Lady Edna could not rid herself of the cloud which hung over her, despite the fact that it was a glorious day and that the sun was shining in a sea of liquid blue.
For the first time in her life Edna regretted the fact that she had no intimate personal friends. She had always been self-contained, always a little prone to take herself seriously, and always over-conscious of her exalted position Now she regretted that she had nobody to confide in. There was only one person she could talk freely to, and that was de la Croisa.
It occurred to her in a fleeting sort of way, to make one more appeal to Lady Shorland, but the latter had gone off soon after breakfast in her rapid, headlong way, and had left an intimation at Borne Abbey that she would not be back for some weeks at least.
So she had really gone! Well, after all, it did not much matter. All the world knew now what Shorland had done, the papers had been full of it, and his marriage had been the subject of a thousand racy paragraphs. And St. Lucia was a long way off. On the whole, the best thing to do was to go down to the cottage, and there talk matters over with the kindly old Baron.
De la Croisa had looked forward to a quiet morning to himself. He sat in the armchair outside the cottage door deeply engrossed in the "Times." He looked very young and very jaunty in his white flannel suit. From time to time he screwed his glass into his eye and gave certain instructions to Francois, who was busy amongst the roses.
There had been a time when de la Croisa had sworn by all his gods he had finished with politics for ever. In future he was only going to regard them from the comfortable depths of an arm-chair in a strictly historic and critical light. And here he was back again in the arena, fighting with all his old shrewdness and audacity for the reputation of his friend.
He tried to tell himself that he was doing this entirely on Sherringborne's behalf, but at the same time he was enjoying the combat for its own sake. It seemed hard to believe that this shrewd and dapper little man seated at his cottage door was holding in his hands the shaping destinies of Europe. For that is what it came to, and de la Croisa was keenly proud of the fact.
He knew that he was struggling for something more than the desire to save Sherringborne from his folly, and thwart the designs of an unscrupulous financier. He began to see his way now to the possibilities of breaking down Saltburn altogether.
And everything was going very well, too. De la Croisa could find a great deal to give him satisfaction in the perusal of England's foremost daily paper. The 'Times' special correspondent at Washington, and also his colleague at Tokio, took a sufficiently gloomy view of the situation. They were both under the impression that there would be serious trouble between the States and Japan before long. And this being so, it was difficult to see how England, with her Pacific interests, was going to keep out of the squabble.
Out of the profound depths of his experience de la Croisa had a good-natured contempt for newspaper correspondents. But on this occasion he was inclined to agree. He smiled, too, to see that Sir James Pallisser, the Prime Minister, had been disposed to take a sanguine view of the situation in the House of Commons the day before. Certainly, everything was going right from the Baron's point of view, and it seemed to him that he could return to his roses with an easy mind. He had just lighted his after-breakfast cigarette when Lady Edna came upon the scene.
He was delighted to see her, of course; he was proud to show her round his garden, and to prove to her that McKillop, the Borne Abbey gardener, knew less about roses than he imagined. But for once, Lady Edna did not appear to be interested. Her face was grave, and the serene look in her eyes had given place to a certain cloudy anxiety.
"Oh, I dare say," she said, "but I am not in the mood to talk about flowers this morning. I came to see you on a most important matter. I suppose, being a girl my father does not think that I am worthy of his confidence, but I know that you possess it.
"We have been friends for many years," the Baron murmured.
"Oh, I know that. And I believe that you two, between you have been responsible for a good deal of history. But this is a personal matter. I saw my father last night and I asked him a plain question."
"Oh, did you," the Baron said. "My dear Edna, if you have taken the trouble to read history carefully, you must know that some of the most promising of politicians have been ruined because there has been some woman in the case. Now, I have an instance in my mind, where it was absolutely necessary to employ a woman in the case. There was no help for it."
"I understand," Lady Edna said. "You see, I am no diplomatist. You were talking, of course, of Lady Shorland?"
"Precisely. You are rather cleverer than you imagine yourself to be. But that is only what one could expect from your father's daughter. But believe me, this candid fashion of yours of going straight to the point is likely to occasionally play into the hands of the enemy. For instance, you have as good as told me that Lady Shorland lost her temper last night."
"We both did," Lady Edna admitted.
"Just what I thought. And you both said a good deal that you are likely to be sorry for. For instance, you are furious with your brother's wife, because she insisted on carrying out a certain engagement, and by way of retaliation she let you know that she was doing this on behalf of the family. Now, let me prophesy. My dear child, I know as much about that conversation as if I had been there listening. And now you are uneasy in your mind. You want to know what this trouble is, wherein an almost total stranger could help you. And you went to your father last night and he practically told you to mind your own business."
"You are certainly a most wonderful man," Lady Edna said with a suspicion of a smile. "And you have stated the case exactly. I did not care to say too much to my father, and besides, the nurse came and turned me out. But I know that there is some deep trouble, and I don't think I ought to be left in ignorance of it."
De la Croisa shook his head reprovingly.
"And that is why you come to ask me to betray your father's confidence," he said. "My dear child, I can't do that. Your father has been foolish. Mind you, he has done nothing wrong willingly, but, at the same time, he has been very unwise, and like many other great men he had bitter political enemies."
"But my father is the soul of honour," Edna cried.
"Quite. But it is all part of the great game. Take my own case, for instance. At one time I was supposed to have the destinies of South America in my hands. And even my enemies gave me the credit for purely patriotic motives. But that did not prevent them from scheming to get rid of me. They did get rid of me, eventually, by one of the vilest political ruses. Now, it those men had done the same in private life they would have been hounded out of decent society. They would have had to resign their clubs; they would not have been admitted into certain houses. But as it was part of the game of politics they sit in high places to-day, and I live without a cloth on my dining table, and only my roses for consolation."
Lady Edna listened meekly.
"How many people in England know to-day that the man who calls himself de la Croisa is really the Duc de—, but it does not matter," the baron went on. "I am only giving you this as an object-lesson. That is the position of your father to-day, and that is the cause of his breakdown. I am going to save him—make no mistake about that. But I am going to do it my own way, and with my own weapons. More than this I cannot tell you. If you will have patience, everything will come right."
Lady Edna murmured her thanks somewhat grudgingly. Despite her exalted position and the consciousness of her own brilliant orbit, it was strange how she always felt like the merest child when she came to talk seriously to de la Croisa.
"You must forgive me," she said. "You can imagine how helpless I feel, and it is bad enough when I have to welcome Mr. Saltburn and his son at Borne Abbey."
"You think it was derogatory?" the baron asked.
"I think so still," Lady Edna said.
"Ah, well, there you are wrong. I am not going to say anything so far as William Saltburn is concerned, but Philip is a thoroughly good fellow. It seems to me you owe him a good deal. For instance, you know how well he behaved on the night of your father's sudden illness, and you have told me yourself how you have to thank him for keeping Shorland from filling up the house with his undesirable associates. And, mind you, he did this after Shorland had insulted him most outrageously."
"You think highly of Philip Saltburn, then?"
"I think very highly of him, indeed," the baron said dryly, "and I think that the girl who marries him will be lucky. Now, do you know what I should like to do with you if you were my daughter? I should like to send you out into the world for twelve months to get your own living. It would be a perfect revelation to you. Oh, I don't mean it unkindly. And now come round the garden with me, and I will show you the new rose."
Lady Edna went back to Borne Abbey presently a little easier in her mind. She had the most implicit faith in de la Croisa's promise, but, at the same time, she could not get rid of the feeling that she was being treated like a child.
De la Croisa, in the midst of his roses, watched her with an amused twinkle in his shrewd eyes. Then he dismissed Lady Edna from his thoughts and proceeded to devote himself to his beloved flowers. It was not for long that he was to be left alone, for presently Philip Saltburn appeared.
"Behold the lover," de la Croisa murmured to himself. "I thought he would not be far behind. Well, young man? And what can I do for you? Are you any judge of roses?"
"Hang the roses," Philip Saltburn said.
"By no means," de la Croisa said gravely. "You must not speak disrespectfully of my flowers. But you are not coming to worry me on a lovely morning like this, are you?"
"I am afraid I am," Saltburn said. "I am very sorry, but it is quite necessary. I want to talk to you about this business of your friend, Lord Sherringborne."
De la Croisa abandoned himself to the inevitable. Here was a young man who was not going to be put off, and, in his heart of hearts he liked him all the better for it. He placed another chair in the cottage porch and invited Saltburn to sit down. Then he waited for him to speak.
"I know you are the only man to come to," Saltburn said. "You see, I know exactly who you are, and I know that you are in Sherringborne's confidence. For all I am not following my father's profession; I have had a good business training, and I am interested in international finance. Now, is it true or not that Sherringborne has got himself mixed up in that Tortina business? Now, my dear Baron, I am not asking these questions out of mere curiosity. This is not impertinence on my part."
"If it were," de la Croisa said quietly. "I should know how to get rid of you. On the contrary, I know you want to help us. I feel quite sure you will do that if only for Lady Edna's sake."
Philip Saltburn flushed slightly.
"We can leave her out of the question," he said.
"Well, for the present, perhaps we can. But she must crop up sooner or later, my dear Saltburn. And since you seem to know so much, I am going to pay the compliment of trusting you. What you say is absolutely correct."
"Ah, I knew it," Saltburn exclaimed. "I felt quite certain of it. And I know perfectly well, too, who is responsible for this."
"Your father has many irons in the fire," the Baron said.
"I am not in my father's confidence. It has always been a boast of his that he never trusted a man in his life. But the thing which puzzles me is this—if my father had not more or less backed those Tortina Concessions, Sherringborne, and, indirectly, this country, would not have been in them at all. And now, as far as I can gather, my father has thrown the Tortina Government over altogether, and is backing his own hand."
"And forgetting me," the Baron said softly.
"Well, it is a theory of mine that most high finance nowadays is merely a form of crime. There is no punishment for it on the statute book, but it is criminal all the same. However, we need not discuss that. All my father's interest is behind his group now, and if he can induce Tortina to force a quarrel on Washington, through Japan, thousands of innocent English people, besides Sherringborne, will be ruined. But to your big financier this is a mere incident in the game. Now, Baron, do you think that trouble between Japan and the States is imminent?"
"Certain sections of the Press would have us believe so," de la Croisa said. "But personally I should like to gamble against it. I know that if I were head of the Government to-day I should ignore the possibility of such a thing."
"And you would be right," Saltburn said with conviction. "There would be no trouble between the two Pacific Powers because neither desires it."
"You are a clever young man," the Baron said sententiously. "Ah, if I were only your age again!"
"I think I know what I am talking about," Philip said modestly. "You see, I have been in Japan; I spent 18 months there. If hostilities break out I take it that Lord Sherringborne will be ruined."
"You are indeed an observant young man," the Baron replied. "That is precisely what ought to happen, and if it doesn't, then Mr. William Saltburn will lose quite a lot of money, which means that your father will not be the financial power of the future that he is to-day. I feel convinced that he has staked everything upon that rascal Santa Anna deliberately making for trouble."
"I agree," Philip said. "There's many a slip between the cup and the lip. So you feel sure that if Santa Anna were representing Tortina as obdurate, Sherringborne will be in a tight place indeed. Now, how much would it take to set him straight and get him out of his trouble?"
"This is a very strenuous conversation," de la Croisa said. "It would be more affectation on my part to stop when I see you know so much. Between ourselves, you have not exaggerated Sherringborne's position in the slightest. But if my plans materialise the world will be none the wiser."
"But what about his position?" Philip insisted.
'"Well, Sherringborne can be saved as far as his finance and good name are concerned by a quarter of a million. This money would all come back again if the Tortina Concessions only have fair play, but if Santa Anna is the traitor I take him to be, then it will be lost. At the present moment it is what you call a toss-up either way. But why discuss the matter? Who is the least likely to find the money?"
"I am," Philip said quietly.
The eyeglass fell from the baron's eyes.
"You are?" he exclaimed. "My dear fellow, I congratulate you. I had no idea you were so rich."
"I am not," Philip said. "Still, I could find that money, and have a little left besides. As a matter of fact, my mother had a considerable holding in Australian mining shares, and these came to me. I am prepared to run the risk if you think it will be of any real use to Sherringborne."
"This is very magnificent," de la Croisa said dryly. "And quite disinterested, of course?"
Once more Saltburn's features changed colour.
"Indeed it isn't," he said. "I am not playing the philanthropist in the least. I want to save Sherringborne's good name, and, above all, to shield his daughter from shadow and disgrace, and I don't want you to allow Sherringborne to know where the money comes from. In any case, Lady Edna must not hear a word of it. If I am to find favour in her eyes I must do it on my own merits. I have no wish to buy a wife."
"So that's the way the wind blows?" the Baron asked.
"Quite right, my dear Baron. The first time I saw Lady Edna I made up my mind. There's no accounting for these things. At any rate, I know that I have met the one woman—you know what I mean."
"I think so," the Baron murmured.
"I dare say you regard her as cold and proud," Philip went on, "the sort of girl—"
"You forget that I have known her for years," the Baron said. "Ah, the man who married her—still she has the defects of her qualities, but I take it that your father will have something to say on the subject?"
"On that point we happen to be agreed," Philip said. "Only his methods are not mine."
"I can understand that," the Baron said dryly.
"Still, I hope that I can bring my father round to a proper appreciation of the right thing to do. I shall have an opportunity of talking it over with him to-night, when I am dining with him in the House of Commons. I should have done so before, only he has been away in Paris."
An amused gleam came into the Baron's eyes. Quite unconsciously Saltburn had given him a piece of valuable information. And although Saltburn appeared to know a great deal, he did not know everything, and, indeed, there was no reason why he should. Then the conversation became more desultory, and Saltburn went off in the direction of his hotel.
He reached London late the same afternoon, and after dressing walked down to the House of Commons. He had to wait some little time for his father in the lobby of the House. The big room was filled with a more or less excited crowd of outsiders and journalists, for a big debate was in progress concerning the whole foreign policy of the Government. There were various rumours afloat, and to these Saltburn listened with more or less cynical amusement.
His father came out presently, big and noisy, and overpowering as usual. He seemed conscious of his own importance.
"You'll have to wait a bit," he said. "I've got one or two little matters which must be attended to, but there's a bit of debate on to-night, and it may interest you. Perhaps you would like to go up in the gallery until I've got a few minutes to spare."
The House of Commons was crowded as Saltburn took his seat. The green benches below were filled with members, and a prominent supporter of the Opposition was making a furious onslaught on the Government. It was a bitter attack, and not a little personal. There were allusions, too, to Sherringborne's mysterious illness, and an unmistakable hint to the effect that the noble lord was keeping out of the way.
The speech came to an end presently, and then, looking down on the House, Philip could see that the late speaker had disappeared behind the Chair, in company with his own father. It was obvious enough to Philip to see that the whole thing was prearranged. He knew well enough that the member who had just sat down was, so to speak, in his father's pocket. He knew that the man had been put up with the sole idea of aiming a blow at Lord Sherringborne's reputation. A moment or two later and William Saltburn himself came into the gallery.
"Now I can give you a little time," he said. "Come into one of the dining-rooms with me. What is it you want?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, I want a good deal," Philip said. "At any rate, I can't tell you anything here, but I certainly should like to know why you are making this unworthy attempt to destroy Sherringborne. As far as I know, he has done you no harm, and he has certainly been most kind and courteous to me."
"That's my business," William Saltburn growled.
"Not altogether," Philip retorted. "I may be wrong, but I think you are making a great mistake. You are altogether too sanguine in his matter."
William Saltburn broke into a roar of laughter.
"Rot, my dear boy, rot," he cried. "What does a boy like you know? Those chaps at St. Lucia will do exactly as I tell them. Talk about things you understand, Philip."
Not a muscle of Philip's face changed. But he know that in those few boastful words his father had given him the whole key to the situation. Those people in St. Lucia would dance to William Saltburn's tune, in other words, he had Santa Anna, the President of that disturbed revolutionary State, in his pocket. It was as plain as possible that Sherringborne had been deliberately betrayed. He had been carefully shepherded into the trap of the great British capitalist, and, undoubtedly, William Saltburn was at the bottom of the whole conspiracy.
He was to be ruined, he was to lose his money, and the concession which had been granted to himself and his syndicate would be worthless—at any rate, for a time at least. No doubt William Saltburn would see his way to making those shares valuable again when Sherringborne and his friends were out of the way, but that time had not come yet.
Then, when the mischief was all done, the shares would fall automatically, and at his own price, into Saltburn's hands. All this was clear to Philip as daylight. He knew now that if his father had only kept out of the way the threatened trouble between Japan and the States would never have arisen. And, in that case, Sherringborne's interests in the concessions would have been regarded by the world as a more matter of business, concerning only himself and certainly a commercial transaction which would in no way have involved the honour of a Minister of State. But the mere fact of his being Foreign Secretary when the trouble began made all the difference in the world, and the knowledge that Sherringborne had not conveyed this information to his colleagues in the Cabinet made the thing look blacker still.
No doubt Saltburn had counted on all this, and, indeed, when Philip looked into his father's hard, keen face, he had no further hesitation on the point. It was clear enough that William Saltburn was going to drive Sherringborne into a corner, and ultimately out of the Cabinet in sheer dishonour and disgrace. Then, when the bottom had dropped out of the Tortina Concessions, the capitalist would buy them at his own price, and thus, not only gratify his feelings of revenge, but put a large sum of money into his pocket at the same time.
It was a hateful business altogether, and just for a moment on Philip's lips there trembled words that he might have been sorry for after-wards. He was on the verge of a violent quarrel with his father, but he restrained himself just in time. He could see that there was nothing to be gained by such a course, in fact, everything to lose. Saltburn's idea was to humiliate the Cranwallises and bring them down to such an extent that Lady Edna would be only too glad to find herself the wife of a man who could stand between her and dishonour, and also the wife of a man who would some day be the master of Borne Abbey.
Doubtless William Saltburn was a great man in his way, but in this respect he was a mere child, and no one knew it better than his own son. Lady Edna would rather have died than accept such a way out, and Philip knew it in his bones. He must keep his temper, he must hear all that his father had to say, and fight that unscrupulous capitalist with his own weapons. And that fight Philip resolved to carry through to the bitter end, even if it cost him the last penny of his own private fortune.
"I think you are wrong," he said. "Perhaps I am a child in these matters, but I shall never marry the woman that I hope to make my wife by following on the lines that you have mentioned. You know nothing of such people."
William Saltburn's big voice boomed out with a confidence of a conqueror. He had a good deal to say, and he said it in his own particularly offensive manner. But he had no time to argue. There was a debate going on in the House in which he intended to take a part, and that debate was in connection with the Foreign Office vote. If Philip liked to hear it he could.
"I think I should," he said.
A few minutes later and he was seated in the Strangers' Gallery, listening to what was going on on the floor of the House. The Speaker was not in the Chair, because the House was sitting in Supply, with the Chairman presiding, and presently William Saltburn rose from his seat on the Opposition side of the House below the gangway, and began to address the Chair.
He plunged into his subject at once, and moved the adjournment of the committee in connection with certain Foreign Office allowances. From this he glided dexterously into an attack on the Government in connection with the Tortina concessions.
To the ordinary listener there was nothing in this, but Philip could see clearly enough that every word was a hit at the Foreign Secretary. And there were other men in the House who knew it too—the financial group for the most part—and these were interested enough. And so Saltburn went on for the best part of half-an-hour whilst Philip listened, almost unconscious of the fact that a man there, seated by his side, was almost as deeply interested as he was himself.
"Wonderful man, Saltburn," the stranger said. "A pity he's such an unscrupulous rascal."
Philip turned sharply to the speaker, who had put into words the thought that was uppermost in his mind. He saw a slim, well-dressed man, with dark hair and eyes, evidently a man of Spanish or Italian descent.
"Do you know Saltburn?" Phillip asked guardedly.
"Well, I know all about him," the stranger said. "You see, I am a native of Tortina myself, and I happen to know the story. Japan doesn't care twopence about those concessions, neither does America for that matter. Saltburn wanted those concessions himself, but Sherringborne's lot were in front of him, and he has never forgotten it. If you are a student of politics you must see that Sherringborne is being attacked. Ah! if El Murid had only held on a little longer, this would never have happened."
"I don't quite follow," Phillip said.
"Well, perhaps I am saying too much," the other man responded. "Perhaps I ought not to have mentioned Lord Sherringborne. You might know him."
"I do, indeed," Philip said. "He's my good friend, and I would do anything to help him."
"I am glad to hear that," the other man said. "Because I think I can assist you. It's like this. If Sherringborne can be dragged into publicity over this business, then those concession shares will be worthless. Saltburn can buy them at his own price. But if things develop in another direction, then all that money will be saved, and Lord Sherringborne will he cleared. He will make a fortune out of his investments. Do you know anything about Tortina?"
"I've been to St. Lucia," Phillip said.
"Oh, you have. Then I suppose you know all about El Murid, and how he was intrigued out of office by that traitorous rascal Santa Anna. That, of course, was the beginning of El Murid's troubles. I suppose you know why he committed suicide?"
"Indeed I don't," Philip said.
"Well, he killed himself because he feared that he could not keep faith with his friends. He thought that he had ruined Sherringborne amongst others, and the idea drove him to despair. If you could get hold of his papers now, you could expose the whole conspiracy. I happen to know this because I was one of El Murid's secretaries. In those papers is the whole story, and I don't think that even Saltburn could face the world if it came out. Of course, with his vast resources, he has stirred up the yellow press in three capitals to make all this fuss. I tell you, Japan doesn't care a scrap about those island concessions. All she wants is for St. Lucia to be made a treaty port. What she fears is that St. Lucia will be fortified and that America will expect to hold a brief for Tortina through the Munro Doctrine."
Philip was beginning to see daylight.
"But what about the islands?" he asked.
"Oh, the islands," the other laughed. "The outlying group of islands belong to Japan already, and, as to the rest, they are part of the Corel Group. No fortifications could stand on them. A big tidal wave or an earthquake, and they would be gone. Besides, have you ever thought of San Toro?"
"San Toro?" Philip said. "That's the tiny republic lower down on the coast."
"Yes, that is so, and there is the site of one of the finest harbours in the world."
At that moment someone tapped Philip's loquacious acquaintance on the shoulder and he vanished, leaving Saltburn to his own troubled thoughts.
Gradually, by degrees, his mind came back to what was going on beneath him. His father was still speaking, and a moment later Philip heard San Toro mentioned. William Saltburn was suggesting San Toro as a way out of the difficulty. Why not, he said, allow the trouble over Tortina to lapse into forgetfulness, and establish a big treaty port at San Toro? And with that Philip knew beyond a doubt that it was in San Toro that his father's chief interests lay. He was going to break up Sherringborne and disgrace him, he was going to buy those Tortina Concessions at his own price, and eventually get all his money back through the big new scheme in connection with San Toro.
Philip sat just for a moment, turning this discovery over in his mind, then he rose quietly and left the House, and turned into Palace Yard. Outside he met the very man he was looking for, a member of the House on his way home.
"Behold, thou art the man, Yardley," he said, "I suppose you wouldn't mind taking up a little matter of business even at this late hour?"
"You're right there," Yardley replied. "Things are not so good on the Stock Exchange at all that. Which way are you going? Why not come far as my rooms? We can settle the whole matter over a cigar."
Philip turned and walked with his companion. They ware settled presently in Yardley's luxurious chambers.
"I don't want this thing talked about," Philip said. "But I have a fancy to have a flutter on a fairly big scale in those Tortina Concessions. Can you get me forty thousand of them?"
Yardley whistled softly.
"A hundred and forty thousand if you like," he said. "I suppose you know those things are an absolute drug on the market? You can get them at practically your own price, and, besides, there will be heavy 'calls' presently."
"I am quite prepared to risk all that," Philip said. "If I lose the whole sum, there will be no harm done. The question is, will you buy these things for me? I only make one stipulation, and that is that the account is not opened before two o'clock to-morrow. I'll put it all down on paper if you like, but I suppose my word is good enough."
"Your word is quite good enough for me," Yardley said. "And I will undertake this business for you with pleasure of course. It seems to me that I am the only one likely to make anything out of the deal. Still, that is no business of mine."
It was nearly 1 o'clock when Philip strolled home-wards. Once there he reached for the telephone directory, and looked up Sherringborne's number at Borne Abbey. It was very late of course, but he knew that the secretary's office at Borne Abbey was not likely to be closed for the next hour or so. There would certainly be much business transacted following on that night's debate in the House of Commons. Presently an impatient voice spoke at the other end of the wire.
"Is that you, Hardy?" Philip asked. "It's Saltburn speaking to you. Oh, yes. I want you to send over to Baron de la Croisa's cottage and ask him to come and speak to me. Oh, yes, I know that it is very late, and that the Baron has gone to bed, but this matter is of the greatest importance. You can tell the Baron that I want him, and he will come at once. I'm very sorry to trouble you, but the matter admits of no delay. And besides, the business is as much Lord Sherringborne's as it is mine."
There was a certain amount of grumbling and muttering at the other end of the wire, but that did not trouble Saltburn in the least. He hung up the receiver and waited patiently for an hour or so before the bell rippled out again.
It was not a long conversation which Philip had with the Baron, but it seemed to satisfy him, for he went to bed presently in the enviable frame of mind with the consciousness that he had done a good evening's work. He had scarcely finished his breakfast the next morning before de la Croisa appeared.
"You are certainly a wonderful young man," the latter said. "And your ideas are magnificent, too. You are a modern Sir Galahad. In the old days you would have made an excellent Knight of the Round Table. And you have a way, too, of scattering your money about which is truly regal. I suppose you fully realise what you are undertaking?"
"I am undertaking nothing that I cannot meet," Philip said quietly. "And I am going to lose nothing. On the contrary, I am going to gain a large sum of money."
"And you stand to lose all you've got."
"That may be so of course, still, I am quite ready to back my own opinion. I feel perfectly certain that there is going to be no trouble, and that in less than a year's time Sherringborne's great scheme will be established on a firm basis. And we shall have Japan to thank for that. In fact, I shouldn't be at all surprised if that is not part of the whole scheme. At any rate, I shall be able to save Lord Sherringborne. I can relieve him of a terrible anxiety, and when the questions are asked as to whether or not he has holdings in Tortina he will be quite justified in saying that he hasn't. Now, do you think my policy is sound?"
De la Croisa declined to say anything further. As a matter of fact, he knew perfectly well that Philip's policy was a correct one. And he suggested guardedly that Philip was quite old enough and wise enough to exercise his own discretion.
"There is only one thing to be done now," the latter said. "And that is to bring Lord Sherringborne's broker into contact with my man Yardley. I want them to come together quite in a natural way, and as if they had met promiscuously in the ordinary course of business. Your broker has a large block to sell and mine wants to buy. There's the whole thing in a nutshell. I am going to leave this entirely in your hands, because I am quite sure it will be safe with you. Then you can let Lord Sherringborne know later on in the day that he is relieved of his most pressing source of anxiety. Once that is done, it won't be long before he is quite himself again."
"And what are you going to do?" de la Croisa asked.
"Oh, I am going to pursue the policy of masterly inactivity," Philip laughed. "I want to be out of the way where no awkward questions will be asked and where I shall be incapable of doing any further mischief. Besides, I am interested in all those repairs we are making at The Chantrey. I suppose you will be back at Borne Abbey before night? If you are, you might look in at my quarters and let me know if everything has gone off satisfactorily."
"I will do that with pleasure," the Baron said. "I certainly think you are wise in getting out of London as soon as possible. But quite between ourselves, if your forecast turns out to be a shrewd one, it would be awkward for your father."
"It will go a long way to ruining him," Philip said coolly. "But he is bringing it upon himself. It is not a bad thing for a man to realise that he is not infallible. But I think it will be safe to leave my father to himself."
Undoubtedly Sherringborne was getting better. He was reaping the reward now of a careful and well-preserved life. He was still very weak and shaky; he had not altogether got rid of the nervous play of his muscles. But he was up and dressed, and he had insisted upon coming down into one of the drawing-rooms, where he was seated over certain papers after lunch.
Lady Edna was busy writing there, so deeply engrossed indeed that she did not notice the entrance of one of the assistant secretaries with a letter which had just arrived by special messenger. The secretary discreetly disappeared, and Sherringborne proceeded to open the letter in his own deliberate way. As he read, the letter fluttered from his fingers, and he staggered to his feet trembling with excitement from head to foot. A queer cry came from his lips. Something between a laugh and a groan. Lady Edna dropped her pen, and hurried to her father's side in a state of agitation and alarm.
"What is the matter?" she asked.
Sherringborne appeared to recover himself with an effort.
"It is nothing," he said hoarsely. "Whatever you do, don't ring the bell. I shall be quite right in a minute or two. I have had some good news, which has been rather too much for me. I never dreamed of anything like this. This letter is from de la Croisa. But, of course, you wouldn't understand it if I told you. Help me into my chair, my dear. And don't speak to me for a minute or two. This good news will do me more good than all Harley-street put together."
Sherringborne leaned back in his chair for a minute or two with closed eyes. He appeared to be unconscious as to what was going on around him.
But the colour was creeping back to his face, and Edna deemed it more prudent to leave him to himself.
The letter lay face up-wards on the carpet, so that it was almost impossible not to read the dozen lines or so, dashed off there in the Baron's neat handwriting. Almost before Lady Edna was aware of the fact she had read the whole letter.
She could not grasp it all, of course; she had not sufficient business knowledge for that. But she had seen quite enough to realise what had happened. To a great extent, the cloud of disgrace and shame had been lifted from the house of Cranwallis, and for this she had to thank the man whose father had once been the boot-boy in the scullery at Borne Abbey.
A great wave of red dyed Lady Edna's face, but that flush was no flush of shame. She ought to have been cast down and humiliated, she told herself, and here, on the contrary, she was glad to know that Philip Saltburn had done this thing. It was just like him, she admitted to herself. There was no man of her acquaintance capable of an act like this. Here was the class of man her brother ought to have been.
And now there was shame and humiliation in her mind as she contrasted Shorland with Philip Saltburn. She picked up the letter and laid it on the table; then Sherringborne opened his eyes.
He looked a different man already. A certain firmness had come back into his lips, his eyes were eager and en-sanguined.
"Did I tell you what had happened?" he asked.
"Only the outline," Lady Edna said quietly. "But I have read it all for myself. It lay at my feet and I couldn't help seeing it. And, besides, it seems to me that I am directly concerned. Now will you please tell me how exactly we stand. Will you tell me how it comes about that we are beholden to a man who is the son of a convict? I am not using my own expression—it is one of Shorland's elegant metaphors."
It was a long time before Edna began to understand. And there was something halting in Sherringborne's explanation. There were a great many technical and legal words, too, connected with the higher flights of finance, but it seemed to Lady Edna that she had mastered them at length. To a great extent this had been the opening of a new world to her.
She had taken it for granted up to now that Sherringborne owed his position entirely to his rank and his birth. She had always accepted it as an axiom that the masses must be governed by the classes, even after the war, and the power of the new democracy left her still cold and uncomprehending.
She turned this over in her mind for the rest of the afternoon. And she had quite a feminine curiosity now to see de la Croisa, whom she knew would be far more candid than her father. De la Croisa failed to put in an appearance, however; he did not even come in after dinner, as was his invariable custom. And Lady Edna was surprised to find how eager and impatient she was for further details.
She would have all the long evening to herself, for the doctor had been arbitrary in his instructions that Sherringborne should retire early.
It was a perfect night, still and beautiful, so that Lady Edna was tempted out on the terrace. It was no far cry either to the Baron's cottage, and it would be some time yet before the daylight failed. But for once in a way, it fell out that the Baron was not at home. He had gone out to dinner, said the faithful Francois, without giving any idea where he was going.
There was nothing for it but for Lady Edna to retrace her steps. She had reached the park again when she came in contact with the man who was uppermost in her mind. She intended to be gratefully polite and gracious, but she could not keep the tinge of colour from her cheeks or the smile from her eyes, and Philip Saltburn saw it too, and in some dim way he realised that she knew everything. He would have passed her with a few words had she not stopped and held out her hand.
"I was going to see de la Croisa, too," Philip explained. "But if he is not at home it is no use my going further."
He turned and walked by Lady Edna's side. Just for a moment there was an awkward silence between them. It was the girl who spoke first. She turned to Saltburn with a clear gaze and proud, honest eyes, which he admired so much.
"I am very glad I met you, Mr. Saltburn," she said, "because there are certain things which I am bound to say to you. I don't know why you should go out of your way to be so good to us as you are. I am sure you owe us nothing, indeed, when I think of the way in which my unfortunate brother—"
"Need we discuss him?" Saltburn asked.
"I am afraid so. I cannot forget the way in which Shorland insulted you, and the manner in which you behaved. And now, I understand that you have gone further. I understand that you have taken this terrible burden from our shoulders and saddled yourself with the responsibility which is more that one man ought to bear."
"I am sorry to hear it," Philip said.
"Oh, I know all about it, you see. I know that there was a kind of conspiracy between the Baron and yourself, because I saw what he wrote to my father this afternoon. Then I insisted upon being told everything."
"Why?" Philip asked. "Why?"
"It seemed to me that I had a right to be told. And my father has been good enough to give me a lesson in finance. I flatter myself that I am an apt pupil. I am almost able to appreciate your subtle distinction between honesty and business. I almost believe I should be able to pass an examination in that extraordinary operation which is called 'rigging the market.'"
There was a ring of almost passionate scorn in Lady Edna's voice. But the haughtiness had left her face now, and Saltburn could see that her lips were trembling.
"There is no occasion to speak that way," he said. "For, after all, it is no fault of yours that humanity is so poor a thing. Neither is Lord Sherringborne so much to blame. He is very indiscreet if you like, and no public man has a right to dabble in these matters. Besides, it is not fair to the other members of the Government. After all, I have done nothing. I have risked a certain number of thousands of pounds which will not cause me the loss of an hour's sleep if I lose them. There is only one man who will be disappointed."
"And who is that?" Lady Edna asked.
"My father. He will be furious when he knows everything. But he has not behaved very well. Oh, can't you see why I am so anxious to get away from all connection with this modern business? Can't you see why I fell in love with The Chantrey? And there are other reasons which I cannot mention. I have only one great regret, and that is that you found all this out. I didn't want you to know—I didn't even want Lord Sherringborne to know."
"But why?" Lady Edna asked.
Philip laughed somewhat unsteadily.
"Some day, perhaps, I will tell you," he said. "But not yet. Still, this affair has not been without its advantages. I think it has done you good. I am sure it has broadened your outlook on things. It is not altogether right that a girl like yourself should imagine that she is made of superior clay to other people. Now, confess it, Lady Edna, haven't you learnt something from your lesson?"
Lady Edna listened in a dreamy sort of way. It seemed impossible that any ordinary man would be talking to her like that. She told herself that she ought to have been furiously angry, she ought to be haughty and dignified. She should have treated this presumptuous young man with cold, cutting scorn.
But she was not in the least angry. On the contrary, she felt strangely softened, she was conscious of a certain wild, unreasonable happiness for which she would have been utterly at a loss to account.
And the man by her side, though so quiet, so strong, and reliable and calm, was treating her as no man had ever treated her before. Her father had always assumed her to be a girl almost incapable of understanding the machinery of affairs, and yet here was Saltburn talking to her as if she were on a level with himself, and she, instead of being annoyed, was flustered and flattered.
She laughed somewhat unsteadily.
"I ought to be very angry with you," she said.
"I don't see why," Saltburn said. "Besides, it is quite true. But at the same time I am sorry that you found this out, because it handicaps me. You see, I had hopes—but what am I talking about? The beauty of the evening is getting into my head."
"But I must thank you," Lady Edna exclaimed. "Really. I must. What should we have done without you? Oh, I would give a great deal if my brother were like you."
"That is a compliment, I suppose," Saltburn said. "Then you would like me for a brother?"
"Indeed, I would," Lady Edna murmured.
"I am afraid that wouldn't satisfy me," Saltburn said audaciously. "Now, if I could only hear you say that you would like to have—"
He paused, fearful that he had gone too far. And he could see from the red that had flamed into Lady Edna's face that she understood. But she did not break away from him indignantly, she did not turn upon him a face of scorn. Her lips parted in a smile as she walked demurely by his side.
To quote one of his own pet phrases. William Saltburn constantly had his finger on the pulse of the market. It was his business to watch the fluctuations of stocks and shares as carefully as a mother watches her child. It was the same labour of love to him and his unerring instinct never led him far wrong.
It was not a difficult matter, therefore, for him to discover that some audacious outsider, was interfering with his operations in Tortina Concessions. It seemed almost incredible that any ordinary business man should step deliberately into the path of a financial lion like William Saltburn. And there were signs, too, that the thing had been done quite deliberately.
Saltburn was not so much annoyed as curious. He was desirous of knowing the name of the humble individual who had done this thing. In a way, Saltburn was sorry enough. He was a good fighter himself, and therefore a great admirer of courage in others. This was by no means the first time that an opponent had put up a fight, but of recent years such combativeness had been rare, and Saltburn was wont to deplore the fact that the city did not display as much pluck as it used to.
Of course, it was absolutely necessary, and that at once, to break down this audacious person. The thing had had to be done on occasions before, and when it was over, Saltburn had sometimes extended a generously contemptuous hand to the man he had ruined, quite in the ordinary way of business. He gave his confidential secretary instructions now to find out who this man was, and to adopt the ordinary means of getting rid of him. At the end of a fortnight the secretary was bound to admit that he could not find any trace of the foe, and that very reluctantly he had been compelled to fall back upon his employer. Saltburn raved and stormed in his usual way, and then he set out to get the news for himself. But another fortnight elapsed before he stumbled on the truth, and that, more or less, by accident.
Really, it was an excellent joke. To think that Philip, of all men in the world, should be going out of his way to so worry his own father. Saltburn sent for his son to dine with him, and the latter came obediently enough.
"This is a nice way you are treating me," William Saltburn said. "Try one of those cigars, my boy. Even the King can't get tobacco like that. So you are anxious to get rid of your money as soon as possible. I suppose you think that it doesn't matter, seeing that you will get plenty from me some day?"
"I am not so sure of that, sir," Philip said quietly.
William Saltburn smiled pitifully.
"Ah, what it is to be young and sanguine," he said. "If people with no money weren't sanguine, half the officers in the city would have to put their shutters up. Oh, I begin to understand why you have done this foolish thing. It's very magnificent, my boy, but I don't suppose it will make the slightest difference to Lady Edna Cranwallis. She won't be any more likely to marry you because you have succeeded in gambling away a handsome fortune."
"We shall see," Philip smiled.
"My boy, aristocrats hold their noses very high, and profess to have a great contempt for a mere business man, but they are not indifferent to the value of money. Lord bless you, I know them. They despise me, they shrug their shoulders when my name is mentioned, and speak of me as quite an impossible man. But that don't prevent them from coming and fawning and flattering on me, my boy."
"But that isn't friendship," Philip argued.
"That don't prevent them asking me to dinner. Lord bless your soul, I could hang up my hat in half the ducal houses in England, and they would be glad to see me. They are all on the make, Phil, just as well as most people. And you may depend upon it, that Lady Edna has her eye-teeth cut like the rest of 'em."
Philip writhed about uneasily in his chair. This was his father's mood, when he hated most. William Saltburn sat there now with his thumbs in his armholes, his red, strong face filled with complacent good-humoured contempt. The protest which rose to Philip's lips died away again, for what was the good of it? His father would not understand.
"If I lose my money," he said, "well then, I must. But the point is, I don't think I shall. I know in these matters your judgment is much more valuable than mine, but the greatest financier makes mistakes, and I believe you are making one now. Napoleon, did so. In fact, he made more than one mistake."
"Oh, Napoleon was a fool," Saltburn exclaimed.
"Very likely. Possibly because he was puffed up with conceit. If you are right and I am wrong, then I lose a quarter of a million of money. If, on the other hand, I am right, what do you lose?"
Just for a moment William Saltburn looked grave.
"Well, I should have to start again," he admitted. "I've got every penny that I can scrape together in South America. If everything goes right I can pretty well mould her future policy. By gad, I shall be the greatest man in Europe."
"And if Japan stands firm?" Philip asked.
"Oh, why do you go harping on that string? Japan will go her own way. I have told you so before. I know the Japs, and I know what they are after. They cannot fool me."
"And the whole thing is merely a blind to hide a real live policy elsewhere?" Philip suggested. "You see what I mean, I have profound respect for Prince Ito, and—"
But William Saltburn declined to discuss this view. It seemed to him that he was displaying an exemplary amount of patience with a headstrong boy who was bent on ruining himself for purely quixotic motives. As a matter of fact, Philip was telling his father more than he imagined.
William Saltburn chuckled to himself now because it seemed to him that he knew perfectly well why Philip had plunged over the Tortina business. For the time being he had saved the face of Lord Sherringborne, but from William Saltburn's point of view all this could have been managed without risk of losing any of his money.
"You've gone about it the wrong way, my lad," he said. "You should have left it to me. I would have cleared the field for you all right. I could have bent Sherringborne's proud neck and dragged his good name in the mud. And I would have humbled the pride of her ladyship, too. Before she had done with me, she would have been glad enough to marry any decent fellow capable of giving her a comfortable home."
Philip smiled grimly.
"Of course, when matters have blown over, it would be nice for you to be able to say you had married a Cranwallis. And, I daresay I should have been able to have got hold of Borne Abbey for you. But you must needs come blundering into it like this. You expect to find Lady Edna grateful, don't you? But she won't even thank you, my boy. And when you ask her to marry you, she will treat you like dirt."
It was absolutely impossible for Philip to argue with crass ignorance like this. It seemed to him that he had never seen his father so hopelessly vulgar before.
"Why do you want to wreck Sherringborne?" he asked.
William Saltburn's face flushed darkly.
"He's such an insolent beggar," he said. "He is so infernally polite, and yet, at the back of it all, you can see that he thinks that he is condescending. Break him up, root and branch, I say. Drag him down into the mud. Let him know eventually that the boy who used to be in his father's kitchen is now the master of his fortunes. Lord bless you, I've got no personal animosity against the man. But, all the same, I am going to bring his nose to the mud. And when I tell him who I am—"
"You are looking forward to that?" Philip asked quietly.
"That's the idea," William Saltburn said.
"Ah, well, in that case you will be disappointed. You may be surprised to hear that Lord Sherringborne knows that already. You see, they had some inkling of it even when I was at Oxford. It may perhaps be news to you, but my friends up there used to call me 'the Convict.'"
"Called you what?" Saltburn shouted.
"It was all done in a good-natured way, of course, and it never made the slightest difference to me, but the fact remains. It was Shorland who first of all began to talk. He had it from some old stable help who used to be hanging about the house when you were a boy at Borne Abbey. Shorland, of course, is a bounder of the worst possible type, and he was good enough to acquaint Lady Edna with your antecedents before my face."
"And what did you say?" Saltburn asked.
"Well, in most houses that would have been a very awkward moment, indeed. It would be impossible for me to tell you how well Lady Edna behaved. They are treating me just as if I were a guest in the house, and, in addition to that, at any rate, till quite recently, neither Sherringborne nor his daughter knew that I had gone out of my way to help them. And these are the people you want to ruin."
William Saltburn pulled sulkily at his cigar. Just for the moment the tobacco which the King could not get seemed to have lost its flavour. If Philip were correct, then it seemed to William Saltburn that for once in his life he had done a foolish thing. And highly successful men with a firm belief in themselves do not care to make these confessions.
"Oh! nonsense," he said. "They are only civil to you because they are afraid of you. Of course they are afraid of me, which comes to the same thing. I am not saying that I have not made a mistake."
"That is very magnanimous of you," Philip said.
"Now, I don't want any of your impudence, my lad. Still, the thing is done, and there's an end of it. You'll be humble enough before Christmas comes. Of course, it's rather a staggerer for me to find that Sherringborne knows all this. Still, my policy is my policy, and I wouldn't alter it if Lady Edna came to me on her bended knees and asked me to alter it."
"I wouldn't wait for that," Philip said dryly.
"You go your own way and I'll go mine. And when you've lost all your money come along to your old dad, and he'll set you on your feet again. The fact of the matter is, Philip, that these people have spoilt you. You are a young man with very little knowledge of the world, and you are flattered. I have seen the same thing often before."
Philip was content to let it go at that. He got away presently somewhat relieved to find that he had emerged from the interview without the suggestion of a quarrel.
He had expected to meet his father in one of the latter's most aggressive moods. He had looked forward to dark threats, unless he got out of his position without delay. On the other hand, he had been treated very much like a spoilt child, who insists on eating something that is not good for him. Therefore, on the whole, he went down again to Borne Abbey on very good terms with himself.
He was glad to find Sherringborne so much better; he did not fail to note the warmth of Lady Edna's smile, and the friendly pressure of the handshake. De la Croisa was in good spirits, too, for the threatening cloud seemed to be lifting, though as yet the Baron had had not definite news from his envoy in St. Lucia.
The Baron was in the garden arguing, as usual, with McKillop as to the latter's treatment of his roses. Sherringborne was there too, listening to the quarrel with a smile of amusement on his face.
"You'll stay and lunch with us, Saltburn, of course," he said. "I am rather expecting an important guest, but that will not make any difference if you will excuse me directly after-wards, McKillop appears to be getting the worst of it."
The gardener retreated presently, defeated but defiant, and the Baron took Philip aside.
"I rather wanted to have a little chat with you," he said. "Do you know, my dear young friend, you have behaved exceedingly well. In fact, a great deal better than I knew of. The most satisfactory part is that Lady Edna knows. I didn't tell her."
"And I can safely say the same thing," Philip replied. "My dear Baron, you don't think for a moment—"
"Certainly not," de la Croisa smiled. "I am quite sure you would not stoop to a subterfuge like that. Of course, you have your pride. When you ask a girl to be your wife you would expect her to marry you for yourself. Now, come along, and let's go in to lunch. McKillop is an obstinate old man, and an argument with him always gives me an appetite."
Luncheon was served in one of the smaller dining-rooms, and Sherringborne stood on the terrace consulting his watch. A moment or two later a car came up to the front, and a little dark man jumped out full of apologies.
"Not at all, my dear Prince," Sherringborne said. "My daughter and the Baron, you know, of course. This is Mr. Philip Saltburn—his Highness Prince Ito."
Philip bowed gravely enough. He was quite sincere in saying that he was glad to meet the distinguished Japanese statesman. He was an astute young man enough, and it needed no outsider to tell him that this lunch party was something more than mere conventional politeness on Sherringborne's part.
"I happened to be staying in the neighbourhood," the Prince said. "And as I have not seen Lord Sherringborne since his illness, I thought I might take the liberty of inviting myself here to lunch. This is quite a friendly visit. Indeed, it would be sacrilege almost to discuss politics on such a heavenly day. Besides, I believe Lord Sherringborne has been strictly forbidden to do any work for the present."
"That is so," Sherringborne said gravely.
"Then I will bow to the doctor's orders," the Prince said. "Mr. Saltburn, I am pleased to meet you. I know all about your father, of course. We have been antagonists on one or two occasions, and I am bound to confess that I have not always had the best of it. But my time may come."
All this was said easily enough, and in the best possible English. Indeed, but for the sallowness of his skin and the Oriental slant of his dark eyes, Prince Ito might have passed for a European gentleman of leisure. He was dressed quite in the English style, and his brown flannel suit fitted him to perfection.
At the same time, there was a certain half-amused gleam in his eyes as he spoke of his tourneys with William Saltburn. He suggested to Philip that the next time on which the diplomats and capitalists met on the field, Saltburn was not likely to get the best of it.
It was an interesting luncheon, for the Prince spoke surprisingly well, and Philip regretted when at length the meal came to an end. He went off presently with de la Croisa and Lady Edna to see something out of the common in the way of roses, leaving Sherringborne and his distinguished guest to their cigars and coffee in the sunshine out on the terrace.
"You are looking far better than I expected," the Prince said. "I am glad now that I took the liberty of coming over to see you. Now, when do you expect to be in harness again? I am bound to admit, my dear lord, that the question is not altogether a disinterested one. You see, I am quite candid."
"Well, I am practically in harness now," Sherringborne explained. "It's true, I haven't been in town, but I have transacted a lot of business. You see, that's one of the advantages of being in the Upper House. If there's anything wanting to be said to me, speak freely by all means."
Prince Ito hesitated for a moment.
"I was wondering," he said slowly, "if you had done anything with those Tortinas. Of course, it is quite outside our province, but in certain circumstances any action of yours might make a difference to us."
The Prince spoke with his eyes on the distant landscape. The expression on his face was one of peace and contentment with the beauty of his surroundings.
"My policy is plain enough," Sherringborne said. "I always believe in playing with all my cards on the table. If I could carry out my scheme, thousands of people would be saved from ruin, and Tortina would be in a better position than ever. But, obviously, my dear Ito, it is the policy of Saltburn to thwart me at every turn."
"Aided by certain other capitalists," Ito said. "By the way, I was rather taken with that young man who was lunching here to-day. Of course, I know who he is, but he seems to have been made from quite different stuff from his father. And he is not operating on his father's advice, either. Really, you ought to be proud to find a son of William Saltburn's putting his money on the Secretary of Foreign Affairs."
The words dropped carelessly enough from Ito's lips; he appeared to be given over to the enjoyment of his cigar. Sherringborne shot a keen glance at him. He was wondering how much the Prince knew.
"Philip Saltburn is a fine young fellow," he said. "Of course, I know he has been buying Tortinas on a big scale; the Baron told me this."
"So I understand," Ito said. "You see, it is my business to know all these things. It struck me at the time how strange it was that we should see the father on one side, and the son on the other. William Saltburn, of course, is all for himself. He is one of the cleverest and, at the same time, one of the most dangerous financiers in Europe, and, between ourselves, my dear Sherringborne, I should not be sorry to see him safely out of the way. There would be no possibility of a war between Japan and America at the present moment if it were not for Saltburn and the group of capitalists who always follow his lead. I think you agree with me."
"Precisely so," Sherringborne replied. "But is there going to be war between Japan and the States? If there is, then my political career is at an end. I shall go down to posterity as a failure or something worse. If, on the other hand, this crisis can be averted, then I shall probably be hailed as a great public benefactor. But still, I have an idea that you people won't fight. To be perfectly candid, my dear Prince, I was rather hoping to see you stand up against America."
"Oh, you flatter us," the Prince smiled.
"Not at all, not at all. Any firm action with regard to the Tortina question on your part is certain to command our thoughtful consideration. And that Monroe Doctrine can be carried too far."
"Again you flatter me," the Prince said quietly. "It is a great triumph for us to think that our English allies treat us so seriously. You don't know how you encourage us. If you are speaking on behalf of his Majesty's Government—"
"What more do you want?" Sherringborne asked. "In this matter I am his Majesty's Government. At any rate, I have the Cabinet behind me, and I have quite a free hand in dealing with matters within my department. Of course, you can't expect me to take sides. Our alliance is not altogether an offensive and defensive one. But as we made it, we needn't go into that And there is one thing, my dear Prince, that you can rely on. If, unfortunately, there should be a quarrel between America and Japan, which we should all very much deplore—"
Sherringborne paused, and Prince Ito smiled.
"Yes, it would be dreadful, wouldn't it?" the latter said. "But, of course, it is within the bounds of possibility. I must say we are more or less prepared for it. And nobody can say we are not justified. We must have room for expansion on the Pacific. We cannot sit quietly down and see St. Lucia practically an armed port under American suzerainty. A treaty port, if you like, with Japan, exercising a benevolent neutrality on the outer islands. With a navy like ours—"
"America will choose her own time," Sherringborne said.
"Because of her geographical advantages. Well, that is the position we stand in to-day, and, really, between ourselves, if I felt quite sure that England would 'keep the ring' between America and Japan in case of trouble, why—but really, I am talking at haphazard. The beauty of the day has got into my head. I will say no more."
"As a matter of fact, we should," Sherringborne said. "We are only idly speculating, of course. Without wishing to hurt your feelings, you are bound to admit that a quarrel between America and Japan can only have one issue."
"I quite agree with you," the Prince said dryly. "And so, whilst the trouble is acute, we can rely upon England to stand by and act the part of policeman."
Ito uttered the words quietly enough, but there was a certain suggestion of gravity in his tone which Sherringborne perfectly understood.
"I will give my hand on that," he said. "And my solemn assurance that such would be our policy. But, of course, you must guard against any change of Government. I think we are good for another year or so, and perhaps more. But don't, my dear Prince, allow yourself to take this fact into consideration. Our foreign policy is fortunately practically continuous, and my successor will probably take the same view."
"Then that is settled," Ito cried gaily. "Does it strike you, my dear friend, that we may be making history at this particular moment? One of the greatest fascinations in the career of a diplomatist is his opportunity for making history."
"Well, keep it out of the papers," Sherringborne laughed. "The most exciting history is that which never gets into print at all. It is really very good of you to undertake this absolutely out of pure friendship."
"I owe you more than you know," Ito said half gravely.
"My dear Prince, you wiped out the debt today, anyway," Sherringborne said. "Directly you define your policy, you enable me to tackle Tortina with a free hand."
Prince Ito showed his teeth in a smile.
"We quite understand one another," he said. "And we keep our lightheartedness to ourselves. And now, my lord, I must really drag myself away. It is very charming here, of course, but I have certain matters to attend to which will not brook further delay. I hope you don't mind my coming to see you in this unceremonious fashion. We have so many formal interviews that an occasional unbending—"
The Prince was gone at last, and Sherringborne sat there gazing in front of him, and quite lost to the fact that his cigar had gone out. Then came de la Croisa, who dropped into the chair vacated by the Prince, and glanced significantly at his companion. Sherringborne came to himself with a start.
"Well?" de la Croisa asked. "Well?"
"It's practically settled," Sherringborne whispered. "I know I can trust you. There will be no trouble between America and Japan over those Tortina Concessions. We can defy William Saltburn now."
"Perhaps," the Baron murmured. "Perhaps."
London was very full for Parliament was sitting late that autumn and Christmas was at hand and there was no sign as yet that overworked legislators would be relieved of their duties.
Those who expected that Parliament would be prorogued to a later date were disappointed, for both Houses were hard at it again before the end of January. There was the usual amount of grumbling, of course. Members professed that they could not see any reason for this unwonted display of energy. There was nothing very startling before the country, and no particular crises, indeed nothing but an excuse that business was behindhand, and needed bringing up to date.
On the other hand, there were one or two thoughtful people who saw trouble ahead.
Possibly the trouble might be averted. There was no knowing. Still in case of emergencies, Parliament was sitting, and the King's Ministers would know how to deal with anything that came along.
Meanwhile there was nothing to worry about, and the papers were unusually quiet. One or two of them hinted darkly of impending troubles in the East. They prophesied as to what was likely to happen when America and Japan were at loggerheads, but very few people regarded this as serious.
There was one man, however, who was by no means easy in his mind. Saltburn had been so sure of his ground, so certain of his facts, that he had not worried himself in the least. What mysterious hand was at work in high politics between America and Japan over the Tortina affair? What hindered progress? And yet the delay continued.
At any rate, if the little Far Eastern Power was bluffing, she was doing it remarkably well. She was busy in other directions, too. It only remained now to see how long the game was going to last. And if the worst came about, America might make a concession and leave Japan without any pretext for an appeal to arms. What then?
All the same, Saltburn was worried, and perhaps that was the reason why he had taken no steps towards the crushing of Lord Sherringborne. And, on the face of it, Sherringborne's position seemed to be stronger than ever. He had played a strong hand with regard to Tortina financial obligations, and people who, a few months ago, had been disposed to regard him as a poor financier, now began to speak of him as a great genius.
Saltburn had smiled to himself, because it seemed to him that he could pull down this glittering structure at any moment he pleased. He had his own agents in St Lucia, and when the time came they would know how to act.
Meanwhile Sherringborne was up in town, giving his brilliant dinners and receptions, and Lady Edna was apparently in her element as one of the most charming and successful hostesses.
Sherringborne preferred to dispense his hospitality at his own town house, and there was a big reception this evening, which was not likely to be unduly prolonged as Ministers generally were due to take part in the big debate. Saltburn had been asked; indeed it seemed to him that of late Sherringborne had gone out of his way to make himself agreeable.
And this easy politeness and calm ignoring of past disagreeableness was a thing which always puzzled and irritated Saltburn. He did not like the method, he could not understand two people differing without being ready to fly at one another's throats like a couple of dogs over a bone. All his life he had fought for all he could get, he had had little or no mercy for his opponent; indeed he had the primeval instinct uppermost.
He was going to the reception, of course. He came along to it presently, elbowing his way with characteristic fashion through a glittering mob of men and women until he had fought his way to the top of the great black marble staircase, where Lady Edna stood receiving her father's guests.
She looked very stately, very dignified and beautiful, as she stood there with a gracious smile for Saltburn. Indeed, he could not disguise from himself that she was receiving him with the same lofty amiability she had for a duchess. And there was no suggestion of any particular desire to please him, which Saltburn was compelled to admit. From his point of view, it seemed absurd to suppose that this gracious goddess would consent to share Philip's lot unless she were first humiliated and her pride brought low. Assuredly Philip was going to work in the wrong way.
But Saltburn had other things to occupy his attention this evening. He was anxious to see Van Hasvell, the diplomatist who had the American affairs in hand in London just now. The regular Ambassador was away on sick leave, and the brilliant and fascinating Hasvell had been temporarily selected for the post.
Saltburn knew Hasvell well, he knew the latter to be no great diplomatist, he was a great deal fonder of the theatre and the supper party. Of late, it seemed to Saltburn that Van Hasvell was keeping out of his way, and the time was coming when that elusive individual must be shown that Saltburn meant to stand no nonsense.
Saltburn found him presently in the centre of an admiring group of women, who seemed to be hanging on his lightest word. He was quite the typical diplomatist of sensational fiction. His clothes fitted him to perfection, not a single hair of his well-waxed moustache was out of place. A certain contempt filled Saltburn and rose to his eyes. He strolled into the little group of rustling silks and flashing diamonds, and caught Van Hasvell by the elbow quite unceremoniously.
"Here," he said. "I want you."
The American's face flushed. All the same he turned to his fair companion and murmured some excuse.
"What can I do for you?" he asked.
"Oh, cut all that out," Saltburn said brusquely. "I'm not a society butterfly, and you weren't when I first met you. And why have you been keeping out of my way lately?"
"Is that so?" Van Hasvell smiled. "You forget, my dear Saltburn, I am a man of affairs. I have so many calls on my time. And as to keeping out of your way—well—you are too suspicious, my friend. Now, what do you want?"
Saltburn thrust out his chin doggedly.
"I want you to tell me the truth," he said. "If you have fooled me, if any of you have fooled me—but you know what I am, and you know what to expect. When you came over here there was a perfect understanding between us. But what I want to know is, how much longer is this going on? I begin to see that I made a mistake."
"We all do," Van Hasvell said sententiously.
"Oh, do we? Well, then, let me tell you that when I make a mistake thousands of people have got to suffer for it. Now, I've been getting some information lately, and it rather startled me. Egad, I began to think that the Japs are going to get their way after all."
Van Hasvell smiled almost superciliously.
"Oh, really," he said. "But I can't discuss it with you, Saltburn. Then, you see, I was a mere business man; now I am a representative of my country at St. James's. You see the difference?"
"The poacher turned gamekeeper," Saltburn said grimly. "What I want to know is, how this thing is going to be settled."
"I am exceedingly sorry, my dear Saltburn," Van Hasvell said smoothly. "I assure you I have done all I can. I have been your partner more than once—but I was in Wall-street then, remember. You are not really suggesting that, for the sake of old times, I should discuss Government matters with you? Besides, you're astute enough to draw your own conclusions. And I am not the American Ambassador, anyway."
"So that's how the land lies," Saltburn grumbled. "And I was a fool to trust you as far as I have. Still, if you will only tell me—"
"I can tell you nothing," Van Hasvell said. "Sherringborne is a friend of yours. Go and ask him, ask him if he believes there is any chance of a war between America and Japan."
"He'd know, of course," Saltburn admitted sulkily.
At the same moment, Sherringborne walked smilingly by in animated conversation with one of the secretaries from the American Embassy. Saltburn began to wonder why the idea had not occurred to him before. Assuredly Sherringborne knew whether there was a chance or not of an outbreak of hostilities on the Pacific. Would it be possible, Saltburn wondered, to force the truth from his host? For the moment the accident of circumstance had saved Sherringborne, but the danger was by no means over. There might be trouble arising from the direction of St Lucia yet.
Saltburn watched his host moodily from under his heavy eyebrows. Van Hasvell, standing there, twisting his moustache, seemed to see what was passing through the other's mind.
"You might be able to tap Sherringborne," he said. "By the way, what has become of that erratic daughter-in-law of his? I haven't heard a word about her for months. She went off with a great flourish of trumpets to give a series of performances in Tortina, and there hasn't been a word about her in the papers since."
Saltburn smiled grimly.
"She's not well, I believe," he said. "At any rate, I understand that she has gone somewhere near San Francisco with a view to giving herself a rest. It is a habit these spoilt actresses have got. At any rate, Shorland seems to take it calmly enough. I was talking to him about his wife a day or two ago, and he didn't seem to know any more about her than I did. I suppose he has got tired of her. These sort of marriages never last. Besides, Shorland is a vicious young fool that any woman's too good for. I suppose there will be a flaming divorce there some day, and then the present Lady Shorland will console herself with a Russian grand duke. Not that it matters."
Saltburn turned away as if he were done with the subject, and Van Hasvell discreetly disappeared. Meanwhile William Saltburn sat there, amidst those uncongenial surroundings, revolving a scheme in his mind. He wondered he had not thought of it before. He was still busy with his project when Philip came along, obviously in search of somebody. A certain sort of gratified pride filled Saltburn as he looked at his son. At any rate, whatever his feelings were, Philip appeared to be perfectly at home there. He came over to his father's side and sat down just far a moment.
"I thought you weren't coming," he said.
"I changed my mind," Saltburn answered. "I wanted to have a little talk with my young friend Van Hasvell, and I knew I should find him here."
"I hope you are satisfied with him," Philip said.
"Now, what the deuce do you mean by that?" Saltburn demanded. "As a matter of fact, I am not a bit satisfied with him. I begin to believe that those people have actually had the audacity to try and humbug me. Humbug me; mind. But I think I showed Van Hasvell to-night that he's got a man to deal with. And you will find that Japan dare not go too far. You get out of it, my boy, as quickly as you can. Sell out, while you have the chance."
Philip shook his head smilingly. There rose to his mind the face and figure of Prince Ito as he had seen him on that eventful afternoon on the terrace at Borne Abbey.
"I think I'll hold on," he said quietly,
"Oh, very well, my boy, please yourself. You've got your lesson to learn, and you might as well learn it now as years hence, when you have a family to provide for and you can ill spare it."
"I'll go my own way," Philip said. "If I am wrong, then I shall be ready to risk it. But I have a big prize to play for, and I must play according to my own lights."
"Lady Edna," Saltburn scowled. "Lady Edna is—"
"Lady Edna. Pardon me, father, but there are some things that you don't understand, and this is one of them."
"Oh, is it?" Saltburn sneered. "Made of different clay, and all that sort of thing. If you take my advice—".
Philip smilingly refused to continue the discussion. Where his own point of view was concerned he could be quite as obstinate as his father.
"I am not going to be frightened," he said. "I am going to stick to my guns, and see the thing through to the end. As a matter of fact, I think I shall increase my holding. Do you happen to be going down to the House tonight? If you are I'll go with you. I want to see Yardley."
"Oh, I'm going to the House right enough," Saltburn said grimly. "I ordered my car to be here at half-past 10."
The spacious rooms were rapidly emptying now. Most of the guests connected with politics had disappeared, and there was nothing for it but to follow them.
Saltburn left Philip in the lobby, where the latter had to wait until the man he had come in search of was found. The great hall was filled with a crowd of journalists and others waiting the issue of the debate, which would be known presently. As Philip sat on the stone ledge of the corridor he was accosted, to his surprise, by de la Croisa. The latter had a soft hat pulled down over his brows. His coat-collar covered him to the ears.
"This is a surprise," Philip said. "You are the last person I expected to meet here, Baron. Are you afraid of being recognised by some older member?"
De la Croisa smiled just a little sadly.
"There is no place that changes so swiftly," he said, "as a House of Commons. Ten years here is equivalent to a generation. There aren't a dozen men in the House to-day who would recognise me if I took a seat on one of the front benches. And if you were to mention my name to two-thirds of your legislators they wouldn't know whom you meant."
"But what are you doing here?" Philip asked.
"Oh, put it down to idle curiosity," the Baron said. "But it is not quite that. I saw you come in with your father just now. Has he begun to realise yet that he stands a good chance of finding himself a poor man before many months are over his head?"
"That's what I tell him," Philip said. "But he seems quite sure of his ground. He tells me there will be no trouble in South America. And my father speaks with authority."
"Really," De la Croisa said. "And how long would these suggested concessions satisfy the Japanese? And suppose the Japanese take matters into their own hands? Suppose they refuse to be satisfied? It is extremely unlikely, but it is well to be prepared."
"Oh, I quite follow you," Philip said. "But I have thought out my policy and I am going to hold to it. I think my father is making a great mistake. But I cannot permit him to spoil my prospects, not even if it means his financial ruin."
De la Croisa, looked at Philip with frank admiration.
"That's exactly what I hoped you would do," he said. "Within a week we shall have some important news from Washington. In my opinion there will be a compromise."
"You have special knowledge?" Philip asked.
"Ah, my dear boy, that is not for me to say. I will trust you as far as I can. You have behaved very well indeed in every way. And I know you will do a great deal to help Lord Sherringborne, to say nothing of Lady Edna. Some day or other, I hope to see you one of the family, and then you will understand why I have found it necessary to interfere. By the way, isn't that your friend Yardley coming in your direction? I wish you would ask him to take me up in the Gallery. My man seems to have forgotten me. You had better come along. We can talk matters over there, and besides, it isn't so draughty."
Philip raised no objection. Decidedly it was more comfortable in the Gallery, and it was possible to discuss matters there while the debate below was dragging its weary length along. The Speaker himself did not happen to be in the Chair, and his Deputy was ruling the House with a lenient hand. Members were taking advantage of it accordingly.
It was one of those debates, too, which lend themselves to discursiveness, so that matters were dragged in which appeared to have no connection with the question.
There arose presently on the Opposition side one of those notorious bores who inflicted himself on all occasions on a long-suffering House. He was terribly in earnest, as bores always are; he appeared to be imbued with a desire to draw the attention of the House to a matter quite outside the scope of the debate. He flourished in his hand a copy of an evening newspaper, from which he proceeded to read an extract.
"When I am on the subject, Sir," he said. "I should like to ask the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs a question which affects the country at large and also the right honourable gentleman's chief as well. I am quoting from the 'Evening Echo,' which I have every reason to regard as reliable authority. Some time ago a certain nobleman married a lady prominently connected with the stage. Honourable members will now know whom I mean without my mentioning names. The mere fact that the lady is by birth a foreign subject makes little or no difference to the question. Now that she has become the wife of a nobleman, and consequently one day will be the head of a great household, I claim that she comes under the protection of the British Government. That this lady should have chosen after her marriage to continue her profession is no business of mine—"
Ironical cries and laughter broke out at this point. Philip could see that de la Croisa was deeply interested.
"Don't you see whom he is talking about?" the Baron said. "The poor man is alluding to Lady Shorland."
"Oh, members may laugh if they like," the speaker went on. "But it is a most intolerable thing that an unprotected woman should be treated as if she were a prisoner, and detained against her will in a foreign country, simply because she claims what are, apparently, her rights. Personally, I am not responsible for the statements. It is all set out in detail in the 'Evening Echo' so that honourable members may read it for themselves. It seems to me almost incredible that the relatives of this unhappy lady have not seen their way to interfere. They are merely relatives by marriage, it is true, but seeing that one of them is Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, this delay to me is all the more amazing."
"What on earth is he talking about?" Philip asked.
"It's quite plain," the Baron said. "This is just one of those choice bits of scandal which an ass like the speaker likes to get hold of. I have no doubt that it is a beautiful story dished up by one of the evening papers with a view to making a sensation. You can just hear in that an element of truth which makes the lie all the more outrageous. You see, Lady Shorland is in Tortina; she did go there to fulfill a professional engagement, and she certainly has claims out there, which I had hoped to have settled some time since. The plain fact is that Lady Shorland has gone to St. Lucia on business that is entirely professional. The idea of her being detained by the authorities is so much preposterous nonsense. The whole thing is a put up job to cause Sherringborne annoyance. I should not wonder if the speaker had been inspired by—"
De la Croisa broke off abruptly.
"I think I see what you mean," Philip said quietly. "You would not be surprised to find that my father is at the bottom of this. I hope not, but—"
De la Croisa's silence was eloquent enough. He rose from his seat presently and expressed a wish to see a copy of the "Evening Echo."
He waited long enough to hear the loquacious speaker very properly snubbed by the Under-Secretary in a few words, then they passed through the Lobby and out into the street. There were a score of newsboys humming around, all of them crying their wares and calling attention to the strange story of the missing actress.
There were other papers, too, by this time, who did not hesitate to mention Lady Shorland by name. De la Croisa purchased a copy of each of the sheets, and thrust them in his pocket.
"Now, find me some place where I can read these, if you please," he said. "I don't want to go to the Club if I can help it. I might be recognised."
"That's easily settled," Philip said. "We can do no better than go to my own rooms. I shall be delighted to act as your host. Let me call a cab."
De la Croisa accepted the offer, together with a subsequent cigarette, and something exceedingly mild in the way of whisky and soda. Then he proceeded to read aloud an extract from one of the papers; Philip listened, carefully.
"Further details are to hand concerning the mysterious disappearance of a well-known actress, connected by marriage with one of our greatest families, who recently went out to fulfil an engagement at Tortina. According to reliable authority, the lady in question claims to be the daughter of a distinguished statesman, who up to a short time ago occupied a position of trust in the Tortina Government. We understand that this statesman a few months ago rashly took his life, in consequence of a certain unfortunate speculation which threatened to ruin his career. Without mentioning names, we may say that the individual in question was known in London as well as he was known in St. Lucia. So far as education and training were concerned, he was as much English as he was Spanish. The heroine of this romance naturally enough claimed all her father's papers; and proceeded to take possession of them without troubling the Government officials. But, for diplomatic reasons, the Government sought to regain possession of the papers, and as the fair owner resolutely declines to part with them, she is not permitted for the moment to leave the country. Further details of this strange story, will be awaited with the most lively interest."
"What do you think of that?" the Baron asked.
"I begin to understand," said Philip slowly, "that those papers are of the utmost importance—"
"To Sherringborne," the Baron said. "Precisely."
It seemed to Philip that his eyes were growing clearer now. The problem began to straighten itself out before him, and he marvelled that he had not seen it all before. He had before him a vivid vision of the ghastly night at Borne Abbey when Sherringborne had collapsed and half his secret had been spoken.
Beyond all question, it had been worse than Philip had anticipated. He had guessed early on that Sherringborne had done a foolish thing, but till now he had not been aware that the Foreign Secretary had troden very closely on the heel of political indiscretion. It was no matter, of course, for a society scandal, but still, if all the facts came to light, not only would Sherringborne's political career be at an end, but he would come in for a large measure of social condemnation as well, in fact, just the thing that a certain section of the Press revels in.
"I think you follow me," de la Croisa said.
"I am sorry to say I do," Philip replied. "I begin to realise what El Murid's cowardice means to Sherringborne. But I thought the danger was averted. I had hoped that our noble friend was free. May I be quite candid, Baron?"
"My dear boy, I want you to be candid. I should not be talking to you like this if it were otherwise. And I seem to have made the mistake of believing that you knew everything."
"Ah, that's just the delusion I was under," Philip said, "I didn't know that Lady Shorland was the daughter of El Murid, and I didn't guess that she has gone out to St. Lucia on purpose to get possession of her father's papers. Are you afraid that they will contain compromising details?"
"Well, not quite," de la Croisa replied. "I had better tell you everything, Philip. Now, Sherringborne behaved very foolishly. He got frightened and lost his head. There was no reason whatever why he shouldn't invest his money in those Tortina Concessions."
"But as Foreign Secretary—"
"Ah. I see your point, my boy. Now a man like Sherringborne must invest his money somewhere. There is no reason why a Foreign Secretary should be debarred from speculating in any part of the world. And Sherringborne was being hard pushed. Shorland was a great expense to him. And that's why he jumped at the chance of making a big fortune in South America. You must remember at that time there was no trouble between Japan and America, and none likely. But there you are, there is the trouble, and here is Sherringborne largely interested in the State of Tortina and Foreign Secretary at the same time."
"I see what you mean," Philip said, "Roughly speaking, it's like a criminal sitting on his own jury."
"Ah, there you have it," de la Croisa cried. "You have put your finger on the spot. Mind you, Sherringborne could never have anticipated this, and when it came home to him, it threw him clean off his mental balance. Perhaps he ought to have made a clean breast of it to the Premier, but he went on, hoping for the best, and I am afraid he was largely guided by me in his policy of silence. I thought, and I think now, that the whole trouble will blow over, in which case Sherringborne will get all his money back, and your father will be the poorer of anything up to a million. To be quite candid, Philip, your father and his group are behaving very badly. I regard all international capitalists as more or less criminals."
"I am afraid you are right," Philip said. "But what's all this got to do with Lady Shorland?"
"Good boy," de la Croisa said approvingly. "You bring me back to the point. Now, the whole business is a conspiracy between Santa Anna, the President of the Tortina Republic, and William Saltburn. I guessed that at once, and when I heard of El Murid's suicide I was certain of it. Because, you see, it was El Murid who dragged his old friend Sherringborne into the business. Then Sherringborne appealed to me as an old President of Tortina, to save him. I was going there myself if necessary; indeed, I might even go now, but when I met Lady Shorland and recognised her as El Murid's daughter, then I began to see a better and a safer way. No one in Tortina knows who Lady Shorland is, though she was born in St. Lucia, and I decided to take her into my confidence. She has gone out on purpose to get possession of her father's papers. If we can find what we want, then we have Santa Anna in our grip. Because, my dear Philip, I am convinced of the fact that my old friend El Murid did not commit suicide at all."
"You think he was murdered?" Philip cried.
"Precisely. And at the instigation of Santa Anna. El Murid knew too much, and therefore it was necessary to get him out of the way, and if Lady Shorland, with that wonderful courage of hers, gets the evidence she needs, then we shall hear no more of this dispute between Japan and America, because we shall be able to remove Santa Anna and replace his government with an honest one. You will see what that would mean."
"I am beginning to understand," Philip said, "Then you think that Sherringborne has acted wisely in not taking the Premier into his confidence?"
"I do," the Baron replied. "There will be plenty of time for that if the worst comes to the worst. If Sherringborne adopts that course, then the facts must be made public, which means the downfall of the Ministry. You can understand why this should be postponed as long as possible. You go your own way—I am confident it is the right one, and if I have to take a little trip abroad, as I anticipate, I will see you before I go. I may have to leave at any moment."
But things did not fall out quite in accordance with the baron's programme. He breakfasted the following morning, and, having despatched a telegram calling his faithful Francois to London, sat down with the 'Times' before him.
He found the papers particularly interesting, especially with regard to the proceedings in the House of Commons the previous night. All the morning journals were full of it; they all gave more or less interesting details, friendly or otherwise to Sherringborne, according to their political view.
Some of them were not at all pleasant reading, and the Baron smiled grimly behind his eyeglass. He was still studying those paragraphs with his intimate inner knowledge when a note from Lady Edna was brought to him. Lady Edna would be glad if the Baron would come round and see her before lunch. He found her at her coldest and most dignified, though there was just a suspicion of anger and mortification in her eyes.
"I sent for you," Lady Edna said. "I thought perhaps you might be able to give me an explanation. I asked my father, but he practically told me to mind my own business. Just as if it were not my own business. I suppose you have seen the papers?"
"I generally do," the Baron said mildly.
"Of course you have. But if you are going to treat me the same as everybody else, I shall be sorry I sent for you. I am ashamed that we should be mixed up in a scandal like this."
"But is it a scandal?" the Baron asked humbly.
"It is dreadful to think of the future Countess of Sherringborne spoken of in this fashion. What does it all mean, Baron? What have we done to be talked about like this? And why does my father treat me like a child? Surely I am old enough to understand?"
"You would be in the ordinary way," de la Croisa said coolly. "But, to be perfectly candid, my dear lady, you are a veritable child in these matters. You have always lived in an atmosphere of your own. You have always deluded yourself with the idea that the Cranwallises are under the special protection of Providence. But, really, their great advantage lies in the fact that their position and money have placed them outside the ring of ordinary temptation. But, for my part, I would rather have young Saltburn for a son than Shorland. Now, wouldn't you?"
Lady Edna flushed angrily.
"I have a very high opinion of Mr. Saltburn," she admitted. "I can never forget that he has been instrumental in saving us from a great trouble, and he did it in the nicest possible fashion. But that is not the point, Baron de la Croisa."
"Ah, now, you are angry with me," the Baron said. "Be reasonable, my child. Do you expect me to tell you diplomatic secrets that your father declines to discuss? If you take my advice you will keep out of this business altogether."
Lady Edna gave a scornful gesture.
"Oh, you may toss your head if you like," the Baron went on. "I don't mind telling you that I am going to St. Lucia myself to put matters right. And, if you only knew it, Lady Shorland is behaving exceedingly well—how well you will know in time. You have much to be thankful for, my dear child."
Strangely enough, Lady Edna did not seem to resent this air of patronage; on the contrary, her face relaxed and her lips grew unsteady. She turned to de la Croisa almost timidly.
"I hope you will forgive me," she murmured. "Ah, what a friend you are. But does Mr. Saltburn know?"
"Which Mr. Saltburn?" the Baron asked blandly.
"Oh, you know perfectly well which one I meant."
"Very well, then, I do, and I should say he knows all about it. He is a very fine young fellow, and if I had the happiness to possess a daughter—like yourself, for instance—it would give me the profoundest satisfaction to know that she was going to marry Philip Saltburn. And I think, my dear child, that my ancestry is quite as illustrious as yours."
Lady Edna listened almost meekly. She knew precisely what de la Croisa meant. He was telling her in as many words that if she ever had the opportunity of becoming Lady Edna Saltburn, she would be both silly and ungracious if she let the golden chance slip.
And, indeed, de la Croisa was going even further than this. He was telling her that she should be grateful for the opportunity. Here was a nice thing to dare to say to the daughter of a hundred earls. It seemed incredible that he should have had the audacity to advise her to hold out her hand to a man whose father had started life in the scullery at Borne Abbey.
She ought to have ordered the Baron out of her presence immediately, she ought to have withered him with scorn, she should have let him know what she thought of his outrageous temerity.
And yet she was not even faintly annoyed. She was conscious of the fact that there was a warm red flush on her face, that she was contrasting Philip, much to his advantage, with the average young man she knew.
And she was glad; for the life of her, she could not help feeling glad that Philip Saltburn admired and looked up to her. Her lips were smiling as she turned to de la Croisa.
"You are the most audacious man I know," she said.
"I don't think so," the Baron said critically. "You see, I am old enough, and disinterested enough, to indulge in the luxury of the truth. Take my advice, my dear girl. Don't let Philip Saltburn slip through your fingers, and when he asks you to marry him, as he certainly will some day, don't put him on probation. He's not the sort of young man to stand it."
"Pray, proceed," Lady Edna murmured. "I am all attention."
"My child," the Baron said, "I have taken the keenest interest in you ever since you sat on my knee and listened to my fairy tales. I know you, perhaps, better than you know yourself. And now, good-bye, for I really must be off."
The Baron took Lady Edna's hand into his; and placed it gallantly to his lips, then he vanished in his light and airy way, leaving Lady Edna wondering how much she had gained from the interview.
She tried to tell herself that the Baron had behaved with a great deal of unnecessary flippancy, and that his allusions to Philip Saltburn were almost vulgar. But, at the same time, the girl was honest to the core. She knew perfectly well that what the Baron said had given her a certain amount of genuine pleasure.
Meanwhile, the Baron was making his way back to his hotel, under the impression that he had not wasted the last hour or so. He found Francois, stiff and stern, awaiting him amongst a pile of luggage. It was obvious that Francois was not pleased.
"What does this mean, Baron?" he asked.
"Oh, I feel I ought to apologise," the Baron said meekly. "But the fact is, I am going for a trip abroad, and I ask for the honour of your company. We are not going to get into mischief, Francois, we are too old for that."
"Never," Francois said gloomily. "The Baron de la Croisa will never be too old to get into mischief, and I am a fool, I am weak, I do not put my foot down and say 'this thing shall not be.' Perhaps it is that I, too, am old."
"But an affair of the heart, Francois," the Baron urged. "The good name of an amiable and beautiful lady. Shall I have to appeal to my Francois in a case like this?"
Francois conceded the point gracefully. Therefore, an hour or so later, master and man were waiting for the Northern Express at Euston. As the Baron stood on the platform the incoming train disgorged a seething mass of humanity, and amongst those who bustled by was William Saltburn.
He looked harder and more grim than usual. His collar was none too clean, and he was obviously in need of a razor. He nodded curtly to de la Croisa, and would have passed by had not the latter detained him.
"Ah, that is the worst of you business men," the latter said. "You are always in a hurry. It is not well, my dear Saltburn, to use the sword too much. Why not take a holiday and come with me for a little trip abroad? By the way, do you recollect me saying to you one night at Borne Abbey that it would be well if you kept an eye on Prince Ito? I trust you have done so."
Saltburn growled something inarticulate and passed on without further ceremony. From his point on view, the Baron's little joke came at a very inopportune moment. For it was beginning to dawn upon Saltburn that he was in the presence of forces that were altogether beyond his strength.
And in his rugged, resolute way, it had never occurred to him that anyone would dare to challenge him in the heart of his own citadel. He had always been so successful, he had always struck terror into the hearts of his opponents, he had swept them out of his way without mercy, and this rule of his applied equally to individuals and governments.
And everything had appeared so easy, too. A year or two ago he had seen the value of those Tortina Concessions, and had earmarked them for his own, intending to take them up when the time was ripe. But he was a man who had many irons in the fire, and so the Tortina business had to wait. This was at the time when El Murid was ruling over the destinies of Tortina, and it had been no part of William Saltburn's policy to make advances so long as El Murid was at the head of affairs. But this was only a matter of months. The rascally Santa Anna was reaching for the reins of power, and Saltburn's almost bottomless purse was behind him. In other words, Saltburn, through his accredited agents, was engaged in the business of a South American revolution. In this he could see almost limitless opportunities for the making of money, provided, of course, that the man behind the gun was as unscrupulous as himself. And he had found the man behind the gun in Santa Anna. Once the revolution was an accomplished fact, Santa Anna would be president, and the enlightened and patriotic El Murid would be down and out for ever. It was only a question of time, and in time it came.
But, unfortunately for Saltburn, before the pear was ripe El Murid had interested certain persons in Europe in the Tortina Concessions, so that when he was driven into captivity, and was compelled to fly into the interior of the country to save his life, the mischief was done.
Saltburn was naturally furious. The revolution had cost him a fortune, and he had no confidence whatever in the puppet that his gold had placed at the head of the Government. Therefore it became necessary to look round him and find some means of recovering his losses. It did not take Saltburn long to discover whose money it was that lay behind those concessions. The mere fact that it was Sherringborne's money only increased Saltburn's feeling of bitterness, and, if he could only manipulate the situation to his own advantage, then not only would he recover all he had invested, but he could ruin the man he most hated in the world at the same time.
It was a congenial task, and Saltburn set about it with a certain savage pleasure. He had his agents all over the world; he had a servile section of the Press in three capitals in his pay. And with this Press behind him he set out to make trouble between Japan and America, and up to the present moment he had succeeded almost beyond his wildest expectations. If he could keep up the present pressure and bring about a conflict between the two great Powers, then those Tortilla Concessions would be worthless, and Sherringborne and his friends would lose all their money.
And up to a certain point everything had gone well. The papers were still full of rumours of strife and prophesies concerning the approaching crisis, and already the price of Tortina Concessions had fallen to zero.
And yet, in the face of all this, someone was buying steadily. Already Saltburn had contracted to sell more than he possessed, and if the pressure was kept up then he was likely to find himself in a tight corner. And the man who was buying all these shares was William Saltburn's own son. Why? Saltburn wondered. And what did Philip know about business? Still, he was on the terms of close friendship with Sherringborne, and, what was more to the point, was intimately connected with de la Croisa.
And if there was one man in the world that William Saltburn was afraid of it was the Baron. They had crossed swords more than once in the past, and almost invariably de la Croisa had come out with all the honours of war.
And here was Sherringborne still in the Cabinet, apparently a trusted figure in politics, carrying on with renewed strength and energy, as if he had not a single anxiety in the world. And yet, if those Tortina Concessions failed to materialise, Sherringborne would be stripped of all he possessed, and the man who had brought all this ruin about would be the humble individual who, half a century before, had been in the scullery at Borne Abbey.
It was a beautiful vengeance, and one that Saltburn had hugged to his soul for years. He had planned it all out in his mind, but he had not really seen what it meant, until he had found himself under the roof of Borne Abbey, again seated at the same table with Lady Edna opposite him, and his own son by her side.
From Saltburn's point of view there was only one way of bringing about what he desired, and that was to humble Sherringborne in the dust and compel Lady Edna, almost with tears in her eyes, gratefully to accept Philip as her husband.
And here was Philip opposing such a policy tooth and nail. Here was Philip conspiring against his own father, to save the honour of the house of Cranwallis, and after-wards, presumably, to go down on his knees to Lady Edna and sue "in forma pauperis," so to speak, for the privilege of going through life with her.
William Saltburn could not understand it at all. He did not know that in these matters he was nothing more than a child, he did not know what pride of race meant, and that, in his well-meant efforts to promote Philip's happiness he was going the way to utterly and entirely destroy it.
But that was not what was worrying Saltburn as he strode along the platform in search of a taxi. His trouble was that, for once in his life, he could not see his way clearly. Something was going on behind the scenes that he could not get at, something had happened to save Sherringborne from humiliation and disgrace, because here he was, carrying on much the same as usual, when he ought to have been driven out of the Cabinet. And here was Prince Ito, who spoke authoritatively on the behalf of Japan, holding secret meetings with de la Croisa and Sherringborne, meetings at which Saltburn knew that his son, Philip, had been present. And in the face of all this Philip was buying every share in Tortina Concessions that he could lay his hands upon.
And Philip was no fool. Saltburn knew that his son had inherited a good deal of his shrewdness, and that he was not likely to sacrifice his own fortune in a futile attempt to preserve the honour and glory of the Cranwallis family. And again, what had de la Croisa meant when he hinted so mysteriously at Prince Ito? What was there in the wind of which Saltburn knew nothing? The mere fact that he did know nothing filled him with cold fury. It was perfectly useless, he knew, for him to attempt to learn anything from Prince Ito. He had tried that on before in his bluffing way, and he had had a lesson which did not fail to penetrate even his thick skin. Perhaps Van Hasvell might be able to throw some light upon it.
Yes, that was the idea. With this upper most in his mind Saltburn went to his hotel, where he bathed and shaved and immediately set out in search of the man who had been his business partner in the days before Van Hasvell had turned respectable and had gone into the political arena.
Van Hasvell happened to be at home, and, moreover, quite ready to meet Mr. Saltburn. He came into the library with a cigarette in his mouth, and a jest on his lips, and altogether with the air of a man who is quite sure of his ground.
"I want to have a bit of a talk with you," Saltburn said truculently. "Got half an hour to spare?"
"My dear Saltburn, I've got all the afternoon to spare. If you desire it," Van Hasvell drawled. "But please don't talk business to me. When I made my pile in Wall-street—"
"Thanks to me," Saltburn growled.
"Precisely. I am glad you reminded me of the fact. But I think, my dear fellow, that the benefit was mutual. However, all that is beside the point. When I left Wall-street I cut business altogether. I invested all I had in gilt-edged securities, and, on the interest, I am living a simple life. I always have a taste for politics, and when my party came into office, and they made me Chief Secretary of our Embassy in London, I was most profoundly grateful. But don't talk business."
"Oh, that be hanged for a tale," Saltburn cried, in that big coarse voice of his. "You've got to listen, yes, and you've got to help, too, if I say the word."
Van Hasvell smiled almost sweetly.
"Well, you're my guest, I suppose," he said. "Go on. I don't think, my dear friend, that you are likely to get much out of me. But you can try."
"I am going to," Saltburn said doggedly. "Now, between one man and another, what are your people going to do over this Tortina business?"
"Didn't I remind you once before that I am not the American Ambassador? My dear fellow, I am as ignorant as you are. It's not the business of the Secretary to know anything. He has to do precisely as he is told, without asking any questions. And as to Tortina, time alone will show. You seem to forget that there is now such a thing as a League of Nations."
"League of Nations, be hanged," Saltburn cried. "How long is that likely to last? And how long has the League of Nations abolished human nature? Now, look here, Van Hasvell, I'm in a bit of a hole."
"Ah, that's better," Van Hasvell murmured softly. "You've got yourself into a mess over that business and you can't see your way out. It's the sort of thing that always happens when a man allows his private feelings to interfere in business."
Saltburn was taken aback. He knew perfectly well what Van Hasvell was driving at, but he was both disturbed and astonished to find that his scheme for the ruin of Sherringborne was perfectly well known to this old business colleague of his.
"Well, never mind about that," he growled. "What I want to know, what I must know, is, whether there is going to be an open rupture between America and Japan. No League of Nations will ever prevent it, when it comes to a matter of international interest. And if you and Japan quarrel, I don't see Europe coming into the ring with big armies to stop the fun. Why, if they did, Japan and America would immediately join hands and tell the Western Powers to go hang. The patriotic drum would be beaten, and we should have the big European war all over again. But never mind about that. Is there going to be live trouble?"
"If I could tell you I wouldn't," Van Hasvell said coolly. "It would be a direct breach of faith. But one thing I can advise you to do, and that is to drop the Tortina business altogether and get out with as little loss as possible. You've burnt your fingers over that transaction, and if you're a wise man, you'll climb out before the explosion comes, and—well, I think I've told you quite enough. And don't you come here again trying to bully me, because I won't have it. And that's all there is to it."
Saltburn set his lips doggedly. He was not going to be beaten, he was not going to turn back now. He would win through yet, and show these people what it meant to come in the way of William Saltburn. Without a word he turned his back upon Van Hasvell and went off moodily down the street.
Saltburn stood there was a strange feeling that he was cut off from the rest of the world and was alone in it, the only one of his tribe. And in a certain sense it was true enough. He had always boasted that he had never made a friend, and, indeed, he had never had the opportunity.
But now he felt as it were in a kind of dream and as if he needed assistance. For the first time in his life he was conscious of a feeling which he had never experienced before. It wasn't exactly fear nor illness, and yet it was unpleasant, and Saltburn would have been glad to be without it.
Then it flashed upon him what it was. He had heard people speak of this thing, and hitherto he had put it down contemptuously enough to weak-mindedness or mere fancy.
He was nervous, that was what was the matter with him. Nervous! He, William Saltburn, who always boasted that he feared nothing, either in this world or the next! At any rate, there it was. It was a most unpleasant feeling, and one which set Saltburn's heart beating faster. His lips were dry and there was a certain throbbing sensation in his throat.
Perhaps he was overworked, Saltburn told himself. Hitherto he had always laughed at an idea like that. It was his boast that he could toil twenty hours a day, and he had proclaimed aggressively that four hours' sleep a night were enough for anybody. Anybody who wanted more was not worth troubling about.
Still, here it was. He was a little dizzy, a little unsteady, and he did not like the way his heart was fluttering at all. He had the peculiar fear which always comes to the physically strong man when, for the first time in his life, he becomes conscious of his own bodily identity.
He tried to laugh his fears aside; he tried to force his thoughts into another channel. He concentrated his attention upon his money, but there was precious little consolation in that direction just now. He was going to lose his money, at any rate, the greater part of it.
People would laugh at him. In the City they would say that William Saltburn was a back number. They would sneer at him, and pity him, and declare that he was old-fashioned and out of date. He knew this because he had done the same about other people.
Why should this man Sherringborne escape all the consequences of his folly? What had he done that he should find himself in his present strong position? Sherringborne had no brains. He was just a pompous, self-satisfied individual, who found himself in his present position because he happened to be born to a great historic title, and into the possession of large estates. He could never have attained Cabinet rank at all but for the accident of fortune.
He made a fine figure-head, of course. He was very imposing and very courtly, and he had a certain heavy eloquence which read well in the papers. And yet, there he was, absolutely master of the situation. There was no credit due to him. If there had been no such place as Borne Abbey, Sherringborne would have left the Ministry in disgrace long ago.
The point wanted no arguing. And yet, here Sherringborne was, wrapped in the purple, and with scores of people cleverer than himself waiting upon his lightest word.
Saltburn was filled with a certain blind, unreasoning anger as he passed Sherringborne's great house, blazing from top to bottom with lights. He saw the stream of people moving up and down the steps, he could see the gorgeous array of liveried servants in the hall. There were men in demure black, obviously secretaries, crossing the lighted space, swiftly bearing bundles of papers in their hands.
A Foreign Office messenger came up presently with a despatch-box. Near the house on either side a policeman stood, so that it seemed to Saltburn that here was a man whose position was semi-regal. The whole thing was almost laughable.
And yet Saltburn didn't laugh. He was beginning to understand things. He was beginning to ask himself questions. Was it possible, after all, that Sherringborne was a great and more gifted man than most people believed him to be? Hitherto Saltburn had held a poor enough opinion of the politician.
He regarded him, and rightly, in most cases, as a frothy, self-opinionated person whose only capital was his self-conceit and his sublime audacity. There were exceptions, of course, and Saltburn had met them. But he had never looked on Sherringborne as one of these.
At any rate, he was going to see for himself. Once he moved his foot in the direction of the house all his nervousness and hesitation left him. He was not in the least afraid of Sherringborne. He held the latter in the hollow of his hand, and he would let him know it soon. He pushed his way into the hall, and handed his card to one of the servants.
"Take that to your master," he said abruptly, "and tell him that I want to see him at once."
The name on the card was not without its effect. But there was no indecent haste on the part of the liveried servant. He passed the pasteboard on to the hall porter, who, in turn, handed it on to somebody else, and at the end of ten minutes an assistant secretary appeared, full of polite regrets, and an intimation that his lordship was too busy to see anybody.
"If you will make an appointment, sir," the secretary said.
Saltburn fumed inwardly. But he saw that it was not of the slightest use to bluster. The secretary was perfectly polite, but he met Saltburn's eyes squarely enough. There was nothing to gain by display of violence. And, besides, Saltburn would see that he made himself felt presently.
"I am a busy man myself," he said. "And I know how valuable time is, but really, I must ask Lord Sherringborne to be good enough to see me for a minute or two."
The secretary bowed and vanished. He came back presently with the request that Saltburn would follow him. He found himself presently in a library lined with books, and at a large table Sherringborne was seated.
He smiled blandly enough at his visitor, but he made no attempt to rise, neither did he hold out his hand. He appeared to be perfectly at his ease; he had that large bland manner which generally goes with a man who feels himself in the presence of an inferior.
"You wanted to see me?" he asked.
"Well, yes," Saltburn said. "I want you to give me a little information if you will. Now as to this Japanese business—"
"I beg your pardon," Sherringborne said coldly. "I am afraid I don't quite follow you."
Saltburn hesitated for a moment. Should he meet this man with his own weapons, or should he take him by force, so to speak? Still, it did not much matter either way. Saltburn was too sure of his ground to have any doubts as to the result.
"I thought I spoke plainly," he said. "I am sweating about this trouble in Tortina. I have just bought a paper, which says that Japan has threatened hostilities, and that there has been a big naval demonstration off St. Lucia. Of course, the suggestion that shots have been exchanged is all nonsense."
"So I should imagine," Sherringborne said blandly.
It was quite evident that Saltburn was going to get no assistance here. Sherringborne was absolutely patronising. His manner was scrupulously correct, and exquisitely polite, but there was no mistaking the fact that Sherringborne was speaking to a man whom he regarded as his inferior, and he was taking no special pains to cloak his demeanour.
He lay back smilingly in his chair now, with the tips of his long white fingers pressed together. He gave Saltburn the impression of the man who is slightly bored, but who is far too much of a gentleman to say so.
"People who publish papers always magnify, you know, Mr. Saltburn," he said. "It is their business to exaggerate these things. As a responsible Minister of the Crown, nobody deplores these sensational reports more than myself. It is a theory of mine that sooner or later one of these irresponsible, cheap papers will embroil us into another Continental war. But, fortunately for us, Mr. Saltburn, this is a free country. We are not bound to believe what the papers say, you know."
All this with the most perfect sang-froid, and polished good-humour. Saltburn was forced to smile, though he was inwardly raging. He began to wonder if he had made a mistake. Was it possible, after all, that Sherringborne was really the strong and brilliant man which the Government Press made him out to be?
And yet Saltburn had seen him in very different circumstances to these. And he might be a foeman worthy of anyone's steel. It might be that he had all the advantages. At any rate, Saltburn told himself he was not going to stand this sort of thing.
"That's all very well," he said bluntly. "I didn't come here to talk about the morality of the cheap Press. I want to know if this thing's true."
Sherringborne smiled irritatingly.
"My dear Mr. Saltburn, how can I tell?" he asked. "Are you asking me as a Minister or a private individual?"
"I don't care a rap which it is, so long as I get the information," Saltburn said.
"Very well, then," Sherringborne said with the same smiling good humour. "I will try and answer in both capacities. As a private individual, I know just as much or as little as you do. In fact, I know less, because I haven't seen the papers, and you have. As a Minister of the Crown, I know nothing. You see, this is my private residence, and though circumstances compel me to transact all sorts of business here at all sorts of hours, I only work here for my own convenience."
"Meaning that I am an intruder?" Saltburn asked.
"Oh, I didn't mean it quite that way. I'm sorry I gave you that impression. When the House meets to-night, we shall have nothing fresh to disclose, and, up to the present moment I have not a single official line from the seat of the trouble."
Saltburn gritted his teeth together. He would have given much to take Sherringborne by the shoulders and shake his secret out of him.
That Sherringborne knew all about it, Saltburn never doubted for a moment. He had not said that he knew nothing, he had only insisted upon the fact that he had no official information. He was treating Saltburn now as he would have treated a question from the Opposition in the House of Lords.
"Oh, that isn't good enough for me," Saltburn said. "Come, my dear sir, you know all about it. Do you mean to tell me that Prince Ito, who was here this morning, didn't know? Do you mean to tell me that the Government hasn't been expecting this for a week or more? I'm not quite a fool as far as politics go. Why, Japan would not have dared to have gone in for this business without, at any rate, the moral support of England. And you might as well own up, Sherringborne. You might just as well tell me that Ito came over just now to give you the latest information."
Sherringborne smiled quite blandly. Probably he was bitterly annoyed, but, at any rate, he did not show it.
"My friend, Prince Ito, has been here today," he said. "He came to discuss a little matter of business, certainly, but you may be surprised, to hear that Tortina was not so much as mentioned. I shall have to get you to take my word for that, Mr. Saltburn. I am very sorry, but there it is."
It was beginning to come home to Saltburn now that he had a man to deal with. It was impossible, too, to carry the matter any further in this direction without telling Sherringborne pretty plainly that he was deliberately telling a lie. And there was nothing to gain by a course like that.
It would probably result in Saltburn being politely kicked out of the house with an intimation not to return again. Still, there were other methods, and Saltburn would not hesitate to adopt them if necessary.
"Oh, I am not saying you are wrong," he said ungraciously. "But I am here asking you more or less a favour. If this thing is true, it is a serious business for me, and it will entail a loss of money. On the other hand, if I know exactly how matters stand, then I shall be able to act promptly in the matter. I am not asking you to betray official secrets."
Once more Sherringborne smiled blandly.
"Of course not, Mr. Saltburn," he said. "You are too thoroughly a man of the world for that. I am sure you would never suggest such a thing. And that is why I am sorry that I can't help you. As I said just now, I have no official information, and therefore, speaking as a Minister, I am as much in the dark as you are. And don't let me detain you. I know how busy you are. And, if at any time I can be of any service to you, don't hesitate to let me know."
There was no mistaking the meaning of Sherringborne's words. He rose from his chair and held out his hand with the air of a man who is regretfully parting with a pleasant acquaintance.
But Saltburn was not in a responsive mood. He stood doggedly there, his legs planted wide apart, a figure of sullen resolution. He had made up his mind at last. He knew now that he had been mistaken in Sherringborne's character. He knew now that he had to deal with one quite as clever, and a great deal more subtle than himself. But it was not the slightest use trying to fight Sherringborne with a rapier! This was when the broadsword called for free play. And as the challenge was evidently on Sherringborne's side, then it was with Saltburn to choose the lethal tool which suited his style of fight.
"Here, stop a moment," he said, "it is just as well that you and I should understand each other. I came here asking for information, more or less as a favour, and if you choose to withhold it, it isn't for me to grumble. And now, putting all diplomacy aside, and speaking as one man to another, I ask you if you know if this news is true or not."
Sherringborne smiled loftily.
"I always found," he said, "that an excellent way of obtaining information is by asking questions. You have asked me one, and it is only fair that I should return with another. What right have you to come to me, above all people in the world, and want to know these things? Don't you think it would be far better to wait till to-morrow and put the question to the Under-Secretary from your place in the House of Commons?"
"Oh, that's all very well in its way," Saltburn said. "I'll answer your question when you've answered mine."
"I can tell you nothing," Sherringborne said.
"Oh, I think you can. Besides, if we begin this game of asking questions, there are one or two I could put in the House of Commons which you might not care about. For instance, I could ask you if it is a fact that up to a little time ago the Secretary for Foreign Affairs was a comparatively large holder in Tortina Concessions. I could ask if he bought them at a low price on the expectation of their increasing in value with a new financial scheme which was about to be enforced."
"Is that within your province?" Sherringborne asked.
"In fact, there are scores of questions on the point which I could ask, and I am sure that they would be listened to with the greatest attention. I think I can make a good rousing speech on the matter."
"I am sure you could," Sherringborne murmured.
"And, as you are aware, my lord, the English people have a rooted objection to responsible Ministers who dabble in finance. I might even go further, and suggest that England has been induced to back Japan in this matter, and force the hands of America so as to save the Foreign Secretary from a financial scandal, such as the country has not known since the days of Walpole. I have no doubt that I could find a few useful facts to back my assertions. It would be a very interesting evening."
"I am quite sure it would," Sherringborne said amiably. "But don't you think that those American methods in politics are a mistake? And it would give a very great deal of trouble, too, and at a very busy time. Really, I am sorry, Mr. Saltburn, that I cannot be of assistance to you."
Saltburn had no reply for the moment. It seemed impossible to shake this man from his balance, or move him to anger. If Saltburn had seen any displeasure on his part, or any sign of emotion, he might have been encouraged to proceed. But even his threats were received in the blandest possible manner, and now Sherringborne was glancing at the clock with the air of a man whose patience is getting exhausted.
"Then you decline to tell me?" Saltburn asked.
"I don't even go as far as that," Sherringborne said. "I really have nothing to tell you. I have only to say that I have no official information. And even if I had, look what a precedent this would be. Why, if I allowed this to escape, I should have people of all kinds and descriptions dropping in at all sorts of times, thirsting for information, and on all sorts of topics. Now, don't be foolish, Mr. Saltburn. Possess your soul in patience and get your information through the legitimate channels. Ask the Undersecretary to-morrow night. And if you want to involve me in a scandal, why, you are at perfect liberty to do so. Now let us suppose that I am seeking information. You are greatly interested in some sort of stock, and you are keeping the information to yourself, seeing that it is worth millions to you. Now what would you think of me if I came along in this innocent sort of way and asked you to show me your methods? Supposing, again, that you have a horse which you are keeping to win a certain race. What would you say to me if I dropped you a line asking you which race it was that you were particularly keen on winning. But, then, perhaps you are not keen on racing?"
"I used to be at one time," the discomfited Saltburn said. "But that was years ago, when I was a boy. Your father was a better sportsman than you are."
"I suppose he was," Sherringborne said amiably. "I know his stud was terribly expensive, and, indirectly, I am still paying for it. But I had forgotten for the moment that you knew my father. I had no idea until comparatively recently that you were so well acquainted with Borne Abbey. In those days, people were unnecessarily harsh in small matters. But still, your misfortune turned out a great blessing after all, didn't it?"
Saltburn stared at the speaker. He was wondering how it was that Sherringborne had so absolutely guessed what was passing in his mind. He had been leading up to this, he was going to use it as a lever for extracting the information he needed, and now Sherringborne was cutting the ground from under his feet.
"I did no wrong," he said stubbornly. "And after all it was only the matter of a rabbit. And it was more of a boy's escapade than anything else."
"My dear sir, I am perfectly well aware of it," Sherringborne said. "I have been looking up the case. It was, to say the least of it, a monstrous miscarriage of justice. And you are quite right, all the same, to keep this trouble in the background. You don't want people to say, of course, that Mr. Saltburn, the great millionaire, is a returned convict. Really, as a matter of fact, any man who has been convicted of an act of felony, is debarred from a seat in the British House of Commons. It seems a monstrous thing that poaching rabbits should be called a felony but the law has never been repealed, and there it is. It really makes one's blood boil to think that game-preserving magistrates of the old days should have had such powers in their hands. I trust, Mr. Saltburn, that you will understand that outside my family this matter will never be mentioned."
Saltburn glared speechlessly.
"Still, just imagine if you carried out the playful suggestion you made just now as to myself and certain imaginary bonds, how annoyed a section of our followers in the House would be. They would not hesitate to make use of the little personal matter of yours which we are now discussing, which, of course, would be very awkward for you. As for myself, I think nothing of it. It won't prevent me from being friends in the future, and it won't prevent me being always ready to welcome that exceedingly nice boy of yours at Borne Abbey. Really it is quite a romance in its way, isn't it?"
Saltburn choked down a forcible reply. He could never recollect feeling quite so small in his life before. There had been occasions, of course, when he had had to acknowledge defeat, but never anything quite so complete and absolute as this.
And the knowledge that he had been utterly wrong in his estimate of Sherringborne's character was an added drop of gall in the cup of humiliation. If he could only have aroused Sherringborne's anger something would have been gained. But the gay smile was on the Foreign Secretary's lips, and the amused twinkle still in his eye.
And yet, in his way, he had been quite as plain-spoken as Saltburn himself. He had told the latter in the plainest possible way that he meant to stand no nonsense, and that he had not the least intention of taking it lying down. And, as far as Saltburn could see, it would be no easy matter to bring this accusation home to Sherringborne. He had been foiled in this matter, and the knowledge that he had been baffled by his own son was merely an added cause of dissatisfaction.
And, on the other hand, Sherringborne had a very strong card indeed. Without showing his hand at all, he could make things very awkward for William Saltburn. And with all his bluntness and independence, and with all his knowledge that he had been punished out of proportion with his crime, Saltburn was not proud of the fact that he was a returned convict. It was the one thing that he had kept in the background as likely to injure him in his career.
And this was not the worst of it either. With a smile on his face, and a joke on his lips, Sherringborne had dealt him a deadly blow. He had told him quite plainly that he had no business whatever to be in the House of Commons, and that if certain facts came to light, Saltburn's opponents would make the latter vacate his seat in circumstances that savoured of disgrace.
And Saltburn was bound to admit to himself that Sherringborne had done this very nicely indeed. He could not but contrast the Foreign Secretary's methods with his own, as they would have applied had the situation been reversed.
Saltburn would have done it brutally and candidly, he would have brained his opponent with a sledge-hammer. On the other hand, Sherringborne had done the thing neatly and cleanly, with a dexterous thrust of his polished blade which left no ugly outward wound behind it.
It had been an exceedingly neat and nice bit of surgery, and Saltburn was bound to admit it. But the real sting lay in the fact that he had been cruelly mauled by an opponent who at all points of the game had displayed a science far more profound than his own. It was of no use being jealous of Lord Sherringborne, it was no use to grudge him his gifts, and wonder why the god of chance should throw the big battalions on his side.
To do him justice, Saltburn was a man who always knew when he was beaten. He moved to the door now with as good a grace as possible, though he affected not to see the hand which Sherringborne held out to him.
"I have made a mistake," he said. "I quite see now that I ought not to have come here at all. But the news I had to-night rather upset me. It threw me off my balance for a few minutes. And there is a good deal in what you say."
"Oh, please don't apologise," Sherringborne said. "If there is any way in which I can serve you—"
But Saltburn was no longer there. He went out, closing the door behind him with a little more noise than was absolutely necessary. Sherringborne lay back in his chair smiling softly to himself. On the whole, he had enjoyed the interview. He had expected something of the kind, and, so far as he could see, he had no cause to be dissatisfied.
"What a man," he mused. "And what crude methods! And to think that this should be the father of Philip Saltburn. If it were otherwise, I might have been disposed—but that's impossible."
The weeks had drifted slowly along, the Houses of Parliament were up for their Easter vacation, and Sherringborne and Lady Edna were back at Borne Abbey. Nothing bad happened in the meantime, despite the wild shrieking of the newspapers, and the sensational Press for once was frankly puzzled.
And, meanwhile, down there at Borne Abbey, the daffodils were blooming in the woods and already the first May buds were breaking in the hedges. Philip Saltburn was down there too, glad to turn his back upon the turmoil of town and get away to a little peace and quietness. He had firmly established himself in 'The Chantrey' by this time, and this perfect spring night was entertaining his neighbours from Borne Abbey to dinner. He had taken over the Old Dower House, just as it stood, even to the priceless old furniture, and only certain family portraits had been moved. There had been certain alterations, of course, for instance, a gloomy old dining-hall at the back had been transformed into a tropical conservatory. The principal living rooms opened, one into the other, so that when the old oak doors were thrown back, there was a perfect vista of art and beauty, terminating in a glorious burst of bloom. Even Lady Edna, with all her hatred of change, exclaimed with delight, when she saw this.
She was graciously pleased, too, with the really clever way Philip had introduced the electric light, in fact, her most fastidious taste could find nothing to cavil at anywhere.
They were seated in the hall after dinner over coffee and cigarettes, and admiring the pictures with which Philip had replaced the old family portrait's, sitting there in the faint glory of a May night, and talking as if they had been friends for years. Shorland was there too, a little quiet and subdued, and unmistakably changed for the better. He had been down at Borne Abbey most of the winter, at first owing to the fact that his allowance had been woefully exceeded and now more or less reconciled to a country life. He was an improved Shorland, a good deal steadier, and only inclined at times to grumble at what he called his hard lot, and kick over the traces. Philip had noticed this in his quiet way at dinner time, and he had noticed too, that Shorland allowed the champagne to go by oftener than he troubled to stop the servant behind him.
For Shorland was missing his wife. He was missing her more than he thought he would. In the short time they had been together he had learnt to depend upon her, and now that fatuous young man began to wonder if he was ever going to see her again. He had made that remark more than once during dinner, and Philip had smiled softly to himself, for he could have told Shorland a good deal on that head had he liked. Also, he could have told Sherringborne exactly what de la Croisa was doing, and where the latter was to be found. So far, no word had come from either de la Croisa or Lady Shorland, and, from Philip's point of view, this was all to the good.
For he knew perfectly well that everything was going smoothly. For some time now he had not seen his father, though he knew perfectly well what William Saltburn was doing.
And he knew, beyond doubt, before long, that William Saltburn, the great financier and ruler of men, would be down there almost on his knees, asking his son to get him out of the mess that threatened to overpower him. It had all come when the time was ripe.
Meanwhile, they sat there, in the hall of "The Chantrey," talking over many things, whilst Lady Edna lay back in her chair, pleased and gracious, and most intensely glad to notice that Philip had made no change in this house, which had been the cradle of the clan of Cranwallis. No doubt, some of these days, Philip Saltburn would bring a wife here, and Lady Edna caught herself speculating as to what sort of a wife she would be, and if she could make friends with her. She hoped that she might, for her heart was full of gratitude towards the man who had done so much to preserve the honour and glory of the house of Cranwallis, and she told herself that she would have done almost anything for him.
But that did not prevent her from being just a little jealous of this nebulous woman, who, some time or another, would have the proud privilege of calling herself mistress of "The Chantrey."
"You have done wonders here," she said to Philip. "The great fault of the old house was its gloom. You seem to have banished all that without altering a single feature of the place. You must be a magician, Mr. Saltburn."
"Oh, I don't know," Philip smiled. "It's been a labour of love. I would rather have 'The Chantrey' than any house in the kingdom. It was the Dower House, wasn't it? Built, I understand, before Borne Abbey was even planned."
"That's true enough," Shorland interposed. "Jolly old place, I call it. Do you know, I've come to the conclusion that I could have been quite happy here without Ninon. When you've made a bit of a fool of yourself like I have, and you come to realise what a rotten business knocking about town is—"
Shorland lapsed into silence, a little afraid of his own eloquence, and rather at a loss to proceed.
"I think I know what Shorland means," Lady Edna said. "You will perhaps be surprised to hear me say that I prefer 'The Chantry' to Borne Abbey. It was built by the first Cranwallis, over six hundred years ago. Those are the sort of things you can't forget. And I used to spend a lot of time here when my grandmother was alive. Nobody knew more about the family than she did. And a lot of history has been made here, too. Stories of Queen Elizabeth and Charles II are told about many of the rooms in the house, and I am quite sure, Mr. Saltburn, that you are worthy of it all."
It was a great deal for Lady Edna to say, and Philip glowed with pride and satisfaction. Looking into that calm beautiful face now he could see an expression there that he had never noticed before. It was a face, no longer proud and haughty, but the face of a very woman happy and grateful, and addressing one whom she regarded absolutely in the light of an equal. It was an invitation to a closer confidence, and all the manhood in Philip's soul rose to it spontaneously.
Shorland strolled off along the corridor rooms, through the conservatory into the garden beyond, and crossed the terrace with a spaniel of Philip's that had taken a great fancy to him. For children and dogs liked Shorland, which was surely an asset in that erratic youth's favour. Sherringborne lay back with a cigar between his lips, contemplating the painted ceiling thoughtfully.
He was his old self again almost, though there were moments now and then when his face would look grey and old, and his speech dragged. He never quite got over his attack of the summer before, and though he had met William Saltburn resolutely enough when the time came to cross blades with him, he had only risen to the occasion by sheer force of will and the knowledge that he was a Cranwallis, and the man opposing him a humble hind, born on his own estate. On that occasion he had been carefully coached by de la Croisa, and he had done that master of fence infinite credit. But for all his ease and aplomb, it had been a very near thing had William Saltburn only known it.
He was not out of the wood yet. He had hung on all through these troublesome months, knowing that his political reputation rested on a single hair, but, so far, he had come through. He had told the Premier nothing, and, in this policy of silence, he had been advised by de la Croisa. There would be plenty of time, the Baron urged, to make full confession to the head of the Government if things came to an extreme between Japan and America, in which case the English Foreign Office would probably be asked to arbitrate, and then Sherringborne, as head of the department in question, would be bound, in common honour, to tell the Premier that he was financially interested in Tortina, and ask to be relieved of his seals of office.
And this might happen at any moment, as Philip well knew, so that he had a fair idea of what Sherringborne was thinking about as he lay back in his chair with a half-smoked cigar between his lips. It was a critical moment, and anything might happen in the next few days.
Not that there was any sign of it in the peaceful atmosphere of 'The Chantrey.' Trouble and strife seemed very far away in that beautiful old hall, with its panelled walls, and the fading light streaming through the painted windows. It was absurd to think of human strife and chicanery in an atmosphere like that, presided over by a beautiful woman in a simple black dress, which was utterly devoid of a single piece of jewellery. And with Sherringborne in a world of his own, Philip and Lady Edna sat there, talking in the most friendly fashion, and exchanging confidences as if they had known each other all their lives. It was impossible, just then, for Philip to think of all his plans for the future, for he was quite content to bask in the happiness of the moment, and leave to-morrow to fate.
It was with a feeling of something like annoyance that he noticed the coming of a servant with what appeared to be a telegram on a salver. With an apologetic glance to Lady Edna, he tore open the orange-coloured envelope and ran his eyes quickly upon the somewhat long message it contained. The contents were evidently disturbing, for Philip started slightly, and his face changed colour.
Then he folded up the flimsy and dropped it carelessly into the pocket of his dinner jacket.
"There's no answer, Barton," he said. "I think you were saying, Lady Edna, that—"
"Pray don't let us keep you, if it's any thing important," Lady Edna said. "I thought you were rather disturbed. But don't stand on ceremony with us, please."
"That is very good of you," Philip said gratefully. "It's only a little matter of business which will keep. Not bad news, quite the contrary, I assure you. Isn't that Shorland calling? Excuse me a moment."
Lady Edna said nothing, but she was quite sure that Shorland, standing on the terrace, had said nothing. Philip passed along quickly and joined Shorland on the terrace.
"Look here, Shorland," he said. "I've got some important information. I want to discuss it with your father at once. It's politics. I can't tell you what, but great things are in the air, and there is no time to be lost. Make some excuse and come back in two or three minutes and lure your sister outside."
Five minutes later and Philip was alone with Sherringborne.
"I have something to say to you," he said, "something of the utmost importance. I have just had a cable message from the Baron de la Croisa at San Toro."
"Eh, what?" Sherringborne asked. "San Toro. What on earth is the Baron doing there?"
"Ah, that I can't tell you," Philip said, "though I can make a pretty shrewd guess. But the news is this: There has been a great earthquake and most disastrous tidal wave off the coast of Tortina, and the other islands have been totally destroyed. Not a vestige of them remains. I am sure you will appreciate what this means."
Sherringborne gasped. Just for a moment he turned deadly pale and was obviously on the verge of collapse. Then he rallied and rose to his feet excitedly.
"Of course I appreciate it," he said. "Those outer islands belong to Japan, that is why they claimed a sort of protectorate over Tortina. They wanted to fortify those islands, which they had every right to do, and thus they would have been a constant menace to the port of St. Lucia in case of trouble. They could have dominated St. Lucia, and they could have prevented any navy calling there except their own. But the thing goes a great deal further than that, my dear Philip. If this amazing news is true, then we can take it for granted that Japan will show no further interest in Tortina. What they will want to do now is to make arrangements with America for the joint development of San Toro as a naval base on an international footing for the coaling of the navies of the world. Philip, if this is true, then all my troubles are ended. There is no occasion for me to care who knows about my holdings in Tortina Concessions, because those become simply a commercial speculation that any statesman might dabble in. But is it true?"
"I am perfectly certain it is," Philip said. "To begin with, the cablegram is signed by de la Croisa, and, in the second place, I learnt, quite by accident, in the gallery of the House of Commons some month ago from a native of Tortina, that those Outer Islands were merely coral, and that Japan dare not fortify them because the islands wouldn't carry any weight of ordnance. I was told that the first earthquake would wash them away. And on that priceless piece of information I gambled. Oh, the thing is quite true, and I congratulate you from the bottom of my heart."
But Sherringborne did not appear to be listening. His mind was evidently far away. Gradually the strained look left his face and he smiled like a man who is healthily and happily tired and in need of a good night's sleep.
"Would you mind leaving me to myself for a few minutes, my boy?" he asked. "I shall know how to thank you presently. It looks to me as if you had saved the honour of my house."
Meanwhile, Lady Edna stood there, on the terrace looking across the lawns and deep old rose gardens in the direction of Borne Abbey. She was alone, for Shorland had gone off in the direction of the stables in search of the head coachman who was more or less a friend of his, for horses and dogs had an irresistible fascination for the man who had been brought up amongst them all his life, and, indeed, had he stuck to those humble companions, it would have been better for him, and better for the fortunes of his house. He had made some trivial excuse for calling Lady Edna outside, and she had remained there, more or less fascinated by the beauty of the evening.
In the hall she could hear Sherringborne and Philip talking with a certain intimacy that prevented her joining them for the moment.
And it was beautiful out there, with the primrose light in the sky throwing up Borne Abbey like some exquisite cameo and gradually fading on the trees in the park. And this was her own home, the spot where she had been born and bred, the fair corner of England that was endeared to her by a thousand recollections.
And she was beginning to recognise now that all this had been preserved to her by a man whom she had despised, even before she had seen him. She was under a deep debt to the new owner of "The Chantrey," and, here she was, standing under the shadow of his own threshold, almost at his good pleasure.
There was something almost amazing about it, something that she was yet trying to grasp, and bring in the right perspective. She stood there, on the terrace, leaning her bare arms on the stone balustrade, and fighting it all out in her mind. For perhaps the first time in her life she was indulging in the pains and pleasures of self-analysis. She was contrasting the Cranwallises with the rest of human nature, not altogether to the advantage of that proud clan. She was coming to realise, for the first time, that there were people in the world with attributes and qualities that the house of Cranwallis had never possessed. She was trying to think, too, that there was something quixotic in the way in which Philip Saltburn had imperilled his own fortune for the sake of people who, a few months ago, would only have regarded him with tolerant contempt.
And Lady Edna had never admired Philip Saltburn quite as much as she did at that moment. Still, she knew perfectly well that if the circumstances had been reversed, she might have acted precisely as Saltburn was doing, but then there was a vast difference between the family of Saltburn and the great and distinguished house of Cranwallis.
But was there so much difference after all?
The question forced itself upon Lady Edna, and clamoured for a reply. After all, dishonour and disgrace are relative terms, and only a matter of comparison.
It seemed hard to stand there, on that wide spread of terrace with the great medieval pile behind her, and associate it with disgrace. But, all the same, disgrace had not been very far off, and Lady Edna could not forget it. Even now it might be hanging over that distinguished clan. And, at any rate, if it were averted, there was only one person that they had to thank for it, and that was Philip Saltburn.
He had come forward in the crisis, he had staked everything he possessed to save a set of people who were comparative strangers to him. And now whilst they were once more basking in a blaze of prosperity, he was still prepared to risk all he had. It was very generous, and very noble, but, at the same time, Lady Edna asked herself if there were not some other way out of it. She would have liked to have interfered, but she could scarcely see how this was to be done. And whilst she was still standing there, she heard a footstep on the path, and turned to see the very man who was uppermost in her mind.
He looked grave and preoccupied, there was the sternness of seriousness on his face that Lady Edna had never seen before. She extended her hand to him and smiled a welcome. There was something very warm and encouraging in her smile that might have astonished those people who regarded her as cold and heartless. She did not suggest those drawbacks at that moment.
"I was just thinking about you," she said.
"It's quite mutual," Saltburn replied. "I have been talking to your father. Something has happened that has changed the whole position. Lord Sherringborne has asked me to leave him for a time."
"He is not ill?" Lady Edna asked anxiously.
"Does good news ever hurt anyone?" Philip suggested. "And this is good news indeed. It is all going our way at last, our way, mind you."
Lady Edna betrayed some signs of confusion.
"I spoke unthinkingly," she said. "But all the same, I am glad he came here to-night. And I have been wondering, too, Mr. Saltburn, why are you so interested in our unhappy affairs?"
"Can't you guess?" Philip asked. "Don't you understand? I came here hoping to be your friend. I came here as a stranger hoping that you would accept me for myself, and I think you would have done so had not my father interfered. He does not understand—he doesn't understand anything except money and how to make it."
"I am sorry to hear that," Lady Edna said, "true as it is. But money is not everything."
"If you say you are sorry, I know you are speaking the truth. And, since you know so much, I may tell you that things were very bad indeed. You see, my father had been too successful. Everything has gone his way from the start. I don't say he isn't a financial genius, because he is. And he has courage and audacity and imagination. But, at the same time, he has had all the luck without knowing it."
"Haven't we shared that sort of luck?" Lady Edna asked demurely.
"This good fortune he attributes entirely to his own abilities," Philip went on. "He has a sort of idea that he is a cloud-compelling providence. That was why, I suppose, he underrated the position of Japan. Still, he might have won, but for certain forces over which he had no control. I hope I am not boring you with these details."
"I am deeply interested," Lady Edna said.
"Well, then, so far as he is concerned, everything has gone by the board. And tomorrow people in the city will be talking about it. The one thing I have to do is to find some money with as little delay as possible. If that is done my father might just manage to escape shipwreck. I have helped to save your name, it is my duty to save another's."
"It is not a certainty, then?"
"Oh, by no means. Still, it is worth trying, and I mean to risk the experiment. And, after all, what does it matter? Suppose I lose everything? I am young enough to begin again. And, what is more, I should enjoy it."
"And all your ambitions?" Lady Edna asked.
"I am afraid they are not of much account," Philip laughed a little unsteadily. "I never cared anything for politics, and modern business has no attractions for me. Besides, it isn't clean enough for my taste. My ambition was to settle down here as a country gentleman."
"But, surely," Lady Edna protested, "surely—"
"Oh, that isn't quite all," Saltburn went on. "I hoped some day to marry. That dream will possibly be shattered, and that is the part which hurts the most. I couldn't very well ask the woman I have in my mind to come out yonder with me, and live in a log cabin. Even my audacity shrinks from that."
"Ah, you are like most of the men," Lady Edna smiled. "You look at it all from the masculine point of view. Don't you think you might pay the lady the compliment of asking her?"
"You tempt me," Saltburn said. "And if I forget myself and go a step too far—"
"One moment," Lady Edna cried hastily.
"Are you quite determined to make the sacrifice you speak of?"
"That is absolutely settled," Philip said. "We don't want to discuss the point any further. I am just as keen to preserve my good name as you are to keep yours."
"Yes, I like to hear you talk like that. And now I come to a point which I cannot overlook. I have been kept in the dark as much as possible, and I have discovered many things more by accident than anything else. I know, for instance, that it was you who saved us. Oh, you needn't shake your head; you need not try to deny it. If it hadn't been for you, a great disaster would have overtaken us. My father would have lost his right to stand prominently in the front rank of statesmen. And yet to-day his reputation has never been so marked. And all this we owe to you. Absolutely, we owe it all to your disinterested kindness. And yet you had little encouragement. And you came here first when I didn't want to see you. I should not even have received you had not my father insisted on it. And how badly Shorland behaved to you. And yet it made no difference. You went on just the same, and now it is impossible to thank you for what you have done. But why did you do it? What claim have we upon you?"
"One moment," Saltburn interrupted. "Isn't the question a bit superfluous? You underrate your own intelligence, Lady Edna. Why does a young man do these disinterested things?"
Saltburn turned a keen glance upon her. He laid his hand upon her arm as it lay there, white and gleaming on the stone balustrade, and there was a masterfulness in his grip that was not displeasing.
"Oh yes, you do," he said. "You know perfectly well. You don't suppose I was blind when I came here. You don't suppose that I failed to see what your feelings towards me were? Nobody could be more polite and gracious than yourself. But in every word you said, in every glance and gesture, you were marking your superiority over me. You let me know I was here on sufferance. And to a certain extent I was amused. And then, well, then, I had other feelings. And there is a good deal of my father's obstinacy in my nature, and gradually the force of circumstances threw us a good deal together. We had to be on the same side, and after a bit you began to see that I might possibly be worthy of your friendship."
"Can there be any doubt of that," Lady Edna murmured.
"I thank you for that. I know you mean it sincerely. And we are good friends, now, are we not?"
"You are the best and truest friend I ever had," Lady Edna murmured. "I am thankful for the chance to tell you so."
She lifted her face to Saltburn's now. Her eyes were steady enough, but they were swimming in a luminous moisture, and the pallid ivory of her face was suffused with red. Saltburn's hand was still upon her arm as he spoke.
"That was something gained, wasn't it?" he smiled. "And when I found that I had gained it, I began to see my way to my ambition at last. I had all that a man desires to make a woman happy, and up till quite recently the way appeared to be quite clear. And, now, unfortunately, I find there is something more than ambition and the gratification of one's personal desires. I hope this doesn't all sound too much like the maxims in one's old copy-books. But then, you see, I have put a certain amount of restraint on my feelings, but I feel sure you know what I mean. You said just now I was like the majority of men and only took the masculine point of view. I am trying to show you now why it is absolutely necessary that I should do so. Now, honestly, wouldn't you suggest that a prospective pauper like myself should not come, say, to a girl in your position and coolly ask her to become his wife. Now is it logical?"
"It may not be logical," Lady Edna laughed unsteadily. "But I know if I were a man I should do so."
It was a bold thing to say, and Lady Edna caught herself wondering how she could have had the audacity to utter it. An hour or two before she would have resented the mere suggestion of an understanding between Philip Saltburn and herself.
And now, when it seemed to her that she was going to lose him, that he was going to place everything before his love for her, then she knew that she could not let him go. What did anything matter if there was to be no Philip Saltburn by her side in the future?
"I have said too much," Saltburn muttered.
"Have you?" Lady Edna asked. "Oh, no. On the contrary, it seems to me that you have left off at the most interesting part of the story. My dear Philip, you are never going to force me—"
Saltburn stepped back. He was on the verge of a passionate outburst. Then he heard the sound of footsteps, and William Saltburn stood behind him, breathing hard, as if he had come a long way at full speed. He did not see Lady Edna at all.
"I want you," he panted. "I have motored down on purpose to see you. It is necessary that I should see Sherringborne at once. You must manage this for me, Philip."
Lady Edna drew back. It seemed no place for her. She bowed graciously to Saltburn, though her aloofness was as marked as ever, and made a suggestion.
"Perhaps you would like to be left alone with your father," she said. "There is no occasion whatever to stand on ceremony. Lord Sherringborne will understand. And we shall enjoy the walk back across the park this perfect evening."
William Saltburn looked almost grateful, his face was hot and dirty, his eyes bloodshot. Just for a moment Philip caught himself wondering as to whether or not his father had committed a crime, and was looking for someone to help him. Certainly Philip had never seen the older man in circumstances like these before. He turned to speak to Lady Edna, but she had vanished.
"I came down here at once," Saltburn said. "It's a pressing business, Phil."
"One minute," Philip said. "I can't let my guests go like this. I must speak to Sherringborne."
But Sherringborne and his family had already departed. Philip could see them as they walked down the drive in the direction of the Abbey, he could catch the expression in Lady Edna's face as she waved her hand to him.
"That's the man that matters," Saltburn said hoarsely. "Sherringborne, and nobody else. And I regarded him as little better than a fool. I thought he was no more than a gilded popinjay. I was idiot enough to believe he was like all the rest of them, and that he owed his office to the fact that he was a Cranwallis."
"We all make mistakes," Philip murmured.
"I thought I should be able to do as I liked with him," Saltburn went on. "I thought I should be able to twist him round my little finger and make him dance like a doll at the end of a string, and that is where I made the mistake, my boy; Sherringborne is a cleverer man than I."
"Hadn't you better explain?" Philip said.
"Well, it's pretty plain, isn't it? Sherringborne was in my way, he was interfering with my plans, and it became a question of whether I suffered or he did. Oh, I worked it out in my mind, and when I had got that man beaten I was going to make my own terms."
Saltburn shook his fist at the receding Sherringborne.
"And he looked so easy, too. I never thought that he would be able to stand up to me when the pinch came, but I was wrong. When the pinch did come I found him to be a better man than myself. I don't believe I've got the head I used to have. It never occurred to me that Sherringborne would be able to use the whole of the Diplomatic force behind him to get the better of me."
"He didn't," Philip said. "That's where you went wrong."
"But that's what he has done. If it hadn't been for my policy as regards those Tortina concessions, there never would have been any trouble between Japan and America at all."
Saltburn spoke in quick, jerky sentences, but the wild look was no longer in his eye.
"You brought the trouble about deliberately?" Philip asked.
"Certainly I did. And why? So that I could ruin that proud old aristocrat. Render his concessions worthless by stirring up Japan, and buying them after at my own price. Then, when I had him bankrupt, you had to step in, and Lady Edna would have only been too glad—"
Philip listened more in sorrow than in anger. "All this I saw quite plainly," he said, "but, with the best intentions in the world you were bent on ruining my chances with Lady Edna. She belongs to a class you will never understand. She would rather die than consent—"
"Rubbish," Saltburn cried. "She couldn't live without all this. I tell you, my boy—"
He waved his hand round comprehensively. The sad vexed expression was still on Philip's face.
"It is quite hopeless to argue," he said. "When I want to marry, I want a wife to take me, not my position. And Lady Edna will marry the man she loves, even if she has to live in a hut. Only an hour ago she practically told me so. But all this is beating the air. What do you want me to do?"
"Get Sherringborne to see me in the morning. I have a proposal to make that may save the situation yet. I suppose you have heard what has happened in Tortina?"
"I have," Philip said. "We shall hear of no more trouble between the States and Japan. And my Tortina speculation will come back a hundredfold. You see, I was acting on a hint from Prince Ito. It was the Port of San Toro that the people from Tokio were after all the time."
Saltburn burst out stormily, his big voice boomed to heaven.
"And you knew this all the time," he raved. "Knew it and never told me."
"Because I could not betray a confidence," Philip said. "My dear father, the diplomacy of little Republics, and that of big Powers is a very different matter. Toy States can be bought, as the international financier knows, but a country like Japan!"
Sherringborne, approached next morning, had no objection to meeting his old foe. He was gracious and debonair as usual.
"Why this mystery, Mr. Saltburn?" he asked. "Why didn't you write in the ordinary way and make an appointment?"
"I prefer this way, if you don't mind," Saltburn said. "The last time I was here the circumstances were very different."
There was a threat underlying the words, but, for the life of him, Saltburn could not restrain the impulse. Obviously it was his policy to come to this man, hat in hand, but just for the moment the old Adam was uppermost.
He felt unreasonably angry, and he was writhing under the patent sense of his own inferiority. The contrast was so great that he could not restrain himself, and Sherringborne saw it quite clearly too, for, despite his easy smile, there was a tinge of colour in his cheeks.
"That was not quite discreet of you," he murmured.
"It wasn't," Saltburn admitted bluntly. "But then, I have not been bred up to diplomacy. The last time I was here was on the night of your illness."
"Oh, yes," Sherringborne murmured. "Pray go on. You appear to be in trouble, Mr. Saltburn. If I can help you, I shall be only too glad to do so."
"I am up to my neck in it," Saltburn said. "I need not tell you how I am situated, you know the position as well as I do. The whole world is beginning to know it. They say that William Saltburn is on his last legs, and, by gad, it's true. That earthquake business has finished me off. I have backed the wrong horse, Sherringborne, and that's all there is to it."
"I am really sorry," Sherringborne murmured. "Well, you're the man who backed the winner. You are too clever for me, and that's the naked truth. And a pretty bitter confession it is. But I should have worried through had it not been for that earthquake in Tortina. Can't you manage to take a hand, Sherringborne?"
"But how?" Sherringborne asked. "Surely you are not suggesting that I should put pressure on Tortina, where Santa Anna, the President, is ostensibly a friend of England? Come, Mr. Saltburn, that is not worthy of a man of your ability."
"I don't want any soft soap," Saltburn said doggedly. "And who said anything about putting pressure on Tortina? The Concession holders will do that fast enough, and you're one of them. If you can give me an introduction to Prince Ito and ask him to treat me as a friend of yours, I think I can see a way out."
Sherringborne smiled good-humouredly.
"Your idea certainly has the merit of novelty," he said. "But you will pardon me if I say it is utterly absurd. A little reflection will show you this. Your business methods in Tortina have done mischief enough in Tortina as it is, but I assure you that I am quite powerless in the matter."
"You could have prevented the whole thing if you had liked," Saltburn snarled. "Oh! I know when you put your money in Tortina the political sky was quite clear, but if you had not invested in those concessions I should never have had—"
"Seen your way to ruin me," Sherringborne said quietly. "I am not a very wise man, Mr. Saltburn, but I have seen your policy quite clearly from the first day you came here, and I learnt your—shall I say, without offence?—early history."
"Oh, I know that I underrated your intellect," Saltburn said almost brutally, "but—"
"There is no but about it," Sherringborne said. "You were going to drag me in the mud through my public position. You meant to tell the House of Commons that I had used my official knowledge in connection with my Tortina investments, and that, when hostilities threatened, I suppressed the fact so that I could benefit—"
"Not for my own sake entirely," Saltburn cried, off his guard. "I was thinking more of my son and daughter—"
"Really," Sherringborne interrupted. "This is an extraordinary conversation. I make every allowance for your feelings, but you are putting a great strain on my patience."
"You can help me if you like," Saltburn growled.
"Possibly yes, I think it highly probable that Prince Ito would help you if he had a suggestion from our Foreign Office. But he's not the least likely to get it. My dear sir, if your nerves—"
"Oh, I am not the only nervous one," Saltburn said truculently. "I saw that when I was here last. And you had good reason."
Saltburn had overstepped the mark at last. Sherringborne turned on him a face clouded with anger.
"Since you take this attitude," he said. "I will ask you to speak a little more plainly."
"I will," Saltburn said. "A few months ago you broke down badly, you came precious near to bankruptcy and lost your reputation as well as health. You had done an exceedingly foolish thing, and I knew it as well as you did."
"Folly is not dishonesty," Sherringborne said.
"It's all carefully covered up now, but if it hadn't been for my son—my son, of all people in the world—you would have had to leave Borne Abbey and let it to strangers. And you're not safe, even yet. You will never be safe till the mystery of El Murid's death is cleared up. It was bad for you when he died, but it may be worse if his private papers fall into certain hands. Now, supposing I can get hold of those papers? At what price are you prepared to get them back? I don't mean in money."
Sherringborne had lost all his courtly dignity now. He showed neither fear nor confusion, but Saltburn could see that he was making an impression.
"I am not going to admit that any such papers exist," Sherringborne said, "though El Murid was a great personal friend of mine, and I was in regular communication with him. He was the one man in Tortina I could trust, and when one writes to a man like that one naturally says a good deal that is not intended for publication. Public policy, and that sort of thing. Now, let us understand one another plainly, Mr. Saltburn. You came here today to blackmail me."
"That's a lie," Saltburn cried. "Call it bargain if you like."
"And if I don't agree to the bargain then you threaten to ruin me by disclosing letters which you hint have fallen into your hands, and which were written by me to El Murid. Am I wrong? Because if I am I will apologise for mistaking you for a contemptible scoundrel whom I ought to have kicked out of my house."
"Then you mean to fight," Saltburn challenged.
"My dear sir, it is no question of fighting at all. Surely we can argue this matter out without violent methods. If I misunderstood you I am sorry, but you will quite see for yourself that it would be foolish on my part—"
Sherringborne broke off abruptly as the door opened and a servant came in. Then, behind the servant appeared the well-known figure of de la Croisa.
"Oh, I beg your pardon," the Baron cried. "I thought you were alone. Ah, surely this is our mutual friend, Mr. Saltburn. We are well met, sir."
The situation was saved. Sherringborne knew that directly he glanced at the easy, smiling face of de la Croisa. And Saltburn knew now that his last plank was gone.
And the Baron, in his turn, summed up the situation in a look. He glanced significantly at Sherringborne and tapped his breast-pocket. Sherringborne was making play with his handkerchief now. He wiped his heated face with an expression to the effect that the day was warm.
It had been touch and go with him, but now he could see that there was no further use for fear. He could be gracious enough to Saltburn. Indeed, there was nothing to gain by any other course.
"I have been having a rather unpleasant conversation with Mr. Saltburn," he said. "Really, those disturbances in Tortina are very disastrous for British shareholders. Mr. Saltburn has taken the trouble to come all the way from London in their interests, to suggest a course to me whereby something, at any rate, can be saved from the wreck. Unhappily, it is a course I cannot see my way to adopt."
Saltburn said nothing. He had utterly and irretrievably lost now. Broken as he was and desperate, he could still find time to envy Sherringborne his easy manner and the way in which he had turned all unpleasantness aside. And it was not in Saltburn's nature, either, to make a dignified exit.
"Well, I won't waste your time any longer," he said. "I wish you both good day."
It was the best he could do in the circumstances. He turned on his heel abruptly, and strode across the room through the French window on to the terrace. De la Croisa threw himself into a chair and laughed softly.
"It seems to me, my dear friend," he said, "that I have arrived at what the novelists call the psychological moment. Unless I am greatly mistaken, our Berserk friend was threatening you when I came."
"Well, to be quite candid, he was," Sherringborne admitted. "To say he was here on behalf of the English investors in Tortinas is a mere figure of speech. As you can guess, he was here on behalf of William Saltburn."
"And the devil take the hindmost, eh!"
"He looks like losing what he has left owing to that disastrous earthquake. He has contracted to sell thousands of Tortinas at starvation prices, and he has no shares to deliver unless he buys them at a fancy figure. I am sorry for the man, but I could not possibly do as he asked. The situation is a bit too delicate for me to interfere. And when I refused Saltburn threatened me with certain indiscreet letters you know of. And, just for a moment I believed that he had them."
"He was never within miles of them," de la Croisa smiled.
"And then you turned up, for all the world like the comedian at the end of the third act. What a wonderful instinct you have for doing the right thing. And, of course, those letters are in your breast-pocket at the present moment. I could not be mistaken."
"Correct, as usual," the Baron cried gaily. "But I have had what you call the very devil of a job. I've been in Tortina for weeks with no little risk to myself, but I managed to smuggle the letters through eventually. Still, I shouldn't have done it without Lady Shorland's assistance."
"Ah," Sherringborne cried. "Then she got the letters for me after all."
"My dear fellow, she got the whole of her father's papers. She played the part of a queen in a revolutionary comedy. She denounced Santa Anna from the stage of the Union Theatre in St. Lucia, and told the audience the truth with Santa Anna in a box. She denounced Santa Anna as her father's murderer—for El Murid was murdered. She carried the whole audience with her, and Santa Anna had to flee for his life. The old constitution party is back in power again, and everything goes well. They wanted me to stay and join the new administration. All this happened nearly a month ago, but Santa Anna had cut the cables, and consequently—"
"So it was Lady Shorland who can claim all the credit for the campaign?" Sherringborne asked.
"She behaved splendidly. I tell you, that woman is a born diplomatist, and she has a fine natural courage of her own as well. I think I can congratulate you on your daughter-in-law. People may be disposed to sneer at her, but she will be a great force some of these days. I shouldn't be surprised if she made a man of Shorland yet."
"I will thank you later on," Sherringborne said quietly. "What an extraordinary thing it is that this ill-assorted marriage of Shorland's should have gone to save my political reputation."
"Oh, all the sympathy is on the side of the lady," de la Croisa laughed. "Still, you can speak to her when you get the opportunity. We both came back together this morning and are rather disappointed to find that the fatted calf had not been killed for our reception. We sent a telegram from Paris. Didn't you get it?"
"I haven't seen it," Sherringborne explained. "I suppose they are making Lady Shorland comfortable?"
Lady Shorland had seen to that for herself. She had made herself quite at home in the hall, where she was devouring tea and muffins with a fine healthy appetite. It was still a mystery to Lady Edna how all this had come about. She had received her sister-in-law with a certain cold cordiality, which was not altogether unmixed with a sense of being out in the cold. There was a neighbouring duchess calling at the time.
Of course, in time Lady Shorland would have to meet these people, but not until she had been educated up to so trying an ordeal. It was not to be expected that she would be able to live up to the rich cream of society like this. But she seemed to fit naturally in her place and even to take the lead. Lady Edna watched her with a certain sort of satisfaction. But it was not till the end of the trying afternoon and the great one of the earth had gone that Lady Edna was forced to admit to herself that her sister-in-law had been an absolute social success.
Lady Shorland took it all cooly enough. She sat, after tea, on the terrace smoking a cigarette and criticising the recent visitors.
"I'm glad I met them," she said. "It's just as well to take the top first. Now, confess it, my dear child, weren't you terribly frightened when I turned up to-day. You are a very candid girl, and very transparent. It is a great fault of yours that you allow your face to speak your mind too freely."
"I hope," Lady Edna began, "I hope, Ninon, that—"
"And yet I didn't shock you so terribly just now, did I? Now do you know what the Duchess did when she went away? She has a big political demonstration at the Castle early next month, and she has asked me to go and stay with her for a fortnight and help to amuse the people. What do you think of that?"
"And are you going?" Lady Edna asked.
"Going! Of course I am. I've got to meet these people sooner or later, and I might just as well start in the right place. And I am not going to be handicapped because I happened to marry a poor thing like Shorland. And between ourselves, my dear, it's a precious good thing for the Cranwallises that I did marry Shorland. Oh, I don't want any gratitude, because I was thinking as much of myself as of you. And I suppose by this time you know why I went to Tortina?"
A bright flush tinged Lady Edna's cheeks.
"I don't like to think of it," she murmured.
"Then don't think of it. You are never likely to hear me mention it again. I was quite successful, though I ran risks and did things which you would have shrunk from. If I were to put all my adventures into a book a publisher would not look at it. He would say that the thing was too improbable. But all the same, the dear old Baron and myself had a grand time together, and I shouldn't mind having it all over again. Still, it has turned out very well, all except one thing, and that gives me a good deal of cause for regret."
"And what is that?" Lady Edna asked.
"Well, I am worried about Philip Saltburn. I have only met him a few times, and I have formed a very high opinion of him. He wasn't much in my old set, of course. That set consisted of Grand Dukes and gilded fools and immensely wealthy capitalists, most of them of Hebrew extraction. You would be surprised to know what a deal I know about finance. I believe I should have been a big success in the city. And I have got a great deal of information lately from the Baron. I know exactly what Philip Saltburn has done, and it will be my business to see that he gets the best results from his Christian action. There is not the slightest reason why he should waste all his own fortune in trying to bolster up his father's credit, but it can be done another way. And, besides, how can the poor fellow get married when he has nothing to live upon? That would be very hard on you."
"I don't quite follow you," Lady Edna said coldly.
"Oh, yes, you do, my dear. It is all very well to speak in that frigid way, and hold your pretty head at that fascinating angle, but that can't prevent the colour rising in your cheeks at the mention of Saltburn's name. Why, you are head over heels in love with the man."
"Ninon, how dare you?" Lady Edna cried with flushed cheeks.
"Anyone who has eyes can see that when you are together. Oh, I know what I am talking about. I have had my own little romance, though I have put it aside for the sake of a man like Shorland. And if you only know it you are a decidedly lucky girl. Marry him, you little idiot, marry him. He is worth a waggon-load of the gilded noodles that one meets in society. Of course, I don't want to interfere, but whatever your fate is, you can't do more than marry a gentleman, and Philip Saltburn is that if I ever saw one."
Lady Edna abandoned the unequal contest. It was perfectly impossible to stave off a direct attack delivered in this uncompromising fashion. She could only protest feebly.
"Mr. Saltburn is a poor man," she said shamefacedly.
"Oh, no, he isn't. At any rate, he won't be by the time I have done with him. Now I'm not going to sit quietly by and see him playing ducks and drakes with your happiness and his simply because he has a quixotic idea that he ought to help that rascally father of his. I am going to take a hand at this game."
"You would not dare," Lady Edna gasped.
"Oh, wouldn't I? You don't know me yet, my child. I've got a little scheme of my own for the saving of the situation as far as William Saltburn is concerned, and that without getting Philip to put his hand in his pocket for a penny. I suppose I know nine out of every ten great financiers in Europe. And I shall know how to handle this problem when the time comes."
"Is Mr. Saltburn with it?" Lady Edna asked. "I am not doing this for the sake of William Saltburn, my dear. I am doing it for yours. And the time will come when you will be grateful. Indeed, I shouldn't wonder if the time came when you were bound to admit that I did a very kindly thing when I permitted Shorland to ally me with this illustrious family."
Lady Edna smiled in spite of herself. Indeed, she was almost ready to admit that now. And she was really beginning to take a liking to this pretty fascinating creature who had come into her life with dramatic suddenness.
"I won't discuss the matter any further," Lady Shorland said. "By the way, Shorland tells me that we are going over to 'The Chantrey' to lunch with Philip Saltburn on Monday. Now, I wanted to ask him to get his father there. Never mind why, you can leave that to me. Only see that it is done, that's all. And then you will see what you will see. I am your fairy godmother, my dear."
Though the miracle had happened, Philip Saltburn was feeling no easier in his mind. True, he had saved the honour of the house of Cranwallis, to say nothing of its financial integrity, but at what a cost?
His father was ruined, and Philip had deliberately brought that ruin about. And yet it had been the only way, the only way to keep Phil's reputation sweet in Lady Edna's eyes, and preserve her friendship. Had William Saltburn had his say, then Phil's romance was so much Dead Sea fruit.
The collapse of Santa Anna in Tortina, and the forces of nature intervening on the Islands had blown Saltburn's scheme for humiliating Sherringborne and his daughter to the winds. The Concessions now would make Sherringborne a rich man again, rich in every sense of the word.
And Philip could share that prosperity. The political crisis was over, and Sherringborne was saved. Japan would gain all she had been coveting from the first—a treaty port at San Toro, and nothing more would be heard about St. Lucia. And all this was due to Philip alone. He had won Lady Edna's respect—more than that, he hoped—but at what a cost? To prove that he was right he had been compelled to fight his own father with weapons placed in his hands by Sherringborne, de la Croisa, and the Japanese Prince Ito, with the result that his father stood on the verge of ruin.
And this must not be, must not, even if Philip had to sell 'The Chantrey' and start again in some distant part of the world. So far as Philip could see, nobody grasped the fact but himself.
However, in this he was reckoning without Lady Shorland. The solution was plain enough to her, with that nimble intellect of hers, to say nothing that she had enjoyed for some weeks the full benefit of de la Croisa's company and confidence. By the time she got back to Borne Abbey she knew as much of the situation as the Baron.
With his trouble heavy upon him, Philip was as wax in her hands, and all the more, perhaps, that he could see that she was only too eager to help him.
"Then what are you going to do?" she asked.
"There is only one thing to do," Philip said. "My father must not suffer. After all, he is my father; I must make good as far as I can."
Lady Shorland smiled.
"And 'The Chantrey'?" she asked. "The ambition to found a family? To say nothing of love's young dream. My dear Philip, there is a better way than yours."
"Lady Edna is lost to me now," Philip said gloomily.
"Not she. Send your father to me and don't worry. Trust El Murid's daughter to find a way out. You have no idea what a good business woman I am. And I have had some of the greatest financiers at my feet for years. Your father's name shall be saved, and I shall wear a special frock I have imported from Paris at your wedding."
Philip let it go at that. He wrote to his father the same evening, and the elder man came down from London with none too good a grace.
"Anything more gone wrong?" he asked.
"Not so far as I know," Philip said. "All my arrangements are still proceeding. But for some reason or another Lady Shorland wanted to see you, in fact, she would take no refusal."
Saltburn broke into a strenuous laugh.
"Well, that's odd," he said. "What can that brilliant little adventuress, want with me? She's never been what I call friendly, in fact, she's been at no pains to disguise her feelings. Now I wonder what bee she's got in her bonnet now."
"You're very complimentary," Philip said. "But I don't think it will be so dull after all. You see, Lady Shorland thinks she can—well—get you out of your difficulties."
William Saltburn remarked frankly enough that Lady Shorland was welcome to try.
"She's well in with a lot of big people, I know," he said. "She's pretty, she's fascinating, and she's got brains. And with all her Bohemianism she's managed to keep her own record clean enough. At any rate, she would make a fine ally for a financier working a big deal. But you don't know anything at all about these things. If I wanted to bring about a big financial amalgamation, I'd rather have Lady Shorland to work it for me than any man on earth. And she's acquainted with all the capitalists, both here and in America. Upon my word, I've a dashed good mind to offer her a share in a partnership. I'm dead broke, but William Saltburn's not done for yet."
Philip was content to let it go at that and presently Lady Shorland took William Saltburn in hand. She seemed to enjoy his society, and talked in a way which excited the financier's admiration. It was after luncheon that she insisted upon taking him round the garden and pointing out its manifold beauties to him.
"Yes, it's a pretty place enough," Saltburn said contemptuously. "All very well to come down to at week-ends when one gets tired of London. But I can't understand why Philip wants to settle down here. A young man like that. He ought to have more ambition."
"Well, he's not likely to have the chance now," Lady Shorland said. "Where does he get his ideas from, Mr. Saltburn?"
"What ideas?" Saltburn asked.
"Why, his extraordinary ideas about honour and duty. He doesn't inherit them from you, surely?"
"Oh, I've got no fads," Saltburn said, without the slightest show of resentment. "I think I know what you mean, though. You think Philip is going to be fool enough to hand over all the money he has to put into my business. Well, that's what he has offered."
"I'm perfectly sure he would," Lady Shorland said in her sweetest manner. "But what's the good of it? It won't really help you. Nothing less than a couple of millions, would put you straight."
"That's true," William Saltburn admitted.
"But then, like all the rest of the financial gamblers, you have a sanguine temperament, and you are selfish into the bargain. You might, at any rate, express a certain amount of regret at ruining your son's prospects in this way."
"If Phil had taken my advice—"
"He would have ruined everything. He wanted to settle down here as a country gentleman with money to found a family. He would be Lord Sherringborne's son-in-law, and that itself would give him a standing. And sooner or later, after the first glamour of marriage had passed off, he would begin to take an interest in politics. He couldn't help doing this, and I am perfectly certain he would go very far indeed. And he has proved himself to be a great deal cleverer than you are."
"That's true," William Saltburn admitted, not without pride.
"Instead of this, you are going to send him off, sooner or later, to get his living by the picturesque occupation of cow-punching if you are selfish enough to accept his offer. They do call it cow-punching, don't they?"
"I don't know," Saltburn said. "But, see here, Lady Shorland, what are you driving at? I don't want to injure the boy if I can help it. He's all I've got and I'm dashed proud of him, though I don't care about telling people so. He's different to me—"
"Yes, I've noticed that," Lady Shorland smiled.
"Oh, you needn't laugh at me. You know what I mean. I expect Philip takes after his mother. She was a lady, you know. Her people went out to Australia nearly a century ago, and they belonged to the north country Bradleys. People wondered why my wife ever came to marry me."
"Women do quaint things," Lady Shorland smiled. "It is one of their charms in men's eyes."
"Well, at any rate, Philip's all right. Wherever he goes he is popular. And I don't think it is for the sake of his money either. Look how thick he is with the people in Borne Abbey. Why, he more or less lives there. And they have known from the first that I used to be a boy in the kitchen. One of my ambitions was to marry Philip to Lady Edna. I was going to force her into it, more or less. And then I was going to tell them who I was—but that's all knocked out now."
"Very strange," Lady Shorland said thoughtfully, "how an awfully clever man in one thing can be a perfect fool in another. Now, that little scheme of yours would never have answered. If you had ruined the whole family it would have been just the same. Lady Edna would not have married Philip even if she had been dying of love for him. Still, as you so tersely put it, all that is knocked on the head now. And the strange part is that you knocked it out yourself."
"I don't see that," Saltburn exclaimed.
"Oh, yes, you have. You would have ruined everything by that selfishness of yours. Now Philip and Lady Edna are vary much in love with one another, and the whole thing was going beautifully when you blundered into it in the way you aggressive men have. It would have all come right in the end. You don't expect a pauper, an your boy will be if he hands everything over to you, to ask Lady Edna Cranwallis to share his lot with him, do you? You can't imagine Lady Edna out in what you call the 'back blocks,' scouring her saucepans and cooking her own breakfast, can you?"
"I begin to see that I have made a fool of myself," Saltburn muttered.
"True. My good, man, what's going to become of all this money of Philip's when he insists upon giving it to you?"
"He'll have it all back, and more, in ten years' time," the capitalist cried. "Ah, I've not come to grief altogether."
"There is no reason why you should come to grief altogether. There are scores of great financiers in the world who would be only too glad to have you as partner. Naturally, you wouldn't go in on your own terms now. You would have to take a second place, though the world wouldn't know it, of course. You would be a kind of glorified servant, with your name over the shop door, so to speak, but you would be a servant all the same."
"Show me the chance," Saltburn said doggedly.
"On the other hand, you could get rid of all your worries without losing your reputation, and you would have more money than any one man would be able to do with. And, again, you wouldn't be in a junior position for long, you are too strong and masterful and unscrupulous for that."
"That's pretty plain speaking," Saltburn said.
"I brought you here for plain speaking. Do you know that I am a very clever woman, Mr. Saltburn. If I hadn't been clever I shouldn't have married Shorland. O, I knew what I wanted, and that, of course, was a matter of time. And I shall make something of Shorland yet. And I am very anxious to see Philip in the family. He would be exceedingly useful to me later on. But it is obvious that Philip can't come into the family if you persist in taking his money."
"I see that," Saltburn said grudgingly.
"Very well, then. In that case, it is your duty to do as I tell you. Why don't you go to one of the big Americans and get him to come in with you? Several of them would be only too glad to have the chance. And you can make your own terms pretty well. I know half a dozen men who would give an ear to have a partner like yourself on this side of the Atlantic. There's van Ritter, for instance. I'm perfectly certain he'd jump at the chance."
"But I don't know him," Saltburn said.
"Well, I do. And he is in London at the present moment. And he is a solid man, he is rich simply because he can't help himself. But that doesn't prevent him from having a desire to be richer still. He has a scheme for controlling the markets here and in New York, and he was only telling me last night what he could do if he had a partner after his own heart. And to be perfectly candid with you, Mr. Saltburn, I mentioned your name. Of course, I didn't tell van Ritter that I knew of your position, because that would be giving the game away. I treated the whole thing quite as a matter of business, and I get a commission if I bring off a deal with you. Now, Mr. Saltburn, you are never going to be hardhearted enough to prevent a poor creature like myself from earning an honest penny? Besides, Shorland and myself are dreadfully hard up, and I have a lot of heavy bills to meet. Still, if you don't like the idea I can try somebody else."
But Saltburn did not appear to be listening. He rose from the seat where he had been sitting and began to pace up and down excitedly between the flower beds. His quick commercial mind grasped the possibilities of this opening at once. By the time he had taken half a dozen turns he saw his way clearly.
"I'll do it," he said. "I could double van Ritter's money in a few years. And I suppose you've got nothing definite?"
Lady Shorland smiled innocently,
"Oh, yes, I have," she said. "I told van Ritter for his own protection he ought to put it in writing, because, you see, people make such funny mistakes, and then after-wards they go about and say that they've been robbed, and all sorts of stupid things. So you see we drew up an agreement, and when I showed it to my solicitor before I left London he actually complimented me on it. Now, don't you think it was very clever of an ignorant little woman like myself to get all that down right?"
"Oh, you're very ignorant," Saltburn said grimly. "Still, I owe you something for this, and you shall get your commission. You bring van Ritter and myself together. And so far as I am concerned, Philip is quite free. I shan't want his money now. And as to you, well, you ought to have been a man. And I can't pay you a higher compliment than that."
Lady Edna stood by Philip's side with her beautiful eyes turned in almost rapt attention on the facade of "The Chantrey."
"I have always been fond of the house," she said. "Indeed, in some respects, I prefer it to Borne Abbey. The Abbey frightens me at times. And I shall not be sorry later on to hand it over to Shorland and his wife. I should not be surprised if she makes quite a good hostess in time."
Philip was inclined to agree. Just for a moment his mind reverted to that strange morning a few months back when Lady Edna and Lady Shorland had met in such remarkable circumstances. Perhaps Lady Edna was thinking of the same thing, too, for there was the suspicion of a smile on her lips.
"That was a bad start, though," Philip said. "But, of course, we must make allowances for the artistic temperament. A woman isn't necessarily bad because she wears picturesque dresses and smokes cigarettes in public. For my part I am bound to confess that I like Lady Shorland. I should not be surprised if she does not make a man of your brother yet. To a certain extent he is afraid of her, and I know she has stopped his betting. When I saw him to-day, he looked more fit than I have ever seen him."
"Ah, we are chastened in many ways," Lady Edna smiled. "But I really think Lady Shorland is going to be a blessing in disguise. My education in worldly matters has progressed at such a rate lately that I hardly know myself...What a happy idea it is to have removed those fir trees, and placed a pergola along that bank. And don't you think it would have been an improvement if you had pulled down the old wall as well?"
"I did think of it," Philip said. "But it would be a sheer waste of money now, I must leave that to my successor."
"Your successor?" Lady Edna exclaimed.
"Well, yes, I intended to tell you. You see, at the present moment, I want all the money I can scrape together to help my father out of his pressing difficulties. I am rather afraid it will be throwing good money after bad, but still he is a wonderful man, and if he can't succeed, well then there's no chance for anybody. And in a way his business is his life. If he goes down now I don't think he will ever recover again. Of course, from a practical point of view I am doing a foolish thing, but I have no intention of going back from it. For the time being, of course, I shall be almost penniless, and the money I shall get from letting this house furnished will be enough to keep me. I've got a man coming down in a day or two to look at this house, and I feel quite sure from what he said that we shall be able to come to terms."
"What are you thinking of doing?" Lady Edna asked.
"Oh, I shall go abroad. I've got one or two friends out in Australia who will be pleased enough to give me a start. But then things will come right again, and then I shall come back. This isn't what I expected a week or so ago, and I don't mind confessing to you that it has been a hard struggle to make this sacrifice. I had been looking forward to a happy life here. I had been looking forward to something else. But in common honesty and fairness I could not mention that now. But, of course that's all a dream. I couldn't ask the woman I love and admire more than anybody to share my lot, could I?"
"Haven't we argued this out before?" Lady Edna asked. "And besides, it all depends on the woman."
"I know that. And in this case it depends on the man, too. I couldn't do it, Lady Edna. I couldn't do it indeed. Fancy my suggesting to a girl brought up as you are, for instance, that she should come out with me to Australia and rough it for the next few years. Why her relations would not hear of it. And I would not make the suggestion. Still, if I could only screw up my courage to ask her to wait for me...I wonder if she would."
"You had better ask her," Lady Edna said, "That's the only way I know of getting information."
"Oh, I might do that," Philip said thoughtfully. "I'll think it over. I believe I am coming to dine with you to-night. I understand that Lord Sherringborne was running down here with Sir James Pallisser to dine and sleep."
"That was the arrangement," Lady Edna said.
"Then I'll tell you more about it after dinner. I really have not the courage to do it now, here in broad daylight. I think I might manage it better on the terrace this evening. By the way, is Shorland staying on?"
"I think so," said Lady Edna. "As far as I can understand, he has been away for the best part of three weeks without getting into any mischief whatever. Really, I shouldn't wonder if he became a respectable member of society after all. And that reminds me of something I had forgotten. I have just recollected that Shorland is heavily in your debt. I suppose he has not paid you, by some remote chance?"
Philip waved the suggestion aside.
"That is a small matter," he said. "Shorland will pay me as soon as he can turn round. And I'm not quite so hard up as all that, Lady Edna."
It was at this point that Lady Shorland and Saltburn joined the other two. Saltburn was a little more subdued in his manner than usual, his mind appeared to be occupied with something to the exclusion of everything else. But at the same he appeared to have lost a great deal of his truculent expression, and the light of battle had died out of his eyes.
It was an effort, perhaps, on his part, that he was actually making himself agreeable to Lady Edna. Perhaps he, too, had learnt a lesson in the last hour or two. Perhaps he, too, was beginning to understand that there are more methods than one of attaining a desired end.
Hitherto, he had marched victoriously over the prostrate bodies of his foes, he had asked and given no quarter, and probably he was all the harder for the knowledge that hitherto he had found nothing to criticise in his own methods.
And perhaps, on the other hand Lady Edna was just a little sorry for this man who had come so near to the wrecking of a great career. She did not know quite as much as the others. She did not know that the shadow of disgrace which had loomed over the house of Cranwallis had been more or less produced by William Saltburn himself.
She only saw before her a man of hard and resolute ambition who had, to a certain extent, the merit of being Philip's father. This undoubtedly was a point in his favour, and presently these two found themselves, to their surprise, engaged in an almost amicable conversation. And plainly, William Saltburn was trying to make himself agreeable.
"Philip is different to me," he said. "He seems to like a quiet country life. If I had to live here always I should end by blowing my brains out. I couldn't stand it."
"Your son is leaving here," Lady Edna said, William Saltburn laughed as if something amused him.
"There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip," he exclaimed. "And Philip is a rare good lad. I didn't realise how good he was till Lady Shorland opened my eyes for me. Do you know, Lady Edna, though I pass for a hard, practical man, I am a bit of a dreamer too. I suppose most capitalists are. Pinero says that capitalists are pawnbrokers with imaginations. And, upon my word, that's not far wrong. It takes a good many sorts of people to make up a world, and I can't blame everybody because they don't take the same view as I do. But don't you believe all you hear, Lady Edna. Philip hasn't left 'The Chantrey' yet."
With this cryptic remark Saltburn turned away and asked if there were any place hard by where he could get on to the telephone. There was an instrument, it appeared, at the "Cranwallis Arms," and without further ceremony William Saltburn turned and made off in that direction.
It was tea-time when Philip returned slowly and thoughtfully through the woods. On the whole he was not particularly pleased with himself; it seemed to him that he had acted somewhat in a cowardly way.
Lady Edna had given him the opportunity of speaking, indeed she had gone out of her way to do so, and he had not spoken his mind. But he would have to tell her.
He would have to explain fully the position of affairs to her, and leave the decision in her hands. It wasn't for him to suggest anything in the way of an engagement, but they might possibly come to something in the way of an understanding whereby Lady Edna might wait.
Philip would not even ask for that. Indeed, it seemed to him that he had no right to do so. He would leave it entirely to her. But even this decision caused him no satisfaction. He wanted to be alone to think the matter out and the sight of his father walking up and down the terrace was positively distasteful to him.
The elder man appeared to be quite himself again. He carried his head high, and the old light of battle was shining in his eyes.
"I wondered where you had got to," he said. "Come out here and smoke a cigarette. Indoors doesn't seem to be big enough for me. I've been talking to Lady Shorland about you. That is, about you and Lady Edna."
"That is very good of you," Philip said.
"Oh, you needn't be annoyed. It's all for your good, my boy. And so far as I can see—"
"Is the matter worth discussing?" Philip asked quietly. "You know exactly what my feelings towards Lady Edna are, but you must please allow me to manage these things in my own way. If I had acted on your suggestion I should have found myself forbidden the house long ago. But what does it all matter? Lady Edna is as far away from me as the stars. For the next few years I shall be a poor man, and poor men don't aspire to marry a Cranwallis."
"Still, if the girl cared for you—"
"My dear father, that isn't the point at all. It is a matter of honour entirely. I am not complaining, I am not going to make a martyr of myself. I have promised to help you—"
William Saltburn burst into a hearty laugh.
"And you thought I was going to take your money," he cried. "Oh come, my dear boy, I haven't reached that point yet, I admit that I was sorely tempted. Keep the money you have, and the money you made in Tortina when you saved Sherringborne, despite me. And, by heaven, you are right. You heard me ask just now where I could get on to the telephone, didn't you? Well I have been having a long conversation with a man who has been making overtures to me for years."
The fiction was perhaps pardonable in the circumstances.
"I've settled the whole thing now, with van Ritter of New York, and in a day or two the world will know all about it. It's going to be a case of van Ritter and Saltburn against the rest of the world. And van Ritter will do as I like and ask no questions. And in a year or two you will be using 'The Chantrey' for your stables. Now don't worry yourself about me at all. Go in and win, my boy. You've got it all your own way if I am any judge."
William Saltburn meant it beyond a doubt; he meant every word of it. Just for a moment it occurred to Philip that his father was inventing this for his own special benefit.
But it was impossible to look into William Saltburn's face and give him credit for an elegant fiction of this kind. There was conviction, even in the tone of his voice, in the way in which he carried his head and glanced about him. He might have been some general who had turned what appeared to be a crushing defeat into a brilliant and decisive victory.
"I ought to have done it before," William Saltburn said. "To tell you the truth, Philip, I'm not quite the man I used to be. I've had one or two attacks of nerves lately. I suppose I'm getting a bit past it. I used to laugh at that kind of thing a year or two ago, but I don't now, and I'm getting a little tired of the purely speculative business. Still, there are a good many years of work in me yet. I shall enjoy this new game. We shall be on the top before long, you see if we are not."
"Then you don't want Naboth's vineyard?" Philip asked.
"Eh, what? Oh, I see what you mean. Well, no, my boy. You can come in, of course, if you like, and get cent. per cent. on your money, but that's a matter for yourself. But I can't stop any longer, I've got a dozen things to scheme out before to-morrow morning. I hope to meet Van Ritter at luncheon."
William Saltburn strolled off in the direction of the house, leaving Philip grateful for the chance of being alone. He could hardly realise at first that he was free—free to do as he liked and to carry out the golden programme which he had laid out for himself. He had done the fair thing, he had offered to put down everything to save his father's good name, and now the sacrifice was not necessary, neither had it been made in vain.
Philip gazed about him with a curiously light heart, and with the feeling that life was worth living. He began to take an interest again in the plans which he had been making for many months, there were alterations here and there which began to appeal to him once more. He was going to have them carried out in exact accordance with Lady Edna's suggestions. Everything must be done to please her, of course. And perhaps a little later on, when all was finished, why—.
Philip smiled at himself for a visionary. Really, he was going too fast. But when he came to ponder the thing quietly over, he could think of actually nothing definite which Lady Edna had said to justify these sanguine feelings. She had been very nice, and very friendly, of course, and once, well, once he had stood with her on the terrace with his hand on hers and she had not even murmured. The action had been a caress, in fact, but still, you never know. And, after all, she was Lady Edna Cranwallis, and he was the son of a discredited capitalist with a conviction recorded against him.
Still, she had challenged him right enough. She had told him quite plainly that it was a question as much for the woman as for the man.
She had told him that if she were a man she would not have hesitated for a moment. And all this from that white, haughty, distant beauty who had received him so coldly at Borne Abbey only a few months ago.
He had been inclined to laugh at her then, he had been sufficiently amused with those distant airs because he was a young man with dazzling fortunes, and even greater than Lady Edna had deigned to smile on him. But he hadn't been amused for long. Very soon there was a feeling entirely different. And then he had thrown himself heart and soul on the side of the Cranwallises.
He had saved Sherringborne right enough, and he had helped Lady Edna more than once, but she really had no idea how large a hand he had had in averting the great catastrophe. No doubt it would have been a great asset in his favour, but Philip had not the slightest intention of playing the game in that way.
He thought the whole matter carefully over as he dressed for dinner. He was a little more fastidious in his toilet than usual. And so far as he could see, there was only one way. He would go straightforwardly to Lady Edna and ask her to be his wife.
He would take advantage of no outside circumstances, and now that he had made up his mind to this he felt less uneasy. When he reached Borne Abbey there was no one in the drawing-room yet besides Sherringborne and Sir James Pallisser.
"We were just talking about you," the latter said as he shook hands. "Bartram has resigned his seat. I only knew it this afternoon, and I have been discussing it with Sherringborne. Now that you have taken up your residence in the country, I hope you will try your hand at politics."
"There is nothing that would please me more," Sherringborne said. "But I'm not quite sure that Saltburn is staying here. My daughter told me something to the effect that he is letting the house and going abroad for a time."
"Well, fortunately for me, that is no longer necessary," Philip said. "You see, I was going to help my father, but it seems that he has entered into a great financial alliance with van Ritter of New York. After that, I hardly dared mention my poor little quarter of a million or so. But, at any rate, Lord Sherringborne, I am going to stay here now and settle down at 'The Chantrey.' And I think I should like a seat in the House."
"Of course you would," de la Croisa explained. He had come into the room just in time to hear the last words. "The air is full of strange rumours, my dear fellow. I hear of schemes for the financial invasion of England by an American army headed by your father and van Ritter. I hope you are sufficiently an Englishman to keep out of that conglomeration."
"I wasn't asked to go in," Philip laughed. "And, in any case, I have had quite enough of the money market. And now, Sir James and Lord Sherringborne are trying to persuade me to try a hand at politics. Well, I must confess that that is part of my programme, but I wasn't thinking of it just yet. Still, Bartram's seat is a safe one, and if these kind friends of mine here are willing, I am prepared to place myself in their hands."
De la Croisa nodded approvingly. He took an early opportunity after dinner of taking Sherringborne aside.
"You've done excellently to-night," he said. "In the course of a long and distinguished career, I don't think you ever did anything better. That young man will go far, Sherringborne. He has ability and modesty and courage, and besides, he is exceedingly well off. Some day he will be one of the richest men in the kingdom. His father has made a big mistake this time, of course, but any moneymaker who acts upon the assumption that William Saltburn is an extinct volcano will be likely to suffer for it. In my opinion, he is putting up the biggest financial combination in the world. Within the next twenty years Philip Saltburn will be a power in the country. It is quite on the cards that he might end up with a Premiership and a seat in the House of Lords. If he only marries right that's a certainty."
"That's an important point," Sherringborne said thoughtfully. "I shall look forward to that event."
De la Croisa screwed his glass in his eye. He looked his host up and down with that easy audacity of his which, in most men, would have savoured of gross impertinence.
"Of course you will, my dear fellow," he said. "It is, after all, the most natural thing in the world that you should be interested in your own son-in-law."
"My dear Baron," Sherringborne protested. "Well, and why not? He's a splendid fellow. He is well enough connected, on his mother's side, at any rate. He is rich, too, and—well to come to the point, Sherringborne, you owe him a debt you would find it exceedingly difficult to pay."
"That is so," Sherringborne said gravely. "But I give you my word of honour that I hadn't the least idea that there was anything of this kind going on between Saltburn and my daughter."
"Of course you hadn't. You have been too much wrapped up in your politics for that."
"But I didn't think she cared for him. I know she was excessively annoyed the first time I asked him to stay here. We had quite an unpleasantness over it. Still, she has told me once or twice that she has made a mistake. And, as you say, it would be very difficult indeed to put my indebtedness to that young man into words. But surely you don't mean to say—"
"Oh, no, I don't say anything. My dear Sherringborne, I am an old man, and perhaps I take a little too much interest in my labours. But the first time I saw those young people together I said to my self, 'Here is an ideal couple.' Now, I am very fond of Edna; she has been a great companion to me all these years, and I have watched her grow from a charming child into a noble and beautiful woman. The only fault I could see in her was that she was too proud, too full of class prejudices."
"I am afraid that was a family failing," Sherringborne murmured.
"What she wanted was to meet the right man. And in Philip Saltburn she's done it, or I am greatly mistaken. Oh, I don't suppose he's said a word to her yet, and I don't suppose she realises her own feelings. But now that Philip Saltburn has put his trouble behind him, he won't allow the grass to grow under his feet."
"You think she is fond of him then?"
"I honestly believe she is. And Lady Shorland is sure of it. I wouldn't stand in the way, if I were you, Sherringborne. I feel sure that Lady Edna could do a great deal worse."
"Oh, I'm not objecting," Sherringborne said. "Only the thing has come rather as a surprise to me. These are democratic days."
De la Croisa pressed the point no further. It seemed to him that he had accomplished his purpose, and that, as far as Sherringborne was concerned, there would be no obstacle in the way of Philip's happiness.
It was fortunate, perhaps, for the Baron's diplomacy that Pallisser came up at that moment. The windows of the drawing-room were open to the terrace, and some of the others were taking their coffee outside. Lady Shorland lay back in the depths of her big chair with a cigarette between her lips. Shorland was close by, a little more noisy than he had been of late. Apparently he had taken advantage of the relaxation of discipline on his wife's part to imbibe a little more champagne than was strictly in accordance with the usages of society. He was not a man who drank with impunity. He was one of those weak heads to whom wine, in any form, is fatal.
He appeared to be hilariously amused now. Lady Shorland lay back in her chair and contemplated him as if he had been a sort of performing parrot, and as if she were not quite pleased with the progress of the bird's education.
"It is really beyond a joke," he said in his thin, shrill voice. "Oh, hang it, my dear girl, we must draw the line somewhere, we really must."
"Well, you can't have a monopoly of that sort of thing, Teddy," Lady Shorland said quietly. "I suppose you think that the family ought to draw a line at me."
"Oh, I didn't say that," Shorland protested feebly.
"Well, at any rate, that's what it comes to. Now you are what's called a 'Lord of Creation.' It sounds like an exquisite joke in connection with a man like you. You must marry a dancing girl and expect her to be taken into the family with open arms and without a word of prejudice. And when your sister wants to marry a man whose boots you are not worthy to black, then you begin to talk about family dignity."
"I shall be the head of it some day," Shorland protested.
"And yet, there are a great many people, whose opinions are worth having, who seem to think that I am much too good for you. Now, I am quite enthusiastically of the opinion myself. And I am quite sure that this sentiment will be echoed by Baron de la Croisa who is standing behind me in the window listening in the meanest possible way to my sweet confidences."
"There isn't the slightest doubt about it," the Baron said cheerfully. "Without wishing to hurt dear Teddy's feelings for a moment, I should say that any woman possessed of her faculties and not given to undue partiality would be far too good for Shorland."
"I give it up," Shorland said feebly. "You people are too clever for me. When you get talking like that, I don't know whether I am standing on my head or my heels. But I ain't convinced, all the same. A man is different. He can do as he likes. Of course, the Convict isn't a bad chap, but when it comes to his aspiring to come into Borne Abbey and hang his hat up as one of the family, well—there I draw the line."
The Baron stood there listening with his head on one side, as if he were following the rapt notes of a nightingale.
"Hear him talk," he murmured. "Listen to his burning eloquence. Isn't it an inspiring sight to see Teddy Shorland posing as the guardian of the family morality. Why, but for the grace of God and the clever little lady by your side there would have been no family to guide by this time. Ah, my boy, you're too big a fool to understand things, but some day, when you are older and wiser, you will know what the Cranwallises have to thank Lady Shorland and Philip Saltburn for."
Lady Shorland made a quick motion with her cigarette. From the depths of her chair she could see that Lady Edna and Phil were coming down the terrace in their direction. She was just too late, for Shorland broke out with a sudden spurt of anger.
"I'll have nothing to do with it," he cried. "I'm going to have no convict in my family. I don't say—"
De la Croisa caught the speaker savagely by the arm. From the bottom of his heart he hoped that Lady Edna and Philip had not heard what was said.
But the night was very still, and Shorland's voice had a certain falsetto note in it which always carried far.
In the dim light that filtered through the window de la Croisa saw Lady Edna pull up suddenly and the murmur of her voice died on her lips. Undoubtedly Philip had heard it too, for he dropped his hands to his sides, and came forward swiftly. Then he seemed to control himself and waited for his companion to join him.
The Baron could see that Lady Edna's face was white and set; he could see the anger blazing in her eyes. She wore no ornaments except a shining thread of tiny brilliants round her throat, and these seemed to rise and fall in uncertain light, like moonlight on the summer sea.
And then the Baron waited for the explosion which he knew as inevitable. He was still young enough at heart to take a certain mischievous enjoyment in the comedy. Besides, he told himself in his pleasantly cynical fashion, that Shorland's opposition would precipitate matters.
"That is an unpleasantly penetrating voice of yours, Shorland," Lady Edna said. "You really must learn to control it. I don't suppose that a man of your position as prospective head of the family would so far demean himself as to apologise to a girl like me, but you certainly owe an apology to Mr. Saltburn."
Shorland shook his head obstinately. As a matter of fact, he was terribly frightened. But he had all the perverseness of the weak, and just enough sense to know that he had placed himself in a humiliating position. What he lacked was the necessary sense and tact to get out of it.
"Not me," he said. "I ain't going to apologise to the Convict. I don't mean to be offensive, 'pon my word, I don't. But Saltburn will see for himself that when it comes to a matter of Lady Edna Cranwallis and himself—"
"Not another word," Lady Edna said. "This is unpardonable. It is monstrous. And let me tell you this, Shorland, and I mean every word of it from the bottom of my heart. The woman who marries Philip Saltburn will be the luckiest creature in the world. And if it were I—"
The words were said beyond all recall. They had come, hot and spontaneous, from Lady Edna's lips on the spur of the moment.
She was so entirely carried away by her feelings that she hardly realised for the moment what she was saying. But that her heart was in it was beyond all question.
Almost mechanically her hand outstretched and rested on Philip's, which lay on the back of de la Croisa's chair. It was only the latter who, at the moment, grasped the full meaning of the little gesture. He could see clearly enough that Lady Edna meant it was a complete surrender. And then at last it came home to Philip, too.
He turned to Lady Edna and met her eyes just for an instant, but that instant was long enough. All the anger had died out of her face now. She laughed unsteadily as she faced Shorland again.
He was learning something, too. Perhaps it occurred to him, in his muddled way, that he had gone a bit too far.
"I'm sorry," he said. "And a chap can't say more than that he's sorry, you know. No business of mine, really, when I come to think of it. There are lots of chaps who would take—well you know what I mean. Awfully hot night, isn't it?"
He wiped his heated face agitatedly. Then it occurred to him as a brilliant suggestion that exhausted nature called for a whisky and soda. And really, it was impossible for long to be angry with such a creature.
That, at any rate, was the liberal-minded view which Philip took of it. It mattered nothing to him whether Shorland meant to be offensive or not. He had certainly precipitated matters and told Philip what he had been aching to know for the last hour or two. Lady Edna was laughing and blushing now. She deemed to have cast aside all her haughtiness and reserve.
"Don't let him have any more," she said. "I'm sure he's had quite enough already."
"I think you can leave that to me," Lady Shorland said composedly. "When I take Teddy in hand I shall do it effectually. You see, this is really an exceptional occasion. These great things don't happen every night. And now let me be one of the first to congratulate you, Mr. Saltburn."
"On what?" Philip asked.
"Well, really, I don't know where to begin first," Lady Shorland laughed. "To begin with, I am glad to find that there is no chance of your leaving the neighbourhood. Oh! I know a great deal more about these matters than you are aware of. Why, it was I who brought your father and van Ritter together. But I daresay your father has told you that. Really, you've got nothing to thank me for."
"It seems to me that I have to thank everybody for everything," Philip said joyfully. "It has made a great deal of difference to me. I don't believe anybody realises how much difference it has made to me."
"Lady Edna does," Lady Shorland said demurely.
Lady Edna blushed to the roots of her hair, but she said nothing. Strangely enough she seemed to be the most confused and uneasy of the little party. It was de la Croisa, as usual, who came to the rescue.
"Everything has been arranged," he said gaily. "We are not going to lose Saltburn; on the contrary, he is going to have a fresh stake in the country. When Bartram resigns our young friend here is going to take his place. Both Sherringborne and Sir James are of the same opinion as myself, that we couldn't get a better man."
"Is that really so?" Lady Shorland asked. "Well, I am delighted to hear it. If you don't mind I think I'll go in and see that Shorland isn't getting into mischief."
She turned away, discreetly followed by the Baron. Lady Edna would have followed too, only Philip held out an audacious hand and restrained her. He was not feeling in the least nervous or doubtful now.
"Stop," he said. "We came here on purpose to talk of certain matters. There is much I had to say. Now, on the contrary, there is very little I have to say."
There was silence just for a moment. Lady Edna was the first to break it. She turned to Philip almost passionately.
"What must you think of me?" she asked.
"Think of you, my dearest? Oh, surely you know what I have thought of you from the very first?"
"But after to-night. After the way I spoke? I must have completely forgotten myself."
"Oh, no, you didn't. You forgot your mantle of reserve and dignity, and for once you were a natural woman. Surely I understand your feelings. You were ablaze to see a guest insulted in that way. You would have done the same for anyone. It was nice for me to hear you say that any woman would be lucky who called herself Mrs. Philip Saltburn. And think how lucky Philip Saltburn was to hear the only woman in the world he has ever cared for speak like that in his hearing. Think how easy it makes it for me. When I came here to-night I was almost afraid of what your reply might be. But I am not afraid now. Why should I be?"
"Why indeed?" Lady Edna murmured softly. "Do you think it possible to be two different women?"
"I think it possible to be half a dozen," Philip replied.
"Well, I don't quite mean that, Philip. I mean is it possible for a woman to change utterly in a few months? What a hateful creature I must have been when you first met me."
"You were nothing of the sort," Philip protested. "You were just as sweet and charming then as you are now. Only, you see, your whole existence was bound up in Borne Abbey and your father and the contemplation of the family greatness. You didn't realise then how purely human we all are, and how the greatest of us are likely to make, mistakes at times. But if you could only have seen yourself to-night—"
"I don't want to think of it," Lady Edna whispered. "I want you to try to forget it also."
"Forget it. Why should I forget it? Why, it will always be one of my most cherished memories. A beautiful picture in a beautiful setting. And the whole atmosphere faint with the smell of narcissus. Surely you don't want the man you mean to marry to forget the moment when you stood before the world and told everybody that you had found your happiness, and crowned my own?"
Lady Edna smiled into the speaker's face. She had lost all her confusion now, and her eyes were shining with happiness which she made no attempt to conceal.
"I haven't said so," she whispered.
"Of course not, my darling. Mere words of that kind would spoil everything. And so, after all, you are going to marry the son of a man who started life in the kitchen of Borne Abbey. It is a terrible comedown for a Cranwallis."
Lady Edna laid her hand upon his arm.
"I am going to do nothing of the kind," she said. "I know nothing of the man who started life in the kitchen of Borne Abbey, and I care less. All I know is that Philip Saltburn has asked me to be his wife, and I believe I have been in love with him from the very day we first met...well, at any rate, I am quite sure I fell in love with him the night that Shorland behaved so badly after he had come to our assistance in keeping those wretched people out of the house. But, all the same, that didn't prevent me from behaving very foolishly. Still—"
She held her hands out to Saltburn, who took them in his, and drew her to his side. And with that the last drop of pride in her heart was fused like a pearl.
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