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Title: The Golden Rose
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100041.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: February 2011
Date most recently updated: February 2011

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Golden Rose
Author: Fred M White

*

Published in the Examiner (Launceston, Tas.), Tuesday, 24 August, 1909.

*



CHAPTER I.--A MAKER OF FLOWERS.


The colours were dancing before John Lethbridge's eyes in dots and
splashes. The place was so hot that beads of perspiration were standing
out on his forehead, and his dark hair was wet and dank. He lifted his
head from the tray in front of him and stretched himself wearily. This
thing was a long time in doing, and patience was not one of his virtues.
He glanced at the thermometer, which registered almost a hundred
degrees. It was nearly as hot outside, for a thunderstorm was coming up
from the south, and the night was dark and tepid.

Lethbridge lifted the lights of the little greenhouse higher, but he was
conscious of no change in the temperature. Even the fresh mesh of muslin
thrown over the ventilators seemed to keep out what air was there.

Flowers on every shelf, a perfect blaze of bloom, revelled and rejoiced
in the hot, humid atmosphere, and flourished clean and vigorous as
blossoms generally do under glass. It was not these which attracted
Lethbridge's attention. His whole mind was concentrated upon the shallow
seed tray beneath him. Just above this was an oblong funnel, behind
which was great blaze of electric light so strong and powerful that it
seemed to turn the shining emerald fronds to a purple black. The tray
was divided into compartments with plants of various sizes, from the
tiniest speck of a seedling to a mass of foliage nearly ready to burst
into bloom. They all belonged to the Dianthus family, and some day would
furnish a magnificent display of carnations. It was over one of the
larger plants that Lethbridge bent now with almost fatherly care. He
touched one of the swelling buds tenderly with a camel's-hair pencil.

"I wonder," he murmured, "how it will turn out. Fancy spending three of
the best year's of one's life in a gamble like this! For it is a gamble,
though one is speculating in flowers instead of horses and in blooms
instead of stocks and shares. Have I failed again, or am I on the verge
of producing a bloom worth thousands of pounds? Another week will tell.
At any rate, I can't do more to-night. Ye gods! to think what hopes and
fears, what joys and sorrows are awaiting the opening of that little
flower!"

Lethbridge smiled cynically as he stood upright and put his hand
mechanically in his pocket for his cigarette case. Then he smiled more
bitterly as he thought of his resolution not to smoke again till the new
Dianthus had shown the first sign of dawning glory. Not that there was
any virtue in this resolution; it was simply necessity. For when a man
has to keep himself and pay his rent and is in sight of his last
five-pound note it behoves him to be careful.

That was exactly how John Lethbridge was situated. There had been a time
during his University career when he had looked forward to the
possession of a comfortable income and a lovely home of his own.

He was not indifferent to sport, or politics, or even love itself. He
was merely a healthy specimen of the average Englishman, prepared to
carry out the traditions of his race and live cleanly and happily. To a
great extent he was an artist who lacked constructive abilities. Beauty
in all forms was essential to him, and because he could see no other
means of satisfying this longing, he had turned his attention to
flowers. They touched and elevated him as nothing else could do. He
found a kindred spirit in the only relative with whom he had lived and
whose property he had expected to inherit in the ordinary course of
things. Old Jasper Payn had been an enthusiast, too. He had taught
Lethbridge the names and habits of his beloved flowers. From his
earliest childhood, long before Lethbridge could read, he could lisp the
botanical titles of all the blooms which are known to the expert
gardener. In the long range of glass-houses at Beckingham Hall the young
man and his teacher had spent many an hour together; more than one
lovely hybrid had been stamped with the mark of Jasper Payn's genius. It
was not for Lethbridge to know or even enquire in those day what Jasper
Payn was doing with the fortune which would some day be his. It never
occurred to him that the old man was a reckless gambler, that he was
spending thousands of pounds on the wildest experiments, and that, when
the catastrophe came, instead of being a rich man he would be on the
verge of bankruptcy. He never realised for a moment that Jasper Payn
depended upon the invention of a perfect novelty in flowers for his
daily bread.

And the catastrophe had happened three years ago in a most unexpected
and even startling manner. A tray of priceless seedlings had been
stolen, and John Lethbridge had been accused of the theft. Appearances
to a certain extent had been against him, but he had made no attempt to
justify himself. He was too profoundly wounded and disgusted to do
anything of the kind. Thus it came about that, at the age of
twenty-five, he found himself alone in the world and practically without
a livelihood. By nature proud and sensitive, he shrank from asking
anybody's advice or assistance. He had the average education of the
average Englishman of the well-to-do class. He had no specialised
knowledge excepting his intimate acquaintance with flowers. There was
nothing for it, therefore, but to take a situation with a leading firm
of florists and seedsmen, in the hope that this might lead to a
partnership and fortune.

But it was a faint hope, and destined to eventuate disappointment.
Lethbridge's firm were commercial from first to last. They had their eye
always on the main chance, and looked coldly upon his experiments,
especially such as were likely to prove costly. At the close of two
years Lethbridge found himself at a loose end again with only a few
pounds between himself and starvation. He made up his mind to take a
little place of his own, where it would be possible by his efforts to
get a living, and where, at any rate, he could conduct his fascinating
experiments on a small scale. It was about this time that luck favoured
him. Amongst a parcel of orchids which he had purchased was an entirely
new one, which Lethbridge subsequently sold for five hundred guineas.

Here was the opportunity for which he had been sighing. Reckless, as
enthusiasts invariably are, he sank every penny of his money in
expensive plant wherewith to carry on his hobby. He had read a great
deal as to the wonders of floral propagation by means of electricity,
and determined to give the experiment a proper trial. At the end of the
second year he appeared to have advanced very little, and his capital
was well-nigh exhausted. One or two small successes had come his way,
not much in themselves, but just enough to justify the future. On the
other hand, there had been heart-breaking failures; mainly, so
Lethbridge imagined, due to the atmosphere of the place where his
experiments had been conducted. He had now the boldness of despair. He
had heard of Manchester as a likely spot, and a few week ago had moved
to a small nursery there which he had contrived to take. It was an
anxious time, but the precious seedlings were safely transferred, and
Lethbridge's dream of a blue carnation began to assume concrete shape.

And now, lo and behold! the blooms ready to burst, and in a few days he
should learn his fate. Another flower also was approaching maturity, but
of this Lethbridge did not dare to think. He had resolved he would not
look at this for another fortnight at least, not, at any rate, till one
of the gorgeous blossoms was there to speak for itself. Hitherto the
prize had evaded him, but it had formed a fascinating experiment for
Jasper Payn himself. Well, the future would tell. Meanwhile, Lethbridge
devoted his whole time to the carnations and hoped for the best.




CHAPTER II.--THE FOOTPRINTS.


It was growing so hot and close now, that Lethbridge could bear it no
longer. He was uneasy in his mind, too, for during the past few days he
could not rid himself of the idea that he was being spied upon. This was
all the more inexplicable because he did not know a soul in the
neighbourhood. Still, Manchester was a noted place for horticulturists
and cultivators of the finer kinds of flowers, and perhaps his fame had
preceded him. It had not occurred to him to take precautions to guard
his secret until something had happened which gave him a rude awakening.
Of course he knew that there was a distinct commercial side to his
enterprise, and that the possession of anything novel in his line meant
a considerable sum to the owner. It might have been a coincidence that a
firm in America had simultaneously put upon the market a striped
carnation which Lethbridge had discovered himself; on the other hand, it
was possible that a seedling or too had been stolen, and that Lethbridge
had been anticipated. For several evenings he had heard strange noises
as if some one were prowling round his cottage. He had found footprints
in the soil where no footprints should be. Strangely, enough, these
marks had not been made by a man's tread. They were small and
well-formed, and the heel marks were evidently those of a woman.
Lethbridge was thinking about this now as he drew the hood over his
electric light and carefully locked the greenhouse door behind him.

It was good to be in the open air again, though the night was close and
stifling. It was pitch dark, too, with a low sky that seemed to be
resting on the tops of the trees. Ever and again there came a growl of
distant thunder, followed by the patter of great drops of rain.
Lethbridge, as he stood there, fancied that he was not alone. He had the
strange, uneasy sense that some one was close by him. He believed he
could hear something fluttering in the clump of rhododendrons on the
lawn. Was it because his nostrils were full of the scent of flowers, or
did he really inhale the peculiarly subtle perfume that always envelops
some women as with an invisible cloak? Who was it, he wondered, who was
paying him the compliment of keeping in touch with him in this fashion?
Whilst Lethbridge was asking this question the black curtain overhead
was suddenly rent with a long, zigzag flash of purple and scarlet
lightning, and for the fraction of a second the whole place blazed in
the full light of day. Every twig and leaf of the rhododendron stood out
hard and stiff, and Lethbridge could see something of a woman's skirt.
The nebulous flame glinted on a pair of polished shoes. Then the thunder
crashed deafeningly overhead, and the rain came down with a hiss and a
roar as loud and terrifying as the advance of cavalry. A startled voice
was upraised suddenly, and a moment later Lethbridge stood inside his
cottage with a girl in white by his side.

"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" he demanded.

His voice was stern. The look on his face was forbidding. He was in no
mood for politeness. The girl turned a piteous face towards him, and her
big violet eyes filled with tears. She could have chosen no more
serviceable weapon for disarming Lethbridge's anger. His heart smote him
almost before the words were uttered. It was a beautiful face, too, so
very like some of his favourite flowers. The features were rather small
but exquisitely refined, and the colouring was subdued, something
between old ivory and the faintest admixture of carmine. It was a good,
trustworthy face, that did not at all suggest the clever and
unscrupulous spy of fiction. The red lips were parted in pleading
protest. The girl was young and slender, and her white dress seemed part
and parcel of herself.

"I am very sorry," she stammered.

Lethbridge was muttering apologies himself by this time. He regretted he
had been so precipitate. But, really, it was no night for a girl to be
out alone and without any kind of protection from the weather.

"I don't know," the girl went on in the same appealing voice. "I came
out because it was so hot. I was trying to make my way from the road
into the fields, and I took the wrong direction. I was foolish not to
tell you so at once, but when you opened the door so suddenly you
startled me. But I will go now if you will tell me the way----"

"Impossible!" Lethbridge exclaimed. "Listen to the rain. I never heard
such thunder. Have you far to go?"

"Oh dear, no," the girl replied. "Only to the foot of the hill. We live
at the Chester Nurseries. I keep house for my uncle. At least, he is not
my uncle really. I don't quite know what relationship there is between
us. But he is getting old and feeble, and I look after him."

Lethbridge nodded moodily. His old suspicions were returning. He would
have been more satisfied had this beautiful girl with the violet eyes
and ivory and pink complexion had nothing to do with anybody interested
in the propagation of flowers. Besides, her information fanned his
fears. Was she deceiving him? He tried to get a glimpse of the
high-heeled shoes, but the long white dress hid the view. The girl's
intuition seemed to be quick, for her lips trembled and she glanced
anxiously at Lethbridge.

"What have I said to offend you?" she asked.

"I don't know," Lethbridge laughed vexedly. "Perhaps I am unduly
suspicious. I am new to this quarter, and I thought I should be safe
here. I get my living, or rather I try to get my living, by raising new
flowers. I was robbed once of a most valuable plant, and two years' work
was lost. Since then, well, really, it is very awkward----"

But the girl was not heeding him. Lethbridge began to stammer and
hesitate, for it was borne in upon him that he was accusing his pretty
visitor of being a thief; hanging about the house with an eye upon this
floral treasures. Fortunately, the girl did not seem to comprehend.

"That is very strange," she exclaimed. "My uncle does exactly the same
thing. He spends all his time in his greenhouses. He lives in the hope
of making a fortune by giving the world new flowers. He lives for
nothing else, and has spent hundreds of pounds which he cannot afford on
his hobby. This must be so, because when I first came to him we lived in
a lovely house, and I had everything I could desire. Now my uncle is
irritated if I ask him for a sovereign. I want him to take a partner,
but he won't hear of it. Once he was robbed and his confidence abused by
one in whom he trusted, since then he avoids man's society whenever he
can."

"That is a curious coincidence," he murmured. "What is your uncle's
name?"

"Jasper Payn; he used to live at a place called Beckenham Hall. My name
is Mary Grover. As I said before, I call Mr. Payn my uncle, but he is
only very distantly related to me."

Lethbridge nodded in an absentminded fashion. He was not half so
surprised at this stupendous statement as he had expected. It was all
part of the cruel fate that had been pursuing him for years. No doubt
the girl had heard of him. No doubt Jasper Payn had told her the whole
story. He began to remember that Payn had had some relations called
Grover whom no one had ever seen. Possibly he had sent for this girl
when John Lethbridge had left him. It was Lethbridge's duty at once to
proclaim his kinmanship with Payn, but just at the moment he hesitated.
The girl fascinated him, attracted him in some subtle manner, and,
besides, Lethbridge had not passed an hour in woman's company for the
last three years. He could not very well turn the girl out into the
drenching, blinding storm. It would be embarrassing to her if he told
her his name, and left her to draw her own conclusions. No doubt she had
been taught to look upon him as an ungrateful thief. He pictured to
himself the expression on her charming face if he told the truth. He
temporised, as many a better man than he might have done in similar
circumstances.

"There is an unfortunate parallel between your uncle and myself," he
said. "We have both suffered at the hands of false friends. We are both
engaged in the same unusual occupation. I suppose you are interested in
the hybridisation of flowers?"

"I should love it," the girl exclaimed, "if I were allowed to. I am
passionately fond of flowers, but know nothing of the mysteries behind
them. My uncle does not think that a girl has brains enough to
understand such things. All I know is that at certain times of the year
no bee must be allowed in the greenhouses. I wonder why."

"That is easily explained," Lethbridge smiled. "Bees have their uses
from our point of view, and by carrying the pollen from one flower to
another have frequently been the means of producing fresh hybrids. But
that is mere luck on the part of the nurseryman. You can imagine what
damage a few bees would do if a greenhouse when one's novelties were
coming into bloom. But I am talking rather over your head. I am afraid."

"Perhaps so," the girl said dubiously. "There are certain things I
should like to know. I wonder if you would mind allowing me some of your
flowers. I dare not look into our greenhouses unless I go in with my
uncle."

Again Lethbridge paused. Again he was weighed down by haunting
suspicion. The girl was beautiful to look upon. She seemed fair and
innocent. But Lethbridge remembered that he had promised never to trust
a human being again. He was, perhaps, weaker than he thought, for a
moment later he was leading the way into the stifling heat of the
greenhouse where the great white flare of the electric light was playing
full upon the trays of seedlings.

"I never thought to show anybody these," he said. "I am trusting you, a
stranger, with my most cherished secrets. Look at that carnation in the
corner there, you can see that already two of the buds are shaping into
bloom. When they come out in a few days I shall be bitterly disappointed
if they are not a perfect blue. Just try to imagine a blue carnation.
But you can't imagine the years of care and toil and hope deferred which
have led up to the perfection of that little flower. Did you ever see a
carnation with alternate yellow and crimson stripes?"

"We have some," the girl said. "I understood that only three people in
the kingdom possessed them. Do you grow them?"




CHAPTER III.--FLOWERS OF FATE.


"I invented them," Lethbridge said curtly. "They were the first success
which encouraged me. The idea came to me nearly four years ago, and it
took me a year to bring it to a successful issue. At that time I knew a
man who was more or less interested in my researches; indeed, he was
going to finance me, only he changed his mind and went to America
instead. I don't know whether he was a rascal or not because I can never
prove it. But he got the best of me and managed to place the striped
carnation on the American market. I think if you ask your uncle he will
tell you that the seeds of his striped Dianthus came from the States."

"I believe that is so," Mary Grover replied.

"Ah, I am certain of it. Perhaps you would like to hear the story of the
way in which the inventor of a new flower was deprived of the fruits of
his industry. It won't take many minutes. I need not tell you what my
feelings were when I found that no fewer than four of my carnations were
new striped hybrids. You will recollect that they are marked all across
in straight bands of colour like a coat of arms. When I showed those
plants to my friend he was deeply interested. He told me, however, that
the colours would be likely to fade and would have no permanent value.
He knew what he was talking about, and I was profoundly impressed by
what he said. I did not allow more than three blooms to each plant, for
naturally I wanted their heads to be as fine as possible. You can
imagine my dismay next morning when I found that the yellow bands had
entirely disappeared, and that each bloom had become a washed-out
crimson. My friend was in town, but when he came back I showed him what
had happened. I told him I felt certain that in the course of time I
could remove this extraordinary blemish, but he did not seem disposed to
echo my enthusiasm. At any rate, he made some excuse for not giving me
the money he had promised. I was so disgusted that I tore up my
carnations and threw them on the rubbish heap. I turned my attention to
something else, but you can imagine my surprise when, a few months
later, the very flower I had invented was introduced into this country
from America. Oh, don't ask me to explain how it came about. All I know
is that I was deceived, and that my false friend was reaping the product
of my brain. Since then I have never heard from him, but if we do
meet----"

Lethbridge paused and drew a long breath. The girl's eyes were turned
upon him sympathetically.

"Did your friend know you had thrown those plants away?" she asked. "Did
he see you do it? I understand that carnations are hardy things and
stand any amount of transplanting."

"My word! I never thought of that," Lethbridge exclaimed energetically.
"And yet I have brooded over this mystery till the thing has haunted me.
And you have solved it by a single question. But I am afraid that make
my position little better than it was before."

"Isn't there another point of view which you have overlooked?" the girl
asked. "Of course, it is possible your friend deceived you and made use
of the plants you had thrown away, but that would not account for the
blooms changing colour."

"I hadn't thought of that," Lethbridge replied. "What a strange thing it
is I should be talking to you like this when an hour ago I was not aware
of your existence!"

Mary Grover smiled brightly. She was frankly enjoying the conversation,
the more because her life with Jasper Payn was dull and monotonous. It
was the first time for years that she had had an opportunity of talking
to a man of her own age and station, for Jasper Payn kept himself
rigidly to himself; indeed, the only man who saw him at all was a local
inspector of police, an enthusiastic amateur gardener, whose
acquaintance Payn had cultivated more for his own protection than
anything else, for the old man had never lost his haunting fears, and
lived in constant dread of being robbed of his discoveries as he had
been on the occasion which led to the quarrel between himself and John
Lethbridge.

These things Mary chattered about idly enough. She saw that her
companion was interested, and she grew vivacious. She could not know why
Lethbridge was so eager to discover her life's history. He would tell
her the truth presently, and then this little episode would be finished.
But he would not tell her yet; he would get every possible enjoyment out
of the interview first. It was so pleasant to stand chatting there,
watching the play of expression upon that beautiful face, and observing
how the shadows changed in her eyes. Then, with an effort, John
Lethbridge braced himself to the inevitable. The rain had ceased to beat
upon the roof of the greenhouse, and the wind had died away in the
trees.

"I think it is fine now," Lethbridge suggested.

"Oh, is it?" the girl asked half-regretfully. "In that case I must he
getting back home. My uncle will wonder what has become of me. But what
have you here?"

She pointed to a small doorway at the end of the greenhouse which led
into a compartment beyond, where another electric light was burning soft
and subdued behind a pink shade. The girl laid her hand upon the
door-knob when Lethbridge came to her side. His face had suddenly grown
severe.

"Not there," he said shortly. "I have shown you a good deal, but there
are certain things I cannot tell you. Some day, perhaps----. But I beg
your pardon. I fear I have annoyed you."

Mary Grover's face flushed crimson and her lips trembled. Perhaps
Lethbridge was not aware of the note of sternness which had crept into
his voice.

"I don't want to be curious," the girl said coldly.

"Of course not," Lethbridge replied eagerly. "I quite understand. Still,
there are certain matters which one cannot speak of."

A constraint seemed to fall upon them and Mary moved towards the door.
The rain had ceased; a few heavy drops were dripping from the trees; the
whole air was fragrant with the smell of fresh flowers. Mary hesitated
for a moment, and then held out her hand timidly.

"You must let me come with you as far as your garden gate," Lethbridge
replied. "I don't like the idea of your going alone. You mistook your
way before, and you might do it again."

Lethbridge was not to be denied. He strode along by her side quieter and
more subdued than he had been, for he had something on his mind. He
would have to tell the girl who he was; he was too proud to make her
acquaintance under false pretences. She would probably regard him from
the same standpoint as his uncle had. She would look upon him as a man
without honour or integrity. Possibly if they met again she would
decline to speak to him. But this alternative had to be faced.

Still, there was no occasion to hurry it. The truth would keep to the
last moment, and Mary Grover was chatting freely and easily. She had
forgotten her curiosity and the incident of the green house. The garden
gate of Jasper Payn's establishment was close at hand. The girl paused
at length, and turned a bright face to her companion.

"Let me thank you once more," she said. "I should like to ask you to
come in, but I'm afraid my uncle would not like it. He is so suspicious
of strangers."

Here was Lethbridge's opening, and he took it lest his courage should
fail him.

"Perhaps your uncle is right," he said, not without a touch of
bitterness in his tone. "Probably he would be less than pleased to see
me when he recognised----"

The speaker paused abruptly, for all of a sudden a loud outcry broke on
the startled air. There was a noise of broken glass, followed by the
rustle of some object in the bushes close by. What the object was
Lethbridge could not make out, for it was very dark and the foliage was
thick. Before Lethbridge could make up his mind what it was the outcry
broke forth again.

"That is my uncle," Mary said in a startled voice. "I fear he has met
with some accident, or worse. Won't you come with me, please? I dare not
go alone."

For Lethbridge had hesitated. He had not had the slightest intention of
meeting his eccentric relative again. He had merely made up his mind to
tell the girl who he was and go his way, leaving her to decide whether
or not she would continue the acquaintance. But now he had no
alternative. It would have been cowardly to allow the girl to face the
unseen danger alone, and whatever Lethbridge's faults lack of courage
was not one of them.

"What is the matter?" the girl asked impatiently. "Why do you stand
there when my poor uncle----"

"Say no more," Lethbridge replied. "You will know presently why I
hesitated. Lead the way, please. Is not this the path that goes up to
the house?"




CHAPTER IV.--JASPER PAYN.


Mary Grover flew along the narrow path closely followed by her
companion. She came at length to the open door of the house: a cheap
lamp burned on the table in the hall. Lethbridge had noticed that the
place was meanly furnished, and showed every sign of poverty, though
scrupulously neat and clean and profusely adorned with flowers. On the
left-hand side of the doorway was the dining-room, and beyond it a range
of greenhouses out of all proportion to the size of the cottage. Hence
the noise had come, and here a man was standing in all attitude of rage
and fear, his hands uplifted and his head nodding towards one side of
the greenhouse, where two or three large panes of glass had been
displaced. There were broken pots upon the floor, and a confusion of
trampled flowers spoke eloquently of a struggle.

The man was tall and thin. He had a white hatchet face and a profusion
of grey hair on his head and chin. He resembled some prophet of old with
the spirit of invective strong upon him. He had ceased to call out, but
his jaws were working as if he were scolding in an inaudible voice. He
appeared to be unconscious that he was no longer alone, even after Mary
Grover had addressed him two or three times.

"I tell you he went that way," the old man cried. "I don't know how the
rascal got in, but when I turned round he was hiding beyond the flowers
yonder."

"What sort of a man?" Mary asked soothingly.

"I don't know. I couldn't see his face. But I am sure it was the same,
because of his boots. Little tiny feet he had, like a woman's, encased
in patent leather shoes. I saw them as he broke the glass yonder and got
away. It is the same man. I tell you I am sure it is the same man. And
he comes here like a thief in the night to steal my secrets, to deprive
me of all that I have left. Oh, the scoundrel, the scoundrel! To think
that a poor old man like myself can't work in peace and comfort without
being spied on and robbed in this fashion! But he shall be found, if I
have all Scotland Yard here to help me. Go and fetch Wilkinson at once.
He laughs at me and says it's all imagination, but it isn't true, Mary;
it isn't true. There is a plot to rob me of my beautiful new flowers, as
that rascally nephew of mine robbed me years ago."

Jasper Payn was speaking now with fixed look and glazed eyes. He was
ignorant that his niece had a companion. The old man's mind was
concentrated entirely upon the outrage. He was trembling from head to
foot with helpless rage and indignation. Every hair of his long grey
beard bristled. And despite the awkwardness of the situation, despite
the trick that Fate had played upon him, John Lethbridge could not help
being interested, for he, too, had evidently come under the observation
of the clever thief who was down here with the intention of robbing
Jasper Payn of the fruit of his genius. Surely there could not be two
men trespassing and spying, both of whom possessed natty little feet and
patent leather shoes. The same man must have spent the dark hours of the
night prowling about Lethbridge's greenhouses.

"Who is Wilkinson?" he whispered to Mary.

"That is the local inspector of police I told you about," the girl
murmured, "He is an enthusiastic gardener, and is only too pleased to
come here whenever my uncle asks him. I think it was more a matter of
policy than anything else that has led up to the acquaintanceship."

A word or two seemed to penetrate to the brain of Jasper Payn. He
appeared to be conscious for the first time that a stranger was present.
He turned his white suspicious face towards Lethbridge. Gradually his
whole expression changed to one of mingled surprise and hatred and
contempt.

"So you are here," he cried. "Strange that you should come at a time
like this! How did that man get into the house, Mary?"

"He came with me," the girl stammered. "I was caught in a thunderstorm,
and this gentleman was good enough to give me shelter. He was so kind as
to walk home with me. We were just saying good-night when we heard you
call out, and, of course----"

"Oh, of course," the old man sneered. "Do you want me to believe this?
Do you think that I am so old and feeble that I have lost all control of
my faculties? The whole thing was arranged. It is a vile conspiracy----"

"Stop," John Lethbridge cried. "Stop before you have said too much. You
are at liberty to think what you please about me. You may call me a
thief and swindler if you like; it would not be the first time. But this
lady has nothing to do with it. When I came here a short time ago I had
not the least idea that you had left Beckenham Hall. Like yourself, I
came here because I was told that the climate would suit my experiments.
Your niece has told no more than the truth. Do you suppose I would
intrude upon your privacy if I had not imagined that something serious
had happened?"

Jasper Payn made no reply. He was glancing at his young relative now
with a sort of moody hatred from under the thick bush of his white
eyebrows.

"I don't understand," Mary faltered. "It is plain that you two have met
before. If you are----"

"Oh, I am," Lethbridge said bitterly. "I have the honour to be Mr.
Jasper Payn's nephew. I am the John Lethbridge whom he turned out of his
house without proof, under the impression that I had robbed him of one
of his discoveries. I am the nephew whom he brought up to do nothing,
and whom he sent into the world to get a living with no equipment except
a knowledge of flowers. I did not tell you this before. Well, to be
honest, I did not tell you for sentimental reasons. It was a treat to me
to talk to a lady again. It was a great surprise, too, to find that in a
way we were relations. But I hope you will believe that I did not mean
to leave you in ignorance of my identity. I was just going to tell you
when we heard the outcry, and I followed you here. But I fear that I am
intruding. The best thing I can do is to go away and leave you to
yourselves. But I want you, Miss Grover, to try to believe that my uncle
is mistaken, and that I am not the contemptible thief that he takes me
for."

The colour came and went in the girl's cheeks. She cast down her eyes in
evident embarrassment. It was obvious that she was struggling with two
sets of feelings. She had been accustomed at intervals during the whole
time she had been with Jasper Payn to hear him denounce his nephew with
bitter invective. She had come to believe from the bottom of her heart
that Lethbridge was an ungrateful scoundrel, and owed to his uncle
everything in life which was worth having. She had heard the story over
and over again till the conviction was firmly rooted.

And yet this young man with the steadfast face and square jaw and
resolute eyes did not look in the least like a thief. It began to be
borne in upon Mary's mind that there was something wrong, but she was
too confused to weigh the issue logically and clearly. The suggestion of
a sad smile trembled on the corners of John Lethbridge's lips.

"It is not easy to remove fixed impressions," he said. "And after all,
what does it matter? Good-night, Miss Grover, and try to think as well
of me as you can."

The old man stepped forward unsteadily.

"Don't go yet," he whispered hoarsely. "I can't be left alone. That
thief might come back. I am a very old man. Perhaps I have made a
mistake."




CHAPTER V.--THE GOLDEN ROSE.


In spite of himself Lethbridge hesitated. He cared little or nothing for
his uncle's fears or effusions, but was anxious to rehabilitate himself
in the girl's eyes. And, besides, it was his duty to do all he could to
prevent a recurrence of the recent outrage.

"Is there anybody I can send for?" he asked. "Can I go for assistance?
Miss Grover was speaking of Inspector Wilkinson, who is a friend of
yours. Would you let me inform him what has taken place?"

"No, no," the old man said eagerly. "At any rate, not yet. Give me an
opportunity to recover myself. A month ago it would not have mattered; a
few weeks hence all the thieves in England may come here so far as I
care, but not now, not now."

As Jasper Payne spoke he turned his head towards a corner of the
greenhouse screened off from the rest by a thin canvas petition. He had
something there which he desired to keep secret. Then he turned swiftly
round towards his niece and bade her see after his supper.

"I did not expect this," he said after Mary had gone. "I hoped that I
might never see you again."

"I assure you the feeling is mutual," Lethbridge said bitterly. "Had I
thought it worth while I could have easily proved to you that I was no
thief. But I was too proud for that; I was too proud to stay under your
roof when you intimated to me that you were mistaken in my character. I
can see now how cruelly you wronged me. You had no right to bring me up
in expectation of a fortune. You had no right to turn me on the world
almost as helpless as a child and with nothing but my good health behind
me. And all the while there never had been any fortune. It was wrong of
you to act like a rich man when you were nearly as poor as myself."

"Oh, I had money then," Jasper Payn said moodily. "I was rich enough
when you left me, but it is all gone now, all gone. For years I have
been pursuing a will o' the wisp and have frittered thousands away upon
a shadow. But it is coming back to me in my old age. I shall be able to
provide for my niece yet. I am foolish to tell you these things. I never
meant to trust anybody."

"As you will," Lethbridge said coldly. "Please understand that this
interview is none of my seeking. I must in time have found out that you
were here, but I should never have come near the place. Still, Fate has
been too strong for me, and I am here against my will. Let me go and
fetch Wilkinson."

Jasper Payn held out a feeble restraining hand.

"Not yet," he said unsteadily, "not yet. Don't be so impulsive. Perhaps
I was wrong to condemn you without a hearing. But all my life I have
been surrounded with enemies. People have conspired to rob me. Why can't
they leave me alone? I have no money to give them. And yet when I invent
a new flower they cheat me of all the fruits of my labour. And they are
so wicked and mischievous, too. Look there, do you see what that is? I
killed four of them only yesterday. Yet they cannot get in here without
human agency."

Lethbridge thought the old man had taken leave of his senses. Payn
pointed with trembling hand to the whitewashed roof of the greenhouse,
much as a man might do who is suffering all the horrible delusions of
delirium tremens. But surely enough two or three dark specks were
crawling on the frosted panes, and Lethbridge saw what they were.

"I'll kill them for you," he said soothingly. "You find the bees as
great a nuisance as I do. A little time ago they spoilt a whole set of
seedlings which were coming into bloom."

The intruding bees were killed and Jasper Payn grew easier in mind.

"They didn't come themselves," he muttered. "Some rascal brought them
here. They are the plague of my life. If they once get behind that
canvas screen the work of three years will be undone. Don't you want to
know what it is?"

"No," Lethbridge said, "I don't. I am in no mood to share your
confidences. It would be better if you kept your secrets to yourself."

The old man was not offended. He smiled and chuckled to himself. A shade
of cunning crept into his eyes.

"Ah, that is because you don't know," he said in a croaking voice. "Have
you forgotten the one matter we used always to talk about in the
smoking-room late at night over our cigars? In the days of the
astrologers, dreamers turned their thoughts to perpetual motion, or the
Philosopher's Stone which was going to change everything into gold. Ay,
and we had our Philosopher's Stone, too, though ours was going to come
to a blaze of glory and startle the world by its beauty and fragrance.
We were going to make a fortune out of that. Surely you have not
forgotten our visions!"

"I remember," Lethbridge said indifferently. "The Golden Rose. It was
the flower of the poets, the flower which the old travellers used to
talk about who visited the Vale of Kashmir. The whole thing was a fairy
tale, but it was none the less fascinating for that. The flower was to
be a single rose of the colour of gold, with calyx and stamen of the
darkest purple. There were bars of pink on the petals, and the whole was
frilled with white and blue like some gorgeous butterfly. In addition,
it was to be perfumed with such a scent as the world had never known
before."

The old man's eyes were gleaming and his slender frame was shaking from
head to foot. His whole gaze was concentrated upon the canvas screen in
the corner. He broke out into quavering speech.

"Yes, yes," he cried. "You have put it very well indeed. And after you
left me and I was alone, I dreamt and dreamt about that flower till I
could think of nothing else. I read all those musty books again and
again; I experimented day and night. I even went to the expense of
importing new stocks from Persia and the Himalayan Hills. Heaven knows
how much I spent upon it, but one day I found that my fortune was
exhausted, and that my future depended upon the success of my efforts.
You don't believe that the thing is impossible, do you?"

A peculiar smile trembled upon Lethbridge's lips.

"No, I don't," he replied. "Although I should have said so a year ago.
But I beg your pardon. I am interrupting you."

"What was I saying?" the old man asked vaguely. "Oh, yes, I remember, I
was telling you of my experiments with the Golden Rose. I owe something
to my niece. She had come to keep house for me. She had come to put up
with the whims and vagaries of an old man. For my sake she had made
great sacrifices, and, knowing all the time that I could do nothing for
her, I allowed her to come. She came into my house under false
pretences. The matter was on my conscience. There was nothing for it,
nothing I could do for her, unless I could discover the secret of the
Golden Rose."

"The Philosopher's Stone," Lethbridge smiled.

"The Philosopher's Stone," the old man exclaimed, "and why not?
Everything is possible to the man of science to-day. Most things are
possible to the modern horticulturist. And then some months ago it came
to me suddenly that I was on the wrong track altogether. It was a
wrench, but I destroyed nearly all my precious plants and started
afresh. John, can you guess what I have behind yonder screen? Can't you
imagine why my enemies release their bees in here?"

John Lethbridge imagined that the speaker was dreaming dreams, that he
was speaking out of the fullness of a diseased mind.

"You don't mean to say," he began, "that----"

"Yes, I do," Jasper Peyn replied. His voice rose to a screech. He shook
and trembled. "I have found it. Behind that screen, in all its beauty
and perfection, is the Golden Rose."





CHAPTER VI.--TEMPTATION.


Lethbridge started to his feet and took a step or two forward. He was
strangely moved, his excitement dictated by something more than mere
enthusiasm at the knowledge of this startling discovery. In any case he
would have been impressed and interested. He had not forgotten the many
occasions on which he and his uncle had discussed the chances of
reproducing the marvellous flower. But these had nothing but the
pleasant speculations of two enthusiasts in the presence of a new and
fascinating theory.

In all probability the rose had never existed. It had been merely a
legend written about by ancient writers with more imagination than
practical knowledge. In bygone days Jasper Payn had possessed a
magnificent library of books relating to horticulture, and some of these
volumes were rare indeed. Strangely enough, though most of them retold
the story of the Golden Rose in various forms, attributing it to
different sources, not one of these authorities differed materially as
to the appearance of the flower. It was this fact alone that kept John
Lethbridge from pooh-poohing the story altogether. More than once he had
experimented on the chance of producing something like it. He knew
perfectly well that, if the discovery could be effected, a vast fortune
awaited the lucky man who should accomplish it, and many a day had he
spent working upon the theory that the Golden Rose could be brought
within the practical limits of the modern garden.

Perhaps Lethbridge had been carried farther by his enthusiasm than he
knew. As regards flowers, he was like the poor creature who has become
the victim of the drink habit. He pitied and despised his own weakness,
a weakness which he was powerless to combat. He had gone on with his
experiments, feeling sure that he was wasting his time, and spending
money he could ill spare.

And yet what did it matter? It was good for man to have some sort of
goal, and the Golden Rose had been his. And he was startled and perhaps
jealous to find that Jasper Payn would reach the goal first. Even now he
could hardly believe the evidence of his ears, and was inclined to put
all this down to the vain boastings of an old man on the verge of his
second childhood. He felt half-contemptuous at his own excitement. He
resumed his seat and muttered something intended to be congratulatory.

"Won't you show it to me?" he asked.

"No, no," Jasper Payn cried, "not to anybody, not even to you! I don't
know why I told you at all. Perhaps it was because of the recollection
of the old days when we worked together and talked far into the night
about the possibilities of this triumph. But I have got it, I tell you!
It is yonder behind that screen."

"You are quite sure?" Lethbridge asked. "You have made no mistake?"

"Mistake! Why the tree is actually in bloom, three glorious blooms, too!
The thing only came to me by accident. I should like to take all the
credit to myself, but I can't quite do that." Jasper Payn was apparently
speaking to himself. He seemed to have forgotten his companion. He
walked slowly up and down the greenhouse muttering something which
Lethbridge could not match, a kind of sombre triumph in his eyes.

"Then you won't let me see it?" Lethbridge asked.

Payn shook his head. The conviction was gradually being forced upon
Lethbridge that the old man was not telling the truth. It was either
this, or he was the victim of a delusion. Perhaps something of what was
passing in Lethbridge's mind conveyed itself to Payn, for he stopped
abruptly.

"You don't believe me?" he asked angrily.

"I have not said so," Lethbridge replied. "I do not wish to be
discourteous, but when anybody discovers anything absolutely fresh and
original people always doubt it until they can see for themselves.
Suppose you rose in a meeting of scientific men and said that you had
discovered perpetual motion, would you expect them to believe your
statement until they had had an opportunity of deciding for themselves?
I am not saying that you have not re-invented the Golden Rose, but I
should not tell anybody else until I could speak from personal
experience. And now the thing is perfect, what are you going to do with
it?"

"Sell it, I suppose," Payn said reluctantly. "It is cruel to have to
part with a treasure like that, but I shall have the consolation of
knowing that I shall give pleasure to myriads. I shall go down to
posterity as one of the greatest horticulturists that ever lived. And
there is another thing--I shall provide for Mary's future. That has been
on my mind for a long time. I feel that I owe the girl some reparation."

Lethbridge nodded his head approvingly, but put in his question with
some hesitation.

"You have nothing else to leave her?" he asked.

"Nothing whatever. She came to me to be my friend and companion, to look
after my house. She gave up her youth and friends and all her pleasures
to be dependent upon the whims of an exacting old man. She took it for
granted that I could give her all I had promised. And really I was
little better than a pauper. But that is not the case now, John, not
now. When the Rose comes into the hands of the public it will be worth
twenty thousand pounds to me. I shall be able to charge just what I like
for the plant. There will be no fear on the score that the public will
refuse to buy. And every penny of that money shall be invested for
Mary's benefit. I shall make no more experiments, I shall fritter away
no more gold in pursuit of the impossible. Besides, I feel that my
life's work is done. What more can there be for me to do?"

"Nothing," Lethbridge admitted. "I am glad for the girl's sake, and now,
if you will excuse me, I think I had better go. There is nothing to gain
by my staying here."

The old man held out a detaining hand.

"No, don't go yet," he whispered. "I am afraid to be left alone, lest
that scoundrel should return and rob me of all the fruits of my labour.
If he knows you are still here he will not make another attempt."

"But I can't stay much longer," Lethbridge protested. "Sooner or later I
must go. If you will tell me where to find him I will call upon
Inspector Wilkinson and ask him to come. No doubt when you tell him your
story he will put a special constable on duty."

But this suggestion hardly seemed to satisfy the old man. He appeared to
be casting about in his mind for some argument to detain Lethbridge. His
manner suddenly changed and became friendly and confidential.

"You are annoyed with me?" he said in wheedling tones. "I see you are
still smarting over the past. But perhaps I was wrong. John, indeed, I
have already said so. Don't go away like this, don't let us part in bad
blood again. Stay with me a little longer, if it is only half an hour.
If you will stay I will show you the rose. I cannot say more than that."

There was something almost imploring in the old man's voice and
Lethbridge softened. He murmured something that sounded like
acquiescence, and then Payn crossed the greenhouse and disappeared
behind the canvas screen. When he came back he was carrying in his arms
with infinite tenderness a slender plant in a pot which he deposited
upon a table. The plant was a rose with three long green trails, on each
of which, half-way up, was a flower blazing in all its glory. Lethbridge
drew a long, deep breath, as he came closer and examined the blooms.
They were all fully open; the deep yellow cups gleamed like beaten gold
in the ray of the lamps and the lace fringe on the edges was as dainty
and delicate as the embroidery on the wing of a butterfly. There was no
spot on any of the pure petals, the brilliant green foliage hung round
the flowers lightly and caressingly. The whole place was filled with the
fragrance at once exhilarating and intoxicating. Lethbridge had never
smelt anything like it before. There was something in the perfume that
uplifted him. Jasper Payn, with gleaming eyes, laid a hand gently on the
foliage.

"There! What do you think of that?" he whispered hoarsely. "Did you ever
see anything more perfect? There is no bloom like it in the whole world.
It is hardy, too, it will climb and ramble about wherever it finds
itself in congenial soil. Fancy a house covered with a mass of blooms
like that! Can't you imagine every lover of flowers in the kingdom eager
and ready to purchase a slip of the Golden Rose? Why, I could ask my own
price for it."

"It is incomparable," Lethbridge murmured.

"Incomparable, yes, and all my own invention. Ah! you cannot imagine
what this rose is to me. In a month's time there will be two or three
hundred blooms on that plant; then I shall send it to one of the great
shows and my fortune will be made. I shall command the respect of those
who have hitherto laughed at me. People who pity me now will come here
from envy."

Payn's excitement deepened as he spoke. He bent down and snapped off one
of the glorious golden blossoms. He passed it over to Lethbridge, who
put it in his coat. Almost before the latter could adjust it, the elder
man snatched it from his hand and dropped it into the pipe of the
furnace by which the green house was heated. The action was so
unexpected that Lethbridge protested. He was wondering what it meant.

"Better not," Payn muttered. "You shall have a handful of blossoms
later, but I don't want to put temptation in your way now. You might
come back in the dead of the night and steal my treasure. You are a
young man with ambitions, and nobody knows of my discovery except one."

"As you will," Lethbridge said coldly. "I am glad, at any rate, to think
that you can trust somebody."

"I had to," the old man protested eagerly. "You see I couldn't get
Wilkinson to believe that I was in any danger until I told him the
truth. He thought I was mad. He thought I was full of delusions. But he
has seen the plant. He recognises its value."

Lethbridge rose to his feet.

"In that case, I think I will go," he said. "You will recognise that it
is not altogether pleasant for me to be here. I will call on your friend
on my way home, and tell him that you are in need of his services. Is
there anything else you would like me to do? For the sake of old
times----"

"Oh, yes, yes," Payn said eagerly, "I know what you mean. But you will
come and see me again, John, won't you? Come in the daylight. I always
feel safe then."

A bitter smile crossed Lethbridge's face.

"Very well," he said. "I will look in when I have time. And now I will
wish you good-night. Will you be good enough to say the same to Miss
Grover for me?"





CHAPTER VII.--THE FINGER OF FATE.


Jasper Payn was not listening. He raised his beloved rose-bush from the
table and placed it behind the screen again. He had hardly hidden the
treasure when the door of the greenhouse opened, and Mary Grover
entered. Lethbridge half hesitated, and held out a somewhat reluctant
hand.

"I am just going," he said. "Good-night."

The girl made no attempt to meet the outstretched fingers. Her face was
grave and set. She seemed strangely troubled.

"Let me show you the way," she murmured. "I will walk with you as far as
the gate."

Lethbridge stood aside while the girl preceded him. It was clear she had
something to say. He stopped to take Jasper Payn's instructions as to
where inspector Wilkinson was to be found, then walked down the garden
path to the gate. He was waiting for the girl to speak; he had no
intention of defending himself. Mary could think what she pleased.

"Have you nothing to tell me?" she asked.

"I don't think so," Lethbridge replied. "You know as much about me,
perhaps more, than I know myself. There is one remark that I may be
permitted to make. I was going to tell you exactly who I was when we
heard your uncle calling for assistance. I couldn't very well tell you
before. It was impossible you could leave my house during the storm. And
you might have insisted upon doing that if you had discovered that I was
John Lethbridge. It was a case for diplomacy."

"Perhaps so," the girl admitted. "At any rate, I have to thank you for
your consideration. And now, may I be candid with you, Mr. Lethbridge."

"I shall be glad if you will," Lethbridge replied.

"Why do you lie down under this accusation? Why did you leave your
uncle's house without defending yourself? Everybody believed you had
treated him badly, and you have behaved as if you were the thief he
always taught me to believe you were. Until to-night I regarded you as a
monster of deceit and ingratitude. But now that I have seen you--well, I
am doubtful. Is there no way of putting this matter right?"

"To what end?" Lethbridge said impatiently. "My life is more or less
ruined. I can hope to look forward to no more than a modest living. And
it is only my word against that of my uncle. Why should I tell you that
I am not a thief? Why should I stoop so far as that?"

"Don't you want me to believe you innocent?" the girl asked.

"Do I?" Lethbridge replied. "Well, perhaps so. Frankly, I am
particularly anxious that you should not believe anything to my
discredit. An hour or so ago I did not care what people thought. And
yet, since I have met you things are different. I have been so long
alone and without friends that----. Pshaw, I am talking sentimental
nonsense. What do you care? How should you care whether I----"

"Oh, but I do care very much indeed," the girl protested eagerly. "I
feel that in a measure I have usurped your place, that some day I am
going to enjoy what should belong to you. It may be that Jasper Payn is
a poor man; or it may be that there is something in the mysterious hints
which he has dropped lately, and that possibly he may die rich. If I had
not met you I should have accepted that money without question. Now,
somehow, I feel different. You don't look dishonest, Mr. Lethbridge; I
feel absolutely sure that you are not. There is some mistake somewhere.
Come and see our uncle again. Come and talk the matter over. Perhaps
when you do so you may find a way of clearing your character. It is no
business of mine to talk to you like this. You may think me impertinent
and interfering----"

Lethbridge bent impulsively forward and took Mary Grover's hand in his.
He raised it gently to his lips and kissed her fingers. The action was
so spontaneous, so free from anything in the nature of boldness that
Mary was touched. A warm flood of colour rose to her cheeks, her eyes
grew dim.

"I am sure I beg your pardon," Lethbridge said humbly. "I ought not to
have done that. But it is five years since anyone has spoken to me like
this, and I find I am not so hardened and reckless as I thought. I will
come and see my uncle again. I will try to convince him that he was
wrong and I was right. I might have done so when we parted, but I was
too proud. And now I must really say good-night."

The girl held out her hand impulsively, and Lethbridge took it in his
own grasp for a moment or two. Then he turned away, feeling a happiness
and lightness of heart which he had not known for years. And yet he had
something to do, something to get rid of which had cost him many months
of serious thought and toil. In a dreamy kind of way he walked along. He
came at length to the inspector's cottage and delivered his message.
Half an hour later he reached his own house, and when there he could not
altogether recollect how he had got home. Had he walked all the way? Had
he called and had a real conversation with Inspector Wilkinson, or had
he stumbled along like a man in his sleep?

Well, at any rate, here he was with stern work before him. He made his
way into the greenhouse and lighted the lamps. He walked into the corner
where an hour or two before he had stood with Mary Grover, and she had
listened to him with a frightened air and eyes full of displeasure. This
was the corner which he had barred to her, and behind it was a slender
plant with graceful green foliage, bearing here and there upon its stems
deep yellow cups whose fringe was edged and embroidered exactly in the
same stay as one of the blooms upon Jasper Payn's Golden Rose.

It was the same thing identically; but for a certain inequality in
length there was nothing to choose between the two plants.

"Now here is a coincidence," Lethbridge murmured, not without is certain
bitterness in his tones. "A few months ago I stumbled on the method of
the resuscitation of the Golden Rose. True, I have been experimenting on
and off for the past two years, but it was an accident which gave me the
secret at length, and within a fortnight of the knowledge of this
stupendous discovery I find out that the one man who has ruined my life
has hit upon precisely the same idea. No doubt, but for him, I should
never have heard of the Golden Rose, much less thought of it. But that
does not alter facts. No doubt if he could see what I have here now, he
would accuse me of stealing his knowledge. But he would have some
difficulty in proving that. Why didn't I tell him to-night when he
showed me his plant? Why didn't I let him know that his discovery and
mine were identical? Just as if I didn't know. I didn't tell him because
I am a sentimental fool blind to my own interests, a silly, impulsive
boy who has fallen in love with a pretty face the first time he sees it.
Why, for all I know to the contrary, Mary Grover may be vain and shallow
and artificial as the veriest flirt who ever lived. She may be simpering
and silly; she may have nothing to recommend her but her face. And yet
here am I, hardly knowing where to turn for sixpence, deliberately
making up my mind to destroy a fortune which is within my grasp, because
a selfish old man is behaving badly to the woman who has given up all
that life holds dear to make his declining years pleasant and
comfortable. If I place my discovery on the market, I shall obtain more
money than I want, I shall have fame and opportunity. I can forestall
Jasper Payn, I can take all the credit and leave him nothing. And when
he dies Mary Grover will have to turn out and get her own living, a
thing which, I fancy, she would find it difficult to do.... But why do I
hesitate? I know exactly what I am going to do. I am going to destroy
the gifts the gods have given me, so that Mary Grover may be happy and
comfortable, yet never know the sacrifice I am making for her. It is
like a scene from a play, like some episode from one of those silly,
sentimental novels that women gush over and that are sold by the
thousand. Was there ever such an idiot of a hero before? Nevertheless, I
meant to play the part, though the longer I hesitate the harder it will
be."

Lethbridge uttered these thoughts aloud, without the least idea that he
was talking to himself. And having made up his mind exactly what to do,
he could jeer at himself and inflict as much torture as he pleased. But
in his heart of hearts, he did not hesitate for a moment. Perhaps it was
the life he had been leading that impelled him to this amazing
sacrifice, perhaps it was the knowledge that he had found a friend in
Mary Grover. And yet, when the time came to act, he was surprised to
find that the sacrifice was not nearly so great as he had anticipated.
He stood gazing at the brilliant blooms, but in reality he did not see
them at all. They had changed in some magic way to the outline of Mary
Grover's face, and in the deep yellow cups he saw the azure depths of
her eyes.

He did not know how long he had been standing thus, nor did he heed the
clock striking the hour of one. He came out of his reverie presently and
bent over and broke one of the flowers from its stem. Then he placed the
bloom in his buttonhole.

"I'll keep this," he told himself. "I'll dry it and press it, and some
day, perhaps, she will know what I have done for her. It will be an
evidence, at any rate, that the Golden Rose was as much mine as Jasper
Payn's."

Lethbridge bent over the plant and wrenched it violently from its pot.
He threw back the door of the stove and rammed the whole thing into the
heart of the coke fire. For a time he stood watching until every leaf
and twig was consumed, until the thing of a glorious bloom and beauty
was no more than dust and ashes. He thought he could hear footsteps
outside and the call of voices in the distance. Then there was a
knocking and hammering on his door, and he knew there was something
wrong.

He threw the door back and the form of a man began gradually to outline
itself against the darkness. Then he saw the eager, clean-shaven face of
Inspector Wilkinson. The policeman was merged in the man; his face was
gleaming with horror; his eyes sparkled with excitement.

"What is the matter'" Lethbridge asked.

"Matter enough, sir," the inspector panted. "Somebody has been in Mr.
Payn's place again; one of those thieves he was always talking about. I
was on my way to see him when I heard a commotion. The old gentleman's
isn't dead yet, but I expect he will be by the time I get back. I left
one of my men in charge. Miss Grover implored me to come up and see you.
But why----"

The inspector stopped abruptly. His eyes were fixed, round, full and
intent on the yellow bloom in Lethbridge's coat.

"I should like to know, sir," he said tersely, "where you got that
flower from, because----"




CHAPTER VII.--ON THE BRINK.


At first Lethbridge did not appear to grasp the question. He was too
much upset by the inspector's message to think of anything else. He
still cherished feelings of respect and affection for the old man who
had treated him so badly. There came back to him now, as always at such
times, recollection of the earlier days when Jasper Payn had been more
than a father to him, and before he had come under the spell of the
gambling spirit which had led to his downfall. For Jasper Payn's
experiments had been gambling pure and simple. He had wasted his time
and money in a series of hazardous adventures which had never promised
to repay the care and attention laid out upon them.

And yet when everything looked at its worst, Fortune had chosen to throw
to Jasper Payn the happiness for which he had striven so hard. The old
man's early kindnesses and attentions came back to Lethbridge and
flashed before his eyes one by one like so many streaks of lightning.

And then Lethbridge began to understand. His first impulse was to resent
the apparent impertinence of the question, but that was before its full
significance flashed upon him. It was all done in the twinkling of an
eye, but the seriousness of it was by no means lost upon John
Lethbridge.

"What do you mean?'" he stammered.

"I think my question is plain enough, sir," Wilkinson said civilly. '"I
merely asked where you got that flower."

"I know you did. But, why?"

Wilkinson shrugged his shoulders. There was something in the gesture
that irritated Wilkinson.

"It was my duty to ask it," Wilkinson began. "Here is Mr. Payn,
possessed with the idea that some one is trying to rob him of a certain
flower. Personally, I did not believe in it. I thought it was an old
man's fancy. For, between ourselves, Mr. Payn has been very queer of
late, and it has occurred to me more than once that his brain was going.
He has just come to the time of life when people take up delusions of
that kind. He is a nice old gentleman, and I have been very glad to do
all I could to help him, for we are both lovers of flowers. I am an
enthusiast in my way, but Mr. Payn has forgotten more about it than ever
I shall know. I didn't take much heed of what he said when he asked me
to put on a special constable in his neighbourhood, though I don't mind
confessing that I promised to do so. Anyway I didn't. And when you came
for me to-night, I didn't feel in the least disposed to go as far as Mr.
Payn's house. I don't suppose I should have gone, only he has been
hinting a great deal to me lately about a marvellous new bloom, and I
thought perhaps I might get a sight of it."

"Did you?" Lethbridge asked eagerly.

Wilkinson pointedly evaded the question.

"We'll come to all that in due course, sir," he said. "I went over to
the old gentleman's house, and he told me a long rigmarole about being
attacked by some mysterious stranger earlier in the evening. I didn't
believe a word of it, but I had to listen all the same."

"Oh, it's true enough," Lethbridge said eagerly. "You can take my word
for that. It so happens that Miss Grover came in here to shelter from
the storm, and I walked home with her afterwards. I was just saying
good-night to her at Mr. Payn's gate when we heard his cries for
assistance, and I hurried to the spot. Undoubtedly the ruffian has been
there with an eye to plunder, and the consequences might have been
serious but for any presence. The place bore every evidence of a
struggle, but Mr. Payn did not seem to have the least idea what his
assailant was like. He must have been a man of resource and courage, for
on any approach he dashed clean through the side of the greenhouse and
disappeared into the night. The fellow must have been cut about a good
deal. I am telling you this because the facts may be useful to you
later."

"I daresay," the inspector said drily. "Meanwhile, I shall be glad to
know, sir, where you got that flower!"

But Lethbridge was only half listening. He was trying to recall the
appearance of the greenhouse when he entered it and found signs of a
struggle.

"It is my own," he answered vaguely. "I grew it myself. But I will tell
you all about that presently."

Wilkinson's features grew suddenly hard and stern. It was obvious he did
not believe a word that Lethbridge was saying.

"I don't want to be officious, sir," he said, "but you see I have my
duty to consider. Something very like murder has been committed, and I
should not be acting my part if I missed anything in the way of a clue.
Are you quite sure, sir, that that yellow flower came out of your own
greenhouse?"

"Why should I tell a lie about it?" Lethbridge asked coldly.

"Why indeed?" Wilkinson agreed. "That being so, you can easily produce
the plant it came from."

Lethbridge was conscious of a queer sensation in the back of his throat.
Wilkinson's every observation tended in one direction. Every glance of
his shrewd grey eye was lit up with suspicion. And with the instinct of
his tribe he had gone at once to the root of everything. He had asked
for the one thing in proof of Lethbridge's statement which the latter
could not produce. He realised now the extraordinary danger and delicacy
of his position.

And yet how could he tell this man everything. How could he go through
the whole history of his past merely to gratify the curiosity of a
police officer! And, besides, the man would not believe him. No sane
person in England would credit a narrative like that. It was impossible
seriously to consider that two men living so close together could have
propagated identically similar flowers at exactly the same moment. The
truth that Lethbridge had destroyed his own Golden Rose was prosaic
enough, but in the circumstances no one would have believed it.
Everybody would jump to the conclusion that Lethbridge had stolen it
from his uncle's in a moment of rage and jealousy, and that he had half
murdered the old man to get possession of it. Afterwards, in a fit of
cowardice or prudence he had destroyed the flower, leaving no trace of
it behind. Lethbridge could see all this plainly. The history of his
relationship to Jasper Payn would come out, the reason why they had
quarrelled would be told, and, no doubt, plenty of witnesses would be
forthcoming who would testify to the fact that he had been turned out of
his uncle's house in disgrace. Old servants would be looked up who would
be prepared to swear that Lethbridge had left the old home under a cloud
and without making the slightest attempt to clear himself. It would be
argued naturally enough that no innocent man could have taken a course
like his. He had robbed his benefactor years ago, and now he had
repeated the process in a worse fashion, adding the crime of murder to
his other failures.

It was astonishing how vividly and clearly Lethbridge traced his
conviction step by step. He could see that everything was against him;
the mere fact that Jasper Payn had kept his great discovery to himself
was one of the worst pieces of evidence in his disfavour. Already he was
as good as condemned by a jury of his fellow-countrymen. And here was
Wilkinson waiting for him to speak. "I can't produce the plant," he
said, "because, unfortunately enough, I destroyed it a little time ago."

"Indeed, sir," Wilkinson said drily, "and why did you do that? I
understand that you are a professional grower of flowers. They told me
that you came to this neighbourhood to make certain experiments, because
you thought that the climate was suitable to your purpose. If you
actually discovered the Golden Rose, I should like to know why you
destroyed it. Before long other people will be asking the same
question."

"It would be mere affectation on my part to pretend not to understand
you," Lethbridge replied, "but I assure you that I am telling nothing
but the truth. I certainly did discover the Golden Rose, and I certainly
did burn my plant. A few hours ago and I should have smiled at the mere
suggestion of doing such a thing. If I told you why I did so you would
not appreciate my reasons. But now let me ask you a question by way of a
change. What do you know about the Golden Rose?'"

"Well, I might say nothing," Wilkinson responded modestly. "I never
heard of such a thing till you called at my house tonight. I did not
dream that such a flower existed until Mr. Payn showed it to me. He
showed it to me, because he gathered from my manner that I regarded his
story as a mere hallucination. To convince me that he had a treasure to
guard he showed me the Golden Rose. I was deeply interested, and made a
careful examination of the plant. A little time ago there were three
blooms on it; one of them had been recently cut. It wasn't for me to ask
what had become of this cut flower, but without offence, sir, I think I
may claim to have a good idea where it is at present."

"You think this is it?" Lethbridge asked.

Wilkinson nodded. The time was past for mere politeness.

"I am afraid you hardly understand the situation," he said. "Try to put
yourself in my place. What would you think if you were me? You were in
Mr. Payn's house to-night. You probably saw his marvellous rose bush. As
a fellow expert you would know its exact value. Besides, you had every
reason to believe that Mr. Payn had kept his discovery entirely a
secret. If anything happened to him you could walk off with this
discovery and nobody would be any the wiser. I don't say you can't
explain matters satisfactorily. I have been too long in the force to
judge by appearances, black as they may be. It is possible we shall find
that rascally neighbour of Mr. Payn's at the bottom of it yet."

Lethbridge started, and the colour came into his face.

"I can, perhaps, save you that trouble," Lethbridge said coolly.
"Evidently you have heard the story from Mr. Payn's lips. I suppose it
is natural to you to conclude that this unfortunate nephew might be
connected with the outrage and the robbery."

"It wouldn't be the first time," Wilkinson muttered.

"Perhaps not. It wouldn't be the first time a man has been accused of a
crime he never committed. But I am wasting your time and mine. As a
matter of fact, I am John Lethbridge, and Mr. Jasper Payn is my uncle.
In the days when he was rich and prosperous I lived in his house. It was
always understood that some day or another I should inherit his money,
but you see he had no money to leave; he had wasted it all upon idle
experiments. When he accused me of robbing him of a certain valuable
discovery I was too hurt and disgusted to defend myself. I left his
house without a word, and from that day till to-night I have never seen
him. I had not the remotest idea that he was living here, the whole
thing is a strange coincidence. There is one thing I will ask you--to
say nothing about my being connected with the Golden Rose. I don't want
people to know that the discovery belonged to two of us."




CHAPTER IX.--AN ORDEAL BY FAITH.


Wilkinson smiled in a dubious sort of manner.

"I wouldn't worry about that, sir, if I were you," he said. "For one
thing, you will find that no one will believe you. It is too much to ask
anybody to credit a story like that. But all this is very irregular, and
daresay I shall get myself into trouble for allowing you to say so much
without warning you that whatever you say will be used in evidence
against you. I ought to get back to Mr. Payn's house. I left the doctor
there, so that I have done all I can. Perhaps you would like to come
along."

"As your prisoner?" Lethbridge asked bitterly.

"Well, no, sir," Wilkinson replied, "not yet. I am sorry that I said as
much. But I must confess that when I saw that flower in your buttonhole
I lost my head for the moment. Do you really mean to tell me that two
horticulturists could have invented a marvellous flower like that
simultaneously?"

"I have told you so," Lethbridge said coldly. "After all, why not? The
thing is within the bounds of possibility. Don't forget that I lived
with my uncle until I grew up, that I was as passionately fond of
flowers as he was, and that their growth and propagation was part of my
education. In Mr. Payn's library was the finest collection of
horticultural books in the world. It is no exaggeration to say that I
knew most of those books by heart. Some of them were in black letter and
written in the quaintest language. It is strange that in many of them,
as old as the fifteenth century, the Golden Rose was mentioned. For over
three hundred years the legend crops up in various works, and the
fascination of it grew upon us till we spent most of our evenings in
discussing the subject. I believe it was the pursuit of the Golden Rose
that led my uncle to lose the bulk of his fortune. Long after we had
parted he continued his experiments, spending large sums of money
without making any headway. I was foolish enough to give much of my
leisure to the same thing, but I can't take credit to myself, because my
discovery was more or less the discovery of an accident. Fortune was
coming to me at length, and I began to see my way to making a good deal
of money. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered to-night that I
was living close to my uncle, but that is nothing to the astonishment I
felt when my uncle showed me his Golden Rose."

"Why should he do that?" Wilkinson asked.

"Ah, now you have asked me a question that I have no difficulty in
answering. He showed it me for two reasons. First of all because he
didn't want me to leave him, lest his assailant might return. Secondly
he showed it me because we had discussed the possibilities of the
discovery so many times together. And when I came away my fixed
intention was to destroy my beloved plant. I don't suppose a
case-hardened official like yourself would understand that I was moved
entirely by sentiment. If I had told my uncle that I had made the same
discovery as he had done I should only have been accused of robbing him
again. He would have argued in some mysterious way that I had entered
his greenhouse and taken a cutting of the plant. I had no desire to
repeat the worry. And, besides, there is another reason which I shall
not tell you, and which you would not understand or appreciate if I did.
I regret my impulsive action now, because I see the serious position in
which it has placed me. But if you had come here an hour ago I should
have had no difficulty in producing my Golden Rose for your inspection.
I give you my word as to this."

"That is possible," Wilkinson said drily. "The miscreant who attacked
Mr. Payn so savagely did not have his trouble for nothing. I made a
careful search of the greenhouse before I came away, and the Golden Rose
is nowhere to be found."

"Then you think I had it?" Lethbridge demanded.

Wilkinson shrugged his shoulders. He was not going to commit himself to
any words. But it was plain what was running through his mind.
Lethbridge felt savage and vindictive. He would like to have laid hands
upon the inspector and shaken him violently. But physical force was not
to be thought of.

"I shall know what to say when the time comes," he murmured. "But tell
me how all this came to light. Did you stay any time with my uncle? Did
you get any alarms?"

"From Miss Grover, yes," Wilkinson explained. "I suppose I had been back
home the best part of an hour when she came to my house in a great state
of terror and alarm to tell me that her uncle was lying dead on the
floor of his greenhouse, murdered by some unknown person. She was too
terrified to be coherent, but from what I could gather she went up to
bed just after midnight leaving her uncle alone in the greenhouse. She
had been aroused from her sleep by the sound of a struggle followed by
cries for assistance in her uncle's voice. When she got downstairs the
ruffian had vanished, and the poor old gentleman was lying on the floor
in a state of collapse. As I said just now, he was not quite dead when
we got there, but I should think it impossible for him to live till
morning. But perhaps you would like to come to Mr. Payn's house and see
for yourself."

Lethbridge complied eagerly. It was the one thing he desired. Anything
was better than sitting there brooding over the tragedy and trying to
find some ray of light in the gloom that surrounded him. He walked along
moodily by Wilkinson's side until they came to Jasper Payn's cottage.

There was nothing fresh to report. The injured man had been conveyed to
his own room, where at that moment he was lying at the point of death.
So far as Lethbridge could understand a nurse had been sent for, and she
and Mary Grover were engaged in attending to the wounded man. The doctor
came downstairs, and he was drawing on his gloves before going home. He
shook his head gravely in reply to Lethbridge's question.

"A very bad case, sir," he said, "in fact, I never saw worse. If Mr.
Payn had not a good constitution he would have been dead before now;
indeed, it is only his extraordinary vitality which keeps him alive. The
wound is a serious one."

"A wound from a knife?" Lethbridge asked.

"Oh, no. I should say it was inflicted with some heavy blunt instrument
on the back of the head. What we have to fear is fracture of the skull,
but as to that I can't be quite certain yet. Mr. Payn may linger till
morning, he may even get better; but that chance is a million to one. I
will call again before breakfast. There is nothing to be gained by
staying now."

"He is unconscious, I suppose?" Lethbridge asked.

"Absolutely. I don't suppose he uttered a groan after he was felled.
Since then he has been perfectly silent. It is a most mysterious affair.
You would have thought that a poor old gentleman who had devoted all his
life to the cultivation of flowers would not have a single enemy in the
world. I suppose you haven't found out anything, inspector? I am afraid
this case is rather more in your line than mine."

Wilkinson shook his head. The doctor drove off presently, and the
inspector and the man whom he had come to regard as his prisoner were
alone together. They were in the greenhouse still; the lamps were
lighted; there was no sign of confusion or any suggestion of a struggle
save for the broken glass by means of which the first assailant of the
evening had escaped.

"Do you think it was the same man?" Lethbridge asked.

"Ah, that I couldn't say," Wilkinson replied. "And that, by the way, is
a point in your favour. Undoubtedly, somebody came here with the
intention of robbing Mr. Payn. He was here at the very moment when you
say that you were standing at the gate talking to Miss Grover. In that
case, you will have no difficulty in proving an alibi; at least, up to a
certain extent you will be able to do so. That is not everything, you
understand."

As Wilkinson spoke he pointed to the rose in Lethbridge's buttonhole.
There was something terribly significant in the action. Before
Lethbridge could reply, Wilkinson's attention had been diverted to
something else. He crossed over to the place where the glass was broken,
and carefully examined a small object upon the floor. Without any
comment he placed the thing in his pocket, then strode out into the
garden. He would not be gone more than a minute or two, he said. Left
alone Lethbridge glanced round the place. He saw that the canvas screen
had been torn down, and that the Golden Rose had vanished. He was still
pondering the inexplicable problem when the door of the greenhouse
leading to the cottage opened and Mary Grover came in. Her face was
deadly pale. There were dark rings under her eyes, her lips twitched
slightly. She started at the sign of Lethbridge, then a smile trembled
on her face.

"I did not know you were here," she stammered, "though I sent for you. I
could not think of anybody else, and you were so kind and sympathetic
tonight. Besides, being a relative of ours, I thought you ought to
know."

"It is a shocking affair," Lethbridge murmured. "Have you no idea how it
happened?"

Mary Grover shook her head.

"Not in the least," she said. "I suppose Mr. Wilkinson has told you all
that I had to say. It seems all the more dreadful because it happens at
such a time as this. Do you know I have never known your uncle to be so
kind and communicative as he was last night after you left. He told me
all about his early life, he told me how you used to work together and
speculate for hours and hours in the evening over the possibility of
recovering the wonderful Golden Rose. And then I began to understand why
the poor old man worked so many hours in secret, and why he was so
strict as to my not being allowed in here. He was free enough as to the
way in which he had wasted his fortune. He reproached himself because it
looked as if at one time he would have nothing left for me after all he
had promised. Just as if I should have minded that!"

"Of course you wouldn't," Lethbridge murmured.

"Oh, I told him as much. And then, when he had finished, he brought me
in here and showed me the Golden Rose. I never saw him so pleased and
delighted before, he told me that here was the fortune he had
squandered, that in future everything would be for me. I wanted a
flower, but he would not listen to the suggestion. It seems a terrible
thing to think that perhaps at the very moment when my uncle was talking
in this confidential manner the thief was listening to everything. The
mere thought makes me shudder. For that was what the thief was after. He
came for the Golden Rose, and was prepared to do anything to gain
possession of it. No doubt he believes that no one knows the secret of
that beautiful flower. And now it has vanished, leaving no trace behind.
Now----"

The girl paused abruptly. The colour faded from her face. Her eyes were
fixed intently on the rose in Lethbridge's coat.




CHAPTER X.--A SCRAP OF SILK.


John Lethbridge had forgotten the flower in his buttonhole. He looked at
it as if it were some unaccountable object which he had never seen or
heard of before. The glance seemed almost to paralyse him. To a casual
observer guilt and confusion were written all over his face. Yet, when
he came to think of it, Mary's surprise was natural enough. Only a
little time before the Golden Rose had been disclosed to the girl's
astonished eyes. She had been informed that this beautiful flower was to
be the nucleus of her fortune when the time should come that Jasper Payn
would want it no longer. She had been told that the blossom was unique,
and that there was nothing like it in all the world. And here, casually
and openly, Lethbridge was wearing one of the yellow blooms, as if it
had been the kind of thing that one plucks by the wayside.

Still, the question uttered by her gaze would have to be answered. He
would have to tell his story. But whether the girl would believe it or
not was another matter. She might take the same view as Inspector
Wilkinson. She might regard the romance as a tissue of lies from
beginning to end.

"It is my own," he said lamely.

Mary smiled.

"I suppose it is," she murmured. "But where did you get it?"

Lethbridge was conscious of a certain irritation. It seemed to him that
he had been cross-examined enough already. And now he would have to go
through the whole weary process again. Still, there was no other way out
of it, no possible means by which he could satisfy the girl and make his
position clear.

"I did not get it anywhere; I grew it," he said.

The words were uttered beyond recall. As he spoke, Lethbridge could see
the old suspicion creeping back into the girl's eyes. He saw that her
face was getting cold and set. There was a long, eloquent pause before
she spoke.

"I suppose you are joking," she said. "Do you think it is the time for
that sort of thing? I suppose my uncle showed you the flower to-night
and gave you the bloom you are wearing in your coat. I don't see how it
could have come into your possession, unless, perhaps, you----"

The pause was significant.

"I see what you mean," Lethbridge said bitterly. "You might just as well
finish your sentence. Unless I stole it, I suppose you mean to say. I
should hardly be wearing it in my coat in this open manner in that
case."

The girl held out her hand with an imploring gesture. There was a look
of something akin to pain in her eyes.

"I hope you will forgive me," she murmured. "But I hardly know what to
think. Seriously, Mr. Lethbridge, you don't want me to believe that you
also possessed a plant of the Golden Rose?"

"That is exactly what I am trying to convey to you," Lethbridge replied.
"You were under the impression, of course, that your uncle's plant is
unique."

"Why, naturally, I am. Did he not tell me so himself? He explained to me
the reason why I was not allowed to enter the greenhouse. He showed me
the plant with its beautiful blossoms. He showed it to Wilkinson, too;
at the time I saw it there were two blooms on the plant, and another
blossom seemed to have been recently cut off. I am bound to believe that
that other blossom is the one in your coat. Why you make a mystery of it
I cannot understand. As to your being the owner of one of the
plants----"

"You don't believe it?" Lethbridge asked bluntly.

"Oh, you fill me with pain," the girl cried. "Why do you force me to
speak so plainly? How can I believe it? There is no other rose like that
in the world. I know that you and my uncle discussed it over and over
again. I know that the Golden Rose had become a perfect mania with the
poor old man. But I could not credit the fact that both of you had hit
upon the secret of that perfect blossom. It is stretching the arm of
coincidence beyond all limits. I could believe that on a past occasion
my uncle was mistaken in his estimate of your character, but to ask me
to credit this. You see, my uncle's flower has vanished.... On your own
confession you are a poor man.... I can understand what the temptation
was, and I know that you are a passionate lover of flowers. Bring it
back before it is too late. I will forgive and forget everything; I will
try to remember that you have been sorely tried, and that, perhaps, my
uncle did not behave to you as he should have done. I always endeavour
to be tolerant towards other people's weaknesses, because I have so many
of my own."

Mary's voice was soft, almost caressing. There was an appealing look in
her beautiful eyes. In ordinary circumstances Lethbridge might have
hesitated. Heaven only knows to what an extent he might have made a fool
of himself! He knew that Jasper Payn's Golden Rose had been stolen by
some miscreant, and had he not destroyed his own he would have been
sorely tempted to produce it and lie under the odium ever more of being
a cheat and a thief. It a strange way he was regretting the fact that he
had destroyed his blooms. It would have been some consolation to him to
restore the lost fortune to the house of Payn and suffer in silence from
Mary's opinion of his conduct.

The thing was foolish and sentimental to the last degree. John
Lethbridge had yet to find out how deeply he had fallen in love with
this tall, pale girl with the marvellous eyes and pleading expression.
But his plant had been destroyed, and there was no hope for him in that
direction.

"You are very good," he murmured. "Even if I were the dishonourable
scoundrel you take me to be, I must be grateful for the opportunity you
have given me to retrieve my character. But, amazing as the coincidence
is, it happens to be absolutely true. We both discovered the secret of
the Golden Rose at the same time; we both kept the fact to ourselves. I
could not dream what I was to learn when I came to my uncle's house this
evening. My plan was to keep my Rose till I was in a position to put it
on the market. I intended to make a fortune out of it. I could have made
my discovery public long ago, only it would not have paid me to do it
just then. And, in the meantime, I hardly knew which way to turn for
money. I should have gone on in the comfortable belief that I had fame
and fortune in the corner of my greenhouse, but for the fact that you
came to my cottage to-night. It is a strange thing, too, that when I
discovered you I took you for a thief. Someone has been hanging about my
place for days. I had discovered their footprints in the garden. They
were the impressions of a small foot, evidently in a thin shoe with high
heels. When I found you it seemed to me that I had run my mysterious
watcher to earth."

"It was not me," the girl cried.

"I know that. As soon as I saw your face I acquitted you. I judged you
entirely upon your expression, and upon the innocent look in your eyes.
Now does it occur to you that there is anything about me to suggest the
thief?"

"Oh, no," Mary said, promptly. "I see what you mean. You shame me in
spite of myself. And yet when I think of your story--your incredible
story--I am forced in spite of my instincts---"

"Oh, let me hear no more about woman's instincts," Lethbridge said,
impatiently. "One meets them in every book one reads. But I must not
lose my temper. I must try to be cool and logical, for I am in personal
danger. You don't believe my story of the Golden Rose, neither does the
inspector yonder. I don't see how a dispassionate outsider could. I know
that in similar circumstances I, too, should have my doubts. And it
would have been just the same thing if my uncle had not shown me his
flower tonight. I should not have mentioned the Golden Rose, only you
know all about it. My uncle produced it for my inspection, either acting
on the spur of the moment, or because he was frightfully nervous, and
wanted to keep me as near himself as possible. He broke off one of the
blossoms and handed it to me to put in my coat. You can imagine my
feelings. You can imagine my disgust and dismay at the knowledge that I
had been forestalled, and that my fortune had vanished into thin air."

"But you told my uncle of your discovery," Mary exclaimed. "If he gets
better he will be able to confirm that."

Lethbridge laughed in a dreary way.

"I have not even that hope to console me," he said. "I told my uncle
nothing. I had to fight to get the mastery over myself. But when I had
done that everything was plain. If I had told my uncle he would not have
believed me."

"You could have produced your plant," Mary murmured.

"Of course, but how much better should I have been off then? You know
the poor old man. You know, what an extraordinary fanatic he is. He
would have said at once that in some mysterious kind of way I had robbed
him again. He would have accused me of spying upon his movements. He
would have charged me with taking a cutting of that plant. You know
perfectly well he would have done so. You know how bitter he was against
me. But as heaven is my witness, that was not my only reason for
maintaining silence. At the loss of all my hopes and ambitions I meant
to hold my tongue. I would not for one moment undergo the same odium
again."

"But this is purely romantic," Mary protested.

"I know that quite well. But, then, romance is the salt of life. If I
had maintained my position I should never have been asked here again.
Before I saw you I should not have minded it in the least. But now that
I do know you, things are different. I know that all this sounds bold
and forward, but seeing your relationship to Jasper Payn----"

Lethbridge paused in the full tide of his eloquence. He had come very
near to betraying himself. But he could not, he would not, tell this
girl why he had destroyed the Golden Rose. That he had deliberately made
the sacrifice for her sake must remain a secret. Perhaps some day she
might know it, but not yet. Besides, she might doubt him if he told the
whole truth. And his feelings were bitter enough in any case.

"Go on," Mary said, gently, "go on."

"There is no more to say," Lethbridge continued lamely. "I have said too
much already. There was another reason why I destroyed the plant, but I
think I have told you sufficient."

"For your own sake," said Mary, "I should like to hear everything."

There was something imploring in the suggestion, but Lethbridge
resolutely turned a deaf ear to it. The interview was becoming painful.
He cast about for some means to end it. It was at the same moment that
Wilkinson came back into the greenhouse by means of the broken window.
He carried a small object in his hand. He seemed to be fairly well
pleased with himself. He would have spoken had he not caught sight of
Mary.




CHAPTER XI.--A CLUE IN CALF.


"I beg your pardon," he said. "I thought you were alone."

"I am just going," Mary Grover said in a cold, contained voice. "I have
been discussing this mystery with Mr. Lethbridge. Of course, he has
already told you that we are relatives, and that Mr. Payn is his uncle
as well as mine. But perhaps I had better get back to the bedroom again.
I wish you good-night."

The girl was about to extend her hand to Lethbridge, but changed her
purpose, and walked quietly from the greenhouse. On the whole,
Lethbridge was not sorry. It had been a trying interview. He was
conscious that he had cut a sorry figure. He had a bitter feeling that
the girl had not believed a word he had said. It was refreshing to turn
to a man like Wilkinson.

"Have you found anything?" Lethbridge asked, more by way of saying
something than anything else. "Any clue to the culprit?--provided, of
course, that you are prepared to admit that the culprit might be anybody
but myself."

Wilkinson smiled mysteriously.

"One never knows," he said. "In a profession like mine I have seen the
most perfect theories upset by the simplest possible chain of
circumstances. All we know for certain is that the thief nearly killed
the old gentleman in getting away with his plunder. I am only too glad
to recognise all the points in your favour. And one point, and a big
one, too, is the indisputable fact that an attempt was made to rob the
greenhouse before you appeared upon the scene at all. That hole yonder
is the most powerful witness on your behalf."

"Really," Lethbridge said cynically. "But you could soon dispose of
that, you know. You have only to assume that I have an accomplice, and
my wonderful alibi falls to the ground. Besides, you have only my word
for the fact that I hadn't the least idea that my uncle was living in
the neighbourhood. For all you know, I might have been dogging his
footsteps for months. But all this is beside the question. Have you
discovered anything? I saw you when you went out pick up an article from
the floor and put it in your pocket. And now you have something else in
your hand. In fiction the cleverest detectives find clues in this way."

"Many a true word is spoken in jest," Wilkinson said imperturbably.
"There is no reason why I should not tell you what I have found. Here is
the first thing that I picked up on the floor of the greenhouse. It
doesn't convey much, and it is not very formidable, but a tiny thing
like that has led up to the detection of many a crime. Examine it for
yourself, and see what you make of it. This is the thing that I found in
the greenhouse."

Wilkinson took a small case from his pocket, and proceeded to extract
therefrom a small, oblong piece of tissue paper of a faint yellow hue,
and almost transparent. The paper was ribbed, too, in a peculiar way,
and slightly uneven along one side, somewhat in the fashion of a bank
note.

"It does not convey much to me," Lethbridge confessed after a close
examination. "If I were asked to guess what it was, I should say it was
a cigarette paper. It is not the kind generally used in this country,
but I have seen papers of that type in Spain. But the Spaniards are
experts in their art, and never wet the edges of their papers. Am I
right?"

"First time," Wilkinson said crisply. "That is a cigarette-paper beyond
doubt. It is manufactured from maize leaves, and only an experienced and
expert cigarette-maker could use such paper without wasting the tobacco.
I don't suppose there is a single man in England who uses this paper. I
had a case in my hands a year or two ago which was a liberal education
to me in some ways. I found that paper of this type is used, not only in
Spain, but in the East as far as Persia and North India. Now; as you are
aware, that would embrace the whole of the Vale of Kashmir, whence our
most beautiful roses originally came. But, in the matter of roses, you
know more than I do. Tell me, briefly, Mr. Lethbridge, what is the
history of the Golden Rose? Was it at some time a sacred flower? Were
people forbidden to export it? Would it have been considered a crime in
those days to smuggle one out of the country?"

Lethbridge was growing interested, in spite of himself. He began to see
that he was in contact with a man of original mind and original methods.
Apart from its connection with flowers, the question was an interesting
one.

"I congratulate you," Lethbridge said, "upon the possession of an
imagination. You are quite right, too. In the old days the flower
growers in the Vale of Kashmir were very jealous over their products.
Tom Moore makes good use of this subject in his wonderful poem called
'Lalla Rookh.' I can lend you an interesting old book which will give
you all the information you require. You will glean from it that the
Golden Rose held a very high place in the affections of the Kashmir
people. They would have stopped at nothing to prevent the loss even of a
single bud. It is possible that in one or two gardens belonging to the
Persian aristocracy the Rose still flourishes, but I can't be sure about
that. It is possible, too, that the possession of a Golden Rose by an
Englishman might lead to trouble. But that point for the present is
outside the scope of your enquiries."

"I am not so sure about that," Wilkinson said with a chuckle. "At any
rate, somebody has been here who is accustomed to use cigarette-papers
of the Oriental type. Either the first or second intruder here to-night
dropped that paper. Therefore, it is only fair to assume that some
person born and bred in the East has been where he has no right to be,
and I must enquire whether a foreigner has been in the neighbourhood
lately. But this is not my sole discovery. Look at this. I found it
hanging on to a bush in the garden. What do you think of it?"

Lethbridge took up the object which Wilkinson handed to him, and laid it
on the palm of his hand. It was a torn piece of silk about 8in. square,
and might either have come off a turban or been torn from a pocket
handkerchief. The silk was wonderfully soft and lustrous, of a deep
emerald green, with cunning little gold threads woven through it. There
was no question about its richness and quality. It was a silk of texture
rarely, if ever, seen in England.

"It is very attractive," Lethbridge murmured.

"Very," Wilkinson agreed. "And it appeals to the imagination in more
ways than one. Now, I found that quite by accident hanging to a
thornbush. It confirms my impression that some foreigner is at the
bottom of this business. In the first place, I might have assumed that
it was a sailor or some person of that class. But sailors are not in the
habit of wearing ties or handkerchiefs of a quality like this. Only a
rich man could sport textures so fine and so beautifully woven. It seems
to me that the plot thickens, Mr. Lethbridge. The farther we go the more
fascinating does the problem become."

"Is there anything else?" Lethbridge asked eagerly.

"No, that is as far as I have gone. And a very good night's work, too.
If anything else turns up, I will let you know. It is getting late, and
I don't propose to move any farther for the present. Isn't that 2
o'clock?"

Lethbridge realised to his astonishment that it was. There was nothing
further to wait for, and despite the exciting events of the evening
Lethbridge was tired. He walked slowly towards his cottage. The more he
dwelt upon the mystery, the more puzzling and bewildering it grew. It
was a close, hot night, so that he walked slowly. There was a faint
tinge of dawn in the east as he reached his garden. He thought he saw
something like the outline of a figure flitting across the lawn, but at
first put it down to imagination. Then a dry twig broke with a snap like
a pistol shot and Lethbridge knew he had not been mistaken. He dashed
impulsively forwards, turning away to the right so to cut off the
intruder, who would have to make his escape by means of a rustic archway
covered with creepers. It was possible that here was the mysterious
visitor with the small feet and patent leather shoes who had been
hanging about the cottage for some time.

Lethbridge had barely time to reach the end of the alcove before the
slim figure came bounding along. As Lethbridge stepped out to intercept
him, a slender but sinuous hand shot out and caught Lethbridge under the
throat with a jerk that threw him violently backwards. Before he could
recover himself the intruder was half-way across the garden. It was not
a long start, but apparently it was sufficient, for the man was out in
the roadway eight or ten yards ahead. Then, to Lethbridge's surprise, he
saw that the fugitive had bare feet, for as they rose and fell they
twinkled, as it were, in the first faint flush of the rosy dawn.

Lethbridge set his teeth closely together and started in pursuit. As he
turned a sharp corner he ran into the arms of a man who was strolling up
the road. The impact was so violent and unexpected that Lethbridge
instinctively threw out his arms to save himself from falling to the
ground. Then he stammered a breathless apology to which the stranger
listened with a sarcastic smile.

He was a rather tall, slim man, dressed in a perfectly fitting flannel
suit; his linen was clean and immaculate; his tie a miracle of neatness.
Lethbridge could see that his face was dark, his eyes wonderfully black
and piercing. He had a small moustache waxed up at the ends in a
dandified fashion.

"Not at all, my dear sir," the stranger said. "There is no occasion to
apologise. I suppose you are in pursuit of the erratic individual I met
just now who appears to be one of the apostles of the Simple Life. I
judged that by the fact that he was wearing no shoes and stockings. You
appear to have developed several new cranks since I was in England
last."

The stranger spoke in perfect English, though there was just a
suggestion of the foreigner in the way he rolled certain letters. He
passed on as if nothing had happened, leaving Lethbridge feeling foolish
in the extreme. It was some few moments before he could collect his
scattered thoughts. He remained till the stranger had vanished, feeling
at the same time that it was futile to follow the man with the bare feet
any further. A small object lay at his feet, a little volume bound in
calf, which evidently had fallen from the stranger's pocket in the
collision. Lethbridge picked it up and read the title. In plain gold
letters he saw the words, "Ye Arte of Ye Garden."




CHAPTER XII.-A LITERARY TREASURE.


Lethbridge turned the book over in his hand. He had forgotten all about
the fugitive, and the man with the dark eyes. It was just light enough
for him to see the quaint black letter type in which the book was
printed. The volume was not new to him, either, for a copy of it had
held a prominent place in the library of Jasper Payn at Beckenham Hall.
From the point of view of the collector, it was an exceedingly rare and
valuable book, which might have fetched anything up to three hundred
pounds. But it was not this particular point which was occupying John
Lethbridge's attention. He was thinking what a strange thing it was that
a volume bearing upon the culture of flowers should have been dropped by
a perfect stranger so close to his own gate. He wondered whether this
matter had some connection with the amazing outrage on Jasper Payn. But
there had been so many coincidences of late that Lethbridge dismissed
the idea as being almost outside the range of possibility.

He walked back slowly to the house. Though it was nearly broad daylight
now, he was in no hurry to go to bed. He turned up his lamp and began to
turn over the pages of the book.

As he idly handled the leaves, the whole association of the volume came
back to him. He recollected the occasion on which his uncle had first
introduced it to him. He remembered the various chapters and the
particular flowers with which they dealt. It was curious to observe what
a number of popular favourites of the day were also known in those
bygone times. Lethbridge was becoming more and more interested as he
proceeded. He had forgotten everything else in the fascination of the
brown pages. Therefore, it came to him almost as a shock, when, at the
end of the leather covered book he happened upon a long account of the
history and legendary lore which had attached itself in those days to
the Golden Rose.

Here was something which set him thinking with a vengeance. The incident
was further accentuated by the discovery that certain passages in the
chapter had been heavily underscored, and that notes in some foreign
language had been made on the margin. Lethbridge was no linguist, so
that he could not say what tongue those queer characters represented. So
far as he was able to tell, they were either Arabic or Sanscrit.

At any rate, the chapter had been most carefully studied by some
foreigner deeply interested in the story of the Golden Rose. If the
rightful owner of the book had been a Persian, the characters on the
margins would be accounted for. And if the Golden Rose were a Royal
flower jealously guarded and shielded from European eyes, why, then it
was possible that the writer of those characters might be some
ambassador from the Vale of Kashmir who had made this long journey with
the sole purpose of depriving Jasper Payn of his treasure. This
startling suggestion might also account for the manner in which
Lethbridge's house had been watched. The more he thought over the matter
the more puzzled and bewildered he became.

It was hopeless to try to get to the bottom of this tangle. Another
thing, too, occurred to Lethbridge. The foreigner evidently possessed a
perfect knowledge of the English tongue, or he would not have been able
to read the book at all. With a feeling of despair, Lethbridge was about
to throw the volume on one side when a sudden thought struck him. He
began to turn over the pages carefully backwards until he arrived at the
frontispiece. The flyleaf was missing; it had been torn out by some
previous owner and for an instant Lethbridge was baffled. Then more and
more carefully he searched every page until he came at length to a brown
stain which might have been produced by the upsetting of a glass of red
wine. Lethbridge was on the right track now.

"This is the book beyond the shadow of a doubt," he muttered. "It is the
very volume that my uncle lent me. How the recollection of it all comes
back to me! Funny thing it never occurred to me before that any uncle
might have had to sell his library. I wonder if he did sell it, or
whether this book was stolen. I can easily find out by morning."

In spite of his anxieties and perplexities, Lethbridge slept fairly
well. The day was advanced by the time he had finished breakfast, and it
was nearly twelve o'clock before he found himself inside Jasper Payn's
cottage once more. He was glad to see that the blinds were still up,
evidence that the old man was still alive. He sent in a message to Mary
Grover, who came down presently to him in the garden.

She was not so pale as she had been the previous evening though her eyes
were tired and she had every appearance of not having slept. Her manner
was cold and grave. She had not forgotten their last conversation.

"How is the patient?" Lethbridge asked.

"He is very ill indeed," the girl replied gravely; "in fact, he could
not be worse. It is good of you to come."

"Not at all," Lethbridge said. "Strange though it may seem, I actually
possess feelings. I suppose it is no use to ask if my uncle has regained
consciousness. I should be something more than human if I did not feel
anxious that he should be in a position to tell the story of his
misfortune."

"I understand your point of view," Mary replied. "My uncle is not what
one might call conscious, for he has rambled a good deal. We think he
has been trying to tell what happened to him last night. But we can make
little or nothing of it. There are allusions to some mysterious person
which are very puzzling."

"I suppose amongst these allusions there was nothing connected with a
foreigner, nothing to make you believe that my uncle was afraid of some
Oriental person who was anxious to rob him of his discovery?"

Mary looked up with a startled expression.

"It is very strange," she exclaimed. "As a matter of fact; my uncle has
used a surname or Christian name which had a decidedly Oriental sound.
He seemed to be afraid of some one almost as if he had committed an
action of which he was ashamed and was fearful of the consequences. We
thought nothing of it at the time, but I happened to mention it to the
doctor, and to my surprise he deemed the matter important. You see Dr.
Farrant was surgeon on board an East going steamer for a time and he
says that the name in question belongs to some Mahommedan, or, at any
rate, to some native of the Far East. But how did you come to know this?
Have you made some discovery?"

"Let me tell you what happened to me last night after I left here."

As he ended the recital he asked. "Now don't you think that an
extraordinary story? It tends to confirm my impression that some
unscrupulous foreigners have got on the track of my uncle's discovery
and are here to deprive him of it, and are not too nice as to the means
adopted. What you have told me confirms my opinion."

"It is very strange," Mary said. "But I am glad of this. I am more glad
for your sake than I can tell. Have you the book with you?"

"I brought it on purpose to show you. I am sure that the volume comes
out of my uncle's library. I remember turning to it one night after
dinner when we were smoking and drinking our wine, and accidentally I
upset a glass of claret on one of the pages. My uncle was furious at the
time and the incident was vividly stamped upon my memory. It is
possible, of course, that the man who dropped the book was in league
with the man with the bare feet. Possibly, too, he was at the head of
the gang. He was exceedingly well dressed, had excellent manners, and
unquestionably the education of a gentleman. He had a prosperous air
about him, which I did not fail to notice. Even then, though his English
was good enough, I detected the suspicion of a foreign accent. If that
man or some accomplice of his stole that book, then I have a difficult
task before me. But if my uncle's library were sold, then the task is
not so difficult."

"The library was disposed of," Mary explained. "It is three years ago,
and I remember what a wrench it was. Still, everything came under the
hammer, and I believe the library realised some thousands of pounds."

"Was it sold at the Hall?" Lethbridge asked.

"Oh, dear no, the collection was too valuable for that. Mr. Arnold, the
family lawyer, arranged everything, and the sale took place in London. I
daresay Mr. Arnold would tell you everything if you think it worth while
to see him."

"Worth while?" Lethbridge echoed. "Worth while, with a charge like this
hanging over me? Well, I should think so. I have very little money at my
disposal, but I am going to spend some of it on a visit to London
to-day."

Mary Grover nodded her head approvingly.

"I think you are wise," she said. "I wish that I could help you. In any
case it is good to feel that things are looking so much brighter for
you."




CHAPTER XIII.--ON THE TRACK.


"I am pleased to hear you say so," Lethbridge replied gravely. "As a
matter of fact, there are many things in my favour. You know that one of
those miscreants made an attack upon your uncle at the very moment when
I was seeing you home. I was almost in time to take him red-handed. He
escaped literally by dashing through the side of the greenhouse. That is
one point in my favour. But that is not the only thing. Perhaps I had
better tell you of a discovery that Inspector Wilkinson made last night.
It is all in my favour."

Lethbridge went on telling the story, and as he proceeded he was pleased
to see the look of apathy fading from Mary Grover's face and a tinge of
healthy colour rising to her cheeks.

"I cannot tell you how pleased I am to hear you say this," she murmured.
"I have tried so hard to think the best. I have argued with my
suspicions, but it has been a hard task. Oh, don't frown like that. What
would you have thought if you had been in my place?"

"That might have made a difference," Lethbridge admitted. "But if you
knew everything, I am sure you would think better of me. But
unfortunately I can't tell you everything. I don't suppose you ever will
know. A day or two ago I should not have cared; I should have treated
the whole thing with indifference. A soured and disappointed man cares
very little what people say about him. And why should I worry? I have no
friends in the world. I have been ill-treated by fortune. I had to turn
out and get my own living with a cloud hanging over me. If you had not
been under my uncle's roof I would not have put out my hand to help.
But, the accident of chance brought us together. Your kindness and
sympathy touched me as I had not been touched for years. I lead a
solitary life, and I was perhaps foolishly looking forward to making up
my quarrel with my uncle and seeing a good deal more of you. Do you
happen to believe in love at first sight?"

Mary Grover coloured. At the same time, she did not appear to resent the
extraordinary question. It had escaped Lethbridge's lips almost before
he knew what he was saying. He could have bitten his tongue out. But it
was too late now.

"I beg your pardon," he said. "I am afraid that I have gone too far. And
yet, I have told you no more than the truth. The first moment that I saw
you, my mind was full of doubt and suspicion. I mistrusted you, much as
you mistrusted me. But when I came to study your face, when I saw the
charm of your features and the womanliness in your eyes, a feeling of
shame possessed me, and I reproached myself for my unworthy thoughts. It
is years since anybody has been so kind and sympathetic to me, and there
and then my heart went out to you, and I knew that there was no other
woman in the world for me. Do you think I am mad to talk to you like
this? Are you angry with my presumptuous folly? And yet, I don't know
why you should be, for I am paying you the highest compliment in my
power."

Mary was listening with downcast eyes. She knew that she ought to be
displeased. She felt that she should check a liberty like this in the
bud. But these were not her feelings. Right down in her inmost heart she
was glad and proud and pleased. There was something in the sincerity and
manliness of Lethbridge's voice that moved her to the depths. Surely no
man who spoke like that could be guilty of a mean or dishonourable
action. And, despite the fact that she had an asylum under her uncle's
roof, she was as lonely in her way as Lethbridge himself. Like most
girls, from time to time she had had her roseate dreams of the day when
she would have a home of her own and the attention of a man who loved
her. There was something very much akin between Lethbridge's position
and her own. She looked up shyly.

"Do I appear angry?" she whispered.

"Well, you don't," said Lethbridge with the suspicion of a smile. "You
encourage me to proceed."

"No, no," the girl cried. "You have gone far enough; you have gone much
further than you should. Besides, this is out of place in the
circumstances. Don't imagine that I fail to appreciate what you say.
But, with this cloud of mystery and sorrow hanging over us, it is cruel
and thoughtless on my part to let you go any farther. We both seem to
come from unhappy families. My unfortunate sister----"

Mary broke off abruptly, and bit her lip. She had been on the verge of
betraying some family secret, and Lethbridge divined what was passing
through her mind. He hastily changed the current of the conversation,
for which the girl was grateful.

"Let us confine ourselves, then, strictly to business," Lethbridge said.
"Perhaps you can give me Mr. Arnold's address. I won't keep you any
longer."

Mary flitted away, and returned presently with a card, which she placed
in Lethbridge's hand. She could not stay a moment longer, she said. Her
patient was very restless, and inclined to ramble, and the time had come
for the nurse to be relieved. But Lethbridge was hardly listening. He
was buoyed with hope. He could see the horizon brighten before his eyes.
It mattered nothing that he was poor and struggling. It was of no
consequence that he had destroyed the nucleus of a fortune, and was face
to face with the old weary struggle again. For he had something to work
and hope for now, a sweet and sympathetic companion who shared his
pleasures and his troubles. That the outlook was anything but promising
did not worry him in the least.

He had this in his mind all the way to London. It was still uppermost in
his thoughts when he arrived at the depressing region of Lincoln's Inn,
where the offices of Mr. Arnold, the family solicitor, were situated.
The head of the firm would see Mr. Lethbridge, so a clerk informed John.

Mr. Arnold was a small, dapper little man, clean-shaven and immaculate,
with that faint suggestion of pink in his checks which betrayed a liking
for good company and good living. He raised his white eyebrows
pointedly, and motioned Lethbridge to a chair. His manner was strictly
non-committal.

"So you have turned up again," he said. "I thought you had left England
long ago. If I had known you were here still, I should have looked you
up and given you a bit of my mind."

"You were always generous in that respect," Lethbridge laughed. "What
have I done on this particular occasion?"

"Done! What have you left undone?" the lawyer asked irascibly. "I have
had some fools of clients in my time, but never a couple to compare with
Jasper Payn and yourself. Why did you leave his house in that ridiculous
fashion?"

"I could do nothing else," Lethbridge protested. "When the man you
regard as your benefactor calls you a thief and invites you to leave his
house without delay, you don't generally stay on and ask your friends to
come down on a visit."

"Oh, that's all very well, but you know your uncle just as well as I do,
and you could have explained the whole thing but for that stupid pride
of yours. If you had come to me as you ought to have done, I could have
settled the whole thing in ten minutes. And if you had kept to your
post, between us we could have prevented Jasper Payn from frittering
away the rest of his fortune looking for the Philosopher's Stone, or
Perpetual Motion, or some nonsense of that kind. Oh, the Golden Rose was
it? Well, really, it comes to exactly the same thing. I looked for you
everywhere, but had no time to waste on quixotic young men who don't
know on which side their bread is buttered. And a pretty nice mess
Jasper Payn has made of his life."

"Oh, you have heard then?" Lethbridge asked.

"I have heard nothing fresh," Mr. Arnold snapped. "Is there anything
new? Are you back with your uncle?"

Lethbridge proceeded to explain. The story of the tragedy was new to the
lawyer. He listened with surprise and pain.

"I must look into this," he said. "Really, I never expected anything so
shocking. And you acted very correctly, my boy, very correctly indeed. I
should say you are on the right track. I was very angry with your uncle
when he wanted to sell his library. But the wilful man would have his
way, and I was powerless to prevent the sacrifice. If the books had been
properly advertised they would have fetched twice the money they did."

"Oh, that is all very well," Lethbridge said impatiently, "but the books
are gone now and there is an end of them. What we have to do now is to
find the name of the man who purchased the particular volume which is
lying on your desk in front of you. As you negotiated the whole
business, perhaps you will give me an introduction to the auctioneer who
sold the library."

Mr. Arnold reached out for his glossy hat.

"I'll do more than that," he exclaimed. "I'll go with you to the
auctioneer's myself."

Ten minutes in a cab brought Arnold and Lethbridge to the offices of the
famous firm who had disposed of the Payn Library. They were a dingy set
of chambers, dirty and neglected, but there were scores of iron safes
filled with treasures of all kinds, which from time to time were put up
for auction and attracted bidders from three continents. It was some
time before an elderly manager was able to produce the particular ledger
relating to the Payn Library.




CHAPTER XIV.--THE SAME MAN.


"I think this is the gentleman," the manager said. "Oh, yes. What book
did you want me to trace?"

Lethbridge laid the copy of 'Ye Arte of Ye Garden' on the table and
pointed to the title. The manager's eyes gleamed behind his spectacles,
for like most of the employees in the famous establishment he was an
expert and had a feeling almost of affection for such treasures as the
little brown volume which he turned over so lovingly.

"I remember this book," he murmured. "I have been with the firm now for
forty years, and we have only had two specimens in all that time. The
first was bought years ago for a mere song and is now in a library in
the North of England. This one I believe was inherited by Mr. Payn. It
was published in Cheapside in the year 1590, and is a remarkable
specimen of black letter printing. But you don't mean to say, gentlemen,
that someone has torn out the flyleaf? Oh, that is bad, very bad indeed.
It is incredible that anybody could be so criminally careless----"

"My dear Jenner," Arnold said irritably, "I didn't leave my clients to
spend the rest of the day talking about books. Oblige me by looking at
this matter from a business point of view. I want you to tell me who the
purchaser of this volume was. Surely, you can do that."

The manager returned hastily to his ledger, and presently announced that
the volume had been purchased for two hundred guineas by Sir George
Grey, a collector of books, who, until recently, had resided in
Yorkshire.

"I am afraid that doesn't help us much," Arnold said somewhat taken
aback by this information. "I don't suppose the respectable baronet
would be the sort of person----But our friend Jenner knows nothing at
all about that."

"Oh, wait a bit, wait a bit," Jenner said. "I haven't finished. Sir
George Grey died a month or two ago, and his collection was sold in
Yorkshire, which to my mind was a great mistake. There are magazines for
connoisseurs which publish sales and prices, and for business purposes
we file these. If you will wait for half an hour I am sure I could trace
the name of the purchaser at the disposal of the Grey Library."

There was nothing for it but patience, and a little later Jenner looked
up triumphantly from a mass of papers.

"Here it is," he said. "Original copy of 'Ye Arte of Ye Garden,' sold on
January 26 last for two hundred and ten guineas to Sir Montagu Goshe. I
can't tell you who Sir Montagu Goshe is, except that he is a very rich
man who made his money in India, and who got a knighthood a year or two
ago for services in the East. For the rest, I believe he lives at
Croydon, where he has a magnificent collection of flowers. I have only
gleaned this information in a more or less casual manner, probably
because Sir Montagu is always willing and eager to buy books in any way
relating to horticulture or agriculture. I think he is partly an
Englishman, at least his mother was English. I can't tell you any more
than that."

"Have you ever seen him?" Lethbridge asked eagerly.

"No, I haven't. He has never been here. But you can have his address if
you like. You don't mean to say that he sold you that book, Mr.
Lethbridge?"

Lethbridge was about to tell the story of how the volume had found its
way into his possession, when a glance from Arnold suggested caution.

"It is a curious story altogether," the lawyer said hurriedly. "We will
tell it you another time, Jenner. Meanwhile, I shall be glad if you will
keep this episode to yourself. Come along, Mr. Lethbridge, we must not
detain Mr. Jenner any longer."

The lawyer hurried his companion into the street and dragged him to the
nearest post office. He did not condescend to explain what he had in
view until he turned, with an air of triumph, from a close scrutiny of
the "Directory."

"I thought we should find him," he exclaimed. "There you are! Sir
Montagu Goshe, with all sorts of letters after his name; address, Putley
Court, South Croydon. Upon my word, Lethbridge, if your suspicions are
correct, it is a great man you are going to tackle. When I come to think
of it, the name is familiar to me. Goshe is a millionaire two or three
times over, and is just becoming a power in society. You know the class
of man I mean. One day everybody is ignorant of him, and the next day he
seems to be top dog. So long as he has heaps of money and entertains
well, society asks no questions. I know a dozen such men who are
welcomed everywhere to-day whose antecedents would not bear ten minutes'
investigation. And now, what is the next move?"

A tinge of colour crept into Lethbridge's face.

"I am going to Croydon this afternoon to investigate for myself," he
said. "There is only one thing which stands in the way--I have no money.
I never borrowed a penny from anybody in my life, but I am afraid that I
shall have to begin now. This is a matter that affects my good name, and
it is no time to consider one's dignity. If you would not mind advancing
me ten pounds I should be obliged."

Arnold would do anything in that way which Lethbridge required, and so,
with pockets comfortably filled, John started from Victoria later in the
afternoon on his way to Croydon. It was something past 6 when he arrived
there. He had no trouble in ascertaining where the residence of Sir
Montagu Goshe was, and came at length to an imposing pair of lodge
gates, where he paused to review the situation.

As yet he had hardly made up his mind how to act. It had seemed to him
easy at first to call upon the great man and produce the copy of 'Ye
Arte of Ye Garden' from his pocket and restore it to its proper owner.
No doubt Sir Montagu would be able to explain how it had passed out of
his possession. But, as Lethbridge stood outside the gates, he began to
ask himself a few pertinent questions.

To begin with, who was this moneyed magnate of the East? No one seemed
to know anything about him. He was reputed to have the wealth of the
Indies behind him, and in these days, when men's fortunes are made by
all sorts of means, the fact testified nothing as to his honour and
integrity. He might be an adventurer. There had been successful
scoundrels before now with whom the great ones of the earth had not
hesitated to rub shoulders, and who afterwards had fallen below the
level from which they had risen. There was something mysterious about
this person, and it behoved Lethbridge to be careful. Again, it was
indiscreet to take it for granted that the little brown volume had been
stolen from his collection.

Still, these suspicions were not leading Lethbridge nearer to his goal.
Impatient to make progress, he walked through the lodge gates and up the
beautifully-kept drive to the house. He came upon an avenue of yews
presently, trimmed and clipped until they formed a solid wall, with
arches here and there, giving peeps of the most beautiful set of gardens
that Lethbridge had ever seen. They were of all sorts, from the formal
Italian type, the landscape variety, and so on to the most modern blend
of flowers and grass and roses. There were scores of glass-houses, too,
the doors of which for the most part were open, so that here and there
Lethbridge caught a glimpse of dazzling blossoms.

The enthusiasm of his nature was aroused, and his own instincts were
being appealed to. For the moment he forgot why he had come, and was
oblivious of the book in his pocket. He was looking into a greenhouse
filled with a magnificent array of flowering plants, the like of which
he had never seen before. Whatever the failings of the owner of this
beautiful estate, he was certainly a passionate lover of flowers, and
consequently was taking a higher place in Lethbridge's estimation. The
latter felt he could not proceed with his mission until he had
ascertained the names of the majestic plants which were filling the
greenhouse with their amazing blooms and marvellously delicate foliage.
He saw two people behind this mess of greenery at the bottom of the
house; gardeners at work, Lethbridge thought, as he walked boldly in. He
was feeling on familiar ground. The gardeners would tell him all he
wanted to know. He threaded his way between the plants, but came to a
sudden halt as the voices of the two men rose clear and crisp to his
ears.

One was a gardener, the other a man in authority, for he was
well-dressed and smoking a cigarette, the flavour of which impregnated
the damp atmosphere of the greenhouse.

Lethbridge paused and half-turned on his heel. He was anxious to get
away without being seen. This was not difficult, for the foliage hid him
from view, and as he made his way back to the open again he could hear
the man with the cigarette plainly talking. When Lethbridge was safe, he
hurried into the road and sat down on a stile to think the matter out.
There was plenty of scope for reflection. For the man with the cigarette
was the person whom he had seen the night before--the man who had
dropped the copy of "Ye Arte of Ye Garden."




CHAPTER XV.--A WAITING GAME.


Unquestionably the situation called for prudence. It required little
discrimination to see that there was danger here. Lethbridge had not, of
course, any definite facts to go upon, but he had every reason to assume
that the man in the greenhouse was no other than Sir Montagu Goshe
himself. At any rate, it would be well to assume that such was the case.

At the same time it was also possible that Goshe might recognise
Lethbridge as the man he had met two nights before.

At first Lethbridge did not know how to act. It would be easy to call at
Putley Court and hand the book back to its rightful owner. But that
might be exceedingly foolish, and in all probability lead to the very
state of things that Lethbridge was most anxious to avoid.

He felt pretty certain, too, that this Goshe could disclose a great deal
concerning the mysterious attack upon Mr. Jasper Payn. Everything
pointed to that conclusion, and the more Lethbridge thought over the
matter, the more puzzled he became. To act on the spur of the moment
would be madness. It might neither be safe nor prudent to remain in the
neighbourhood, but this Lethbridge decided to do. There was no hurry. He
had plenty of money in his pocket, and if his presence at home were
needed, he could easily send a telegram to Wilkinson to say where he was
to be found. Perhaps the best thing to do was to stay where he was and
sleep over the matter. During his cigar after dinner he might evolve
some way out of the difficulty. There was a venturesome vein in
Lethbridge's nature, and he did not regret the discovery he had recently
made. He must, however, find some comfortable place where he could put
up for the night, and after a little trouble he found an hotel to his
liking. He purchased a few necessaries and a handbag to hold them, and
later sat down to an excellent dinner. It would be no bad plan, he
thought, to make enquiries as to what manner of a man Sir Montagu Goshe
was, and what sort of a reputation he bore in the neighbourhood. By way
of ascertaining these facts Lethbridge strolled into the billiard-room,
where two men were playing and half-a-dozen more were looking on after
the listless fashion of men who spend a good deal of leisure in such
pleasures. It was easy to open a conversation with one of these, and to
Lethbridge's satisfaction he found that his acquaintance had all the
gossip of the district at the end of his tongue.

"Are you looking for a house here, sir?" the other man said.

It was an excellent lead, and Lethbridge followed it.

"I am not quite sure," he replied cautiously. "I can't make up my mind.
I am fond of gardening, and want a small place with a certain amount of
glass. I wonder if you could recommend any thing of that kind."

"Well, I ought to be able to," the other man laughed. "I happen to be a
house agent. My name is Green--Richmond Green--and here is my card. If
you like to come round to my office in the morning I flatter myself that
I shall be able to accommodate you. I have lived here all my life, and
seen this place develop into what it is. I remember when this site was
nothing but green fields."

"There are some very fine places," Lethbridge observed. "Putley Court,
for example. I was in the grounds just now; in fact, I entered them by
mistake. I never saw a finer garden or a better lot of glass. Only a
rich man could indulge in a hobby like that."

Mr. Green did not appear to be enthusiastic.

"Oh, Sir Montagu is rich enough, I suppose," he said. "He hasn't been
here so very long. I may be a bit prejudiced, but I must confess I don't
care to see so many of our fine houses occupied by foreigners. Now the
man who had Putley Court before was quite a different sort."

"Sir Montagu is not popular?" Lethbridge suggested.

"Well, no, he isn't," Green replied. "There is something peculiar about
him. Nobody knows how he made his money, and there are strange rumours
afloat. A friend who comes here frequently knows a lot about Sir
Montagu, but he won't say much. My pal was once a sailor-purser on board
a steamer plying to the Persian Gulf. He has done himself very well, and
can tell a queer story or two."

"About Sir Montagu?" Lethbridge asked innocently.

"Well, I fancy so. Pawson doesn't open his mouth wide, but if he hadn't
a hold of Sir Montagu, I don't think Goshe would be so precious civil to
him as he is. But Pawson is sure to be here presently, and you can sound
him."

Lethbridge deemed it prudent to give the conversation a more desultory
turn. He did not want to arouse the suspicion of the loquacious Mr.
Green. And, besides, he was not doing so badly. Half an-hour later
Pawson put in an appearance, and took a seat on the lounge by Green's
side. A hint from the latter was sufficient.

"Do you know the man, sir?" he asked Lethbridge pointedly.

"He is a perfect stranger to me," Lethbridge said. "I am a stranger
here, too, and my curiosity is idle. Of course, I have heard of your
local millionaire, and being an horticulturist myself, am interested in
his gardens. Do you suppose he would mind my going over them?"

Pawson shook his head cautiously. He was a short, thick-set man with a
healthy brown face and breezy manner, which suggested one accustomed to
the ways of the sea.

"Take my advice, sir, and leave the place alone," he said. "Between
ourselves, this Sir Montagu Goshe, whom they make such a fuss about, is
an infernal scoundrel. It is foolish to talk like this, may be, and I
might get into trouble. But I know what I know. I didn't spend a dozen
of the best years of my life in the Persian Gulf for nothing. In my day
things went on there that the world was in ignorance of. I knew Goshe
then, and there are others, too, who could make it precious hot for him
if they liked. But now he is a big man and moves in the best society.
And, besides, it is no business of mine. If Sir Montagu is the man he
professes to be, he wouldn't have that fellow Ram Murshee hanging about
him."

"And who is Mr. Murshee?" Lethbridge asked.

Pawson shrugged his shoulders.

"That isn't for me to say," he responded. "But I know Murshee, too. And
that is why he is always so mighty courteous to me. He calls himself Sir
Montagu Goshe's private secretary, but I happen to know the fellow can
hardly write. He is paralysed in the left arm. An under-sized monkey of
a man and full of original sin. He is clever in his way, and plays a
fine game of billiards, though his left arm is useless. He can use a cue
off the edge of the table better than most men can do with two hands.
He'll be here to-night."

This was of the deepest interest to Lethbridge, though he was at some
pains to appear rather indifferent. His worst suspicions were being
confirmed. He began to recognise the magnitude of his task. The
conversation gradually drifted away from Goshe and his doings. There
were more people in the billiard room, and it was getting late.
Lethbridge was beginning to think about bed, when a little man walked
into the room and stood by the fire.

"That's Murshee," Pawson whispered. "Did you ever see such a conceited
little beast? He always stands with his back to the fireplace like that,
as if the whole place belonged to him. Whenever I see him in that
attitude I always have a wild desire to go up to him and offer him a
handful of nuts."

Lethbridge smiled at the suggestion, for, indeed, the man bore a strong
resemblance to a monkey. His face was round, his nose short and blunt,
he had a large mouth and long upper lip, and there was just the
suspicion of a hump between his shoulders. As to the rest, his frame was
broad and powerful, his left arm hung shrivelled by his side. But what
most attracted Lethbridge's attention was the man's feet. They were
wonderfully small and well-formed, and encased in the nattiest shoes of
French make. For the rest, the man was perfectly dressed, and might have
been turned out by a Bond-street tailor. The crease in his beautifully
fitted trousers fell exactly over the centre of his shining shoes, and
Lethbridge was astonished to notice, when the stranger put out his hand
to reach a match off the high mantelpiece, that he was wearing no socks.
He drew Pawson's attention to the fact.

"Ah, there is a reason for that," Pawson said mysteriously. "I don't
suppose you will believe me if I tell you. In fact, I am not going to
tell you, because I don't want to get myself into trouble. I have no
wish to make an enemy of that little man. You don't know what a
vindictive little beast he is--I do."

Much as if Murshee had divined that he was the subject of conversation,
he looked across at the speaker and nodded insolently. Then he crossed
the room and threw himself carelessly down on the lounge by Lethbridge's
side.




CHAPTER XVI.--RAM MURSHEE.


"Well, my jolly sea dog," the little man said in a deep bass voice, "and
how are you this evening? Nice sort of weather, isn't it? What were you
saying about me just now? But I can guess. You were praising my
intellect and beauty to this gentleman."

Pawson growled and looked uncomfortable. Lethbridge made a furtive study
of the queer specimen of humanity by his side. He could see that there
was something foreign, a certain Oriental air about the man, though his
English was good and his manner insular. He had a vague impression that
he had seen this creature before. Might not there be some connexion
between Murshee and those small footprints which he had seen more than
once in his own garden? Here was a man who was wearing dainty patent
leather shoes on remarkably small feet. Here was a man who, for some
reason or another, discarded socks as if he were accustomed in more
unconventional moods to walk about with bare feet. Lethbridge knew that
sailors who spend most of their time in tropical climates wear no
footgear, and he had it on the authority of Pawson that Murshee had
passed the best part of his life along with Sir Montagu Goshe in the
Persian Gulf. Again, he did not fail to recall the fact that the man who
had been hanging about his place wore no shoes or stockings. It was but
natural to assume that this man and Murshee were one and the same
person.

So far, the ground was getting clear. Sir Montagu Goshe and his familiar
had come down to Manchester with the intention of robbing Jasper Payn of
his Golden Rose. It was equally clear that in some marvellous way they
had learned that Lethbridge's greenhouse contained a specimen of the
treasured flower. Lethbridge felt that he had not wasted his time, but
he did not in the least see how to act. And now there were two
stumbling-blocks in the way. It was all very well for him to be able to
identify Sir Montagu Goshe as the man who had dropped the copy of 'Ye
Arte of Ye Garden' but on the other hand, Goshe would find it as easy to
recognise him. And now, here was another difficulty. Had Murshee by any
chance recognised him? If so, he was likely to have his trouble for his
pains. And with two unscrupulous men like these he ran a serious risk of
great personal danger. From what Pawson had told him, they would stick
at nothing.

Still, he had to carry it off as if he were a stranger and as if he had
come down with some vague idea of taking a house. All this passed
swiftly through his mind before Pawson could make any reply to the
jocular remarks of the little man by his side.

"We were talking about you in a way," Lethbridge said, "at least, we
were talking about Sir Montagu Goshe. I was admiring the gardens as I
passed this afternoon."

"Yes, wonderful, aren't they?" Murshee said carelessly. "Are you fond of
that sort of thing?"

There appeared to be nothing behind the question, but Lethbridge
hesitated before he replied.

"I occupy most of my time in gardening. I should much like to go over
your place. No doubt I should pick up many fresh ideas."

The man grinned. There was more in his manner to cause Lethbridge
uneasiness.

"That is easily managed," he said. "As a rule, Sir Montagu doesn't care
about having strangers on the premises. But I can take anybody over I
like. What do you say to coming to-morrow afternoon? Sir Montagu will be
away then. But, stop, I forgot that I have an appointment to-morrow
afternoon myself. What do you say to the evening? Come up after dinner
and ask for me. I dare say Pawson has told my name."

Again Lethbridge hesitated. There was a chance that he was running into
danger, and if so he would much prefer the afternoon to the evening.
Still, he reflected that in the twentieth century there was not much
chance of his being kidnapped or murdered or anything of that kind.
Besides, he might never have such an opportunity again. There was
another inducement, too, and that was the absence of Sir Montagu Goshe.
He did not believe that Murshee could have recognised him in the
encounter they had had in the early dawn. He had not made out in the
slightest degree the figure or face of his antagonist, and presumably
Murshee had been in too great a hurry to get away to identify
Lethbridge.

"I am much obliged to you," he said. "I'll come up. What time would suit
you best?"

"Say nine o'clock," Murshee said. "I shall have finished my work by
then. I suppose it is the glass you want to see specially. As all the
houses are lighted with electric light there will be no trouble to show
you everything. And now, if you will excuse me, I'll have a game of
billiards."

On the whole Lethbridge was not sorry to be rid of the cunning little
man. During the progress of the game he studied Murshee carefully. He
did not fail to notice how he appeared to walk round the table with more
or less discomfort as if his natty shoes pinched him, or as if he were
more accustomed to be without them altogether. When the game was over,
Murshee nodded in his insolent manner to the company generally and
swaggered from the room. He had barely time to leave the premises before
Lethbridge followed. The wild idea had occurred to him on the spur of
the moment that he might be able to pick up some information by dogging
Murshee's footsteps at a distance.

It was not very difficult, for the night was not dark enough to prevent
him from keeping Murshee in sight without betraying that he was being
shadowed. Pursued and pursuer were beyond the lamplights by this time,
and when the houses were passed Murshee stooped down and removed his
shoes. Lethbridge could see that he carried these in his hand. He
noticed that the little man's progress was much easier and more rapid.
He turned at length into the lodge gates and Lethbridge followed without
the slightest hesitation. He had the feeling upon him that he was on the
verge of an adventure. It was easier to keep up the chase now, for the
trees on either side of the drive afforded ample shelter, and a
wonderfully kept grass border deadened the sound of Lethbridge's
footsteps. The house came in sight presently, all in darkness save for a
brilliant light in the hall and in three windows at one corner, which
might be the billiard-room.

Murshee did not go to the door, but approached one of the illuminated
windows and tapped on it gently. It was a French window opening on to
the grounds, and it was immediately unfastened by a man in evening dress
who first pulled up the blinds.

Lethbridge stood still under the friendly shelter of a graceful acacia.
He could see into the room, a splendid apartment, magnificently
furnished, and entirely lined with books. Even at that distance he could
guess that the books were valuable and formed part of an almost
priceless library. As to the rest, the place was furnished with a
wonderful eye to luxury and comfort. Lethbridge could catch a glimpse of
cool, feathery ferns and gleaming statuary, while here and there the
subdued light fell upon the angle of a picture. He had time to take all
this in, but there was something else which interested him far more. For
the man who had pulled up the blind was no other than the man whom he
had seen earlier in the day smoking a cigarette, and forgetting his
caution, Lethbridge took a step or two forward.

He knew that his suspicions were confirmed, for this was the same cool,
collected person into whose arms he had run two nights before outside
his own cottage--the selfsame person who had dropped the copy of the
rare work on gardening which Lethbridge had in his breast pocket at that
very moment. He was glad to feel sure of his ground so far, glad to feel
that he had done nothing rash or impulsive.

It was possible to hear the conversation of the two men. Lethbridge
could see that Sir Montagu Goshe was eyeing his companion with no great
favour.

"Where the devil have you been?" he asked.

"And what the devil is that to you?" the little man responded, with a
scowl. "If you wanted me you knew where I was to be found. And don't
speak to me like that again. I have had enough of it. It is all very
well to play the game of the great Sir Montague Goshe and his humble
private secretary when other people are here, but I won't stand it in
private, and so I tell you."

"You promised to be back an hour ago," Goshe retorted.

"Well, I know I did and I changed my mind. What is the use of snarling
when there is work to be done? I haven't been idle, I can promise you."

Lethbridge was interested, but to his disappointment the window was
closed with a snap and the blind once more drawn on the inside.




CHAPTER XVII.--THE WARNING.


Lethbridge returned to his hotel. He did not dare go farther, lest there
might be watchers in the grounds. Moreover, a dog was prowling about in
his immediate vicinity. On the whole, he had had an instructive and
valuable evening, and had been far from wasting his time. It would be a
thousand pities to spoil everything by haste. He had the rest of the
evening to think matters over and settle what to do when he called upon
Murshee.

It was beginning to grow dark when he set out upon his errand next
evening. He came to the house at length, and asked for the little man by
name. A footman escorted him along a passage which led to a suite of
rooms evidently placed at Murshee's disposal. As Lethbridge entered the
sitting-room the man was just slipping on his shoes. A revolver lay on a
table close at hand, and Lethbridge wondered what it was there for. In
his quick way Murshee interpreted the glance and picked up the weapon
with his sound hand.

"There is nothing to be afraid of," he said in his deep bass voice. "We
have a miniature rifle range in the grounds, and I amuse myself
sometimes with revolver practice. I am left-handed, and since I lost the
use of my arm I have been handicapped. I should say that I am probably
the worst revolver shot in the world."

"Your accident is recent?" Lethbridge suggested.

A strange expression came over the man's face, and for the moment he
looked positively murderous.

"Comparatively," he said. "As a matter of fact, it was not wholly an
accident. I had the sinews of the left arm cut with a knife, and it is
withered, as you see. But some day I shall get even with my friend.
Perhaps I ought not to have told you so much. Strange things are
happening every day, stranger than a quiet man like you, who have always
stayed at home, can imagine. You have never been abroad, Mr.----? By the
way, what is your name? You haven't told me yet."

The question took Lethbridge off his balance. It had never occurred to
him that he might be asked his name, reasonable though the request was.
Not that it much mattered. If this man knew who he was, then it would be
foolish to call himself by another. And if he didn't know, then he would
be none the wiser. Lethbridge gave his own name readily, watching out of
the corner of his eye what effect it would have upon his companion. But
Murshee moved no muscle. He took the announcement quite as a matter of
course.

"Well, you know who I am," he said. "And now, I suppose, you wish to see
the conservatories at once. Would you like anything to drink first? You
can have anything you care to name. That is one advantage of being the
servant of a millionaire."

"No, thank you," Lethbridge responded. "I am practically a teetotaller.
A poor man is more or less obliged to be."

"But you smoke?" Murshee urged. "Will you have a cigar? These are some
of the finest in the world in the cabinet yonder."

"Again I have to decline," Lethbridge said. "I don't care for cigars,
and it is a pity to waste good ones on me."

"A cigarette, then, perhaps," Murshee suggested. "Our cigarettes are of
the most irreproachable quality. Nothing but the best, my dear sir.
Nothing but the best is our motto."

A sudden idea occurred to Lethbridge.

"Again I must appear to be discourteous," he said. "I suppose my tastes
are not refined. I do smoke cigarettes, but I prefer those of my own
making. If you have some tobacco and a cigarette paper or two I shall be
happy."

The little man nodded cheerfully.

"Anything you care to ask for," he said. "You will find some wonderful
Turkish tobacco in that jar, and there are cigarette-papers, on that
silver case on the mantelpiece. But unless you are an expert
cigarette-maker, I am afraid those papers will not be of much use to
you. They are not gummed like the English brand, so that the cigarette
wants carefully manipulating between the thumb and finger. It is only
abroad that one learns that kind of thing properly."

"I daresay I shall manage," Lethbridge said, trying to keep the tone of
eagerness out of his voice.

He took the tobacco jar down and opened the silver case in which the
litter of cigarette-papers lay. He manipulated them fairly, but whether
they smoked well or ill mattered little. Fortune was standing him in
good stead, and he was making the discovery which he had anticipated.

The cigarette-papers were precisely of the same make and quality as the
one which Wilkinson had found on the floor of the greenhouse after the
murderous attack on Jasper Payn. A thrill of exultation passed through
Lethbridge. He had to turn aside so that his companion should not see
the expression on his face.

"These are excellent papers," he said. "I suppose they are not popular
in England because the average man doesn't know how to use them. I
should like to know where you get them. Can you buy them?"

"I don't think you can buy them in England," Murshee said. "They are
specially made from maize leaves at a place near Singapore. I import
them for my own use. I smoke cigars occasionally, but I prefer a
cigarette."

As Murshee spoke, he took a pinch of tobacco and one of the papers and
rolled a cigarette in his right hand alone with a swiftness and
dexterity that aroused Lethbridge's admiration. He no longer retained
the slightest doubt as to the connection between his companion and the
man who had attacked Jasper Payn. If he could have got away at that
moment on some decent excuse he would have done so, for there was really
no reason for remaining longer. He had been wonderfully fortunate in his
investigations, and now the time had come to place his discoveries in
the abler hands of Inspector Wilkinson. Lethbridge had half a mind to
invent some plausible excuse in the way of sudden indisposition. But
that might tend to frighten Murshee, and, besides, having been so
fortunate, perhaps Fate had another lucky stroke ready for him. He might
even go so far as to discover the hiding-place of the Golden Rose. For
that the floral treasure was hidden somewhere on the premises, he did
not doubt for a moment. He could go round the conservatories now and
leave without returning to the house.

"Now, if you were ready," he said, "we will look at the flowers. I am
afraid I can't stay very long. I am expecting a telephone message from
London."

"Very well," Murshee said cheerfully, "come along."

He led the way along the corridor of the great hall again. As he was
opening the front door a footman came up and murmured something which
Lethbridge could not catch. Murshee showed momentary signs of
irritation; then his face cleared, and he walked after the footman with
that painful limp which Lethbridge had noticed on the previous evening.

"Excuse me a moment," he said, "I shall not be long. There is always
something or other one has to do in a house like this. You can look at
the pictures."

The pictures were worth looking at, and Lethbridge passed the next
quarter of an hour in examining them. He could see into one or two of
the living rooms, for the doors were wide open. On this left hand was a
magnificent apartment, half drawing-room and half lounge, with a noble
conservatory leading out from the far end. The room was so large that
Lethbridge had some difficulty in detecting voices. He could hear a
man's harsh tones and a woman reply in a pleading voice that had a
suggestion of tears in it. Where these people were and who they were it
was impossible to judge. Lethbridge had no scruples in listening. He
thought he was justified in picking up information anywhere. Then
presently the woman's voice ceased. He could hear the rustle and swish
of draperies, and finally, a woman crossed his line of vision at the
sight of whom Lethbridge stood stock-still and rubbed his eyes with
amazement.

Was he dreaming? For in carriage and look and gesture the woman bore
every likeness to Mary Grover. But for the fact that she could not be
under this roof, he would have thrown prudence to the winds and accosted
her. Before he could make up his mind what to do or how to act the woman
came towards the door and tossed a piece of paper into the hall at
Lethbridge's feet. As he looked at her for one brief moment he began to
doubt the evidence of his senses. Surely this richly-dressed woman must
be Mary Grover. It was impossible she could be anybody else. Lethbridge
stood with staring eyes till she vanished from his sight. Then he
thought the paper lying at his feet might contain some message.

As he moved forwards, Murshee's heavy bass voice smote his ears. For a
second he hesitated. Was it too late to pick up the paper or not?




CHAPTER XVIII.--A NOTE OF WARNING.


Evidently Murshee had no suspicion of what was taking place, though he
appeared to be put out about something. He laid his hand upon
Lethbridge's arm as if he wished to get the latter out of the house
before further interruption. There was no time for Lethbridge to decide.
He had to make up his mind at once and act accordingly. If that scrap of
paper contained any message for him it would never do to leave it there
and thus involve in serious trouble the unknown woman who had gone out
of her way to give him warning.

The whole thing was inexplicable and Lethbridge needed all his wits to
grapple with the situation. He was still in a state of perplexity,
especially as to the extraordinary resemblance between this mysterious
lady and Mary Grover. All he could do was to stand with his foot on the
piece of paper, pretending to be raptly engaged in a fine Gainsborough
on the wall. Meanwhile, Murshee was fidgetting about impatiently.

"Come along," he said. "I thought you were in a hurry. Are you a judge
of pictures as well as flowers?"

Lethbridge appeared not to heed the question. He was literally trembling
with anxiety to find a way out of the difficulty when the trouble was
solved for him. Somebody called quietly but none the less imperiously to
Murshee, and with an expletive the latter turned aside. The voice seemed
to come from the top of the stairs. Lethbridge thought it resembled the
voice he had heard raised in tearful protest in the drawing-room.

"The deuce fly away with the woman," Murshee muttered angrily. "I will
not get off the premises to-night. Is there nobody who can do anything
in this place besides me?"

Lethbridge's curiosity overcame him for a moment.

"Who is the lady?" he asked.

"Oh, that is my mistress," Murshee said with a slight sneer. "That is
Lady Goshe."

"I didn't know there was one," Lethbridge exclaimed.

"Oh, yes. For the past three years. Very few people know it, for it
pleases Sir Montagu to pass as a bachelor. He is a society man, but most
of his entertaining is done in town. Between ourselves, the whole thing
was a mistake. But that is no business of ours. I won't be a moment."

Lethbridge blessed the interruption. Somebody had noticed his dilemma
and was taking this step to get Murshee out of the way. No sooner was
his back turned than Lethbridge grasped his opportunity. He stooped
swiftly and raised the piece of paper from the floor and proceeded to
unfold it. It was a square envelope with a few lines scribbled in
pencil. In the brilliant light of the hall Lethbridge read as follows:--

"You are in danger here. Get out of the house as soon as possible. What
ever you do, see that Murshee either walks by your side or keeps in
front."

There was no more, no beginning, or ending, or superscription, and the
last line was heavily underscored. With an instinct that he would have
found it hard to explain, Lethbridge crossed the hall towards the front
door which was standing open and walked out into the night. He had not
the remotest idea what the warning meant, but felt it would be imprudent
to ignore it. Standing outside under cover of the darkness he could see
into the house. It would be easy to call out to Murshee directly the
latter made his appearance.

A moment or two later Lethbridge had reason to congratulate himself upon
his prudence. Something was coming along the gravelled drive, an object
with two great flaming eyes in front, something that crept over the
gravel with a subdued hum. As Lethbridge stood aside he saw it was a
powerful motor. He stood back on the grass unseen. Presently someone
came down the steps from the house with a fur coat on his arm. The
newcomer was in evening dress, and as he came into the dazzling glare
Lethbridge saw the man whom he had observed smoking a cigarette in the
conservatory, the same person who had dropped the copy of "Ye Arte of Ye
Garden." It needed nobody to tell him that this was Sir Montagu Goshe.
He began to have a dim idea why his mysterious friend had been so
anxious to get him off the premises. If the two had met all Lethbridge's
plans would have collapsed. Had he been recognised by Sir Montagu he
might as well have gone home and turned everything over to Wilkinson.

But another thing gave him cause for uneasiness. He would never have put
his head inside Putley Court had not Murshee told him that his master
was away from home. Why had Murshee invented that lie? Had his
suspicions been aroused? Perhaps time would solve the problem, but
Lethbridge was puzzled. Then, for the first time, he began to regret
that he had come at all. He saw how much better it would have been if he
had stayed at home, or if he had gone back to his hotel without delay,
and written to Wilkinson, acquainting him with his extraordinary
discoveries.

But it was too late to think of that now, and at any rate Lethbridge was
clear of the house, whence he could, if need be, escape scot free by
making some plausible excuse to Murshee. He might even walk straight
through the gates without anybody being the wiser, but such a course
might put Murshee on his guard, and, moreover, it might end in trouble
for the unknown lady who had ventured to help a stranger.

As Lethbridge stood balancing the matter in his mind, Sir Montagu Goshe
came to the bottom of the steps and proceeded to struggle into his
overcoat. Lethbridge saw that the smile had gone from his face, and that
he had lost the easy, jaunty manner which had impressed him during his
first encounter. The knight's face was pale and anxious. There was a
moody frown on his brows. As he climbed into the car the lady whom
Lethbridge had seen in the drawing-room came forward and said something
which the listener on the lawn could not catch.

"It is impossible," Sir Montagu said in a harsh tone. "I must go. And,
moreover, you will have to do what I tell you. And none of your
nonsense, my lady, none of your airs and graces, or it will be all the
worse for you."

Sir Montagu accompanied this threat with a gesture of his hand that
caused Lethbridge's blood to boil. The threat was uttered in the
presence of the chauffeur as if Sir Montagu Goshe took no account of the
presence of servants when his feelings became too much for him.
Lethbridge was more and more struck by the amazing likeness which this
woman bore to Mary Grover. She was taller than Mary, and had a look of
resignation and sorrow, mingled with a suggestion of pride which Miss
Grover lacked. But otherwise she might have passed for the latter
anywhere.

Lethbridge could see how her face paled and then how the blood rushed
into her cheeks. He saw her return to the hall as if the words had
cruelly wounded her. Then the car began to move, the big lights vanished
in the distance, and the darkness grew more intent for their absence.
By-and-bye the tall, slender woman in evening dress came down the steps
again. She raised her hand to her eyes, as if trying to make out
something in the darkness beyond. Moved by an unaccountable impulse,
Lethbridge advanced slightly. As he heard a sigh from the woman's lips,
the anxious shadow on her face lifted slightly.

"You are there?" she whispered. "Come this way."

There was an imploring ring in the voice, commanding though it was.
Lethbridge did not hesitate. He came to the foot of the steps and raised
his hat.

"I am in an awkward position," he murmured. "I hardly know how to
explain myself. Strictly speaking, I have no business here."

"None whatever," the woman said. "You ought never to have come, but I
hope I have acted for the best. Perhaps it would be better if you went
away at once, only it will never do to arouse the suspicions of that
little monster. Go round to the side of the house. I can not explain to
you now. It will be some time before Murshee can join you. I will see
that he is informed that you are somewhere in the grounds. But don't
remain where you are, and, above all, don't ask questions. If you only
knew the risk I am taking."

Lethbridge waited no longer. He turned on his heel and walked into the
darkness.




CHAPTER XIX.--THE UNSEEN HAND.


He was breathing more freely. He began to see that the acute danger was
past. But who was this woman? And why did she take such a violent
interest in him? What was the secret of her extraordinary resemblance to
Mary Grover? And how could she have known that he was on the premises?
These questions, with a score more, Lethbridge asked himself as he
proceeded to the quarter indicated. He had a sort of feeling that the
warning was not complete yet. He felt that Lady Goshe would have been
more explicit had the opportunity presented itself. Perhaps she would
have another chance before long.

The opening came more speedily than Lethbridge had expected. He found
himself suddenly standing by the side of an open French window, which
apparently led into the magnificent drawing-room where Lethbridge had
seen Lady Goshe for the first time. She was standing in the window now,
and the faint suggestion of a smile crossed her face as she saw
Lethbridge.

"Stand there," she whispered. "Keep as far in the shadow as possible,
and I will tell you something. If you hear Murshee coming, pretend to be
admiring the carnations. There is light enough for you to see what a
magnificent show we have. Perhaps you have noticed they run all along
the border on this side of the house."

Lethbridge had noticed it, and murmured something to that effect.
Carnations were a favourite flower of his. He hoped before long to
startle the world with new varieties of the Dianthus family. Never
before had he seen such glorious blooms as those that lay at his feet
now. He could have passed an hour or two in an examination of that long
flaming border alone. But he had more fascinating topics to think of. He
was groping blindly towards the heart of a great mystery, and here,
perhaps, was the one individual who could throw some light on the very
spot where it was most needed.

"Would you mind telling me your name?" the lady murmured.

Lethbridge gave his name. He saw the lady smile, as if she had learnt
something likely to encourage her.

"I felt pretty certain of it," she said. "I daresay you wonder how I
know your name, seeing that so short a time ago you were a comparative
stranger. I have heard of you, though you will wonder how."

"Indeed I do," Lethbridge responded. "And yet I have an idea of the
manner in which you became interested in me. I have no wish to intrude
upon your privacy or your secrets, but would you tell me if you are
related to Mary Grover, the niece of Mr. Jasper Payn, who----"

"My sister," Lady Goshe replied. "I had no idea that you had met Mary. I
thought that you and your uncle----"

"You know that much?" Lethbridge exclaimed.

"Oh, I am only drawing inferences. I have nothing but a slight knowledge
and some instinct to guide me. I am the most unhappy woman in the world.
I am tied to a man whom I hate and fear, but I have only myself to blame
for that. I walked into the trap with my eyes open. I had more than one
friendly warning. I daresay you wonder why I tell you, a perfect
stranger, these things, and give you these details from my private life,
and speak of the man to whom I am married as I have never spoken of him
before. I only wish I had the time at my disposal to go into all the
details. But I know certain things, because I overheard a conversation
last night between Sir Montagu and that scoundrel Murshee. I know why
they went down to Manchester, and what took place in connection with
that poor old gentleman, Mr. Jasper Payn. Quite what these men were
seeking after I cannot exactly say, but when I picked up the paper this
morning and saw that an extraordinary fatality had happened to Mr. Payn,
I was frightened for the first time. My nerve deserted me, although
yesterday I should have laughed at the idea of being afraid of anything.
I heard your name mentioned, but it conveyed nothing to me until I
gathered that you were Mr. Payn's nephew. Then I recollected my sister's
letters. We still correspond, though Mary has not the remotest idea
where I am or what sort of life I am leading. You are Mr. Payn's nephew,
and I believed you quarrelled with him over some discovery which he
accused you of turning to your own interest."

Absorbed though he was in these disclosures, Lethbridge was getting
impatient. Eager as he was for information, he feared the lady was
somewhat discursive, and that Ram Murshee might put in an appearance at
any moment. What Lethbridge wanted now were more facts to go on.

"You will excuse me," he said. "I am deeply sorry for you. I would be
only too willing to be of assistance. You have taken great risks
to-night for my safety, and I am grateful. But I am waiting for more
light. Does Murshee know who I am? Does he know why I am here?"

"Oh, dear, yes," lady Goshe explained. "He knows everything. That is why
you are in such terrible danger. I don't suppose you would have been
allowed to come in this casual fashion if those men had had no reason
for it. Nobody comes here without an invitation. I cannot tell you what
is in the wind because I do not know. But I do know that you are the
victim of a conspiracy. I do know that your life is in danger at this
moment. You have no idea of the character of these two men. I tell you
they would stop at nothing, neither of them. It is an awful confession
for a wife to make about her husband, but I cannot help it. If only I
had some true friend to fall back upon I should not be here now. But I
am alone, friendless and helpless, and if ever fortune favour you I hope
you will not forget what I have done to-night for the sake of a
stranger. And whatever you do, don't forget my warning. Get off the
premises as soon as possible. Go now and leave Murshee to draw his own
conclusions."

"That is impossible," Lethbridge said between his teeth. "A great danger
threatens me from that quarter of which you know nothing and I have not
time to tell you now. But this much I may say. If my uncle dies, then
there is every chance that I shall stand accused of his murder. It may
seem inexplicable to you, but the story which the prosecution have
concocted would convince the average person that I was the culprit. What
appeared at one time to be my greatest blessing is now likely to prove
my greatest curse. I cannot go away. I must stay and see this thing out.
It would be fatal to turn my back upon an opportunity like this. But
cannot I meet you anywhere? Could you not get away for an hour or so
to-morrow and give me a chance for a proper explanation? You are not a
prisoner, I suppose?"

Lady Goshe shook her head sadly.

"Indeed, I am," she whispered. "I could not move a yard without my
movements being watched. These men mistrust me. I have learnt too much.
I might try, but the attempt would only end in failure and disaster for
both of us. And if you got away unscathed to-night, I should be glad if
you would communicate with my sister for me. I gather from what you say
that you know Mary. Only lately I presume."

"That's so," Lethbridge, murmured. "I think she is very friendly
disposed towards me. If you will give me a message----"

"No, I think I will write. I'll write the letter now, and presently I
may have all opportunity of slipping it into your hand. It is impossible
for me to get a private letter out of the house. Even the few lines I
write occasionally to my sister are always read by my husband, who posts
them himself. You have no conception what kind of life is mine. You
would hardly believe that, in this twentieth century, within a few miles
of London, a woman should be virtually prisoner in her own house. I know
the cage is well gilded; I know that it is large and beautifully
furnished, but it is a prison all the same, and I have not the
consolation of knowing that I have anyone to blame but myself. There is
nobody else to blame. I was headstrong and foolish. I desired to have
everything that life gives one. And yet, there is not a single person on
the estate who is not far happier than myself. I dare say you think me
foolish and sentimental, weak to talk in this fashion to a stranger, but
it is hard to feel month after month that one's servants are one's
gaolers. Ah, I think I hear Murshee walking down the hall. I must not
stay longer. Whatever you do don't forget my warning. Whatever you do,
keep that man in front of you, or by your side. Never let him get
behind. And now I must go."

"One moment," Lethbridge said eagerly. "Can't you be more explicit?
Can't you tell me definitely what danger I have to expect from Murshee?"

Lady Goshe put her hand to her head with a gesture of despair.

"I cannot," she said; "I do not know, but it has something to do with
the fellow's feet. Now you must go. Murshee is outside. Be discreet and
silent."




CHAPTER XX.--THE MYSTERY DEEPENS.


Lethbridge could ask no further questions, for Lady Goshe withdrew and
let down the blind. At the same moment a step was heard on the gravel,
and Murshee appeared muttering to himself. He called upon Lethbridge by
name. There was something in his voice which hinted at suspicion as well
as annoyance. Lethbridge made no reply at once. He appeared to be
wrapped in close contemplation of a particularly beautiful specimen of
Malmaison carnation. The start which he gave when Murshee touched him on
the shoulder seemed quite natural.

"I beg pardon," he said. "Oh, it is you, Mr. Murshee. What a wonderful
show of flowers you have! I must come here in daylight. Carnations are
great favourites, but lovely as they are I claim to be able to improve
them."

"I am not an enthusiast," Murshee muttered. "These things are no good
unless money can be made out of them. But I thought you were in a hurry
to leave. I didn't expect to find you, but one of the servants said you
were here."

"I ought to have gone," Lethbridge replied. "But when I am amongst
flowers I forget all about time. And, besides, I may not have another
opportunity, so I think I'll run the risk of keeping my friend waiting
and go through your glass-houses after all. Lead the way, please."

Once again Murshee shot a keen, suspicious glance at his companion. He
appeared to be reassured, however, for he walked swiftly down the gravel
path. His strange lameness seemed to have left him, though Lethbridge
could not help noticing that he shuffled along like a man who is more or
less lame. He took care to hang behind Murshee, but Lady Goshe's warning
did not trouble him so much, for, late as it was, gardeners were still
at work in most of the glass-houses. The electric lights overhead were
burning brilliantly; most of them gleamed through a mass of flowers and
foliage, so that the effect was more striking and more beautiful than it
would have been in the daylight. Inside that veritable fairyland of
blooms Lethbridge forgot his trouble and his errand altogether. He
wanted nothing better than to wander about asking questions and studying
things for himself. There were banks upon banks of flowers, rows upon
rows of light feathery foliage; nothing was wanting to please the eye or
charm the fancy. No colour was lacking, either, and no perfume. There
were plants from all parts of the world, some of which Lethbridge knew,
but the majority were novelties. For the first time in his life he was
lamenting his ignorance of tropical flora. No longer was he cognisant of
the man by his side. He had entered into another world, where everything
was bright and beautiful, and there was no trouble at all.

An assistant gardener shambled forward. He was busy sponging the leaves
of a tall, graceful plant close by. Murshee appeared to regard him with
peculiar disfavour.

"Who are you?" he asked. "I have never seen you before. How long have
you been here?"

The man touched his wet forehead respectfully.

"Name of Lampen, sir," he said. "I have come here for a week or two to
take the place of one of the men who is ill. I came down from Kew, sir.
I was on holiday, and thought I might just as well make a bit of money
while I was about it."

"Spoken like a true gardener," Lethbridge laughed. "I dare say I should
have done the same. Marvellous show of flowers, Lampen. You have nothing
to beat it at Kew."

"Nothing to equal it, sir," Lampen replied.

The man returned to his work, in which he appeared to take the greatest
interest. He was rather a short person with a mass of rusty hair and a
fringe of straggling whiskers round his chin. His face was swollen on
either side as if he were troubled by some disorder with his teeth. At a
sign from Murshee, he moved farther up the greenhouse, so that the
little man and Lethbridge were left alone. With an expression of pain on
his face Murshee dropped into a seat and proceeded to remove his right
boot. He sat there nursing his foot on his knee, muttering that the old
pain was troubling him.

"I think I'll rest for a moment or two," he said. "I'll smoke a
cigarette while you ramble round the house and see all that is worth
seeing."

Lethbridge was willing. He had clean forgotten Lady Goshe's warning.
And, besides, no harm could happen to him so long as Lampen was in the
greenhouse. He saw that Murshee was sitting on his chair, his left hand
behind his head, whilst with his right he was holding a cigarette to his
lips. His body was partly hidden behind the luxuriant green foliage.
There could be no danger here, and Lethbridge dismissed the idea of
peril to himself.

He was facing Murshee, his mind concentrated upon a blue flower buried
in a mass of pale green foliage of the lightest and most graceful kind.
As he stood there, without the slightest warning, something struck him
with the force of a crushing blow over the region of his heart, the pain
paralysed him, every nerve and muscle in his body tingled with anguish,
a shower of stars danced before his eyes, and he fell headlong forward
upon the mass of blossoms and lay unconscious on the damp floor of the
greenhouse. The crash of falling pots aroused Murshee from his seat. He
looked along till his glance reached the scene of the catastrophe.

"What on earth is the matter?" he demanded. "Has the gentleman fainted,
Lampen?"

The gardener stood scratching his head, his broad face a wonderful study
of alarm and perplexity.

"Blowed if I know, sir," he said. "He seemed all right a minute ago, for
he was chatting to me pleasantly, when suddenly he gives a kind of sigh
and falls to the ground. I don't think he is dead."

"I hope not," Murshee exclaimed. "See if you can find someone to lend a
hand. I'll stay here."

"Begging your pardon, sir," Lampen replied, "I think it will be better
if you leave the gentleman to me. I am an old soldier, and I was through
the hospitals in the South African war. I think I shall be of more use
than you."

Murshee hesitated, then grudgingly went for assistance. He had hardly
vanished behind the luxuriant foliage when Lampen's manner changed
entirely, and a stern, hard expression came over his face as he bent to
examine the prostrate man. Lethbridge lay with his coat open. He was
wearing his watch-chain in the prevailing fashion high across his waist
coat. Lampen dived his hand in the top left hand pocket and pulled out a
stout silver watch. The glass was smashed into atoms, and the back
dented and battered as if had received a sharp heavy blow with some
pointed instrument. A small, round object lay on the floor, which Lampen
hastened to conceal.

"The poisonous little ruffian," he muttered. "Who would think he would
have dared to play a trick like that! But perhaps he imagined he was
safe because I was here. I would be a strong witness in his favour. I
should have been compelled to say that he was quietly smoking a
cigarette with his hands behind his head at the very moment that the
thing happened. And a lucky escape, too! Another half-inch to the right
and my young friend here would be a dead man. I shall have to be more
vigilant in future. Fortunately there isn't much harm done--he is badly
stunned by that blow over the heart. This may turn out right after all.
At any rate, we can get into the house."

A couple of assistant gardeners came running up at the same moment. They
managed to carry Lethbridge up to they house. He was slowly struggling
back to consciousness, but breathed heavily, and had but the vaguest
idea of what was taking place around. He was like a man in a prize fight
knocked out of time by the peculiar blow over the heart which so many
pugilists strive to deal. When he opened his eyes again with regained
consciousness he found himself lying on a bed in a luxuriously-furnished
room with the gardeners looking on, and Murshee apparently anxious as to
the best course to be adopted.

"I'll look after him, sir," Lampen suggested. "The best thing you can do
is to telephone for a doctor and ask one of the servants to bring up
some brandy."

Murshee nodded his head. Despite his coolness he seemed to be puzzled
about something. Something had taken place which he did not understand.

"All right," he muttered. "I'll leave Mr. Lethbridge to you, and I'll
see that you have some brandy. Meanwhile, I suppose these other men can
go back to their work."

Lampen nodded. A moment or two later he and Lethbridge were alone. The
latter stirred uneasily and turned a questioning glance at Lampen. The
warning had come back to him. He half-struggled to rise to his feet.
With a familiar sort of wink Lampen laid a hand upon his shoulder.

"You are all right," he whispered. "I'll see to that. You don't
recognise me? I suppose these whiskers do it."

"Great Scott!" Lethbridge muttered, "why it is Wilkinson!"




CHAPTER XXI.--THE POST OF DANGER.


Lethbridge lay with his eyes closed wondering what was going to happen
next. He had not the remotest idea what had come to him. Vaguely he
wondered why he was lying there. His head ached with a dull, throbbing
pain, and he had difficulty in breathing. Apart from that, he was
cognisant of nothing that suggested an accident, but all other emotions
were swallowed up in surprise at Wilkinson's presence.

The inspector, after a cautious glance round the room, had removed the
ragged fringe of beard from his chin and also something from his cheeks
which had given his face the peculiar look of plumpness which in itself
had afforded a perfect disguise.

"I thought you wouldn't know me until I assumed my natural voice," he
said. "Rather a clever device, I flatter myself. I have used it
effectually on more than one occasion. It not only entirely alters the
expression of a man's face, but it gives the voice a different
inflection altogether. Well, sir, I must congratulate you upon your
courage in coming here. You seem to have thrust your head into the
hornets' nest with a vengeance. I thought I should have been in time,
but, as a matter of fact, I should have been altogether too late if it
hadn't been for a fortunate accident."

"What accident?" Lethbridge asked languidly.

By way of reply Wilkinson searched amongst Lethbridge's clothing and
produced the latter's watch. He pointed out the shattered condition of
the glass and a peculiar dent in the back.

"What do you think of that?" he asked.

"My good Wilkinson, I don't know what to think," Lethbridge said
impatiently. "I am at a loss to know what has happened. The last thing I
remember was being in one of the greenhouses looking at some of the rare
flowers when suddenly there came a violent pain over the region of my
heart and I suppose I fainted. Nothing of the kind has ever happened to
me before, and you must admit that it is rather alarming. I had no
conception that there was anything the matter with my heart. I daresay I
shall get used to the knowledge in time, but I feel miserably anxious
and nervous."

"So you think your heart is affected?" Wilkinson asked.

"What other conclusion can I come to?"

"You are entirely wrong," Wilkinson said cheerfully. "Your organs are as
sound as mine. Doesn't this broken watch convey something to you? My
dear sir, you are dealing with two of the cleverest scoundrels on the
face of the earth. It is not the slightest use to look for ordinary
methods with them. But for one chance in a million you would have been a
dead man at this moment, and you owe your life to the fact that you wear
your watch in your upper vest pocket just over the region of the heart.
That glass was smashed by a revolver bullet, and the dent on the back
was made by the same missile."

Lethbridge sat up suddenly.

"You don't mean that," he exclaimed.

"Indeed, I do," Wilkinson went on, "and what is more, I am in a position
to prove it. Besides, you can see for yourself. Here is the bullet which
I picked up by your side. You see the point is flattened as if it had
come in contact with some hard substance, the substance being the back
of your watch. If you will look at your upper left-hand vest pocket you
will see that a small hole has been made in the cloth. Of course, such a
shot over the heart would naturally produce unconsciousness; a blow in
that region has ended many a glove fight. You have been the victim of an
extraordinary outrage, and by all accounts ought to be a dead man at
this moment. I blame myself, as I might have prevented it. But I never
thought these villains would be so daring. And I have been pretty close
to you all the evening."

Wilkinson spoke with the air of a man who is sure of his ground and his
facts. But even yet Lethbridge could not see how this thing had
happened.

"It is impossible," he said. "In the first place, there was no report of
firearms or I should have heard it. In the second place there were only
three of us in the greenhouse, and nobody would have dared to fire at me
so long as you had been present. Of course I know that Ram Murshee is a
dangerous character, but----"

Lethbridge shrugged his shoulders by way of conclusion. Wilkinson stood
with a smile on his face.

"Quite right, so far," he said. "There was no report. By using a certain
kind of powder, it is possible to discharge a revolver without making
the slightest noise."

"I am prepared to grant that," Lethbridge said. "But that leaves me as
much in the dark as ever. Much as I mistrust and dislike Murshee, I am
bound to be fair. I am prepared to swear that he sat back in his chair
with his hand behind his head, and that he never raised a finger the
whole time. It is impossible for a man to fire without the use of his
hands."

"So it would seem," Wilkinson said drily. "Nevertheless, Murshee is the
culprit, as you will discover before long. I can't say how the thing was
done, but I have a shrewd idea, and I shall be able to tell you sooner
or later. Unless I am mistaken, Mr. Ram Murshee is well known in another
part of the world. It is necessary to look up his antecedents. Scotland
Yard keeps a pretty accurate description of most cosmopolitan
scoundrels, and I shall very soon find out about Mr. Murshee."

"But you have no connection with Scotland Yard," Lethbridge suggested.
"You are a local man."

"Oh, yes, I have, sir," Wilkinson replied. "It is my misfortune rather
than any fault to be stationed in the country. I had a much better
position in the Metropolitan Force than I have now; indeed, I may say
without egotism that some of the greatest criminal mysteries of the day
have been entrusted to me. But my health gave way, and I was removed
from London. It was rather a wrench at first, but I was always
passionately fond of flowers and gardening, and so my disappointment has
not been without its recompense. I am like the famous Mr. Bucket in that
way. Now and again the authorities of Scotland Yard consult me, but on
the whole I have a very easy time. I suppose I know almost as much about
flowers as you do yourself. But I am wandering from the point. I wanted
you to know why I have more power and latitude than the usual local
inspector. I came up to town yesterday morning and told the people at
Headquarters what I knew about the outrage on Mr. Payn. I wished to be
put in charge of the case, and they were good enough to comply. They saw
at once that I was the proper person for the job, and they were not far
wrong. There is one thing I have discovered already--the attack upon Mr.
Payn had nothing to do with you."

"Thank you very much," Lethbridge said drily. "I think I told you that
at first. At any rate, I am glad this case has been placed in your
hands, and I am sure that you will do your best with it. But my
curiosity is not satisfied even yet. How did you manage to get here?"

"Oh, that is easily explained," Wilkinson replied. "I went to one of the
head men at Kew and told him that I wanted to come here for a day or two
in the capacity of assistant gardener. I assumed that most of the
gardeners in a place like this would be recommended from Kew."

"But if there were no vacancy?" Lethbridge suggested.

"In that case, I had to create one," Wilkinson said coolly. "There was
no vacancy, but it was easy to induce one of the subordinates here to
sham illness for a few days for a consideration. I picked out my man all
right, and the temptation was more than he could resist. Then I came
along with my credentials from Kew, and the rest was easy. But I must
confess that I was astonished to find you here."

"And I can return the compliment," Lethbridge smiled. "You haven't
satisfied my curiosity yet. Your manner of obtaining employment was as
ingenious as it was simple. But how did you hit upon the trail? How did
you find out so soon that the solution of the mystery which surrounds
the attack upon Payn was likely to be found here? I blundered upon the
track by accident. But I was lucky enough to obtain some exclusive
information."

"Well, so had I, for that matter," Wilkinson replied. "You seem to have
forgotten the foreign cigarette paper and the torn scrap of silk. With
important clues like these in my hands, it would be a pity if an old
hand like myself didn't find out something before long. When I found
this Sir Montagu Goshe was an enthusiastic grower of flowers I began to
see my way more clearly. But I will tell you more presently. I must try
to get the job of looking after you, because at this time of night it
may be impossible to obtain a nurse. I wasn't boasting when I said that
I had had experience of hospital work in the Boer War. In point of fact
I was all through it."

"Detectives at the Front?" Lethbridge exclaimed.

"Why not? Detectives are wanted everywhere."




CHAPTER XXII.--THE SHADES OF NIGHT.


There was no time for further explanations, for footsteps were heard
outside and a moment later Murshee appeared with a frightened-looking
servant who carried a decanter of brandy on a tray. The little man
looked cool and collected. There was a suggestion of sympathy on his
face which Wilkinson did not fail to admire. The detective had dropped
back again into the gardener. He stood awkwardly, as if he felt out of
place and were over-awed by the magnificence of his surroundings. He
felt, however, safe in his disguise. Nothing escaped his alert
attention.

"Are you feeling better?" Murshee asked. "Most extraordinary affair.
Have you ever had anything of the kind before?"

It was hard work for Lethbridge to speak naturally, but he managed it.
To remain calm in the presence of the man who had deliberately attempted
to take his life without showing signs of anger was difficult. But it
behoved Lethbridge to be cautious, and his voice did not betray him.

"Never," he said. "Perhaps the heat of the greenhouse was too much for
me. Probably it was only a violent attack of indigestion. I have heard
of such cases."

"You have no pain?" Murshee asked.

Despite his coolness and callousness he could not repress a certain
puzzled anxiety. The more light Lethbridge made his trouble the more
bewildered he was. To Lethbridge's fears that he was giving a great deal
of trouble and had better go away at once Murshee turned a deaf ear.
Evidently he wanted to ascertain why his murderous plot had failed.

"I wouldn't do anything rash," he suggested. "Often the most physically
robust have the weakest constitutions. I should blame myself very much
indeed if you were allowed to go away without first seeing a doctor. I
have telephoned for one, and he has promised to come round at once."

Lethbridge murmured his thanks as best he could. A few minutes later the
doctor arrived, and after a careful examination of his patient professed
to be as puzzled as Murshee had been. He could find not the slightest
heart weakness. Every organ was sound and regular. Indigestion might be
at the bottom of the mischief, but there was no cause for alarm, though,
in the opinion of the medical man, it would be well if Lethbridge stayed
where he was till morning.

"You will be all right here," he concluded. "Perhaps you would like to
have someone to look after you. It is hardly a case for a nurse, but if
anybody----"

The doctor looked about him and slightly shrugged his shoulders.
Lethbridge caught a palpable wink from Wilkinson, and the hint conveyed
by it was not lost upon him.

"Probably this man," said Lethbridge, as he indicated Lampen, "wouldn't
mind sitting up all night with me if I made it worth his while. He has
had some experience in hospital work. In fact, he went through the Boer
war. I suppose Sir Montagu wouldn't mind? I am sorry to give all this
trouble."

"Not at all," Murshee said promptly. "Lampen will stay, of course. If
anything is wanted during the night, I will show him where my room is."

A few minutes later the doctor and Murshee departed, and Lethbridge and
Wilkinson were left alone together. The latter's eyes gleamed with
amusement and satisfaction.

"Now this is a piece of real good luck," he exclaimed. "But I don't mind
confessing that if it were not for luck many of the greatest crimes of
the last fifty years would never have been discovered. It won't be my
fault if I don't learn a great deal more before morning. I have the run
of the house now, and if anybody happen to catch me where I may have no
right to be I shall easily be able to make excuses. Now, do you know
anything about the plan of the house? Can you tell me how to get into
the library without attracting attention? I want to know what those two
scoundrels will have to say to one another when they come to discuss
this matter presently."

"Do you mean Sir Montagu and his accomplice?" Lethbridge asked.

"Precisely. It would be a thousand pities to waste such a glorious
opportunity as this."

"But Sir Montagu Goshe is not here," Lethbridge said. "He went off in a
tearing hurry some time ago in a motor. He seemed to be very much upset,
judging by the expression of his face. I stood on the lawn and watched
him, but he couldn't see me. You may depend upon it, there is something
in the wind of which we know nothing."

"Oh, indeed!" Wilkinson said. "But many things happen in an hour or two,
especially with a man who owns an eighty horse-power car. Sir Montagu
has returned, and I'd bet my bottom dollar those two fellows are now in
the library. They were naturally concerned about the failure of their
scheme."

"What scheme?" Lethbridge asked. "I don't understand why I should be the
victim of a murderous attack."

"Ah, that is because you don't comprehend the class of men you are
dealing with. These men are foreigners, utterly unscrupulous, and
flatter themselves they have hit upon a plan which it is impossible for
any ordinary intellect to unravel. I begin to feel that this Golden Rose
affair is at the bottom of the whole thing. I am almost certain that the
Rose is a sacred emblem, and that these men are trying to recover it
much in the same way as those three Hindus in the 'Moonstone' planned
for the recovery of the great diamond. However, we shall know presently.
At any rate, I shall not sleep to-night until I learn more of what those
fellows are driving at. Wait till the lights are out, and I shall start
on my tour of inspection."

The next half hour or so passed in idle speculation. Then Wilkinson
opened the door of the room and looked out into the corridor. Everybody
appeared to have gone to bed, though there was one light still burning
dimly in the hall. Wilkinson slipped along the corridor and walked
boldly down the stairs. If he were discovered he could readily assign a
reason for his presence. Though the house was perfectly quiet, a light
gleamed here and there in the reception-rooms. A steady breeze drifted
across the spacious hall as if some window were open. Wilkinson paused
and tried to locate the quarter from which the draught was coming. It
proceeded from the dining-room, which appeared to be empty. It did not
matter whether Wilkinson was discovered there or not. He saw that the
sideboard was littered with bottles or decanters, and he could plausibly
assert that he had come for one of these. There was only one light
burning in the dining-room, but a drawn blind swayed and fluttered in
the breeze and indicated the open window. As be stood listening
intently, he could hear the hum of voices in a room on the other side of
the hall. Possibly this was the library, and here perhaps Sir Montagu
and his accomplice were in consultation. The theory was rendered the
more probable by the smell of tobacco which seemed to fill the place.
Greatly daring, Wilkinson took a step or two towards the room door and
bent his head to listen. But no more than a confused murmur of voices
reached his ears. He could not make out in single word. But it was clear
that two persons on the other side of the stout partition were
discussing something in a low and cautious voice. Wilkinson was
nonplussed. He did not wish to miss a precious opportunity which might
not recur.

However, he was not at the end of his resources. If he could reach the
outer air he might find the library window open. These people liked
fresh air, or they would have seen that the dining-room window was
fastened. Wilkinson made up his mind without delay. He walked across the
dining-room and out on to the gravel path beyond. So far fortune
favoured him.

He passed with noiseless step round the house until he came to the place
where he judged the library windows to be. He had hardly hoped for such
luck as this, but one of the windows was opened and the blind pulled up.
He saw figures seated at either side of the table.

Wilkinson bent himself eagerly to listen.




CHAPTER XXIII.--THE OUTLINE OF THE STORY.


It was to be a night of adventures and surprises, and Wilkinson drew
himself upright and took a deep breath directly his eye fell upon the
man whom he concluded to be Sir Montagu Goshe. He had not come with the
expectation of meeting an old friend, but his eyes sparkled and his lips
compressed grimly as he overhauled the man in evening dress. But he was
here to listen. It might be possible to act later.

The two men were smoking moodily, and for a while there was a long
pause. Murshee sat tilted back in an armchair, his legs crossed and his
bare feet working as if they had been a pair of hands.

"You made a great mistake," he said at length. "You ought to have left
the matter severely alone. What difference does it make to us! The old
man is a fool as well as a knave. And surely you are rich enough without
running all this danger for a paltry flower."

"It isn't a paltry flower," Sir Montagu responded angrily. "It is the
blossom of the universe. There is nothing like it in Europe, nothing
like it on this side of the Indian Ocean. Besides, it belonged to me; it
was intended for me, and I was prepared to pay for it. That the old man
stole it and pretended that he had grown the flower is a mere detail.
Besides, it was the young man's own fault."

"I don't agree with you," Murshee replied. "He was only doing the best
he could for himself, and that pious old fraud of an uncle of his. And
don't forget that he actually found the Golden Rose. He didn't steal
his. He invented it."

A sardonic smile crossed Goshe's face.

"And destroyed it afterwards like the sentimental fool he was," he
remarked. "Strange what men will do when they happen to fall in love
with a pretty, foolish face! Take my own case as an example in point. I
thought I was proof against that kind of thing. And yet, knowing how
dangerous it was, I must needs go and get married. I daresay if her
ladyship had thrown herself at my head I should have laughed at her. But
one is always disposed to make great sacrifices to obtain what one
cannot get. But I am growing sentimental. I suppose all the worry I have
gone through has affected my brain. What I want to know is how our
scheme failed to-night."

Murshee shrugged his shoulders.

"For the life of me I can't tell you," he replied. "It is inexplicable.
You know what my aim and eye are. You know that I have never made a
mistake before. I didn't like this thing because there was no necessity
for it, and I hate taking unnecessary risks."

"What risk?" Goshe sneered.

Once more Murshee shrugged his shoulders.

"There was no crime ever committed yet which is incapable of solution,"
he said. "You think I could commit a murder with a thousand people
looking on without the slightest chance of detection. Well, I believe
so, too. The thing has been done over and over again; the secret has
been well preserved. But there always comes a time when one goes at step
too far, and I have an uneasy feeling that we have overdone it. I felt
that before I started. I felt that before I put my hand to it to-night."

"And you mean to back down?" Sir Montagu asked fiercely. "You will
abandon the whole thing for a mere superstition? A nice confession for a
man of your ability to make. Simple because you have failed once, you
lack the nerve to try again. Well, it will be your loss, not mine. You
would have had five thousand pounds if the job had been successfully
accomplished. You could have returned to your own country to spend a
life of luxury and ease ever afterwards. It is sickening to hear you
talk like this."

Murshee wriggled uneasily in his chair. His face was hard and sullen,
and the look he turned on his employer was the reverse of friendly.

"I don't like it," he said. "I know I shall fail. Something at the back
of my mind tells me so. You may call me superstitious. Perhaps I am. But
I have always been taught that a man is not a free agent in these
matters, and I have seen it work out over and over again."

Sir Montagu laughed harshly.

"You had better go to bed and sleep on it," he said. "You will be
yourself again in the morning. I take a different view of it altogether.
No man is infallible. He is bound to miss the mark now and then."

"I have not done so for the last twenty years," Murshee growled. "Put me
to the test and I will back myself for all I am worth. And you would
have been alarmed had the same thing happened to you. I made no mistake.
I was as cool and collected as I am now. I could almost swear that I saw
the mark over his heart where the bullet struck. He threw up his head
and fell forward without a sound. And no one guessed, not even the
victim himself. Even the new gardener was as much in the dark as any of
us."

The listener smiled grimly. He was getting on very well indeed. A few
words more and he would glean everything he desired to know. Then to his
disappointment Sir Montagu rose to his feet, and jerked the end of his
cigarette savagely into the fireplace. He turned towards the door.

"Oh, you madden me," he cried. "I have no patience with such sentimental
folly. I am going to bed. Perhaps you will be wiser in the morning.
Good-night."

There was no time to be lost if Wilkinson were to regain the house
without exciting suspicion as to his movements. But Murshee had been
before him. The library lights were switched out, and so was the one in
the hall. Wilkinson stood erect and rigid, holding his breath and
waiting for the worst. It was possible Murshee might overlook the
dining-room window. If not, he would have to remain outside till morning
and trust to chance or one of the maids for admission. It was a mere
toss up.

But Wilkinson's lucky star was in the ascendant, for Murshee did no more
than flick out the one remaining light and make his way to bed. A moment
later Wilkinson was inside standing in the velvety darkness, hesitating
whether he should fasten the sash or not. Murshee had forgotten to do
so. No doubt if he were asked afterwards he would aver that he had not
left his task unfinished. In case of eventualities it would be as well
that no one should know that the window had been left open, and
Wilkinson decided to close it. The smallest sound seemed menacingly loud
and clear. He had his hand on the latch which suddenly dropped with a
click so sharp and startling that the detective jumped back.

He muttered an expletive at his own clumsiness. He was a trifle uneasy
and nervous. Then he started again as he heard the sound of someone
tapping on the window pane and a small anxious voice asking for
admission.

What to do, or what to think, Wilkinson knew not for the moment. Should
he admit this belated woman or not? If he refused, she might make
enquiries which would lead to awkward disclosures. If, on the other
hand, the window were opened he could say that he had come downstairs,
to get something for his patient to drink, that he had found the window
open, and had taken the liberty of fastening it.

This seemed the better plan. He opened the window and immediately a
woman forced her way in. It was too dark to make out her features,
though Wilkinson could just discern that she was in evening dress. He
could hear the rustle of her draperies and catch the faint fragrance
that seemed to surround her like an atmosphere. She had come far or was
frightened, for the detective noticed her quick breathing, and imagined
she had her hand at her side.

"Is that you, Watson?" she gasped.

"I am one of the gardeners, madam," Wilkinson said. "I am looking after
Mr. Lethbridge, the gentleman who is ill. I found the window open and
was fastening it when you knocked. If I can call anybody for you----"

"No, no," the lady panted. "I am Lady Goshe. I was out for a walk in the
gardens and went farther than I intended. Had I been much later I should
have had to go round to the front door and ring for admittance. I don't
want you to say a word of this to anybody. If you will keep silence I
will reward you liberally. You understand me?"

"Yes, my lady," Wilkinson replied. "But there is no need to speak about
reward. I am a stranger. Besides, I am not given to talking. If I can do
anything for you----"

"You can do nothing. Only tell me if your patient is better. Is he out
of danger?.....Ah, I am glad of that. I have an evening paper. There is a
paragraph on the fifth page which will interest Mr. Lethbridge. He will
know what to look for."




CHAPTER XXIV.--A BID FOR FREEDOM.


Wilkinson came very near to allowing himself to be surprised. For
business reasons he did not usually encourage that emotion, but this
particular case bristled with all sorts of unexpected happenings and
dramatic situations. He already knew--she had told him--that he was face
to face with Lady Goshe, but why she was so interested in the patient,
and why she should insist upon John Lethbridge seeing a copy of an
evening paper, suggested fresh trains of thought.

Another thing, too, was not lost upon the detective. He would have been
blind had he failed to see the remarkable likeness between the woman he
was addressing and Mary Grover. In the course of his long and varied
experience Wilkinson had come across many of such coincidences, but he
could not recall a single professional incident which held and
fascinated him as this one did.

There was something of the poet about Wilkinson. He had an imagination
beyond his class, and was, as he admitted, an enthusiastic grower of
flowers. He had in hand, curiously enough, a crime which was intimately
connected with the rarest and most attractive bloom known to lovers of
the garden. By itself, the investigation into the loss of the Golden
Rose would have sufficed to whet Wilkinson's appetite, but when the fate
of two beautiful women seemed to be bound up in the same mystery, an
additional incentive to energy and success was supplied.

Beyond question, the lady he was speaking to was closely related to Mary
Grover. No doubt, she was a sister. But what was she doing here? How did
the sister of a simply-bred country girl like Mary Grover become the
wife of such a polished cosmopolitan scoundrel as Sir Montagu Goshe?
This was, perhaps, a small matter in itself, a mere offshoot of the
greater mystery, but as an experienced hand at the game Wilkinson knew
he would have to solve this knotty point with the rest. At any rate, he
took it for granted that he was in the presence of Miss Grover's sister,
and that probably this unhappy woman knew more about the Golden Rose and
its attendant crimes than he did. She must have known who Lethbridge
was, and what mad folly had brought him to Putley Court. Otherwise, why
should she have been so anxious for him to see this copy of an evening
paper. Why should she tremble at all, unless she were deeply interested?

It was no part of Wilkinson's present policy to let Lady Goshe infer
that he knew anything. It was his proper course to keep up his character
of gardener. Accordingly he looked stupidly at Lady Goshe. He was trying
to appear as if he regarded such a request as natural.

"Of course," Wilkinson said respectfully. "Anything your ladyship liked
to ask I should be pleased to do. And you can rely upon my saying
nothing to anybody."

Lady Goshe did not appear to be listening. She had forgotten her anxiety
and her fears. She stood pondering deeply some subject which occupied
her mind to the exclusion of everything else. Wilkinson thus had an
opportunity of studying her features. He was struck by the pensive
beauty of her face, and more especially by its sadness. There was no
suggestion of ill-temper or moodishness, nothing but the resignation of
a noble woman who has known great sorrow and carries it with calmness
and dignity.

Wilkinson laughed to scorn the notion that she could be a criminal. Lady
Goshe had found out her mistake when it was too late. She had come to
learn many dreadful things in connection with that mysterious household,
and would speak when the time came if there was any need to do so. She
turned to Wilkinson with a flash of resolution in her eyes.

"I wonder if you could help me?" she asked. "You don't live here, I
believe, and I gather from your name that you are a Scotsman."

Wilkinson replied that such was the case.

"Ah, I thought so," Lady Goshe went on. "I daresay you come from some
quiet part where one can live in seclusion without attracting much
attention. Supposing I had a friend who had suffered a great deal and
wished to go to a retired spot where she could grow a few flowers and
have a complete rest, do you happen to know of such a retreat? It would
be necessary, of course, to observe strict secrecy, for the lady I speak
of does not want even her intimate friends to know where she is. But how
absurd that I should be talking to you like this! Fancy one in my
position discussing such questions with an assistant gardener in the
dead of the night!"

There was a touch of scorn in the speaker's voice. She appeared to be
soliloquising under her breath as if she had forgotten Wilkinson's very
existence. And yet the quiet irony in her tones and the look of resigned
melancholy on her face intensified her loneliness. For that she was
talking about herself he did not doubt. He was about to say something
guarded and discreet when Lady Goshe turned upon him almost angrily.

"Go back to your patient," she commanded imperiously, "and forget all
you have heard. Don't think me ungrateful. I hope to show you later that
such is not the case. If I want you I shall know where to look for you,
and I know you will be silent as to what has happened this evening. I
daresay you imagine--but what does it matter what you think? I wish you
good-night."

Wilkinson knew that he was dismissed and returned to his patient's
bedside without further delay. Lethbridge was awaiting his return. He
was feeling practically himself again and not a bit the worse for his
accident.

"Well?" he asked eagerly; "any luck?"

"I haven't been wasting my time," Wilkinson replied. "I managed to get
out of the house by the dining-room window and along the terrace to the
library where Sir Montagu Goshe and Murshee were in conference. It was
easy to hear what was going on for the window was open and I managed to
pick up a deal of useful information. In the first place, as I had
expected, Murshee is something more than a servant in the house. He is
an accomplice on almost equal terms with the master; indeed, from the
way in which he spoke to Goshe, he might have been the leading spirit. I
didn't learn all I wanted to: in fact, one rarely, if ever, does on such
occasions. But I gleaned enough to go on with. Murder and nothing less
than murder is in the air, though Sir Montagu Goshe lacks the courage to
carry out the crimes which he plans. But Murshee is prepared to do
anything for money. From what I could gather he is anxious to leave
England, and if he brings off a certain coup he is to have five thousand
pounds for his trouble."

"Something to do with me?" Lethbridge suggested.

"Very much so, indeed, sir. To put it plainly, you are to be removed.
These fellows know all about you, and have more than a shrewd idea why
you are here. But we may dismiss that for the present. They are not
going to succeed, and I begin to see my way to clearing this thing up.
My adventures, however, did not end there, for I have just had a long
and confidential interview with Lady Goshe herself."

Lethbridge sat up interested and eager.

"Did you notice anything striking about her?" he asked.

"Certainly," Wilkinson replied. "To begin with, she is exceedingly
beautiful. I should say she is a woman of the highest attributes, and I
am ready to go bail that she holds her husband and all his ways in
abhorrence. If she knows what is going on, she is assuredly not in
sympathy with it. But I take it that this is not the meaning of your
question. What you want to know is if I saw anything in the lady which
reminds me of somebody else."

"That's it," Lethbridge said.

"Well, her ladyship is extremely like Miss Grover; in fact, the likeness
is so striking that they must be sisters, I daresay the fact was not
lost upon you. Really, this is the most fascinating case I ever came
across. By means of that rare volume on gardening you find your way into
this house, feeling that here lies the clue to the attack upon your
uncle and the disappearance of that extraordinary flower of his. You are
surprised to find that Miss Grover has a sister here who could tell us
much about things if she were so disposed. You know something about Miss
Grover?"

"Not so much as I should like," Lethbridge murmured.

"No, but still you know a great deal. By the accident of circumstance
you have been thrown together with the young lady in a way which would
tend to enlist her confidence. She never told you, I suppose, that Lady
Goshe was her sister?"

"I never knew," Lethbridge replied, "that she had a sister. She
didn't--but stop, now I come to recollect it, she did mention such a
thing. In a way, our conversation was more or less confidential, not to
say sentimental. And I recall the fact now that she was beginning to say
something about 'my unfortunate sister' when she suddenly changed the
conversation. Miss Grover must know that her sister is most unhappily
circumstanced. But I don't believe she can know as much as we do.
However, it will be easy to find out. We can't stand upon ceremony now.
I suppose Lady Goshe did not allude to Miss Grover in any way? She
didn't mention her relationship?"

"Oh, dear, no. She merely spoke as if she were very unhappy. She
suggested to me, more or less indirectly, that her life was very
miserable, and that the time was at hand when she would have to end it.
I guess she will hide herself in some out of the way place where Goshe
couldn't follow her. But I am wandering from the point. I am sure that
Lady Goshe knows all about you, because she gave me this copy of the
'Evening Standard' with an intimation that you would find information of
the deepest interest to you on page five. I suppose she meant that as a
kind of warning, thinking, perhaps, that a humble gardener like myself
would not know what she meant. But you had better take the paper and
see."

Lethbridge grasped at the sheet and turned back to page five. A
smothered groan broke from his lips.




CHAPTER XXV.--A WORLD ON WHEELS.


"Nothing wrong, I hope?" Wilkinson asked anxiously.

"Oh, but it is dreadful," Lethbridge said. "Listen to this--but you had
better read it--it won't take long."

Wilkinson held out his hand for the paper. On the top of the first
column of page five was a paragraph with a heavy heading that caught his
eye immediately----

"THE MANCHESTER OUTRAGE.

"DEATH OF THE VICTIM.

"Information has just come to hand that Mr. Jasper Payn, the eminent
horticulturist of Manchester, died this afternoon from the effects of
the wounds inflicted upon him during the recent outrage. Mr. Payn was
much worse yesterday, and his doctor only held out the slightest hopes
of his recovery. Towards afternoon a serious relapse followed, and the
unfortunate gentleman died without regaining consciousness or saying a
single word likely to lead to the arrest of the murderer. All sorts of
rumours are afloat in the neighbourhood, but nothing definite or
trustworthy had been ascertained up to the time of going to press. The
affair is still wrapped in mystery, and so far as the police know there
seems to be no motive for a crime which was as unnecessary as it was
brutal. There were no valuables of any kind in the house and nothing is
missing. Mr. Jasper Payn was a man entirely without enemies. He had very
few acquaintances, and had devoted the best part of his life to the
pursuit of the new and fantastic in the growth of flowers and plants. In
fact, Mr. Jasper Payn has spent a large fortune on his hobby, and at one
time lived on his own estate at Beckenham Hall. He possessed, perhaps,
the finest library in England relating to matters horticultural. This
library was disposed of some time ago, and most of the best books found
their way into the hands of Sir Montagu Goshe, of Putley Court, the
millionaire, whose boast it is that he possesses the most beautiful
garden in the country. All these facts merely tend to make the affair
more inexplicable than ever, and the police are frank in their statement
that they have no clue to the miscreants. The inquest will take place
to-morrow."

"A most unfortunate business," Wilkinson commented. "But you are in no
way to blame, as I shall be able to prove when the time comes. Nobody
but I know you are implicated in the business, so that you have nothing
to fear."

Lethbridge was not quite so sure of that, though he kept his thoughts to
himself. Mary Grover was aware of certain things. She had let him know
more or less plainly that she did not altogether acquit him of connexion
with the crime. It was the irony of fate that the person in the world in
whose eyes Lethbridge wanted to justify himself was the very one who
regarded him with deepest suspicion. Still, he had Wilkinson on his
side. He was eager to get away at once and clear himself in Mary's eyes.
He rose and began to dress himself.

"I cannot stay any longer," he exclaimed. "I must go back to Manchester.
Besides, I am wasting time here and running not a little risk. But for a
mere accident I should not be talking to you now. And my interests and
the interests of justice are safe in your hands. Nobody has the least
idea that the humble gardener, Lampen, and the famous detective,
Inspector Wilkinson, are one and the same person. So far as I can see,
you are secure."

"I am not certain of that," Wilkinson said. "Don't forget that I have
two of the cleverest scoundrels in the world to deal with. I have taken
the precaution to disguise myself; in fact, my disguise was so perfect
that you didn't know me. But those two fellows had probably been hanging
about Manchester for weeks. They must have known that poor Mr. Payn and
myself were on good terms. It is possible they have penetrated my
disguise. If they could get us both out of the way they would be safe.
But this is not a matter to be settled in five minutes. Try to get a
little sleep and leave me to think it over."

Lethbridge smiled bitterly at the suggestion.

"No more sleep for me till I have got to the bottom of this business,"
he said. "I feel as if I shall never want to close my eyes again. And
don't forget that we have come very near to discovering the hiding place
of the Golden Rose. I know that I was very close to it tonight; in fact,
but for that pistol shot, there is little doubt that I should have
discovered it. Sleep is out of the question."

By way of proving this, Lethbridge threw himself on the bed. In less
than five minutes he was fast asleep, and Wilkinson was left alone to
ponder the problem which held such a fascination for him. In spite of
his professional training, he walked up and down the room for half an
hour thinking out certain points that refused to be unravelled. The room
was getting hot, and he opened the door and walked into the corridor.

It was deadly quiet with the intense silence which broods everything
before dawn. Then Wilkinson, as he stood listening, thought he could
hear the soft, subdued noise of a woman sobbing gently as if her grief
were ebbing away, and she were trying to meet the inevitable. There was
no mistaking the sound, and Wilkinson crept along the passage in order
to locate it. Before he had taken many steps a door suddenly opened, and
Murshee appeared carrying a candle in his hand. A bundle of wraps was
slung over his shoulder, and he was attempting to balance a Gladstone
bag on top. He looked grim and determined. There was an evil light in
his eyes as he walked along noiselessly, for his feet were bare, as
Wilkinson could see in the faint gleam of the candle. Murshee
disappeared down the stairs, and eight or ten minutes later Wilkinson
heard the hum of a motor as it came crunching over the gravel. Then
Murshee whistled softly. A current of air showed the door was open, and
almost immediately Sir Montagu Goshe was seen leading his wife by the
arm. He had her in close grip, as if he were a policeman and she a
prisoner in his custody. Lady Goshe was cloaked as for a journey, and as
Sir Montagu carried a candle, Wilkinson saw the settled frown upon his
forehead as he dragged his wife along. She paused at the head of the
stairs in a kind of feeble protest.

"Again I ask you where we are going," she said. "I implore you to be
candid with me."

"And again, I am not going to tell you," Sir Montagu said. "Why do you
want to know? What does it matter where you are? You say you cannot rest
here, and would be happier elsewhere. You are going elsewhere, my lady.
Make up your mind to that. You know too much. Oh, yes, you know a good
deal too much. And I don't trust you. What were you doing outside
to-night? Come, that is a plain question."

Lady Goshe started. The indignant flush left her face; her features were
white and her lips unsteady.

"What do you mean?" she faltered.

"You know perfectly well what I mean. Do you think you can fool me in
this way? I know what is the matter with you--you have got too much
conscience. You haven't got it under proper control. You promised to
love honour and obey me at the altar. You seem to ignore that you are my
wife. Good heavens! when I think what a fool you are, and what interests
I have at stake, I could take you by the throat and crush the life out
of you. I have been an idiot. I have been too easy and lenient. Every
night I came back from the city I expected to find you had taken
somebody into your confidence and that the police were after me. But I
will have no more of that. I will put you in a place where you will be
well looked after, but where you won't be allowed to open your mouth
wide. If you do, it will be the worse for you. But why stand here
arguing like this when everything is ready? The motor is waiting for
us."

Lady Goshe looked despairingly around her. She was a prisoner in her own
house. She was about to be led away to a fate which she hardly dared to
contemplate. She broke from her husband's grasp and confronted him with
a steady gaze.

"You are right," she said bitterly. "I am a fool, and a weak and
cowardly one at that. I ought to have spoken before; I ought to have
remembered that I had at duty far beyond anything that a woman owes her
husband. I ought to have spoken the truth at any cost. But it is not too
late."

"Isn't it?" Sir Montagu snarled. "I think you are wrong. But, come
along, there is a limit to my patience. And you ought to know what I am
capable of when I lose my temper. The car is waiting. Must I carry you?"

Lady Goshe walked slowly towards the top of the stairs. She realised
that a protest was a sheer waste of time. She knew she was to be carried
into captivity, and put up a quiet prayer for help in her peril. As she
went down the stairs she did not dream that Wilkinson was behind her.
The detective was not the man to allow a useful witness to be spirited
away without an effort to prevent it. He was outside before Lady Goshe
was stowed away in the car and sped swiftly down the drive towards the
road. A score or more of plans rose in his mind, only to be discarded
one after the other. He reached the road at length and sat down
breathlessly to scheme out a solution of the difficulty in the course of
the next five minutes. If he could stop the car or break it down, or
injure it in some way, it might give him time to find out what was Lady
Goshe's destination. Then he sprang to his feet and raced along the road
for the best part of a mile on the off-chance of meeting a policeman to
whom he might disclose his identity, and whose assistance he might
command. But the road was deserted. The night was pitch dark, and the
houses on either side of the way were few and far between. At this point
he literally stumbled over some tools which had been carelessly left by
workmen engaged in mending the road. There were one or two picks and
shovels along with some fencing, a tangle of which lay in the hedge. It
was barbed wire, as Wilkinson saw with a savage delight. He dragged it
across the road and sat down to await events. From afar came the steady
humming of the car, and Wilkinson set his teeth together grimly prepared
for the event.




CHAPTER XXVI.--A BROKEN TYRE.


So far as Wilkinson could judge, no great danger was likely to arise
from his experiment. If the worse came to the worst, it would only mean
the entangling of the wire with the wheels of the machine, no more than
a ruined tyre or two. But the detective was not so easy in his mind when
it dawned upon him that the car was moving at a tremendous pace. He
could see the lights a quarter of a mile away dancing over the road.
They seemed to rise and fall as if leaping along, and Wilkinson cursed
as he foresaw the possibility of catastrophe. What on earth were they
moving at that pace for? What reason could there be for this breakneck
hurry? They had started deliberately, and Wilkinson was quite at a loss
to understand why they were running this terrible risk.

Ought he not to give the people in the car notice of their peril? He
would have dragged the wire away at the hazard of the upsetting of his
plans, but there was no time to do this unless he wanted to lose his own
life into the bargain.

The car came with the steady roar of an express engine, the big
acetylene lights in front oscillating violently. Wilkinson could only
hope fervently that there would be no loss of life. Suddenly the front
of the car rose with a violent leap; there was a tearing, grinding
sound, and the great body came suddenly to a standstill, balanced on its
side. As far as Wilkinson could tell in the darkness, the occupants were
thrown violently into the hedge; there was a cry or two and a muttered
oath, and then everything was still. Wilkinson, with all his coolness
and courage, felt faint and sick for the moment. Two of the lamps were
smashed and extinguished, but the tail light was burning. The detective
wrenched it from its place and flashed the clear white rays over the
scene of the disaster.

Murshee lay on his face without the slightest movement. Sir Montagu
Goshe was sitting up with his two hands pressed to his head, as if he
were trying to realise what had happened. At first Wilkinson could see
nothing of Lady Goshe, but found her presently in a ditch as if she were
asleep. There were no marks of violence, but a horrible fear filled his
heart. He began to wonder if he were not actually guilty of murder.

As Wilkinson stood wondering how to obtain assistance, he thought he
could hear the noise of hoofs coming along the road. The beat of horses'
feet became more pronounced presently. Evidently there were a good many
animals, possibly a string of market gardeners' carts on their way to
London. A few seconds later and the first wagon hove in sight, with a
light on either side of it. Wilkinson could see a huge yellow van behind
the horses, then another, and another. He caught a hum of conversation,
with a few snatches of song. Then there was a sort of snarling cry which
could only have proceeded from the throat of a wolf. Wilkinson realised
that he had happened upon a travelling circus. He stood with his arms
upraised, and called out to the driver of the foremost van.

"Hallo, there!" he exclaimed. "There has been a nasty accident. A motor
car has come to grief, and the people are badly injured."

The driver of the car responded with what sounded like a brutal oath,
but he pulled up and jumped down from his perch on the shafts of the
van. The whole cavalcade was blocked by this time, and a score or so of
grimy hands came forward to see what was the matter. A babel of
confusion arose at once. Everybody suggested a different course.
Wilkinson raised the big lamp above his head and flashed it around the
circle of swarthy faces.

"It is no use wasting time," he said impatiently. "I suppose you've got
a living van or two here, haven't you? And the proprietor is with you?"

"I guess Barker is asleep," one of the helpers said. "We might get him
to turn out for one of these gentlemen. But we are not going very much
farther. There is a field close by where we pitch our tent to give two
performances to-day."

"Go and wake up Mr. Barker," Wilkinson commanded. He had forgotten that
he was an assistant gardener, and spoke in his crispest and most
official manner. The circus followers hesitated. Then Wilkinson repeated
his command, and two of the men moved off slowly down the line of
resplendent yellow vans. A few minutes later a big man with an enormous
waxed moustache, dressed in a suit of amazing checks, his many-coloured
tie ornamented with a diamond pin, bustled pompously to the front, and
demanded to know what was wrong. His manner was not engaging and his
language far from choice. But he was generously disposed when he heard
what had taken place.

"Poor chaps," he muttered. "I'll see what I can do, mister. Clear the
road for a minute or two so that the vans can get into the field yonder,
and I'll get my own car up here so you can put these gentlemen in
without carrying them far. I know what it means to be jolted over a
country road with a broken leg. We have plenty of accidents in our line,
and most of us know what to do. You know the neighbourhood, and we
don't. You cut off and find a doctor, and we'll help these poor people
into the vans. There isn't much room, but we'll make them as comfortable
as possible."

The suggestion was kindly, and Wilkinson was only too pleased to avail
himself of it. He knew that the victims of his audacious scheme would be
fairly well cared for, and it was essential to procure a doctor without
further delay. It would be necessary to explain to the medical man how
the accident had come about, and therefore the best plan was to go to
the nearest police station and ask for the doctor attached to the force.
He could tell them a thing or two without saying too much. It would be
as well, too, to have the services of John Lethbridge. He turned on his
heel and ran swiftly down the road towards Putley Court. Day was
beginning to break rapidly. The east was turning from purple to violet,
and a saffron light glowed along the horizon. The mansion stood still
and silent in the pearly dawn, the big hall door wide open. Yet no sign
of a servant was visible. But it was no time for caution, and Wilkinson
went upstairs to Lethbridge's bedroom, and burst in, hot and breathless.

"What on earth has happened?' he demanded.

"It is all my fault," Wilkinson gasped, "I have been too clever. But
perhaps I had better explain ..." After he had told John briefly what
had happened he added, "I had no notion they would travel at such a
rate, for they didn't seem to be in much of a hurry to start. I had to
take some risk. I couldn't afford to lose such an important witness as
Lady Goshe, and for all I knew they might have been spiriting her out of
the country."

"I don't think you need worry about that," Lethbridge said grimly. "You
will have plenty of opportunity to lay your plans for the future. But
what do you want me to do? What do you propose to do yourself?"

"I am going for the police doctor," Wilkinson explained. "I can make
myself known, and the people here will give me every assistance. I can
talk to the doctor as I couldn't talk to an ordinary practitioner. What
I want you to do, if you feel up to it, is to go to the scene of the
trouble and hang about and keep your eyes open. There is a chance that
no real damage has been done. And if the car is able to travel, as it
might be, these people might get away almost immediately. But don't
worry about it unless you feel equal to the strain."

By way of reply, Lethbridge tumbled out of bed and began to dress at
once. He declared that he had recovered from the effects of the trouble
of the previous evening, and was only too anxious to be out and doing
something once more. All he wanted to know was which way to go, and as
to the rest, that could be left to himself.

"That's all right," Wilkinson said approvingly. "You are worth any money
to me at the present moment. I couldn't confide in anybody else, and for
obvious reasons I don't want to tell the police too much. You can't
mistake the road. Turn to the right after you get through the lodge
gates, and about a mile farther on you will see the field where the
circus tent is probably pitched by this time. It is marvellous how
quickly those fellows get up a tent. I won't be more than half an hour
at the outside."

Lethbridge needed no second bidding. He strode along the road until he
came to the field, which had already been transformed almost out of
recognition. A large mushroom tent was in the course of erection, a
score of men straining at the ropes and as many more driving in huge
iron pins. They seemed to be squabbling and quarrelling amongst
themselves. Their language was picturesque and lurid, but the work was
advancing by leaps and bounds, and in an incredibly short space of time
the vast white structure was gleaming in the faint light of the rising
sun. At the back of the tent a string of yellow wagons was being formed
into a kind of square and covered with canvas. Behind these were two or
three caravans, two of which were decidedly superior to the rest. They
were freshly painted and decorated, their colours being subdued, not to
say artistic. The clean windows were draped with muslin blinds. On the
steps of one stood a big man in a loud suit, and instinctively
Lethbridge knew that he was face to face with Mr. Barker, the sole
proprietor of the Imperial Japanese Circus, which, according to a great
flaming advertisement overhead, had performed at various times in
different capitals before the crowned heads of Europe. Mr. Barker eyed
Lethbridge suspiciously, and curtly enquired his business.

"There has been a motor accident, I am told," Lethbridge said. "I am
afraid these unfortunate people are friends of mine. I came at once to
know how they were getting on. I suppose you can tell me. Does it happen
to be a serious accident?"




CHAPTER XXVII.--"VAVA."


Mr. Barker replied that he didn't know. He had, he said, plenty to
occupy his attention besides worrying himself about a pack of strangers
bent upon breaking their necks by careering about country roads in the
dark at the speed of an express train. But despite the circus
proprietor's truculent manner Lethbridge gathered that he had left
undone nothing that would mitigate the sufferings of the occupants of
the car.

"Two men were in one of the tents," Barker went on. "We've done the best
we can for them. We have rigged up some beds. The lady is here. My
missus is looking after her herself. No, I don't think she is very much
hurt, at least, not so far as I can judge. But we shall know more about
that when the doctor comes. I suppose you are a friend of the family."

"I know something of Sir Montagu Goshe," Lethbridge said cautiously. "It
is very kind of you to take this trouble for strangers."

"Well, it is a trouble, and that's a fact," Barker said, as he lighted
an atrociously strong cigar. "But we couldn't very well do less. I hope
your friend won't be long hurrying up that doctor. You see I can't do
anything till he has been here."

Lethbridge gave the desired assurance and stood hesitating what to do
next. Whilst trying to think of some pretext for remaining where he was,
the door of the adjoining caravan opened and a girl came out. She was
young, extremely light and lissom. The exquisite symmetry of her figure
and the vivacious beauty of her face instantly attracted Lethbridge's
attention. Worried and harassed as he was, he would have been more or
less than human if such a face had not appealed to him. But, with all
its beauty, there was something almost boyish about the features of the
girl who gazed at Lethbridge with a glance half shy half demure, and yet
wholly audacious. She was exceedingly dark, with flashing eyes. Her
features were straight as if cast in the most perfect Greek mould, the
parted lips showing a set of perfect white teeth. She was dressed in a
short tweed skirt and Norfolk jacket cut in severely masculine fashion,
and a tweed cap was set jauntily on the back of her head. She looked all
that was sweet and womanly, but nevertheless there was a strong
suggestion of boyishness about her; indeed, she might easily have passed
for a handsome, mischievious, English schoolboy of about sixteen ears of
age. Still she did not lack the subtle femininity which goes with every
woman, and Lethbridge found himself looking at her with a curiosity
which was, perhaps, personal, not to say rude. The genial proprietor of
the circus took his big cigar out of his mouth and waved his hand
towards the dainty vision. He laid the other hand on the girl's
shoulder.

"I haven't the pleasure of your name, mister," he said. "Oh, Lethbridge,
is it? Well, Mr. Lethbridge, let me introduce you to Vava. Might have
heard of her probably. No? Well, perhaps you have been brought up in the
country. You must come and see her, my dear sir, you must really come
and see her. Absolutely the very finest performance of its kind in the
world. There is nothing like it in England, or on the Continent, or
America. It requires to be seen to be believed. For further particulars
see small bills."

Mr. Barker rattled on in this theatrical way, but the girl merely smiled
as if she had heard all this kind of thing many times before. Probably
her performance was nothing out of the common, but it was never the way
of the proprietor of the traveling entertainment to cry stinking fish,
and Mr. Barker was no exception to the rule. There was, however,
something distinctly unusual about the girl's appearance and manner, and
she was unlike any queen of the circus ring that Lethbridge had ever
come in contact with. He had seen a good many circuses in his life. He
had seen many a flaunting handsome princess of the sawdust and spangles,
but, never one so dainty sweet as this this Vava, standing there with an
engaging smile upon her lips. Lethbridge held out his hand.

"I am pleased to meet you," he said. "I am afraid that I am giving a
great deal of trouble, but the people who were in the accident are
friends of mine, and I came to see what was amiss."

The girl turned an enquiring face to Barker.

"I have not heard of this," she said in excellent English. "I was very
tired after last night's performance, and went to my car rather early.
The poor people--is there anything that I can do for them?"

"Oh, we've done all we can for the present," Barker said bluntly. "We
are only waiting for the doctor. There isn't much the matter with the
two men, and my missus, who is as good as half a dozen doctors, thinks
the lady will be all right in a day or two. But they will have to be
removed; we can't possibly have 'em here. Do they happen to have far to
go, mister?"

"Well, no," Lethbridge explained. "They started from Putley Court close
here early this morning, and had hardly got a mile before the accident
happened. It was fortunate for Sir Montague Goshe----"

The pretty girl leant eagerly forward and something like an exclamation
came from her lips.

"What name did you say?" she asked.

"Sir Montagu Goshe. You have heard of it? He is a very rich man, well
known in society, and has a lovely place here. His wife was with him at
the time of the accident; indeed, Lady Goshe is enjoying Mrs. Barker's
hospitality at this moment."

"Let me see her," Vava exclaimed. "Pray take me to her at once. If she
knew that I was here she would be terribly grieved----"

Lethbridge stared at the speaker in astonishment. It was impossible that
this pretty travelling performer could be in any way connected with Lady
Goshe. Perhaps the frank and open surprise in Lethbridge's eyes conveyed
some sort of warning to Vava, for she stopped with almost a sullen look
on her face and declined to say any more. She recovered herself
sufficiently a moment or two later to enquire in a commonplace tone who
the third victim of the accident was.

"The chauffeur, of course," she suggested with a smile. "Was he badly
hurt?"

"There was no chauffeur," Lethbridge explained. "The third man was Sir
Montagu's private secretary. He is a foreigner who has the extraordinary
name of Murshee."

The girl framed the words with her lips, but no sound came from them.
All her frank, boyish vivacity had vanished. She looked pale and
disturbed and troubled.

"He must not see me," she whispered. "That man must not see me. I would
give all I possess rather than that. Do you hear, Barker? You must get
him out of the way.'"

"What ails the girl?" Barker growled good-naturedly. "She is always up
to some blessed game or another. You take my advice, Mr. Lethbridge, and
don't you ever put your money in the circus business. The men are all
right, but as to these ladies, you never know where to have 'em. They're
all moods and fads and fancies. I thought Vava was different from the
rest of them. Bless your soul, my dear, you needn't worry. I don't know
who Mr. Murshee is, and I don't care; but he ain't likely to trouble you
for a day or two. He is just lying on his back in bed thinking of
nothing; in fact, he has no brains to think with for the present."

Lethbridge turned away as if the subject were of no interest to him. He
did not want Vava to see the bewildered astonishment which had crept
into his face. He was wondering if he had hit upon another bypath in the
amazing mystery of the Golden Rose. When he turned again Vava was
smiling graciously once more and had lost all trace of her emotion. But
she was exceedingly anxious to get inside Barker's caravan and see the
injured woman. A comfortable-looking dame put her head out of the
caravan door and called to Vava. As the girl disappeared, Mr. Barker
threw the end of his cigar away and bluntly announced that he had
business to do before breakfast, and that if Lethbridge wished to remain
till the doctor came he would have to provide his own amusement.

It was two hours before Wilkinson put in an appearance, followed by a
dapper little man whom the detective introduced to Lethbridge as the
police doctor. The latter started on the round of his patients, leaving
Wilkinson and Lethbridge outside while they waited. Vava came smilingly
down the steps of her caravan and went across the field towards a
spinney through which a stream of water ran. Lethbridge was surprised to
see that she carried a revolver in her hand. She toyed with the weapon
as if she were accustomed to its use. Wilkinson's eyes followed her with
critical approval.

"That is a pretty girl," he said. "Quite outside the run of those you
see in entertainments of this class. What is she? She smiled at you as
if she had been an old acquaintance."

"I have had the honour of an introduction," Lethbridge smiled, "which
reminds me that my time has not been wasted. That girl knows Lady Goshe
and is also acquainted with our mysterious friend Murshee, and for some
reason is terribly afraid of him. I had better tell you all about it. It
is worth hearing."

Wilkinson listened attentively. The story made a profound impression
upon him. He strolled off across the meadow presently, talking to
Lethbridge as he went. They were on the edge of the spinney, and could
see over the hedge into the thick wood beyond. Presently the silence was
broken by the sound of a revolver shot, followed by others. It was
somewhat startling, but Wilkinson did not seem to be so much moved as
his companion was.

"I don't think there is anything wrong," he said. "The young lady is
rehearsing her performance. Probably it has something to do with
revolver shooting. I am curious to see what it is, but don't
particularly want the girl to know that I am interested. Come along. We
may get a peep at her."

Lethbridge hesitated. He did not like the idea. But it was no time to
stand on ceremony. He followed Wilkinson through a gap in the hedge and
looked down a green alley at the end of which Vava lay with her hands
behind her back. The revolver practice was still going on, but at last
the girl rose and put the weapon in her pocket. Wilkinson drew
Lethbridge back so that she could pass without their being seen, and
pointed silently to her feet.

She was wearing no shoes and stockings. She walked boldly over the grass
as if this habit were usual.




CHAPTER XXVII.--A BROKEN THREAD.


Lethbridge glanced at his companion. He expected to see a look of
surprise on the detective's face, and was not disappointed. Yet though
Wilkinson was astonished he did not appear displeased. On the contrary,
he smiled and laid his hand upon Lethbridge's shoulder as if to impose
silence upon him.

Though it seemed desirable to observe caution, there was no appearance
of secrecy about the girl as she emerged from the copse. She sat down
presently at the foot of a tree and put on her shoes and stockings again
as if she had been engaged in the most natural thing in the world. Then
she went off gaily towards her caravan. Wilkinson lighted a cigarette,
and turned to his friend.

"Well," he asked, "what do you make of it?"

"I don't make anything of it," Lethbridge said, candidly. "I am
bewildered. The more I go into this thing the worse it becomes. But
perhaps this is only a coincidence. There is no reason why the girl
should not walk about without shoes and stockings if she chooses. That
kind of thing was a craze last year. I forget what it is supposed to
cure. But certain doctors recommended it, and at more than one hydro in
the North people were seen walking about in this fashion all day long. I
imagine that the morning dew was considered a specific for some form of
disease--consumption, perhaps."

"Nuts and hot water and the rest of that rubbish," Wilkinson said
contemptuously. "There is no end to the credulity of people who
industriously try to find out some way of cheating the laws of Nature.
Some of the fads of these cranks are incredible. I'm not inclined to
believe that Vava is bitten with any craze of that sort. I am a bit of a
physiognomist, and I should say that the girl was far too healthy minded
for anything of the kind. But I don't mind admitting that I should have
taken the barefoot business to be a fad if we hadn't come across our
interesting friend Ram Murshee. I suppose you don't know what form
Vava's entertainment takes?"

The question startled Lethbridge. He was surprised to find that
Wilkinson's thoughts were running in the same groove as his own.

"I don't know," he said. "I hadn't the curiosity to enquire. But I see
what you are driving at, and I don't forget that this girl knows
Murshee. She knows Lady Goshe, too. She was distressed to find that
Murshee was here--indeed she was more than distressed, she was actually
afraid! I had forgotten the circumstance for the moment; I see now how
important it is. We shall have to find out why she is afraid of Murshee,
and how she comes to be interested in Lady Goshe. And knowing what we
do, the fact that the girl is fond of walking about with bare feet
assumes a new significance."

"Can't you see farther than that?" Wilkinson asked.

Lethbridge was fain to admit that he could not.

"Yet the point is of real importance," Wilkinson said. "There is much in
common between this girl and Murshee. Both of them walk about
bare-footed. The woman is afraid of the man, and desires to keep out of
his way. But she is also very fond of a revolver, with which weapon she
is an expert, and Murshee is an expert, too. I don't know what all this
means, but I have my own idea. I shall not need to wait long before my
theory is put to the test. I am anxious to learn what the girl's feats
are."

"I haven't the remotest notion," Lethbridge said. "I dare say we shall
find out from the bills."

Wilkinson thought not. He was under the impression that Vava would be
advertised in artistic fashion. Her performance would be alluded to in
mysterious language, so that the patrons of the circus would have a very
small idea of what they were going to see until they had paid their
money. A glance at the big flaming yellow and red bills at the entrance
to the field confirmed the detective's shrewd deductions. Vava was
regarded as the 'star' artist of the show, for her name appeared in big
letters. But she was alluded to in the vaguest terms as a performer
whose entertainment was mysterious and illusive to the last degree.
Moreover, there was a flamboyant paragraph offering no less a sum than a
thousand pounds to any patron of the circus who was clever enough to
solve the manner in which Vava's daring act was done.

"What did I tell you?" Wilkinson asked with a smile. "I knew we should
be confronted with something of this kind. The girl must be clever and
her performance at big hit, or Barker would not make such a fuss of her
and give her a caravan to herself. Still, if my theory is correct, I
think Mr. Barker's thousand pounds are imperilled. But I won't give him
any anxiety on that head for two reasons. First of all, it would be
inexpedient to show my hand; and in the second place I don't believe our
showman could pay the money if he lost. And now, if you don't mind, I'll
get hack into the town. You had better stay here."

"What is the programme?" Lethbridge asked. "I see why it will be an
advantage to me to remain, but why should you go back into the town?"

"Because the time has come when I can assume more or less my own
identity," Wilkinson explained. "The assistant gardener will have to
disappear. It will be easy to represent myself as an officer deputed to
enquire into the cause of the accident. None of these people will
recognise me when I have got rid of my disguise. Meanwhile you had
better hang about the place, and keep up the role that you are a friend
of the injured parties. As to myself, I will be back in time for the
first performance at 3 o'clock."

Lethbridge was content to leave the matter in the detective's hands. For
the next hour or two he wandered disconsolately round the tents without
the least interference from anybody. It was understood that he was a
friend of one of the injured people waiting till such time as his
services may be needed. He was feeling ill at ease, but there was plenty
to occupy his attention, and the time passed none too heavily. About 1
o'clock the door of Vava's caravan opened, and the girl came down the
steps. She was dressed as before, and carried herself in her free and
jaunty manner, but there was an anxious look in her eyes and a perplexed
frown on her white forehead. She smiled at Lethbridge in the friendliest
fashion. She hesitated timidly before him.

"Can I speak to you a moment?" she asked.

Lethbridge declared that he was entirely at her service.

"Can I do anything for you?" he asked. "You can command my services."

The girl cast a grateful glance at the speaker.

"I hardly know where to begin," she said in her pleasant English. "Are
you a friend of Lady Goshe? I do not want to pry into your secrets. I
would do anything for Lady Goshe, who helped me at a time when I had not
a single friend in the world. And you look a good man."

"I hope so," Lethbridge smiled. "At any rate, I do my best to be an
honest one. You place me in rather an awkward position, because your
question needs a direct answer, and I don't know whether it would be
policy on my part to tell you everything."

The girl's face clouded and something like tears came into her eyes. She
laid her hand upon Lethbridge's arm earnestly, almost forcibly.

"I want to do the right thing, too," she whispered. "I wish to save that
poor woman, and she has the most unscrupulous enemies where she has
every right to expect loving care and protection. That man Murshee----"

"You know him well?" Lethbridge asked quickly.

"Only too well," the girl said. "I have met some scoundrels in my time,
but never one so calculating, cold-blooded, and heartless as Ram
Murshee. I can't tell you everything. I only wish I could. But I have
seen Lady Goshe, and I have tried to ascertain what her trouble is. They
would not let me stay with her many minutes, and so I had to guess a
great deal. If you are the kind-hearted man I take you to be, you will
help me now. As a friend of Lady Goshe yourself----"

"She is no friend of mine," Lethbridge said. "Please don't misunderstand
me. When I say she is no friend of mine, I mean that I never saw her
till last night. It was merely the accident of circumstance that brought
us together. But I have learnt enough to know that she is in dire and
bitter trouble, and I will do what I can to help her. I can not say more
than that, can I?"




CHAPTER XXIX.--A PETAL FROM THE ROSE.


A pleased smile dashed over the girl's face.

"I knew you were kind and good," she said. "I knew that I would not have
to appeal to you in vain. But please be candid with me. Is there not a
special reason why you are interested in Lady Goshe? Is it not because
you know someone closely connected with her?"

It was Lethbridge's turn to smile.

"You are too clever for me," he said. "You want to keep everything to
yourself and expect me to be candid and open with you. Do you think that
is altogether fair? You cannot expect me, a perfect stranger, to open my
innermost heart to you when I don't even know who you are. You are a
pretty girl, refined and educated. I might ask you what you are doing in
a show like this amongst these illiterate people. I dare say they are
good-natured in their own way, but I am certain they are not the sort of
folk you have been accustomed to. Are they?"

The girl hesitated and coloured. She appeared to be debating in her mind
whether or not she should take Lethbridge into her confidence. Then a
sigh of something like regret rose to her lips. She turned a shy face to
Lethbridge.

"I cannot tell," she whispered, "really, I cannot. I only wish I could.
I might have been able to dispense with all these questions if Lady
Goshe had not been so ill. She told me about half what I wanted to know
and I had to make out the rest for myself. If I only knew who you are I
should be easier in my mind. But let me be quite sure before we go any
further. You are John Lethbridge, the nephew of Jasper Payn, who used to
live at a place called Beckenham Hall? If you are not, then I have said
too much. But even so, you are a gentleman and will respect my secret."

In spite of his perplexity, Lethbridge smiled at the subtlety of this
argument; indeed, it was too subtle for him, and he began to wish that
Wilkinson were back. He was conscious that the girl was using her beauty
and intelligence to draw him on without giving him a single confidence
in return. She looked sweet and sincere and innocent, but he had no
guarantee that she was not in league with Sir Montagu Goshe and his
satellite. The only argument against this supposition was the girl's
behaviour when the names of the injured parties were mentioned. For the
most part Lethbridge had led a solitary life, and knew little of the
wiles of women, but he had seen and heard enough to know that they could
be actresses of the most consummate type where their own interests were
concerned.

And yet Lethbridge felt that he was going open-eyed to destruction. He
was convinced that if he staved there five minutes longer he would tell
this charming creature everything that he knew.

She seemed to divine what was passing through his mind, for the sad
smile trembled on her lips and the tears welled to her eyes. Lethbridge
could see them standing there like diamond drops on her purple lashes.

"I implore you to be candid with me," she whispered. "I beg of you to
believe that I am acting for the best. Tell me, are you the gentleman
that I take you to be?"

"Well, then, I am," Lethbridge said with grudging ill-humour. "That is
my name, though I haven't the least notion where you got it."

"Oh, I got it from Lady Goshe," the girl said, smiling through her
tears. "At least, the poor creature mentioned your name and I guessed
the rest. John Lethbridge was staying at Putley Court and in some way
was in great danger. That is what Lady Goshe told me, speaking like one
who walks in her sleep. And this Mr. Lethbridge knows Lady Goshe's
sister Mary Grover quite well. Is not that true? Are you not the
gentleman Lady Goshe is alluding to?"

"I am not going to deny it," Lethbridge laughed in spite of himself. "As
I said before, you are far too clever for a simple person like me. I am
John Lethbridge, and I don't mind confessing to you that I stand in
considerable danger at the present moment. Do you know what the danger
consists of?"

"No, I don't," the girl admitted frankly. "I wish to heaven that I did.
All I can guess is that you have incurred the enmity of Sir Montagu
Goshe and his shadow, and that consequently you are in peril of your
life. Ah, you don't know what those men are. It would not matter to them
whether you stood in their way designedly or not. You might be innocent,
or you might be a bitter and unscrupulous enemy of theirs who was trying
to remove them altogether. They would not mind in the least. Their
methods would be just the same. And, I understand, you are in their way
now. Is not that so?"

Once more Lethbridge hesitated, but the thought he might easily be
over-cautious, especially as the girl knew so much.

"I am afraid I am," he said, "though I assure you I am, as you put it,
absolutely innocent. A friend of mine lost something, and what he lost
fell into the hands of those two men. As a result of this loss suspicion
fell upon me, and I had to clear myself. I should never have connected
Sir Montagu Goshe with the mystery at all, only good or ill luck placed
a clue in my way. In following it up I found myself under the same roof
as Sir Montagu Goshe, and there I met with an accident--at least I
suppose it was an accident."

Vava smiled bitterly.

"It was no accident," she said. "I didn't know that anything had
happened to you till you told me this moment, but I am certain it was no
accident. Don't you share my opinion? Are you not puzzled?"

"I am," Lethbridge confessed candidly. "Yet the thing was so cleverly
done that I can blame nobody. I saw nothing and may say that I heard
nothing----"

"And yet you are alive to tell the tale," the girl whispered. "Ah, that
indeed was a miraculous escape! It is certain that Providence was
watching over you. I cannot understand how you managed to evade that
revolver bullet."

Lethbridge stared in astonishment at the speaker.

"How did you find that out?" he demanded. "How can you tell that the
revolver had anything to do with it. I know that the thing was a secret
between myself and Inspector--I mean a friend of mine. He wouldn't have
mentioned it to a soul, and I am sure I haven't."

"Ah, but I know," the girl replied half sadly, half exultantly. "Nothing
is concealed from me. But I cannot tell you more at present, for I dare
not. You had a marvellous escape, and it will not be my fault if you
incur a like danger again. But we are wasting time. They tell me that
this Murshee is not very much injured, and that if he insists upon
getting about again they will not trouble to stop him. Now, it is
imperative that he should not stay here longer. If he is not removed I
shall have to go myself. I don't want to do that at present--at least,
not for the next twenty-four hours. I could not go through my
performance if that man were near. If I suspected that he might turn up
in the tent and witness the performance I should break down in the
middle of it. Cannot you devise some means of getting him out of the
way? I don't care what measures you adopt. You may use violence if you
like. It is all the same to me. But he must be removed, you understand,
removed at any cost."

The girl's voice dropped to a hissing, vehement whisper. She laid her
slender fingers upon Lethbridge's arm and grasped his muscles with a
force that surprised him. The girl was terribly in earnest; her lips
were pressed together, and there was a sombre flash in her dark eyes.

"I will do what I can," Lethbridge said. "I am sure that my friend will
help me, but I must tell him what you have told me. There is not much
time to lose, but you can rely upon me."

Vava looked graciously at the speaker. She placed her hand in his, and
he shook it heartily. Then she ran up the steps of her caravan, throwing
the door wide open so that Lethbridge could see inside. He glanced with
a feeling of idle curiosity into the neat exterior. He could see a
pleasantly-furnished room, and noted the books on the shelf and the
flowers on the table. These latter for the most part were ordinary
English blossoms, cut flowers in vases, and in the centre a longer and
more graceful plant hung from an ordinary earthenware pot. Trails from
the plant fell over gracefully, and on this a mass of deep yellow bloom,
the sight of which caused Lethbridge to stagger and rub his eyes in
astonishment. He could not doubt the evidence of his senses. The light
was clear and strong, and to an expert like himself identification was
easy. There in all its glory was a perfect specimen of the Golden Rose!
Lethbridge took a step forward and then hesitated, uncertain what to do.




CHAPTER XXX.--A FRESH ALLY.


Lethbridge's first impulse was to call to the girl and ask her where the
flower came from and how it was in her possession. But his prudence had
not entirely deserted him, and when he was removed from the glamour of
those dark eyes his common sense began to assert itself again. The
discovery was in the nature of a shock. It didn't take him long to agree
that the girl must be innocent, or she would never have displayed the
beautiful flower in so unconcerned a fashion. She made no secret of it,
for she had opened the door sufficiently wide for Lethbridge or anyone
else to see into the caravan, a thing she would never have done in
suspicious circumstances. In all probability, scores of persons must be
aware of the existence of that splendid blossom, which so far as
Lethbridge knew to the contrary was the only specimen of the kind in
Europe. It was possible, of course, that Jasper Payn's Rose still
bloomed in some secluded corner, but it was not to be supposed that this
was the same plant.

Nevertheless, Lethbridge had his doubts. He began to wonder why it was
that Vava was so anxious to get Murshee out of the way. Was she too in
the conspiracy to obtain the Golden Rose? Was she also one of the
daring, expert thieves, prepared to take any risks to secure the
precious object? On the face of it the facts were against her, but, on
the other hand, she was making no effort to conceal the unique flower
which had in the last few days cost a human life in the person of Jasper
Payn.

At any rate, there the Golden Rose was, and there, so far as Lethbridge
was concerned, it was likely to stay. He would take no further steps. He
would do nothing till Wilkinson returned. It would be unwise to act
until he had the detective's advice. There was nothing more to detain
him. He was beginning to feel hungry and thirsty. The lunch hour was at
hand, and the majority of the employees of the circus were partaking of
their midday meal. Lethbridge wandered into the road and towards the
town, arriving presently at a small comfortable-looking hotel where he
could sit in the coffee-room and keep watch for Wilkinson at the same
time. The inn was old-fashioned, with low roof and panelled walls, and
in the dark corners one could only catch the outline of a few of the
customers. Most of these rose presently, and Lethbridge was left alone
with a man who sat busily engaged with his cold beef. He appeared to
have travelled far, for a stray gleam of sunshine showed the dust upon
his boots and trousers. His face was tanned to a deep mahogany hue, his
hands were hard, and a suggestion of tar upon his nails led to the
inference that he had something to do with the sea. His loose collar and
big knotted tie confirmed this impression.

Lethbridge made some casual remark, which was received with a frown and
a drunken response on the part of the stranger. As the man prepared to
leave, Lethbridge caught full sight of his face, rose from his seat, and
held out his hand.

"I think I know you," he said. "We haven't met for some time, but I
recollect you perfectly well. Isn't your name Ward? Didn't you once live
near Beckenham Hall?"

The stranger pulled up and eyed Lethbridge fixedly.

"Never mind what my name is," he said truculently. "If you like to call
me Ward you can. But I am not bound to answer to it."

Lethbridge flushed with annoyance at his rudeness. He had half a mind to
say no more. But he felt sure of his man, and was in no mood to be put
off like this.

"All the same, I know I am right," he said. "I don't want to thrust
myself upon you, but your father was a valued servant of my uncle, and
you and I were friendly when we were boys. No one on the estate took a
greater interest in the gardens than you did. There was no more
promising gardener than you. I heard incidentally a few years ago that
you had given it up and gone to sea. But it is all right, Ward: I don't
want to speak to you unless you want to speak to me."

The stranger hesitated, and his features softened. It was an honest
face, but hard and reckless, as if the man had suffered a good deal at
the hands of others. Perhaps he would have said more had not Lethbridge
turned away as if the conversation were finished.

"All right," he said. "You keep to yourself and I'll keep to myself.
Perhaps that would be better. Not that I admit that my name is Ward or
anything of the sort. It may please you to know that I have heard of Mr.
Jasper Payn. It used to be said that he was mad, but a gentleman all the
same though as strange as they make them. But I know better. It is easy
for a man with money to be straightforward, seeing that he has no cause
to be anything else. But most folk are alike when they want a thing and
money can't buy it. I know Mr. Payn is your uncle, and I know he is a
dishonest old scamp. You can put that in your pipe and smoke it."

The speaker turned away without another word and walked out of the room,
and a moment later Lethbridge saw him plodding doggedly along the road.
Ward's opinion had come as somewhat of a shock, because the man meant
every word he said. Lethbridge remembered when he was a happy-go-lucky,
easygoing young man with a pleasant word for everybody. Formerly he had
been one of the most industrious gardeners on the estate; indeed, Jasper
Payn had been wont to declare that Walter Ward knew as much about the
propagation of flowers and their cultivation as himself. The young man
was still at Beckenham Hall when Lethbridge had shaken the dust of the
place from his feet. It looked as if his future were assured. Later
Lethbridge had been surprised to learn that he had thrown up his berth
and gone to sea, but the incident was nothing to him, and he thought no
more of it. He wondered what had caused this change in the young man,
and why he spoke in such a manner about his old master. But this could
have nothing to do with the troubles which were worrying Lethbridge, and
he forgot the matter when Wilkinson appeared a few minutes afterwards.

The inspector had cast off his disguise, having decided to leave his
sudden disappearance to account for itself. He listened to what
Lethbridge had to say with more or less interest, but his manner became
alert when John told him of the discovery of another specimen of the
Golden Rose.

"Are you sure of it?" he asked excitedly.

"You don't suppose that with my knowledge I could be deceived. I am
certain I saw a specimen of the Golden Rose in the caravan. And the
strange thing is that the girl made no attempt to disguise it. The plant
stood on the table for all and sundry to see, and no doubt half the
people in the circus knew about it. I have been wondering whether the
possession of this plant accounts for Vava's anxiety to get Murshee out
of the way. But you mustn't take anything for granted. I want you to see
for yourself. No doubt you will have an opportunity."

"No doubt," Wilkinson said. "At present I am much more interested in the
performance Vava intends to give us. I believe that it will give me the
clue I am looking for."

"To the murder of my uncle?" Lethbridge asked.

"Oh, not quite that," Wilkinson replied. "But to the attempt upon
yourself, which is more important. In fact the two things are part of
the same programme, and when we unravel one we shall speedily get to the
bottom of the other. Now come along. I want to secure a good seat, for
the nearer we are to the performance the better. The place is sure to be
crowded. There never was a circus, however bad, that failed to attract
the people for ten miles round."

As Wilkinson had predicted the great circular tent was packed with
people when they arrived. They were late, for Lethbridge had made a
mistake in the time and one or two items on the programme had already
been carried out. It was at this point that Mr. Barker came forward in
his politest manner and announced that he had something to say which was
likely to cause disappointment, which, however, in the circumstances,
his patrons and friends would be hoped, kindly overlook. Vava had been
seized with sudden indisposition, which would prevent her from appearing
that afternoon.

A murmur of disappointment followed. Unmistakable hisses were heard,
then a thick-set figure in blue serge arose in the middle of the
audience and denounced the whole thing angrily as a swindle. His manner
and language were so violent that Barker lost his temper, and an
exciting scene followed.

"What does it mean?" Lethbridge whispered to Wilkinson. "Why is that man
so bitter? He is the fellow I was telling you of--my uncle's gardener,
Walter Ward."




CHAPTER XXXI.--FOLLOW MY LEADER.


Certain natures dominate others, and the protests of the sailor man were
not without influence upon the rest of the audience. In the ordinary
course or things the simple-minded people would have been satisfied to
watch the venerable items that have characterised the circus from time
immemorial. Nobody had particularly wanted to see Vava's mysterious act
at all costs, but now it seemed as if every man and woman had come on
purpose. The square, solid figure of Walter Ward stood like a rock above
an angry sea. Then, suddenly, the rest of the folk discovered that they
were to be deprived of full value for their money. A murmur ran round
the packed tent. Some of the younger spirits began to jeer, and almost
before he was aware of the fact, Mr. Barker was called upon to suppress
something like a riot.

Lethbridge stood bewildered. It was incredible that so much could be
made out of nothing in so short a space of time. But Wilkinson was
accustomed to this sort of thing. He rose from his seat and proceeded
towards the ring.

"Come along," he whispered, "there is going to be trouble."

"Impossible," Lethbridge replied.

He honestly thought it was impossible, for he was not used to these
senseless displays of folly and passion, and almost before he could
realise it he was a mere unit in the crowd which was rushing forwards,
intent upon damage. It mattered little what the damage was, so long as
somebody suffered. And the strange part of the affair was that as soon
as the sailor perceived what his headstrong impetuosity had accomplished
he was the person most anxious to repair the trouble. But it is one
thing to raise headlong passions, and another thing to quell them.

By this time Ward was fighting shoulder to shoulder with those in the
ring to prevent further mischief. His face was set and grim. But
something like a thousand people were out of hand. They began to cut the
ropes of the tent, and Wilkinson, with his wide experience of danger,
turned pale as he understood what this meant.

"This must be stopped at all hazards," he said. He had fought his way
to Barker's side by now. "Those fools haven't the least idea what they
are doing. If this tent falls, scores of people will be suffocated. Have
you any firearms about?"

Barker shook his head savagely. It was not the first time he had had
trouble with his audience, but never anything so serious as this. He was
anxious, naturally, to save his property.

"Unfortunately no," he said. "If we had gone a little farther in the
performance I dare say we should have managed. How would it be to have
the lion van in, and turn a couple of them loose?"

Wilkinson vetoed the suggestion at once. He was a police officer, he
said, and could permit nothing of the kind. The trouble was bad enough
as it was, but anything in the shape of a panic would make it a thousand
times worse. Already the women and children were growing frantic. There
were frightened screams here and there mingled with the sobbing of
little ones. A score or more of the circus hands were steadily holding
the people in check, and it seemed as if the trouble were under control.
Then there came another swift rush, and the knot of supporters of law
and order in the centre of the ring were being forced back. Everything
now hung upon a hair. There was a momentary pause as if the ringleaders
felt that they were going too far; then clear and loud above the sudden
stillness came the sharp crack of a revolver shot. It was not much in
itself, but it sufficed to calm the tempest.

Wilkinson groaned in spirit. He turned angrily upon Barker to know what
employee had dared to do such a thing, but Barker spread out his hands
hopelessly, as much as to say that the responsibility was not his, and
that he wiped his hands of the whole business.

Lethbridge turned to see whence the shot came. In the opening tent
leading to the performers' quarters he could see a solitary figure
mounted upon a wagon. The man held a revolver threateningly in his hand.
He appeared ready to fire again, even before he had ascertained whether
or not the last shot had had its effect. Lethbridge was past all
surprise, and therefore it did not astonish him to see that the offender
was no other than Ram Murshee.

The little man stood cool and self-possessed. He was facing the mob of
rioters with perfect equanimity. There was something in his grim face
and resolute air which was not without its moral effect. He had his left
arm pointed straight at the seething mass of humanity. There was no
saying what might have happened had not one of the hands jumped on the
wagon and pulled him down without ceremony. There was a brief struggle,
then the revolver was thrown through an opening in the side of the tent,
and the danger was averted.

No sooner was this dramatic incident over than the infuriated crowd
surged on, intent upon inflicting punishment on the man who jeopardised
their lives. They had forgotten their disappointment. It was no longer
part of their programme to wreck the circus tent; what they wanted now
was revenge upon Murshee. The little man struggled to his feet just in
time to realise his danger, swearing and muttering to himself. He was
courageous as long as he had a weapon in his hand, but his pluck seemed
to have deserted him. He turned and limped across the field, followed by
a score or two of men, who gained rapidly upon him at every stride. His
life was in imminent danger, for if he fell into the hands of his
pursuers they would probably tear him limb from limb. It was not a time
to weigh subsequent punishment in the balance.

Murshee twisted and turned like a hare in and out of the tents, but not
only were his pursuers gaining upon him, but others cut off his retreat,
and in less time than it takes to tell he had a ring of enemies around
him.

There was something of the hunted beast in his appearance as he dodged
and wriggled. An ugly snarl curled his Lips, and a murderous gleam lit
up his eyes. To a certain extent he had lost his nerve, but was not
exactly frightened. If he had had a weapon in his hand at that moment he
would have faced his foes and seen the thing through to the bitter end.
As it was the circle was getting narrower and narrower, and despite his
agility it was only a matter of seconds before he should fall into the
hands of his hunters. At bay, and utterly at a loss to know what to do
next, he darted up the steps of one of the caravans and opened the door.
The caravan was empty, the door was closed and locked, and a second
later Murshee was grinning defiance out of the window.

This afforded a brief, and, as it happened, long enough respite. Barker
and his hands were outside. They had managed to arm themselves with
levers and crowbars, and Barker himself had found a shot gun. There were
lions and tigers and other wild beasts in the circus, and for the
protection of those who handled them certain weapons were necessary. Two
or three of the circus employees had procured these guns and pistols.
They made a dash forward, and cleared the rioters off the steps of the
caravan. Barker, nothing daunted, mounted the top of the steps and stood
there with his small army around him.

"Don't come farther!" he yelled. "The first man who tries that game will
get a charge of shot through him. I tell you these guns are loaded, and
we won't hesitate to shoot. Get out, all of you!"

This short, sharp speech was not without its effect. The group of circus
hands round the caravan looked grim and defiant.

"There is no harm done," Barker went on. "Nobody has been hurt. And if
you people take my advice you'll clear out before the police come. I can
get you all six months for this if I like. What do you mean by coming
here trying to destroy my property? What do you mean by carrying on like
this simply because one of my lady artistes wasn't well enough to appear
to-day? Have you never heard of anybody being ill before? And you call
yourselves Englishmen and lovers of fair play! I am ashamed of the whole
lot of you, that I am! Now, clear out before there is trouble."

Barker had the upper hand now, and he knew it. He stood there, shouting
in stentorian tones with his raucous, contemptuous voice. He saw the
change that was coming over the demeanour of the mob. The hot blood was
evaporating, and some of the ringleaders were beginning to realise that
if they stayed they were likely to find themselves in trouble. Some of
them had already prudently crossed over to the hotel and telephoned to
the police. At the gate of the field a number of constables now
appeared, and almost immediately a yell of "Police!" went up. This was
sufficient to dissipate the last semblance of rioting, and the
malcontents fled like sheep. The field was emptied as by magic, and
Barker dropped his gun and wiped his heated face.

"That was touch and go," he said, addressing himself to Lethbridge and
Wilkinson. "I have been in tight places in my time, but this was the
tightest. What has become of that sailor man, I wonder? I should like to
have a word or two with him."

Lethbridge looked at Wilkinson and shook his head.




CHAPTER XXXII.--MURSHEE IS ALARMED.


Lethbridge was particularly anxious that no harm should happen to Walter
Ward. His chief desire was to interview the sailor and ask what he meant
by the insinuation that Jasper Payn had not acted as honestly as he
might have done. After what had happened it would be easy to put
pressure upon Ward, who no doubt would sing very small when he learned
what his impetuous folly had brought about. It was hard for Wilkinson to
see what Lethbridge was driving at, but he maintained a discreet silence
till John chose to explain. Lethbridge went on rapidly:

"I don't think we ought to blame the fellow altogether," he said. "It
was no fault of his that some of the audience behaved like savages."

"A bench of magistrates would think otherwise," Barker said drily.

"That is possible," Lethbridge responded. "But as soon as the man
understood what he had done he worked like a nigger to undo the
mischief. But what about your friend with the revolver? I mean the man
inside the caravan. If there had been any loss of life he would be most
responsible."

"I was taken by surprise," Barker growled. "When I saw him standing on
the wagon with a revolver in his hand you could have knocked me down
with a feather. I was so frightened that I hardly knew what to do. If
one of my men had not pulled him down there would have been murder to a
certainty. And all this comes from doing a kind action. I took in that
chap and Sir Montagu Goshe after they had met with their motor accident
and this is how he repays a good turn. I thought he wasn't well enough
to be out."

Lethbridge hesitated. He noticed that Wilkinson was leaving the
conversation to him, and he was anxious not to blunder. He had to decide
quickly, too, fully cognisant that a false step might precipitate
irretrievable disaster. Unless something unusual happened he would be
face to face with Murshee in a few minutes, and almost certainly the
little man would recognise him. Already Barker had made up his mind for
him, for the circus proprietor was thumping on the door of the caravan
demanding admittance.

The key was turned in the lock and Murshee's pale, anxious face peeped
out. The man was not frightened in the ordinary sense. He must have
known that his pursuers had vanished. But there was a curiously
disturbed look in his eyes which Lethbridge could not account for. He
did not see Lethbridge at all; in fact, he seemed to be looking into
space in the weird, uncanny manner of a man suffering from mental
delusion. He shook his head slowly, when Barker spoke to him, and walked
back into the caravan and sat down. He propped his head upon his hands
and gazed long and fixedly at the table in the centre of the van. Then
it flashed upon Lethbridge what it was that filled Murshee with
apprehension. For the caravan was the vehicle devoted to Vava's use, and
on the table stood the Golden Rose in all its glorious beauty. With
difficulty Lethbridge averted his eyes from the plant, though Murshee
was a curiously interesting study.

"Are you hurt?" Barker asked.

No reply came from the little man. With his head still resting on his
hands he gazed at the Golden Rose as if it were an accusing spirit, a
skeleton of the feast visible only to himself. He was speaking, and
Lethbridge caught some of the words.

"It is a delusion," he muttered; "nothing less than a delusion. I am
going mad. That is the matter with me. Ram Murshee is losing his reason,
else where did she get it? How did it come here? Only last night I saw
it hidden away----"

Barker laid his hand angrily upon Murshee's shoulder and shook him
violently.

"What ails the fool? Now, then, wake up. There's nothing to be
frightened at."

The words aroused all Murshee's combative faculties. He turned upon
Barker.

"Frightened!" he snarled. "Who's frightened. Use that word to me again
and I'll flay you. Where did it come from?"

"Where did what come from?" Barker demanded. "You're dotty. You haven't
got over your accident yet."

Murshee laughed unpleasantly. He was pulling himself together now. He
began to see that his peculiar demeanour was exciting suspicion in the
breasts of those about him.

"I am sorry," he muttered in a kind of apologetic way. "My head is a bit
queer. I came outside to get a breath of air and I saw what was going
on. If I had had my way I should have sent my revolver into the lot of
them. Perhaps it is as well that one of your men interfered. What do you
happen to be doing here, Mr. Lethbridge? I am glad to see that you are
all right again."

"That is very kind of you," Lethbridge said drily. "I am well again,
thank you. The gardener who was looking after me heard of your accident,
and I came along to see if I could do anything. Take my advice and go
and lie down again."

Murshee was about to make some retort, but suddenly changed his mind. He
turned on his heel and walked slowly towards the tent that had been
placed at the disposal of himself and Sir Montagu Goshe. At the same
time somebody claimed Barker's attention, and Lethbridge and Wilkinson
were left together.

"You did that very well," the detective said. "I see what you are
driving at. I fancy you have lulled Murshee's suspicions to rest, but it
won't be for long. What a queer tangle this is! And how astonished
Murshee must have been when he bolted into the caravan and found the
Golden Rose on the table! It seems to have been raining Golden Roses
lately, unless this happens to be the one stolen from your uncle by
Goshe and Murshee, which in turn was stolen from them by Vava the
mysterious."

"I don't think so," Lethbridge said. "I think this is another specimen.
You saw how utterly surprised Murshee was. You heard what he said. We
know pretty well where my uncle's Golden Rose is to be found, and yet we
are not a step nearer the solution of the mystery. I begin to think we
never shall be."

Wilkinson nodded his head cheerfully.

"I don't take that view at all," he said. "Every step brings us nearer.
I shall be able to say definitely one way or the other after I have seen
Vava's performance this evening."

"But are you sure you will see Vava to-night? Are you certain she isn't
keeping out of the way purposely? My belief is that illness isn't the
reason at all. She is desperately afraid of Murshee. She dare not appear
until he has gone, and that is why she failed to appear this afternoon.
She asked me to try to get him out of the way. Don't you remember that I
told you so? This is, to be sure, only my conjecture. What are you going
to do?"

Wilkinson replied that the obvious course was to wait until the evening
performance. They would be able to tell then in which direction the
enquiry ought to proceed. But Lethbridge had another project in his mind
which he hastened to disclose.

"I should like to find Ward," he said. "I am sure he can tell us
something. He used to be a marvellously good gardener. He was a
favourite servant of my uncle's, and now he tells me that my uncle was
deceitful and dishonest. He spoke in the bitterest manner about the poor
old gentleman, and I confess I should like to know what he meant. A man
doesn't talk like that without some reason, and Ward would not have
behaved as he did this afternoon unless he had some powerful reason for
that, too. Why should he have been so disappointed because Vava did not
perform? Depend upon it Ward was moved by some very strong feeling. I
think he came a long distance solely to watch Vava. It would be a good
thing to discover him. He can't be far off. He is too independent to run
away after being the cause of all that mischief. Let us go across to the
hotel and see if we can hear anything of him there."

Wilkinson was not averse from this suggestion. He had nothing to do for
the rest of the day, and the time might just as well be passed in that
manner as in any other. They walked to the hotel and entered the bar,
which was empty, save for one man smoking in the corner. He was the very
man, however, whom Lethbridge wanted most to see. He laid his pipe down
and looked up defiantly.

"I want a talk with you," Lethbridge said.




CHAPTER XXXIII.--WARD'S STORY.


"As you like," Ward growled. "I have no quarrel with you, Mr. John. You
are welcome to say what you please. I didn't run away because I thought
there would be trouble over yonder, and being the cause of the mischief
I am willing to face my responsibility. I was a fool, that's what I was!
A headstrong fool! But I had come many miles to see the performance, and
I don't mind confessing I was bitterly disappointed. I lost my head and
you know what the consequence was. I suppose I shall have to hang about
for a week or two and very likely the end of it will be six months for
my pains."

"I don't think so," Lethbridge said. "What my friend Inspector Wilkinson
has to say will have considerable influence with Mr. Barker. I think we
have convinced Barker that you could not have been actuated by a
criminal motive, at any rate, he feels you did your best to make amends.
Probably you won't hear any more about it."

Ward looked dubious, but seemed to be satisfied on the whole, though he
did not relish the presence of a police officer.

"Why did you bring him?" he asked, pointing to Wilkinson. "We could have
done without him."

"I had better explain," Lethbridge said. "Perhaps I had better begin at
the beginning. You don't know that my uncle has been the victim of a
tragedy."

Ward expressed astonishment. It was easy to see that this was the first
he had heard of the trouble.

"I am sorry to hear that, sir," he said. "Your uncle behaved very badly
to me, but I owe him no ill will. Did he meet with an accident?"

"He was murdered," Lethbridge said impressively. "He was murdered in the
most extraordinary circumstances, and the crime was unaccountable
because my uncle was without an enemy. You recollect Mr. Payn used to
talk a great deal about a flower called the Golden Rose."

Ward nodded quickly. An unusual light of intelligence flashed from his
eyes.

"I remember it as if it were only yesterday," he said. "Mr. Payn was
crazed on the subject. He talked about it so much that I was bitten with
the mania myself for a time. But I beg your pardon, I am interrupting
you. I am interested and ready and willing to tell you all I know."

"Well, it was this way," Lethbridge resumed. "After I left my uncle in
circumstances which you are aware of, I devoted myself to the
cultivation of flowers. I was not fit for anything else. I had had no
business training, and was often hard put to it to earn a living. After
a while I took up the cult of the Golden Rose, and one day, soon after I
had moved my quarters, I hit upon the flower purely by accident. About
the same time I found, to my great surprise, that I was living close to
my uncle. I had no idea that he had lost his money and had changed his
residence. It was Fate that brought us together, and on the first night
we met, my uncle showed me his Golden Rose. He declared, however, that
certain persons were bent upon robbing him of his treasure. Indeed, he
showed marks of violence in support of his theory. To make a long story
short, I went home and destroyed my specimen of the Golden Rose. For one
thing I did not want further trouble with my uncle, but the main reason
why I burnt the flower is wholly private and personal, and I cannot
discuss it with anyone. Early next morning my uncle was found at death's
door in his greenhouse and the Golden Rose had disappeared. Luck helped
my enquiries, and I was soon on the track of the thieves. Luck stood me
in stead again to-day, when I saw the Golden Rose in full bloom in the
caravan of Vava, whose non-appearance caused you such disappointment.
Now, my dear Ward, I should be very stupid if I could not see some
connection between this Golden Rose and your desire to watch Vava's
performance. I think you know I am friendly towards you. I think you
will be persuaded to act candidly in the matter. We don't wish any harm
to the girl; in fact, I am sure she is as good as she is beautiful. But
in some extraordinary way she is mixed up with this business, and I look
to you to help us, I believe you can give us information which will
assist in solving the mystery of my uncle's death!"

Ward was deeply impressed by what Lethbridge had said. He showed no sign
of confusion, yet he did not seem to know how to proceed.

"I'll do what I can, sir," he said presently. "But as far as Vava is
concerned, I decline to say anything. That is my business. But I'll tell
you something you don't know, and that is that Jasper Payn did not speak
the truth when he told you he had found out how to propagate the Golden
Rose. He never discovered that at all; he was never near it. The rose he
showed you belonged to me, and I brought it myself from the Vale of
Kashmir. After I left your uncle I wandered all over the world, first in
one ship and then in another, till finally I found myself in Persia laid
up from the effects of an accident and unable to do anything for months.
Having to find some occupation, however, I naturally turned to the thing
I knew most about. There were flowers all round me, so that I had not
far to go. I was very much interested in roses, and when the people got
to trust me I learnt many secrets which horticulturists in this country
would be only too glad to know. But that is beside the point. I learnt
not only that the Golden Rose existed, but was lucky enough to get sight
of a specimen, and then I heard that a man up country had several of
them."

Ward paused for a moment.

"I don't mind telling you that I meant to have one of them. I saw that
if I brought it to England there was a fortune for me. It doesn't matter
how I obtained the rose, but I smuggled it successfully out of the
country and arrived here. I went to my old employer, and committed the
flower into his care. It wasn't blooming then, and he refused to believe
that I had found the genuine treasure. I left it with him till it should
bloom, and then went back to Persia with another project in my mind.
Naturally I trusted my old master. I thought I could depend upon him and
did not expect on my return to England that he would pretend the rose
was dead. But he lied, and I was fool enough to believe him. Mr. Payn
had me entirely at his mercy. He was the leading authority in the
gardening world. No one would believe a word I said if I accused him of
stealing my rose. I waited until I was able to prove my point, and in
fact was on my way to call upon Mr. Payn when I met you here. For the
present I cannot say any more. As to Vava, if she likes to speak she
can; if she doesn't care to do so then I cannot help you."

Lethbridge looked significantly at Wilkinson, who smiled vaguely in
reply.

"Very well," Lethbridge said. "I am obliged by your candour so far. But
tell me if you have ever heard of Sir Montagu Goshe, a millionaire and a
great person in society. He has a secretary named Ram Murshee. They are
both interested in flowers, and are far from indifferent to the Golden
Rose. Do you know anything about them?"

Ward's eyes flashed angrily.

"Do I not?" he muttered. "Just bring me face to face with them, that's
all. So Montagu Goshe is a big bug in society? Well, that takes the
cake. But I won't say more now. I have work to do before evening. I
shall be back in time for Barker's show. After then I shall be at your
service."

Wilkinson nodded to Lethbridge, and the latter said no more. Ward
departed, leaving Lethbridge and his companion to kill time as best they
could till evening. They crossed over to the circus before half-past 7,
only to find Barker in a perturbed frame of mind and disposed to take
the worst possible view of human nature generally.

"What is the matter?" Wilkinson asked.

"Oh, matter enough," Barker said with an oath. "The men are bad enough
in my profession, but the women are devils. And the better the performer
the worse the temper. But I never expected to see Vava behave in this
fashion."

"What has happened to her?"

"Bolted! Vanished!" Barker said, crisply. "Left no trace behind. And
Lady Goshe has vanished too!"




CHAPTER XXXIV.--THE UNDER-STUDY.


For a moment Wilkinson was taken aback. He had not expected such a
development; but he was too old a hand at detection to show his feelings
for long. It was a keen disappointment, however, and he thought he would
have to do his work all over again.

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"Quite sure!" Barker echoed. "Much too sure. Hang me if these women
aren't enough to turn a man's hair grey. I have been at this game for
the best part of thirty years, and never a week passes without trouble
with one or other of them. Sometimes it's jealousy, sometimes temper.
And if one excuse won't work, they soon find another. And the better and
cleverer they are, the greater the trouble. I don't mind their getting
on, bless you; I don't object to their leaving me to better themselves,
because one always expects that. But I do kick against ingratitude. When
that girl came to me she was nearly starving, and she professed to be so
grateful. I actually began to believe in her. And now she walks off
without by your leave and serves me a trick like this!"

Lethbridge was hardly listening to this tirade of the circus
proprietor's. Anxious as he was to learn what had become of Vava, the
disappearance of Lady Goshe was more disturbing. He wanted to know if
the two of them had gone off together.

"How should I know?" Barker asked irritably. "I am bothered enough about
Vava without worrying over Lady Goshe. She didn't come here as my guest.
Of course, I did my best for her and her people, but they have been a
confounded nuisance. Probably Lady Goshe has gone home. I had a message
from my wife to say she was better this afternoon. Now I should like to
know what I'm to do. I nearly had the show wrecked this morning on
account of Vava, and what will happen to-night when I tell my patrons
that she is gone, I'm blowed if I can tell."

"Don't worry about that," Wilkinson said soothingly. "The thing is not
your fault and it need not cost you a single penny to have a sufficient
police force at hand. By the way, what was Vava's performance?"

Barker's face lighted up with some thing like enthusiasm.

"It was one of the neatest things you ever saw," he said. "Not a bit
like the show we advertise on the posters. Of course, you understand we
have to make our pictures as sensational as possible. But there was
nothing really blood-thirsty about Vava's bit of biz. It was more a
mystery than anything else. We made a play of it. Supposing you wanted
to remove a man and you didn't know how to do it. Suppose he was a real
bad 'un, the sort of chap the audience always yells at when he comes on
the stage. Well, he's in the way. The persecuted heroine has married
somebody else, and the blackguard turns up to blackmail her. She must
get rid of him for her happiness, but she does it in her own way. Her
husband doesn't know she has been on the stage, because he is a little
strict and she has not had the courage to tell him. She married him for
a home, but has come to love him passionately--you know the sort of gush
they give you across the river and in the music-hall sketches. Then the
rascal chap came along and makes himself known as the girl is sitting
amongst her friends at tea in her swagger conservatory. He hints at what
he will do, but, of course, he talks over the heads of his audience,
though the woman knows perfectly well what's he driving at."

"She talks back at the man and so lets the audience into the secret,
whilst the woman's guests haven't the slightest idea what is going on.
Then when the crisis arrives there comes the sound of a shot and the
blackmailer falls dead at the woman's feet, at least, I don't mean
literally at her feet, but only a few yards off. Nobody understands how
he was shot, but the girl has to explain, and this she does by placing
on a shelf three or four vases, which are mysteriously blown to pieces
whilst the people are looking on. It is the heroine does all this, but
the puzzle is to find out how she uses a revolver without anybody being
able to see. She sits in a chair with her hands behind her back all the
time, and keeps on talking as if nothing had happened. It's a deuced
clever and mysterious line and goes down bang with my audience. It cost
a lot of money to fit up the scene, but it has paid me well, and I don't
grudge it."

Barker's hearers were more interested than he imagined.

Lethbridge listened breathlessly to the story, which thrilled him to the
core, for Barker was describing, in blissful ignorance, the very way in
which the attempt had been made on his own life.

When he escaped death he had been in a conservatory. The man who had
tried to murder him had been sitting not far off casually smoking a
cigarette and resting his head on his hands clasped behind his neck. The
whole thing came back to Lethbridge vividly and he shuddered. Was he at
last on the brink of an explanation?

"How is it done?" he asked eagerly.

Barker winked his left eye significantly.

"Now you are asking, sir," he said. "You can't expect me to give the
show away like that, can you? Why we should have scores of people
imitating it in a month and I should lose the best turn I ever offered
to my patrons. But I don't want to put on any frills. I would not tell
you if I could, and I could not if I would, for I haven't a notion. I am
as much in the dark as you are. When Vava comes on the stage everybody
is ready for her. She has only got to take a revolver and set the show
going. It's genuine enough. Sitting half hidden by the foliage she lies
back with her hands behind her head and breaks half a dozen bottles at
12 paces without turning a hair. I have often tried to get to the bottom
of the thing, but have never succeeded."

"Then you really don't know," Lethbridge said regretfully.

"No more than the dead," Barker said. "You must excuse me, gentlemen, I
am too busy to waste more time. I must try to fake up some substitute
for Vava. Well, my girl, what do you want?"

A young woman approached the group, a bold-eyed girl, handsome enough in
her way. She was flashly dressed, and wore a profusion of cheap
jewellery, and any one could tell that she belonged to the lower walks
of the musical-hall profession. She stood irresolute before she burst
into speech.

"Is it true wot I hear?" she asked. "Has Vava bolted? Not that I'm sorry
and I don't mind saying so. She was a deal too 'aughty and stand-off for
me. Not but wot I tried to be friends. All the time she've been 'ere
I've never once been inside her van. Mind, I don't grudge her a
sleeping-place. I don't want to make a fuss----"

"Well, then don't make one," Barker said shortly. "What are you
bothering me for?"

"I ast you a question, guv'nor," the girl said.

"You asked me if Vava had gone. Well, if it is any consolation to you,
she has. And what is more, I don't think there is the slightest chance
of her coming back. Now you can run away and console yourself with
that."

But the woman stood her ground doggedly.

"Thought a lot of her show, didn't you?" she said, jeeringly.

"Thought more of it than all the rest of you put together," Barker said
pointedly. "Thought so much of her that I had a mind to sell up the
whole thing and take Vava round the country with nothing else. You can
do something better? Of course you can, something to knock Vava's
exhibition sky-high. You'll be about the twelfth that's come to me
already with the same suggestion. But I don't want 'em, and what's more,
the public don't want 'em, either. It's Vava I'm after and nothing else.
If you can do her business I'll take you on at once and give you another
ten pounds a week. But it's a safe offer."

The woman laughed curtly.

"Are you sure of that?" she said. "If you think there's no one in the
show knows Vava's secret you're mistaken. I know what it was, guv'nor,
and wot's more, I can do the business. I don't say I can do it as clean
and neat, but I can manage it well enough to keep your audience quiet
to-night."

"Where did you get it?" Barker asked eagerly.

"Well, that's no concern o' yours. I saw something a while ago that set
me thinkin', and I've had my eyes open ever since. I've been practising
and practising the last two months, and when I 'eard just now wot 'ad
'appened, thinks I my turn's come at last. I'll show you if you like; I
can't say fairer not that; and if you are satisfied, then you've got to
give me another ten quid a week."

"That's a bargain," Barker said emphatically. "I'll pay you that money
and never grudge it for a moment, if you do what you say you can. You
will excuse me, gentlemen. It would be foolish to miss a chance like
this."




CHAPTER XXXV.--PERSONAL EXPLANATION.


Barker hustled away without ceremony, leaving Lethbridge and his
companions to make the most of what they had heard.

"You never know where you'll find a witness," Wilkinson said. "Fancy
that woman being able to give me information which I would give one of
my ears to possess. She never heard of the Golden Rose. The name of
Jasper Payn will convey nothing to her. She is just a commonplace woman
pursuing a commonplace occupation. And yet, with out knowing it, she
holds the key of the mystery in her hands. Who says that my profession
is without its romance?"

"I see what you mean," Lethbridge said, "but I don't quite know what you
are going to do about it."

"Well, I shall pursue a policy of masterly inactivity. Goodness knows
when we shall see Vava again. I have a shrewd idea where she has gone
and why she has gone. One could follow her, but that would be a waste of
time. When I come to cross examine her, as I shall have to do sooner or
later, I want to be sure of my ground. I want to be able to tell her
that I know how her performance is done and who taught her. I think
we'll stay and see how this woman gets on in her new role."

"Don't you think she was merely boasting?" Lethbridge asked.

"No, I don't," Wilkinson replied. "I think she meant it. She is annoyed
because Vava kept her at a distance and has been spying on her and seems
to have picked up a pretty fair notion of how the thing was done. At any
rate, I mean to see her performance, and afterwards I shall interview
her and give her a hint as to who I am and what I am after. She'll tell
me right enough how the thing is worked."

"And then?" Lethbridge asked, eagerly.

"Well, after that sir, we will follow up Lady Goshe and Vava who have
gone off together. We know that Lady Goshe is only too anxious to leave
her husband. We know, too, that Vava is terribly afraid of Ram Murshee.
She would never have appeared had she known he was in the neighbourhood,
and it is obvious that it was Murshee who taught her the use of a
revolver in such a way that a score of people might be looking on and
not one of them could tell who fired the fatal shot. This is precisely
what happened in your own case. But for a miracle, you would have been a
dead man at this moment, and Murshee would have had another crime on his
conscience. There would have been an inquest, and all sorts of
enquiries, but the truth would never have come out and Murshee would be
the last man to be suspected. It is one thing to suspect and another to
prove your words before a jury. I know Murshee tried to murder you, but
if I had been called as a witness I should never have given even a hint
of my views to the coroner's jury. I couldn't have proved a single word,
and I should have alarmed my man into the bargain. But Vava can tell us
all about it. She will be by far the most important witness, and if she
didn't learn the trick from Murshee himself, then my deductions will be
utterly wrong and I shall be a colossal failure."

Lethbridge nodded. So far the argument was ingenious, and he could see
no flaw in it.

"I think you are right," he said. "At any rate, the thing is none the
less fascinating that there is an element of danger in it. But do you
really know where Lady Goshe is to be found."

"I fancy so," Wilkinson replied. "She is not clever, but Vava is, and
you may depend upon it that she planned the escapade and chose the
hiding-place. Now, supposing you wanted to hide yourself, what would you
do? Would you lay your plans beforehand and pick out some lonely spot on
one of the islands of the South Pacific, as they generally do in books?
Would you do that?"

"I dare say I should," Lethbridge smiled. "Man is a very imitative
animal."

"That is the very fact we rely on in our investigations," Wilkinson
said, drily. "We can nearly always take it for granted that the fugitive
from justice keeps to conventional lines. However clever a criminal may
be, he is constantly at a disadvantage in trying to escape. The avenues
are too few, and the arm of justice is too long. He seems to forget that
our ramifications reach all over the world, and that the more out of the
way the spot he chooses the more likely he is to attract attention. We
telegraph the description of our man all over the globe, and it is a
hundred to one he is generally picked up on some coasting steamer, or in
some out-of-the-way port where he is the only stranger who can give no
plausible account of himself."

"That seems reasonable,'" Lethbridge murmured.

"Of course it is. There is little subtlety in my argument, and it is
natural a man should feel safe because he happens to be far from the
scene of his crime. As a matter of fact, the criminal is much safer if
he remains close to the scene of his misdemeanour. That is the very
locality the police as a rule trouble least about. This is just the
argument a smart girl like Vava will adopt. By and by Goshe will be
hunting for his wife all over the Continent, never dreaming that she, so
to speak, was within a stone's throw of him before he left England. So
far the thing is clear, but Lady Goshe is in a nervous condition, and it
is essential she should be with friends. She will be with friends. I
wouldn't mind betting that by this time she is under the same roof as
her sister. However, we shall see for ourselves tomorrow. We shall go to
Manchester in the morning, because the next act of the drama will take
place there."

"But why?" Lethbridge asked. "You would not betray the unfortunate
lady's hiding-place to the people she is most anxious to avoid. You see
what I mean."

"There is such a thing as being cruel to be kind," Wilkinson said. "The
time will soon come when I must have Goshe and his accomplice close
under my eye. It will be necessary to arrest them sooner or later.
Besides, one or two points have to be cleared up, and these can be
solved much better at Manchester than elsewhere. However, this is in the
air at present. Now, what do you say to an early dinner so that we may
be in time for a good seat at the performance? I am convinced we are
pretty well finished here."

Lethbridge fell in with Wilkinson's suggestion. It was about half-past 7
when they returned to the circus and procured a couple of good seats.
The story of the afternoon's dilemma appeared to have become public
property, for the tent was packed to its utmost capacity long before the
performance began. With casual curiosity Lethbridge glanced about him. A
few seats away he noted the grim brown face and eager eyes of Walter
Ward. He called Wilkinson's attention to the fact, and a shade of
anxiety flitted over the detective's face.

"This won't do," the latter whispered. "We cannot risk another outbreak
like that of this morning. We must arrange so that Ward can change seats
with somebody. I feel anxious to have him under my own eye."

There was some grumbling on the part of the audience, but the exchange
of seats was made, and a few moments later Ward was seated between
Lethbridge and Wilkinson. He had some notion why he had been invited to
change his place, for he smiled grimly and said nothing, his attention
being fixed upon the arena, where the attendants were preparing for the
forthcoming performance. The best part of an hour elapsed, and then Ward
began to grow more impatient and more restless as Vava's turn drew near.
The audience were a shade less excited. A murmur went up as Barker
stepped into the ring and began a personal explanation. He had to crave
the indulgence of his audience, he said. Vava was still indisposed, but
rather than disappoint her audience she had imparted her secret to
another member of the company, who proposed to go through the
performance, which she would do in an equally satisfactory manner, so
that from the spectators' point of view they would be getting full value
for their money.

Something like applause greeted this statement. With the exception of
Ward, everybody appeared to be more or less satisfied. But he started up
from his seat, beside himself with anger and disappointment, and would
probably have repeated his conduct of the afternoon had not Wilkinson
pulled him down by force.

"You fool!" he hissed. "Do you want to get into trouble again? Do you
suppose you are the only one who has a personal interest in this matter?
Can't you understand that there is an urgent reason why Mr. Lethbridge
and myself are here? Besides, your curiosity will be gratified before
long."

Ward growled, but had himself in hand again, and there was no sign of
further anger.




CHAPTER XXXVI.--THE SCENE OF THE TROUBLE.


The performance proceeded from start to finish exactly as Barker had
described. There was no hitch whatever, though it lacked a certain
sparkle owing to the fact that the understudy was a trifle nervous. But
the thing went successfully, and Barker mopped his face with a big silk
handkerchief....he listened to the plaudits of the spectators. No sooner
was the turn over than Ward rose to his feet and began to make his way
outside. He was quickly followed by Lethbridge and Wilkinson. When in
the open air Ward gave way to his feelings. It mattered little what he
said or did now, and his companions waited till he was in the proper
frame of mind to listen to their arguments.

"I don't know whether I told you that I am a police officer," Wilkinson
said. "Oh, yes, Mr. Lethbridge told you. Now, the authorities have
placed in my hands the investigation into the death of Jasper Payn. You
are aware that Mr. Payn was killed by one or more scoundrels who were
anxious to obtain possession of the Golden Rose which you claim as your
property. We know almost to a certainty that the men who are at the
bottom of this business are Sir Montagu Goshe and his accomplice, Ram
Murshee. Mr. Lethbridge is with me in this business; he has urgent
reasons of his own for bringing those ruffians to justice, mainly
because he is under suspicion himself of having caused the death of Mr.
Payn. Unfortunately for Mr. Lethbridge my two rascals concluded that he
was on their track. They will stick at nothing. They laid a scheme to
murder him, and all but succeeded. He escaped because he carried a
turnip watch in his upper left vest pocket. The bullet struck this watch
and saved Mr. Lethbridge's life. The bullet was fired in one of Sir
Montagu Goshe's conservatories by a man who was leaning back in a chair
with his hands behind his head. I should be insulting your intelligence,
Mr. Ward, if I doubted that you knew the name of the man who fired the
shot."

"Ram Murshee for a million. What a blackguard he is!"

"Precisely," Wilkinson said drily. "It did not take me long to find that
out. Besides, I know something about the man and his methods. But one
thing I don't know, though I have a hazy idea, is how the shot was
fired. I am in hopes that you can tell me, Mr. Ward."

"That is just where I am done," Ward said frankly. "I can tell you a
good deal about Goshe and Murshee, because I was in close contact with
them for months while I was on the Persian Gulf. It was there also that
I met----"

The speaker paused and bit his lip.

"I pray you not to be reticent with us," Wilkinson said politely. "You
will find before we have finished that our interests are identical. You
were going to say, I think, that it was on the Persian Gulf that you met
the mysterious and fascinating lady who is known to the public as Vava.
I don't wish to be too curious, but I hope that you will answer my
question."

"You are too clever for me," Ward muttered. "You are quite right. I met
Vava there, and Lady Goshe also. I fancy she was governess to an English
family before Goshe married her. They were a queer lot altogether and I
could tell you some strange tales. But they have nothing to do with the
business in hand. I don't know how it was, but Murshee had an influence
over Vava. I can't say whether she hated or feared him most. At any
rate, I fell in love with the girl, and I know that she was fond of me.
I should have married her if that scoundrel hadn't come my way; then
suddenly the whole lot disappeared, and I have been hunting Vava high
and low for a long time. She is a good girl. Whatever her associates may
be, she is all right, Mr. Inspector. You may think otherwise, but you
will find that you are wrong."

"I don't think otherwise," Wilkinson hastened to explain. "I am sure she
is a good girl, but she is in a position to give us valuable
information, and I don't feel disposed to lose an opportunity like this.
I was partly in hopes you would be able to explain how this strange
performance is accomplished, but you can't, and there is an end of the
matter. Still, you can be of great assistance to us, and if you have
nothing better to do I shall be glad----"

"I have nothing whatever to do," Ward said graciously. "I have done
pretty well from a monetary point of view, and my one great object in
life now is to seek out Vava and have an explanation from her. I have
been following her up for days, and you can imagine my disappointment
this morning when I found that she had slipped through my fingers.
Still, it is all accounted for. By a bit of pure bad luck Murshee
blundered upon the very spot where the girl was to be found, and she
fled merely to avoid him. Possibly she might have remained had Lady
Goshe not turned up also, but this after all is a mere supposition. I
can't tell you how those revolver shots were fired, though, like Mr.
Wilkinson, I have a pretty good idea. I have seen the thing actually
done. But it can't be much of a secret now, or that impudent looking
woman could not have gone through the performance to-night. Still,
perhaps Vava showed her."

"I don't think so," Wilkinson hastened to explain. "There seems to be a
certain amount of jealousy about the whole thing, and Vava must have
been carefully watched by the woman who appeared as her understudy. In
fact, it is this lady whom I am looking for now. I think it will
frighten her. At any rate, I will try a bit of bluff. I believe she is
coming out of the tent. Excuse me for a few minutes. Don't go away. I
will be back as soon as possible, and when I return we shall want to
stand still. There will be no occasion for that."

Wilkinson walked rapidly after the woman, and tapped her smartly on the
shoulder. She turned hastily and faced him. His features were grim, his
manner was sharp and stern, and he went directly to the point.

"What do you want?" the woman asked defiantly.

"I wouldn't adopt that tone if I were you," Wilkinson said curtly. "I
have been watching your performance this evening. It is very clever and
mysterious and novel. It is new to this country, at all events. But to a
police officer who has travelled over the world there are fewer
novelties. Possibly I omitted to mention that I was a police officer,
did I?"

The woman's manner changed swiftly. She was anxious and uneasy.

"You didn't tell me so, sir," she said.

"Ah, permit me to introduce Inspector Wilkinson, of Scotland Yard. I
don't wish to interfere with your livelihood, and that is why I am
talking to you in this friendly way. It would be a misfortune if you had
to give up your work and hang about a police court for a few weeks. To
be frank, I am investigating a case of attempted murder in which a man
was shot at exactly in the same way as I saw you break those bottles
to-night. It was only by a miracle that the victim escaped. It may be
only a coincidence, of course but you can see how awkward I could make
it for you if I chose after watching your performance to-night. I don't
want to do that if you will tell me how the thing is done."

The woman's manner changed once more. She was furtive, suspicious, and
smiled derisively.

"That isn't good enough," she said. "How do I know you are not bluffing
me? How do I know you don't want my secret to teach it to somebody else?
I could tell you the whole thing in a few words, and the rest is merely
practice."

This was no time to hesitate. Wilkinson took one of his cards from his
pocket, and handed it to the woman. He turned quietly on his heel saying
she would hear from Scotland Yard directly, and that she would have no
one to thank but herself for any inconvenience. Without a second's delay
the woman wheeled round and grabbed Wilkinson by the arm.

"All right," she said. "I see you are in earnest. I'll tell you, only
you mustn't use the information for any other purpose. It wouldn't be
fair."

Wilkinson said nothing. The woman leant over, whispered a few words in
his ear, and then vanished rapidly into the darkness. The detective
walked to the spot where his two friends were waiting for him.

"Good business," he said with pardonable pride in his voice. "Let us
find a time-table. Perhaps we can reach Manchester to-night."




CHAPTER XXXVII.--OUT OF THE WORLD.


Events have been somewhat anticipated, however, and it yet remains to
account for the disappointment of the proprietor of the circus.

Mr. Barker had been more annoyed at the defection of his favourite
artist than he had cared to confess. Wherever he had been Vava's
performance had been a great draw, and the astute circus proprietor knew
perfectly well he was paying her much less than she deserved. There was
no trouble with her, either, a fact which gave him unbounded
satisfaction. Usually he had to put up with all kinds of difficulties
from his performers, and more than once declared that they gave him more
anxiety than the stars of grand opera. Still, Vava had never given him
any anxiety before, and he had come to think that his precious pearl was
likely to prove a permanency. Therefore when she walked into Barker's
caravan and asked leave for the day the showman was taken aback.

"I can't do it," he said bluntly. "What will people say if I get up and
announce that my most attractive number is no longer on the programme?"

But Vava was barely listening. Her mind was full of other things. Her
sole anxiety was to leave without delay. She could not tell why. She
knew that if she told Barker the truth he would laugh the thing to
scorn. But the girl was reckless. She felt that it was impossible to
remain in the same neighbourhood as Ram Murshee and breathe freely. The
man exercised a terror over her. He was the only creature she dreaded.
And she was afraid of him with a blind, unreasoning terror which she had
never analysed. If she could get away for the day she might devise some
means of ridding the locality of Murshee. That he had come to seek her
out she did not believe. The fact that an accident had happened to Sir
Montagu Goshe near the circus was a piece of pure ill luck, and Vava
wanted time to think. She was loyal in her way, and had no desire to put
Barker to inconvenience, but she refused to give her performance to-day
if there was a chance of Murshee looking on.

"I don't want to worry you," she said. "But you must really let me off."

"But why?" Barker protested. "You have no friends in the neighborhood."

Vava's impulse was to lie. But she was not the girl to do so. Nor, for
that matter, had she an ingenious fiction available.

"I can't tell you why I want the day off," she said. "That is my
business. But I must have it, Mr. Barker, I must indeed. I promise to be
back to-morrow."

Thereupon Barker lost his temper. He had never seen signs of caprice on
the part of Vava before, so a bit of judicious bullying might pay better
than anything else. He raved and stormed and threatened. The more loudly
he spoke, the quieter and more self-possessed she became. She saw she
would be compelled to take matters into her own hands, whatever the
consequences might be, and moreover she was not short of money. She had
spent little or nothing lately, and her savings were ready to hand. She
would go away, and not return till Murshee had disappeared. She knew
that Barker would be only too pleased to have her back.

Therefore, she walked away humbly from the presence of the great man,
leaving him in a complacent frame of mind, feeling that for once in his
life he had done the proper thing. There would be no more nonsense after
this, he told himself. But though Vava left him gently and submissively
her mind was firmly made up.

She crossed over from her own caravan to the one in which Lady Goshe
lay. She walked to the bedside and murmured a few words to the stricken
woman, who opened her eyes and looked languidly around. It was evident
she did not understand much of what was going on, neither had she
recognised the speaker.

"Don't worry her," Mrs. Barker said good-naturedly. "She is getting
better, and will be sensible before long. I know what it is to be in
accidents of this kind. Let her sleep and everything will be well.
Anybody would think you knew her ladyship by the way you speak."

"So I do," Vava replied. "I knew her long before she was lady Goshe. I
knew her before I came to England. I want you to do me a favour. Mrs.
Barker I want you to let me know directly Lady Goshe is better, for I
have something to say to her which she ought to know."

Mrs. Barker gave a promise, and Vava went away. It was past midday
before she had a message from Mrs. Barker that Lady Goshe was sitting up
and apparently much better. Mrs. Barker was busy in the canteen looking
after the requirements of the staff when Vava arrived.

Lady Goshe was dressed, though still reclining on the bed. A red spot
burnt on either cheek, and her eyes looked ominously bright. She held
out her hands to Vava, and a cry of pleasure escaped her lips.

"I knew I was not dreaming," she murmured. "I felt certain you were
near. Didn't you come and see me this morning?"

"You are right," Vava said.

"Yes, yes, I felt convinced of it. I saw your face, and, strangely
enough, I couldn't recollect who you were. And to think that you of all
persons in the world should be here just now! What are you doing? Did
you find out that I was in danger, and follow me?"

Vava smiled and shook her head.

"Dear lady, it was the purest accident in the world," she said. "I
suppose they have told you where you are."

"Oh, dear, yes. There was an accident to the motor-car, and they brought
me in here. I understand this is a circus belonging to a man named
Barker. I did not quite comprehend at the time, but it is all coming
back to me. My husband wanted to take me away, and I was alarmed. You
see, I had found out several things lately, and was foolish enough to
let him know what I had discovered. He is a bad man, Vava."

"The worst man the world has ever seen," Vava said, coldly and
dispassionately. "A wretch, a fiend in human form. And yet I doubt
whether he is the match of his accomplice, Ram Murshee. But I am
interrupting you, dear Lady. Please to go on."

"There is little to tell you," Lady Goshe resumed. "I was foolish, nay,
terrified, because I knew that these two men were planning murder. And,
singular to say, the man they had designs against happens to be a kind
of relation of mine. Mr. Payn, the old gentleman with whom my sister
lived, had a nephew called Lethbridge, and he was the object of the plot
I am telling you about. I was so thoroughly upset that I said more than
I intended. My husband came to me at dead of night and bade me prepare
at once for a journey. He was mysterious and his manner very
threatening. There was no time to rouse the servants; indeed, I don't
think I should have had courage to call them up in any case. Then we
started along with Murshee. We flew along the road as if the police were
after us. Then came the accident, and I recollect no more till I woke
here. But I am all right. There is nothing the matter beyond shock. And
how are my husband and Murshee? Did they escape or were they injured?"

"Do people of that sort ever get hurt?" Vava asked contemptuously. "Are
they ever killed and put comfortably out of the reach of honest people?
Make your mind easy on that score. They were both knocked about a bit,
but they are pretty well all right now. I have seen Murshee."

Lady Goshe glanced anxiously at the speaker.

"What did he say?" she whispered. "I know how afraid you used to be of
that man. I know how he wrecked your life. Some day, perhaps, you will
tell me how you managed to escape from him. What a dreadful time it used
to be!"

Vava's face darkened.

"I don't like to think of it," she murmured. "Why should that man have
come into my life and poisoned it as he did? It was no fault of mine
that my father was a poor shiftless criminal--never able to say 'No'
when 'No' would have saved him many a bother. I never harmed Murshee,
yet he ill-treated me and persecuted me from the time I was a child. He
came between me and the man I loved; he destroyed the one romance of my
life. I will never care for any other man."

"And you have never seen Walter Ward again?"

"Never," Vava said, sadly. "I have given up all hopes of that. But I am
wasting time. You want to escape, don't you? I dare not remain till
Murshee has gone. I have a plan to save both yourself and me. Will you
fall in with it, or are you afraid?"




CHAPTER XXXVIII.--THE FLIGHT.


"You have come to me like an angel sent from Heaven," whispered Lady
Goshe. "Ever since I recovered consciousness I have been praying for a
friend to help me. When I knew what had happened to the motor I thought
that Providence had not deserted me. It looked as if the accident were
designed to save me from a fate which I do not care to contemplate. I
can only conjecture what my husband intended to do with me; probably he
meant to shut me up in some asylum upon the plea that I was mad."

Vava smiled behind her hand.

"Surely that is impossible," she said. "They can't do those kind of
things in England in the twentieth century. It was possible fifty years
ago when there was no supervision over private asylums, but not to-day."

"And why not?" Lady Goshe asked. "You forget that my husband has the
command of enormous sums of money. Such men can always secure the
services of scoundrels ready to do anything for cash."

"And now?" Vava asked.

Lady Goshe spread out her hands despairingly.

"Now, who can tell? I am hopeless and friendless. I have never been
allowed the use of money, and before I left had no opportunity of
slipping any jewels into my pocket. But why do you ask that? Have you
any plan?"

"That is why I came," Vava said eagerly. "I am not the one to forget
past kindnesses. When my future looked very black, you held out a
helping hand, at risk to yourself, and I will never forget it. I am as
anxious to go away as you are. I cannot remain while Murshee is here. I
will never come under his influence again. I have money and I have a
scheme, too, and if you will come with me we will hide ourselves until
it is safe to return. You once told me of your sister; how she kept
house for an old gentleman who was a great gardener or something of the
sort. Why not go to her? That would he the last place where your husband
would dare to look for you, the last place where he would expect to find
you. We need not stay in the house. We could find some quiet rooms close
by where we should attract little or no attention. What do you say?"

"But it is impossible," Lady Goshe protested. "The poor old gentleman is
dead. He must be buried by this time. He was the man against whom the
plot was laid. He was the person who had the Golden Rose."

"The Golden Rose!" Vava exclaimed. "Why, you must be dreaming! There
were only two of these, one of which was lost, and the other is in my
van at the present moment. The last time I saw Walter Ward he gave it to
me, making me promise not to say a word about it to a soul. When the
plant come into my possession it was little more than a dried twig
packed away in wet moss in a small specimen case. What became of the
other one I do not know, because the trouble began about then, and I
have never seen my lover since."

"But Mr. Payn had a specimen," Lady Goshe cried. "I know it. I once
heard some conversation between my husband and Murshee. I heard things
that made my blood run cold, but I was helpless, partly because I was
frightened and partly because Sir Montagu was my husband. You cannot
imagine what my life has been during the last few weeks. They schemed to
take this Golden Rose from Mr. Payn, but then as I listened I did not
know that they were on the verge of violence. Then I saw in a paper that
Mr. Payn had been the victim of a gross outrage, and later I read that
he was dead. I knew as well as if I had been told that my husband and
Ram Murshee had murdered him, I know they have a specimen of the Golden
Rose in one of the conservatories at home, and you can guess where it
came from. I wish they had never heard of that flower. But regrets are
vain. I am the sport of circumstances and must do what fate decides for
me."

"I pray you not to talk like that," Vava said earnestly. "You are young
and have many years of happiness before you. It isn't as if you cared
for your husband; indeed, it is a mystery to me why you ever married
him."

Lady Goshe looked helplessly at her companion.

"Why, indeed?" she said mournfully. "He fascinated me. It was like one
of those hypnotic stories one reads of in the sensational newspapers. He
never cared for me, either. Perhaps he was all the more anxious to marry
me because I did not scant him. But the thing is done and I must make
the best or worst of it. Trouble and disgrace are coming. But am not
sorry. This crime is certain to be found out, clever as these men are,
and they will both hang for it. In the meantime I am in your hands. We
will go to my sister's if you like. She must be very lonely and will be
glad to see me. I am ready any time you please. But how shall we get
away? How can we manage it?"

Vava smiled resolutely.

"Oh, it is the easiest thing in the world," she said. "We are not so
very far from Croydon and there we shall take the train. I have plenty
of money, so that we shall be able to buy what necessaries we want, and
long before night we shall be with your sister. Let us start now."

"Now!" Lady Goshe echoed. "Do you mean at once?"

"Why, of course I do," Vava said impatiently. "Come along. No one will
notice us at dinner time."

Lady Goshe rose from her bed to find that she could walk better than she
had expected, and a few minutes later they were making their way towards
the town. They came at length to the station and had only a few minutes
to wait for the train to Manchester. About four o'clock they came in
sight of the cottage where the tragedy had taken place. Lady Goshe
glanced apprehensively at the windows. She saw that the blinds were
drawn. A slender figure in black stood in the doorway. A moment later
Mary Grover was speeding down the path and listening to the incoherent
story which her sister was pouring out.

"Come inside," she said, "come in and sit down. We shall be able to make
one another out presently. You seem to know all about this dreadful
tragedy. My poor uncle was buried this morning, and I am alone. I was
going to telegraph to some friends asking if they could have me. But
there is no necessity for that now. We both seem to have had a great
deal of trouble; indeed, my head fairly swims when I think of it. But
how did you come to know all about Mr. Lethbridge?"

"It is a long story," Lady Goshe replied, "and will keep till tea time.
Then I will try to tell you everything. But first of all let me ease
your mind in one respect. Do you know who killed your uncle?"

Mary Grover made no reply. She affected to be laying out the cups and
saucers and setting the kettle on the fire. There was a tinge of colour
on her cheeks, though her eyes were sad and heavy. Her voice was
unsteady, too.

"I do not know what to think," she said. "Sometimes I suspect and
sometimes I feel that I am utterly mistaken."

"Oh, you are," Lady Goshe cried. "You think that John Lethbridge had
something to do with it, don't you? Perhaps you wonder how I know
anything about Mr. Lethbridge. But don't forget that you wrote and told
me a good deal about him after you came here to live with your uncle.
Weren't you rather prejudiced against him on the whole?"

The colour on Mary's cheeks deepened.

"I am afraid I was," she admitted. "But I had only what my uncle said to
go upon. I had never seen Mr. Lethbridge; in fact, I never saw him till
the other day, when I came upon him by accident. He was in this very
house on the night of the tragedy."

"And you think he had something to do with it?" Lady Goshe asked. "You
think he came to rob his uncle of the Golden Rose and murdered him in
the attempt?"

Mary placed her cup on the table and stared at her sister with mingled
astonishment and apprehension.

"What do you mean?" she asked. "What can you know of these things? It is
true there was a Golden Rose. It is true that the plant was missing
afterwards, and that circumstances pointed to the guilt of John
Lethbridge. But he seems so good and kind and thoughtful that I began to
believe that he might be sinned against rather than sinning. But if you
know anything to the contrary----"

"I know everything," Lady Goshe said sadly. "I know that John Lethbridge
is as innocent as you are. One of the culprits is my own husband. It is
a dreadful thing for a wife to say, but the truth must be told at all
hazards. When the time comes to speak I will not hesitate. I could not
let the innocent suffer to shield the guilty."




CHAPTER XXXIX.--IN PURSUIT.


Murshee faced the mob of rioters coolly. He had been in too many tight
places to know much about personal fear when armed. But Vava's caravan
contained a surprise which appealed to his imagination and set him
thinking. He had been guilty of crime, and but for the accident of
circumstances the black list would have been increased with another. A
lawless scamp might pursue criminal courses in a foreign country where
the arm of the law is weak, but these things were infinitely hazardous
in England, as none knew better than Murshee. He had counted the risk
over and over again and callously reckoned what he was going to gain
before he complied with Sir Montagu Goshe's wishes. He was satisfied
that the secret of the Golden Rose was too closely kept to find its way
into the hands of the police and give them any clue.

He was cunning enough to know that the first thing the police would look
for in the death of Jasper Payn was a motive. But they would find no
motive so far as he was concerned; they would know nothing of the cause
of the trouble and would ascribe the crime to some wandering tramp
detected in a clumsy burglary. Nobody knew of the existence of the
Golden Rose except Jasper Payn himself. And that wonderful flower had
been safely transferred to the seclusion of one of Sir Montagu Goshe's
conservatories. Therefore, so far as Murshee could see, it was plain
sailing, and after a little while the nursery murder would help to swell
the list of undiscovered crimes.

Thus it was a shock to the little scoundrel to see a noble specimen of
the Golden Rose blooming in a caravan attached to a travelling circus.
It was characteristic of him that he asked no questions. It was his
method to find out things for himself, and now that the riot was ended
and Barker going about his ordinary business, Murshee began to make
investigations. All he could gather was that the van belonged to a
member of the circus troupe named Vava, but fortunately for the girl he
did not trouble to ascertain the nature of her performance. Had he done
so he would have had more food for reflection. He would have learned of
a new danger which of course he was not taking into account at all. He
was anxious to meet Vava and hear from her own lips how the flower had
come into her possession. He knew that it could not be the same Golden
Rose which was hidden at Putley Count. The whole thing was disturbing,
and he saw clearly that he must get to the bottom of it before he
proceeded farther. He could not see Vava, for the simple reason that she
and Lady Goshe had already vanished. But when he made closer enquiries,
especially as to the personal appearance of the mysterious Vava, he
realised the extreme peril of his position. And the worst was that
though he had a pretty shrewd idea who Vava was he could not
conclusively prove that his surmise was correct. He went on uneasily
towards the tent which had been allotted to Sir Montagu Goshe and
himself. He found Goshe sitting up in bed partly dressed and cursing the
accident and the disarrangement of his plans. He had suffered no great
harm, and was fit to travel. He received Murshee somewhat angrily.

"Where on earth have you been all this time?" he asked. "Do you suppose
I want to stay here altogether? The doctor says I can go away if I want
to. You had better go to Croydon and hire a car and bring it back with
you. I don't want a chauffeur. You will have no trouble in getting a car
if you say it is for me. Give my love to Lady Goshe and tell her to be
ready to resume her journey in half-an-hour. They tell me she is
better."

"Yes, she is quite better," Murshee grinned; "in fact, she is so well
that she has gone on without us."

An oath came from Goshe's lips.

"What do you mean?" he demanded.

"Precisely what I say," Murshee said with a smile. "To put it plainly,
her ladyship has bolted. She went off half-an-hour ago with one of the
circus performers named Vava. I made a few enquiries about this Vava,
and I have a strong impression she is Nora Bligh, the daughter of Bligh
who was in that little business with us in the Persian Gulf."

A volley of oaths poured from Goshe. He rose from the bed and began to
hustle into his clothing.

"Of all the cursed luck," he muttered, "this is the very worst. Do you
mean to say that Nora Bligh is with these people? Is she one of the
performers? You must be mistaken. I can't believe it possible she should
turn up here just at this moment."

"But she has," Murshee sneered. "I have made no error. I made too many
enquiries for that. But I dare say you wonder how I managed to spot the
girl. I don't take any credit to myself for what I have done, because I
blundered on to a clue that fairly startled me. There was something like
a riot at the morning show because Vava didn't perform. I was fool
enough to take a hand in the fun. I fired a shot over the heads of the
people, and some idiot jerked the revolver out of my hand. Then I had to
run for it. Finally I bolted into the caravan which belonged to Vava.
The riot was soon quelled, and I had plenty of time to look about me.
And what do you think I saw? But you'll never guess if you try for a
week. I saw a beautiful specimen of the Golden Rose in full bloom on the
table. Oh, you may smile or sneer as you please, but if you come with me
I will show it to you. I was struck all of a heap. I thought that secret
belonged to us two and Jasper Payn. You know what is likely to happen if
the police get wind of this. I was so upset that I didn't know what to
do at first. Then I set my wits to work and began to see daylight. I
could think of nobody but Nora Bligh that was likely to know anything
about the Golden Rose, and when I enquired about her personal appearance
I concluded that she and Vava were one and the same person. Even then I
was not certain. But when I discovered that the girl and Lady Goshe had
gone off together there was no longer any doubt in my mind. They know
one another perfectly well, having been very friendly out yonder, and,
besides, Lady Goshe is anxious to get away. That is the worst of
you--you are too headstrong and impulsive. You allowed her ladyship to
see too much of your game, and naturally she had given you the slip. If
you had only kept your mouth shut she would have gone like a lamb to the
slaughter. As things stand, it is imperative to find Lady Goshe without
delay. She knows far too much, and a woman in her hysterical state will
blurt out all sorts of things to the first person she meets. What had I
better do?"

Sir Montagu Goshe had finished dressing, and turned a dark face and a
moody eye upon his companion.

"Follow them," he said curtly. "You are right, Murshee. The combination
of these two is dangerous, and Nora Bligh is no fool. Just imagine what
she could tell if she fell into the hands of a detective. The mere
thought of it makes me cold. We are wasting time here. Follow them up at
once. They are pretty certain to have made for the station. I have no
doubt you will be able to ferret out some information there. If you get
on their track take the finest car you can procure and come back and
pick me up. With any luck we shall be with them before midnight. Now
buck up and play the man."

Murshee turned on him heel and left the tent. He had a fine instinct for
this kind of thing, and his premonitions did not lead him far astray.
Within an hour he left the station with a complacent smile upon his face
and the conviction that he had not been wasting his time. He returned to
the circus driving a car which he had been assured would cover the
ground at the rate of sixty miles an hour. Sir Montagu was impatiently
waiting for him. His sullen features lighted up as he saw the triumph on
Murshee's face.

"It's all right," the latter said. "I traced them with the greatest
ease. Where do you think they have gone to of all places in the world?"

"Give it up," Sir Montagu murmured sullenly.

"Why, to Manchester," Murshee grinned. "They have gone off to hide
themselves with Lady Goshe's sister. That girl is clever, but she is not
so clever as she thinks, or she would have taken more pains to hide her
tracks. Still, it will suit us very well. It is a quiet neighbourhood,
and they have no men to look after them. I calculate that with any luck
we can be at Manchester by half-past nine, at which hour it will be
pitch dark. Are you ready? This inaction is intolerable to me."

Sir Montagu Goshe stepped into the car which sped rapidly along the
dusty road. Mile after mile was reeled off till the sun began to sink
and the shades of night crept over the sky.




CHAPTER XL.--THE BEST OF THE GAME.


Vava discreetly vanished, leaving the sisters together on the plea that
she was interested in flowers and wished to look over the greenhouses.
This was delicacy on her part. She saw that Mary and her sister had a
lot to confide, and without saying much the two girls were grateful. It
was dusk, and the lamps were lighted. It was a peaceful summer evening,
with no suggestion of strife or trouble. The windows were open to catch
the breeze. Every now and then Mary could see Vava's graceful figure as
she flitted about the garden.

There was silence for some time between the sisters. Lady Goshe lay back
in her chair wondering whether the whole thing were not a pleasant dream
and whether she would wake presently to find herself again in her
gorgeous prison house.

"I can't grasp it a bit," she said presently. "It seems almost
impossible that I am with you again. And now that I am here, I wonder
that I didn't come before."

"And why not?" Mary smiled. "I am sure you would have been welcome. My
uncle was peculiar, but had a kind heart. He would have made you
welcome. Yet, strangely enough, he never encouraged me to talk about
you. I suppose he thought you were well provided for; but I knew
better."

"How?" Lady Goshe asked. "I never told you much."

"No, but I read between the lines of your letters. I could guess how
very unhappy you were. And then I made a few enquiries. I always thought
Sir Montagu Goshe was a bad man."

Lady Goshe shuddered slightly.

"One of the worst," she said. "I can never understand why he married me.
Perhaps it was because I liked him and always tried to keep him at a
distance. I dare say you wonder why I promised to be his wife. Really,
Mary, I couldn't tell you. To begin with, I was left stranded in a
foreign place. I had not even the money to pay my passage home. And Sir
Montagu is the kind of man who always gets his own way ... Oh, it was a
dreadful time. From the very first I realised what a mistake I had made.
And he was never a husband to me. He treated me either as a fool or a
spy. For days at a time I never saw him. He was either absent on some
mysterious errand, or planning mischief with that dreadful creature,
Murshee. I don't know what I should have done in those dark days if it
hadn't been for Vava."

"I am greatly interested in her," Mary said. "Who is she? And where does
she come from?"

"I can hardly tell you. I only know that she is a good girl and has
wonderful courage. I believe her father was an Englishman of good
family, and I think her mother was a Circassian. Her father once
occupied a good position in England. He had a brilliant career at the
Bar, and was making a name for himself in Parliament; but he had his
weak side and was given to drink. Anyway, there was a scandal, and he
had to leave England. For years he was on friendly terms with Murshee,
and at length when he died he left his daughter in that man's care.
Murshee saw how clever she was, and as she grew older tried to use her
as an accomplice. But she saw through him from the first. She declined
to have anything to do with his schemes, and finally found a friend in
Walter Ward, who at one time was in the employ of Mr. Payn. I don't
understand the story, but Murshee managed to come between these two, and
Vava found it out. She ran away to England, and shortly afterwards I
followed. I made one or two attempts to trace her, but in vain. But
Vava, whom I must call Nora Bligh now, will tell you everything herself.
What I really want to learn is what you know of Mr. Lethbridge."

Mary flushed.

"Not very much," she explained. "John Lethbridge used to be my uncle's
closest companion, and everybody regarded him as his heir. As a matter
of fact, there were no family estates. They had been mortgaged to the
hilt by your uncle, who squandered every penny he had in pursuit of the
flower called the Golden Rose. I daresay you have heard of it. Your
uncle probably told you."

Mary paused for a few moments.

"I knew of it," she resumed, "the night my uncle met with his trouble.
From the bottom of my heart I wish he had never heard of that dreadful
flower. It has been the source of all the misery; it was the mainspring
of my uncle's poverty. To rediscover that lost flower he squandered all
his wealth. He accused John Lethbridge of robbing him of certain
secrets, and Mr. Lethbridge left the house, declaring he would never
return till his uncle had begged his pardon. That is how I came to be
asked to go and look after uncle's house. All this happened about the
time you left to take up that engagement in Persia. Uncle was so bitter
against John Lethbridge that unconsciously I was filled with a great
prejudice against him. But later, after we came here and fate threw John
Lethbridge and myself together, I began to change my mind. Mr.
Lethbridge told me a good deal about the origin of the trouble. He
convinced me without saying much that there had been a mistake
somewhere. I haven't much knowledge of the world: I have met with very
few men; but I could not believe a man like John Lethbridge capable of a
disgraceful act. He looked so honourable and straightforward and manly
and spoke so sincerely that I felt bound to believe what he said. And
yet, in the light of what I know afterwards, I had my doubts. I did not
know that my uncle had actually found the Golden Rose. There was a
fortune in the flower, he thought, and that fortune was intended for me.
Uncle felt that he had deceived me. He had induced me to give up
everything to look after his household, and some day I was to be an
heiress. In point of fact, Jasper Payn had nothing to leave. He wilfully
deceived me, and I suppose his conscience pricked him. At any rate, the
fortune of the Golden Rose was all for me. It is very odd that the same
night that I met Mr. Lethbridge, circumstances brought him and his uncle
together again. I know the poor old gentleman told John Lethbridge all
about the Golden Rose only an hour or so before he was struck down by
the blow which killed him. It was a great shock to me when I sent for
Mr. Lethbridge to see a flower from the Golden Rose in his buttonhole.
And my uncle's plant had disappeared. You can imagine what my feelings
were."

"I think so," Lady Goshe said. "Your thought John Lethbridge had stolen
the flower, that he was the author of the outrage on Jasper Payn."

"Oh, I did," Mary murmured. "What other conclusion could I come to? It
was the unhappiest moment of my life. But when John Lethbridge looked me
straight in the face, as he did, I felt that further investigation was
necessary. I let him know what my feelings were. I couldn't help it. I
could see how wounded he was, but he offered no explanation except that
I was mistaken."

"And you were mistaken," Lady Goshe cried. "It never occurred to you
that John Lethbridge also had a specimen of the Golden Rose."

Mary looked with widely-opened eyes at her sister.

"The thing is impossible," she cried.

"Impossible! Surely what one man could find another could find also.
John Lethbridge knew all about the Golden Rose. He had lived for years
with his uncle and was as deeply interested in horticultural matters.
Incredible as it may seem, at the very moment that your uncle was
telling Mr. Lethbridge about his marvellous discovery John had the
Golden Rose in his possession. How do I know? I had heard my husband and
Ram Murshee talking about it more than once. They had actually seen your
uncle's specimen, and John Lethbridge's, too. I knew they meant to get
hold of them if they could, but I did not know that they contemplated
violence till I read of the outrage upon Jasper Payn in the paper. And
when a stranger came to our house near Croydon I should have known at
once that he was John Lethbridge even if I had not heard Sir Montagu and
Murshee discussing it. But I will explain that presently. You can take
it for granted that on the night of your uncle's attack Mr. Lethbridge
had a specimen of the Golden Rose in his possession."

Mary Glover pondered the problem for some time. She recalled her
interviews with John Lethbridge vividly, and was puzzled to know why he
had not told her that he, too, had a claim upon the Golden Rose. Then,
as a sudden idea flashed across her mind, she coloured to the roots of
her hair, her lips trembled, and her eyes filled with tears.

"But why didn't he tell me?" she murmured. "What could he gain by
keeping the knowledge from me? A word or two would have saved this
terrible misunderstanding."




CHAPTER XLI.--FRIEND OR FOE?


There was a peculiar smile upon Lady Goshe's face. She looked shrewdly
at her sister.

"Are you sure you don't know?" she asked.

"I--I don't think so," Mary faltered.

"Then I will tell you. But I believe you know all the same. I saw Mr.
Lethbridge and had some conversation with him. Your name was mentioned,
and without any little bird telling me I knew that he cared for you, and
that he had given you his heart. Don't ask me why I know or how I know,
but I am certain of it. And I am glad we have had this talk, because it
will be the means of confirming the good opinion you have formed of John
Lethbridge. Despite appearances being against him, you don't believe
that he is guilty. You can't deny that you have racked your brains to
make excuses for him. I can see how you are blushing at this moment, and
how softly your eyes are shining. I told you before that the authors of
the outrage upon Jasper Payn were my husband and Ram Murshee. That is
certain to be proved in time. But for the moment we will keep to John
Lethbridge. Your uncle told him about the Golden Rose, and he was
astonished to hear that two specimens of that rare flower were in
existence. It was doubtless something of a shock to him to learn that
the fortune within his grasp would have to be shared with another. Now I
am as convinced as if I had been present at the interview that your
uncle told John Lethbridge what he was going to do with the Golden Rose.
He told him that the flower was to be your fortune, he told him how you
had been deceived, and there and then John Lethbridge in his magnanimous
way resolved that you should have your full reward. It was both generous
and foolish, but he determined to say nothing of his own discovery. He
went home and destroyed his Golden Rose, and naturally thought there was
an end of possible rivalry. He was in love with you, and made that great
sacrifice for your sake. I know he had a Golden Rose, because my husband
and Murshee talked about it. I know he destroyed the flower, because one
of them saw it done. Now you know how things stand, and I must say you
are a very lucky girl. You are poor and John Lethbridge is poor, but you
will both live to be prosperous."

Mary said nothing for a long time. She was turning the whole thing over
in her mind, and the more she pondered it the more certain she was that
her sister was right. In the light of these revelations many
difficulties had been cleared up which hitherto had been dark mystery.
The very points which she had made against Lethbridge were now so many
evidences in his favour. Her face flushed and the tears rose once more
to her eyes. She was full of a glad thankfulness to which she had long
been a stranger.

"It must be as you say," she remarked at last. "Indeed, you have put it
so clearly that I cannot doubt any longer. And I am glad you came. You
cannot tell how happy you have made me. A few hours ago I thought I had
not a single friend in the world. And now it seems as if everybody is on
my side. But don't let me be selfish. Don't let me be thinking of
nothing but my own affairs. I want to know what you are going to do. I
suppose your husband will try to follow you. He won't let you slip out
of his life like this since you know so much."

"That is what I am afraid of," Lady Goshe said. "I don't know what he
was going to do with me, but I believe that he meant to keep me out of
the way. But let me be happy and comfortable whilst I can. Let me remain
with you for the present. It was a happy thought of Nora Bligh's to come
here. She thought this was the last place in the world where my husband
would look for me, and I believe she is right. Besides, John Lethbridge
will be here before long; he will be my friend as well as yours, and
will not see me dragged to a fate worse than death."

"I am sure he will not," Mary exclaimed. "Besides, I have another friend
in Inspector Wilkinson."

Mary went on to explain who Wilkinson was and what a friend he had been
to her uncle. They sat talking till darkness fell, and then Mary thought
that Nora Bligh had been left to herself quite long enough. She went to
the door of the cottage and called to the girl.

Nora replied that she was coming presently. She wanted five minutes more
in the garden. With no suspicion that anything was wrong Mary closed the
door and Vava walked down the path towards the gate. She stood listening
intently, for she heard voices somewhere. All her faculties were on the
alert. She scented danger in the air. She began to regret that she had
not taken more pains to conceal her trail when she fled from Croydon
with Lady Goshe. She had forgotten in the excitement of the moment that
Sir Montagu and Murshee would be able to trace her at the station. And
there would be no occasion to follow by train. Sir Montagu could readily
procure a motor and cross the country far more expeditiously than even a
special train could have done.

These thoughts had crowded upon the girl's brain when she thought she
could hear the throb and hum of a motor in the distance. The car stopped
as if it had been pulled up at the roadside, for so far as Vava could
see there was no house in that quarter.

Then she detected the murmur of voices. She stood by the gate more or
less hidden by the branches of an overhanging shrub and strained her
ears to listen. She was certain now that enemies were at hand.

Meanwhile, Goshe and his accomplice had made their way steadily across
country to Manchester. They had not many enquiries to make. They were on
more or less familiar ground and it was nearly pitch dark when they
struck the road which led past the nurseries where Jasper Payn had been
murdered. They came by and by to a thick belt of firs where Murshee, who
was driving, pulled up.

"Why are you stopping?" Sir Montagu demanded.

"You don't want to drive to the cottage, I suppose," Murshee said
insolently. "Or perhaps you would like to arrive in state. Shall I go on
in advance and ask they to get dinner ready for you? The best thing we
can do is to run the car into these trees where no one will see it. It
is long odds against anybody passing before daylight."

"That's right," Sir Montagu growled. "I haven't made up my mind how I
shall act. We shall have trouble. There are three women, and they are
certain to make a noise."

"Well, let 'em," Murshee said. "What does it matter? It's a lonely spot,
and they can make as much noise as they choose without anybody being the
wiser. We can lock two of them in a room or bind and gag them if it
comes to that. Before anybody finds out what has happened we shall be a
couple of hundred miles away. And if they want Lady Goshe they'll have
to look for her."

Sir Montagu listened moodily to his companion.

"What is the good of it all?" he said. "We can close Lady Goshe's mouth,
but we shall be no better off then. The game is up. We haven't the ghost
of a chance unless we can close the mouth of that fellow Lethbridge. He
knows too much. We shall not be safe until we put him out of the way."

Murshee grinned savagely.

"Suppose I don't know that," he asked. "It is only a matter of time. He
is doing the whole thing off his own bat. Too clever to call in the
police, I suppose. Only let us get her ladyship safely disposed of and
it won't take long to account for Mr. John Lethbridge. I am not likely
to fail a second time."

Goshe muttered something that sounded like acquiescence as he stepped
out of the car and waited whilst Murshee backed it into a ditch. Then
they went off down the road until they reached the gate which led into
the garden of the nursery. They paused for a moment and Murshee waited
for his companion to speak.

"Well," he said impatiently, "what will you do?"

"Walk straight into the house," Sir Montagu suggested. "I dare say we
shall find them in the sitting-room chatting together and suspecting
nothing. You have got a revolver in your pocket, haven't you?"

"Ever known me to travel without?" Murshee asked.

"You can produce the revolver, and the mere sight of it will reduce the
women to dumb terror. I can look after my wife whilst you tie the others
up. The thing is simplicity itself. Come along. What's that? Didn't I
hear something fluttering in the bushes?"

Murshee growled out that it was merely the other's fancy. But it was no
fancy, for Nora Bligh had left her hiding-place and was speeding towards
the house. She burst into the sitting room.

"They are here," she said breathlessly. "Your husband and Murshee. They
are coming up the path now!"




CHAPTER XLII.--IN TIME.


Lady Goshe rose to her feet and laid her hand upon her heart. She seemed
to have a difficulty in breathing, and gave way to an abject terror
which deprived her of words. Alarmed as she was Mary Grover was strongly
moved by pity for her sister. Lady Goshe's pale face and dark eyes were
eloquent of the treatment she had been subjected to in the past. But it
was no time to dwell upon such points. The moment had come for action.

"You must rouse yourself," Nora went on. "If we delay it may be too
late, and it will never do for all of us to be here. These men are
desperate and won't be particular as to their methods. You must lock the
door behind me and bar up the windows. Come, be quick!"

"Are you going outside?" Mary gasped.

"Of course I am," Nora said quietly. "I will meet these men and palaver
with them, to give you time to make everything secure. Possibly some
passer-by may give us help. Besides. I haven't anything to fear. For
heaven's sake, do not hesitate."

Still, Mary stood irresolute. Nora Bligh passed into the garden again,
calling to Mary to lock the door behind her. A little way down the path
she came face to face with Goshe and his companion. Some light filtered
through the sitting-room window, and the faces of the intruders could be
seen. They had not expected so bold a step, for they pulled up and
exchanged glances.

"What are you doing here?" Nora demanded. "What do you want, Sir
Montagu? And you, too, Mr. Murshee? Is there anything I can do?"

"So it's you, is it?" Murshee said with a savage sneer. "How do you do,
Vava? I know you and what you have been doing lately. I am glad we have
met, because I wish to talk with you."

"Not now," Nora said. "There will be plenty of time for that when you
stand in the dock charged with murder. The barrister who will represent
you can ask as many questions as he likes. So you found out that I have
been getting my living in a travelling circus. Did you discover what my
performance was? Did they tell you at Barker's how I managed to mystify
the people?"

Murshee looked uneasily at the speaker. He had a shrewd idea of the
purport of her remarks. Moreover, he had not attempted to ascertain the
nature of Vava's performance. Her cool irony obviously disturbed the
wicked little scoundrel.

"What has that got to do with it?" he asked.

"Oh, I think it had a great deal to do with it. You are not the only one
who has learnt how to commit murder in a roomful of people without the
onlookers being any the wiser. I know that trick, Mr. Murshee, and I
flatter myself I can do it as well as you can. I learnt it in Persia
after that affair at Teheran. When I came to this country I began
practising it, until I mastered the art. I have gained a living for
months by that exhibition without making a single mistake. If I had been
in the conservatory at Putley Court the other night in your place, and
had fired at Mr. Lethbridge, he wouldn't be alive now to tell the tale.
You may smile, but you won't feel so easy in your mind when I tell the
story to a judge and jury. You know what I mean. Your face tells me
that."

Murshee had no reply. His features turned into a ghastly green, and he
slipped his sound arm into his pocket, but before he could withdraw it
he found himself looking down the muzzle of a revolver which the girl
held directly at his head.

"Let me see your hand again," she said. "Take it out of your pocket or I
will shoot you where you stand. Sir Montagu Goshe will take a step or
two back, so that I can command him as well as his companion."

Goshe muttered something under his breath, but hastened to fall in with
the suggestion. He could tell by the girl's voice and attitude that she
meant business. There was no sign of fear or hesitation in her face. He
ground his teeth impotently, and a curse escaped his lips.

"That is better," Nora went on. "Will you be good enough to go into the
cottage, where we can talk matters over? I had forgotten till I stepped
out here that I had one of my revolvers in my pocket. I was wearing this
dress this morning in the wood, close by the circus, and must have
omitted to restore the weapon to its case. Now knock on the door,
please. You can go in and discuss matters with Lady Goshe and her
sister, whilst I go down the road and put a bullet or two in the tyres
of your motor." This last intention, however, on second thoughts Nora
did not carry out.

Humiliating and ridiculous as the situation was, there was no loophole
of escape. With a crestfallen air the two men preceded the girl, and
tapped at the door. A voice inside enquired what was wanted, and Nora
Bligh gave the command to open. Lady Goshe shrieked with dismay, and her
face turned deadly pale as she confronted her husband. But if she
expected violence she was mistaken. He thrust her rudely to one side,
and strode into the sitting-room, followed by Murshee. Nora Bligh waved
them imperiously towards two chairs, on which they sat down sullenly.

"This is more comfortable and friendly," the girl said. She was careful
to stand by the door, weapon in hand. Her dark eyes watched every
movement of Murshee's, as a cat watches a mouse. "Now let us have a real
good talk. Mr. Murshee, if you move your right hand towards your pocket
again I will break your arm with a bullet as sure as I am a living
woman. You deemed us defenceless, but I am able and willing to see fair
play. Now, Sir Montagu, what do you want?"

Goshe writhed uneasily in his chair.

"You are not polite," the girl went on. "A guest does not behave so
sulkily. But one must make allowances for you. I want to know what you
are doing here. Did you travel by special motor at this untimely hour
merely for the pleasure of your wife's company? Judging by her
appearance she is not overjoyed to see you."

"I want my wife," Sir Montagu feebly said. "We came here civilly enough,
and should have made no trouble if you had not behaved in this
theatrical fashion."

"You want me to trust you," Nora Bligh laughed. "I would as soon trust a
tiger with a lamb. You can't deceive me. You came here prepared for
violence. You thought that you had only three poor gossiping women to
deal with. I heard what you said when I stood by the gate. But argument
is useless. It is hateful to act in this way in the presence of Lady
Goshe, but I have no alternative. Miss Grover, will you be good enough
to fetch the first policeman you meet?"

Murshee half rose to his feet, but the blue rim of the revolver waved
threateningly in the air, and he collapsed.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"What do I mean? I mean to give you in custody for the death of Jasper
Payn and for the theft of the flower called the Golden Rose. I charge
you also with the attempted murder of John Lethbridge, and I will prove
how the outrage was done. I told you I had learnt your secret. I told
you I had learnt the knack of being a wonderful shot without using the
hands. Do you follow me?"

An angry snarl broke from Murshee's lips, and he cursed volubly. In the
chair opposite to him Sir Montagu Goshe sat motionless, save for a
quivering of his lips and apparent difficulty in swallowing. A later
moment there was a noise outside, a quick rush of footsteps, and a
knocking on the door. Nora Blight bade the newcomers enter, and
Lethbridge and Wilkinson rushed breathlessly into the room.

"Ah, I am glad we are not too late," Wilkinson exclaimed. "My dear young
lady, pray put that revolver down. I know you are an expert in the use
of it, but----"

"Not a bit of it," the girl laughed as she threw the revolver carelessly
on the floor. "There isn't a single cartridge in it. To think that I
should have completely cowed these two scoundrels with an empty pistol.
But look at Murshee. Quick!"

The girl's voice rang out sharp and clear, for Murshee had jumped to his
feel, like an angry ape. His right hand flashed to his pocket, but
Lethbridge was too strong for him, and with a strong grip on his throat
bore him to the ground. Before Goshe could move Wilkinson had snapped a
pair of handcuffs on his wrists, and he was powerless for further harm.

"Give me a pair, too," Lethbridge cried.

"Not for his hands, at any rate," Wilkinson said drily. "That is not
where the trouble is to feared. What we have to do is to fasten the
little devil's feet."




CHAPTER XLIII.--THE LAST GRASP.


Almost before Wilkinson had ceased speaking, Murshee made an involuntary
movement towards his coat pocket and twisted his foot round with amazing
ease and dexterity. His resemblance to an angry ape was more marked than
ever. Lethbridge could have sworn that he put his right foot in his
trouser pocket. But it was only for a moment, and then the little man
was grinning and snarling defiance again. There was a peculiar pallor
upon Nora Bligh's face, and she breathed hard and unsteadily. Perhaps
the strain of the last ten minutes was telling upon her.

Murshee's hands had been bound and he sat as if resigned to the
inevitable. Both men were powerless for further mischief. Sir Montagu
Goshe was the first to recover himself. He turned haughtily to Wilkinson
and demanded to know what this treatment meant.

"I have already explained to you," Wilkinson said politely.

"You have explained nothing to me personally," Sir Montagu retorted. "My
friend Murshee seems to have got into trouble, but that does not account
for my being treated in such a fashion."

Wilkinson shrugged his shoulders.

"Do you really want to know?" he asked.

"I do. This is a gross violation of the liberty of the subject. I
presume you know who I am."

Once more Wilkinson shrugged his shoulders.

"You are Sir Montagu Goshe, of Putley Court, a millionaire with a big
reputation in the city. You are also a prominent figure in society. I
ought not to talk to you like this, but I have a warrant for your
apprehension, and am acting solely on my own responsibility. I will
explain anything you like."

Goshe began to bluster and threaten.

"You shall pay for this," he raved. "You will find out what it is to
treat a man of my position in this way. Perhaps you will tell me what I
am charged with."

"Certainly," he said. "I shall be prepared to justify my action at the
proper time and am ready to run the risk of losing my position in
Scotland Yard if I have made a mistake. I arrest you on the charge of
conspiring with Ram Murshee to obtain from Jasper Payn a plant called
the Golden Rose, which is now in your conservatory at Putley Court. To
simplify matters I may add that I have seen the Rose. I may tell you
also that you have met me under another name. My appearance is changed
somewhat. The last time I had the pleasure of talking to you I was
disguised as a Scottish gardener who had taken the place of a man of
yours who was ill."

A startled exclamation broke from Sir Montagu.

"Go on," he said hoarsely.

"I came to you with testimonials from Kew Gardens. I was not very long
in your greenhouses before I discovered what I wanted. But I am afraid I
am wandering from the point. You will be charged with stealing this
flower from Mr. Payn's greenhouse, and Ram Murshee will be charged with
causing the death of that gentleman. You will also stand in the dock as
an accessory after the fact in the matter of Mr. Payn's murder. Need I
say more?"

Goshe's bluster had left him. His hard, keen, clever face had grown very
pale. There was a peculiar gleam in his eyes. But he made one more
effort to carry the thing off with a light hand.

"And who will give evidence against me?" he asked.

"Lady Goshe for one," Wilkinson replied. "I am aware that a wife cannot
give evidence against her husband on a criminal charge, but what she has
told to a third party can be made use of. I am exceedingly sorry for
Lady Goshe, and shall only be too happy to spare her as much as
possible. Moreover, when the news of your arrest is made public plenty
of evidence will be forthcoming from the other side of the Suez Canal."

Goshe cast a swift glance at his wife. She buried her face in her hands,
and was crying quietly into her handkerchief. Now that the suspense was
over and she had done what she deemed to be her duty, she was feeling a
kind of remorse, a vague regret which every woman will understand, but
which from a man's point of view was illogical and absurd. She had had
nothing but harsh treatment and unkindness from this man's hands, but
these she had forgotten for the moment. Goshe's saturnine features
softened slightly.

"You are very clever," he protested, "and have got the best of me. But
my wife need not give herself any anxiety. There will be no scandal or
trouble so far as I am concerned, and her ladyship will not have to
appear in the witness-box. I have treated her very badly, and do not
blame her for what she has done. But one thing you may be certain of,
Mr. Wilkinson--I will never stand in the dock."

There was a grim significance about the words that was not lost upon
Wilkinson. He had dealt with high-class criminals of Goshe's type
before, and knew that they are more desperate and more courageous than
the majority of rogues. There is a type of scoundrel who coolly weighs
up the risks, bids boldly for success, and determines to take his life
if he fails. It needed but a casual glance at Montagu Goshe's face to
see that he belonged to this type. He was telling Wilkinson as plainly
as words could speak that he was prepared for this eventuality and had
means of taking his own life when his hour had come.

Wilkinson made no fuss; he was too astute for that. Sir Montagu was
handcuffed, and could not reach his pockets. But Wilkinson registered a
vow that the prisoner should be searched when the police station was
reached.

"We had better be moving," he said. "We are wasting time. It will take
us the best part of an hour to walk into Manchester."

"Why walk?" Nora Bligh enquired. "There is no occasion for that. These
people came in a motor car, which they left not far from the cottage
gate. Why not take them in that? I dare say I can find it."

"But you won't leave us alone," Mary Grover exclaimed.

"Certainly not," Wilkinson said reassuringly. "There are three of us
here. We left one of our party outside the gate in case of emergencies.
He was to come up in a quarter of an hour if he heard nothing from us.
Will you call Mr. Ward, Mr. Lethbridge?"

Nora Bligh started at the name, and an exclamation escaped her lips. The
colour flamed all over her face as the door opened a moment later and
Walter Ward entered. He looked at the girl lovingly, but said nothing.
He was not in the least surprised to find her there.

"You had better stay here," Wilkinson said, "to look after these ladies
till we come back. There is no reason to introduce you to Mr. Murshee or
Sir Montagu Goshe. I understand you have all met before."

Ward nodded grimly. The faint ghost of a smile fluttered on Sir Montagu
Goshe's lips. Murshee grinned in his most sinister and most savage
fashion. At a sign from Wilkinson, Goshe and Murshee rose and proceeded
to the door. Lady Goshe made a half-movement as her husband passed, but
he shook his head.

"Better say nothing," he warned her. "I have been a bad husband to you,
and the sooner I am out of the way the better. You will be glad of it
afterwards. I daresay you often wondered why I married you. If you had
asked me for the truth I should say it was because you always kept me at
a distance, and because I fell in love with your pretty face and simple
ways. It was a mistake from the beginning, and I am sorry for it. But
you have one consolation. You will be amply provided for, and able to
lead the life you prefer. That will do. I don't expect any expression of
affection on your part, and in any case I shouldn't believe it. Now,
Wilkinson, I am ready."

In silence the four walked down the garden path and into the road till
they came to the wood where Murshee had hidden the motor. Wilkinson knew
the road, had no occasion to ask questions, and in a short time they
were speeding rapidly to Manchester. Wilkinson had placed Goshe by his
side, and behind them sat John Lethbridge and Murshee. There was nothing
to be afraid of, seeing that the prisoners were handcuffed, and had
given up all idea of escape.

"Where are you taking us?" Goshe asked.

"We are going to Manchester," Wilkinson explained. "You will be formally
charged in the morning before the local magistrate, and then probably
detained in Manchester gaol for a week. After that, I can't say. Here,
what are you doing?"

For Goshe had leant over and wrapped the chain of his handcuff round one
of the spokes of the steering wheel. A second later the flying car
deviated and crashed headlong into the hedge. Though the machine was
righted immediately, Goshe had leapt out, and was running desperately
down the road.




CHAPTER XLIV.--BEYOND PURSUIT.


Wilkinson brought his jaws together with a click. He had expected
nothing like this. The whole thing had happened in the twinkling of an
eye. He glanced over his shoulder to see if his other prisoner was safe,
but though Murshee's eyes were gleaming, and he was breathing hard, he
was still seated in the car by John Lethbridge's side. Lethbridge had
him by the shoulders.

"My man is all right," he said. "You need not be alarmed for him. Push
ahead and you will overtake Goshe yet. He can't leave the road for the
next half-mile. We are just outside Lord Eversfield's park. Goshe is as
safe as if he were in a tunnel."

It was as Lethbridge had said. They had reached a straight piece of road
bordered on both sides by a high stone wall, beyond which was a dense
plantation of pine trees. Here was Lord Eversfield's deer park. The
walls had been made high and stout to keep the herd from wandering.
There was a faint suggestion of a moon, and in the distance like a fly
on the road was Sir Montagu Goshe tearing along for life. It would have
been difficult matter in any case to scale the wall, but with his hands
manacled the feat was a physical impossibility. All he could hope for
was to reach the high road and fling himself over a hedge, trusting to
luck to escape in the darkness. Wilkinson gauged exactly what was
passing through the fugitive's mind. He put pace on the car, and began
to overhaul him at every yard.

It was a desperate race, and John Lethbridge watched it breathlessly.
However, he kept a tight grasp upon the shoulder of his companion,
though this was perfectly unnecessary, for Murshee was as interested as
himself. He had forgotten his own peril in the excitement of the moment.
It was going to be a near thing, for a hundred yards or more ahead the
great wall ceased and the clumps of stately pines gave way to level
meadows. Setting his teeth together, Wilkinson increased his speed. By
this time he was only a dozen yards or so behind the fugitive.

"Stop," he yelled; "stop, or I'll run you down!"'

The words rang out, loud and clear in the stillness of the night, but
Goshe ran on a few yards farther without heeding the challenge. Then he
placed his hand to his heart as if the exertion had been too much for
him. He wheeled suddenly round, and flung defiance at his pursuer. His
face was white and ghastly, but set in a determined grin. His chance of
escape was hopeless, he had shot his last bolt. For the fraction of a
second he hesitated, however, then folded his arms across his face, and
literally hurled himself in front of the rushing car. The thing was so
spontaneous, so dramatically sudden, that Wilkinson made no attempt to
pull up; indeed, no driver, however skilled, could have saved the
situation. There was a sickening impact between flesh and metal, a
jolting and horrible bumping, then when the car was pulled up a limp
black bundle apparently devoid of life.

Wilkinson's face was ashy pale. His strong, white teeth were chattering.

"This is dreadful," he groaned. "I never expected anything so awful. But
you will bear witness that it was no fault of mine. He deliberately
threw himself under the car. A more determined attempt at suicide I
never saw."

"That's true." Murshee said with a savage sneer. "I'll back you up, too,
if you like. And it was so like him, so very like him. Do you suppose
you are going to get the best of Montagu Goshe? Ah, the detective has
not yet been born who could do that. And the pluck of the man! Just
think of it!"

"Oh, stop it!" Wilkinson said, irritably. "We don't want anything from
you. Look after this fellow while I go back. Slip one of his handcuffs
and pass it through the handle of the door. We shall have him that way
all right."

This was easy. It merely meant removing one of the cuffs and replacing
it after slipping the chain through the handle of the door. Goshe lay
motionless, though he was not dead. He opened his eyes and groaned as
Wilkinson bent over him. A faint disdainful smile flickered on his lips.

"What did I tell you?" he gasped. "Didn't I say that I should never
stand in the dock? There was a chance of my regaining my liberty, and I
took it. And when I saw I had failed the way was clear before me."

The man's voice suddenly ceased, his chest heaved, his limbs relaxed,
and he said no more. The end had come, as Wilkinson's trained eye saw
immediately.

"He's dead," he announced. "Well, after all, perhaps it is for the best.
I should say that it was a painless death, and Lady Goshe is well out of
it. There will have to be an inquest, of course. There will he a good
deal of scandal, too. But the poor lady will not require to give
evidence, except to identify the body. We had better put the remains on
the car and take them to the police station at Manchester."

They went their way in silence, and Lethbridge was thankful when the
town was reached and they were rid of that dreadful silent burden, to
say nothing of the responsibility of having Ram Murshee in their charge.

It was yet comparatively early when they had finished their task, and
they decided to return at once to the nursery and acquaint the ladies
with the dreadful issue.

Under the moonlight the garden lay bathed in its peaceful light. It did
not in the least resemble a garden of death; there was nothing to
associate so fair a spot with a grim tragedy having for its mainspring
the worst of human passions. The fragrant flowers and their sweet
environment suggested peace and happiness, and yet it had been a
veritable garden of death. Here Jasper Payn had perished, and here, but
for the intervention of Providence, John Lethbridge would have been a
victim, too. And all for the sake of a pure and innocent flower. It
seemed almost incredible. Even Lethbridge hoped it was a hideous
nightmare.

The cottage door stood open, and the gleam of a lamp shone through the
hall. Lady Goshe and her sister walked up and down the grass. Of Nora
Bligh and Ward there was no trace.

"Who will break the news?" Wilkinson whispered. "I will if you like.
Unfortunately, I am used to this kind of thing. But these ladies are
relations of yours, and I thought, perhaps, you would prefer----"

"Quite right," Lethbridge replied. "It is very kind and thoughtful of
you, Wilkinson, and I think it will come best from me. You will be here
the first thing in the morning? I understood them to say that the
inquest on Sir Montagu would be at ten o'clock, and that Lady Goshe
would be expected. I think we shall want your assistance."

Wilkinson gave the desired assurance and went his way. He would come
early in the morning, and do his best to make things as smooth as
possible. He would see that Lady Goshe had no unnecessary questions to
answer. Lethbridge stepped out into the moonlight, and Mary Grover
fluttered towards him. She had had no opportunity of speaking to him.

Her face was a fine study of emotions as she stood before him. But one
glance at John's features sufficed to make her forget her own feelings
entirely.

"Something dreadful has happened," she whispered. "I know it from the
expression of your face."

Lady Goshe heard the words, and she came forward. Instinctively she
identified the trouble with herself.

"Pray tell me," she whispered; "I am strong enough to bear it. After all
the torture of mind I have been through there is nothing which would
cause me greater pain or humiliation than I have already suffered. I
never loved my husband; I always feared and disliked him. But now I am
haunted with thoughts that I have gone out of my way to do him harm. I
know there will he a terrible scandal, and that that unhappy man will
stand in the dock charged with murder. I should almost be relieved to
hear that he had escaped, even by the means he hinted at to-night. You
heard what he said. There was no misunderstanding him."

"I am afraid not," Lethbridge said quietly. "And he has kept his
word.... It was all done so quickly that I have but the haziest
recollection of it. He jumped out of the ear and started to run down the
road between two high walls. Then, when he saw escape was impossible, he
wheeled quickly round and threw himself under the car.... He lived long
enough to say a few words that showed that the deed was designed and not
an accident. He taunted Wilkinson with failure, and there was an end....
It was a painless death. You will have to give evidence as to identity,
but will be spared all possible trouble. I am very sorry."

"Is there anything to be sorry for?" Lady Goshe asked. "Isn't this for
the best? I am sure it is. Oh, don't worry about me. I shall be best
alone."




CHAPTER XLV.--THE WAY IT WAS DONE.


Sir Montagu Goshe was dead and buried, and the papers had ceased to
discuss his marvellous career. For three days his name was blazoned from
one end of England to the other; then some fresh scandal cropped up and
Sir Montagu was forgotten. Murshee had been remanded for a fortnight,
and was lying in Manchester gaol.

In the nursery tranquility reigned and anxieties and cares had ceased.
Already Mary Grover was beginning to consider what her plans for the
future were likely to be. She had not yet talked over matters with John
Lethbridge, but the crisis she knew was inevitable, and she was
uncertain whether to look forward to it with joy or apprehension.

It was a beautiful summer morning, soft and still, with a cool breeze
from the south, the sort of day when all nature rejoices, and the mere
fact of living is in itself a pleasure. Lady Goshe was in the cottage
writing letters, and Nora Bligh was supposed to be helping her. Walter
Ward had not yet put in an appearance, but by and by Mary saw John
Lethbridge in the road coming towards the cottage. His face was keen and
eager, and as he held out his hand he seemed full of some information.

"I hope it is nothing bad," Mary said with a smile.

"Well, I am not sure," Lethbridge answered dubiously. "It all depends
upon the way you look at it. I am not sorry. I have been to Putley Court
with Inspector Wilkinson to regain possession of the Golden Rose, which
has been the source of all our trouble. In the turmoil and bother
everything has been neglected. The conservatory in which the flower was
placed became over-heated, and not a plant has survived. The Golden Rose
has been a curse, and yet I venture to hope a blessing."

"Well, did it not bring us together? But for that flower I should never
have met you, and should never have returned to my uncle's house. You
would never have known that I cared for you, and I should never have
known that you came to believe in me in spite of appearances. For you
did believe in me, Mary, even when your reason told you that I was
little better than a criminal. It will always be a comfort to me to know
that you took my word."

The colour mounted to the girl's cheeks.

"Oh, I did," she said gently. "And I tried to argue myself out of my
belief. But I couldn't do it, not even in my darkest moments. But here
is Inspector Wilkinson. I wonder what he wants."

"I think I can guess," Lethbridge said. "He has come to see Nora Bligh.
She is likely to be the most important witness at the trial of Ram
Murshee."

It was as Lethbridge had said. Wilkinson had come over on business. He
wanted to see 'Vava' without delay. She came at once. One glance at
Wilkinson's face was sufficient.

"Oh, I know what you have come for," she said. "You want to know how I
did my performance. Well, I shall need to get my living that way again.
But I fancy you know already. I fancy that you knew it from the first."

"To all practical purposes," Wilkinson said. "I heard something like it
from Asia years ago, and I believe it was once an admired trick in the
United States. But we shall have to satisfy the jury. You will have to
explain how it was possible for Murshee when he was reclining in an easy
chair with his hands behind his back, to fire at Mr. Lethbridge. The
whole thing sounds impossible, but it is these impossible things which
are the easiest when they come to be explained. And, besides, your
secret is not quite so inviolate as you imagine. After you left Barker's
circus one of the women volunteered to go through your performance, and
did it very well. I saw it myself. I told her I was a police officer and
forced the truth out of her."

"What is her name?" Nora Bligh demanded.

"I can't tell you. She was a bold looking woman with dark hair and
eyes."

"Oh, I know her," Nora exclaimed. "I understand now why she was always
hanging about my caravan. She was most anxious, too, to know why I was
so fond of going about barefooted. Of course, I was bound to be
barefooted a good part of the day because the success of my performance
depended upon it. It was necessary to keep the muscles of my feet
pliable, and you can't do that if you have your shoes on constantly. But
I'll show you. I shall be married in a few days, and never wish to be
inside a circus again. I will fetch my revolver and an armchair and show
you how the thing is done. It looks very mysterious in public, and is a
first-rate 'turn,' but is really horrible when used against human life.
Yet it is extremely simple, and when everybody knows it no more
scoundrels of the Murshee type will employ it for the destruction of
their fellows."

Nora returned presently with a wicker armchair and a loaded revolver.
She lay back with her hands behind her head, kicked off a dainty right
shoe and exposed a small bare foot. With her toes she picked up the
revolver as neatly and as if she were using her right hand. Then,
indicating a particular pane of glass in one of the greenhouses, she
raised her foot and fired the revolver, at the same time leaning back in
the chair with her two hands behind her head. The bullet crashed
straight through the centre of the pane. There was a tinkle of glass and
silence and amazement on the part of the onlookers.

"There!" Nora said with a touch of triumph in her tones. "You see how
ridiculously easy it is. Of course, it entails persistent practice, but
anybody could do it in three months' time. Now if I were sitting amongst
a lot of shrubs and flowers, and were murderously inclined, I could slay
my victim and be the very last person suspected. There is the risk of
being found with a revolver in your possession, but in the prevailing
alarm and confusion that can easily be got rid of. It is very simple
when explained, is it not?"

"Very," Wilkinson said drily. "Do I understand that you learnt this
trick from Ram Murshee?"

Nora gave a shudder.

"Yes," she said. "I saw it done years ago. I don't want to go into the
circumstances now because I shall have to tell it all at the trial. Let
me be happy and comfortable while I can. I am looking forward to a long
life of happiness with the man from whom Murshee separated me--the man
who has come back to me in such an unexpected way. I am sure Mr.
Lethbridge and Miss Grover have something to talk about beside this
hideous tragedy."

Wilkinson took the hint. There were one or two other questions, he said,
which he was bound to ask Miss Bligh, but the use would be for her
private ear alone. Mary moved off towards the house, but Lethbridge
stretched out a detaining hand. There was something in the garden he
wanted to show her, something, about which he wanted her opinion.

The rosery was secluded and pleasant and it was in that direction they
wandered. Lethbridge paused suddenly and placed his hands upon his
companion's shoulder.

"There is no time like the present," he said pointedly.

"For what?" Mary whispered.

"Oh, surely you know. I don't think it needs any words of mine to tell
you what is uppermost in my heart. I have always been a lonely man, and
never dreamt of being anything else till you came into my life. Then I
knew that I cared for you from the first, and was foolish enough to
believe that you cared for me, too. When things looked blackest against
me, you took my word against the world. I am a poor man, Mary, and have
nothing to offer you, but I think there's a good time coming. Perhaps a
little later----"

There was an eloquent pause, then the girl laughed lightly, her face
flushed, and her eyes were wet with happy tears.

"Why later?" she asked demurely. "Just as if I care whether you are poor
or not. You have your place and I have this, and between us it will be
hard if we can't make a living. You must not think me bold or forward,
but I was interested in you from the first. I had always done you an
injustice, I had always believed you to be as our poor uncle described
you. But then we had never met, when I saw you, John, I felt a cruel
mistake had been made. And when I learnt how nobly you had acted for my
sake, then my----"

"Who told you that?" John Lethbridge demanded.

"My sister guessed it. You destroyed the Golden Rose so that I should
have the sole and exclusive benefit of my uncle's discovery. And to
think that he should have stolen this from Walter Ward! But that is not
the point. You made yourself a poor man so that I might be rich. How
could any girl forget a thing like that! John, let us make this a garden
of love and flowers; it need no longer be a garden of death."


THE END



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