a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: A Royal Wrong Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1100401h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2011 Date most recently updated: May 2011 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
CONTENTS. --------- CHAPTER I..........THE ALTAR OF SACRIFICE II........."LITTLE KATE" III........A DESPERATE VENTURE IV.........THE VENTURE IS SUCCESSFUL V..........A SPORTING CHANCE VI.........IN THE NAME OF THE LAW VII........THROUGH THE NIGHT VIII.......THE MORSE CODE IX.........A FRIEND AT COURT X..........THE GHOST OF A CHANCE XI.........GAINING TIME XII........REPRIEVED! XIII.......A RECKLESS RIDE XIV........SAFE—SO FAR! XV.........LISTON'S BRIGHT IDEA XVI........THE CHANCE ACCEPTED XVII.......BEHIND HIS BACK XVIII......THE PANIC XIX........THE DREADFUL UNEXPECTED XX.........AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE XXI........THE HOUSE IN STANMORE STREET XXII.......THE FINDING OF THE BELT XXIII......DOWN ON HIS LUCK XXIV.......A SILENT WITNESS XXV........KATE MAYFIELD AT HOME XXVI.......A HELPING HAND XXVII......THE MIRROR XXVIII.....BRANDED! XXIX......."A WOMAN'S CROWN OF GLORY" XXX........COWARD CONSCIENCE XXXI.......CONFESSION XXXII......FOLLOWED UP XXXIII.....THE NOBLER PART XXXIV......ON HIS KNEES XXXV.......THE RIGHT MAN XXXVI......THE BEST WAY OUT
As Lady Letty Stanborough stood in the garden listening to the rustle of silken skirts and the ripple of laughter, she was faintly conscious of the fragrance of the early May evening. The trees were touched with their spring greenery and in the air was the scent of violets. The grounds beyond the house in Dorchester Gardens were filled with guests gathered in honour of the engagement between Lady Letty and Stephen Du Cros, the South African millionaire.
It was a marriage of convenience, of course—everybody recognised that. The Earl, her father, sorely needed money; indeed there were some who said that but for the weight of Du Cros's influence his lordship might have found himself face to face with a judge and jury. It was impossible, too, that Lady Letty should care for her wealthy admirer—that cold, proud beauty seemed to indicate a nature incapable of caring for anything or anybody. And yet——
The girl had a moment to herself presently, when the chattering mob of friends had lisped their insipid congratulations and she was alone in a corner of the garden. She had an uneasy feeling that the jealous eye of Du Cros was upon her, for in his way the millionaire was jealous. Perhaps he understood the hollowness of the compact between them.
But at any rate he could not be jealous of the man who came up just then. He would hardly condescend to be suspicious of a mere novelist dependent upon his pen for a living. He did not know that these two had been brought up together, nor that Hugh Childers had chosen to quarrel with a rich father over the young man's devotion to his art. The bitterness had lasted five years, and Childers was still struggling. Now, for the first time, he was regretting his folly. But for his pride in his work, he would stand to-day as the heir to the vast Childers estates, with their iron and steel foundries and prosperous coal mines. He looked down into Lady Letty's face, an eloquent sadness in his eyes. What a fool he had been! Even if he went to his father and obtained a tardy pardon he could not save Lady Letty now.
"I haven't had an opportunity of congratulating you before," he said. "Permit me——"
"Don't," Lady Letty whispered. The mask had fallen from her face and the beautiful eyes were tired and weary. "Not from you, Hugh. Oh, don't you understand!"
Childers nodded gloomily. He understood only too well, and might have prevented it all. He knew that this woman had a warm and passionate heart under her seemingly haughty demeanour, and that it beat only for him. He guessed at the tragic sacrifice she was making to save the family honour.
"I had to say something," he murmured. "They tell us that language is given to disguise our thoughts. It seemed the right tone to adopt in an atmosphere like this."
"I know, I know," Lady Letty returned. "I am thankful to think that one man understands me, Hugh. I daresay I shall get accustomed to it in time. But for the rest of my natural life—my natural life——"
The girl's voice broke and a shudder passed over her. She felt that Hugh Childers was looking into her very soul. She knew she was reading him correctly. Though nothing was said by either, the love of the other stood confessed.
"Du Cros is a thrice fortunate man," Hugh said bitterly. "He has money, position, good health, and you, my dear. If I had not been a blind fool——"
It was Childers' turn to pause. He saw Du Cros in the distance talking to a business friend. The man of money looked prosperous, and the smile of the conqueror was on his lips. As one watched him, one wondered what stroke of fortune he was contemplating. The man by his side was well groomed, save that he was a trifle too glossy, too theatrical, and obviously out of place.
"Better drop it," the stranger said. "Get this danger out of the way first, at any rate. There will be time for your revenge afterwards. Lancaster has bolted, the police are after him, and every racing man in Liverpool is talking about it. Besides, Lord Amsted will be your brother-in-law one of these days."
Du Cros's dark eyes flashed and his thin lips grew hard and cruel.
"Amsted humiliated me in public," he answered. "He struck me because I dared to aspire to marry his sister, Lady Letty. I swore to ruin him, and I will. It will be my business that Amsted does not see where the blow comes from. I shall marry Lady Letty and track him down at the same time. Within a few hours Amsted will be in gaol—the heir of my distinguished father-in-law will get five years."
"You are a fool," the other man retorted crisply. "You forget your own danger. Lancaster, the big bookmaker has bolted. You betrayed him to the police. If he is arrested and finds that out, we shall be done. You ought to be in Liverpool to-morrow. At the very latest you must be there early on the following day. But you must get there in such a way that your enemies haven't the slightest notion of what you are doing. If you could manage to do it under the guise of a pleasure trip——"
Du Cros smiled meaningly.
"Did I ever fail, Blossom?" he asked. "It is touch-and-go with my fortunes just when I appear to be most prosperous. What would all these empty-headed fools say if they guessed the truth? There are more reasons than one why I should be in Liverpool the day after to-morrow, but I must guard my movements so as to blind the group of speculators who are conspiring against me. Make your mind easy—you can rely upon meeting me outside Lime-street station at four o'clock in the morning the day after to-morrow. There is the woman who is unconsciously playing the game for me."
"Madame Regnier!" Blossom exclaimed. "The great prima donna! The finest singer and the most popular artist in Europe! Whom are you getting at?"
"Listen," Du Cros said curtly. "They are all my puppets when I pull the strings. I need to be in Liverpool at an early hour in such circumstances as my movements shall not be suspected. Madame Regnier is going to help me. Listen."
The great singer approached them, her good-natured face wreathed in smiles. She had no love for Du Cros, especially as she had a warm admiration and affection for Lady Letty. Surrounded by friends she listened to what Du Cros was saying.
"Really, that is very charming of you," she observed. "What it is to have the purse of Fortunatus to draw upon! But I am afraid there is not time for your brilliant suggestion. Let us hear what Lady Letty has to say. Call her, somebody."
Lady Letty came up, cold and collected as usual. It would have been difficult for any of them to tell what was passing in her mind, to read the misery that filled her heart.
"The scheme flashed into my mind quite suddenly," Du Cros explained. "Madame Regnier will go to Liverpool to-morrow, on her way to America for a tour in the States. I need not say how sorry we are to lose her. She will give a good-bye concert on the following afternoon. It will be her last appearance in England for more than a year. It is not right to let her slip away in this undemonstrative fashion. It will be hard to do without her in any case."
"You are a born flatterer," said Madame Regnier. "Please proceed with your suggestion."
"Well, our divinest singer was going to Liverpool in the ordinary way. She cannot be permitted to leave us like an ordinary person. I propose to charter a special train, take a party to give her a send-off, and come back the same way."
A murmur of approval followed the suggestion. Du Cros wished to disarm criticism. Had anybody any objection to the idea? Could anybody improve on it?
"The time is short," Lady Letty said. "We all have many engagements. If dear Madame Regnier were only going a week later it would be different."
Du Cros appeared to regard this as fatal. His air was one of disappointment.
"I have it," he cried presently. "Stupid of me not to have seen that point before. You are quite right, Letty; every hour is precious. Let us meet the general convenience as far as we can. So my programme is—midnight to-morrow, a corridor train, and supper on board. Those who want to sleep can. If we start at midnight or a little later, we can all keep our dinner and theatre engagements, or show up at a dance. I flatter myself that is a way out of the difficulty. Let everybody come who want to. What do you say, Childers?"
Childers hesitated; then he caught Lady Letty's eye.
"I shall be delighted," he said gravely. "It will be a novel and enjoyable party, and assuredly it will be talked about. Would that I also were a millionaire!"
Du Cros glanced unobtrusively at the eagerly-listening Blossom. The latter winked as he turned on his heel and left the garden. Du Cros was a wonderful man! But he was playing a desperate game, and Blossom had himself to think of. As he passed into the roadway he found a little way off a taxicab with a woman inside.
"Well," she asked, "is Du Cros there? What is he going to do?"
Blossom briefly sketched the programme he had so recently heard. The woman listened intently. Then she took from her pocket a packet of notes, which she pressed into Blossom's hand.
"So far, so good," she said. "You have earned your money. If you are discreet and tell no stories and ask no questions, there will be more for you where these came from. Pay the driver and dismiss him. Never mind my business now; that is no concern of yours. You can go."
Blossom raised his glossy hat with a flourish and vanished. There was a bitter smile on the face of the woman as she watched him depart.
"Dog rob dog," she muttered. "Still, it plays my game for me."
She passed along till she came to the house in Dorchester Gardens where the engagement fete was taking place. At her demand for an instant interview with Lady Letty, the footman gave a supercilious stare. She touched his hand with gold.
"I must see her at once," she said. "It is most urgent, understand. Take this sovereign. Bring Lady Letty to me here and there is another for you. Take me into some room where I can wait without being seen."
The hard expression left Lady Letty's face at the sight of her visitor.
"Little Kate Mayfield!" she exclaimed. "It seems hardly possible. But what is wrong? You are younger than I am. It isn't that you really look old, but there is a——"
"Oh, I know," Kate interrupted. "It is what I have been through—what I am going through now. I shall get young again when I have time to enjoy peace. But that will not be till I have exposed Stephen Du Cros and driven him out of every honest man's house."
Lady Letty stared haughtily at the speaker. Had the girl taken leave of her senses?
"I make every allowance for you," she said. "I cannot forget that your father used to be one of our tenants at Stanford. We were children together——"
"Ah! you were more than kind to me before my father had to give up everything and go to the Cape. As if I could ever forget! I would do anything for a Stanborough. That is why I am here to-night, that is why I have forced myself upon you. That is why I speak of Stephen Du Cros as an adventurer and a scoundrel."
The words came in a suppressed whisper from Kate Mayfield's lips. She was under the stress of some great emotion. That she was seeking nothing for herself was evident. She was too well dressed and had too real a stamp of prosperity for that.
"I am engaged to Mr. Du Cros," Lady Letty said significantly. "I ought not to listen to——"
"But you must, you shall," Kate retorted vehemently. "I am trying to save you from a fate that would be worse than death. I know the words must sound cheap and tawdry in your ears, but they are true. Believe me, I have come entirely on your account, Lady Letty. You must hear me. If you refuse to do so I will force myself among your guests and confront Du Cros before them all. But if you decline to consider yourself, you must think of your brother. Don't let the man you are bent on marrying ruin Lord Amsted body and soul."
"The man I am bent on marrying!" Lady Letty exclaimed. "If you only knew——"
She paused abruptly. It was impossible to speak freely before this girl. Kate thought she knew exactly what was passing through Lady Letty's mind.
"Ah!" she cried, "this is as I expected. You despise and dislike that man as much as I do. You are parting with your happiness to save the family honour. What are you getting in return? Not even riches, for Du Cros is poorer than your father. And he will soon be shown up. I know that man inside and out. For a year or more I saw him daily in South Africa. Fool that I was, I thought I cared for him. I looked upon him as a good and honest man. Instead of that, he was the friend and associate of swindlers, the arch-swindler himself. When the crash came, he left me to face the police. I was arrested and took my trial for diamond stealing. Whether I was innocent or not matters nothing. But I was the tool of that man and he abandoned me to my fate. That same fate was kind to me in the end, and I came back to England rich and prosperous. But I wanted my revenge—oh, yes, I needed that. I have waited for it. I have watched Du Cros climb out of the gutter until he is accepted as a millionaire and flattered by the great. I meant to have him arrested as he started to meet you on your wedding-day. Not one single incident of his career is concealed from me. My detectives have watched him, and one of his confederates is in my pay. Oh, I had planned a fine revenge, I promise you! But I cannot go on with it, because Lord Amsted is in danger. You know how he and Mr. Middlemass were nearly ruined over a race some time ago. Well, the whole thing was a conspiracy on the part of Du Cros and his associates to bring Lord Amsted to his knees. I don't want to recall the reason why Du Cros hates Lord Amsted so bitterly."
"They had a misunderstanding in a club," Lady Letty said with flaming cheeks.
"Lord Amsted thrashed him," Kate corrected. "Now, Du Cros never forgives an injury. His idea is to marry you; but that will not affect his scheme for ruining your brother. To a certain extent the plan has already answered. Lord Amsted was driven out of the country; he could not return for fear of arrest. Mind, you, he is more sinned against than sinning. He came back, greatly daring, to ride a certain horse that nobody else could steer to victory, and he won. Mr. Middlemass got all his money back, and Du Cros had to pay. But Lord Amsted was injured while riding and motored off directly the race was over, and also to avoid arrest. He is now lying concealed at Stanford. Du Cros knows he is there. To-morrow night or early on the following morning he will be arrested. It may be a serious matter for Lord Amsted, but if we can keep him safe the affair will be settled. I am prepared to find the money if nobody else will. But you must see Lord Amsted and arrange the details. I will tell you what to do."
"I will go and see him to-morrow."
"Ah! I thought I should move you," Kate said. "But, unfortunately, the matter cannot be arranged so easily as all that. If you leave here openly, Du Cros will suspect you and have you watched. He does not trust you, because he knows you have no liking for him. He also knows how strong is your affection for Lord Amsted. Do you know—but, of course, you don't—that your very maid is in Du Cros's pay? That is what my agents tell me. If you slip off to Stanford openly you will be followed. You must go and return secretly. That is where my suggestion is weak. Nobody can go but you; nobody but you can guide Lord Amsted to a place of safety. If you leave it to Mr. Childers he will be followed, too, although he would do anything for you."
Lady Letty's face flamed.
"You are a wonderful woman, Kate."
"I have learnt my lesson in a hard school," Kate replied. "Mr. Childers is the man you need. As a novelist he is good at plotting. Get him to work out a plan for you. Can't you take advantage of this midnight journey to Liverpool?"
"You know all about that?" Lady Letty cried. "It was only arranged on the spur of the moment a little time ago. It was quite spontaneous."
"A carefully prepared impromptu!" Kate said scornfully. "Du Cros worked that out this morning. I paid twenty pounds for the news. Du Cros's real object is to go to Liverpool on secret business, the pleasure part is only a blind. He will insist upon your going; in fact, he will take no refusal. So long as you accompany this expedition, he will have you under his eye. He will take extraordinary pains to see that you do not hold any communication with Lord Amsted."
"In that case I shall be utterly powerless."
"On the face of it, yes," Kate said. "This thing must be done at once or the consequences will be serious. We cannot appeal to Lady Amsted, seeing that nobody knows that they are married. Lady Amsted's people will be furious when they know—but we need not go into that. We do not know the extent of Lord Amsted's injuries. They may be slight, they may be serious. That he should be left alone is out of the question. There is nobody but you to help him, and time is short. What I had in my mind was how you could leave the express and go to Stanford by motor. You might join the train at a later stage without anybody being any the wiser. A fast motor could manage it if you had an accomplice on the train—say Mr. Childers. You would have the best part of an hour at Stanford, where Lord Amsted could remain and laugh at his pursuers. You used to boast that nobody knew of so many hiding-places as yourself. Do you remember how Lord Amsted and you once put me in the Monk's Parlour, and how frightened I was when I could not get out? You discovered the secret of the room after it had been forgotten for ages. If you could explain this on paper and give it me——"
"I am afraid that would be impossible."
"Yes, I was certain you would say that. But if you are bold and resolute, you can turn our childish pastimes to good effect so far as Lord Amsted is concerned. I will give you my address in town where you can come and see me to-morrow if I can be of any service to you. If you don't call before night, I shall understand that Mr. Childers and you have found a way. Remember, you are not to say a word of this to anybody but Mr. Childers, who worships the ground you tread on and would go through fire and water for you. Also, not a whisper to Stephen Du Cros. If he hears my name so much as mentioned everything will be lost. I shall know how to deal with him when the time comes. To think of the audacity of that man—that he should dare to lift his eyes to you."
Lady Letty smiled unsteadily. She felt no anger and resentment against the girl who had spoken of her future husband in this way. She was not surprised to hear that the envied millionaire was only an adventurer.
"It is good of you to come and see me," she said.
"Is it?" Kate answered with a strange look. "I am afraid that I am not quite so disinterested as you imagine. I would do anything to save one of your family, but the spirit of revenge is at the back of it all. Still, we need not go into that. Now, go and discuss this matter with Mr. Childers and see if he can find a way. If you will shake hands with me——"
Lady Letty stooped and kissed Kate Mayfield on the lips.
Lady Letty passed through the house into the garden again. She stopped for a moment to glance at herself in a long gilt mirror. She was wondering if the racking agony of her mind found expression in her face. But the features were cold and set; no hint of pain lay in the clear eyes. She had been brought up in too hard a school for that. She could still smile when her heart was breaking. Yet there were those who envied her and regarded her as one of the most fortunate of mortals! If they only knew; if they could only realise how things were!
Then why did she do it? Why did she lend herself to this scheme? She was keenly alive to the fact that her father was not worth the sacrifice. The name of Stanborough was tainted beyond recall. She might break away from her moorings and start life on her own account. She had enough for a cottage in the country, and had only to say the word and Hugh Childers would come to her side. It had needed no words of Kate Mayfield's to tell her that much. His earnings were not great, but they would have sufficed. But Hugh, with all his cleverness, clung to the same futile traditions, growing old before his time in the insane attempt to swim with the tide. What sickening folly it was! How happy they might have been together!
Lady Letty had half a mind to throw down the glove of open revolt. She wanted to tell Stephen Du Cros how she hated and despised him; she wanted to inform her father that she could not go on with this hideous sacrifice. Hugh would come to her eagerly. They might be married quietly and the others could look to themselves. But even as these thoughts came uppermost in Lady Letty's mind, she knew that they could not be. She would have to go on to the bitter end; the chains of fashion were too strong for her. In any case, she had a duty to perform. Kate Mayfield's startling and dramatic story could not be ignored. There was truth stamped all over it; there was absolutely no chance of outside assistance, and Lady Letty would have to act for herself. Come what may, she must go as far as Stanford, and nobody must be any the wiser. The trouble and risk must be entirely hers. Least of all dared she mention the matter to Stephen Du Cros. If she told him that she could not go to Liverpool, his suspicions would be aroused at once. If she feigned illness he would have her watched. She had just been told that he had bribed the servants. To get away from London for a whole day and back again without anybody at Dorchester Gardens being any the wiser seemed out of the question. Yet it had to be done. Lady Letty had to achieve the impossible. The only man who could help her was Hugh Childers.
Fortunately, Du Cros had no jealousy of him. It was absurd he should have anything to fear from a penniless scribbler. In this way he ignored the one individual in the world who had touched Lady Letty's heart. She must find Hugh at once. He came to her by a kind of instinct. He knew she had had bad news.
"You are in trouble," he said. "Tell me and see if I can help you."
Lady Letty looked up with a startled expression on her face.
"Do I show it so plainly?" she asked.
"No; I don't suppose anybody else would notice. They would probably say that you looked just as usual. But, you see, I know you so well, dear."
"Utterly cold, utterly heartless," Lady Letty laughed bitterly. "That is my reputation. I suppose that I have tried to live up to it. It just shows how wrong it is to judge by appearances. I am in terrible trouble, Hugh. It came to me unexpectedly, as worry of this kind always does. Let me tell you the details of a strange interview I have just had with Kate Mayfield. You remember her at Stanford?"
"Really! Where does little Kate come in? But tell me, and if I can help——"
Lady Letty went rapidly over the points of the story.
"Now you know exactly how I am situated," she said. "Hugh, I must go. It is imperative to save Amsted. Stanford is empty except for an aged caretaker who is devoted to us all. I mean Beaton. There is hardly any furniture. My father's creditors took everything. You know what a desolate, dreary old place it is!"
"A capital spot to hide in," Childers reminded her. "I knew the house quite well as a boy. Do you recollect the day when I nearly got drowned in the moat? And so poor old Amsted is hiding there, or going to be hidden there when you reach Stanford."
Lady Letty glanced round her before she replied. Nobody was apparently within earshot; the giddy throng of well-dressed men and women passed across the lawns and filled the refreshment tents or sat idly listening to the Red Geneva band. How hollow the whole thing was, Lady Letty thought. And how dishonest! It was all so unnecessary in their position; it was never in the least likely to be paid for. They were not far removed from fraudulent bankrupts.
"Amsted's danger is great," she whispered. "You already know how he got mixed up in a turf scandal. It was a disgraceful business, and I believe it is in the hands of the police. Stephen Du Cros knows all about it. Kate Mayfield has told me that he laid a trap for my headstrong brother. Amsted is a perfect fool where sport is concerned. There is no folly he will not commit where a horse is in question."
Childers nodded. He knew all this. Lord Amsted, Lord Stanborough's eldest son, was one of the most famous cross-country riders of the day. He had been brought up in the atmosphere of the stable, and his friends were all of the racecourse. Even in the days of his neglected youth at Eton he was implicated in some racing trouble.
"But he is not really bad," Lady Letty went on, as if reading her companion's thoughts. "He is good-natured and generous, and will take any risk to help a friend. But he is so easily led. Now there is something that cannot be hushed up. I don't know what it is, but Stephen Du Cros does. I had to go down to his office some days ago for my father on business, and he was talking to a man about Amsted. I did not like the look of the fellow at all, but many of Stephen's friends repel me. I tremble sometimes when I think of the future. Oh, was ever a girl so tried as I am?"
Hugh murmured his sympathy. It was very hard to listen and retain his self-possession.
"I am ready to do anything for you," he said.
"Oh, I know, I know. You are the one man I can trust. Well, Amsted is at Stanford in hiding; he has met with an accident. I must go and see him."
"There is no reason why you should not," Childers said. "It is not very difficult for you to——"
"My dear boy, it is the most difficult thing in the world. I must be there to-morrow and return the same day. I have promised to accompany those people to Liverpool to Madame Regnier's concert. I can't get out of it. We start at midnight. At one point the train passes within ten miles of Stanford. If I could only leave the train for an hour and rejoin it before it reaches Liverpool! But what nonsense I am talking."
"Can't you plead illness and remain in London? If you could trust your maid!"
"My maid is in the pay of Stephen Du Cros. The situation is perfectly hopeless. All I have thought of is that mad notion of leaving the special for an hour and rejoining it later. Then I should be absolutely safe. Please don't laugh at me, Hugh. Kate Mayfield suggested that I should ask you. She said a novelist should have a certain sympathy with the situation. I have read of unlikely schemes in books."
"Not more wonderful than that," Childers said. "We leave at twelve o'clock and shall take four hours getting to Liverpool. It is a very rambling route, and it would be possible to set you down in a certain spot in such circumstances that you could spend some time at Stanford and cut across the country to join the train again at Stoneleigh Cross. A motor at sixty miles an hour would do the trick. If we can hit upon an excuse for stopping the train twice, the thing will be easy."
"Oh, it would be easy enough if Stephen Du Cros were not of the company," Lady Letty said. "He would suspect at once what I was going to do, for he is aware my brother is at Stanford. I was not dreaming of any conventional or commonplace plan. It wants some wild, ingenious, out-of-the-way scheme, whereby I may get away and all shall suppose that I am still in the train. If you can think that out for me!"
Childers sat pondering deeply. The suggestion appealed to him for more reasons than one. In the course of his stories he liked to handle complicated situations. Here was one calculated to tax his power of invention to the uttermost.
"Well?" Lady Letty asked after a long pause. "Are you laughing at me?"
"Nothing was farther from my thoughts," Childers said gravely. "On the contrary, the suggestion fascinates me. But it is impossible to think it out in the midst of this noise and frivolity. But I have the germ of an idea. Have you some friend you can trust? I mean some woman friend of good position. All she has to do is to express a desire at the last moment to join the party at Stoneleigh Cross. She might send a telegram late to-morrow evening. But she must be a person of consequence. She can be coached for her part by telephone. If she lives or is staying in the North so much the better."
Lady Letty ruminated quietly for a little time.
"Yes," she said by and bye, "Violet Ringwood could help me, I fancy. Lord Ringwood is away. She does not live far from Stoneleigh Cross. What am I to do?"
"Nothing to-night," Childers said as he rose. "I'll call to see you after breakfast. It maybe a desperate chance, but I believe you can cheat them yet."
Lady Letty was not sorry to be alone. She had a number of intricate problems to consider, and their solution threatened almost to be beyond her. She had no ready cash, nor could she command the assistance of friends with money. Otherwise, the thing had been easy. But now it was possible to do nothing but hide Amsted. And there was nobody but she who could do the hiding successfully. The situation was desperate, brimful of anxiety, one long vista of fear and danger. And the man she had most to dread was the man she had agreed to marry!
She could see him flitting about amongst the trees from one group to another, welcomed everywhere with flattering smiles. What a farce it all was! How promptly and contemptuously they would turn their backs on him should fortune frown on him to-morrow. But apparently no doubts of this kind assailed Stephen Du Cros. Presently some visitor engaged him in earnest conversation. The man's appearance was oddly familiar to Lady Letty. It occurred to her that he was the person she had seen in Du Cros's office, the man who had discussed her brother. Involuntarily, she drew nearer to them. The stranger was talking excitedly. She could catch Amsted's name.
"No," Du Cros said curtly. "Nothing of the kind. Please understand that this thing must be done in my way. I leave for Liverpool to-morrow night and shall not be back till the day after. You are not to go near Stanford in the meantime."
Lady Letty dropped into the shadows. She had learnt something. Amsted was free for the next four-and-twenty hours at any rate. If she could only accomplish her project so far as the special train was concerned! But that was out of the question. Hugh Childers might be sanguine, but this task was beyond his power. An irresistible impulse to know the best or worst came upon Lady Letty as she stood there. It was still with her after the guests had gone and she was alone in her room.
It was not far to Childers's flat; he could not have retired yet. There was no reason why Lucy Childers should not share the secret. The scheme would cost money, and she must be prepared for emergencies. Lady Letty had a few jewels she could dispose of, and these she hastily slipped into the pocket of her wrap. She went quietly down the stairs and out into the stillness of the night. Her step faltered a little and her cheeks flamed as she knocked.
Lucy Childers looked at Lady Letty in surprise.
"What has happened?" she asked. "Is there anything wrong at home?"
"Nothing worse than usual," Lady Letty said. "I waited till everybody had gone to bed and then came round to see Hugh. I had to see him before I slept. Perhaps he has told you."
Lucy Childers smiled. There were no secrets between her brother and herself. She knew many things that Lady Letty merely suspected. Hugh was in the drawing-room.
"I was just going to bed," Lucy explained. "Now, I will wait till you are ready to retire. No, I won't stay with you people. I shall be told everything afterwards."
Lucy softly withdrew. A somewhat awkward silence followed.
"I had to come," Lady Letty explained. "I was right in what I said about Stephen Du Cros and my brother. The man I told you of was at our house to-night. I overheard a few words they said. Stanford was mentioned, but they will do nothing till the day after to-morrow, which gives me some little breathing-time. Oh, Hugh, can you manage it—is there any way by which I can get to Stanford to-morrow night?"
Hugh was pacing up and down the room. He had put aside his own troubles and worries, and for the last hour had revolved Letty's perplexities in his mind. A plan was becoming more and more clear to him, until at last it was only a matter of detail.
"I believe I can do it," he said. "I have been studying the railway map. There is a point called Cranley, which is only eight miles from Stanford. Stoneleigh Cross will be reached by the special seventy minutes later than Cranley. But it is no great distance from Cranley to Stoneleigh Cross as the crow flies, and a speedy motor will give you half an hour at Stanford and allow time to get to Stoneleigh Cross, where the train will pull up for Lady Ringwood. To arrange for a motor to await you at the spot where you secretly leave the train is easy. We shall be there as soon as she is, and I'll smuggle you back again on board the train at Stoneleigh Cross. In fact, a rapid car and a chauffeur that knows the land will do all we need—if there is no delay or accident."
"That sounds promising," Lady Letty said. "There is a certain amount of danger, but with a clever head like yours it should be managed. But how about getting off the train? Do you propose to invent some excuse for my leaving openly?"
"I can't see my way to that," Childers said after a pause. "It is too risky. The great thing is to avoid arousing Du Cros's suspicion. Letty, your nerve is good? You are ready to take a risk? Your courage will not fail you at the last moment?"
Childers had dropped his voice to an impressive whisper. Lady Letty caught his excitement, and a little colour crept into her pale face.
"I fancy you may trust me," she said. "I am not afraid to ride any horse that looks through a bridle. I had to swim for my life once. When we went bird's-nesting together, I climbed the highest tree as well as you did, Hugh."
"That is perfectly true," Childers agreed. "I don't fancy there is much real danger, but it will be very horrible to contemplate in cold blood. But you won't be alone, because I mean to accompany you. On the whole I prefer to keep that part of the scheme a secret. How we shall leave the train without stopping it is a matter I would rather not discuss. I don't want you to dwell upon it; I don't wish you to realise the thing till the last moment. As to the motor, I will see to that. You can rely upon its being in readiness. You must trust me, Letty."
"Of course I trust you," Lady Letty exclaimed. "I am willing to place my life in your hands, Hugh. But there are a good many details to be settled yet."
"I have thought of most of them. We can't run the risk of telephoning to Lady Ringwood. Lucy will take an early train to see her and explain matters so far as it is possible to explain. Lady Ringwood, who is a friend of Adala Regnier, will telegraph to Stephen Du Cros, saying she has heard of the express party and asking to have the train stopped at Stoneleigh Cross so that she may join it there. As she is the wife of a peer, it is certain Du Cros will not refuse; on the contrary, he will be only too happy to oblige her. After that you will have to do what I tell you, and obey my instructions implicitly."
"It will require money," Lady Letty said.
"That is so," Childers admitted. "I have none. I suppose we shall have to pay some five or six pounds for the motor which will meet you near Cranley. That Lucy will arrange for. You had better give her the money so that she can pay in advance."
Lady Letty produced the jewels from the pocket of her wrap.
"This is all I have," she said. "Take these and pawn them. What would some of the friends that envy me say if they could see and hear me now!"
The clock on the mantelpiece struck the hour of three. Lady Letty looked up with a start.
"I must fly," she said. "Fancy being from home at this time in the morning! I cannot thank you, Hugh; I must do that on some more fitting occasion. I am leaving everything to you. I am putting myself entirely in your hands. Good-night."
Half an hour from midnight the next evening the fashionable party began to gather at Euston Station. Four carriages and two sleeping-cars gay in crimson and gold and flashing with electric lights had pulled up at one of the platforms. The whole equipment just as it stood had been borrowed, so the story ran, from an ostentatious American millionaire who had brought his special train with him from the States. It was an extravagant piece of snobbishness, but it had served its purpose. The 'smart set' was obviously impressed; the owner of the resplendent cars had been talked about. Everything in its way was perfect. There were lounges and enclosed balconies outside the carriages where it was possible in the daytime to sit or walk and admire the scenery. It was all typically American.
Stephen Du Cros bustled up, full of importance.
"I fancy everybody is here," he said. "We shall have supper at one o'clock. I have left the arrangements as to flowers and the music to the Carlton Hotel people. Those who want to sleep have a car for themselves. We shall stop for a few minutes at Stoneleigh Cross to take up Lady Ringwood. She had heard of the party and wired me to keep a place for her."
Childers listened to the statement with grim satisfaction. He could see his way clear, if he might depend upon Lady Letty's courage and determination. With noise and clatter and laughter, the frivolous group pushed their way into the train. It was a new sensation, and they proposed to enjoy themselves exceedingly. They were loud in their praises of the beauty and luxury of their surroundings. With a shrill whistle the engine started, and London was left behind. At the end of an hour the novelty of the situation was beginning to wear off, and supper was announced. Already one or two of the more careful of the company had gone to the sleeping-car. It was an elaborate supper of the most dainty kind; the flowers in themselves had cost a small fortune. When the supper was disposed of, the majority of Du Cros's guests began to wonder what form of amusement he had arranged for them.
"I am very sorry," he said, "there is nothing but bridge. Our accommodation is too limited for anything else. Will you take a hand, Letty?"
Lady Letty glanced at Childers. He shook his head, indicating the sleeping-car.
"I think not," she said. "I am so very tired. I shall turn in for an hour or two."
Du Cros raised no objection. He was less suspicious than usual, and still puffed up with pride at the success of the venture. A little later Lady Letty, at a sign from Childers, followed him beyond the glass door on to the platform outside. The train was gliding slowly along at a speed of fifteen miles or so an hour. It was cold and chilly where they were, and they seemed to have the whole world to themselves. Letty was shaking from head to foot with excitement.
"You are not timid?" Childers asked. "You are not afraid?"
"Only restless," Lady Letty said. "Don't worry about me; I shall be ready. The sooner it is time to act, the better I shall be pleased."
Childers drew a deep long breath. He grasped Lady Letty's arm.
"The time has come," he said. "Five minutes more and the thing will be done! I see you have no fear. See how slowly we are moving! There is a nasty curve here, and since that accident two years ago all trains slow down at this point. Are you ready? Get into this waterproof suit quickly. I borrowed it from a lady performer at the Hippodrome. Come, Letty."
It seemed like a dream and as short. Strong arms lifted Lady Letty clear of the handrail; she could see the gleam of water beneath her, and out there in the velvet darkness another gleam, steady as a star. It was the motor, the flashing headlights of which showed the way clear. Then a drop, light as a thistledown, a touch of cold, firm ground again, and a feeling as if she had all the world to herself.
She was absolutely and entirely dry! But what to do with the suit! Oh, yes! Hugh had told her to hide that.
The chauffeur stepped down from his seat alertly—the very model of a driver, discreet, alert, not in the least surprised.
"Stanford, miss," he said, "and on to Stoneleigh Cross within an hour? Quite easy, miss; and give you a clear half-hour at Stanford as well."
Stanford was a house where Lady Letty had spent some of her happiest days. It had mattered nothing to her that it was a wild, desolate, tumbledown old place, by no means healthy, but picturesque to a degree. It had been the cradle of her race, for here, five hundred years ago, the Stanboroughs had started on a career that covered the wild and adventurous all over the world. It still preserved its castle-like aspect; the stone walls had resisted the assaults of time, and part of the old moat remained. Up to some five years ago the draw-bridge had been intact. The present head of the family had disposed of everything of value, and the Jews who had a claim on the estate had taken away pictures and china and rare pieces of tapestry.
The place was not wholly stripped of furniture, but there were no servants to look after the house, save an old gamekeeper and his wife, who acted as caretakers. They were almost as grim and silent as the house itself; they had been born and bred on the estate, and still regarded the Stanboroughs as the foremost family in the kingdom. They were alone, received no wages, and John Beaton shot game and caught fish for the pot as his ancestors had done.
Beaton was pottering round the house locking up. He need not have troubled; no burglars would ever have given Stanford a second thought.
He passed along the old stone-flagged corridors with a flaring candle in his hand. He thought he heard a noise outside. Somebody was knocking mysteriously on the hall door. With a thick stick in his knotted old hand, Beaton opened the portal. A man stood there muffled to the eyes in a great-coat, and a slouch hat was pulled over his brows.
"What do you want at this time of night?" Beaton, demanded surlily.
The intruder pushed forward and closed the door behind him. With the utmost ease he wrenched the stick from Beaton's hand and pinned him against the wall. Then a gay, careless laugh rang out and the hat fell from the stranger's head.
"Don't you know me, John?" he said. "Anybody here but you and Becky? That's all right. I've had a bit of a job to come, but I'm safe now."
Beaton's grim features relaxed, and something like a smile of affection dawned in his eyes.
"So it's you, Mr. Julian, my lord I mean! I—I never expected to see you again."
Lord Amsted smiled carelessly. There was a reckless look on his handsome face, which did not in the least suggest trouble. Nobody in these parts quite gathered what the scandal was. They were merely agreed that it had to do with a horse. The whole countryside was given up to sport, and so Amsted had everybody's sympathy. The young lord, as they called him, had got mixed up in some shady turf business and dared not show his face in England.
And yet here he was, reckless and daring as usual. He smote Beaton heavily on the back.
"Get a fire in one of the sitting-rooms," he said. "Give me a shakedown. I may stay for a day or two. Only nobody is to be told."
Beaton's face lightened. It was a clever man who wormed a secret out of him.
"You've no cause to be afraid about that, my lord," he said. "Becky and me'd do anything for you. But it's dangerous for you to be here. I don't know the facts of the case——"
"No, and you never will, John," Amsted said in his most casual fashion. "I've been a fool. Of course, I did wrong, but I never intended harm to anybody. I was more or less dragged into it. Now it has gone beyond the reach of the Jockey Club. If I could get at one man I might be able to put matters right. Meanwhile, I'm not safe anywhere in England."
"Then why have you come back, my lord?" Beaton asked bluntly.
"My good fellow, I had to come. If I hadn't, Mr. Middlemass would have lost a pile of money. He had got into the hands of the same gang. If his horse does not win at Calsham to-morrow he will be ruined. It's only a cross-country affair, but there is a heap of money on it. I've come over to ride the mare."
Beaton groaned. In his way he was fond of Amsted.
"What madness!" he said. "Half the county will be there! You'll be recognised, Mr. Julian. And the very people who are looking for you to—to——"
"Clap me into gaol, you were going to say. It's the very lot who hope to ruin Mr. Middlemass. Instead of which he is going to rook them. After he's done that he'll keep them at arm's length for the future. Nobody can ride the mare but me. She has a vile temper, but with me she's like a lamb. Nobody will know anything until I am in the saddle. I will take them all by surprise. It will be part of my revenge. A car will pick me up when the race is over, and before those rascals can move I shall be far away. I've thought it all out."
"It's the maddest thing I ever heard of."
"But the excitement of it, John!" Amsted's eyes dilated. "Think of the glorious fun. Think of their losing all their money when they expected to make a fortune! I should like to see the face of the blackguard who does me the honour of wishing to be my brother-in-law. I suppose you have heard that Lady Letty is going to be married?"
Beaton nodded. That information had reached Stanford.
"Some rich gentleman in the City of London, isn't it, my lord?"
Amsted's face grew black. The sunny, sanguine smile died from his eyes, and he wore the look of a hard and resolute man.
"A scoundrel!" he cried. "I cannot understand it at all. It is a great grief to me, John. I ought not to discuss family matters with a servant, but this business gnaws me to the heart. I could never stand the fellow. I always kept him at a distance. He belonged to one of my clubs. I heard him say that he was engaged to Lady Letty. When I gave him the lie, he was insolent, and I thrashed him there and then. But, by heavens! it was true all the time. I had actually to learn it from that fellow's lips! I was deeply sorry afterwards, for Lady Letty's sake. But it is ever the way of a Stanborough to strike first and ask questions afterwards. Lady Letty says nothing; she refuses to explain. She has given her word and there is an end to it. But the very man who is marrying into our family is going out of his way to ruin me. He laid the trap and I walked into it. But I mean to take it fighting, old boy, and that is why I am here to-night."
Beaton shook his head doubtfully. But there was a certain admiration in his eyes. For pluck and courage there was nobody like a Stanborough.
"What does her young ladyship say about it all?" he asked.
"She doesn't know," Amsted replied. "And nobody is aware of my marriage, either, except Lady Letty and yourself. You are a discreet witness, John, and Lady Amsted is with her own people at Amsted Park for the moment."
"And she does not know that you are here, my lord?"
"I haven't seen her," Amsted repeated. "I did not tell her what I was going to do. Although she is only twenty miles away, she is entirely ignorant that I am in England again. I hope she won't go to the meeting to-morrow. Yet I must see her, John, and you must help me. We were only such a short time together and parted in this way! I am going to settle down—I promised her I would settle down after that last affair and I meant it, on my honour. I was planning to take a place farther south and start a training establishment, and then, and then——"
Amsted turned his head away, and Beaton saw that his shoulders were heaving. Presently the mood passed and the young man was himself again.
"Get me something to eat," he said. "I don't care what it is. I daresay you can find a bottle of wine, unless those confounded Jews took everything. I don't care where I sleep so long as the bed is comfortable."
John went off shaking his head. He was still anxious and doubtful the following morning, as he saw his young master step into a motor at the gates and drive off to Calsham. For the time, however, the motor coat and goggles made a fine disguise.
Tom Middlemass was sitting moodily over his breakfast when Amsted arrived. He was deriving very little consolation from his betting book. Those scoundrels had certainly got the better of him. Now the jockey upon whom he had staked everything had failed him. The boy pleaded that he had hurt his head, but Middlemass knew pretty well that the lad had been bribed not to ride. He was debating the point in his mind when Amsted arrived.
"Great Scott!" he gasped. "What is the meaning of this, Amsted? I am glad to see you, my dear old fellow, but in the circumstances——"
"A fig for the circumstances," Amsted cried gaily. "The danger adds spice to the adventure. Ronald wrote to me and told me everything. He warned you that young Hodgkiss would throw you over at the last moment. He told you so, but you would not believe him. Of course if Hodgkiss is still going to ride——"
"But he isn't," the other cried. "Ronald was quite right. But in any case you can't——"
"Can't I," Amsted said grimly. "My dear chap, that is why I am here! You will win a fortune instead of losing one, and I shall share the plunder. It will be a thunderbolt for them. They will know nothing about it till I steer the mare past the post. Before they recover from their surprise I shall be miles away in Ronald's car. Now don't say another word; I will do the thing whether you like it or not."
Middlemass protested feebly. He was only human after all, and his future depended upon the coming race. The temptation to win could not be resisted.
"Very well," he said weakly. "You shall ride; but, if any evil comes to you, I shall never look Lady Amsted in the face."
Amsted reached out his hand gently for the coffee-pot.
"That's settled," he said. "Now give me some breakfast. I shall live to see Stephen Du Cros in the dock yet. Here's confusion to him and all the rest of them!"
Amsted reeled in the saddle, and for a moment the reins relaxed on the mare's neck. The yelling multitude, all of whom to a man had backed the horse of the popular Tom Middlemass, ceased to clamour. Victory was within sight; already Amsted had been recognised and the excitement was running high. It was only for a moment, however; the rider shook his mount together again and slipped past the post a bare head in front.
A knot of men in the stand exchanged glances. One of them snapped his glasses in the case.
"Done!" he said, between his teeth. "What will Du Cros say when he hears? Fancy the cool audacity of Amsted coming here to ride! No wonder they piled the money on; no wonder they could afford to smile when we got at young Hodgkiss. All right, is it? Goodness knows where we shall get the money to settle on Monday. Du Cros will have to find it."
A little way down the course Amsted was seated in a car. It looked as if the crowd were bent on making a rush in his direction. He was a Stanborough, was popular in that part of the country, and had won money for everybody. But his lips were tightly set and his face was white and wet.
"Hurry back to Stanford," he whispered to Tom Middlemass. "You saw what happened? Lucas bored me; done intentionally. I believe my left knee is smashed. I nearly fainted with the pain. Get me back to Stanford as soon as possible and send for a doctor. Crichton will do—he will keep his mouth shut. My wife is here; I saw her on the stand. Tell her something comforting; only don't let her know that I am much hurt. She must not come to Stanford."
The motor wheeled away and was lost in the distance. Two hours later Amsted was lying in bed, his leg in splints, and he had been ordered by the doctor to keep perfectly still. He might be able to get up in the course of a week, but it was quite uncertain. Late in the same evening Lady Amsted drove over in her father's car.
There were traces of tears in her pretty eyes and her face was anxious. She threw herself on the bed and kissed Amsted fondly.
"Oh, my dear boy!" she murmured. "My dear boy, why did you do it? You are safe for the present, but they are certain to find out before long where you are lodging. They think that the car took you as far as Liverpool. But why did you do it?"
Amsted smiled up at the pretty loving face.
"My darling," he said. "Oh, it is good to see you again. Why do you worry yourself over such a blackguard as myself? I had to come. I saved Middlemass and gave those chaps a jar they will not recover from easily. And I hit Du Cros at the same time. How did you travel here?"
"Took the car. I guessed you would come here. The others are away for a day or so. I can come to-morrow for an hour or two in the evening, but I must be home by ten o'clock. I dare not stay longer. If we could only get Letty she could hide you in one of those secret places——"
"She won't," Amsted said grimly. "Du Cros won't let her. If he knew she was coming he would have her followed instantly."
"But she won't tell him—she would never be so foolish as that. I wish I could help you, dear, but I am powerless, and my father is very bitter against you at present. In fact, they all are. I cannot make them understand that you are not to blame, but it would be madness to make our marriage public at this moment. Letty is different. She will be able to raise money somehow."
"Pawn some of Du Cros's presents," Amsted laughed. "That would be poetical justice. Of course I must leave in a day or two. Crichton says it might be managed if we could charter a proper ambulance. Those fellows will be keener on revenge than ever. They are bound to find out where I am. When they do so they are certain to set the police on me. Oh! what a fool I've been!"
Amsted lapsed into moodiness for a moment. It was hard to look into the tearful face of his wife and feel easy in his mind.
"I dare say Letty might find some way out of the difficulty," he said presently. "I never anticipated this. I knew I should be recognised—I rather wanted those fellows to see that I had got the best of them. But I never expected to be knocked out. When we come to square up matters there will be plenty of money for you, darling. But that will take a day or two. Meanwhile we must hope for the best."
The weary evening passed and a long and anxious day followed. Lady Amsted had come over in the car again; she desired to stay if possible to see Lady Letty. The latter had telegraphed that she had heard everything and was coming, but it would be past one o'clock in the morning before she arrived. Still Lady Amsted lingered.
"I must see Letty," she said. "I must keep the car till she arrives. Simpson will do anything for me; I can trust him implicitly. I had to tell him everything, and he won a lot of money on your race yesterday. It won't be difficult to concoct some story about a breakdown on the way. I must wait for Letty."
Amsted nodded drowsily. He was feeling comparatively free from pain now, and the previous night had been restless. He was sleeping heavily when Beaton crept into the bedroom and whispered in Lady Amsted's ear.
"Lady Letty has come?" she asked. "I will be with her at once."
Lady Letty stood before the fire in the dingy morning-room.
"Oh, I am glad," Lady Amsted cried. "It was good and kind of you to come, dear."
"It has been a difficult matter," Lady Letty said. "If I told you how dangerous, you would refuse to believe me. Stephen Du Cros must know nothing, especially after what I heard about that race. Nobody but Julian would have done such a thing as that. But I have come truly at my peril. Hugh Childers planned it all for me. He managed to deceive Mr. Du Cros. I am supposed to be lying down in the sleeping-car of a train for Liverpool. I must rejoin the train in less than an hour at Stoneleigh Cross, where Lady Ringwood joins it. But how this amazing thing happened I will tell you another time."
"A motor waits for you, then?" Lady Amsted asked.
"Yes, I came in one. It was waiting for me at Cranley by arrangement. I bless the day they were invented. I should never have got here at all had it not been for Hugh. He did everything for me. I have brought you some money. I suppose you need it more than anything else. It will enable you to get Julian away. I shall be able to see him before I go?"
"He was asleep just now. If he wakes, I am sure he will be delighted to see you. You don't know what a relief it is to have you here. But I must go. I only hope our servants have not begun to worry the police about my absence."
Lady Letty was alone in the great rambling house. For twenty minutes or so she was safe. In her mind she could see the express tearing across the country through the heart of the night. If she was late there would be no waiting for her. She would be left behind and the whole adventure would be discovered. The mere thought of it turned her cold. She was still trembling from the stress and danger she had so lately undergone.
She crept up to her brother's room, but he was still fast asleep. She would have to wake him. He must be conveyed to the hiding-place before she left. How strangely quiet the old house was after the roar and rattle of the train! The silence was almost painful. Then a door banged and there was a rush of cold air and the noise of angry voices. Lady Letty thought she heard the sound of blows and the fall of a heavy body. Someone cried out as if in pain, and then there was silence once more.
Vaguely alarmed, Letty crept down into the hall. By the feeble light of a pair of oil lamps, she made out a prostrate figure with a red gash on the side of his head. Fascinated by vague terror, Letty drew near. She feared it might be old Beaton, but it was a younger man. As she bent down somebody emerged from the gloom and laid a hand on her shoulder.
"This is a bad business, young woman," a harsh voice said. "Who may you be?"
"I am—I am," Lady Letty stammered. She stopped. She must not tell the stranger who she was. He would probably refuse to believe her. "But who are you?"
"Well, I'm connected with a search party. A young lady is missing, and I have come out to find her. The man lying there is my mate. I sent him on while I stopped to ask a few questions of a chauffeur down the road."
"I am very sorry," Lady Letty said. "But I can tell you nothing. Please let me pass."
The man barred the way.
"I think not," he said. "Seeing as how foul play is afoot, I take the liberty of detaining you. Until the affair is put right you are my prisoner."
Lady Letty started, her face ashy pale. She must be at Stoneleigh Cross in a few minutes. And if she failed!
Hugh Childers stood on the open gangway of the railway car with the wind streaming upon him. It was not too warm for the time of year; the motion of the train set up a rushing breeze, but his face was damp with sweat and his limbs were moist as he peered into the darkness, anxiety shaking him from head to foot.
Had he been successful? Had the carefully-planned scheme ended in triumph? Or, on the other hand, was it possible that disaster had overtaken it? But this thought was too painful to dwell upon. He put it from him as a thing to be relegated to forgetfulness. He did not see how he could fail. If he had, then he would know no happiness again. If his plan had miscarried, he would have blood on his hands. And whose blood? Childers reeled as he thought of it. He stood glaring into the darkness as if looking for something in the rear of the train, where were pools and marshes reflecting the stars in the clear depths. Leaning over the side of the car, Childers saw the smooth water between the sleepers. The train seemed to have travelled miles in the last few seconds.
Away on the sky line, or so it appeared to the eager watcher, a little blue point of flame suddenly stabbed the darkness. It was as if a star had slipped low down on the horizon and had hung there. Its dazzling brilliancy radiated in every direction; for an instant it was still, then it moved three times quickly in a zig-zag of flame. The darkness closed over it, and it was seen no more.
Childers sobbed with relief. He had no desire to live through those last few minutes again. It was this kind of thing that destroyed the nerve, that turned a man's hair grey in a night. He wiped from his face something that was not all the free play of his skin. He staggered along with his hand on the brass rail, his fingers touching the sliding door. His hand was so unsteady that he could not draw it back for a moment. As he turned to shut it again he saw he had not been alone on the platform. Madame Regnier was behind him.
"Have you been outside, too?" he stammered.
"I have," the singer replied. "I went out by the door on the other side of the train. You see I am used to cars of this kind—I have travelled in America so much. I like to sit out in the darkness as we rush along, to see the stars, to look on the great houses with the lights in the windows. It is noisier inside the carriage, and my head aches."
Childers murmured some reply. He was wondering how long Madame Regnier had been there and how much she had seen. Her next question startled him.
"Where is Lady Letty Stanborough?" she asked.
"I can't tell you," Childers said. "With the others, probably."
The singer did not reply for the instant. Inside when the electric lamps shone on her face, Hugh could see how deadly pale she was.
"You mean to say that Lady Letty has not been outside with you?" she asked.
Childers shook his head. He preferred not to speak at that moment. He had not expected a collapse of his programme such as this seemed to threaten.
"You need have no anxiety," he said. "Lady Letty is perfectly safe."
Madame Regnier gave him one long searching look before her eyes fell. Within the car it was a startling contrast to the starry night and the rushing wind on the platform. The atmosphere was heavy and oppressive. The carriages seemed to reek of heavy perfume. In the far coach half a dozen tables were given over to the inevitable bridge. The first compartment was empty. Madame Regnier dropped into a chair and signified to her companion to do likewise. Childers could see that she was deadly pale—he wondered if his own agitation was reflected on his face.
"How did society amuse itself indoors before bridge was invented?" Madame Regnier said. "How did the fools manage to kill time? How much longer will the craze last? You are right, my dear Hugh, quite right to deny that Lady Letty was with you just now."
The attack was so swift and unexpected that Childers started.
"I didn't deny it," he said. "You made an assertion that I did not contradict. I assured you that Lady Letty was perfectly safe, and I am prepared to stake my life upon it."
"She is safe so far as Stephen Du Cros is concerned, you mean?"
"Or anybody else for that matter. If you are really a friend of Lady Letty's——"
"A friend! My dear boy, I am more than that. She is the one woman I admire above all others. I would do anything for her. People say she is cold and hard. Never was a greater mistake. She does not talk gush or drivel; she does not weep over her friends one minute and forget them the next. She did me a great service once that I shall never forget. I flatter myself I can speak to her as no other woman can. She is ready to listen to me because she knows what I think of her. It was a sad and bitter hour for me when I knew she had promised to marry Du Cros. It was none the less bitter because I saw from the first the thing was inevitable. If that old rascal Stanborough was to be saved, it was the only way. It is an old story that will be told again and again, but it is none the less repulsive. This family pride is a queer thing. A girl sacrifices herself to save the honour of her father when everybody knows that he has no honour left. She sells her body and her soul—the thing is horrible. Yet she would not borrow from me. I am rich; I have more money than I shall ever spend; I value my jewels less than my little dog. I offered all to her and she refused them. I pointed out to her that she loved another man——"
"My dear Madame Regnier!" Hugh protested.
"Well is it not a fact?" the cantatrice retorted in her impulsive way. "Would you not be the last to deny it? Don't you know she is in love with another man?"
"She has never told me as much," Childers prevaricated.
"What is the use of speaking in this childish way! Haven't you been in love with her for years? Hasn't she cared for you as long? Perhaps neither of you realised it fully until fate threw Lady Letty into the hands of Du Cros. Then you found it out. I watched you two last night at Dorchester Gardens. You see, I have the artistic temperament, and things like that are plain to me. It would have been better had you complied with your father's wishes, Hugh. Had you done so, you could afford to laugh at Du Cros now."
"I could not go back to my father in these circumstances," Hugh said.
"Here is family pride again! In the name of heaven, why not? You are playing with your life's happiness. You two are devoted to each other, and yet I dare swear that no word of love has ever passed between you! Nevertheless, the understanding is complete. You have made up your mind that at any cost Lady Letty shall be saved from that man. You are an artist, too; you feel that the end justifies the means. You would be a modern Virginius and save the child from a worse fate. I am not saying you are wrong. But why didn't you kill the child instead?"
The woman's voice had sunk to a hoarse whisper. What on earth was she driving at? Childers asked himself. Then it burst upon him suddenly. A smile forced itself to his lips.
"Let us understand one another," he said. "You mean that I should be prepared to kill Lady Letty to save her from the calamity of being Stephen Du Cros's wife."
"I do," Madame Regnier said stubbornly. "That's exactly what I mean. If I had seen you do it, if I knew you had done it to-night, I should remain silent. Nothing would induce me to come forward and give evidence against you. I may be wrong, of course——"
"Of course you are," Hugh interrupted. "Too much romantic opera has given you a sentimental, sensational view of life. Good heavens! to think I should so far forget myself—no, no, my dear Madame Regnier, the thing is impossible! For the loyalty of your friendship I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I feel how genuine it is. Nor will I deny that Lady Letty is the only woman in the world for me. But I tell you she is safe. She is as safe at this moment as if she were in her own bed. It is imperative that she should do certain things to-night and that nobody but myself should know of them. Even to you I cannot betray confidence. The express stops presently at Stoneleigh Cross to pick up Lady Violet Ringwood. When this has happened you shall see Lady Letty, and perhaps she will confide in you."
"Then the age of miracles is not yet past?" Madame Regnier asked.
"I hope not. But there are many apparent miracles quite capable of an explanation if you can only get to the bottom of them. And this is one of them. In any case you are pledged to silence. I have given you my word of honour that Lady Letty is quite safe. You would not stand in the way of her getting the better of Stephen Du Cros?"
The prima donna smiled. There was a strange gleam in her eyes.
"What a question!" she exclaimed. "Why, if the worst came to the worst, I could remove Du Cros out of the way myself. Oh! it would not be very difficult. This has been a queer talk, but I am glad to have been a party to it. I won't ask any impertinent questions. But when a lady of position disappears from a train going at sixty miles an hour and a disappointed lover is in a position to solve the mystery, why——"
Childers put up his hand for silence. Two or three women were coming from the carriage where the bridge was in progress. They were chattering eagerly, and seemed to be annoyed about something.
"It is almost uncanny," one of them said shrilly. "The way that woman has been winning lately is perfectly wicked. Eight successive rubbers! It doesn't matter who her partner is, she nets the money all the same. She knows by instinct where the cards lie and plays up to them accordingly. Look at that amazing heart declaration of hers just now!"
"A petty jealous, envious lot," Childers whispered. "Whom are they talking about?"
"Lady Torringdor," Madame Regnier said. "She has been winning everything lately."
As the chattering mob passed on, the great singer turned with a smile to Childers.
"I suppose you know a good deal of cheating goes on at bridge in Society," she said. "But you carry your head so high, I presume you do not stoop to such trifles."
"Oh, yes," Childers said. "After all, I am by way of being a Society novelist. I have heard about the bridge cheat, of course. But Lady Torringdor isn't one."
"I didn't say she was. That sort of thing requires brains, and nobody ever accused Vera Torringdor of possessing that commodity. She is a good-natured little thing, but very silly. Still it's possible she may have a retentive memory, and if she follows the play more closely than the others give her credit for, she could afford to risk the bold game that comes off sometimes. She has no money, and yet she is beautifully dressed. Sir Horace has no money, but the flat in Hill-street Gardens is perfectly appointed."
"So you suggest there is some signalling——"
"No, I don't—I'm not suggesting anything elaborate. I have an idea that the thing is absurdly simple—so simple yet so efficient that nobody would notice it. Do you remember telling me once how you spent a year or so in your father's works? You hated it and all that kind of thing, but in a mechanical way you learnt a good deal. You learnt the telegraphic code, for instance."
"I recollect telling you that," Childers said. "You see, the telegraphic business appealed to me. I detected some good ideas for fiction in it. But what is behind your question?"
"I am coming to that presently. Now I know something about telegraphy. But that you are already aware of. My mother was a Portuguese and I was born in Delagoa Bay, where my father was engaged on the railway. He was supposed to be station-master, but he had all kinds of work to do, and it was part of his duty to look after the telegraph office. Till I was sixteen and my good fortune began to dawn, I had the run of the place. The time came when I was useful to my father; I could translate a telegram in the Morse code and send a message on. But I have forgotten nearly all of it. Do you remember that night at dinner when we amused ourselves by ticking messages to one another on our dessert plates? And the mistakes I made?"
"I recollect it quite well," Childers answered. "Good fun, wasn't it?"
"It would have been better fun if I had not forgotten so much," Madame Regnier said. "Still, I could manage to work out what you said fairly well."
"Just so. The moral to be drawn from this conversation?"
"You will be able to see for yourself presently. We began to talk, remember, about cheating at bridge and how it might be managed. Come into the carriage where the game is in progress. You can smoke a cigarette and chat with me at the same time. If you keep your ears open, you may hear something that will be useful—I don't say you will, but you may. I hate being mixed up with scandal myself, but there is a method in my madness, as you will discover."
They strolled into the carriage where the play was going on. There were four tables, and at one of them sat Lady Torringdor, a pretty little figure with a vivacious, somewhat weak face and a pair of lovely grey eyes. A pile of money and notes stood by her side, fortune evidently flowing steadily towards her. Her partner was young and simple-looking, one of the tribe who are prepared to spend money for the sheer pleasure of being 'in Society.' There was no suggestion of the keen player about him. One or two women lingered curiously in the vicinity of the table. Behind it, deep in conversation with a well-known financier, sat Stephen Du Cros. To all appearance, he had forgotten the card players. The hum of conversation was drowned more or less by the roar of the train. Lady Torringdor sat tapping her white regular teeth with the edge of a card as if in doubt as to her play, she was carefully weighing up the chances against her.
"Double hearts," she said at last.
"Content," cried the dealer.
The spectators gathered round to watch the hand played out. Really, there was no standing up against the little woman, who carried all before her by sheer audacity. Her hand did not in the least justify the doubling of hearts, but the coup came off in a manner little short of miraculous. Lady Torringdor smiled as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
"Rubber to us, partner," she said. "Yes, I was exceedingly fortunate. But you saw how the fall of cards favoured me. Does anybody else want to cut in?"
Nobody was eager. Lady Torringdor's luck was too good for that. The cards were cut again and the partnership fell out as before. The hands were dealt, and from behind his cigarette Childers watched steadily. The memory of his conversation with Madame Regnier was still ringing in his ears mingled with the roar of the train and a quick, impatient tapping that had an oddly familiar sound about it. But for the recollection of that talk, however, he would have failed to note anything singular. It was repeated again, this time more sharply, as if it took the form of a command. The word 'diamonds,' was distinct.
Childers glanced instantly at Madame Regnier and she smiled.
"You heard it, then?" she murmured. "I thought it might be my imagination; did my ears deceive me, I wondered, or did I make out the word 'diamonds'?"
"I heard it, too," Childers replied. "Don't interrupt for a moment, please. If I listen carefully, I am sure I shall hear something more."
"You have no suspicion where it comes from?"
"Not at present. There are so many people here and the train is making so much noise. But that somebody is looking over the cards and signalling to Lady Torringdor where the strength against her lies, I am as certain as I am of my own existence. Really, I am amassing a great deal of experience for my new book! This has been one of the most eventful evenings I have ever spent. Now, let us be silent. I shall want all my ears for the next few minutes."
The rattle of the train and the murmur of talk continued. Out of the hum Childers began to pick out the steady, impatient ticking that proceeded from somewhere near him, though he could not see whence. To the ordinary mind it was bound to pass unheeded. But he had had a sort of training in code signalling and the message to him was quite plain.
"Ace, knave, spades; king clubs; sequence to ten on left," was part of the message.
Childers rose and strolled over to the table. Sure enough, in the hand of the player on Lady Torringdor's left were the cards spoken of in the message. The thing was wonderfully simple, yet at the same wonderfully efficient. Possessed of knowledge like that, any player was bound to win; no skill could stand against it. The hand was played out, and with an engaging air of triumph, Lady Torringdor reached for the score sheet.
"Positively this is the last rubber I shall play," she said. "I am ashamed to win so much money. Let me see, whose deal is it? Oh, mine for the asking. Pass the cards, please."
The rubber finished in the inevitable way. Lady Torringdor's partner pleaded for one more game. Childers stepped to the table and made some trivial remark, drumming with his finger nails on the edge meanwhile. Lady Torringdor started to her feet with a pallid face. The next moment she had recovered herself.
"No," she said unsteadily. "I'll play no more. I want to have a chat with Hugh Childers. I am going to write a book, and I wish him to give me a few hints."
She swaggered gaily to the far carriage, Hugh following her gravely. All her gaiety vanished directly they were alone. Her pretty face was as pale as death and her hands trembled.
"You have found me out," she whispered. "How did you learn the secret? I read the message you ticked out on the edge of the table. That's why I did not play again."
"How long has this kind of thing been going on?" Hugh asked sternly.
"For some months. Goodness knows how much I have won. I must have made thousands. But I had to divide with—with my partner. It was he who taught me. The thing is so simple. It can be worked anywhere, and if there is any chatter going on, so much the better. I suppose you learnt all that during the time you were in business? Now, what are you going to do?"
Childers hesitated. Her confession was so complete; the speaker was such a girl. She was looking at him with white face and pleading, despairing eyes.
"I don't know," he said. "You must see that my duty is plain. If I don't expose you, I am morally as bad as yourself. But I don't blame you as much as the scoundrel who induced you to do this abominable thing. It isn't your husband?"
"My dear Hugh! Horace is too great a fool to be a knave. It was another man. We were so dreadfully poor and so horribly in debt that we did not know which way to turn. The time came when it looked as if we must be turned out of house and home. I wanted a hundred pounds badly, and I—well, I forged a name to a cheque. I thought the man whose name I forged would not mind, but I never made a greater mistake in my life. When he discovered everything he was horrid."
"He naturally would be," Childers said drily. "He was a business man, I suppose?"
Despite her fear and terror, Lady Torringdor looked steadily at her questioner.
"He lived for nothing else," she said. "He was not even a friend of mine. But I thought he was good-natured and generous, and, besides, I expected to repay the money. But he frightened me; then he showed me how easily he could win as much money as I needed. Had it not been for you, I should never have been found out, never! What will you do?"
"That all depends upon circumstances. Tell me the name of the man. In any case I must know that. I'll make things as easy for you as possible, but that blackguard has got to go. I am waiting for his name."
Lady Torringdor looked up with tears in her eyes. There was sheer terror on her face. At the same moment the train began to slow up. The fact brought to Childers a sense of his other and more pressing responsibility. Lady Letty should be waiting on the platform of Stoneleigh Cross at this very instant. She might be in need of assistance.
Madame Regnier came forward.
"So far as I can see," she said calmly, "nobody has come. There is not a soul on the platform."
Childers stood listening, cold with fear. If Lady Letty was not there, why——
Whilst the special train was speeding on towards Stoneleigh Cross, Lady Letty's precious moments were being wasted by the cruel misfortune which had overtaken her. The trouble was no fault of her own; she could not possibly have foreseen or guarded against an accident like this. It was as if Hugh Childers had worked out a story for her, but had omitted to tell her of an extra chapter he had added. He might even have imagined such a disaster as this; something of the kind might have come into his fertile mind, but if it had, he would have dismissed it with a smile. Such extraordinary complications are all very well in books, but they do not happen in real life.
But they do happen in real life, and very frequently, as the careful student of the newpapers knows. Here was a forcible example, and Lady Letty had to cope with it. The time was priceless; in a few minutes she should be on her way to meet the train. It was possible, of course, to delay a little by taking the risks of the dark road and the increased pace of the motor, but a horrible accident might occur and the police have to be reckoned with.
In spite of her fear and her peril, Lady Letty's mind was perfectly clear. Even had there been no hurry, she would have seen how awkwardly she was fixed. It never struck her to doubt the truth of what the man with the heavy, sullen face was saying. She did not connect him with any danger that might be hanging over the head of her brother. She must make excuses; she must try to get round this man. Once outside, she could laugh at him. If she could only reach the motor all would be well. The suggestion of physical force even occurred to her.
"I am very sorry," she said, "but I am afraid I cannot help you. I have to leave at once."
The big man sneered openly.
"Oh, have you!" he said. "Really, now; you're not a bad-looking girl, and I should say honest. Lady's maid, or something of that kind, I expect."
Lady Letty allowed the insinuation to pass. It suited her to let the intruder think so.
"I came here on business," he went on. "We are looking for somebody, if you want to know anything."
Lady Letty began to understand. They were looking for Amsted. Here was a new and unexpected trouble, rather worse than the original one. The searchers were hot upon her brother's track, and not many yards away he lay helpless and at their mercy. It was odd that these people should come here of all places; clearly somebody had played the traitor. The first ruffian had tried to force his way in and old Beaton had half-killed him. But where was Beaton? Perhaps he had gone to warn his young master of his danger.
She must maintain her presence of mind at all hazards, and the idea of an immediate escape in the motor must be abandoned. She could not leave Amsted at the mercy of these people. Probably Beaton had gone to him, but she had to be sure of that. She set her lips in a broad smile—this man should suspect nothing of her trouble.
"Really, this has nothing to do with me," she said. "You don't suppose I attacked your mate. I am physically incapable of it."
The stranger conceded the point grudgingly.
"I admit that," he said. "All the same, I'm sure you know something about it. I expected to meet nobody here except an old caretaker and his wife. And what do I find but an up-to-date lady's maid and a big car at the end of the avenue? What are you doing here?"
Lady Letty had been dreading this question. She knew it was inevitable, and had been racking her brain for some way of parrying it.
"Why do you take it for granted that I am a lady's maid?" she asked feebly.
"Now, that has been the very problem that has been exercising my mind for some little time," came a voice from the doorway. "I am rather quick at conundrums of this kind, but here is one that is causing me considerable mental disturbance. I shall be greatly obliged to you for the information. Whence this brilliant deduction as to the lady's maid? It would never have occurred to me."
The speaker spoke with much deliberation. He seemed to be perfectly at home, and moved about as if the house were his own. He was handsome, calm, self-possessed, for all the world like the hero of some fashionable romance. His evening dress fitted him admirably, and with an elegant air he removed a cigarette from his mouth and placed it on the mantelpiece.
"Kindly tell me who your companion is, Hilda," he remarked with easy grace, laying significant stress on the Christian name he had casually chosen for her.
Here was a friend in need. Who he was and what he was doing here, Lady Letty had not the faintest idea. But beyond question he was on her side, and a gentleman. Whether or not he was aware of her identity, Letty did not know. She would take it for granted that he was aware whom he was talking to. She caught a glance, the suggestion of a wink that at any other time would have been rude. It was a warning to be careful, to take her time, and play the game that this elegant stranger offered.
"I have been listening to your conversation," he said. "In the circumstances, you will understand why I make no apology for doing so, Hilda. I am only human and have my share of curiosity like the rest of the world. Why are you taken for a lady's maid?"
Lady Letty was conscious of a faint suggestion of amusement. She would have enjoyed the situation immensely at another and more fortunate occasion.
"Really, I cannot tell you," she said. "It was our friend's idea, Harold,"—the stranger shot a keen glance of approval at her. "There has been violence done here, and I am told that I cannot go until I can explain what has happened to the man lying there."
The well-dressed stranger shrugged his shoulders. He held up a bunch of telegram forms in his hand.
"We will come to that presently," he said. "Meanwhile, these are of great importance, my dear Hilda. I—I scribbled them off just now, whilst listening to your talk. Will you look over them and see if they are right?"
Once more the warning look was in the speaker's eye. Lady Letty took up the form with a proper show of indifference. She glanced over the paper. There was no address on it but, within the spaces was a message to her and something in the way of an explanation:
"Play into my hands. You are in danger. Fortunately I overheard what was said. I am Harold Liston, and will look after you. Warn your brother of his peril when I make an opening for you. Get him away. This man not connected with police."
Lady Letty read the message over very carefully twice. She could not fail to admire the resource displayed by this Harold Liston. She had never met him before, though she knew him well by reputation. He was a brilliant friend of Hugh's, a man who had devoted a fortune to the pursuit of science. He had been born and bred in South Africa, where his father had made a large sum of money, and he was a cricketer of repute and a fine specimen of the athletic Colonial. What he was doing here and why he had come, Lady Letty could not surmise. She was only grateful for his presence and his assistance. She was no longer afraid of the beetle-browed attendant, but all the same she was anxious to get away.
"There is one point you have forgotten," she said. "Please lend me your pencil."
In a firm hand over the lines of the telegram form, she wrote her questions:
"Can I go at once? Can I leave my brother with you?"
Liston shook his head as he bent over Lady Letty's shoulder and read what she had written.
"All right," he said. "Take the message and give this to Parker. But you must see Jones."
Lady Letty understood. By Jones she guessed that her brother was meant. With a careless gesture, she took up the papers and moved towards the door. The heavy-faced man barred her way. Something gleamed in Liston's hand, and there was the sound of a click.
"If you interfere," Liston said in his quiet way, "you will qualify yourself rapidly—and permanently—for a coroner's inquest."
The man dropped back with a growl and Lady Letty went out. Liston lounged there playing with the little silver-plated revolver. The other man stood snarling at him.
"You know what you are doing?" he asked. "You know that I am an officer of the law?"
"No, you are nothing more than a first class liar," Listen said pleasantly. "As a matter of fact, you have as little connection with the police as I have. The same remark applies to your companion on the floor. I didn't mean to kill him and I sincerely hope I have not done so. But he insisted on forcing his way in here at a most unwelcome moment, and I am afraid I lost my temper."
"All right," the other growled. "Have it your own way. But you will pay pretty dearly for this night's work. Seeing that I am not welcome——"
He moved towards the door. Then he pulled himself up short as he discovered he was looking down the barrel of the silver-plated revolver.
"You will remain as long as I choose," Liston said. "You came here unasked, and will stay till I dismiss you."
The man dropped sulkily into a chair. He asked no questions, but seemed to be waiting for aid from outside. It came presently in the form of two other men who stepped into the room from the darkness of the hall. For an instant, Liston was taken aback at these unexpected visitors. It was a fatal hesitation.
"On him, lads," the big man yelled, "on him before he can fire."
With a sweep of his arm one of the newcomers overturned the lamp. It went crashing to the stone floor; a purple blaze leapt up for a moment and then there was pitch darkness. A pair of hands were clasped about Liston's throat and he was pulled to the ground. He set his teeth together and fought for his life. The room was silent save for the noise of struggling bodies and the deep breathing of the combatants as they wrestled in the gloom.
Lady Letty flew along the corridor to the room where she had left her brother. The great thing was to warn him of his danger and get him away. She was at a loss to see how this was to be managed, but perhaps Beaton could suggest some plan. Meanwhile where was Beaton? Where was he hiding himself all this time? There was that one particular hiding-place known only to herself and Stanford where it would be possibly to defy the police for weeks. Lady Letty had a keen recollection of this place, but she had not been inside it for years; in fact, Stanford had ceased to be really habitable. But Beaton would know where the big bunch of rusty keys were kept. He would be able to assist her, and when Lady Letty was assured of this, she would be able to depart from that dreary old mansion with a comparatively easy mind.
In any case, she would have to leave it in the course of a few minutes. By a miracle, she might catch the train at Stoneleigh Cross. If she failed to do that, all her labour would be lost. However fast the motor travelled, she could not make Liverpool before the express, and the fact that she had left the train would be discovered. It would have been better had she made some excuse and remained in London. If she failed to regain the train what would Du Cros say? He had seen her start with the express, and would naturally suppose that some fatal accident had happened to her. When she turned up again, what plausible excuse was she to make? All Du Cros's suspicions would be aroused, and he would ask countless searching questions and the scheme and its authors would be exposed.
These distracting thoughts flashed like lightning through Lady Letty's mind as she made her way to her brother's room. She found him awake with Beaton in close attendance.
"You have not an instant to spare," she cried. "I cannot tell you what has happened, but they are after you. One man is downstairs at the present moment, and another is on the floor dead for all I know. If Mr. Liston had not come to my assistance——"
"And who is Mr. Liston?" Amsted asked in blank astonishment.
"I had forgotten you didn't know him. He is a friend of Hugh's, though we never met till this evening. It has been such an extraordinary time that I hardly know what I am thinking or doing. But Mr. Liston is downstairs; he says he is here to help me, I thought he was staying here. He is in evening dress."
"I seem to be missing a good deal of fun," Amsted said regretfully.
"Why can't you be serious for once?" Lady Letty exclaimed. "Why do you refuse to recognise your responsibilities? Perhaps these men may be set upon you by some enemy."
"I could name the enemy at one guess," Amsted said gravely. "I wish I had him by the throat at this moment."
"Never mind about that, Julian. You must go at once. It is horrible you should be put to so much pain, but it must be done. Beaton must hide you in the Monk's Room. That is the one place here where you would be safe!"
"No doubt of that," Beaton growled. "I told his lordship so, but he said it didn't matter. I could carry him to the Monk's Room, where the police would be baffled. I'd give them a month to search the place and then they wouldn't find it, my lady. But your ladyship is the only one who can show me the way and the proper key."
Amsted dragged himself up in bed with many a sigh and groan. Whatever else he lacked, his courage was undeniable. He stood up at last pale with suffering.
"I'm almost sorry I came now," he said. "Still, it was a fine bit of sport, and we got old Tom Middlemass's money out of the clutches of those rascals. If I lean on the two of you, I fancy I can manage it. Where can you take me, John?"
"As far as the Monk's Room, my dear boy," Lady Letty said impatiently. "We can go along the east passage by way of your dressing-room. The place is sure to be damp, but Beaton will get a fire going, and presently, when the coast is clear, he'll bring your bed there."
The thing was accomplished at length and as many necessaries conveyed to the Monk's Room as Amsted was likely to require for some time. Lady Letty flew back to the bedroom. Hardly had she locked the door when somebody hammered on it and demanded admission. It was easy to recognise the speaker. The man with the heavy voice was fuming outside. He would see at a glance that the room had been occupied. At any cost and at any delay this must be avoided. A score of heavy blows rained on the door while Lady Letty flew about the room putting things to rights. She hastily made the bed, and removed Amsted's clothes and personal belongings to the corridor. Beaton could fetch them presently.
Doubtless the nerve-racking adventure would come to an end sometime. Meanwhile, a dreadful thought haunted her mind. What had become of Liston? She had left him master of the situation. She had heard the click of his revolver and the words he had addressed to the heavy-faced man as she ascended the stairs towards Amsted's room. Perhaps there had been a struggle and Liston had got the worst of it. Confederates may have come to the assistance of the heavy-faced man.
Meanwhile, the impatient knocking on the door continued. Lady Letty gave a hasty glance round the room. Then she flung back the door and confronted the truculent visitor.
"Really, this is past endurance," she said with a fine show of indignation. "Why do you intrude upon me in this insulting fashion?"
The man appeared as if about to answer when his jaw dropped and he glanced round the room. He had evidently been prepared to find somebody. No doubt he was in search of Amsted. The room did not appear to have been occupied for a long time past.
"I—I beg your pardon," the man stammered. "I—I expected to find——"
He paused in confusion. He was so taken aback that Lady Letty found it difficult to restrain a smile. At the same time she was not slow to take advantage of the situation. She literally swept the man from the room and watched him make his way downstairs. She knew that Amsted was safe, and there was no need to wait longer.
But what of Liston? What had come to him? It seemed inhuman to leave him to these people. Yet the vital minutes were speeding away irrevocably, and there was only a desperate chance that the special train could be picked up at Stoneleigh Cross. Lady Letty felt she could not leave without learning what had happened to Liston.
She crept cautiously down the stairs to the hall. She had to feel her way, for the place was in utter darkness. The house was curiously unfamiliar. A false step might spell disaster in more ways than one. The uncertainty of it was disconcerting.
She stood timid, hesitating, hardly knowing which way to proceed. Suddenly there came the scraping of a match and a flare of flame as somebody in the room beyond lighted a cigarette. It was only for a moment, but in that space of time Lady Letty could make out three figures, including that of the heavy-faced man. A hand was laid upon her arm, and she fairly started.
"I saw you," a voice whispered in her ear. "I made out your outline by the light of the match. There is no occasion for you to be afraid."
"I hope you have not come to any harm," Lady Letty whispered.
"Well, it might have been worse," Liston said with a suggestion of pain in his voice. "I have had a lucky escape. I gather that Amsted is safe and that these ruffians are baffled. Now, don't stay here another moment. Your car is waiting and you have no time to spare. Whatever happens, you must not miss your train."
Lady Letty would have asked for an explanation, but Liston hurried her towards the door.
"There will be plenty of time for explanation," he said, as if reading the girl's thoughts. "I will tell you one of these days why I am here to-night. But there is no time now. Get away in your car immediately. These ruffians have a car, too, and it will surprise you to learn that they are going as far as Stoneleigh Cross to meet the special. I have heard a good deal in the last few minutes that I shall turn to advantage later. Now drive off at once."
Lady Letty needed no further bidding. Amsted was safe, no great harm had come to Liston, and the way was clear. Doubtless it was too late to reach Stoneleigh Cross in time to board the special, but there was just a forlorn hope. The train might have been delayed by a trivial accident, or some unforeseen circumstance might be in her favour. Isn't it the unexpected that happens?
She reached the car at length, and the brakes were pulled off. There was a leap forward and the air began to stream steadily on Lady Letty's face. It was almost a race for life, and the excitement of it stimulated and strengthened her. The miles were reeled off without accident and the lights at the junction came in sight. In the distance two lights were moving rapidly and the wild whistling of an engine went down the wind. Lady Letty ran up the steps to the platform. A porter came along with a look of uneasiness.
"A special is due to stop here," Lady Letty said. "I hope I am in time."
"Just gone, miss," the porter yawned. "You can see the lights in the distance."
Lady Letty uttered not a word. The disappointment was too deep for speech. She stood at the foot of the steps as a second car came up. By a kind of instinct she fell back into the darkness. She recognised the heavy-faced man. He ran up the steps and almost instantly he was down again, muttering curses under his breath.
"Too late," he said. "Missed it by seconds, curse it! And I wanted to say just half a dozen words to him! What's to be done now!"
"Get across to Stoneleigh Cutting," one of the other men growled. "We can save four miles and get there before the express. Then take one of the lights of the car and stand on the track and signal to stop. We'll be able to invent come excuse going along."
Lady Letty wanted to hear no more. The inspiration she sorely needed had come to her. She raced back to her car and tumbled into it panting and breathless.
"You know these parts well," she said. "Make for Stoneleigh Cutting at top speed. Pull the car up there and hide it in a ditch. Put the lamps out. There is another car behind, but they must not know of our presence."
With a terrible pain at his heart, Childers glanced up and down the platform. The lights were turned low, and one or two figures crept about in the gloom. Childers could see the placards over the bookstall, one illustrating a serial story particularly caught his eye. It represented a girl falling backwards from a train. It was an ominous suggestion, but Hugh put it from him. There was a chance that Lady Letty might have been detained till the very last moment. Some accident might have happened the car. He dared not let his fears carry him beyond this possibility. At any rate, they would gain a few precious moments, for Lady Violet Ringwood had not yet turned up. Du Cros might fuss and fume, but he was scarcely likely to order the train to proceed without giving his expected guest plenty of grace. The Ringwoods were not the sort of people whom a millionaire of the modern type would care to offend on slight provocation.
In contrast to the quietness and gloom of the down platform, the up one was glaring and bustling enough. An excursion train full of noisy, happy, factory hands with their wives and sweethearts, was drawn up. It was parallel with the special, which the holiday folk seemed to imagine had stopped for their particular benefit. They stared into the luxuriously-appointed carriages and made remarks of a personal nature. The air was full of the din of their voices. They were waiting for a local express to be cleared before they could proceed. At any other time, Childers would have appreciated the humours of the scene. Now, they filled him with a sense of misery and irritation.
"Lady Violet is not here yet," he said to Madame Regnier.
"So I see," she said. "On the whole you appear to be rather glad of it. Why?"
Hugh hesitated; perhaps he might look to her for assistance. He did not want to betray Lady Letty's confidence, but circumstances appeared to be conspiring to force his hand. Moreover, he was in desperate need of an ally, and Madame Regnier had more than a suspicion of the truth.
"I may tell you presently," he said. "Meanwhile, I should be grateful for your help. It is imperative to delay the train for a time."
"You are doing this for Lady Letty's sake, I presume?"
"Entirely; I am ready to do as much as that. She—she is not on the train. Urgent matters called her elsewhere. But she ought to have been here by now; in fact, the delay is extraordinary. I cannot understand it."
"She has gone off on a secret mission? If anything has happened to her——"
"Nothing has happened to her; nothing could have happened to her. At least, I had no hand in it. But at such times one is apt to fear the unexpected. You will help me?"
"Of course I will," Madame Regnier protested. "Really, there is no occasion to ask. Neither am I going to pry into your secrets. I know that you would do anything for Lady Letty——"
"I would lay down my life for her," Hugh whispered. "I would stop at nothing to promote her happiness. In a sense I am the cause of all the trouble. If I had stuck to work this thing would never have happened, but I cannot go back to my father and make terms. The terms must come from him. But why do I talk like this? Can you think of some way whereby we can secure a little longer delay?"
Madame Regnier smiled. She was willing to do anything. Besides it flattered her pride to be consulted by this handsome, clever man, usually so fertile in resource.
"I shall be able to manage it," she said. "A popular singer is a privileged person. I might manage to gain a quarter of an hour for you. But not yet—we must let Lady Violet play her part in the piece. Unconsciously she is helping us now. After she——"
A tall slender figure came briskly down the platform at this moment. She was dressed in a plain tailor-made costume and carried her own dress-basket. She was alone. She came up as Du Cros thrust himself impatiently forward.
"Awfully sorry to be so late," she said. "But the car refused to behave itself. At one time I began to fear I should not get here at all. No, I am alone."
"You did not bring your maid with you?" Du Cros asked.
"No, I didn't. When Lady Letty asked me to come she specially desired that I should not—but what am I talking about? I must have been thinking of something else. You see, on these short excursions I like to travel without my maid; they are often more bother than they are worth."
Lady Violet spoke lightly, but there was a suggestion of trouble in the way she glanced up and down the platform. Her eyes sought those of Hugh Childers, as if asking a mute question. He shrugged his shoulders to imply that the matter was out of his hands.
"Then there is nothing to wait for?" Du Cros asked. "Tell the guard that we are all here."
Hugh gave a last despairing glance along the platform. It was absolutely empty. Unless Madame Regnier could frame some excuse for delay the train must start without Lady Letty.
Madame Regnier laughed.
"A few minutes either way makes no difference," she said. "I've just recollected that I must send off a most important telegram. It was wicked of me to have forgotten it."
"Oh, give it to the guard," Du Cros exclaimed. "My dear lady, you seem to forget that a delay like this is dangerous. Even specials have to conform to ordinary rules. If we stay here much longer, we may have to remain for the night."
"How stupid of them!" the great singer said cheerfully. "But a minute or two makes no difference. It is a habit of mine to see to my own telegrams. Where is the office?"
She slipped off in the darkness of the platform, leaving Du Cros fuming. He would have liked to leave her behind; he would have done so had he dared. With a resolute air, he stepped off the train and followed his frivolous guest. He would take care at any rate that she did not waste more time than was absolutely necessary. Lady Violet turned to Hugh.
"Now, what is the meaning of this?" she asked in an undertone. "I got a mysterious and vague letter from Lady Letty, asking me to join this expedition. I should have joined it in any case for the sake of the novelty. But I was implored to do so. I was to come without a maid and I should see for myself what was going to happen. Nothing happens, which is distinctly annoying. If your name had not been dragged into the letter I should not have mentioned the matter to you. Obviously you know all about it. The woe-begone expression of your face tells me that. My dear Hugh, what is the meaning of this mystery?"
"I shall have to explain by and bye," Hugh said. "Let us defer it till a more favourable opportunity. I am in hopes that Lady Letty may be able to tell you herself. But please come inside. Sit down and chat with the others as if nothing had happened. I'll come to you presently."
With a shrug of her shoulders, Lady Violet passed on.
The minutes were slipping along, but there was no sign of Lady Letty. Presently Du Cros and Madame Regnier came back. Apparently, all the ingenious schemes for delay were exhausted, and Du Cros gave the sign to proceed as he stepped on the train. Then he made his way to the carriage where the bridge-players were still intent on their game.
"I have done all I can," Madame Regnier said regretfully. "With that man at my elbow I had to merely write out my telegram and hand it in. I fear something terrible has happened."
Childers had no word by way of reply. He was feeling far too wretched. He could no longer disguise from himself that there was catastrophe in the air. But whether this were so or not, the great scheme had gone awry. Lady Letty had left the train, and there was no possible way for her to rejoin it. On their arrival at Liverpool her absence would be noticed; indeed, it might be discovered by Du Cros at any moment. No doubt he was already wondering why she remained so long in her sleeping-berth. He would probably send somebody for her presently to inquire when she proposed to join the party. If he should discover that she was no longer there!
Hugh trembled to think of the consequences. Here was the one fatal flaw in his scheme. Better, far better, had Lady Letty pleaded some excuse for remaining in town. If she was not on the train, and Du Cros grasped the fact, he would conclude that an accident had happened. He might even go farther than that.
It was at this moment that the issue he dreaded seemed imminent. In the corner of the carriage Lady Torringdor was seated absorbed in a book; but her white face and the uneasy glances she turned upon Childers from time to time showed how small interest she was taking in the volume. Du Cros bustled back at this juncture. He appeared to be in one of his most vicious moods. He spoke to Lady Torringdor as if she had been an incompetent clerk.
"Why aren't you playing cards?" he demanded. "Won enough for to-night? Oh, nonsense! Always keep on playing when your luck is in. Go and see where Lady Letty is. Tell her I want her. Her headache can't be so very bad. I thought she was to play hostess for me, instead of which she is acting like a silly girl. Dig her out."
Du Cros uttered this demand curtly, turned on his heel, and departed. As Lady Torringdor rose, Childers laid a detaining hand on her arm. He could see a way to save trouble. It was an omen in his favour that Du Cros had chosen Lady Torringdor as his messenger.
"You can do me a service," he said. "Do this for me and you will not find me ungrateful. I will try to make the path smooth for you. Go to Lady Letty. You will not find her in her berth—in fact, you will not find her at all. But you need not say so. All you have to do is to return with a message that Lady Letty will show up presently."
"You mean that I am to tell a deliberate lie?" Lady Torringdor asked.
"Put it that way if you like," Hugh said; "it is a case of the means justifying the end. I will make a compact with you, indeed, I have already done so. I fancy you would rather help me than Stephen Du Cros."
Lady Torringdor's eyes flashed. Her mouth grew hard.
"I hate him from the bottom of my soul," she whispered; "I would do anything to defeat him. We need not make any compact so far as that is concerned. If he were lying dead at my feet I should be glad, glad, glad! Now I'll go."
The outburst was surprising, so unexpected, from the frivolous little butterfly. Hugh smiled. He believed he had solved another problem.
Lady Torringdor returned smilingly with a message for Du Cros: Lady Letty would join them shortly. She was turning away when Du Cros laid a hand on her arm.
"Come and play," he said; "they are waiting for you. They are anxious to get their money back."
The ring of command was in his voice, a fact by no means lost on Childers. He saw the woman shake and tremble; he noted the imploring look in her eyes. But in spite of her fears she was firm; she could not play again to-night. Du Cros left her with a scowl. There was that in his aspect which threatened trouble for Lady Torringdor before long. She went back to her corner and her book, and then Childers joined her.
"I am greatly obliged to you," he said. "You have made me your debtor for life. It was a fortunate chance that gave you the opportunity."
"You mean you will spare me? You won't betray me now?"
"I am not sure that I ever meant to do so. I like your husband. He is extravagant, but he is a good fellow and very fond of you, and I have known you for years, Vera. You would never have done this mad thing unless you had been forced to it. You were silly to come back into this sort of Society at all. You and Horace were happy at Litchworth with your dogs and your roses."
Tears glistened in the foolish little woman's eyes.
"That is true," she said, "and we could be happy there again. Life in Society is not such a good thing, after all. Still, I don't think you ought to preach at me, especially after getting me to tell that lie about Lady Letty."
"It was absolutely necessary," Hugh said, "for Lady Letty's happiness. If you only knew what a service you have rendered her this evening, I am sure you would not repent it. You have helped her, and dealt Du Cros a deadly blow at the same time."
"Well, I am glad to hear that," Lady Torringdor said vindictively.
"Why? Why do you hate the man so? Has he done you any harm?"
"Harm! If you only knew! Anybody would suppose that I was one of the persecuted heroines of melodrama! I hate him because he is a bully and a cad and——"
"And a ruffian who forces a poor girl to play cards and win money for him?"
Childers dropped his voice to a whisper. He was drawing a bow more or less at a venture, but he felt sure of his mark. He saw the arrow had gone home to the feathers.
"How did you guess that?" she asked hoarsely.
"You forget that novelists are not as other men," Hugh said. "We have an instinct for these things, we see below the surface. To us, trifles are as trees that show the landscape. Say I guessed it if you like. But I noted the way Du Cros spoke to you. He insisted just now on your playing cards. It was a cruel position for you to be placed in. If you obeyed him, you knew I should be watching you; and if you disregarded his signals, he would have punished you for your disobedience sooner or later. But I am glad you refused."
"And I am glad I had the strength of mind to defy him," Lady Torringdor sobbed.
Childers agreed. Up to now he had hesitated to call Du Cros an adventurer. He had had his suspicions, of course, but he was disposed to regard this as jealousy on his own part. A financier has so many ways of making money. Besides, outwardly at any rate, Du Cros gave every impression of being a man of means. His luxurious way of living pointed to that. Yet here he was proved to be little else than a common swindler, dependent to some degree upon the ill-gotten gains of a poor little woman whom he was practically blackmailing. And this was the man who aspired to marry Lady Letty Stanborough! The idea was revolting.
"What are you going to do about me?" Lady Torringdor broke in on his thoughts.
"Well, that depends," Hugh said. "At any rate, you are safe for the present. I shall know how to deal with Du Cros when the time comes."
"You are very good," Lady Torringdor said gratefully; "far better than I deserve, Hugh."
But Childers was hardly listening. He had another matter of moment to occupy his attention. His spirits rose and fell like a barometer on a stormy day: one moment he was filled with exultation in the knowledge of the hold he had so unexpectedly gained upon Du Cros, the next he was trembling with apprehension as to what mishap had befallen Lady Letty. The vivid imagination of the novelist was at work. He was racking his brain to find some way of explaining the situation when Liverpool was reached, but for the life of him he could think of nothing capable of deceiving an ordinary person, let alone Du Cros. There would be a terrible outcry, of course, and something in the nature of a scandal, but it could not be helped.
"We'll leave it as it is for the present," he said to his companion. "Keep your spirits up and trust in me. And now I have something to say to Madame Regnier. I'll come back presently."
He crossed over to the place where the singer was seated. Almost before he could speak, before he could barely explain what he had discovered, the train slowed down, and fragments of conversation began to sound startlingly clear. The special dragged and the grind of the brakes could be heard. In some alarm Hugh rose to his feet.
"What has happened?" he asked. "Why is the train stopping? What can be wrong?"
"The miracle," Madame Regnier whispered excitedly; "the miracle we are praying for. Come outside on the platform and see."
Hugh needed no second invitation. The train had come to a standstill. The glare of electric lights shone blue and steady on the side of the line. Out of the gloom there came the white, strained outline of a woman's face. Madame Regnier grasped Hugh by the arm.
"Look!" she whispered. "Surely that it Lady Letty!"
Lady Letty settled herself down in the car for the run, grimly determined to see the thing to the bitter end. Had she but known it, she had in her a deal of the reckless and daring spirit of her ancestors. Outwardly she was cold and collected; the force of circumstances had made her hard and cautious, but to a great extent this was conventional. At bottom she was a true Stanborough, with all the inherent instincts of the race. Throughout this night of trouble and danger and anxiety her courage had not flagged for a moment, and in spite of the odds against her she had come out with a balance in her favour. Her spirits were in the ascendant now.
The rapid motion of the car and the wind streaming on her face acted like a tonic. She put prudence behind her altogether. She wondered with a smile what her friends would say if they saw her. Would they still declare that she was an icy statue without feeling or emotion? She was glowing with excitement from head to toe. She was almost ashamed to admit an element of personal enjoyment in the escapade.
She bent forward and tapped the driver on the shoulder.
"Couldn't you contrive to get more pace out of the car?" she asked.
"Well, I'll try, Miss," the chauffeur said, his pride evidently piqued. "She's a good car, and I never had a better. Maybe you don't know that we are going over fifty now?"
Lady Letty did not know, and sooth to say, she did not care. The risk of catastrophe was not touching her at all. The car seemed to fly over the ground; the hedges streamed by; a cart passed on the way looked little more than a streak of wheels and lights. Anything in the nature of an accident now could have had only one result; but the reflection troubled Lady Letty not in the least. What did it matter whether she lived or died? she asked herself. She was doing her best to save the honour of her family, the honour that Stanborough had gambled away so foolhardily. On the other hand, there was Amsted to think of, and Lady Letty had always been fond of her reckless brother. He had none of the repulsive vices of his father.
The car was pulled up presently with a sharp jolt.
"This is the place, miss," the driver said. "What do you want me to do now? Shall I take you as far as the bridge, or wait for you here?"
For the first time since she had started, Lady Letty was undecided. This man was very nice and well-behaved, and he showed no sign of his belief that he was driving somebody not far removed from an escaped criminal, or at least a lunatic. Naturally he had asked himself a good many questions; he had driven suspicious characters in his time, but he had never had an adventure like this. But there was something about his face that appealed to her.
"How can I best get on to the line?" Lady Letty asked.
The chauffeur started and hesitated. He was a married man, and he had the fear of the law before his eyes. He was averse from appearing as the central figure of a sensational story in the coroner's court. By the light of the lamps Lady Letty saw something of what was passing in his mind.
"You need not be in the least afraid so far as I am concerned," she said scornfully. "It is only fair to tell you that I am in great trouble——"
"That's just it, miss," the driver interrupted eagerly. "You see, as a man with a wife and family, I have to be careful. If anything happens to you——"
Lady Letty dismissed the insinuation with a wave of her hand.
"I am in distress about a relative of mine," she said; "for myself I care nothing. I never for a moment anticipated that I should give you all this bother. I hoped to have discharged my task and left you at Stoneleigh Cross some time ago. As you know, I missed the train I intended to catch. I understand that it is to be pulled up here by signal. If so, I need not detain you. You can go back with the assurance that you have done your duty."
The chauffeur was flattered. It was by no means lost on him that he was talking to an exceedingly handsome woman, and that she was treating him as a human being. It would be an adventure to speak about in the days to come. At the same time he did not fail to recognise that here was a woman in some bitter trial through no fault of her own. Despite the stately hauteur of her beauty, there was a look of anxiety and worry in her eyes.
"Look here, my lady," he said—Lady Letty started at the familiar words—"you may say that you are is trouble, but I dare swear that you are taking all this risk for the sake of somebody. Anyone can see that you are a lady not brought up to this kind of thing. It's dark here, and steep and dangerous, and I don't like letting you go alone. Besides, I know every step; I've lived in this neighbourhood all my life. Many a sandmartin's nest have I taken in the cutting."
Lady Letty hesitated; that the man meant well by her was plain.
"It is really very good of you," she said. "But there is your car to attend to."
"Oh, I can back the car into a hedge and put the lights out. Nobody will see it. I tell you plainly, miss, I don't like to let you go alone."
Lady Letty hesitated no longer. The deep cutting, which ended in a tunnel, looked dark and forbidding. Over the brow of the hill in the distance a pair of powerful flashing lights appeared. That settled it.
"The other car!" Lady Letty whispered. "It will be upon us immediately. I must not be seen here; they must know nothing about me."
The chauffeur reversed the car and backed her skilfully into a broad, dry ditch; a moment later he had extinguished the lights. For the time being the darkness was thick and black as the throat of a wolf. Lady Letty could only see the stars overhead. Then she found herself grasped by the arm and hurried along the road.
"I could find the way blindfold," the chauffeur said. "My car is safe; no one could find it again until I brought the lamps. Are these men after you, miss?"
"Well, I can't exactly say,"—Lady Letty smiled in spite of herself. "They were a little time ago, but I fancy they have others matters in hand now. For purposes of their own they intend to stop the special. What those purposes are I neither know nor care. My business is to get on the train without being observed."
The chauffeur nodded; he would see to that. He was interested in the adventure; his heart and soul were in it.
"Not quite straight, those chaps?" he asked.
"Very much the contrary, I imagine," Lady Letty smiled. "They look like racecourse swindlers, the sort of men who get their money by dishonest means."
The chauffeur appeared to be decidedly curious.
"I wonder if I know them," he said. "Before my father and me sold the livery stable business and took up cars, we had a lot to do with horses; been connected with horses for generations, we have. My grandfather and his father used to ride for the Stanboroughs—many a great race have they pulled off. They were good days at Stanford then, as I've heard tell. Well, those fine times have gone for ever, more's the pity, for the Stanboroughs were a capital lot. They never had a blackguard amongst them till the present holder of the title."
Lady Letty was painfully conscious of the colour on her face.
"I understand they have a pretty good record," she said. "They are connections of mine. What is your name?"
"Garton, miss—Frank Garton," the driver replied, "at your service, miss. And proud to be of assistance to anybody connected with the great house yonder. If those chaps you are speaking of live within fifty miles of here I'm pretty certain to know them. This way, miss."
Garton pulled up at an awkward-looking gate, over which he helped his companion. It was an exceedingly deep cutting, with woods on each side, and the only way down to the track was a path made by rabbits. It would not have been difficult for anybody not accustomed to the place to miss his footing and roll down to the metals, if the trees did not stop him. Lady Letty congratulated herself on having a guide. Without him she might have met with a nasty accident.
"So you see, miss, it's a good thing I came with you," Garton said cheerfully. "No place for young ladies all by themselves, is it? I shall have to take you by both hands here."
There was a certain amount of hazard about their undertaking, but it was accomplished at length. Lady Letty shuddered as she gazed with eyes grown accustomed to the gloom, and saw what she had accomplished. It seemed as if she had come down the side of a precipice.
She stood panting for breath. As far as she could tell she was in time for the train. It might be here at any moment. Nevertheless, it was essential to the success of the scheme that the others should arrive too. Lady Letty dreaded their appearance, but it was obvious she could do nothing without them.
They came presently, scrambling down the steep bank with the aid of a lamp from their car. Garton drew Lady Letty behind the shelter of a friendly hawthorn bush. The leader of the gang caught his foot in some tangle of briars halfway down and fell headlong to the ground. The violence of his language brought the blood to Lady Letty's face.
"Any damage?" one of the others asked.
"I believe I've twisted my neck," the man on the line groaned. "I've got a lump on the back of my head as big as your fist. Hold the light here."
The man with the light scrambled down cautiously and turned the full rays of the lamp on to the bruised and battered face of his companion.
Garton gave a start.
"Do you happen to know who he is?" Lady Letty whispered.
"I know him right enough," came the reply. "Ned Bloomer. Regular bad lot. Turned out of half a dozen racing stables. Warned off the turf. Had a good chance once and lost it because he could not go straight. He's the man that engineered the swindle some time ago whereby Mr. Tom Middlemass lost such a lot of money. They say he does all the dirty work for Du Cros, the South African millionaire, when he dabbles on the turf."
Once more the blood flamed into Lady Letty's face. What a miserable business it was altogether! How she longed to be out of it!
Then there came the distant whistle and the roar of a train, and two lights were visible at the end of the cutting. That was the special, and a few minutes lay between success or failure.
The heavy-faced man whom Garton had called Ned Bloomer scrambled to his feet and snatched the lamp from the hand of his companion. He stood in the centre of the track and waved the light vigorously. At the expiration of a few seconds the special gave a shrill whistle and the brakes began to grind. As the train came to a standstill Lady Letty looked out from her hiding-place. It was a foolish thing to do, but she acted entirely on the impulse of the moment. She was dazed and confused by the brilliant glare from the electric lamp in Bloomer's hand. There was a wistful, almost despairing look in her eyes, but she was not conscious of that. She could see Hugh Childers and Madame Regnier gazing out, but she had no idea how plainly she would be seen herself.
The guard dropped off the back of the train and ran along the line.
"What's the meaning of this?" he demanded of the man who held the light. "Anything wrong?"
"Well, we're not sure," was the reply. "We're—we're keepers and these woods belong to our employer. There has been a good deal of poaching lately and we were on the watch. We surprised two of them just now and they bolted through the tunnel. We followed as far as we dared, but there are too many trains on the line for safety. One of my mates swears there is an obstruction on the line a hundred yards down the tunnel. I daresay he is mistaken, but it is as well to be on the safe side. That's why we waved our lamp."
The guard looked perplexed. Obviously, he suspected some sort of design upon the train. Such things have happened. Still, it was clearly his duty to examine the track. If he ignored it and anything took place his position would be serious. He muttered something ungracious that hardly sounded like thanks.
"Come with me and point out where the obstruction is," he said.
Bloomer was taken aback. He had not expected this. If persisted in, it would upset all his schemes. By now the windows of the special were filled with curious faces. Everybody was eager to know what was amiss. Du Cos pressed forward just as the man with the lamp was turning to his mates.
"It's no business of mine," he said. "We thought we were doing right. Go on, if you like. Only don't blame us afterwards. Here, Tom, show the guard what you saw."
The suggestion was practical, and the guard fell in with it. At the same moment Du Cros saw who the speaker was. Concealed by the undergrowth, Lady Letty observed the expression of his face. She remarked suspicion and anger and alarm written there.
"Really, we are making a fuss about nothing," he said, "besides frightening the ladies. Go back to the bridge tables. These good fellows here have, I understand, magnified a couple of poachers into a pair of desperate characters. I'll see what they have to say."
A stifled exclamation broke from Garton. He suppressed it instantly.
"Tell me, miss," he asked hoarsely, "who that gentleman is?"
"That is Mr. Du Cros," Lady Letty explained. "Have you seen him before?"
A peculiar sound came from Garton; it was something between a chuckle, and a sigh. There was something about it, too, that conveyed profound astonishment.
"Are you sure, miss?" he asked incredulously.
"Quite," Lady Letty said. "I am—I mean I have been in his house. I have—I was to have come with the party to-night. All those ladies and gentlemen are guests of Mr. Du Cros, and he is taking them to Liverpool in this special."
"Well, I—well, I beg your pardon, miss," Garton gasped. "So that is Mr. Du Cros, the famous South African millionaire, who is going in largely for the turf. I wonder what he would say if he knew he was standing a few feet from Frank Garton! I wonder how he would feel and whether he would be proud of those dress clothes of his! To think of him being mixed up with all these nobs! Being accustomed to racecourses, I recognise a good number of them. Now if I was to push myself on board, they would soon kick me out. But I've a better claim to be there than the man who calls himself Stephen du Cros."
Once more tingling shame scorched Lady Letty.
"You seem to have met Mr. Du Cros before," she said. "Do you know him?"
"Do I know him! Have known him for years. But you are a friend of his, and I don't say any more. They tell me that he is engaged to Lady Letty Stanborough, sister of Lord Amsted. When I heard it I was glad, because the old family can do with the cash. I thought he was some big chap in the money world whose name really was Du Cros. He may have tons of gold now for all I know. There are strange ways of making a fortune, and the coin has a knack of finding itself in queer hands. But if that chap made a fortune he murdered somebody to get it. I don't suppose the old lord cares two straws either way so long as his pocket's full, but Lord Amsted is different. In spite of all his wildness, he is a gentleman, and he would never see his sister married to a scamp like that. He knows me and he will listen to what I say. I'll find out where he is, and see him, if I have to go as far as Australia to do it."
Lady Letty tingled, but strangely enough she felt no overwhelming sense of shame. Her uppermost feeling was one of deep relief. If what this man, with whom fate had brought her so curiously in contact, said was true, then she would be free of her shackles. The compact into which she had entered was humiliating and disgraceful, but, with the fresh sense of freedom came the strong hope of a new life. Lady Letty would have liked to ask further questions, but her pride restrained her. She could not discuss the man she had promised to marry with a chauffeur. She was rejoiced to think that the wild adventure of the evening had taken this strange course. Now it mattered little what happened. But she must not fail Hugh Childers; at any risk she must regain the train.
Everybody had resumed their cards or their talk, with the exception of Hugh Childers and Madame Regnier. They were lurking behind the curtain of the train waiting events. Hugh shook with excitement. He knew where Lady Letty was, and was waiting his chance to get her on to the train. Meanwhile, secure in the fact that nobody was listening, Du Cros had speech of Ned Bloomer.
His dark face blazed with anger and annoyance.
"What the devil did you do this for?" he demanded. "Why did you stop the train? There is no kind of obstacle in the tunnel. Yet you frighten my guests out of their wits and spoil the success of the trip. What do you mean by it?"
The heavy-faced man scowled angrily.
"That's like you," he said. "Never satisfied with anything that one does. I thought as you'd like to know as we failed to-night. Muddled it up altogether."
"Was there ever such a set of crass idiots!" Du Cros cried.
"Idiots! Ah! well, you're good at names, but better at shirking danger and putting the blame on other people. We thought if you was to know at once, you could fix up some plan for us to go on with. That's why we cut across and stopped the train. We did it to help you, and this is all the thanks we get for our pains. It isn't as if we are being well paid either. In fact, we could do with some money——"
"Oh, curse you and your money," Du Cros burst out angrily. "You know the money is all right and that you will get it presently. How about Amsted?"
"That's what I wanted to tell you about. When we got your 'phone call we acted precisely as you told us. After Amsted left the course he went to Stanford, and we followed as soon as we could get on his track, passing as officers of police. We were detained for a time and Chesterton went on. When I got to the house I found Chesterton half dead and quite past giving any account of himself. The place is like a barn! I got hold of what I thought was a smart lady's maid, who seemed anxious to leave, but I detained her. I should have got out of her where Amsted was, when a regular toff of a chap came in and spoke to her as if she was his wife, which perhaps she was, for all I could tell. I tried a little bluff, but it didn't work. The toff happened to have a revolver in his pocket and made fine play with it. Meanwhile the girl bolted before the others came up, and no doubt warned Amsted. Anyway, by the time we'd laid the toff out the bird had flown. Amsted's bedroom was empty, and although we ransacked the place from top to bottom not a trace of him was to be found."
"What became of the young woman?" Du Cros asked.
Bloomer shrugged his shoulders as if annoyed by the inconsequence of the question.
"How should I know?" he asked. "Anyway, what does it matter? The point is that Amsted is nowhere to be found, and I deemed it my duty to tell you as soon as possible. He can't have got very far away, especially as he was hurt. If you've got anything to suggest, out with it, for I see the others are coming back from the tunnel."
Du Cros knitted his brow into a puzzled frown. Plainly he was at fault. The other men were approaching, talking in excited tones. The guard was angry, and still suspicious that some trick had been played on him.
"Detain them for a minute or two," Du Cros whispered. "Your news has upset all my plans, and I want a few minutes to think. I must be alone. By the time you get back I shall have hammered something out of my brain."
Bloomer bustled off down the track. Du Cros stood looking at the train in an attitude of deep thought.
Lady Letty clutched the arm of her companion.
"Now is the time to help me," she whispered breathlessly. "There is not a single moment to lose. I must get on that train unknown to and unseen by Mr. Du Cros. Can you manage this for me, Garton?"
Garton nodded briskly.
"Bless you, yes, miss," he said. "It's as easy as falling off the roof of a house."
He crept from the bushes on his hands and knees, stood for an instant behind Du Cros, and then struck him a clean and vigorous blow full on the side of the head.
Du Cros went down without a sound and lay on the metals like a log.
"Now's your time, miss," said Garton. "Don't lose a moment."
Left to himself, Amsted lay in bed in the Monk's Room with the pleasant consciousness that he was not so badly hurt as he had imagined. Certainly he had managed the removal without much inconvenience. On a calm review of his position he could not deny that he had behaved in an exceedingly foolish manner. He had not been able to resist the temptation of coming back to England at a time when his presence involved his liberty. He knew he was not so black as he had been painted, and there were persons who declared that when matters came to be investigated it would be found that Amsted was not very seriously to blame.
But he could not miss the opportunity to get even with the rascals who had robbed his friend Tom Middlemass of his money. Like the Irishman, he could resist most things but temptation. He had not, of course, anticipated the accident and its consequences.
Yet it had been the cause of his present trouble. To save him and his wife, Lady Letty had run risks leading her into danger and anxiety. She had satisfied herself that her brother was safe before she had turned her back on Stanford in the race to catch the special. It seemed to her that Amsted could lie up in the Monk's Room until he was well and able to leave the country.
"I shall be all right in a day or two," Amsted told Beaton. "Those doctor fellows always make such a confounded fuss about things."
"I daresay they do, my lord," Beaton muttered. "That's where you're in a fix. You may not like the doctor, but for the present you can't do without him. He's got to come here. If he does, how are we to keep his mouth shut? You can hardly expect him to visit you in secret, my lord."
Amsted conceded the point promptly.
"I see what you mean, John," he said. "No self-respecting medical man would do it. He would be compounding my wrong if he did. I must stay here and manage as best I can. If I were in Liverpool I should be safe. I've got two or three good friends there, and besides, in a big town it is different. The worst part of it is everybody knows me here, and everybody had heard about that race. But we taught them a lesson, John, and they won't interfere with Tom Middlemass again."
"Do you know who they are, my lord?"
"I have an idea," Amsted replied. "But anyway, it doesn't matter. If I could prove it, Mr. Du Cros would have a bad time of it."
"He could tell you everything, asking your pardon, my lord," Beaton replied. "I'm only a servant, and it is not for me to say much. But I've spent all my life in the family, and there's none can say I am not faithful to it. So I'll speak frankly, my lord."
"You're a good fellow, John," Amsted said warmly.
"Well, my lord, it's about this marriage of Lady Letty's. We get to know about these things even so far away as Stanford. It seemed to be all right at first—man in a good position, with plenty of money and all that. Goodness knows the family can do with it."
"Amen to that sentiment," Amsted laughed.
"Well, I was glad; so was my old missis, for the matter of that. Then we began to hear rumours. This is a sporting part, my lord, and the very children know everything about a horse. They say as Du Cros is little better than an adventurer. I can't find out where the rumour came from, but there it is. They say he was mixed up in that business over which Mr. Middlemass lost ten thousand pounds; I've been told so over and over again."
"Well, he's got it back, anyway."
"He has, my lord, thanks to you; but you are laid up and in danger in consequence of it. But I'm sort of wandering from my point. I was speaking of this here Du Cros. I tried to get some details, but there wasn't a soul who'd really say anything. But to-night it all came out."
Amsted turned over eagerly. It was clear he was interested.
"Really!" he said. "Mind you, I am not surprised. It seems a quaint idea to be discussing my future brother-in-law with you, John."
"If he was going to be your brother-in-law perhaps it would, my lord," Beaton answered composedly. "Perhaps you won't say so when I have finished; because when I've done there won't be no more talk of Mr. Du Cros coming into this family. It was him as got you into a bother to begin with. Is it true you laid hands on him, my lord?"
Amsted did not appear to relish the question. He had a pretty shrewd idea that Beaton was not asking these questions out of idle curiosity.
"I did," he said; "but I don't know that I did any good by it."
"Don't be too sure of that. Anyhow, the chaps who came here to-night were sent by Du Cros. They wanted to get hold of you for some reason or another, and had no more to do with the police than I have. They carried on as if the whole place belonged to them. They tried to detain Lady Letty, and they'd have done it but for Mr. Liston. I didn't dare to show up because I thought I might be useful in an emergency. My idea was to lie low until I was wanted. So I heard a deal that they had to say. Du Cros is at the bottom of this business. He would have stopped you riding if he could, but you were too clever for him. Their idea was to drag you away by force and hand you over to the police."
"Vastly obliged to them, I am sure," Amsted smiled. "You shall tell me everything, Beaton, and I'll let Lady Letty know. But who is Mr. Liston?"
"Haven't any more idea than the dead, my lord," Beaton said. "He came here out of nowhere as cool as you please. He was all the gentleman in his dress clothes, smoking his cigarette as if the whole place belonged to him, my lord. The clever way he told Lady Letty all about it with one of them blackguards within hearing was a treat. As I told your lordship, I was listening to what was going on. You'd like Mr. Liston."
"I'm certain of it," Amsted said drily. "Is he here still? If so, I should be glad to see him. You might go and look."
Beaton returned presently, followed by Liston. Then John bowed and withdrew.
"Very glad to meet you," Amsted said. "I owe you a great service. Would you mind telling me how you came to be fixed up in this business, Liston?"
"It needs some explanation, doesn't it?" Liston answered. "In the first place, I may say that I am a great friend of Hugh Childers. I have known him for a long time. I came at his special request to secure the safety of Lady Letty Stanborough."
"But how on earth," Amsted began, "did Childers know——"
"Because Lady Letty asked him. She had to consult somebody when she got Lady Amsted's message on the 'phone. It was her positive duty to come here and see you. It was also imperative that Du Cros should know nothing whatever about it. I don't understand how it was managed, but Lady Letty left the special at a certain point, and it was her intention to rejoin it at a given spot in such a manner as to convey the impression that she had never left the train at all. The scheme was evolved out of the ingenious brain of Hugh Childers—nobody but a novelist could have invented such a plot. Childers was fearful lest some harm might come to Lady Letty, and asked me to be present. It looked like an adventure after my own heart, and I consented. I came over in my car after dinner, and I'm bound to confess that I had plenty of fun for my money. I was very near losing my life at the hands of those ruffians. I escaped with a nasty wound in the shoulder that Beaton bound up for me. There are other details which I will tell you in due course."
"Beaton says I am not safe here."
"Well, in a sense that is perfectly true. It was I who impressed the fact upon Beaton. I pointed out to him that the difficulty was the question of the doctor. Your leg may be worse than you imagine, though there are no bones broken; anyway it requires skilled attention. You can't expect any respectable local man to attend you in secret. If the story came out, it would be the ruin of his practice."
"I should be safer in Liverpool, if I could get there," Amsted said.
"That is what I would suggest. The journey will cause you some pain and inconvenience, but my car is a smooth one and my man is careful. You had better start at once."
It was a proposition after Amsted's own heart.
"Done with you and many thanks," he said. "Oblige me by calling Beaton."
Ten minutes later the car was in motion. It ran swiftly and silently along the road parallel with the railway, until it came to the hill on the side of which was the cutting where the special had stopped. The train still stood there, with the electric lights flashing on the line. A knot of people gathered on the metals, apparently looking at a man in their midst. The car was pulled up with a jerk.
"Anything wrong?" Liston asked.
"Looks like a breakdown, sir," the chauffeur said. "One of the axles bent. Take me a matter of two hours to put it right."
"I'll go and see what's the matter. Unless I am mistaken, we've run up against Du Cros's special—the one that Lady Letty travelled by. There seems to have been an accident."
Liston scrambled down the bank and pushed his way into the circle. In the flare of light from the carriage he saw Du Cros lying prostrate, apparently beyond the surgeon's aid.
Lurking in the carriage, and keeping a keen lookout for his chance of aiding Lady Letty, Childers had seen what had happened. Madame Regnier was watching just as intently. She could see Lady Letty rise from her hiding-place in the bushes and start forward.
"Now is your chance," she whispered. "The man is stunned. I don't know who has rendered us this service, but I should like to do something for him. But don't stop an instant. Bring Lady Letty into the train before anybody grasps what is going on."
Childers needed no second bidding. As Lady Letty emerged from the bushes, he made a flying leap from the train and caught her in his arms. Nobody was near enough to take heed, except Garton, who stood with a self-satisfied smile on his face.
"I know all about it, sir," he said. "There was no other way. I don't suppose that Mr. Du Cros, as he calls himself, is badly hurt."
Without waiting for further explanation, Garton discreetly disappeared. Childers lifted Lady Letty into the train and handed her over to Madame Regnier. The whole episode had transacted itself silently, and nobody in the train knew aught of it.
Du Cros lay motionless until the guard and the heavy-faced man came up to him. Behind the group, that was soon augmented by some of the guests in the special, a whispered conversation was going in in the bushes between Liston and Garton.
"I don't think there is much the matter, sir," Garton said. "I hit him all right. The lady was anxious to return to the train. She was very particular that she should get back without anybody knowing, especially Du Cros. We missed the special at Stoneleight Cross, and I don't know what we'd have done if she hadn't overheard Du Cros's pals arranging to pull up the special here. It was a chance for us and we took it. What's more, it has turned out trumps."
"Thanks to you, it most certainly did," Liston answered. "You acted with a promptitude that has my warmest approval, Garton. You knocked Du Cros down, I suppose, to make a clear way for the lady to regain the train?"
"That's the idea, sir," Garton said modestly. "The lady was expected, for a gentleman dashed down and fetched her like lightning."
"Well, that's all right," Liston replied. "You have rendered more than one person a magnificent service, Garton. I will see that you are properly rewarded. Meanwhile, you had better go back to your car and discreetly vanish. You have done your work well."
Garton smiled and vanished. Liston returned to the group round Du Cros. He stood there for a moment, then he, too, smiled and vanished. Fate was playing the right cards now.
Meanwhile Lady Letty had dropped into a seat, faint and exhausted—not that she was very tired or particularly worn out, but the reaction turned her sick and giddy for the moment. She only realised now how greatly her nerves had been taxed. The tears rose to her eyes, and it was with difficulty that she warded off an attack of hysteria. It was the kind of weakness she would have scorned in another woman. Madame Regnier considerately fetched her a glass of champagne.
"Make her take this," she whispered. "I'll leave her to you; she will recover quicker with you than with anybody else. Turn some of the lights down and draw the curtains. I'll see you are not disturbed."
Half the lamps were lowered, and Lady Letty sipped her champagne. Gradually the colour returned to her cheeks, and an unsteady smile hovered round her lips.
"Oh, Hugh!" she whispered, "it has been a most dreadful time."
She held out her hands to him like a child that needs comforting. Hugh drew her towards him; instantly his arm went about her; her head dropped to his shoulder. He bent and kissed her long and passionately. It seemed the right thing, the only thing to do. She lay on his breast happily content, a wonderful light gleaming in her eyes.
"My darling," Hugh said. "Sweetheart, I quite understand. But you need not tell me anything yet—there will be plenty of time by and bye."
"It seems like a dream," Lady Letty replied. "A few minutes since all was darkness and despair; now I appear to have stepped into Paradise. Why didn't you save me this distress, Hugh? Why didn't you tell me that you loved me like this?"
"But surely you have always known," Hugh protested.
"I think so; at any rate, it seems to me now that I did, and ever since I was a little girl I have never cared for anybody but you. If you had spoken——"
"Oh, yes, I understand now, Letty, what a fool I have been. I suppose the poorer one is the prouder one becomes! I thought I dared not speak. I had nothing to offer you. But I should have told you long ago, and gone to my father and made terms. It is never too late to mend."
"It would have made all the difference in the world," Lady Letty reminded him. "I would not have sacrificed my happiness even to save my father. I am quite content to share your poverty, Hugh. Du Cros will have to go. The very idea of it is repugnant. I know now that I could never have married that man. At the last moment my courage would have failed me. I have been hearing the most dreadful things about him, too. They say he is only an adventurer. The chauffeur who drove me here has been talking about him. He little knew how closely my future was bound up with his!"
"How did you manage it?" Hugh asked.
Lady Letty proceeded to explain. It was a breathless and exciting narrative, and Childers followed every word with rapt attention. He was holding the girl fast in his arms, he could feel her heart beating against his, her lips were very nigh to his. They had forgotten the rest of the world; they were lost to what was going on outside.
"Well, so far we have nothing to complain of," Hugh said, when at length Lady Letty had come to the end of her story. "It is a good omen. You are safely back again, and, with the exception of Madame Regnier, nobody knows anything of your adventure. I had to tell her. She was under the impression that, maddened by jealousy, I pushed you off the train."
"Well, you know you did," Lady Letty smiled.
"It was a dreadful moment," Hugh said with a shudder. "I would not go through it again for anything. When a man takes all that he has to love in the world in his arms and runs the risk——"
"But there was no real risk, dear. Your plan was splendid! I had no fear. There was something quite fascinating in the adventure; I should do it again if necessary. Listen; they are bringing Du Cros into the train. I hope he isn't really hurt. It was rather a savage blow that Garton gave him."
One of the party was trying to explain to the others what had happened, but the explanation was far from the truth.
"A pure accident," the voice said. "Nothing but a big stone dislodged from the top of the cutting. They frequently work loose in that fashion. The stone bounded down the bank and struck Mr. Du Cros on the back of the head—a simple concussion that will yield to an application of ice; fortunately there is a supply on the train. Nothing on the line, was there, guard? No danger, I suppose?"
The guard was polite, but just a little short in his manner.
"I saw nothing, sir," he said. "I don't understand it at all. We must get on, sir. You can't wait on a main line like this without some risk."
The guard turned away, and the train began to gather speed again.
"Did you hear that?" Letty whispered. "Still, if they are satisfied! Surely I saw Mr. Liston just after I was hustled on board the train. I had a glimpse of his face in the light from the carriage. Or shall I wake up presently and find that I have been dreaming all this, Hugh? At any rate, your friend Liston is a most wonderful man!"
"It probably was Liston," Childers said. "I wonder what game he is up to? I am certain that he thoroughly enjoyed his adventure to-night, and that it was a pleasure to him to help you. He is a splendid fellow, and I often tell him that he should be a novelist as well as well as a man of science. There was a touch of genius in the way be used those sham telegraph messages to-night."
The noise and bustle died away outside, and presently Madame Regnier entered the carriage where Lady Letty and Childers were seated. She came forward smiling her congratulations.
"I know part of the story," she said. "You shall tell me the rest of it another time. Meanwhile, you will be glad to know that no serious mischief has been done to Du Cros, though your friend didn't spare his strength. Du Cros is lying down with ice to his head. He is not fully conscious, of course, but is getting better, or so they seem to imagine."
"Really, I am glad to find it is no worse," Lady Letty smiled. "I feel dreadfully guilty. Nothing of this kind would have happened had it not been for me. Had I not better go and see how he is, Hugh?"
But Childers had vanished. He was more uneasy than he would have cared to own to Lady Letty. He came back presently with the air of a man who has got some burden off his mind.
"Everything is going well," he said. "It was a nasty smack, but Du Cros evidently has a thick skull. Nobody seems to worry much over it. I fancy that yonder frivolous lot are convinced that the whole thing was an accident. My dearest girl, how tired you look!"
Lady Letty smiled faintly. All the world appeared to open before her eyes.
"Dreadfully tired," she whispered. "I seem to have lived ages in the last few hours. I must get a little sleep before we reach Liverpool."
Her eyes closed and she slept. But a happy smile was still on her lips.
Hugh sat on his seat feeling that he had no reason to be dissatisfied with the progress of matters. He had had an exceedingly trying and anxious time. It seemed days since the special train had left for Liverpool, but it was only a question of hours. At any rate his plan had not been a failure. Lady Letty was safe on the train again, and her time had by no means been wasted. She had also succeeded in preserving Amsted from his enemies, and had baffled Du Cros in that direction; and the best of it was the pseudo-millionaire had not the slightest notion from whence this check to his programme had come. True, fortune had been kind to Letty in the manner in which Bloomer and his lot had played into her hands, but it is proverbial that fortune always does favour the brave.
Moreover, Du Cros was incapable of further mischief—at all events for a time. Now was the chance for Lady Torringdor to rid herself for ever of her ally-ties to that choice rascal. Beyond question Du Cros carried the proofs of Lady Torringdor's folly about with him. He was just the type of scoundrel to do that sort of thing. In case of rebellion he could dangle it before her eyes and spur her on to further endeavours. Probably the paper was in his pocket then and there. In the circumstances surely it was permissible to search for it. Whether or not Lady Torringdor had the necessary pluck was another matter.
Still, she should have the opportunity if Hugh could bring it about. So far as he could see, nothing was needed but a little audacity. Letty was still peacefully sleeping and probably would continue to do so until Liverpool was reached. The rest of the party had gone back to their amusements as if nothing had happened. Whether Du Cros was seriously injured or not, nobody seemed to care.
Hugh watched them with a certain amused contempt on his face. He was looking about for Lady Torringdor and relieved to find that she was no longer playing. It was possible the same idea had occurred to her. She was wandering restlessly from one part of the train to the other, but most of the time she seemed to be near to the special compartment in which Du Cros was lying. She started in a half-guilty way as she caught sight of Hugh Childers. He watched her narrowly.
"You are keeping to your good resolution?" he asked.
A spasm flitted across Lady Torringdor's face.
"You may rely upon that," she said. "I have given my word and I mean to keep it. I will never, as long as I live, play for money again. He may even disgrace and humiliate me, but my mind is made up. Is Mr. Du Cros very badly hurt?"
"I don't think it is quite so bad as that," Hugh said.
"But they told me that he was insensible," Lady Torringdor went on. "If I really believed that such was the case, I believe that I should——"
She paused as if fearful she had said too much. Something like a confidence was trembling on her lips. Hugh could divine what was passing in her mind. He determined to give her a lead.
"You seem to be very anxious about Du Cros."
Lady Torringdor laughed dreamily, and there was a strange uneasy glitter in her eye.
"Not in the way you imagine," she whispered. "To be frank, I do not ardently long for his recovery. I was thinking the world would go very well if he—he died. Horrible, isn't it? But what is the good of him? Is anybody the happier for his existence? How many people would benefit by his death? Had that stone killed him, I should have been glad. I say glad! But I suppose there is no chance of that?"
"Not this time, at any rate," Hugh said. "He will probably be all right in the forenoon. He is dazed and stupid now and hardly knows what is going on around him. The singular thing is that nobody seems to care."
"You mean that none of the women have volunteered to look after him?"
"Exactly. The man is an utter blackguard, but still——Do you notice that not one of his guests gives him a single thought? They went back to the card tables again as if nothing had happened. Had he been an ordinarily decent man, that sort of thing would have been given up voluntarily. Yet these are the people he cultivates and spends money over and risks the gaol for! Of all the queer crazes that possess humanity the most absurd is the fancy for getting into Society! Conceive a man going out of his way to push himself where he wasn't wanted! My word! half the people one meets are not fit for any society at all! What fools we are!"
"Oh, that is true," Lady Torringdor said with a quick indrawing of her breath. "There is no bigger fool in London to-day than myself. If I could only recover that strip of pink paper, I should play cards no more."
Childers glanced significantly at her.
"It may be on the train at the present moment," he said. "Blackmailers generally carry their evidence about with them. When I was helping to undress Du Cros just now I wondered what was in the belt he wears round his waist. There may be secrets in it."
Lady Torringdor stared at her companion. She was asking herself if there was any veiled suggestion in his remark. But Hugh appeared to be engrossed in a cigarette that he had some difficulty in lighting. When he spoke again he was less ambiguous.
"Still, villain as he is, Du Cros is a fellow creature," he said, "and it's one's duty to give him a hand. But in a case of nursing a woman is so much better than a man. Perhaps some of these women are afraid they would be deemed officious. If you like to return good for evil—I'll see that you are not disturbed."
Once more Lady Torringdor glanced at Hugh. He was gravely examining the end of his cigarette, but there was the suggestion of a smile on his face. Lady Torringdor made up her mind on the spur of the moment. If possible, the thing should be done.
"I'll go and see Stephen du Cros," she said. "If I can do anything for him ... It is just as well perhaps, that the others should not know."
"I'll take precious good care they don't," Childers assured her curtly.
Lady Torringdor nodded. Her heart was beating fast, her face was pale, but her courage was all her own. Frivolous and light-minded as she was, she had had a lesson, and in her heart she was fond of the man whose name she bore. He had made many sacrifices for her and she had basely repaid them. Now it was possible her opportunity for freedom had come. It might be that the cheque was in the belt that Childers had spoken of. Du Cros was at her mercy, and such a chance as this would never come again. She went into the compartment where Du Cros was lying. There was only one light in it and somebody had shaded it. Du Cros lay back on one of the seats with a coat thrown over him. He appeared to be asleep and was breathing heavily. As Lady Torringdor touched him, he opened his eyes but it was plain he saw nothing. His eyes were lustreless. With a light hand that shook strangely Lady Torringdor felt for the belt.
She could make out the outline of the big steel buckle, and the strap crackled as she touched it. She stood almost breathless in an agony of expectation. Given a quarter of an hour free from interruption and she might be saved. Still, it was very slow and delicate work. She contrived at length to get the buckle unfastened, but Du Cros lay on his back heavily and the belt required force to remove.
He never stirred. He lay breathing stertorously, lost to all consciousness. Inch by inch the thick leather strap came away, till at last Lady Torringdor had it in her trembling hands. She thought she could hear somebody coming and paused in her task for a moment. But it was merely the train passing over a set of points that jarred the carriage. Outside lights flashed by in quick succession and the motion of the train grew palpably fainter. It must be now or never, for they must be nearing their destination.
Lady Torringdor carried the belt to the light. It was stuffed with papers; there were three or four pockets of them neatly folded. She emptied the whole on to the table, turning them over with uneasy haste. They made a litter, but for the most part they lacked interest for the eager seeker. She was looking for a strip of pink paper, a strip of——
Ah! there it was, the very thing! A mist came before her eyes, but it cleared presently, and the writing stood out bold and distinct.
Salvation was hers! Lady Torringdor examined the cheque again and again to make sure there could be no possible doubt. Then she stuffed the paper in the bosom of her dress and began to cram the documents into the belt. She had no curiosity to look at one of them; she was content with that one precious pink slip. Her only regret was that the opportunity had not come sooner. In that case her secret would have been safe even from Hugh Childers. Still, she had the consolation of knowing that he would be kind and merciful. Moreover, but for Hugh, her chance of freedom had never come at all.
The last paper was returned to his pocket and still Du Cros slept on. More lights, of greater brilliancy, flashed by the train at frequent intervals; there was a noise of sound and laughter outside and the door of the carriage opened. Lady Torringdor hurriedly looked out for a hiding-place for the belt. She had to decide on the instant. It would never do to be caught with the belt in her possession. She bent over to the open window and dropped it out into the velvety darkness of the night.
"What is the matter?" she asked in a steady voice. "Are we there at last?"
"Practically," an intruder explained. "But what are you doing here, Vera? Looking after the sick man? How delightfully unselfish of you! Is he any better?"
Vera Torringdor held up a hand as if to impose silence. She was finding it difficult to speak at the moment and preferred not to trust her voice again. The danger was past, and she knew it. Nobody could suspect what she had been doing; and they might poke as much fun at her as they pleased. In future she would be free to laugh and jest with the best of them. The train was gliding into the great terminus, and a row of porters had gathered on the platform. The guests were going to the same hotel, for Du Cros had made all arrangements.
As Childers had anticipated, Du Cros was practically himself in the forenoon. It was something after eleven o'clock when he awoke to a proper sense of things and a fair recollection of what had taken place during the night. He preferred to take a slight meal in his own room so as to be fit for the farewell concert in the afternoon.
He was smoking a cigarette and glancing over the paper when the fact of his loss flashed upon him. It seemed strange that he had not missed the belt before. With a distinct feeling of alarm he rang the bell and made inquiries. Nobody in the hotel knew anything of the missing property. It must have been taken off after his accident. A prompt resort to the telephone elicited the fact that nothing in the shape of a leather belt had been found on the train. Besides, was it not superfluous to remove a belt to give relief to a man who had had a blow on the head? No doubt the belt had been stolen by a passenger on the special train.
Du Cros's brow became black and troubled as he thought of it. Nobody knew that he was wearing the belt. Nobody had an interest in its contents—nobody——
Du Cros pulled up short as the solution of the mystery flashed across his mind. He rang the bell.
"Will you be so good as to ask Lady Torringdor to come this way?" he said to the waiter. "Tell her that I am sorry to trouble her and will not detain her more than a few minutes."
Lady Torringdor was dressing for luncheon and would be with Mr. Du Cros directly. She came in presently charmingly dressed and smiling. His desire to see her had not taken her by surprise. If she could have managed to restore the belt all might have been well. But directly Du Cros missed it, he would have his suspicions. He was, however, taken aback by her easy manner and the ready confidence with which she came.
"I want to have a chat with you," he said. "Hadn't you better sit down?"
"Hardly worth while," came the frank reply. "I can only give you two or three minutes."
"You'll give me just as long as I require," Du Cros burst out. "It is time we had a proper understanding, my lady. You are taking advantage of my generosity, and I'm not going to put up with it. I should like to know why you declined to play cards last night?"
"Really!" Lady Torringdor drawled. "The mere fact of being your guest does not give you the right of commanding folk to play. There are little things you would do well to take note of. Anybody would think there was some understanding between us."
The scowl on Du Cros's face deepened.
"And isn't there!" he demanded. "Are we not partners? Haven't I shown you how to make as much money as you need with practically no risk? As to that little forgery we know of——"
"My dear Stephen, you are still suffering from the effects of your accident! It is a more distressing case than I had imagined. Try to recollect yourself. There is no understanding between us. We have no kind of partnership. Really, you must be careful. If any stranger overheard you, the consequences might be serious. He would assume at once that we had a contract for cheating at cards. What forgery are you speaking of?"
"As if you didn't know. The cheque of mine you forged!"
"Oh, this is terribly sad!" Lady Torringdor said sorrowfully. "But I have not the slightest doubt that a few days' rest will put you right. Where is the cheque you speak of? Kindly produce it. I shall have to tell my husband about this."
Du Cros trembled with passion. His hands clenched and the woman opposite to him thought he was about to strike her. He was all the more furious that this imagined tool of his was getting so easily the best of him. There was a ready coolness and audacity about Lady Torringdor that he had not anticipated. He had only to show his teeth and she would be at his feet pleading for mercy.
"So that is the tone you are going to take?"
"My dear Mr. Du Cros, what other tone do you expect?" Lady Torringdor said. "You surely don't expect me to admit that we are a couple of bridge cheats working by signals? That is not the way in which a millionaire makes his money. You are not going about Park Lane saying these things, are you? You are not publishing that absurd story that I forged a cheque of yours and that you forced me to earn money for you in consequence? If people believed you, then we should both find ourselves in gaol. If people didn't believe you, then you would speedily find yourself in a lunatic asylum. Still, if that cheque exists——"
Lady Torringdor turned away with a shrug of the shoulders. She had summed up the situation in a few words. For the moment Du Cros was beaten and baffled. He was astute enough to see that the bullying line was useless. He would have to find the cheque, which doubtless had passed into Lady Torringdor's possession.
"Very well," he said; "we'll let the matter drop for the present. I am sorry to have troubled you. I dare say I shall get over these illusions in time."
Lady Torringdor smilingly departed, leaving Du Cros to his own sombre thoughts. But she passed along the corridor very carefully, thankful for the support of the bannister rail. She had gone through her ordeal bravely; she could not see that she had made the semblance of a mistake. Some reaction had set in and she was trembling from head to foot now. She was under no illusion as to the outcome of the interview. Du Cros knew perfectly well that she had stolen the cheque, that she had taken her courage in both hands to defy him as she had done. For the moment he was defeated; he dared not speak, but he was not the man to throw up the sponge.
Whatever Du Cros's feelings were he managed to disguise them. He came down about half-past twelve to the room where the special luncheon for his party was laid out. He could not partake of the viands himself, but it was only courteous to join the company. The tables were gay with orchids, the food and the wines were of the very best. It was nothing to Du Cros that he lacked the means to pay for it. He understood the art of getting things on credit. He would call for the bill presently in the most lordly fashion and pencil in an item of a few pounds for the hotel staff. Then he would casually say that he had no cheque-book with him and that the account was to be forwarded to his secretary. The hotel manager would bow politely and intimate his desire to give no trouble to Mr. Du Cros.
The party moved on presently to the hall where the concert was to be held. Madame Regnier had gone on in advance with Lady Letty, while the others followed on foot, as the distance was not great. They were mixed up presently in a stream of people bound for the same destination.
Hugh Childers managed to detach himself from the rest with Lady Torringdor. He was regarding her smiling face with a certain satisfaction, though his own features were grave.
"You were successful last night?" he asked.
Lady Torringdor nodded gaily. The world was very fair to her that afternoon.
"I have no cause to be unhappy," she said. "At least you know what I mean! But I can see from your face that you want me to do something for you. What is it?"
Childers bent down so that nobody else should hear.
"I want you to try to remember where you dropped the belt out of the window."
Lady Torringdor glanced up at her companion uneasily. She would rather this nasty business were forgotten entirely. In her sunny, frivolous way, she had regarded the thing at an end. Du Cros had seemed disposed to make no fight, why therefore should Hugh rake up unpleasantness? Why was he looking so grave?
"I don't know what you are talking about," she said.
It was not difficult for Hugh to read what was passing in her mind. He had not expected much assistance, but he was going to get it; he had made up his mind to that.
"Now, listen to me," he said. "This is a very serious matter. You saw Du Cros this morning?"
"I had an interview with him, yes. I flatter myself that before I had finished——"
"Quite so," Hugh interrupted dryly. "You had all the cards and you played them cleverly. Du Cros was so taken aback that he said practically nothing. I can imagine every word of the dialogue. He made nasty allusions to a certain cheque bearing a certain signature. You affected ignorance of the whole affair. You doubted if the cheque existed. As a matter of fact, it no longer does exist. I fancy you have to thank me for that."
Lady Torringdor changed her tone. She saw that Hugh was in earnest. Nor had she forgotten that he was in possession of her guilty secret. Clearly, it would be folly to play with him as she had done with Du Cros. Besides, she owed him a debt of gratitude, a fact, to do her justice, that she had no desire to forget.
"Oh, dear," she sighed. "How one's sins find one out! I wanted to have this forgotten, to start afresh on a new tack. Now you rake it all up again. I did find the cheque, Hugh."
"Did you happen to find anything else?"
"I found a good many things. There were compartments in the belt all of them stuffed with papers. But what they were about I know no more than a baby."
"Really! You are a woman! Well, one lives and learns."
"Don't be nasty, Hugh," Lady Torringdor whispered. "I had only myself to consider, remember. It was a desperate business, involving a terrible risk. If I had been found out I should have been worse off than ever. My one thought was to get the cheque. I had no eyes for anything else. Of course, I could not find it for a long time. Just as I had re-packed the belt, one or two of those chatterboxes came in. They chose the most inconvenient moment for inquiring into Du Cros's condition. They took me by surprise. I had not the remotest idea what to do with the belt. The window was open and I dropped it out."
"So I guessed," Hugh said. "I felt pretty sure of that when Du Cros failed to find it. I have been out on a little business all morning and, as the result of one or two discussions, I have come to the conclusion that that belt would be useful to me. In fact, I must have it. Nobody knows what you did with it, which is in my favour. On the other hand, it looks very like a search for a needle in the proverbial rick of hay. Therefore, we must try to locate it as closely as possible. We were getting pretty near to Liverpool at the time, passing wayside stations and junctions frequently. Did you happen to notice any particular landmark?"
Lady Torringdor shook her head decidedly. She was far too busily engaged with her own affairs. She was sure it was impossible she had observed anything specially.
"Oh, I know it would appear to be so on the face of it," Hugh said. "But the human brain acts subconsciously. You can regard a scene without seeing it at all when the mind is fixed upon something else, but the recollection of it comes back suddenly at the most unexpected moments. I don't say that you will succeed, but try to think. You will have time during the concert. If anything comes to you, let me know at once. I am greatly troubled."
"Not altogether about this belt?"
"Well, no—though that would be of the greatest assistance to me. I fancy it would enable me to get rid of Du Cros altogether. The trouble is with Lord Amsted. You know him: everybody knows how foolish he has been. Well he has met with a bad accident and, having to lie low just now, has been brought to Liverpool on the quiet. Somebody must have been spying on his movements, for he has vanished again. A note was brought to his lodgings by a messenger boy, and after reading it Amsted called for a cab and went out, ill as he was. He has not returned, and I don't believe that he will. Some of Du Cros's gang have got hold of him. They will probably detain him until they get the police to move. Now, just as we are on the eve of exposing the whole swindle, it would be a thousand pities for Amsted to be made the central figure of a racing scandal. For his own sake and the sake of his wife, I want to prevent that if I can. According to what I can learn, there it great turf fraud on foot and Du Cros is engineering it. Amsted is mixed up in it in some way, but I feel sure that he has no criminal intent. It's a complicated affair altogether. You may begin to see now why I want that belt."
"Have you no clue at all to Amsted's present whereabouts?" Lady Torringdor asked.
"We have to a certain extent," Hugh explained. "Part of the note received by Amsted is in the hands of my friend Liston. He is following the thing up at the present moment. But please don't trouble any more about that—concentrate your mind on the belt and the circumstances in which you threw it out of the window."
Lady Torringdor nodded thoughtfully; indeed, she was in an unusually thoughtful mood. She took her place with the rest of the party in the front row of the stalls. The great hall was packed to its utmost capacity, the blinds were drawn and the huge auditorium was one blaze of electric light. The stage had been closed in for the occasion—an amateur theatrical performance had taken place the night before, and part of the scenery representing the exterior of a rural cottage still remained. There were far more women present than men, who were conspicuous by their absence, as is usually the case at afternoon performances.
The concert proceeded smoothly enough till the interval. It was at this point that a man came in and handed a note to Du Cros. He read it with a flickering smile on his face. It was the first sign of cheerfulness he had displayed all day. Immediately he rose from his seat and went out. Lady Torringdor found herself wondering what had happened.
Really, the proceedings were rather slow. The singers were a little flat, and even the diva herself was not in her usual magnificent voice. The air was heavy and hot, and Lady Torringdor nodded. She had almost forgotten that she had been up all night. She had been too excited to sleep. She began to dream now with the vision of the train before her. She could see that leather belt quite clearly; there was a dark stain upon it by the buckle and a flick of rust on the clasp. She was sure of these things, though she had not noticed them at the time. Her brain was beginning to act now in the way that Childers had suggested. Strange that she had not noticed these details in that moment of vivid excitement and that she should see them so clearly now.
She was going through it all again in her waking dreams. She had a fine recollection of one of the papers in the belt. There were certain words on it that she could recollect though they had only caught her eyes casually. There was a stamp on it that suggested Scotland Yard. She wondered if it was what they called a 'ticket of leave.' Clearly, it must have been from a description that she had once had of that permit from the authorities. She wished she had kept it; the thing might have proved useful. She could see herself with the cheque in her hand. The cheque was payable to 'bearer.' An hour ago, she would have been vague on the point, but she was clear now. The belt was in her hand; she stood by the open window as the others came in. She could see the belt drop on the footboard and bound away into the darkness. Then there were lights flashing by on the instant. Then there was a poster of a girl in armour on horseback and some words beneath it. Something to do with a pageant. Strange that all this should be making itself clear! What pageant was it? Why, Leobury, of course. The Leobury pageant had taken place only last week; Lady Violet Ringwood had been talking about it in the train; and the flashing lights were those of the signal-box of Leobury Junction. It was all as clear as daylight now. The belt had been dropped out of the left-hand window just as the train was nearing the signal-box.
Lady Torringdor came to earth again with a start and a feeling that she had done well. She was conscious of an uneasy stir in the audience, and a smell of burning in the air; then a curl of flame ran along the edge of the flimsy scenery and an instant later the stage burst into flames. A woman in the background screamed loudly, and a piercing yell of "Fire!" was repeated three times.
How did it happen? How do these things generally happen? There was not the slightest danger. The illumination on the stage was beaten out with a hose almost before it had started; a man or two rose from their seats and implored the excited women to keep cool, but it was all in vain. In the twinkling of an eye, the panic was at its height. Well-dressed women fought like so many tigers for the exits. A door jammed and refused to open; the air was full of frightened cries. There was hardly a soul there who recognised the fact that the stage was clear of smoke and that a quartette of artists had begun to sing as if nothing had happened. The fierce struggle for the exits still continued, and but for the presence of mind displayed by a handful of resolute men, the tally of injuries would have been far greater.
The heat had suddenly grown suffocating.
Lady Torringdor came to herself as a pair of strong arms dragged her back from the panting, screaming mob of half-maddened women. The efforts of the men were beginning to prevail, and the sobs and screams and yells for help were dying away. Lady Torringdor looked up to find herself in the arms of Hugh Childers. Her hair was streaming over her shoulders, her heart was beating painfully. She was in ignorance that her dress was hanging in rags about her. She was convinced that her last moment had come. She would do this man a service that he could remember her by. He would always think well of her afterwards.
"Break the news to Horace," she whispered. "But let me tell you about the belt. It was dropped out of the left-hand window close to Leobury Junction signal-box. If——"
Hugh pressed his hand over the speaker's mouth.
"Never mind that now," he said. "You are not going to die; you are perfectly safe. Not another word."
There was reason for silence, for Du Cros stood close by, possibly seeking Lady Letty. Had he heard? Poor as he was, Hugh would have given a year's income to know.
The send-off concert had turned out an infinite bore to Du Cros. He had expected great things from the select party idea. It was going to give him a better standing in Society, and the swell papers would take it up and make much of the matter. Possibly, they would do so now, but Du Cros thought the game was hardly worth the candle. He had an uneasy feeling that somebody was getting the best of him. He even suspected that there was a conspiracy to rob him of his precious belt. But that his own confederate, Bloomer, had pulled the train up in the cutting he would have been certain of it. Perhaps Bloomer had been paid to betray him. It was all very well to tell him that he had received a blow from a falling stone, but he was not disposed to believe it. It was more probable that somebody had deliberately given him a murderous blow on the back of the head. Lady Torringdor had taken advantage of the mishap, or she might have instigated it.
This latter theory was unlikely, but one never knew. Du Cros had a poor opinion of her mental capacity, and he scarcely paid her the compliment of holding her guilty. Nevertheless, he was disposed to believe she had stolen his belt, of the existence of which he did not think she was aware. At any rate, if she was not the thief, she knew who was the culprit and had benefited by the knowledge.
If, on the other hand, Bloomer was the villain of the piece—but was he? He appeared to be faithful and had moved quickly. At the interval before the catastrophe in the concert hall he sent in a note to the effect that he wished to see Du Cros at once. He was on very good terms with himself, and for once had lost his sullen appearance.
"You have news, I see," said Du Cros.
"Oh, I haven't been idle," Bloomer explained. "I've found a few things out this morning. But, what is more to the point, I've got hold of Amsted."
"Amsted is hiding at Stanford, you idiot, too ill to move."
"Not so much of your idiot!" Bloomer retorted. "Amsted is in Liverpool. It's a smart lot we have to deal with! Goodness knows how they managed it, but the thing came off all right. Amsted came up to town last night on a friend's car. They managed to smuggle him from Stanford about the same time that we pulled up the train. How they managed it I don't know—a pure bit of luck, I reckon, and a touch of cheek at the finish. You never met with any accident; that blow on your head you got from behind. I began to put two and two together to-day, when I saw that cool swell Liston near your hotel. I guessed after my acquaintance with him last night that he was up to no good, and I shadowed him. I hung about and asked questions, and found that Amsted was hiding here. I got a pal to forge a letter, which was delivered to Amsted, and he tumbled into the trap at once. He thought he was going to help a friend of his, instead of which he was driven to Lancaster's, where he is a prisoner."
"Why on earth did you take him to Lancaster's?"
"Because he will be arrested there," Bloomer chuckled hoarsely. "It's all up with friend Lancaster. He got dabbling in that coupon business with big prizes, and one of his clerks has let on. Anyway, that's the story, but my impression is that you gave Lancaster away. There was a warrant out for his arrest, but he got the office just in time and bolted. But you know all that well enough. An anonymous message to the police that Amsted is hiding at Lancaster's house will do the trick."
"It sounds a good idea," Du Cros admitted. "All the same, I'm sorry to hear about the Lancaster business. If one or two more become frightened we may be dragged into the mess ourselves. Still, if Amsted can be picked up there it will look all the blacker for him. On the whole, you have done well, Bloomer, and I won't forget it. Come into the corridor, where we can talk more freely. There's a good deal that I have to say to you."
Bloomer followed in his dogged way. He was pretty well sure that Lancaster had been betrayed by his employer, all the same. The corridor was full of the fashionable audience, who had come out for a stroll during the interval. Bloomer moved amongst them awkwardly. He drew back presently to allow two ladies to pass, at one of whom he stared with a wild-eyed amazement that was not devoid of admiration.
"There she is," he said; "that's Mrs. Liston. The one in the blue, I mean."
"That is Lady Letty Stanborough," Du Cros corrected. "The other is Lady Violet Ringwood."
Bloomer shook his head.
"Have it your own way," he said. "I don't know what you've got to gain by deceiving me over a matter that don't interest me. But the lady in blue is Mrs. Liston. I was alone with her at Stanford last night, and I'll swear to her anywhere. Wonderfully handsome woman she is, too, for all her 'aughtiness, and a real good plucked 'un."
"You are mistaken," Du Cros insisted. "That is Lady Letty Stanborough, the woman I am going to marry. I can't understand how you persist in such an extraordinary story, Bloomer. Lady Letty came up from London with us, and was in the train when that accident happened to me."
"In that case you would say she couldn't have been at Stanford," Bloomer replied. "But, strike me queer, she was there all the same! She as good as said she was Mrs. Liston, and Liston behaved as if it was a fact. Looks to me as if there was a mistake all round. You swear Lady Letty started from London with you. Well, it's evident she could not leave a train moving at sixty miles an hour and reach Stanford alive. But I will take my oath in any court in England that I saw her at Stanford, and you are prepared to swear that you saw her on the train after you left London."
"An hour after, Bloomer. I was talking to her for some time."
Bloomer shook his head despondingly, but was not in the least moved by what he had just heard. Lady Letty passed close by again, and he favoured her with a prolonged stare.
"It's the same girl," he said. "As if anybody could forget a creature like that!"
Du Cros made no reply. He was puzzled and bewildered. The thing was incredible. Yet Bloomer was so absolutely and doggedly certain. Was this a double, passing herself off as the genuine Lady Letty? But, if so, she would call herself Lady Letty and not Mrs. Liston.
"I'll try to get to the bottom of this to-night," he said. "Meanwhile go back to Lancaster's and see that Amsted is safe; if I want your services again to-day I'll come there and see you. I don't like the way in which things are shaping."
Bloomer walked off in a thoughtful frame of mind, while Du Cros returned to the concert hall. He was having a good deal to occupy his attention, so that the music was lost on him. He came out of his reverie presently to find himself in the midst of the panic that threatened to resolve itself into an appalling disaster. Trained to be resourceful and prompt, he aided a few level-headed men in bringing the mad rush to an end.
During a pause after his exertions, a few words caught his ear. Lady Torringdor was speaking. In that moment of fear of death she was telling Hugh Childers where the missing belt could be found, and by pure luck Du Cros had acquired a piece of priceless information.
He suppressed the exultation that thrilled him, and his face was stolidly indifferent. He acted as if he had not heard a word.
"I don't fancy that anybody is badly hurt, Childers," he said. "But it would be as well to summon two or three doctors. I'll 'phone for them."
He walked out of the building and stopped at the first post-office and asked for a directory. Then he took a cab to Toxteth, intending to go straight to the house of Lancaster, the absconding bookmaker, and see Bloomer. The latter would have to be despatched to Leobury Junction to find the belt. Childers, for reasons of his own, was evidently in search of the same article—Childers, the man whom he had regarded as a harmless scribbler!
Luck appeared to be on Du Cros's side, for some distance from Lancaster's house he saw Bloomer in the street, and promptly dismissed the cabman.
"I want you at once," he said. "I'll give you your instructions now," and he proceeded to tell Bloomer where the belt had been lost. "When you have found it, return here without delay. I presume Amsted is safe?"
"Amsted is locked up in a back room with no window in it—a box room," Bloomer explained. "I propose to give him a bedroom to-night and drug him before he sleeps. Then I'll 'phone to the police, and there you are! Here's a key of the back door. You know the house, so we needn't waste more time."
Du Cros had many anxious problems to occupy his attention. It was a startling revelation to find that so many enemies were closing in about him—enemies belonging to the very class he most despised. He wondered if Lady Letty was in the conspiracy too. Bloomer's story seemed incredible, and yet the man's sincerity was beyond question. Du Cros was still worrying over this as he let himself into Lancaster's house.
He proceeded along the passage towards the dining-room, whence fresh tobacco smoke was coming. Had Lancaster returned? he wondered. A man was standing in the dining-room smoking a cigarette. He smiled as Du Cros entered.
"Very glad to meet you, Mr. Du Cros, alias Stephens, alias goodness knows what besides. Let's sit down and have a chat."
Du Cros clapped his hand to his head, and the expression of his face changed.
"Good heavens!" he cried, "it's Frank Garton."
Amsted had learnt nothing from experience. The fact that he was in great peril, that he was like a wounded bird in a trap, troubled him not at all. Liston had landed him in a place of safety apparently beyond the reach of danger, and had left him to himself for a time. An hour or so later Liston was alarmed to discover that Amsted had gone out. He had scribbled a note that a friend had found his address and needed him. His friend, it appeared, was in trouble, and that was a call to which Amsted did not fail to respond.
Liston muttered something that was the reverse of complimentary to his volatile acquaintance. It was just the idiotic kind of thing that Amsted would do at a crisis. At that rate, he would lay himself up permanently, where his board and lodging would cost him nothing.
But Liston's manner grew graver as he pondered the matter. How could this friend find Amsted's address so speedily? No letters had passed, and Amsted was lying close. Liston read the note again. It was written on a half-sheet of paper; doubtless the other half of the letter that had decoyed Amsted away. It was more than probable that this was some move on the part of the foe. Had Liston's movements been watched since they left Stanford on the previous evening? The heavy-faced man might be at the bottom of it. That, at any rate, was Liston's first impression. The more he thought it over the more sure he felt he was right. He would have given a good deal for the note that had been the cause of this fresh bother. Some torn bits of paper lay in the grate, but they were blackened and charred. Amsted had tossed a lighted vesta into the fireplace and set fire to the papers. All that Liston could decipher was one word of the stamped heading on the notepaper, or at least part of a word. It stood out with that glossy blackness one sees on stamped paper after it has been burned. The word was "RUMB——"
Liston was busy trying to make something of it when he had a visitor. It turned out to be Frank Garton.
"You asked me to call and see you here, sir," he said. "I came without saying anything to anybody. Something to do with Lord Amsted, I gathered."
"Well, it had," Liston responded. "But Lord Amsted has vanished. He left me a message that he had gone to see a man who was in trouble."
"Rubbish! don't you believe it, sir," Garton said bluntly. "He's been lured away."
"That is what I was going to say when you interrupted me," Liston went on. "The letter Lord Amsted got was probably a forgery. The remains of it are lying burned in the grate, and if I disturb them, the whole will crumble to pieces. Do you know any street, or house, or square in Liverpool beginning with 'Rumb'?"
As Liston spoke he pointed to the mystic word. Garton studied it with his head on one side. Obviously he was as much at sea as Liston.
"It's beyond me, sir," he said, "I dare say we could find out from the directory. Take some time, of course, but the name must be an uncommon one."
"Oh, it's uncommon enough," Liston admitted. "But we might be very little better off if we did find out. Suppose it was the name of a street or a terrace, we shouldn't be very much the wiser, and we must find out soon. The longer the delay the worse the subsequent trouble will be. What is it?"
Garton started to his feet, and crossed to the grate.
"It is as plain as a pikestaff, sir!" he exclaimed. "Don't you see that those letters are a bit sideways as if they had been printed at an angle to the paper? I mean the way that they print telegraphic addresses and 'phone numbers. Now that 'Rumb' is part of a telegraphic address. Private people don't have fancy names like that, and I don't suppose that his lordship's friend is in business."
"Probably some bookmaker," Liston suggested contemptuously.
"You've got it first time, sir," Garton said triumphantly. "It's the registered telegraphic address of some bookie, to a dead certainty. 'Rumb' is short for—what? There are one or two letters missing. I've got it again, sir. The whole word is 'Rumbo,' which is a word constantly heard on the turf. It's a favourite slang word with bookmakers, and means that everything is fair and above board. It's just the word for the advertising bookie's telegraphic code."
"If that is so, then we are getting on," Liston allowed.
"I haven't done yet," Garton went on in similar triumphant tones. "Having been at the game all my life, I've some of those trade marks by heart. 'Rumbo' is familiar enough. Let me think. Of course! it belongs to a man called Lancaster, who used to do a big business from Holland. He had a house here, the address of which I can easily find out. He got mixed up with some swindle, and has bolted. A friend was telling me all about it yesterday. When the matter comes to be investigated, you'll find that fellow Du Cros in it. But we needn't go into that now. Lancaster has cleared and left his house to the gang who lured Lord Amsted away. That letter in the grate proves it. His lordship's at Lancaster's."
"Gad! you are a smart chap," Liston said, admiringly. "I'll make it my business to see that you don't waste your talent's here. Meanwhile, the sooner we move the better. Let us go out and consult a directory."
Garton's theory was correct. Here was the name of Lancaster, and his address was No. 15, Stanmore Street.
"Not at all a bad neighbourhood," Garton said. "Good houses, and respectable. A customer of ours lived there some years ago, and I know the locality. Nice places with large gardens standing a little way back from the road. Shall I come, sir?"
"I wish you would," Liston said. "I have a fair share of pluck, but in a case like this two men are better than one. I expect these fellows are dangerous. I have a couple of revolvers here, and it would be well if we took them with us."
Garton scoffed at the suggestion.
"Not an ounce of pluck amongst the whole squad," he said, "unless they are three to one. I've known the gang for years—Ned Bloomer and all the rest of them. Leave it to me, sir."
However, Liston did not neglect the obvious precaution. Having had some experience of Bloomer and his mates, he slipped a revolver into his pocket.
"This will be a good day's work for you," he said to Garton. "You have been very clever and discreet. Lady Letty Stanborough is exceedingly pleased with you."
"What may her ladyship have to do with it, sir?"
"Why, she was your passenger from the place where you picked her up until you saw her on the train. Do you mean to say you didn't know that, Garton?"
Garton's face was a fine study of mixed emotions. He stood a picture of dismay.
"I might have guessed it," he said. "Anybody but a thickhead like me would have guessed it. I knew it was no ordinary woman. When I come to think of it, she was a Stanborough all over. And the things I said to her! I told her that Lord Stanbrook was an old scamp——"
"Lady Letty knows that far better than you do," Liston said drily.
"That may be so, sir, but it did not prevent me from making a fool of myself. The things I told her about the chap who calls himself Du Cros! I called him a blackguard and a thief, and her engaged to him all the time! Finally, I half-killed him before her eyes."
"She did not blame you for it," Liston observed. "Well, it's a queer world, Garton, and queer things are done in it. Perhaps, without knowing it, you have done Lady Letty a great service. But we will talk about this later. Come along!"
When they reached the beginning of Stanmore street, they moved more cautiously, for it was not the time to take any risks. Presently Garton drew his companion quickly into a shop door and pointed to a figure on the other side of the road walking towards the city.
"There's Ned Bloomer," he said; "but you've seen him before. He's Du Cros's right-hand man. Now I'll bet my last dollar he's coming from Lancaster's house after seeing that his lordship is safe. This makes the game all the more safe for us."
Excepting those of the dining-room, the blinds at No. 15 were drawn. The house was empty, for the servants had gone after Lancaster's flight, and the keys had been taken away by the police, who, having no further concern with it, at least at present, the house was not watched. The front door was fastened, and Garton suggested a move to the back.
"Sure to find some way in there," he said. "Scullery window, or something of that kind."
It was not difficult, and in a few minutes they were in the house. Everything appeared to be in order from first to last, not a thing out of place. The only hint of very recent habitation was the smell of tobacco.
"Stay here whilst I search upstairs," Garton suggested. "If we don't find his lordship somewhere I shall be greatly disappointed."
Garton was away for the better part of ten minutes. When he came back to the dining-room he wore the look of a winner.
"I felt sure of it," he said. "His lordship is up above, in a little back room. He seems a bit dazed like, as if they had hocussed him. He——look there!"
Garton pointed through the window into the garden. Du Cros was coming up the path.
"This is awkward," he said. "Go up to his lordship and try to get some sense into him. But keep quiet, sir. I'll put this Du Cros all right. I have one or two little things to say to that famous millionaire."
Fortunately, the panic in the concert hall had resulted in no serious accident. There were a few minor injuries, but nothing to be alarmed about. The members of the party had sufficiently recovered from the shock to go to the docks and see Madame Regnier started on her voyage. This achieved, they flocked back to the hotel to see what arrangements their host had made for their amusement. Du Cros had gone out on business but had left a message by the manager. He had been distressed at his inability to accompany them to the docks, but pressing business at the last moment had detained him. After the very unpleasant experience of the afternoon, he did not think it prudent to travel to London as soon as he had intended. He proposed, therefore, an early dinner at the hotel and to start by the special about eleven o'clock that night.
Accordingly, the guests dispersed till dinner-time. Lady Letty, thoroughly worn out, retired to her room. She slept for the rest of the afternoon and woke shortly before dinner. Then she dressed and went down into the lounge.
It was fairly early, and nobody had arrived but Hugh Childers. He came forward eagerly.
"I have been looking for you everywhere," he said. "This is an unexpected piece of good fortune. We can talk freely for a time, as Du Cros has not yet returned."
"I have had a nice sleep," Lady Letty said. "I never remember being so tired before. I daresay it was selfish of me, but positively I could not keep my eyes open. Has anything happened, Hugh? Have there been any fresh developments?"
"One or two," Hugh explained. "These people are an audacious set. Somehow they found out where Amsted was stowed away, kidnapped him and confined him in a house where the police are bound to find him at the proper time. Du Cros is at the bottom of the whole thing. Strange that a man should show all this venom against a fellow creature whose sister he is expecting to marry. The plot would have succeeded had it not been for the smartness of Garton, your chauffeur. Liston told me the whole affair. Really, Amsted is more like a child than a grown man, and far more troublesome."
Lady Letty smiled faintly. She was very fond of her headstrong brother. Next to Hugh he was the one being for whom she had a real affection. The fact that she had gone through all this danger for his sake did not lessen her feelings.
"I am afraid he will always be like that," she said, "until he has something to do. If he could be set to work he might become steady. He is very fond of his wife. But what is the use of talking about it, Hugh? We are both so miserably poor."
"It will not be always so," Hugh protested. "I will put my pride in my pocket, darling. I heard incidentally that my father was near here on business for a day or two, and I have paid him a hurried visit. He looks ill and worn out and saw that I was touched by his appearance. Anyhow, the interview was much warmer and more cordial than I had expected. I don't think I made quite enough allowance for my father. He takes pride in his work just as I do in mine. To be brief, I told him everything and offered to go back. Well, it was worth some sacrifice to see how pleased he was. He has missed Lucy and me terribly. I was quite candid. I told him why I wanted to come back."
The colour crept into Lady Letty's face.
"Do you mean that you mentioned my name?"
"Of course I did. I was absolutely frank, I assure you. I concealed nothing. He knows all about Du Cros and the rest of it. He may be devoted to business, but he never forgets that he is a Childers, and he is especially down upon the speculation. He thought it horrible you should be sacrificed. He also told me that in the time before our quarrel it was his hope that I should marry a girl like you. More than once he actually had you in his mind. It is coming all right, sweetheart."
"Oh, Hugh, I am so glad," Lady Letty cried. "You will go back to your father?"
"Well, I believe that is the idea," said Hugh with a laugh. "We were both so anxious to oblige each other that we came to no decision at all. I fancy I am to be an ornamental partner. The odd thing is that father takes some pride in my books. He insists that I must give up two or three days a week to literature. Moreover, he stipulates upon making me an allowance. He wants Lucy and me to go home on Saturday, and would like you to come, too. He is ready to give Stanborough a helping hand."
Lady Letty drew a deep breath of pure delight. It seemed as if the gates of Paradise had suddenly opened before her after journeying in a hot and barren land. It was some time before she grasped the full import of Hugh's communication.
"So this is really, really true," she murmured. "How did it come about?"
"I have just been telling you, darling. It was so ridiculously easy. If I had not fallen in love with you, the whole thing would have been impossible. All we have to do now is to get rid of Du Cros—if he does not get rid of himself. But something has happened in that quarter which will give us the whip hand of that rascal. Before we start to-night I hope it will be settled. Then you will come to us next Saturday."
Unaccustomed tears rose to Lady Letty's eyes. The prospect touched her to the heart. The host of cares and troubles and anxieties were fading and a long avenue of rest and love and happiness lay before her. Hugh caught her hands in his.
"Are you so very happy?" he whispered tenderly. "Are you so very glad, sweetheart?"
As Lady Letty turned, Du Cros came in. There was a black scowl on his face and a look of anger in his eyes, but there was also a suggestion that he was being hunted by some unseen foe. He stopped for a moment as if he were going to speak, then passed on.
"He must have seen," Hugh said. "He must have wondered at the audacity of the poor scribbler who had dared to raise his eyes to Lady Letty Stanborough. Well, it does not matter. He will know everything in a few hours. I have to thank him for a great deal. But for this business I doubt if we should have come together. I fear, however, that you will have a bad half-hour, Letty."
Lady Letty pressed Hugh's hand. She smiled fondly.
"I shall be ready for him," she said. "I am not afraid of anything—now."
The half-hour came presently, as Hugh had prophesied. He might have interfered and even prevented it, but his love for Lady Letty and his pride kept him aloof. Lady Letty would be able to cope with the sullen man who sat through dinner almost speechless and scowling at his plate. The meal was over at length, and the guests were making ready for departure when Du Cros came up to Lady Letty.
"Before we go I have something to say to you," he remarked harshly. "I have been learning things."
"We are both fortunate in that respect," Lady Letty said coolly.
"I am told that you left the train," Du Cros proceeded, "on the way to Liverpool, when it was travelling at sixty miles an hour. Impossible as it sounds, I believe that the story is true. You were seen at Stanford. How did you manage it?"
"You have no right to ask," Lady Letty said. "I did leave the train to go to my brother's assistance and arranged to join it again at Stoneleigh Cross. But for an accident, I should have done so. But I deny your right to inquire into the details."
"No right to ask such questions of my affianced wife!"
"I am no longer your affianced wife," Lady Letty said gently. "This ring belongs to you, I think. You will gain nothing by throwing it on the floor. Oh, I know what you are going to say. But you are powerless to do my brother further harm. You can't hurt my father either, for his liabilities will be met. You see it is difficult for a woman to be engaged to two men at the same time, and I have given my word to Mr. Childers. Please do not raise your voice or you will attract the attention of the waiters. My engagement to you was a mistake from the first. Ever since I have been capable of affection at all my heart has been given to Hugh Childers."
"A mere pauper," Du Cros sneered. "Birds of a feather flock together."
"It is only natural that they should," Lady Letty said in her calmest tones. "As a matter of fact, Mr. Childers is not a pauper, but if he were, it would be better to marry a pauper than a scoundrel and a thief. Do you want me to speak more plainly? Is there any necessity for me to go into details? Shall I tell your guests what I know and see them turn their backs on you as if you were a reptile? I will do so if you like."
Du Cros hesitated. The hot, burning words at the tip of his tongue remained unspoken. He had no heart, no feeling, and no conscience, but he wilted before the scorching words and the bitter scorn in Lady Letty's eyes. For the first time in his life he was learning what fear was. He was eager to learn how much Lady Letty knew, but was afraid to ask.
"There is some mistake," he said huskily. "An enemy has been at work. We will defer further explanation till we get back to London. There is just one thing that I have to say and that is for your private ear alone. Oblige me by walking as far as the door. Now——"
He paused, looking out into the darkness as a figure dashed into the hall. It was that of a man wild and unkempt. There was a deep cut over his left eye and blood was oozing from the wound. Lady Letty regarded the man coldly. She had seen him before. It was the heavy-faced man she had met at Stanford. She walked away contemptuously.
"What are you doing here, Bloomer?" Du Cros said warningly. "You must not——"
"Oh! blast your 'must nots.' I've been mauled within an inch of my life to serve you. Well, you may like it or not, and I'll cut my story short to let you join your precious party. The belt's been found, but I haven't got it."
"The belt in the hands of strangers! Go at once to——" but he addressed the empty air, for Bloomer had vanished as rapidly as he came.
Du Cros's first impulse was to grasp Garton by the throat and choke the life out of him. His eyes glowed with the pent-up fury of his murderous thoughts, and Garton instinctively raised his hand, as it were to avert a blow.
"I should not try that on, if I were you," he said. "The last time you attempted it you had two broken ribs and six weeks in bed. You are a choice scoundrel, I know, but you will get nothing out of me. I have friends not very far off."
Du Cros restrained himself with an effort. Clearly, this was not the way to handle Garton. The two had known each other for years; they had a common bond of sympathy in a passion for the turf. From Du Cros's point of view, the only way to make money out of racing was by dishonesty. The theory had paid him sufficiently well. He had lost sight of Garton for a long time and the latter did not appear to be prosperous. Probably Garton needed money.
"What do you want?" Du Cros asked in a patronising fashion. "Name your price. But don't open your mouth too wide, because things are not going too well with me at present."
"I know they are not," Garton said derisively. "You are not worth a good sixpence. It looks very fine to have your cars and your special train and your swell friends staying in swagger hotels, but you are not paying for it. You are carrying everything off by brag and bluster. Well, I admire your cheek. It's a valuable commodity, and you have a lot of it. Bad luck to meet me, isn't it? Sort of thing you call a peculiar coincidence."
"It might have happened to anybody," Du Cros said sulkily. "But we are wasting time. How much money do you expect?"
"I don't expect a brass farthing," Garton rejoined. "To think of your calling yourself Du Cros and posing as a millionaire! The infernal impudence of it! Why, you are bound to come to grief! If you gave me a cheque it wouldn't be met. I don't want your dirty money. I've always run straight, and I'm not going to change now. Still, I shouldn't have interfered but for one thing. If people like to be gulled by a scamp like you it's no concern of mine. But when I find you trying it on with a Stanborough, it's a different matter."
Garton was talking glibly and easily. He wanted to gain time. He had no pleasure in the interview, but had to keep it up to enable Liston to get Amsted safely off the premises. When that was accomplished, the rest would be easy.
"What have the Stanboroughs to do with it?" Du Cros asked.
"Everything, as far as I am concerned. The Gartons have been servants of the Stanboroughs for generations. We were friends of the family, if I may say so. Never were people better treated. When trouble came to the family we had to go our own way, but we didn't forget. I didn't, at any rate. Now that I have the chance of saving a Stanborough I won't miss it. Not that I knew she was a Stanborough till just now."
Du Cros pricked up his ears. His wits were quick at most times, but the sense of danger put a keener edge to them. In the critical state of his affairs knowledge was power. He might learn something from Garton that would prove of the utmost value later.
"What do you know about Lady Letty Stanborough?" he asked shrewdly.
"Well, I know that she is engaged to you, Stephens. Or rather, she was engaged to you. If I did not feel so hot about it I could laugh at the idea! You who was turned out of two racing stables for roping and narrowly escaped half a dozen prosecutions—you to lift your eyes to her! I heard her ladyship was going to marry a millionaire called Du Cros, but I didn't connect him with you. It makes me mad to think of it. But that's all over, thank goodness."
A look of malignant hatred flashed into Du Cros's eyes, but he said nothing. Silence was his policy now.
"I was as innocent of all the trouble as a child," Garton went on. "I was asked to meet a certain lady at a certain spot with one of our cars to take her to Stanford. I might have guessed who she was, but I didn't. I was only too ready to oblige anybody connected with Stanford. The lady had left a certain special train between London and Liverpool and——"
"How did she leave it?" Du Cros asked eagerly. "Tell me that and I'll pay you anything——"
"No, you won't pay me anything, for more reasons than one. I suppose the lady left the train in the ordinary way. I took her to Stanford and afterwards to Stoneleigh Cross, where she was to pick up the train again. We missed it by inches at Stoneleigh Cross, and there it was that I met with Bloomer and the rest. That was a bit of luck for my passenger, especially as she had a chance of joining the train when it was stopped in the cutting. Even then I never guessed who my fare was. When I saw you step out of the train and heard you spoken of as Stephen Du Cros, the great millionaire, you could have knocked me down with a feather. I saw the game at a glance, and did my best to spoil it—and you. I might have killed you, and wouldn't have cared much if I had. Not that it matters much either way. Lady Letty is quit of you now, and you can't injure her through her brother."
Du Cros's eyes flashed, and a nasty smile played about his lips.
"Don't be too sure of that."
"I know what you are counting on," Garton continued. "You have got Lancaster out of the way—in fact, you betrayed him. Now, you are using his house to keep Lord Amsted a prisoner until you can hand him over to the police. You think he is on the premises now. He isn't. He departed by the front door ten minutes ago with Mr. Liston. You kept your back to the light or you would have seen for yourself. Good-bye, Stephens. I'm off, too. Any message for his lordship?"
A volley of oaths streamed from Du Cros's lips. This was a stroke he had not expected. He heard the retreating footsteps of Garton as the latter hurried from the house. He dashed from the room and up the stairs two steps at a time. The door of the prison was closed, but the key was in the lock. One look inside proclaimed that Garton had not been boasting. The bird had flown!
With rage and fury in his heart, Du Cros turned to the stairs. At the same moment somebody gripped him from behind and he was dragged to the floor. He swayed backwards and forwards with his antagonist till he could see the other's face. It was a white puffy face in a frame of black hair. With a sensation of fear, Du Cros recognised it.
"Lancaster!" he gasped. "You reckless fool, what are you doing here?"
"I had to come," the other said hoarsely. "The police found out my hiding-place. The port was so closely watched that I could not go across the water. I wanted more money. I got a disguise and managed to reach here in the night. There were a few articles of value that I could pawn. I met Bliss and he helped me. He told me a thing or two. Oh, you villain! I should still be prosperous but for you. I got it all out of Bliss. I threatened to go and call in the police if he didn't confess everything. You wanted to get me out of the way so that you could do as you liked with that fool Amsted. When Bloomer and his crew brought him here I was hiding in the house. I listened and I heard a good deal from these chaps. Well, I am not going to suffer alone, and so I tell you, Mr. Du Cros, or whatever you choose to call yourself. If the police nab me they'll nab you too. I'll go into the box and expose the whole conspiracy against Amsted. I'll prove that he is simply a young fool who was the tool of a lot of cunning scoundrels."
"Including yourself, of course," Du Cros sneered.
"Well, why not? The whole thing is blown now. Besides, I shall do better if I make a clean breast of it. You and the rest will stand in the dock with me and get as many years as I shall months."
The man was evidently in earnest; it was no mere vapouring on his part. He would keep the police at bay as long as possible, but when he finally fell into their hands he would reveal everything. His anger deepened at the sight of Du Cros's face and his voice rose almost to a scream.
"You dog," he cried, "you black, treacherous dog! You need not have dragged me down. But for you I should still be rich. I could have retired from the Holland business with a fortune. The police might have had their suspicions, but I should have cared little for that. Now, I am a fugitive from justice, leading a dog's life and worse. But I'll pay you out and see you in the dock by my side, Du Cros."
He reached out a pair of shaking hands as if seeming to drag Du Cros down with him. A mist of red floated before the eyes of the adventurer. This was a danger so imminent and fateful that it must be averted at any cost. He jumped forward and caught Lancaster by the throat and bore him back heavily to the ground. There was a horrible clicking noise and Lancaster lay limp and unconscious. The moisture poured down Du Cros's face.
"By heavens! He is dead," he whispered. "I have killed him."
Then terror seized him and he rushed from the room. He could not stay with that ghastly thing, but in his dismay he knew not what to do. Anon he started violently, for somebody was knocking steadily and persistently at the front door!
Accompanied by Garton, Liston journeyed down the line as far as Leobury. The former had left Lancaster's house directly Du Cros had gone to look for Amsted. The first thing was to despatch or convey Amsted to a place where he would be absolutely safe. He was feeling better and brighter, and really at length grasped the seriousness of the situation.
"I've got the car still here, sir," Garton suggested. "If you like I'll run his lordship as far as Quildon, where my brother-in-law lives. Rare sell for Du Cros, alias Stephens, ain't it, sir? As for my brother-in-law, he will do anything for a Stanborough. It is only fifteen miles and in a secluded spot where we have a few horses."
"The very thing," Liston exclaimed. "Now, listen to me, Amsted. I suppose you want to be free, to be cleared of the charge hanging over your head, if only for your wife's sake?"
"Poor girl!" Amsted exclaimed. "I would do anything for her sake. She has gone through a lot for me, and I wish to repay her if I can. Get me out of this mess, Liston, and I'll turn over a new leaf. I know I was a fool——"
"That is the cause of all the mischief," Liston said. "Honestly, I don't believe it any worse than sheer folly, but you have given us a deal of anxiety. You are altogether too confiding. Fancy going out as soon as Garton's back was turned! Anyone else would have spotted the trap at once. We have information that will clear your character in a day or two if you keep out of the way. It would be a thousand pities if you fell into the hands of the police now, for though you would be proved innocent, the stigma would remain. You will go away with Garton and place yourself entirely in his hands. Be guided by what he says, and keep out of sight. If you do this I am sure that within three days you shall be walking about London as free as any of us."
Amsted gave the desired assurance. Nothing should induce him to be such a simpleton again. He had had a lesson that he was not likely to forget. He was sorry to be the cause of so much anxiety and bother, and was thoroughly ashamed of himself. All he wanted was to have his wife back and to get something to do. Lady Amsted would be very rich some day, and he desired to show his relatives that he was capable of taking care of her property.
"I have the making of a first-class man of business," he said.
"Well, I doubt it," Liston answered drily. "If you manage to keep out of scrapes that will be sufficient. Now, get along with Garton. I daresay he can provide you with a cap and goggles. Remember, you are by no means safe yet, my boy. By the bye, Garton, you must meet me by the hotel at half-past seven. We'll take your car as far as Leobury Junction, and with decent luck we shall be back before the special starts for London."
At the appointed hour Garton arrived at the hotel, and there Liston joined him.
"Any fresh news, sir?"
"Well, no," Liston said. "Du Cros has not returned. Most of his guests were dressing for dinner when I left, but the host had not put in an appearance."
"Sounds suspicious," Garton replied. "Perhaps he cut his throat with vexation to find that Amsted was no longer a prisoner. I had half intended to tell him how the thing was done, but the joke was too good to spoil in that fashion. What's the next move, sir?"
"Well, we are going to Leobury to look for the belt that Du Cros wore. I have reason to believe that it contains some very compromising papers. It was stolen from him after you laid him out so neatly, and was dropped out of the carriage window near to the signal-box at Leobury. We believe Du Cros knows as much, though he has not all the information we possess. Still, he has a shrewd idea, and I believe that he has sent his man Bloomer and another to look for the belt. If we find it before them, well and good. If they get it before us, why——"
Liston paused significantly. Garton's eyes flashed.
"I understand you, sir," he said. "If they do, there is going to be a fight. I take it from what you say that we have the start of them. We know the spot to go to, and they don't. That's in our favour. I suppose you brought a lantern, sir?"
"As a matter of fact, I did," Liston explained. "I didn't want to search the line in the day time, because those fellows might be hanging about and spot us. We will wait till dark and then search. After that you must get me to Liverpool before eleven so that I can join the special for London. I haven't been invited, but that makes no difference, for I am going all the same."
The car reached its destination and was put up in the garage of a local hotel. It was dark when Liston and his comrade began their search. They made out the signal-box in the distance, and this was a guide to them. To the left the line curved so sharply that the signal-box was hidden from sight of anyone standing on the metals. Above the cutting on a lofty bank was an advertisement hoarding and on this Liston flashed his light. He discovered a poster with a female figure upon it and some letterpress in white underneath that announced the Leobury Pageant.
"So far so good," he said. "This tallies with my information. Now, if the belt has not already been found, we should pick it up on the left-hand side of the rails somewhere within the next hundred yards or so."
Garton suddenly grabbed the lantern, pushed the slide in, and gripped the arm of his companion.
"Stoop down, sir," he whispered. "There's somebody coming along the line. If he is a railway servant we shall get into trouble and be moved for a certainty. If it's Bloomer or any of his lot we shall lose nothing by watching them."
Without a further word, Liston crouched down. Three men approached, whose manner showed that they were looking for something. They paused almost in front of Liston.
"Must be hereabouts," said one, whom Garton recognised as Bloomer. "To the left of the box Du Cros said. But it's all a job, mates, and little to it afterwards."
"Unless we cut the cash up between us," another of the gang remarked.
Bloomer turned upon him with a gesture of impatience.
"Didn't I say there wasn't any cash?" he asked. "It's nothing but papers, and the less the likes of us has to do with papers the better. They get you into trouble, and before you know where you are, you are in quod for five years for blackmail. It takes a man with a head to get money out of papers."
"Let's keep up with them," Liston whispered. "We can walk in the long grass. It wouldn't be a bad dodge to let them search whilst we watch. If they find nothing, we shall save time, and if they get the belt we can fight them for it. I've got my goggles in my pocket. If you've brought yours, that will be a sufficient disguise."
Garton tapped his breast significantly. So they kept step with Bloomer for a hundred yards, and at the end of an hour another hundred yards of search was complete. Bloomer stepped back to allow a train to pass, the flaring lights of which illuminated the track far and wide. A hoarse chuckle of triumph came from the lips of the leader of the rival expedition.
"Bless that train!" he said. "Them lights did the trick. There's the belt, mateys, hanging on the bush yonder. Back to Liverpool as quick as you like."
He waved the belt high above his head. As he did so Liston stepped forward. He had his goggles on, and there was not the slightest chance of being recognised. Not that he would have minded, but it was well to be cautious.
"Give that up," he commanded. "Hand it to me at once. If you refuse there will be trouble."
Bloomer's reply was a snarl of defiance. He did not know that he was covered by a revolver. For an instant Liston was inclined to take the risk and shoot, but, being anxious to avoid delay he forbore. Instead of firing he reversed the revolver and struck Bloomer on the head with the butt. As he dropped with a groan and a cry, Garton snatched at the belt. He was only just in time, for another of the ruffians was upon him.
"Come along, Mr. Liston," he cried, forgetting himself in the excitement. "I've got it, sir."
Bloomer was on his feet again and ready to fight. Garton caught one man fairly on the jaw and felled him on the grass.
"Come along, sir," he shouted. "We've got what we came for and discretion is better than valour. Let's make a bolt for it."
They sprinted up the cutting and into the wood, the others pushing doggedly at their heels. They had barely time to scramble into the car and set the engine going, and were followed by a volley of curses, until they turned from the road. It was late before they reached Liverpool, and as Liston mounted the steps of the hotel he observed the people in the hall listening intently to the shouting outside.
Despite the noise and bustle in the street, the stentorian yells of the newsboys selling a special extra compelled attention. As they came nearer, the hoarse calls grew more pronounced:—
"Supposed murder of a bookmaker! Death of Lancaster! Remarkable clue!"
Meanwhile, the hand of fate was reaching for Du Cros from another quarter. Yet to the eye there was nothing about the exterior of The Gables to indicate the note of tragedy within. The house stood back from the road in one of the best parts of Sefton Park. It might have been the establishment of a prosperous business man. The lawns were in beautiful order and the conservatory was gay with flowers. In the stables was a car of the latest model. The mansion was furnished quietly and in good taste and the rooms were large and lofty. Three maids and a butler made up the domestic staff. It was here that Kate Mayfield dwelt, plotting and patiently waiting for the hour of her revenge.
Kate, however, kept up no style, desired no visitors, and pursued the even tenor of her way, heedless of local curiosity and gossip. Indeed it mattered little what her neighbours said or thought about her.
She was away from Liverpool a good deal, and then it was understood that she was travelling on the Continent. But there had been no pleasure jaunts of late. Stephen Du Cros had to be dealt with first.
On the forenoon of Madame Regnier's concert, Kate sat in her morning-room deep in correspondence. There were many letters requiring attention, and long reports from private inquiry agents. Presently there arrived, quite unostentatiously, a little dark-eyed man with a queer mis-shapen figure and an eager manner.
"I have been waiting anxiously for you, Mr. Clyde," Kate Mayfield said. "I have been expecting to hear from you for some days. Have you done anything?"
Cosmo Clyde smiled with the air of a satisfied man. He tapped his breast-pocket significantly, as he dropped into a chair.
"I have done pretty well, madam," he said. "At last I am on the track."
Kate Mayfield smiled in her turn. A cruel accident had been the cause of Clyde's malformed body, and incidentally had led to his enforced resignation of the post of detective-inspector at Scotland Yard. It was impossible to retain a man who could so easily be identified. It had been a cruel blow to Clyde, for it meant the relinquishment of his dearly-cherished aspirations; but on the whole he had not done so badly. At any rate he was no longer fettered by red-tape and regulations and was free to follow his own methods. He found a congenial employer in Kate Mayfield.
"Du Cros is coming to Liverpool to-day," he said.
"Really!" Kate exclaimed. "I am glad to hear that. I have read your letters carefully and must compliment you on your progress. Why does Du Cros come? Is he not satisfied with the mischief he has already done Mr. Lancaster!"
"Lancaster is finished so far as Du Cros is concerned," Clyde explained. "Lancaster served his turn and was betrayed without scruple. Du Cros thinks his quondam associate has fled the country. In that direction the coast is clear. He comes to town on another matter altogether. He does not want his enemies to know that he is here on business, and has hit upon a really clever expedient. He is a wonderful man."
Kate Mayfield made an impatient gesture.
"All that goes without saying," she exclaimed. "Nobody doubts Du Cros's amazing audacity. The way he has fooled people and got into Society shows that. But the man is a sham and a fraud, and that is the finest weapon we have in our hands. The question is, has the time come to expose him?"
"I fancy so," Clyde said. "But I understand you desire to see him first, to acquaint him with the author of his downfall."
Kate Mayfield nodded approvingly. She could taste the vengeance on her lips already.
"Yes, yes," she said. "All in good time. But I am anxious to save Lancaster first. I have had news of him. He is coming to meet me at his own house. Now that the search has widened his old home is the last place the police will watch. It will not be my fault if we fail to put Lancaster on his feet again. After I have seen him and explained matters there will be time for Du Cros. Is he staying long?"
"He goes back almost immediately," Clyde explained. "He travels from London by special train with a fashionable party of friends to attend Madame Regnier's farewell concert. The thing is a good advertisement for him, and enables him to do business in Liverpool under the guise of pleasure. There is another big swindle on foot, but I have not quite got to the bottom of it. This concert——"
"Yes, I know all about that," Kate interrupted. "Madame Regnier is a great favourite of mine, and I was going to hear her sing this afternoon. But what about Lord Amsted and Mr. Middlemass and my friends the Gartons? Have you done anything with them?"
Clyde shook his head. He explained he had been far too busy with other affairs. He watched his employer as she strode restlessly about the room.
"You must forgive me if I seem impatient," she said. "But I have many irons in the fire. I wonder what Lord Amsted and his wife would say if they knew how little Kate Mayfield was working on their behalf! I am looking forward to seeing their faces when I expose the conspiracy that nearly ruined Lord Amsted and Mr. Middlemass. I shall hope to get all this from Lancaster in the course of a few hours. What would Frank Garton say if he only knew that Kate——? But I am talking nonsense."
She turned abruptly aside and began to talk of other things.
"It is strange that you cannot find the Wellgraves," she said.
"It is most annoying," Clyde agreed. "That the three are in Liverpool I am absolutely certain. They must have changed their names. Perhaps they have started an entirely new performance. That old thought-reading trick of theirs was played out. The public soon tires. But I am bound to find them soon, though I don't see how they are essential to your plan."
"I do," Kate rejoined with a smile. "They are amongst Du Cros's victims. He served them in South Africa as he served everybody else. They would stick at nothing to get their own back, if they knew that Du Cros and Stephens are the same man. Besides, I have invented a little play, and it is necessary the Wellgraves should take leading parts in it. I am by nature an actress—I should have gone on the stage. I want you to realise that I am not like other women."
Clyde's eyes expressed his sentiments rather eloquently. He had the greatest admiration for his employer. She ceased her restless walk and a thoughtful expression came on her face.
"I want that man to feel my power," she said. "I want him to know that I have tracked him inch by inch through the whole of his black career. I want to frighten him. I want to appeal to his imagination. He must come and see me in my own house. Then the drama will be played out as I wish it to be played out with myself in the principal role. You shall know my plans very shortly. However, I have told you enough to satisfy you that I want the Wellgraves, and that you must find them without delay. Spend whatever you think necessary and do not stint it. If you are sure they are in Liverpool you cannot fail to find them."
Kate Mayfield glanced significantly at the door. The hint was sufficient for Clyde, and he rose at once. He vanished in his quiet way, leaving his employer to her reflections. On the whole, they were not displeasing to her. Hers was essentially a nature of action, and here at length was a chance to move.
She had waited with exemplary patience, and drew a deep breath as she realised that the moment for striking was at hand. But she had her seasons of pleasure, too; she was a woman who had a keen appreciation of the enjoyments of life, and loved the theatre and the concert hall. But there was always the hope of a great vengeance before her.
Sooner or later she must be even with Du Cros. She had brooded upon this till it had become part and parcel of her very being. The time had come when she could gratify her revenge and help those who had befriended her in the old days at the same time. As a matter of fact, she had already gone a long way in the latter direction. She had seen Lady Letty and given her the necessary warning. Lady Letty had benefited by the caution. Kate was taking it for granted that Lady Letty had reached Liverpool in safety and that Lord Amsted had been provided for. Now that Du Cros was in Liverpool also, she began to see a way to act. It would be rather a dramatic revenge, with a touch of the theatrical in it, but, being a woman, the prospect was alluring. Kate Mayfield was nothing if not original.
To carry out her plan successfully the presence of the Wellgraves was necessary. If they could not be found, the day of vengeance would have to be postponed. Kate was aware that Du Cros's stay in Liverpool would be only of the briefest. It was possible he might call at Lancaster's house, and in any case, Kate was going to call there herself. She had no great expectation of seeing the bookmaker, but there was a bare chance that he might return. She knew not, of course, that circumstances were fighting the battle for her.
She went out by and by with the house in Stanmore street as her ultimate goal. It irritated her to think that the Wellgraves were actually in Liverpool—so near and yet so far. No doubt they had gone down in the scale; doubtless they were performing in some hall in the poorer parts of the great city.
Almost unconsciously she turned off the beaten track, making a detour on the way to Lancaster's house. It proved almost a fatal step, as she realised presently. Though not very far out of her way, she was in a very shady locality. Broken-down men and evil-looking women regarded her rich attire enviously. A small ragged boy ran after her and begged. He begged in the insistent, impudent way of one who feels sure of his victim. Kate glanced around her, but there was no policeman in sight.
Lucklessly enough, she took out her purse. Not only the ragged boy but also a forbidding-looking man lounging against the wall opposite saw the gleam of gold. He came across the street and touched Kate familiarly on the shoulder.
"You shouldn't do that here," he said. "It's rather dangerous in a place like this. I am a gentleman and you may trust me. Give me your arm and I'll escort you out of this quarter."
Kate flushed indignantly. She waved the fellow aside. The next moment they were struggling for the purse, and the cur caught Kate by the throat. With high courage she fought on, but the contest was an unequal one. The villain's grip relaxed, and then came the thud of a falling body.
"Courage, Kate," a hoarse voice said. "Hold up, you are safe."
The touch of a friendly hand restored Kate's pluck. She had no lack of courage and resolution, but fear had swept over her for the moment. When her self-possession returned, she felt shame and vexation. She rose to her feet with a laugh. The danger had passed, and already the would-be thief and the impudent boy had vanished. As a matter of fact Kate had no inclination to fuss over it. She had a dim, confused idea that the rescuer had spoken to her by her Christian name. She turned to him eagerly.
"I am greatly obliged to you," she said. "But for your intervention I should have been badly hurt. I wonder if by any chance—but that is absurd."
She was about to ask the stranger if they had met before. Had he not called her by her Christian name? Or was her hazy recollection of it but some freak of imagination inspired by the grave peril of the moment?
"You're right," the stranger said. "I wasn't sure till your veil was torn away in the struggle, but the figure seemed familiar. Things have prospered with you, Kate."
"Wellgrave!" Kate exclaimed. "I don't know which of the brothers you are, but you are a Wellgrave. I have been searching for you everywhere."
"I am Ted," the man explained. "George and Harry are not far off. Oh, yes, we are as much alike as ever. It is difficult at times for me to remember whether I am myself, or George, or Harry. But the likeness is more nuisance than it's worth. There should be money in triplets all exactly alike, but there isn't."
"Yet you did quite well with thought-reading at one time."
"Not so bad," Wellgrave admitted, "but somebody found out there were three of us, and that gave the show away. It's been a hard struggle lately to live at all. We changed our names and started another exhibition, but it didn't go."
"That is why I have had so much trouble to find you," Kate said. "Come and have tea somewhere."
Wellgrave hesitated. He looked from his own shabby clothing to his companion's attire, still elegant in spite of the tussle. Kate smiled as she saw the glance.
"What does it matter?" she asked. "I have no friends in Liverpool, and it would not signify if I had."
In a few minutes she was sitting in the secluded corner of a tea-room, where her companion might smoke.
"You seem to have done well," he said. "You look like a woman of means. I always had an idea that you would marry money."
"That explains why I am still single," Kate commented with a smile. "I don't say that I am without ambition, but it has to be kept sternly in the background. But I have money, and you and the others shall benefit. Where are they?"
"Probably at the diggings waiting for me. We have an engagement at a hall near by the docks that just provides us with bread and cheese. Funny way of getting a living for three men born in a country vicarage, isn't it? I am sure the other boys will be glad to see you again."
"It will be mutual," Kate said. "You were all good to me out yonder when I sorely needed a friend and I have not forgotten it. Do you remember Stephens?"
"I do," answered Ted curtly. "We never actually met, but he gave us something to remember him by. The precious rascal would have saved you a deal of misery and unhappiness had he only opened his mouth. But he chose to hide himself behind a poor girl. As if you stole those diamonds?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, I did," Kate said coolly. "I thought I might as well have them as anybody else. To all intents and purposes they belonged to nobody. I should not have done it had I been fairly dealt with. But all that I will explain to you presently. In the meanwhile I need your and your brothers' assistance and am willing to make it worth your while. Stephens is in Liverpool."
Wellgrave puckered up his lips in a silent whistle.
"So that is your game?" he asked. "Revenge is sweet. But what's the good? According to your own showing, you are prosperous, and Stephens probably hasn't a penny. If you bested him over the diamonds and turned them into cash, you hit him harder than you could do in any other way."
"Had this been an ordinary case, I might have been contented," Kate said. "But this is not an ordinary case and I am far from contented. Do you know how Madame Regnier came here?"
"I read something about it in the papers. Du Cros, the millionaire, and a whole crowd of Society people came from London to give her a send-off."
"You will be surprised to learn that the millionaire, Du Cros, is none other than our late acquaintance Stephens."
"Great Scott!" Wellgrave exclaimed as he leapt from his chair. "Is that the fact?"
"It's a literal truth. Stephens has blossomed out into Mr. Stephen Du Cros, millionaire from South Africa. He moves in the very best of society, and is welcomed everywhere. His parties and dinners are talked about and advertised. He is going to marry Lady Letty Stanborough and found a family. There are millions who envy him."
"But how has he made it, Kate?"
"He hasn't made it; he has nothing. He is an out-and-out adventurer. At this moment he is living on his wits. His career of deception is extraordinary. Probably I am the one person in England who knows it."
"That is where your vengeance comes in. Does he know——"
"He knows and suspects nothing," Kate said under her breath. "But he will find out everything before he leaves Liverpool. There is no limit to his treachery and rascality. He has ruined a man in whom I am interested, and he shall suffer for it. I mean to expose him, and will do it in my own dramatic way. I want your help."
"But how on earth can I be of any use to you, Kate?"
"We will come to that in good time. Do you remember that strange performance you gave on Christmas Eve in Cape Town, when——"
"I had rather forget it," Wellgrave interrupted. "It was a dangerous game, Kate, and we were wise to drop it, else we should certainly have got into trouble. I don't think that anything would induce me to take it up again."
"Not if I were to ofter you one thousand pounds for a private performance?"
Wellgrave drew a deep breath. Evidently his resolution was shaken by this suggestion.
"I wish you hadn't said that," he muttered. "It is a lot of money. We are tired of our present life. We are thirty years of age and don't possess a copper between us. Each year finds us worse off than the last and moving slowly towards the bottom. We mingle with people we would have despised in the old days. We are losing our self-respect. Before long we shall not be above accepting drinks in public-houses. We begin to long for the old healthy outdoor life that we were bred to. Our dream now is to scrape together enough for a farm in Canada. We could do well at that. But it's nothing but a dream that will never come true."
"That is where you are wrong and foolish," Kate answered. "I am only asking you to help me once, and that only to injure and humiliate Stephens. When the performance is over you shall have a thousand pounds in gold for yourselves. Heaps of people go to Canada, sink money, and grow weary of their lot. For a thousand pounds you can have your farm and your house and your stock and begin five years ahead and save all the drudgery. Now, think of it, Ted; don't miss the chance of a lifetime. Assist me and before the end of the week you will have a thousand pieces of gold in your pocket. Within a month you can all be on the prairie at work on your farm! All I ask in return is a helping hand in outwitting a scoundrel."
Wellgrave puffed savagely at his cigarette. A keen struggle was going on in his mind. In imagination he saw a glorious prospect opening up before him. He turned to his companion abruptly.
"Come and see the others," he said. "We don't live in a nice locality, but you will make the best of that. You said you had no friends here."
"I am not really sure that I have a single friend in the wide world, Ted."
"Ah, there you are wrong. We would do anything for you, and you know it. The fact that I am hesitating over your proposal should prove as much. Still, if you are prepared to accept the risk——"
Kate Mayfield rose hastily from the table.
"Say no more," she said. "Call a cab and let us hold a council of war."
Ted Wellgrave and his brothers sat by the fireside of the mean little sitting-room where they had taken up their quarters. The atmosphere was thick with tobacco smoke. For some time no word had been spoken between them. Kate Mayfield had come and gone. She had made her offer, and it was for the brothers to carry out her orders.
"Sheer good luck," Ted Wellgrave said at length. "Couldn't have imagined such a thing outside a novel. Fancy little Kate getting hold of all that money!"
The others nodded. All three were exactly alike. No one could have pointed out the slightest difference between them. Even their voices were the same. They were all dressed in shabby blue serge, all clean shaven, and all had white, regular teeth.
"I suppose this has got to be done," the second brother suggested.
"I don't particularly like it," the third observed. "I admit that Kate spoke frankly enough. I don't doubt the money will be forthcoming, and I'd be glad to leave the old country and start afresh on the other side. I guess we are all pretty sick of this. But I'm not keen in being mixed up in this revenge plot of Kate's. We don't know where we'll be landed."
"It's too late to talk like that," Ted Wellgrave said. "We've promised. Kate went away under the distinct impression that we'd act as she suggested, and, besides, we have taken her money on account."
"Well, I call it nothing but charity," George Wellgrave muttered.
"Perhaps it is," Ted admitted. "Anyway, beggars can't be choosers, and I'm dead tired of our present life. If Kate likes to give me a lift on the road to fortune I am disposed to take it. Time to be off, isn't it?"
Meanwhile Kate went her way, satisfied with the turn of events. She was prepared for an emergency now, and was ready to carry out the programme which had for its inception the man Lancaster—the one person who had been kind to her. That it was wild and visionary was a bagatelle; she was acting on impulse without heed of the consequences. The time she had been longing for had come at last. So she hurried along to Lancaster's house. When she reached it she paused for a while. Really, when she came to think of it, her plans were by no means so perfect as she had expected.
Who hesitates is lost, and Kate appeared to lose nerve. The house looked as if it were inhabited, but it was impossible to say. The police might be in occupation of it, or Lancaster might not have received her letter, or he might have fallen into the——
Kate suddenly awoke from her brown study and rubbed her eyes. From the back of the house two persons emerged, both of whom she identified. One was Lord Amsted, pale and crippled, but jaunty and easy-going as ever. The sight of the other spurred her recollection, and a faint pink tinged her check as her eyes fell on him.
"Frank Garton!" she whispered. "The place seems to be filled with my old friends. Where do they come from and what are they doing in Liverpool? Did Frank see me? Even if he had he could not have recognised me. I must be changed out of all knowledge. I wonder what he would say if he knew that I was so close to him. How foolish I am!"
She thought that Garton had given her a glance in passing, but she must have imagined that. Amsted entered a car, and Garton paused for a moment and then retraced his steps hastily. She turned her back on him and pulled down her veil on a sudden impulse. Garton was sure to pass her.
But Garton did nothing of the kind. He walked beside her and laid his hand on her arm. She remarked that his fingers were trembling.
"It's no use, Kate," he said in a shaky tone. "You may try to conceal your features, but I recognise you all the same. I knew you just now, though I only looked at you casually. But it was quite enough for me, my dear. What a beautiful woman you have grown! Though perhaps I prefer the pretty girl of other days. You look as if things had prospered with you. Maybe I have no right to talk to you like this. You are well and happily married?"
Kate laughed. She had forgotten her vengeance and her errand, and enjoyed a tense of pleasure and happiness to which she had been long a stranger. She was thrilled with emotions that she thought she had parted with for ever.
"I am not married, Frank," she said. "I had no thought of it. I had great luck in South Africa, far better than I deserved."
She hesitated before she said this. She was half-inclined to take Garton into her confidence, but was not certain whether he would like it. On the whole, it would be better to say nothing. He might not approve; he might be suspicious. For there was one sufficient reason why she desired to stand high in the good opinion of Frank Garton.
"Well, I am glad to hear that," he said, with a look of relief in his face, "and to know that you are still free. If you did well at the Cape, you deserved it. I was pretty sore with you at one time, but I got over it, Kate."
"You forgot me," Kate whispered.
"I didn't, and you know I didn't," Garton said. "I offered you a home such as it was, but you preferred to go with your father. I daresay you were right, my dear, but it was a blow to me at the time."
"At the time! That means you have got over it, Frank!"
"I haven't, Kate. I'm not one of that sort. I wrote to you many times, but no reply came. But there has never been anybody else, Kate, and there never will be. Now you are rich and I mustn't say what I feel."
Kate's eyes softened. Here was good fortune beyond her expectations. But she had her work to do first, and that work must be done alone. She took a card from her case.
"That is my address," she said. "Come and see me and let me try to convince you that I am the same old Kate. I can't stay now. But tell me, was not that Lord Amsted?"
"Good heavens!" Garton cried. "I quite forgot about him in the pleasure of meeting you again. I ought not to have left him for a single moment. I'll look you up to-night; good-bye."
Garton dashed off down the road and Kate put him out of her mind. There would be time later to think of her happiness. She glanced at a group of trees on the far side of the street; under one of them a Wellgrave stood smoking a cigarette. The other brothers were not to be seen. The man with the cigarette was signalling to her but she shook her head resolutely. Next moment she was knocking at the door. She knocked twice before it was opened, and to her profound astonishment she found herself face to face with Stephen Du Cros—the man she had once promised to marry! How could she ever have done such a thing! How could she so far have forgotten her faithful lover, Frank Garton.
For some time past the Wellgraves, according to instructions, had been keeping guard. Almost hidden by the branches of a big tree, George Wellgrave was doing something with a mirror, the face of which was turned towards the house. The man at the foot of the tree had another mirror, by means of which he was taking reflections indirectly from the polished glass which was being manipulated by George Wellgrave in the tree. To all appearances, they were taking pictures of what was passing in the house. This was, indeed, part and parcel of their stock performance, but it had never been employed in this way before. It formed part of Kate Mayfield's scheme for her protection. Long before she reached the house, the Wellgraves were testing the value of the suggestion.
"Can you make anything out down there?" the man in the tree asked.
"Yes; there are people in the house," the Wellgrave on the ground replied. "I can make out the figures of two men clearly enough."
"Can you see who they are?" his brother asked. "I don't think we were intended to spy in this way, and I shouldn't do it if I felt that Kate was safe."
"Figures seem familiar, too," said the man under the tree. "At least, one does. By Jove! it's Lancaster, the missing bookmaker that they are making such a fuss about! Don't you remember seeing him that night we were performing at that club smoking concert? Somebody pointed him out to me and said that he was the most successful bookie in Liverpool."
"Well, it doesn't matter," the man in the tree said. "I'll take your word for it. What are they up to?"
"Quarrelling, I should say, from their gestures. Shouldn't wonder if the stranger isn't trying to get something out of the man. Keep your mirror quite steady for a moment. The figures have got confused."
There was silence for a while, and then the man under the tree stood stock still for a minute, when he uttered a sharp exclamation and dropped his mirror.
"What's the matter?" the man in the tree asked. "What is up?"
"Murder," the other said hoarsely. "Lancaster is lying on the floor and the other man is leaning over him. I can make out a cigarette-case by the body. It's murder, black murder."
The man in the tree dropped to the ground breathing heavily, horror and incredulity stamped on his face.
Meanwhile, Du Cros, in the silent house of the bookmaker, stood trembling as he listened to the peremptory knocking on the door. There was something in that commonplace act that shook him to the core. In ordinary circumstances, he would have crossed over and seen at once who it was that thundered for admittance. But now he was afraid. He had a strange feeling that something would happen to him directly he opened the door. He quivered from head to foot, and there was a sensation like physical sickness beneath his beating heart. Great beads of sweat trickled down his face and hung upon his lips.
"What cursed thing is it?" he muttered. "Why am I tortured in this fashion? Some friend of Lancaster's, perhaps, or——"
He left the word unspoken. The mere suggestion of the police set him shivering as if he had the ague. All the time the knocking was getting more and more insistent.
Du Cros steeled himself for an effort. He would not be beaten like this. He would fight his way to victory yet. What had become of his wonderful nerve? Perhaps he was still suffering from that blow on the head, for he had never known such fear before. He had climbed out of the kennel and the gutter to the drawing-room of Mayfair. A year or two ago he had been no fit associate for an honest footman—now he was on terms of equality with the footman's master. And nerve and audacity had done it all.
Things had been going badly with him lately, but until the last few hours he had had no fear. He had found something exhilarating in the struggle, but he was no longer sustained by any such feeling. Perhaps it was the presence of that stark and lonely thing under the table. Had the interruption come a little later he would have been safely off the premises. As it was he must show himself.
He took the cover from the table and a rug from the couch and tossed them on the floor in what looked like a careless heap. He shuddered as he did so, keeping his face averted. He stooped to cover the sole of the dead man's foot. There was also a shining silver article and Du Cros hid that, too. He was so absorbed in thought, he did not notice that it was his own cigarette-case that had fallen from his pocket in the struggle.
He went to the door and flung it open carelessly. An elegantly dressed woman met his gaze. She bore on her person every indication of wealth and prosperity. She stared haughtily at Du Cros and gradually a bitter smile crossed her face. She entered the house and closed the door behind her.
"Well, this is an unexpected meeting," she said.
Du Cros drew his hand over his eyes.
"Kate!" he stammered. "Kate! What—what are you doing here?"
"I might ask you the same question. Where is Lancaster?"
"I don't know," Du Cros muttered. "I came here on the off chance of seeing him. It was a forlorn hope at the best."
"That is a lie. You never expected to meet Lancaster. If you had thought he was anywhere about you would have kept away. You knew his temper and his courage far too well for that. He would have killed you like a dog. He knew you had betrayed him."
The woman pushed past Du Cros into the drawing-room. He would have detained her had he guessed her purpose. Plainly she was seeking Lancaster, and was not aware that she was standing near to all that was mortal of him at that very moment. How long would it be before she discovered the ghastly secret! Du Cros trembled as he thought of it. As far as possible, he placed himself between the woman and the litter on the floor.
At all hazards she must learn nothing. If she discovered the body it would be his death-blow. She would rush into the street and yell for the police. It was unfortunate she had called at such a time, and he must find out what she needed. She was positively the last person on earth Du Cros wished to meet.
"This is a strange transformation!" he sneered.
Something like his old courage was coming back. In a shadowy way he began to see a possibility of escape. He would anger the woman so that she might forget her errand, or might betray herself on the heat of the moment.
But Kate was not to be drawn. She was young and handsome, and there was a touch of sadness in her eyes, but her lips were firm and hard as if she had learnt a lesson in the battle with the world and benefited by it.
"Is it not?" she laughed harshly. "The simple child has blossomed into the woman of the world. It is hard to believe that only five years ago I left Lancashire with my poor old dad to better our fortunes in South Africa. He would have been successful had he not been so clever and brilliant and so fond of the drink. But that is a story I do not care to dwell upon. He died before he saw the inside of a gaol, which is a consolation to me. But imagine what my position was—a mere child amidst the most vicious surroundings. My friends were the smartest diamond thieves in Cape Colony!"
"You seem to have done very well out of it," was Du Cros's coarse taunt.
But the gibe was wasted. The woman did not even change colour.
"Oh, I have," she laughed. "I may say that I am the only one who benefited. I learnt my lesson, thanks to you and others. You found me a child and left me a woman of the world. It was a bitter day for me when I discovered that I was a mere tool in your hands and that your professed love was a sham. And I cared for you!"
"You did," Du Cros murmured. "You didn't understand, Kate."
"My good Stephen, I understood far too well. That I cared for you is one of the strangest things in the world! Quaint creatures women are, to be sure! Fancy any woman loving a scoundrel like you."
"You have judged me unheard," Du Cros muttered.
Really, Kate Mayfield had grown into a monstrously fine woman, Du Cros thought. She was very different now from the pink and pretty Lancashire lass that Du Cros had used for his own ends at the Cape when he was fighting his long duel with the South African police. She had been the innocent go-between in the biggest scheme of diamond robbery the colony had ever seen. But the great coup had not come off, and Du Cros barely escaped with his skin. Even this had only been effected by the sacrifice of Kate Mayfield, who had been arrested. What had happened to her afterwards, Du Cros had never heard or cared. At any rate, he had not troubled to inquire. No doubt, the girl had served her time and the stolen diamonds had been recovered. To Du Cros the whole thing had long become a regrettable recollection.
Now, here was Kate Mayfield in the flesh, the veritable image of prosperity. Du Cros had lived amongst well-dressed people long enough to have some idea of what a properly-gowned woman was. Perhaps Kate read what was passing through his mind, for she was far more at ease than her companion was.
"Very strange, isn't it?" she asked. "It was a cruel trick to throw the blame on a poor girl and leave her in the lurch, wasn't it? You always were clever, but your cunning has brought you little good so far, Mr. Stephens. Time's whirligig works curious revenges. Here you are on your last legs, while I am rich and prosperous. With my money and your brains, you would soon be in fact the millionaire you only pretend to be."
Obviously Kate was not boasting. She spoke quietly and sincerely. Du Cros began to ponder a few things. This woman had once cared for him. There was a time when she had looked forward with eager pleasure to becoming his wife.
"I never wronged you," he said.
"Not in one way, perhaps," Kate Mayfield answered; "and yet you killed all that goes to make life and youth happy. You will tell me next that it was not your fault that I fell into the hands of the police."
"Nor was it," Du Cros lied boldly. "I did not know till now."
He advanced with outstretched hands. This woman was wealthy, and had once cared for him. He might be able to play the old game again.
"Let me try to explain," he said. "Kate, for the sake of old times——"
"Don't," the woman warned him with a dangerous glitter in her eyes. "I ask you to say nothing about the old times. The mere recollection of them rouses all my passions. If you touch me with the tip of your finger you will be sorry for it. Keep that kind of thing for Lady Letty Stanborough, Mr. Stephens. I know all about it."
Du Cros tried to laugh it off; he would not be thrown off thus.
"How have you managed so well?" he asked. "Where does the money come from?"
Kate pointed to her head.
"You always admired my hair," she remarked. "You said that no other girl ever had anything like it. Well, perhaps I am justified in being proud of it, for it was the foundation of my fortunes. I see you are mystified. Let me show you what I mean."
She removed her hat and dragged the diamond pins from her hair.
Du Cros stood fascinated. He saw the long hair falling below Kate's waist like delicate strands of shimmering gold. It seemed almost incredible that simple little Kitty Mayfield should have grown into such a beautiful woman. He was wondering what this strange scene was leading up to.
"You are puzzled," Kate remarked. "So were the police. You betrayed me and left me to bear the brunt of everything. When I realised that, I felt like taking my own life. For hours I lay stunned and bewildered; but gradually the reaction came. I knew where the diamonds were, and that they could not be removed without the police knowing of it. I was left as the bait in the trap whilst you others bolted. I took the diamonds and hid them there!"
As Kate Mayfield spoke she pointed to the back of her head. Du Cros began to understand how every twist and turn of those glorious locks could conceal a diamond.
"I see that you have guessed it," Kate went on. "I plaited my hair into one long rope and in the dense mass I hid the stones. There was no chance of their being seen. When the police came for me I was in bed. The female searchers watched me dress, standing by me as I put up my hair, and examined the place after I had been taken to prison. They were perfectly satisfied that I at all events had no diamonds. They took me from one court to another, but could prove nothing, and ultimately my youth and supposed innocence saved me. When at last they set me free, they paid my passage home! But, had it not been for Lancaster, I should have starved. He was the only one who remembered me, and sent me money from time to time even after he had returned to England. I left South Africa with the diamonds in my hair. I durst not disturb them until I reached London. More than once it was on the tip of my tongue to tell you my scheme for hiding the stones, but I was proud of my cunning and wanted you to appreciate and applaud it. Afterwards, I was glad I had not been so foolish."
"Had you done so, things would have been different," Du Cros said.
"Indeed they would," the woman laughed. "By this time you would have had all the stones and I should be selling matches in the gutter. It is no use trying it on, Mr. Stephens. I know the ropes quite as well as you do, and have bought my knowledge at a far higher cost than ever you did. I sold one of the smaller stones for a good price, and gradually began to pass for a person of some means. I was always very adaptable, as you know. One by one the stones were disposed of, until at length I found I had a fortune. It is a privilege and pleasure to have the opportunity to tell you this, Mr. Stephens. I could save you if I liked to put you on your legs again. But I won't do that. I mean to stand by and see you go under."
"And if I tell this strange story to the police?"
"Do so, by all means. They'll be very glad to see you. I did not expect to meet you to-day; I came to try to help Lancaster, the man whom you betrayed as you betray everybody in turn. He is the best of you."
"Perhaps he was," Du Cros said, with a haste which he regretted immediately.
The woman turned upon him sharply, a glance of suspicion glittering in her eyes.
"Why do you speak like that?" she demanded. "Why do you say 'was,' as if he were dead? That you betrayed him to the police for your own ends I am aware; that you would kill him if you could do so safely I am also convinced. But your courage is not equal to that."
Du Cros breathed more freely. He by no means relished the ghastly turn the conversation had taken. It was as much as he could do to keep his eyes averted from the heap of drapery on the floor. He had an irritating feeling, too, that he was 'playing second fiddle' in this interview.
"I congratulate you," he said. "I am glad to find you have been so apt a pupil. Lancaster is fortunate in his friendships. If you had come a day or two before——"
"I was in Paris. It was only by the merest fluke that I saw the details in a sporting paper. As long as Lancaster was flourishing there was no need to hurry, but when he was in trouble I hastened back, and that is why I am here this afternoon."
Du Cros smiled approval. He altered his game, and decided to play another card.
"I give you credit for good intentions," he said. "Perhaps you will credit me with a like generous impulse. Your notion that I betrayed Lancaster is hysterical nonsense. The fact that I am here now proves it."
A queer smile trembled on Kate Mayfield's lips.
"Pray continue," she said. "Hitherto I have done most of the talking, and it is only fair you should have a look in. You came to help Lancaster? How?"
"How does one man help another when he is in trouble? In nine cases out of ten assistance means money. I have seen little or nothing of Lancaster for several years, but I did not forget that we were comrades once. Directly I heard of his difficulties I left London and hastened to see him."
"Really! You were going to find him all the money he needed?"
"Such was my intention. Unfortunately I was too late."
"So you have saved your money—the money you don't possess. There is not a soul in England who has been more interested in your career than myself. You have done wonders—you are at the top of the tree, and are going to marry into the peerage. Yet you could not put your hand on a hundred pounds at this moment. You are up to your eyes in debt. Truly you are a most marvellous man! I have my own reasons for being glad of all this, for the higher you climb the greater will be the fall—when I give the signal."
"When you give the signal! What are you talking about?"
"Oh, I know what I am talking about. Not a single episode in your recent career is concealed from me. Now, I mean to take ample revenge for all the sufferings you have caused to me and others. Nor am I fighting single-handed: possibly you may recollect the Wellgraves?"
Du Cros gasped and changed colour. He stared in a dull stupid way at the speaker as if dimly trying to grasp what she meant.
"The three brothers Wellgrave are in South Africa."
"They were, but they have come home. I don't mind admitting to you that I am befriending them. I had need of their services. Would you like to meet them? Shall I arrange a nice little dinner to fit the auspicious occasion?"
Du Cros gave no response. The solid ground on which he thought he was standing seemed to be slipping away from under his feet. The props were breaking down, and foundations that looked solid had turned to sand.
"I have no reason to fear," he said.
"Of course not," the woman said mockingly. "That is why you have turned green, why your lips are dry and your eyes full of terror. As the Wellgraves are not far off, perhaps——"
Du Cros turned abruptly aside. He felt he must get out of this. The silence of the house oppressed him; that dumb, silent thing lying on the floor filled him with a nameless dread. What if the woman by his side discovered it? She had begun to pace impatiently to and fro across the room, and once her skirt actually brushed the rug that concealed the evidence of a sordid tragedy. What if he laid violent hands on her, too! Nobody had seen her enter the house, nor had she acquainted anyone with the fact of her visit. Moreover, she was the bitterest enemy he had. The affair of the brothers Wellgrave would keep. He might even be able to buy them off later. But this wild fury with the glittering eyes and the fire of vengeance glowing in her heart was a different matter altogether.
"You want me to do something," he muttered. "You think you have me in your power——"
"I am not speculating—I know," the woman said coldly. "And if you fancy you can buy my silence you are mistaken. You can't. But when you suggest that I want you to do something, you are right. I want you to do an act of justice, and the only way to accomplish that is to force you to it. If——"
"Come, let us get out of this," Du Cros burst out impatiently. "Once you'd hardly open your mouth, but now you have the gift of tongues. What's the use of waiting for Lancaster when he is—when he has no intention of coming?"
"Ah, something has happened—something that you are aware of. What mischief is going on now? Tell me or it will be the worse for you. Why do you hesitate and change colour like that?"
A sudden spasm of rage gripped Du Cros. At any cost he must silence this woman. He thought it safe and easy to do that. He took a step or two forward, his intention blazing in his eyes. The woman read it there and placed the table between them. But there was no fear in the glance she turned upon him.
"Stand, you fool," she hissed. "Are you mad to threaten me?"
As Du Cros moved towards her, she placed a little ivory whistle to her lips. The whole house rang with the shrill note. A second or two later Du Cros heard hurried footsteps outside.
George Wellgrave was too dazed to hear his brother's suggestion. He was like a man who had seen something in a hideous dream. A few minutes passed before he so far recovered as to understand what the other was saying. By that time the door of the house had opened and Kate Mayfield had gone inside. George Wellgrave started forward.
"This is dreadful," he said. "I didn't bargain for it at all. We must fetch her out. I should have prevented her from entering. But after such a spectacle I couldn't move. I am a coward—nothing but a coward."
"Oh, nonsense," the other said. "You're no coward. You were startled for the moment, that's all. Are you sure you saw a struggle?"
"Did you ever know those reflecting mirrors to fail? They were working perfectly. I saw into the room as plainly as if I had been looking through the window. I could swear to the man. In my belief there has been murder. There was a cigarette-case—but what is the good of wasting time like this? Kate Mayfield may be in danger. She doesn't suspect that a murderer is on the premises. We must protect her from violence——"
"I don't think so. We are only supers in the drama. It is our duty to do as we are told. She particularly impressed that on us. She may have expected to meet this particular man here or she may not. We were not to move unless she used the whistle. She is quite able to take care of herself. Besides, we can use the mirrors and watch what is going on. At the first sign of anything wrong we can make a dash for the house."
"I'd forgotten that," the other said. "Go up the tree again. I shall feel easier if I see what is going on yonder."
When the whistle rang out shrill and clear, Du Cros thought all Liverpool must hear it. In a few minutes the house would be surrounded with a curious mob and the police would infallibly appear. The thrilling treble of the whistle took every ounce of pluck out of him.
At that moment the door clicked and George Wellgrave entered. He was relieved to find that Kate was unhurt.
"This is a friend of mine," she said. "He is not alone. Probably you know him by name. He is called Wellgrave, and he has two brothers."
Du Cros muttered uncomfortably, gazing around like a hunted animal.
"Is this a plot?" he asked. "If you have arranged——"
"Oh, it is no plot," Kate said scornfully. "Circumstances are playing into my hands and I am making the best of them; that is all. George Wellgrave, this is Du Cros, alias Stephens."
Wellgrave took a step forward. There was a gleam in his eyes and Du Cros retreated a pace or two. Kate put up her hand. She could read what was passing in Wellgrave's mind.
"Not here," she commanded. "Not just yet, at any rate. There will be plenty of time later. I have an account to settle with Mr. Stephens first."
She turned to Wellgrave and whispered in his ear. He nodded curtly and left the room. He had his instructions to wait in the back garden. Du Cros's expression changed as he found himself once more alone with Kate Mayfield.
"What is the meaning of all these manoeuvres?" he asked. "What is the scheme? I can't stay here for your good pleasure. I must start for London to-night."
"I won't detain you," Kate said coldly. "I had made other arrangements, but it is no longer necessary to carry them out. My meeting with you unexpectedly has changed everything. But I have more to say. Are you prepared to listen?"
"Not here," Du Cros burst out violently. He was wildly anxious to leave the house. The atmosphere of the place paralysed his faculties, and at any moment his crime might come to light. In the street, in a hotel, even at the tea-table, he would be a different man. But so long as he remained where he was he must be a poor miserable coward.
"That shall be as you please," Kate said. "The fact that you came on your own errand suggested to me that you had no objection to the house. I can see now that you are anxious to go. Is it because you are afraid of meeting Lancaster?"
Du Cros stammered a denial. If the girl should only look under the mass of huddled-up cloths on the floor! It was not the fear of encountering Lancaster that was troubling Stephen Du Cros. Kate smiled at his terror.
"You have something on your conscience, I believe," she exclaimed.
"No, no," Du Cros protested vehemently. "I—I am suffering from the results of a blow. I should not be out at all; I should be in bed. Besides, I have had a great deal of trouble and anxiety. These things coming together have upset me. If I could get a cup of tea——"
"Oh, you shall have your cup of tea. Come to my house. It will be a great honour to entertain the millionaire Stephen Du Cros under my humble roof. We can discuss business more at leisure there, for I have still much to say."
"Then let us go at once," Du Cros said eagerly. "I am very much overcome——"
Kate raised a finger to impose silence. A latch-key clicked in the front door, and two men entered. They stood in the hall for a few minutes talking loudly. Du Cros wiped the beads from his forehead.
"Police!" he gasped. "Police from what they are saying! What are they doing?"
Kate made no reply. She was watching his white and terror-stricken face with contemptuous amusement. At the same time she had no wish to be discovered here. She made a sign in the direction of the window curtains as if to suggest that they should hide behind them. Du Cros was not slow to take the hint.
"Not likely to find it here," a harsh voice said. "In the bedroom most likely."
Du Cros was making a more or less successful attempt to stifle a curious clicking in his throat. Kate felt him shaking by her side. The officers of the law were evidently in search of something or somebody. Within a few feet of them was a vital clue to the fate of Lancaster, doubtless the object of their visit. And the one man who could have revealed everything stood all of a tremble, almost afraid to breathe. The sweat-bedabbled agony of his face moved Kate to a sort of pity. She was reaping all the vengeance she wanted.
"We shan't find it anywhere," a second voice growled. "Lancaster was not such a fool as to leave papers like these behind him. I never take heed of anonymous letters myself."
The first speaker said nothing in reply. He turned away and began to ascend the stairs, followed presently by his companion. Kate stepped out of her hiding-place.
"Now we can escape," she whispered. "Really, for a man who has run so many risks in his life you seem to be singularly afraid of a couple of thick-witted policemen."
Du Cros was still busily engaged in swallowing that troublesome lump in his throat. He stepped softly by Kate's side into the garden and breathed more freely as the road was reached. He did not trouble to inquire whether Wellgrave was following. As proximity to the dreadful thing that he had left behind him lessened, some of his courage revived. There was, he hoped, no real evidence to connect him with the tragedy in that lonely house. The body might not be found for a day or two. No medical man could prove Lancaster's death to a few hours. It might even be conjectured that he had committed suicide. It was just the thing a desperate man, hunted and penniless, would do. It was long odds against the police going into that room at all. On the whole, the case did not look so black as his fears had pictured.
Du Cros was conscious of a distinct rise in his spirits. With luck he would get the better of his enemies yet. With that weight off his mind he would show Kate what he was made of. He walked with a bit of a swagger and ventured a smile.
"You don't object to my smoking?"
"That is very polite of you," Kate said. "Such courtesy is rare. You may smoke if you please. The smell of tobacco is at least wholesome."
With a bow Du Cros reached for his cigarette-case. It was not in the breast pocket, where he generally carried it. He searched his other pockets, but the case was not to be found. The haunting fear returned in full force. What had become of the case? He had had it an hour or so before; he was certain it was in his pocket when he reached the bookmaker's residence. Could it have fallen out of his pocket in the house, in that room? He had a dim recollection in connection with the case, but for the life of him he could make nothing tangible of it.
"Worried again?" Kate asked.
"I have lost my cigarette-case," Du Cros muttered. "I had it in my pocket an hour ago."
"A valuable one, I presume? The kind of thing a millionaire would carry?"
"No; merely a silver case. But I would not have lost it for ten times its worth."
"Strange how one gets attached to these trifles," Kate answered. "I dare say you will recover it if you advertise for it. Is your name on it?"
That was the source of his present vexation. His name was not on the case, but his initials were. If he had dropped it in Lancaster's house, why——
All this time the clouds were gathering in another quarter. Treachery is a game that more than one can play at, and Du Cros had to face danger from it also. It was coming to him indirectly, through no less a person than frivolous Lady Torringdor, and directly from his poor tool Blossom. Where he had expected little or no opposition to his projects, the danger was the greatest. He had looked forward to crushing Amsted as if he had been an eggshell. Lady Torringdor was a puppet in his hands. But in some lucky, unimagined way, Amsted had turned the tables on him and placed his friend Tom Middlemass in a sound position again. Lady Torringdor had defied him, too. Well, he would know what to do with her when the time came. He would bring her to her knees by the threat of an appeal to her husband.
But here, too, fate had decided to take a hand. Du Cros would have been surprised to know that Sir Horace Torringdor already had an inkling of the truth.
To use one of his favourite expressions, Sir Horace was not a bad sort. Rather reckless and extravagant, perhaps, he had a fairly high code of honour, and he was very fond of his pretty wife. For her sake, he spent half his time in London whilst his heart was in the country. If she had helped him, he could have lived within his income; as it was, he was constantly in debt. Times out of number he had made up his mind to put his foot down 'on this sort of thing,' but at his wife's winsome coaxings and pleadings he was weak as water.
However, he was being provoked to activity at last. Something sinister was on foot that gave him cause for anxiety. He wondered what that fellow Glenister was driving at. He did not know that the man who styled himself Glenister, and who passed for an American, was an accomplice of Du Cros, and that his real name was Blossom. The latter was shrewd enough to see that he was on board a sinking ship. He meant to throw over Du Cros without the slightest hesitation and leave the country for a time. To stay in London much longer might be dangerous. To do this, however, money was necessary. He might possibly squeeze it out of Sir Horace, with whom Glenister had scraped acquaintance on the turf. The knowledge of the compact between Du Cros and Lady Torringdor might prove useful.
The attack had been made more or less obliquely. Glenister was not acting for himself. Any insinuation to that effect was out of the question, and would be resented. A blackmailing scamp of a discharged footman had obtained an inside knowledge of certain facts, and Glenister had become aware of the danger. He hinted as much to Torringdor after dinner one night. The hot blood flamed into Torringdor's face, and for the moment Glenister stood in imminent peril of drastic punishment.
"Why don't I strangle you?" Torringdor asked hoarsely.
Glenister was hurt. His finer feelings were outraged.
"It is always the way when one attempts to do a kindness," he said. "I ought not to have mentioned it, of course. I should have shrugged my shoulders and declared that it was no business of mine. After all, why should I go out of my way to help a man who is no more to me than any other casual acquaintance?"
Glenister rose from his seat with the air of a man who is deeply wounded. Torringdor's simple heart smote him. This man was gaining nothing by broaching so dangerous a subject. He had taken a considerable risk out of pure kindness. Torringdor had, moreover, heard the gossip on the subject of his wife's wonderful luck at cards, especially when Du Cros was present. He declined to believe there was anything in the malicious report.
"I—I beg your pardon," he stammered awkwardly. "I ought not to have spoken to you like that. But 'twas on the spur of the moment, you understand. Pray, go on."
Glenister did not immediately consent to resume the conversation. Then gradually he began to warm to his subject. His sole desire was to save Sir Horace and to get the better of the rascal who had planned this base thing.
"They always begin in one way, I'm told," Glenister said. "They start with anonymous letters."
"I have already had one," he said. "I destroyed it at once. If this fellow thinks——"
"Stop a moment," Glenister interrupted. "Don't be impatient. Don't be precipitate. There are two ways of settling a matter like this. One is to tell the fellow to go to the devil and do his worst and, if he persists, give him a thrashing in public. Force the scandal to the surface and let the world see that you care nothing. But in that case you must be sure that the—the other part is innocent."
Glenister lowered his voice to an impressive whisper. Torringdor's blood began to boil once more. He wanted to hurt somebody. He felt positively mad to think he should be discussing his wife in this fashion with a comparative stranger.
"What is the other way?" he asked sullenly.
"To pay," Glenister replied. "To pay and make the best of it. My dear sir, thousands of innocent people do pay. It is often the best policy. I daresay I can square the fellow for a hundred pounds. He wants to go to America. The odds are that he will never come back, that he will never have the money to do so. So long as he is a few thousand miles away you need not fear him. If you saw the fellow——"
"I should assuredly hand him over to the police," Torringdor said with prompt emphasis.
"To be sure you would, my dear fellow. Then the whole story would come out. It would be discussed in the Society press. Even some of the dailies, while deploring the ease with which such charges were made, would publish a verbatim report of the whole evidence. Lady Torringdor would be cross-examined. If the man were defended by a smart criminal lawyer and compromising questions were asked, could you——"
Glenister paused eloquently. Torringdor was conscious of horrible misgivings. The bridge cheat in certain of the smart sets was not a rara avis, and Lady Torringdor had been winning large sums. It might be possible that——
Glenister broke into these troubled reflections smoothly.
"Suppose you leave it to me," he suggested. "I'll call on you in the morning so that you may have the opportunity of sleeping on it. I fancy if you were to give me a cheque for a hundred or so, I could save further anxiety."
Glenister slipped away discreetly without waiting for a reply. As Torringdor sat looking gloomily into space a hearty hand was laid on his shoulder. He looked up hastily.
"Tom Middlemass!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing so far from home?"
"The turf takes us to strange places. I've got a regular romance to tell you if you have an hour to spare. Let's go as far as your flat and I'll tell you how Amsted and I got the better of those rascals. But what makes you so serious? What were you doing with that scamp Blossom?"
"Who's Blossom?" Torringdor asked vaguely. "Do you mean Glenister? He's a sporting American with plenty of money and a pretty good notion of——"
"American be hanged!" Middlemass cried. "The chap's name is Blossom. I daresay he has got a dozen other aliases, but that is what he was called originally. He's no more an American than you are. He is a blackmailer of the most noisome type and a pal of Du Cros. I'll tell you something about Du Cros presently that will open your eyes."
Torringdor jumped to his feet. He was beginning to see daylight.
"Come to my flat," he said. "You have dropped in upon me like a dispensation of Providence. Let's discuss the matter over a cigar and a whisky and soda."
Middlemass listened attentively to all that Torringdor had to say. It was not an easy story to tell, but it was managed at length.
"I think that is about all," Torringdor said. "I've been doing some pretty hard thinking for the last half-hour, Tom. I can't believe that Vera would stoop to that kind of thing, but such affairs have happened, and the poor girl has won a pot of money lately. But for an enormously rich man like Du Cros to——"
"My dear Horace, Du Cros isn't rich; he hasn't a penny. On the contrary, he is up to his eyes in debt and trouble. Blossom is a pal of his. Blossom can see the red light, and wants to clear out of the country before the smash comes. That is why he is blackmailing you. The story of the footman is bosh; that is to save Blossom's face. Mind you, he knows something. You can assault me if you like for hinting at such a thing, but there is no smoke without fire, and Du Cros may have obtained a hold on Vera. She ought to have the chance of defending herself, and you ought to give her that chance as soon an possible. If necessary, you can have it out with Du Cros. I should go to Liverpool at once if I were you."
"I will," Torringdor said between his teeth. "I'll go up in the morning. They may all be back by then, but some may not. But what about Blossom?"
"Let Blossom come as he arranged. He was to be here about breakfast time, wasn't he? I'll stroll in casually and you can introduce us—not that an introduction is necessary. It will be worth money to see Blossom's face when he meets me."
Almost directly after breakfast next morning Blossom put in an appearance.
Figuratively speaking, he was shaking hands with himself, and entered the room as if certain of his welcome.
"Sit down," Torringdor said curtly. "This is my friend, Mr. Middlemass. He says he has met you before, but couldn't recall your name."
Blossom started, turned colour, and glanced towards the door.
"There is some mistake," he stammered. "I have not met this gentleman before."
Middlemass smiled grimly, and his fingers clenched in a way that Blossom did not like. The latter might be reckoned with if he had a knife or a gun, but he was physically inferior to Middlemass, who, he could see, was itching to be at him.
"I expected you to lie," Middlemass observed. "But denial is useless. I know South Africa well, and, as a sportsman, I have travelled all over the country. I remember a day or two at Modderspruit, where I came into contact with you and some others. Had I not done so, you would have been spared that nasty scar on your left temple. We met the first time five years ago up North at a cross-country meeting. An infuriated gathering of backers were engaged in the agreeable pastime of half-drowning you in a pond. If I had not interfered, there would be no Mr. Blossom, alias Glenister, to-day."
"This is ridiculous," the other stammered. "Sir Horace, I must call upon you——"
"Drop it!" Middlemass said sternly. "That tone will do you no good. A blackmailer is fair game, and if you are not careful I'll half kill you. I know why you are here and what you expect. Well, your pleasant anticipations won't be realised. The only thing you may get is a sound thrashing. And, by Jove, you shall have it, too, unless you climb down at once and tell me the truth."
"Do you dare to detain me?" Blossom blustered.
"Yes, I do," Middlemass said with an ugly sneer on his face. "You know me both by name and reputation. For the satisfaction of half killing you I am prepared to pay a decent price. You can take it whichever way you please. Torringdor, oblige me by withdrawing for a few minutes. You are not accustomed to dealing with this particular brand of scamp. I am."
Torringdor, much against his inclination, left the room. At the same time he recognised the wisdom of Middlemass's policy.
"Now, let us get down to business without delay, Blossom," Middlemass said. "You will see the absurdity of keeping up the farce of calling yourself Glenister to me. The rich American disappears and the welsher stands in his place. You came here to blackmail Sir Horace Torringdor to the extent of a hundred pounds."
"Sir Horace will tell you a different story," Blossom protested. "I have nothing to gain by going out of my way."
"Bosh, my good fellow. Now, how far have these confidences gone?"
"Sir Horace has told me everything. There is a suggestion that Lady Torringdor—but perhaps you would prefer that I used no name."
"Your good taste and discretion are admirable," Middlemass said drily. "But this is an occasion on which nice methods are superfluous. On the contrary, I wish you to speak plainly. Lady Torringdor cheats at cards. She has for her accomplice Mr. Du Cros. Nobody knows this but yourself. For a hundred pounds you are prepared to keep silence."
"I said nothing of the kind," Blossom retorted. "I said that a discharged footman——"
"I know you did. That is the way the vile dodge is worked. If you had broached the subject on your own behalf Sir Horace would have had the skin off your back. But your sleek diplomacy is wasted on me. There is no footman; but even if he existed you would not have gone to all the trouble on his account. The story is altogether too thin."
"If it can be proved that Lady Torringdor has so far forgotten herself——"
"I am taking it for granted," Middlemass interrupted. "I quite believe that Lady Torringdor has conspired with Du Cros to cheat at bridge. I have very little doubt of it. Go on."
Blossom was bewildered. He was utterly taken aback by the concession. He would have given a great deal to know what Middlemass was going on.
"That is a very serious remark to make," he said.
"Of course it is. My good fellow, I know what I am doing. I might go farther and say that I know what has happened. Du Cros's methods are familiar to me. He nearly ruined me a little time back, but I got out on the right side, thanks to Lord Amsted's pluck and audacity. That coup was planned by Du Cros, and you helped him. He wanted money badly to continue his brilliant career as a millionaire, and I was to have been one of the victims. But Du Cros is on his last legs now. Lancaster has gone, and you are ready to quit the sinking ship. For that purpose you need a hundred pounds. By some accident you learnt of the compact between Du Cros and Lady Torringdor, and you began to see your way to get the money. That is why you invented the story of the discharged footman. Just think of the futility of the whole thing! How could a footman know such a secret? Now, do you want to earn a tenner?"
Blossom waved the suggestion aside. At that moment he had not as many shillings. He realised that the game was up and that he would be lucky to escape with sound skin. Still, the offer might be increased. He demurred politely.
"Don't trifle with me," Middlemass went on. "Your refusal to listen to my terms will give me sincere pleasure, for in that case I shall take the law into my own hands. If you comply you must sign a document that Du Cros told you of this conspiracy. I'll give you five minutes to decide—a ten-pound note and a confession, or a real good hiding before handing you over to the police. We don't mind fighting the case out. In a day or two Du Cros will be discredited and nobody will believe a word he says. If I choose to give you into custody you will do 'time' to a dead certainty."
Middlemass was carrying matters with a high hand. Blossom might be in a position to prove what he said, but obviously that was not a point to dwell upon. Blossom sat with a white face and a plentiful moisture on his brow. Ten pounds was not much, but it meant safety and a passage to America. Besides, the game was assuredly finished so far as Du Cros was concerned. The smash could not be long delayed. Moreover, this man with the cold, hard eye and determined face looked capable of carrying out his threat.
Blossom suddenly changed his tone and became abject.
"I'll do it, sir," he said. "After all said and done, Du Cros is no friend of mine. Whatever money I have had out of him I have earned. He told me exactly how he got Lady Torringdor under his thumb. She owed him a lot of money. He threatened her with exposure, and there you are. I don't know how much they made together, but I should guess it ran into several thousands. I had no intention of using this information at first, but I wanted money badly. Du Cros is done for—he may be arrested at any moment. And——"
"And it is possible you may share the same fate," Middlemass suggested drily.
"Perhaps," Blossom assented civilly. The rascal was easy and cheerful. "I want to leave the country—London air does not suit me. Give me the money, and I'll sign what you like."
Middlemass pointed to paper and ink on the writing-table. A quarter of an hour later Blossom had departed the richer by ten pounds, and Torringdor was reading the confession.
"I'm awfully sorry, old chap," Middlemass murmured. "These things happen when women play bridge for high stakes. Still, it might be worse. We have done with Blossom, and Du Cros will be out of the way in a few days."
"Oh! I cannot blame Vera altogether," Torringdor groaned. "The fault is as much mine as hers. I ought to have insisted upon Vera staying with me in the country. We could manage there, and I am lost in town. Poor soul, what a life she must have been leading lately!"
"You mustn't be too hard upon her, Horace."
"Hard on her!" Torringdor exclaimed. "You see, I happen to love her, old chap, and with all her follies she cares for me. It has all come of my weakness. I'm going to Liverpool at once to see her and bring her home. If the scandal crops up, it must; but if we manage properly, I don't see why it should. Possibly Du Cros has documents, cheques, or something of that kind. If he has, he shall give them up."
"That's the tone to take," Middlemass said approvingly. "If you like, I'll come with you and take a hand in the game. I have disposed of one scoundrel, and there is no reason why I should not get the better of another."
Torringdor expressed his gratitude at this suggestion. Middlemass's support was a great help and consolation to him in the hour of his trouble. On looking up the time-table they found they could reach Liverpool in the afternoon. It was still early when the pair drove up to the hotel and asked for Lady Torringdor. Hugh Childers came forward. He was a stranger to Middlemass, but be knew Torringdor.
"Lady Torringdor is in her room," he said. "She has been complaining of a bad headache. I'll ask Lady Letty to call her if you like."
"No hurry for that," Torringdor said. "I'll see her presently. I should like a word with Du Cros first. I suppose he is about."
Childers wore an air of mystery.
"Du Cros seems to have vanished," he said. "He hasn't been seen for hours."
"You don't mean to say he has bolted!" Middlemass exclaimed.
Childers looked from the speaker to Torringdor and back again. Clearly he was puzzled. At that moment Lady Torringdor entered the lounge.
The gay smile died on Lady Torringdor's face as she glanced at her husband. She had never seen that stern look on his good-natured face before, and conscience pricked her. What could Horace have heard to cause that harshness of feature? Usually he was easy with her to the verge of weakness. Now, he was regarding her as if she had been a detected criminal. She could not know what it cost him to play his part.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. "What mischief are you two plotting?"
"We came to try to prevent it," Torringdor said gravely. "I with to have a chat with you presently, Vera, but my idea is to see Du Cros first. Where is he?"
"Nobody can tell," Childers explained. "We have had all kinds of adventures, and Du Cros has had his fair share of them. Possibly he has gone off on business. A great many people have been enquiring for him."
"What have you in common with him?" Lady Torringdor asked her husband.
Torringdor merely shrugged his shoulders. He seemed to have some difficulty in meeting his wife's eye. In a vague way she was becoming alarmed. Torringdor as the stern husband was a novel character to her. She was wondering what particular crime she had committed. The connection between herself and Du Cros did not occur to her at the moment. Middlemass nodded significantly. He thought there was no time like the present.
"I should like a few words with Mr. Childers," he said. "Lady Torringdor will excuse us. Shall we go into the smoking-room, Childers?"
"No, stay where you are," Lady Torringdor exclaimed. "Horace, you had better come up to my room. But promise to be nice and kind to me. When you have heard what I have gone through, I am sure you will be sorry for me."
She spoke gaily, but there was a shade of unsteadiness in her voice. She was really fond of her good-natured husband, though she was well aware that at times she grossly neglected him. He was worth all the Society crowd put together, as she frequently acknowledged to herself. Yet she had repaid his kindness and consideration by bringing him to the verge of ruin.
"Now, sit down and smoke and tell me all," she said. "Have you lost everything and are we paupers? Shall we have to emigrate?"
"That's not it," Torringdor replied. "As a matter of fact, I have had a slice of luck. The property in North Wales is wanted as part of a scheme for supplying some of the big Lancashire towns with water. A year ago I would have taken three thousand for the estate gladly. They have offered me twenty-eight thousand and another five for the house. We shall be able to pay our debts and start again."
"Dear old boy, I'm glad for your sake," Lady Torringdor said.
"Well, you might be glad for both our sakes," Torringdor replied. "Properly managed, we shall have enough. I won't fool it away on bridge and Monte Carlo. It's got to be one thing or the other, my dear, and the sooner you face it the better. As for me, I've done with town. I mean to lead a congenial country life in future. Mind you, I am in earnest. If you can't stand that kind of thing, why, I'll give you half and we'll agree to go our own ways. I'll manage somehow, and may count on my friends for a little shooting. As for you, Vera, I will not tie you down. Perhaps it was a mistake that we married——"
"How can you say such horrid things?" Lady Torringdor sobbed.
"Eh, what? Don't you think that I am doing the fair thing? You shall have your half all right. I don't see that I can go further than that, Vera."
Torringdor paused rather red in the face after his much speaking. He was very anxious that he should not be misunderstood.
"Do you mean that you have ceased to care for me?" Lady Torringdor asked.
She was about to lose him, he was drifting out of her life, and in that moment she fully realised how much she cared for him. What a restless, shallow, frivolous life hers had been! And in all her silly set there was not one who would have moved a hand for her.
"No, I don't," Torringdor said stolidly. "I've always loved you. I never cared for anyone else since you were a jolly little kiddie. A man can't help his feelings in these matters. He may know he is doing a foolish thing, but he does it just the same. He wants one woman, and what she is like doesn't matter a hang. She may be a fool or a knave, but it is all one to him."
"I have nearly ruined you, Horace," Lady Torringdor said softly.
"You have done your best, but I didn't grumble. I let you go on. That is where I was wrong. I saw where you were drifting and I let it pass. I should have been horsewhipped for it. Still, if you won't try to save yourself, I can't do it for you. You cared for me once——"
Lady Torringdor crossed the room swiftly and laid her hand on her husband's lips.
"Let me say a few words," she said uneasily. "Horace, for me there is no other man but you. There never has been. Despite my follies you have always come first. I have been dragged into my present life just as man takes to drink. I can't let it alone and yet I hate it. But I have put it behind me for ever and have done with all my set. I will not touch a card again as long as I live. Take me back to the old place and let us start again. There is nothing that I should like better. But I must tell you something first."
"By and by," Torringdor said. "So you want to come back. You would like to, really? And we are to return to the old life that we began, dear? Just you and me together!"
"As if anything else mattered," Lady Torringdor said tearfully. "I cannot tell you how glad I am that you came here to-day. It gives me courage to speak. I have a very terrible confession to make to you, Horace. When you have heard it you will probably withdraw your offer. Perhaps——"
"You are alluding to yourself and Stephen Du Cros?"
Lady Torringdor gasped. The reply was utterly unexpected.
"What can you know of that?"
Torringdor stooped and kissed her.
"My dear girl, I know everything," he said. "I know that Du Cros is not a millionaire at all but a miserable adventurer, a scoundrel of the worst type. Middlemass told me all about him. Du Cros never had any money, and lived on others by his wits. By sheer audacity he imposed on people and robbed his tradesmen. But how did he manage to get you into his power? How did he force you to stoop to—to cheat?"
"Horace, you are too kind to me," Lady Torringdor cried, her head buried in his breast. "You are not treating me as I deserve. I am a thief and worse. That I am not the only one in my set makes no difference. I forged Du Cros's name and he found it out. I was completely and absolutely in his power. He made me do as he wished. We piled up the money. I believe we should have gone on doing it had not Hugh Childers found it out."
"Another one in the secret!" Torringdor groaned. "Still, we can trust him."
"Hugh was very nice about it. He behaved splendidly. I told him everything. It was he who showed me how to recover the forged cheque, and I have it. Of course there was a scene with Du Cros afterwards, but I kept my nerve and defied him to injure me. I had the best of him, and he knew it. I am safe as far as he is concerned. But how did you come to find this out? Is it public property?"
Torringdor proceeded to explain. What he had to say brought the blood into Lady Torringdor's face. Her cheeks were alternately pink and white. It was a shameful story to tell, and worse to listen to, and was completed with averted eyes on both sides.
"I think that is about all," Torringdor concluded. "We have got rid of Blossom, and Du Cros will disappear socially before many hours are over. The few who know our secret can be trusted to keep it. But the one thing I regret more than anything else is that the money you won cannot be returned to its proper owners. That the whole of your precious set are sharpers makes little difference. I am afraid we shall have to leave matters as they are."
Lady Torringdor broke down and cried on her husband's shoulder. She was deeply contrite and bitterly ashamed of herself, but there was a happiness in her heart that she had not experienced for many a long day.
"I don't wish you to treat me like this," she sobbed. "Instead of being petted and made a fuss of, I ought to be in the dock. But I have had a lesson that I will never forget, Horace. If you will take me back and forgive me I shall try to prove that I appreciate all your loving generosity. There was a time when I should have scorned anything but a country life, when I sneered at people who preferred to live in a stuffy town. My dearest boy——"
Lady Torringdor started, for somebody was knocking at the door. Lady Letty entered the room, looking somewhat anxious and uneasy.
"I heard that Horace was here," she said. "Hugh and Mr. Liston want to see him for a few minutes. My dear child, your eyes are wet. I hope Horace and you have not been quarrelling!"
Kate led the way into her luxuriously-furnished drawing-room. Miserable and disturbed as he was, Du Cros did not fail to notice the beauty of its appointment. To him it was incomprehensible that the poor little waif upon whom he had turned his back so callously in South Africa should have grown into a polished woman of the world, with everything around her that made life pleasant and enjoyable.
"Sit down," Kate commanded, "and I will give you tea. I may have visitors, but you won't mind. Sugar and milk? Yes, I thought I should have visitors. It's the Wellgraves. I fancy you have done business together. I believe they have a great deal to say to you."
George Wellgrave and his brother came solemnly into the room. They had followed at a sign from Kate. It was for her to call the game and for them to respond. They were being paid for their work, and the sooner they had earned their money the better.
"What have you to say to me?" Du Cros asked.
The brothers exchanged glances. Both seemed reluctant to speak. Recollection of the tragedy in the bookmaker's house weighed heavily on both.
"Perhaps I had better speak first," Kate began. "I had prepared an elaborate scheme for the humiliation of this man who calls himself Du Cros, but whom we know by a different name. But a chance, lucky or unlucky as it turns out, has changed my plans. I had not expected to meet Mr. Stephens in the dramatic manner I did, or, had I known of it, I should not have had any need for the services of these friends. Still, there are other methods——"
"You're wrong!" George Wellgrave burst out. "It's a precious good thing that we did go as far as Lancaster's with you. If not, you would not be sitting here at this moment. That infernal scoundrel meant to murder you."
"Infamous!" Du Cros cried. "The man is mad! Such an accusation——"
"The man is as sane as you are," Wellgrave retorted. "It's true. When Miss Mayfield blew the whistle she was in danger of her life. We could see the thing——"
"You could see it," Du Cros shrieked. "Oh, the man is crazy beyond a doubt!"
"I tell you we could see it," Wellgrave went on doggedly. "We are public performers, as you may recollect, for you employed us in Cape Colony. Our mirror trick was part of an elaborate scheme of yours for swindling some people out there. We have never met before, but we have been looking out for you. Before Miss Mayfield turned up this afternoon we were looking into the bookmaker's house by means of our reflecting mirrors. If you like I will tell you what we saw!"
"Rubbish," Du Cros sneered. "What do you expect to get by this?"
"You know," Wellgrave said quietly. "If you could only see your face at this moment you would drop all that bluster. We saw you propose to lay violent hands on Miss Mayfield. And we saw you lay violent hands on somebody else. Where is Lancaster?"
Du Cros collapsed in his chair. The accusing voice rang out loud and clear. It was as if Wellgrave had yelled it in the street. Cool and collected as she was, Kate was conscious of a sudden spasm of pain at her heart.
"That is a very serious thing to say," she murmured.
"Ay, but it's true," Wellgrave proceeded doggedly. "I tell you we saw it; and you stood by the murdered man for several minutes. Do you recollect a rug and table-cloth huddled on the floor? I see you do from the expression of your face. Well, under that heap lies the body of Lancaster the bookmaker, and there stands the man who killed him."
Kate pressed her hand to her heart. The horror of it was too much for her. In a dim way she heard the further denial that came from Du Cros's lips.
"You repudiate it, of course," Wellgrave went on. "It makes no difference. Let me ask you one question and then I have done. Where is your cigarette-case?"
"My cigarette-case!" Du Cros stammered. "What has that to do with it?"
"The cigarette-case that you said you had lost," Kate chimed in. "Don't you remember?"
Du Cros was about to lie when the futility of it came upon him. He began to feel the net closing in around him.
"Perhaps you will be so good as to enlighten me," he said with a sneer.
"I'll do that, for your gratification," said Wellgrave. "Your cigarette-case is lying under the cloth and rug that cover Lancaster. It fell out of your pocket in the struggle. You were dazed and beside yourself and did not recognise your own property. You thought the case was Lancaster's. In the circumstances it was a natural mistake. You might have discovered the error had not Miss Mayfield come so soon afterwards. I have nothing further to say. The truth of my charge will be established when the police find Lancaster's body and the cigarette-case by his side. If we needed vengeance on you we have it now."
Du Cros dragged himself almost painfully from his chair. It was useless to try to fight any longer. Circumstances were too strong for him. He might have swaggered and protested, but for the knowledge of the incriminating article he had left behind. It might be possible to recover that damning case. He did his best to assume an air of dignity and protest, but it was a pitiful exhibition, so much so, indeed, that Kate's heart was touched.
"It is useless to stay here longer," he said. "Whatever I say is not likely to be believed. It would be better to go."
He moved towards the door unsteadily. There was a curious twitching in his limbs that caused them to tremble under him. As he stepped into the hall, Kate followed him. Her face was as white as his own and she spoke in a shrill voice.
"This is a horror I never dreamt of," she whispered. "To think that while I was talking to you—but I dare not dwell on it. I ought to go out and fetch the first policeman who passes. But I can't do that, because I am a woman and once imagined that I cared for you. That it was only a fancy I have proved during the last few hours. Still, there was a time—and I should like to help you. Have you any money?"
"I have as much as I shall need," Du Cros said bitterly.
"But you will require more later. If you manage to escape, let me know. You will find some means to communicate with me safely. Now, go—go, or I shall change my mind."
Du Cros turned on his heel without another word. Kate watched him till he was out of sight. Then she returned to the drawing-room and dismissed her other visitors.
"I want to be alone," she said. "I have gone through much to-day. Call to-morrow and you shall have the money I promised you. As to what you have seen, you may say as little or as much as you like."
Kate sat a long time with her face hidden in her hands. She wondered what had become of Du Cros; what he was doing now. Would he go back to that lonely house and try to recover his lost property? That was precisely what was uppermost in Du Cros's mind. If he was to be saved he would have to brace himself for such an effort. Salvation lay in no other way.
He was not strung up for the ordeal. It took him an hour or more and the aid of several glasses of brandy before he felt ready for his task. He knew he was wasting the precious moments, but could not turn his back on the cheerful glitter of the bar in which he was seated. He forced himself to go at length, and with resolute step turned towards Lancaster's house. When he came to it, a group of idlers loafed around the front gate. They were discussing something with more or less elaboration of detail. Du Cros, with a sickening sensation next his heart, drew near to listen. Fear and curiosity drove him to ask questions at last.
"What is the matter?" he inquired. "Has there been an accident?"
"No bloomin' accident, guv'nor," a loiterer explained. "It's Lancaster, the bookie the man wot the police was after. They come here an hour ago and found him—dead. They say as how the poor beggar committed suicide."
"Suicide be blowed!" a second loafer said scornfully. "That be 'anged for a tale. The poor chap was murdered. I was close by the 'ouse at the time and I know all about it. The police cum 'ere to look for something and they finds Lancaster dead on the floor in one of the rooms. One of the officers said as how it wor murder. What's more, they've got a clue. I 'eard someone say somefink about a cigarette-case that belonged to somebody else. Looks as if Lancaster had been asked there to keep an appointment and got murdered for his pains."
"How long ago did all this happen?" Du Cros asked.
"A little more than an hour, I should say," the loafer went on. "I was passin' at the time. There's not one of these chaps 'ere who knows as much as I do."
Du Cros had no need to ask further questions. He had enough information and to spare. Clearly, the police had found the body within a few minutes of his leaving the house with Kate Mayfield. By this time the cigarette-case must be in the possession of the authorities. It was possible they might not connect him with this damning evidence, but if not, what of Kate and the brothers Wellgrave? The rope was as good as round his neck.
With a curious feeling of calmness and ease of mind he turned away. Now that hope was dead he was indifferent to everything that might happen. He would go back to London with the others and have one more spell of gaiety and recklessness. It was possible that on reaching London he might find himself in the hands of the police.
He turned into the bar of a public-house and drank three more glasses of brandy in quick succession. As a rule he was very careful as to what he drank, but the spirit did not seem to have the slightest effect upon him, except that it made his mind clearer. Presently he called a cab and drove to the hotel. The newsboys were shouting the details of the Lancaster mystery; they were connecting it with a well-known millionaire. Heavens! how quickly they had got hold of that! Well, it did not matter; nothing mattered now.
In the vestibule Liston and some of the rest had gathered. They glanced curiously on Du Cros.
"Here he comes!" Liston muttered. "I wonder if he has seen the evening paper—if he has heard anything? He doesn't look as if he had."
How would Du Cros act at the supreme crisis of his life? He had heard enough and to spare. As he stood with his hand clenched on the back of a seat, there was a strange gleam in his eyes, and though his features were hard and expressionless as a mask, there was a curious blend of fear, defiance, and abject terror. But he had heard—there was no doubt whatever about that. Bloomer was waiting for him on the steps. Strange that he should have forgotten Bloomer!
The ominous yells that rent the air were not lost on the scowling Bloomer. He shot a quick, frightened glance at his employer. He was utterly reckless and brutal, but, base as he was there were limitations even to his depravity. His glance at Du Cros concentrated in it a score of questions, which flashed through his mind in rapid succession.
"Did you hear that?" he whispered. "Lancaster murdered! Found dead in his own house. They said something about a clue, too. What do you know about it?"
Still Du Cros answered nothing. He had not seemed to hear a word that Bloomer said, but presently the questions came to him as if he had recalled some message in his sleep. He knew what Bloomer was driving at, and picked accusation out of that brief, hoarse speech.
"How should I know?" he said at length. "Lancaster is nothing to me."
"Perhaps not; but you played it low down upon him all the same. It was you who betrayed him to the police. You and Simeon Vincent worked it together. It's no business of mine to take heed of these things. You want certain work done, and so long as you pay me for it the rest does not matter. But if you take me for a blind fool who can't see beyond the end of his nose, you are mistaken. You gave the game away so far as Lancaster was concerned, and he knew it. He came back for something, and he found you in the house. You had gone there to see Amsted——"
"Perhaps Amsted could tell us something about it," Du Cros muttered.
"I presume he could," Bloomer sneered; "but he is no longer here. Garton has seen to that. Never mind how I know. Garton was too many for you. You were alone in the house with Lancaster. I can imagine the rest of the sickening business, just as if I had witnessed it. Well, thank God! I never did a thing of that kind——"
Du Cros did not challenge Bloomer's broad suggestion. He was wondering how far the evidence pieced together. Bloomer might suspect, for he knew pretty well everything. But nobody else was in that position. Who would suppose that Du Cros, the famous millionaire, had passed a part of his time in the bookmaker's house? The police had been hot upon the track of the unhappy man; they had visited the house almost before the breath was out of Lancaster's body, but they had not seen Du Cros. If it had not been for that cigarette-case—ah! but Kate knew! And the Wellgraves knew still more! Apart from them, there was no evidence that Lancaster had been murdered. There were no marks of violence on the body. The man's neck was broken. He might have sustained the fatal injury as the result of a fall. It was absurd to suppose that the police could connect the tragedy with him. But the cigarette-case!
There was another thing! Lancaster might have had certain papers upon him. In that event there was a chance. Du Cros thrilled at the mere suggestion. He was not the man to take risks, and had intended to search the dead man's pockets. But the imperative summons at the door had prevented him. He had had himself to think of. Still, it did not seem possible that his name would be coupled with the crime. But all this was futile. It was useless to try and bolster up his courage with these false hopes.
"I'll be off," Bloomer said sullenly. "See you later."
It was desertion pure and simple, and Du Cros understood it as such. Bloomer was dropping him. As sure as if the words had been spoken, Bloomer was leaving him. He showed it in his sulky manner and lowering looks. Bloomer did not intend to be mixed up with this murderer any longer. Du Cros dared not resent it.
"Just a minute, Bloomer," he said. "What were you going to tell me about the belt?"
"I have told you all I know about the belt," Bloomer answered impatiently. "That fellow Liston has it. He and some other fellow followed us; I expect it was Garton. They both wore goggles, but I recognised Liston's voice. We did our best for you, but luck was dead against us. I couldn't tell you more if I stayed gossiping all night. So long!"
Bloomer turned doggedly on his heel and departed. Du Cros called him back again, but he refused to listen. The darkness of night swallowed him up, and Du Cros knew he should see him no more. This defection left a curious feeling of personal loss and depression, not unmingled with resentment and contempt. For a few minutes Du Cros revolved the situation in his mind. He was still occupied with his gloomy thoughts when Liston entered the hall, carrying in his hand an evening paper containing an account of Lancaster's death.
Du Cros wondered if the belt were in his pocket. He would have given all he had to know this for certain. It might be possible to recover the lost treasure. Nothing, however, was to be gained by a direct accusation. There were better ways. Du Cros forced a smile to his lips. He would let Liston assume he knew nothing of current developments, and would treat him as if he valued his friendship.
"I had expected you at dinner to-night," he said.
"That was very good of you," Liston replied. "But unfortunately pressing business detained me. I have only finished in time to catch the last train to London to-night."
Du Cros began to see his way. The plan was not matured, but he could develop it on the journey.
"My dear sir," he said cordially, "you need not worry about that. I shall be delighted to give you a seat in my special. There's plenty of room, and the company is congenial."
Liston expressed his thanks. It was as well the invitation had been offered, for in any case he had made up his mind to travel by the special. It was comparatively easy to detect what was passing through Du Cros's mind. He had seen Du Cros and Bloomer talking together in the hall, had watched the latter depart, dejection writ large on his face, and guessed the nature of their talk.
"That is considerate," Liston said. "I shall be delighted to accompany you. Perhaps you will be able to assist me in a little matter I have in hand. If you will give me half an hour on our way to town I shall be greatly obliged."
Du Cros expressed his pleasure. Nevertheless, he was puzzled and uneasy. He did not like the look of this man at all. He appeared to be so particularly cool and easy. There was something strong and capable about him. On the other hand, Du Cros was groping in the dark. He could not for the life of him understand how Liston came into this business, and was hoping he had no part in it. It was bad enough to have Hugh Childers to contend with. Still, he would not throw up the sponge yet.
"After we have started," he said, "I will get my guests settled down to bridge, and then I shall be entirely at your service."
An hour later Du Cros and Liston were face to face in an empty compartment. Liston lost no time in going straight to the heart of his subject.
"I won't pay you the doubtful compliment of believing that you are ignorant of what I am about to say, Mr. Stephens," he began. "You are far too clever a man for that."
"Will you tell me why you address me as Stephens?" Du Cros asked quietly.
"There! you are belying my high opinion of your intelligence," Liston smiled. "I call you Stephens because that is your name. I am in possession of a piece of property of yours. Nay, man, its hardly worth while to shoot me with the revolver which I see in your pocket, because other people share the information. Let me assure you that the belt is in safe custody. Let us get to business. You know that you are not a millionaire, and now you must have small hope of ever being one. Your name is Stephens, and you are wanted in South Africa. So is your friend Simeon Vincent, alias Blossom. I am a South African myself, and happen to know a great deal about your career. I have only to give the police a hint, and you disappear from public view for the term of your natural life. On the whole, you have not had a bad innings, my friend. But there is another and much more serious matter than that. For murder is damnable."
"You imply that there has been murder, and that I am implicated?"
"Precisely: it is a murder—the murder of Lancaster, the bookmaker. Now, I am in a position to prove that you were alone in the house with him. Garton is another witness who will testify to the truth of this. Lancaster, in desperate need of money, came back to his house to get a few articles that he could sell or pawn. You and Bloomer did not expect this or you would never have smuggled Lord Amsted there. It is always the unexpected that upsets our plans. When you met Garton in Lancaster's house, I was there also. I was busy helping Amsted to escape. This is pretty strong evidence, I fancy. But there is stronger to come. The police found letters and papers on Lancaster that prove conclusively the conspiracy against Lord Amsted. They prove that you had a hand in it. When those papers come to be read in court after Garton and myself have given evidence—but I need not enlarge on this to a man of your astuteness, Mr. Stephens."
Du Cros nodded; he knew it was useless to protest or threaten. He saw there was only one possible end to the drama. He had played the game boldly, and had lost. He had blundered fatally in the Lancaster affair, but he could say with clear conscience that the attack was unpremeditated and that he had not sought the bookmaker's death. The cards had been against him throughout. He did not whine; he expressed no regret or sorrow. There was only one way out, and he was ready to take it. From the first he had resolved to take it, should fate prove hostile, and inevitable defeat, discredit, and disgraceful death confront him.
"There will be a terrible outcry," he said quietly. "I'm sorry for Lady Letty, but it will do her no harm to have her pride taken down a peg or two. I admit nothing, deny nothing. This interview need not be prolonged any further. Leave me to myself, please."
Liston left the compartment. As the train neared London the attendant came to him with a grave face.
"I fancy you saw Mr. Du Cros last, sir," he said. "I am afraid something has happened."
"Indeed! You mean to say that Mr. Du Cros is not to be——"
"Mr. Du Cros is missing."
What had happened? What had become of the founder of the feast? A group of well-dressed people stood on the platform of the terminus, discussing the mystery eagerly. Liston could have thrown some light on it, and in a lesser degree so might have Childers. But fate was playing into their hands now. Scandal might be averted, and Lady Letty's name be kept out of the business altogether. Du Cros had met with an accident and fallen off the train. Still suffering from the effects of his accident, he must have been seized with an attack of giddiness and the rest could be imagined. This was the conclusion come to by the quidnuncs and wiseacres on the platform.
"You can give a pretty good guess at the truth?" Liston asked, as he and Childers went away together. "The situation must be clear to you. Now that he is out of the way the police need do little more; it will not be worth while. The affair will be a nine days' wonder, and furnish food for gossip, but the world at large will never know who killed Lancaster. Du Cros is dead, and his creditors must make the best of it."
"Then we have heard the last of Stephen Du Cros?"
"My dear boy, I am certain of it. That type of adventurer has the courage of his game, and when he fails always quits the scene in one way. He takes the risk and accepts the inevitable. If things go well, he becomes rich, prosperous, respected, enters Parliament or becomes a peer. If things go badly he commits suicide. I knew what Du Cros contemplated when I left him to-night. He probably smoked a last cigarette, and then walked quietly into the outer darkness and pitched himself off the train. We shall hear to-morrow that his body has been found on the line."
It turned out as Liston had anticipated. The evening papers were full of it next day. Du Cros had been found in a deep cutting, quite dead. Opinion was divided as to whether it was accident or design. Du Cros's speculations had gone utterly astray, and his name monopolised the papers for the next day or two. In the general excitement the mysterious death of the bookmaker was forgotten. It only occurred to an astute few to link the tragedies. The police in Liverpool knew, but it was no business of theirs to make the facts public. Another glittering swindler had been exposed, and the butterflies of Society were properly shocked. But they would be eager to welcome the next adventurer. They were very sorry for Lady Letty, who accepted her trouble quietly enough. The only person who really appeared to be concerned was the Earl of Stanborough.
"Just my confounded luck," he said to Lady Letty. "Never liked the fellow, of course—bounder, and all that sort of thing, but I thought he was rich. Very awkward; everybody will be down on me. If that money is not forthcoming in a fortnight——"
"Make your mind easy about that," Lady Letty said contemptuously. "You are more fortunate than you imagine—or deserve. I would never have married that man. I told him so on the night he died. Everything was over between us."
"Ah! that was clever of you," the Earl said admiringly.
"It did not strike me so at the time," Lady Letty replied in her coldest tones. "I had to tell him, because I could not consent to such a sacrifice. Besides, I found that I loved Hugh Childers."
"But, my dear girl, Childers is a pauper, a beggar, in fact."
"He never was that. If he had been, that should prove a bond of sympathy between you. The fact is, Hugh has made up his quarrel with his father, who has listened very kindly, and, for my sake, has consented to help you. He will make an appointment to see you in a day or two. In the meantime, I am going to their place on Saturday, and Amsted and his wife will be there. I forgot you did not know that Amsted is married. No, she is not a chorus girl. When I tell you who she is you will applaud his choice."
Lord Stanborough was graciously pleased to do so. He was astute enough to see that the new order of things would be more in his favour than the old. He saw Lady Letty off at Euston and gave her his blessing. It was a pleasant world, after all.
To Lady Letty it had suddenly become a smiling paradise. All her cares and troubles had vanished, and the winter of her discontent had been made glorious summer. She was relieved of her heavy burden of care and oppression, and her heart expanded like a flower.
Lady Childers received her with a smiling face, and tucked Lady Letty up in the big car with motherly care. "We are going to be very happy, Letty."
"I will try to be," Lady Letty said with a merry laugh. "It is a new experience to me. I have had nothing but trouble and worry and care ever since I was capable of understanding things. Now I suddenly feel as if I had grown twenty years younger. The spirit of mischief is upon me."
Lady Childers laughed. Veritably it was a new Lady Letty by her side. There was colour in her checks and laughter in her eyes. The colour deepened and the laughter gave way to love as Hugh came forward to the car.
"Let me welcome you to your future home, my darling," he whispered. "Amsted and Beatrice are here. Beatrice's people know all about it, and are not behaving badly in the circumstances. Liston is here, too. He and Lucy—but I am to say nothing about that yet. Come and see Sir Hugh and have some tea. Then you shall tell them about your wonderful train adventure."
It was a happy party that was grouped round the tea table in the hall of the old mansion. There was much to talk about and to explain, but conversation flagged at length.
"But what of Lady Letty's story?" Lucy suggested.
"That is more Hugh's story than mine," Lady Letty said. "Tell them how it was done, dear."
Thus appealed to, Hugh eloquently recited the details of Lady Letty's adventure—how he had dropped her, clad in a waterproof suit, from the express into the dyke, and how she had swum to the bank. "We had the whole thing planned out," he went on. "There was a road by the side of the dyke, and a little way off we had a car in waiting for the heroine. She gave me the signal, and I knew that she was safe. But you can imagine my feelings when she did not join the train again. What would have happened had I not enlisted Liston's services I can't say. Even the thought of it makes me feel ill."
"I didn't mind," Lady Letty said. "I had not the least fear. I was too desperate to think of myself at all. But when I succeeded in getting back on the train, I was proud. I did not realise what a number of good friends I had. I don't think I could do it again, but I will always rejoice in the part I played in the evening's drama."
Sir Hugh was loud in his praise, and the other guests cheered Lady Letty to the echo. By and by the young people were left to themselves. It was a glorious evening, far too fine to stay in the house, and it still wanted two hours of dinner-time. They strolled out into the open, Amsted hobbling in the rear on his wife's arm.
"I'm going to stick to this, Letty," he said. "Sir Hugh has offered me a good post on the estate, and I'll show him that I do know something of cattle and horses. By the time I become head of the family I shall be a first-rate man of business."
Lady Letty shook her head doubtfully. But despondent thoughts did not suit so bright and splendid an evening. She was alone with Hugh, and they had the world to themselves. He took her in his arms and kissed her yielding lips.
"We will stay here, dear," he said. "Sir Hugh wants me to have the old place. He says he will be happier near the works. He hankers after bachelor quarters. Lucy will not be with him for long. What a fool I have been, Letty!"
"In asking me to marry you, dearest?"
"Ah, you know better than that. I mean in not going back to my father before. If I had done so, how much unhappiness I could have saved you!"
Lady Letty kissed him tenderly.
"Not a word of that an' you love me. Only think of the glorious future you have given me, Hugh."
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia