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Title: The White Glove Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1100611h.html Language: English Date first posted: September 2011 Date most recently updated: April 2012 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. HTML version by Roy Glashan. Production notes: There appears to be a line missing in Chapter V which is marked by ??? Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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The sweet face in the tangle of golden hair looked strangely out of place there. One does not usually meet with such beauty and refinement in a dingy restaurant where bread and butter is retailed by the slice and the coffee makes a tardy appearance in a pint pot. And yet the shabby hat and worn, thin jacket told a tale. As Clifford Marsh glanced at his wife a passionate anger shook him, and a yearning look came into his honest, grey eyes.
"I'm sorry I brought you here, darling," he said. "But when one comes down to one's last sovereign—Well, well. But I'm not beaten yet."
Marsh spoke with a certain fierce energy. The sweet face opposite smiled bravely. Madeleine Marsh was slender and pretty as a dainty picture by Greuze; nothing could rob her of her inherent refinement. Even a fuzzy-headed, bold-eyed waitress recognised the presence of a lady, and lowered her strident voice accordingly. As for Clifford Marsh, he would have passed anywhere. He was well dressed enough. But, then, he was 'looking for work,' and Madeleine knew by bitter experience how desirable appearance was. Most of her own clothes and all her little articles of jewellery had gone. She had parted from them with the utmost cheerfulness. Clifford felt that he had never loved his wife as he did at this moment. And yet there was a certain sense of shame behind his passion.
"I'm afraid you'll have to go back to Crowborough without me," he said. "Barrymore's people said that Sir Arthur might see me if I called back again at six. I dare not miss this chance, Maddy. If you don't get back by the excursion you'll have to pay full fare."
And she had come up to town to try and sell some of her Christmas cards that her whilom friends used to praise so much. She was finding out the difference now between trifling as an amateur and competing with the professional for bread.
"All right, Clifford," she said, with the sunniest of smiles. "You'll get back to-night. Please pay for the tea and let us go."
Clifford changed his last sovereign, blushing a little as the fuzzy-headed waitress refused to accept the threepence offered her. The kindly significance of the refusal touched Clifford, and the hard lump at his heart melted a little. It was just five as he saw Madeleine into the train at Victoria, and then Marsh turned his steps citywards.
"Poor little girl," he said softly. "I was a beast to marry her, to take her away from all that wealth and refinement. Old Forfitt said he would make me pay for it, and he has! And here am I, a mining engineer with a practical knowledge of diamonds, three years' experience of the war, and that other distinction, and I can't get a living for my darling! And if I do get that billet in Sir Arthur Barrymore's office, and old Matthew Forfitt finds out, I shall be dismissed to a certainty. It's hard on a fellow like me when he incurs the undying enmity of a millionaire—even if he is one's father-in-law."
The palatial offices of Barrymore and Co. were reached at length. Clifford's knees shook slightly as he passed up the stairs, his throat was dry and husky. He was perilously near to eating the bread of charity as it was. The pretty, rose-colored cottage at Crowborough, where he and Madeleine at present resided, had been placed at the girl's disposal by an old nurse at present visiting some relatives in Scotland. But for that lucky happening, Clifford shuddered to think what kind of quarters he and Madeleine would have come to by this time.
In a vague, dreamy way, Clifford listened to a smart clerk who was saying something. As a matter of fact, Clifford was faint and weak for want of proper food. Then it came to him more tangibly that Sir Arthur had gone away for the day—had been called away on special business. With something like despair in his heart, Clifford stumbled down the steps. This meant coming up again to-morrow—another precious four shillings gone.
It was getting dark as Clifford turned into Maiden Lane, behind Holborn. He felt disposed to envy every well-dressed man and woman who passed him. He wondered who they were and whence they came, and what they would think if they knew his story. There was a tall woman, lithe and graceful, her features hidden by a veil, her superb dress held up by a gloved hand. Quite idly Clifford noticed that the glove was white velvet. He had never seen a lady wearing a velvet glove before. The woman seemed to fascinate him.
She waited for a block of traffic to pass, then darted impatiently across the street. Then there was a shout and a roar, a quick dissolving view of a prostrate figure, and before Clifford quite knew what had happened he was half-carrying the tall lady with the velvet glove into a little chemist's shop, and cursing the curious crowd that seemed to rise out of inaction and block his way. Clifford pushed through the people steadily. He had forgotten his own hunger and faintness now in the sheer joy of doing something. The woman hung on his shoulder a mere dead weight, hungry eyes looked out of the darkness.
"For goodness sake clear out all this lot," Clifford said fiercely.
Without ceremony Clifford pushed on into the little room at the back of the shop. Outside a policeman was driving the curious crowd on. Somebody was saying something about a doctor. The chemist looked in on inquiry as to whether he could do anything. Meanwhile the unconscious figure lay on a shabby sofa, one arm hanging down, the long, slim fingers in the velvet glove touching the floor.
"She seems to have fainted," the chemist said. "Evidently no bones are broken. See how regularly she is breathing."
"There's mischief here somewhere," said Clifford, as his quick eye detected a curious spasm in the fingers of the left hand. "Seems to have been crushed. Get that glove off."
They proceeded to strip the left glove away when the woman snatched her hand with a sudden and unexpected energy. She spoke like one in her sleep.
"No, no," she cried; "not that one. What am I saying? It doesn't matter. But I am quite right by this time. I must go away at once. Call a cab."
The stranger pulled herself up fiercely, but her will was too strong for her body. She fell back again with a queer, defiant, pitiful laugh. The veil was closely drawn, but Clifford could see the dark eyes gleaming almost savagely behind it. The one velvet glove had fallen unheeded to the floor, the maimed hand was hidden in the woman's breast as if it hid a secret that she was prepared to guard with her life.
"I am not hurt," she said in a voice at once pleading and commanding. "I swear to you I am not hurt. Call me a cab, if you please. Hark! what is that?"
Merely a voice in the shop proclaiming the fact that a doctor had arrived. But the voice had a marvellous effect on the listener. She jumped to her feet, her lithe, graceful body quivering, with fear and anger like a tiger brought to bay.
"Send him away," she whispered. "For God's sake say I have gone. Tell him some lie—some subtle and ingenious lie. Oh, why don't you go?"
The chemist crept away. The woman came close to Clifford and laid her right hand upon his shoulder. The likeness to the tiger had strangely intensified.
"I am in danger," she whispered. "Turn down the gas. Ah, that is better. Ask no questions, and remember only that you are helping a defenceless woman. I am faint and giddy yet, so I must lean on you...There must be a back way out. Lead me down the yard and put me into a cab. Come along."
Clifford obeyed more or less mechanically. He found the way down a crowded yard into a little alley beyond. A cab was passing, and he hailed it. Without a word of thanks, the woman scrambled in, and muttered an address in Grosvener Road that Clifford could not catch, and was gone. Then he made his way back to the chemist's little parlor again. He could hear the so-called doctor still talking in the shop. He saw the long, slender, velvet glove as it lay neglected and forgotten upon the floor. In a fit of idle curiosity Clifford picked it up. There was not a stain upon it, and yet it felt heavy, as if the hand, or part of the hand, was still inside. Clifford peeled back the fingers.
"Good heavens!" he cried. "What have we got here? Surely it is not possible that—"
Yes, part of a human hand—four white, slender fingers severed at the top of the second joint, and ringed with two magnificent diamond hoops. The sudden feeling of nausea passed as the full extent of the discovery flashed upon Clifford.
The portion of the exquisite hand was perfectly, humanly modelled in a wax!
Clifford's excitement passed away altogether. He was quite cool and collected now, and he had entirely forgotten his own present troubles. With his wits clear and sharpened, he was wondering how he could turn this discovery to the best account. The woman was evidently rich, she moved in the best of society, as her dress and speech clearly proved; at the same time, she was evidently mixed up in some strange conspiracy. She had been dreadfully afraid lest the secret of her left hand should have been discovered; and, indeed, she might probably have preserved that intact had she not been far weaker than she thought, and had not the doctor come upon the scene.
But was he a doctor at all, or merely somebody on the track of the mysterious lady? Certainly the woman's conduct on hearing the intruder's voice pointed to the latter conclusion. Clifford decided that he would like to see the doctor. He crept cautiously as far as the little glass door, and peeped into the shop.
Certainly the stranger bore little resemblance to the ordinary surgeon who would be likely to have a practice in that locality. To begin with, he was too well-dressed, his air was redolent of Bond Street, his dark moustache was carefully groomed. There was something sinister about his smile, a hard look in the dark eyes. One thing Clifford carefully noted, the stranger kept his left hand thrust inside the breast of his overcoat all the time. His cigarette had gone out, but even when he re-lighted it the hand was not removed. The coincidence made a strong impression upon Clifford.
The stranger puffed a long trail of blue smoke in a highly unconcerned fashion, and left the shop. If he was in the least baffled, he did not show it.
"The lady has gone," Clifford said. "I suppose it was all right, but a very strange case all the same. Wonder why she was so anxious not to see a doctor."
The little chemist shrugged his shoulders.
"Can't say," he replied. "I don't care about mysteries of this kind, and personally I owe you one for getting rid of her. Mystery generally means crime, and crime means being dragged into a witness-box a score of times when one's business is going to the deuce."
"I see," Clifford nodded. "A fashionable doctor, that."
"Doctor, be hanged! He was no doctor. I could see that from his hand and the scent he had about him. Probably the woman's husband, or something of that kind. Good night."
Clifford took the hint and departed. There was nothing for it but to go home after all. A glass of milk and a bun first, he decided to have. Mechanically he felt for his purse. He tried one pocket after another. But the purse was gone.
The dreadful discovery almost broke Clifford down for a moment. In his weak state he could have sat down and cried. He had no watch or rings to pawn—they had all gone long ago—even his return ticket to Crowborough had been lost.
Well, there was no help for it. Clifford steeled himself to face the inevitable ordeal. Like many a better man before him, he resolved to walk the streets all night. Perhaps he would be able to see Sir Arthur Barrymore early to-morrow before the rush and fret of the day's work began, and secure a post, and once that was done it might be possible to request an advance. The fit of trembling passed away, and left Clifford cool and collected again. No doubt his pocket had been picked as he had carried the mysterious lady to safety.
Clifford shut his teeth together, and resolved to go through with the business now. No doubt in the hours to come, when the great city grew quieter, he might find some sheltered spot to sleep where he would be free from the attentions of the gentlemen in blue. But the secluded spot would have to be somewhere near the City. Morning would find him worn out and exhausted, and the closer he was to the office where all his hopes and fears were centred the better.
It was nearly nine o'clock when Clifford dragged himself wearily along Cheapside. There were very few people about in Long Lane, where the offices of Barrymore and Co. were situated, and Clifford was languidly surprised to see a carriage and a pair of horses, a very high-class equipage, stop at one of the big buildings, and a graceful girl alight.
Clifford looked on in a dazed, sleepy kind of way. What was that pretty girl doing here at this time of the evening? Perhaps she was coming to fetch some relative who had been working late, and take him to the theatre. But the carriage, with its blood horses, had gone at a swift trot, and turned into Cheapside, as if they were not required again—at any rate, not for some considerable time. It was poor sort of curiosity, but it kept Clifford from dwelling on himself, for he felt that way madness lay.
He looked up at the big building into which the pretty girl had disappeared, and he was not in he least surprised to see that it was the offices of Barrymore and Co. A strong electric light gleamed from two upper windows, evidently the office windows of some prominent employee of the big firm. Clifford stood staring at it stupidly.
Suddenly the big swing doors flew open, and the pretty girl in the evening dress came down the steps. Her wrap had been thrown aside, the electric lights gleamed on her golden hair. She looked very sweet and fragile and helpless, Clifford thought; then he noticed the terror in her eyes. An impulse to address her was not to be resisted.
"You are in trouble," he said. "Can I do anything for you—why, May!"
"Clifford!" the girl gasped. "What are you doing here? And yet you may ask me the same question. Where have you been all this long time? And Madeleine?"
"Madeleine is quite well, May. You see, there were reasons why she did not care to look up her old friends. But you are in trouble?"
"It is Sir Arthur Barrymore. He is my guardian, you know. But many things have happened since we last met—things I can't tell you of now. I came to fetch my guardian to the opera, and he was not quite ready, so I waited in the other office. I heard him cry out, and when I rushed in he was all huddled up in a chair. Somebody had been saying something to him on the telephone, but he seemed unable to reply."
"I'll come at once," Clifford said. "I feel there is a kind of providence here. But I am going to ask you to make me a promise, May."
"Dear Clifford, I promise anything if you will only come along."
"Then you are not to know me. I am a stranger that you picked up in the streets. Your guardian was ill, and you sought the first assistance that you could get. Now, lead the way."
May Denton led the way up the broad steps, so silent and deserted now. In a private office that might have passed for some millionaire's dining-room, save for the desks and the telephone, a man sat holding his head in his hands. A tall, white-haired, aristocratic-looking man, one evidently born to command. By his side stood a desk telephone, the bell of which was continually ringing, but the man with the staring eyes did not seem to heed.
"Who is this man, May?" he asked in a hollow tone.
"The young lady fetched me in," Clifford hastened to say. "You were ill, and she was frightened. The person at the other end of the telephone—"
"Cut it off. Answer for me—Sir Arthur Barrymore—and say I have left the office. If they ask when, say you don't know. And when you have done that, unlock yonder cabinet and give me a little brandy. I've—I've had a shock."
The man lay back in his chair almost numb from some sudden terror. And yet strength of character and firmness of will were written on his face. He nodded feeble approval as Clifford delivered his message to the unseen person at the other end of the telephone.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" the younger man asked.
Sir Arthur shook his head. A faint color was creeping back to his face again, but the lips were still as pale as ashes.
"I have had a great loss," he said, as if speaking more to himself than anybody else. "A loss so great that it has utterly unnerved me. Great heavens! that such a misfortune should come so suddenly. And I thought that I was absolutely safe. Who are you?"
Clifford explained hurriedly. He was to have seen Sir Arthur earlier in the day. He happened to be passing the office quite late, and the young lady had called him in.
"You were going to walk about all night?" Sir Arthur demanded.
Clifford flushed angrily, and the great man uttered something that might have been an apology. All the same, there was pluck here, and the silent evidence of trouble, and these were qualities that Sir Arthur admired greatly.
"I must try and do something for you," he said. "But I can only think of one thing to-night. You had better go for the police. Bah! what am I talking about? All the police in the world will not save me from hideous ruin. What's that?"
The sound of a door opening somewhere, and then steps coming upstairs. The door opened and a woman came in without the semblance of apology. A tall woman, wonderfully beautiful and commanding. There was just the suggestion of the foreigner in her carriage and the dainty way in which she walked, though when she spoke her English was perfect enough. Her smile bewildered and fascinated Clifford, she was so quickly changeable, so perfectly at home. Evidently a woman used to the highest society, Clifford thought.
And yet with it all he had a curious feeling that he had seen her before. He took in her dress of black satin, against which her skin glowed like old ivory. He saw the flashing diamonds in the dark hair. She threw back a wrap of costly furs, her right hand hung down by her side, the left was hidden by the flowing furs. And then on the right hand Clifford noted that she wore a velvet glove!
It was a peach-colored glove, but there it was. The coincidence was remarkable. And Clifford could study the lovely woman at his leisure, for the reason that, after one flashing, searching glance, she took no notice of his presence whatever. He felt a wild desire to see her left hand. It was the same woman he had befriended, but so different!
"Well, the inevitable has happened," she said.
"It was not inevitable," Sir Arthur retorted. "It was the very last thing to be expected. And how did you know of it?"
"Say I guessed it. I felt it by instinct. And when I could not get you on the telephone I was certain. What are you going to do now?"
"What can I do but call in the aid of the police?"
The beautiful woman shrugged her shoulders. She moved about with the finest possible grace, but never once did she expose her left hand.
"The police are useless," she said. "What we require now are pluck and daring and a matchless audacity. We seek for a soldier of fortune who is down on his luck, and anxious to retrieve his fallen fortunes, if he succeeds his fortune would be made; if he fails, the probability is the grave would be his portion. A strong, brave man who would be discreet and silent—a man who would face any danger without hesitation. Given a man like that we may yet succeed. And he would live in luxury ever after."
There was a ring of fire and passion in the speech that touched Clifford. Here was the opportunity that he was looking for. He had the courage and the audacity and the keen desire to succeed. When he thought of Madeleine's blue eyes and sweet smile, he felt capable, of anything. And all the time he felt that the woman was addressing him.
"I am your man," he said. "I have touched the bottom of my fortune; I am penniless. And I have one who is very dear to me waiting anxiously for me at home. Nothing that man dares I shrink from. Give me the chance."
Sir Arthur looked up and nodded. The woman whispered a few words to the girl, and she and May Denton left the room together. Presently the beautiful intruder returned alone. Sir Arthur sat moodily at the table stabbing his blotting pad. Was this really the same woman, Clifford wondered. She kept her left hand rigidly to her side. Clifford stepped across her so that he might get a glimpse of the limb. A quick flash of the eyes followed, then the flash melted into a dazzling smile.
"I think you are the man," she said. "I know you are quick and resourceful; I feel from your face that you possess the courage. But in this matter there is one thing you must beware of. Like all quick-witted, shrewd people, you are curious. You are burning with curiosity at this very moment, a curiosity that is not going to be gratified. Oh, I should advise you very strongly indeed to suppress that failing."
Clifford colored a little, and bowed. He perfectly understood, and in that moment he knew that he had no ordinary woman to deal with. She stooped down and shook Sir Arthur by the shoulder, her glance was just a little contemptuous.
"Wake up," she said. "Action, action, action. We wanted an ally, and fortune has sent us one. I am certain that we could not have made a better choice. If he wins—"
"If he wins he need never fear the future again," Sir Arthur said slowly. "If he fails—"
"I cannot be a greater failure than I am at present," Clifford said bitterly. "I am desperate, friendless, and I have a wife depending upon me. I tell you I am mad for action; I could yell aloud, I could tear my hair to think of my helplessness. Danger! Have I not been through the war? Only trust me, and you shall not repent it."
Sir Arthur sat up like a man who is just awake. He looked resolute enough now. He rose and switched off the light, and locked the door as the others preceded him.
"That is enough," he said. "Your task and your peril begin now. But first you must have a change and some food. My carriage is at the door, waiting for me. Do you still hesitate? No? Then follow me. There is no time to lose."
Clifford Marsh stood back so that the others might precede him. After all, he was a little weaker and more dazed than he thought. The want of food, the bitter disappointment and the subsequent excitement had been too much for him. Time was when he had gone through critical dangers without so much as a qualm. But it was all different now, for his head was in a whirl, and his heart beating almost to suffocation.
"Steady, steady," he whispered to himself. "A brave, resolute man may snatch a great prize from fortune here, and hitherto I have not lacked the necessary qualities. For Madeline's sake I must be firm."
He thought of his wife. He could see her deep, steadfast blue eyes looking out of the darkness, and exhorting him to courage. He would show her yet that he had done her no wrong in taking her from a home of luxury to share his love in a cottage. He thought of nothing else as the carriage rolled westwards, and stopped at length before one of the greatest houses in Park Lane. Clifford had a glimpse of the magnificent hall filled with priceless furniture, half a dozen gorgeous footmen appeared to be languidly doing nothing—there were evidences of great wealth everywhere.
The owner of a palace like this must be rich beyond the dreams of avarice. There were magnificent pictures in the library, a carpet soft as velvet to the tread, all the electric light fittings were cunningly wrought in silver. And yet the owner of it all, as he lay back in a carved Tudor chair, did not look a happy man.
"You want to know something of your mission?" he asked.
"Presently, sir," Clifford said. He felt that his courage was coming back to him now. "But there is one important detail first. The British soldier is the best in the world, but even he cannot work unless he is fed. I have eaten practically nothing to-day. I have had no meat for close on a week. I—I am starving."
"I am a fool," Sir Arthur muttered. "I had forgotten also that I had not dined. You are quite right, Mr. Marsh. Please ring the bell."
One of the languid footmen entered, to receive a terse, vigorous command from his master.
He reappeared presently to say that dinner was served. Clifford had no eyes for the gorgeous table service, the wealth of flowers, the flash of crystal. Almost wolfishly he swallowed a few oysters, together with a glass of champagne. A little soup and chicken followed, and two more glasses of wine. By the time Clifford had finished, a new and joyous life seemed to run in his veins. He felt strong and uplifted now, and ready for anything. The mere idea of adventure appealed to him. There was a fine flavor in the cigarette that Sir Arthur pushed across the table.
"I think you'll do," the strange lady said with critical approval. She also dined, but all the time off light food and dainty entrees that only needed the necessity of a fork. Not once was her hand exposed. "Sir Arthur, we have found the right man. Tell him all that is necessary."
"It would be best to tell him nothing," Sir Arthur said meaningly.
"Perhaps you are right," the strange lady observed, after a moment's pause. "If he is found out, and gets into trouble, we must repudiate him."
"That is just the point," Sir Arthur went on. He rose from his chair and paced up and down the room with agitated strides. "We have suffered a great and unexpected loss. The loss is so great that unless it is repaired without delay I am absolutely ruined—ruined so hopelessly and shamefully that I could never hope to lift up my head again. Who this lady is and what connection she has with the trouble matters nothing. What you have to do is to find a certain man. To find him is quite easy. You have to locate him, to find out where he lives, to get into his house, to pry upon him, to search his belongings, and read his correspondence."
"It does not sound very congenial," Clifford said coldly.
"I admit it," Sir Arthur went on. "But, as there is a heaven above us, I swear that in doing this you are conferring a great service on humanity and preventing a deal of suffering. The man you are after is a mystery. He appears to be rich, his manners are perfect, he is wonderfully well informed, and he moves in very good society. And yet nobody has the least idea where he lives."
"That sounds very strange," Clifford murmured.
"It does, indeed. I repeat, nobody knows where he lives. He disappears at a certain time every night, and where he goes to is a mystery. It is for you to solve that mystery. But I warn you that there is great danger here. The man has his spies. He knows that I am moving against him. It is just possible that he has seen you enter this house to-night. On the other hand it may not be so, because you and I came together quite by accident. If that man really suspects you the chances are that you will disappear, and never be heard of again. You will not be the first one!"
Clifford nodded; there was no sort of fear in his heart now.
"You interest me," he said. "Pray continue. I am not going to draw back."
"Very well. Only I want to give you fair warning. I recognise the fact that nothing can be done without money, and when you leave this house presently you will do so with £500 in your pocket. It is every penny that I can spare for the present—indeed, I have no other ready money. Everything has been locked up in that which is lost, and which you have to recover. Be careful when care is needed, be lavish if the end justifies the expenditure."
"I am not likely to be extravagant," Clifford murmured.
"Very good. We are trusting you implicitly. There is only one other condition—if you get into trouble it is no use you coming to us. If you mention my name or this lady's we shall deny everything. If you fall we are not to be identified in that failure. And now are you prepared to go on?"
Clifford hesitated only for a moment. He was absolutely penniless, a fact that he had not taken the trouble to conceal from his new friends. They would, of course, understand that a portion of the £500 would go for his own needs. He had an absolutely free hand, and the chance of doing a signal service to a man ready and able to set his feet on the rungs of the ladder of fortune. On the other hand, starvation. Mandeline's blue eyes seemed to shine upon him again, and he made up his mind.
"I agree to all the terms," he said. "From time to time I am to report to you and secure your instructions. We can devise a safe way of doing that later on. Meanwhile, when am I to see this man of whom you spoke? Delay—"
"There will be no delay," the strange lady said. "You will see the man to-night. As to his name, or the name by which he goes, he is called Michel Rayne. I will point him out to you presently but you are on no account to speak to me or look at me; in fact, we are strangers. Do you understand that?"
"So far everything is perfectly plain," said Clifford.
"Then presently you are going to a great reception not very far from here. It is to Woodford House, the proprietor of which is Mr. Levi Raby, the great financier. The place will be crowded, which will be all the better for you."
"It would be better if I had an invitation," Clifford smiled, "and dress clothes. In my present garb I should create a sensation, but not of the kind I care for."
The strange lady waved her hand carelessly.
"All that is managed for you," she said. "I arranged it before dinner. Mrs. Raby is pushing into society. She therefore cultivates me. She even allows me to ask my friends to her smartest functions, spare cards for whom I have at home. By this time a packet of the latter have doubtless arrived. I fill in your name, and there you are."
"Still, it would be just as well for me to know your name," Clifford suggested.
"Oh, of course. I am Mrs. Geraldine Manton for society purposes. Please accept that, and all will be correct. At the same time, do not be too curious. You will take that card and stroll in. You will speak to your hostess, and mutter my name, and there you are. I shall be present at the proper time, and so will Michel Rayne. Was flag-wagging amongst the accomplishments you learnt in the Transvaal?"
"It was," Clifford admitted. "But why?"
"Oh, never mind, though the question is not superfluous. It is nearly ten o'clock, so the sooner you proceed to Woodford House the better."
"Provided always that you furnish me with the necessary suit of black and white," Clifford smiled.
"Pah! I had forgotten that for the moment. That also I have arranged for. A telephone message to one of the great costumiers settled that. Sir Arthur will take you up in his dressing-room, and there you will find everything. Only I should like to see you before you start. A change of dress makes a difference."
In Sir Arthur's dressing-room a great pile of clothing was laid out. The selection was a long job, but it was made at length. With his well-fitting coat, his white waistcoat, and his shining slippers, Clifford looked quite the easy man about town. A silk-lined overcoat and a soft hat completed the outfit. Marsh smiled at his looking at himself in the long looking-glass. His spirits were rising now. He was keen for the adventure. Sir Arthur regarded him with grave approval.
"Nothing could be better," he said. "You are the rich young man to the life. Still, it will be better to have all the little accessories. Take the gold cigarette case and this watch and chain, also the diamond-mounted sovereign purse. It is full of gold. Here are the notes I promised you, and a most elaborate case to put them in. As to your own wardrobe, you can come back and fetch it in the course of the night. I shall not go to bed before I have heard from you; indeed, sleep is out of the question for the present."
Clifford passed down into the dining-room again, where Mrs. Geraldine Manton greeted him with a fascinating smile of approval.
"You will do splendidly," she said. "You will meet all kinds of people in the house of my friend, Mrs. Raby. I will not fail to point out to you the man you need, but I shall do it in my own time and my own way. Now you had better go—Woodford House is the third round the corner. Here is the card."
Clifford stepped into the night, lighting a cigarette as he did so. He had always been fond of adventure, and here was one thrilling and mysterious enough for the most exacting. An hour or two before he had been plunged into the depths of despair, now he had dined, he was dressed well, and he had a large sum of money in his pocket. It would go hard if he did not grasp fortune out of this. He thought of Madeleine again, and smiled tenderly. It was too late to send her a telegram now—a fact that he regretted.
"Now for it," he muttered, as he threw away the end of his cigarette. "It will be no fault of mine if I fail to find something like a fortune in this."
Coolly, as if he had been a favored guest, Clifford strolled up the wide marble steps, with their covering of crimson cloth, and signified to a footman to take his coat and hat. There were scores of people passing up and down the steps—people of every condition of life. The Rabys were quite new as yet, and had not succeeded in throwing off the old set before they were well on with the new. But that would come in time. Levi Raby was immensely rich. He had made his money in some mysterious way in South Africa during the war. He entertained lavishly, and society asked nothing further at his hands.
There was no doubts as to the evidence of wealth here. The flowers and the fittings of the house must have cost a fortune in themselves. The magnificent rooms were filled now. The sound of the band came from somewhere, but nobody noticed the music. The refreshment rooms were crowded. There was a constant popping of champagne corks, as if the wine were being opened for the mere sake of lavish display. Beyond were a series of rooms devoted to bridge and the other gambling games, and Clifford noted that these were crowded. It was a kind of private Monte Carlo under the noses of the London police.
"Delighted, I'm sure," Mrs. Raby smiled as she held but her hand, though, of course, she had not the remotest idea who Clifford was. "Awfully good of you, so much going on and all. Oh, yes; they are gambling to-night. Lady Charlton, this is too sweet of you. Of course you have brought the girls."
Clifford escaped discreetly. He was free to wander now about the magnificent range of rooms at his own sweet will. He had dined very well, and for the moment was disposed to allow his sense of amusement to get the better of him. Doubtless the serious work of the evening would begin with the arrival of Geraldine Manton. Not that Clifford believed that she had given him her proper name, but that mattered nothing.
He drifted presently into a large room where a score or more of tables were set out for bridge. Most of them appeared to be occupied save one, where two or three men were standing as if seeking for somebody to make up the party. A tall man with a black beard nodded to Clifford in a quite familiar manner.
"Forgot your name for the moment," he said. "Face quite familiar, and all that kind of thing, don't you know? Like to make up a hand?"
"Till you can get somebody else," Clifford said; "though I must warn you that I may be called away at any moment. Shall we cut?"
As they cut for partners Clifford had the chance of taking stock of his companions. On the whole he was not particularly impressed with either of them. They looked hard and greedy, even the youngest of them, who was little more than a boy. As to their manners, very little exception could be found to them.
"A pound a hundred, I suppose?" the man with the beard suggested.
The stakes were high, but Clifford nodded. He felt that his luck was in to-night, and he was inclined to back it. Moreover, he was a fine player, and many a weary South African vigil had been passed at the game. Three rubbers fell to the lot of his partner and himself right away, and the roll of notes in the case had increased by over fifty pounds. People were coming and going in the room, there was a subdued hum of conversation, and the rustling of notes mingled with the chink of gold. Scores of people there were playing for stakes far higher than they could afford—quite boys, whose white faces twitched, and young girls who laughed now and again in an hysterical, nervous fashion. The curse of gambling and the greed of gain was in them all. Somebody signalled to the man with the beard, and excused his temporary absence with an apology. As Clifford rose to look round him his eyes encountered those of Geraldine Manton, who smiled in a distant manner, though she seemed in some subtle way to convey to Clifford that she was glad to see him in his present company. He heard a whisper and a laugh behind him, and as he turned he met the gaze of one of the bridge players of his own party turned upon him with a look of malignant fury. For some reason or other the man was his deadly enemy. Clifford thought of Sir Arthur's warning, but decided, on second thoughts, that his fancy had played him false. It was only quite by accident that he was playing bridge with these men.
Clifford turned away again. A little dispute had taken place at a table close by. One of the players, a young and pretty girl, had just passed a £20 note across the table which another player had claimed for her own. In the troubled, white face of the accused party Clifford learnt the truth. The girl had stolen the note. Her own purse was empty, and she had adopted this way of paying for a heavy rubber that she had had no chance of liquidating if she lost. The desperate adventure had failed, as such adventures always do, and but for a miracle exposure must follow. Those keen and greedy gamblers gave no credit. They knew their own weakness; there was no quarter there. Clifford's heart went out to the poor, white-faced girl. In the light of his own recent troubles he felt all the more sympathy for her. The accuser, a hard-featured woman of the world, spoke slowly:
"It is very strange," she said. "I heard you say just now that you had only a few pounds in gold left, and you have lost the last two rubbers since then. I call my partner to testify to the fact that I had a £20 note by my elbow a minute ago. Now it has gone."
"I—I had forgotten my banknote," the girl stammered. "I—I folded it up, and put it in my purse before I came out. I had quite forgotten it."
"The matter is easily settled," another of the party said frigidly. "The banknote can be traced. Then the ownership will be proved beyond dispute."
Clifford listened pitifully. There was no sign as yet of the man with the beard, and he was free to interfere. The poor girl was young and pretty, and she looked as if she possessed both high courage and intellligence; and here was the making of a public scandal that would ruin her for life. Clifford took the case from his pocket and produced a £20 note. And this was done without the others seeing.
"Pardon me," he said. "As an interested spectator I may be permitted to explain. The elderly ladys seems to have swept something off the table with her elbow. It looks to me very like a banknote. Really, it is a banknote—for £20."
Clifford laid the crisp bit of paper down with an easy smile. The hard-featured woman's face relaxed, and she muttered something like an apology. The young girl rose and declared that she could not play any longer. Her place was immediately taken, and the game proceeded as breathlessly as if nothing had happened. Clifford would have returned to his table, but the girl detained him. Nobody appeared to heed them.
"How can I sufficiently thank you?" she said with tears in her brown eyes. "You have saved me from something worse than death."
"What I did was a mere nothing," Clifford said.
"Nothing! To save a stranger you sacrificed £20. There is no other person in the room who would have done such a thing. I stole that note to pay my debts so that I could go on playing and recover my losses. Six months ago I should have shuddered with horror at the mere suggestion of such a crime. And then you came and saved me."
"Because you are capable of better and higher things."
"Oh, I am. That makes my shame all the harder to bear. The money shall be repaid. Give me your name and address, and you shall have it back. From this night I never will touch a card again. And if ever I can do anything for you—"
The girl turned away, overcome by emotion. In a strange way Clifford felt that he had made a useful friend.
"Never mind my name," he said. "Meet me somewhere the day after to-morrow, and you can pay me then. We may never see each other after. It will be best for you—"
"Spoken with all the delicacy of a true-hearted gentleman," the girl whispered. "Oh, and pray that some day I may be able to return your amazing kindness. I will gladly meet you at twelve o'clock on Friday by the Marble Arch. And—and good night."
The girl was gone before Clifford could say another word. He had forgotten all about the task for the moment. He was filled with the glowing satisfaction of a good action delicately and feelingly done. He was recalled to himself by the voice of the man with the beard, who had returned to the card-table again. His face was paler and a little more grim than before, and he carried his right hand in a sling.
"Been having an argument?" asked the boy with the hard mouth.
"A discharged servant of mine," was the explanation. "Fellow actually had the audacity to follow me here and demand money—sheer blackmail. I didn't want to argue with him, but knocked him down out of hand. But I managed to sprain my thumb and cut my knuckles pretty badly in the process."
Clifford murmured his sympathy. At the same time he noticed on the faces of the other two men a queer grin as if there was a something between the lines that they understood and the outsider knew not. Marsh had seen the same low self-satisfaction on the faces of a set of confederates when a victim of the card-sharpers had been safely lured into the seclusion of a railway carriage. In some way he felt that the whole thing was an elaborate lie on the part of the man with the beard. But why should all this be enacted for his benefit?
"Shan't be able to play any more tonight," the man with the beard said cheerfully. "What do you say to come as far as my place and take a hand at poker? That will suit my injured fin better. Will you join us, sir?"
Clifford was sorry, but he was waiting for somebody, or he would have been greatly pleased. As his eyes roved round the room he saw Geraldine Manton. She just gave him a glance, and then went on laughing and talking to her companion, and waving a magnificent fan from side to side. Mechanically, as the woman half turned, Clifford saw that the waving of the fan was rhythmic and purposeful. Then it all flashed upon him. Mrs. Manton was signalling to him.
"I don't know who your companions are," the message came, "but you seem to have got into the right groove. Your man knows this. He is coming this way. When he does come, look out for a further signal."
Clifford bowed as if to a passing acquaintance, and then indicated that he had got the message. A moment later and a stranger came into the room, and nodded to the man with the black beard. Clifford had not caught sight of his face for the simple reason that he was waiting for another message from the fan, which was obscured ever and again by people passing. But he managed to make it out at last.
"Your man has come," it said; "the tall, dark one with the carefully groomed moustache and the white rose in his button-hole."
Clifford turned carelessly, and then suppressed a start of surprise. He was face to face with the pseudo-doctor he had seen in the little chemist's shop some hours before.
So the game was beginning in real earnest. Clifford would have preferred to have had a few more details as to the task expected of him, but his spirits rose as he thought of the money in his pocket. He first glanced at Mrs. Manton again, but she had turned her back upon him, and was talking vivaciously to her companion. Clifford felt that he was left to his own resources now.
He looked casually at the man called Michel Rayne. Under the glow of the electric lights he saw many little peculiarities that had failed to attract his attention in the chemist's shop. The man was not tall or powerful, but he was supple and graceful, with the lithe elasticity of the cat. His manner was quiet and self-restrained, with a latent suggestion of power below it; the dark eyes seemed to take everything in; Clifford could see that the mouth under the moustache was hard.
"Not playing?" Rayne said. "Is anything the matter with Sefton?"
The man with the beard laughed and explained.
"We are going to play poker," he said. "I could manage that despite my damaged hand. Only, unfortunately, there are no cards at my place. On the whole, we had better go as far as Seymour's, and play there."
The boy with the hard face demurred. It was too far, he said. If Rayne had any spirit of charity, he would take them all to his own house. It seemed to Clifford that a shade of annoyance passed over Rayne's features. And yet, at the same time, he felt pretty sure that these men thoroughly understood one another. Certain little smiles and gestures testified to that. Clifford stood casting an account. Mrs. Manton told him that nobody knew where Rayne lived, and here was a chance to make that discovery at the very outset of the adventure.
"Well, I don't mind," Rayne said presently; "introduce your friend. Mr. Marsh, eh? I should say Mr. Marsh has seen service in South Africa, if appearance goes for anything. Do any good in the land of diamonds, eh?"
"The time is not ripe for that kind of thing yet," Clifford said.
"And perhaps you don't know anything of diamonds," Sefton suggested as he pulled at his black beard. "It's a special knowledge."
"As a matter of fact, I know all about stones," Clifford said. "Do any of you?"
The rest laughed, and disclaimed all information on that head. And yet, direct as the conversation was, Clifford felt that there was some hidden meaning behind it. He bowed slightly as the girl he had befriended passed him, and wondered if she would really keep her appointment for Friday. The girl looked at him in a peculiar way; there was a suggestion of dislike on her face which Clifford could not understand.
"Well, come along," Sefton exclaimed. "I daresay I shall be able to give you a good cigar, and a glass of wine. Only no very high stakes, please, though I should think you found Marsh here plays a good game."
"I thought we were going to Rayne's place," Seymour exclaimed.
"Well, you're not," Rayne said curtly. "It is at present in the hands of the decorators. What does it matter so long as we go somewhere. It will be infinitely better done at Sefton's than under my humble roof."
In the streets a couple of cabs were hailed, and Sefton gave the address, Arlington Gardens. Evidently the man with the beard was a man of means, and yet, in Clifford's eyes, he had hardy adventurer written all over him. All the same, nobody but a person of wealth could have aspired to Arlington Gardens. Evidently the [??? words missing in original publication] dered the more. The cabs drew up at length before the great house in the square, and Sefton let himself in with his latchkey. His family were away, he explained, and, under the circumstances, he never allowed the servants to keep up.
"I believe there is one about somewhere," he said; "only there is no need to bring the poor chap to the door. We shall find everything in the smoking-room."
Clifford took careful note of his surroundings. There was evidence of wealth everywhere, and, in fact, the house was the luxurious abode of a family of taste and fortune. Nothing was wanting for comfort or to appeal to the artistic side of life. In the smoking-room, the walls of which were covered with rare sporting prints, a large array of bottles and glasses had been laid out. There were no cards to be seen, but the host produced them from a writing table.
"Now we shall be quite comfortable," he said. "What limit shall we play?"
"Why make a limit at all, Seymour?" the hard-faced youth suggested. "We are all fortunately pretty well off, and, if Mr. Marsh has bad luck, he can mortgage a few of his diamond concessions. Let's have a real flutter to-night."
"All right," said Clifford, after a moment's hesitation. Whatever these men might be, they had not invited him here for the vulgar object of swindling him. Big gamblers had their big coups at times, but never big enough to support a house such as the small palace where Sefton had taken up his abode. "Please do as you like."
The game began in earnest, but from the first Clifford could see that the only man he had to fear was Rayne. The others were good players, but they lacked the dash and finesse and the iron nerve of the other two. Steadily Clifford's pile mounted up, and as steadily the money in the pockets of Seymour diminished. The latter was beginning to lose his temper, a fatal thing to do in the game of poker.
"Seems to me that we have entertained an angel unawares," he sneered. "Still, I daresay we shall learn something presently."
Clifford flushed, but said nothing. He raised the pool, and stood out for a long time, whilst the stakes rose. Presently, Rayne, with a shrug of his shoulders, threw away his cards; his adversary had bluffed him out with a pair of knaves. It was an infinitely inferior hand to Rayne's, but it sufficed.
"You are superb," he cried. "I felt from your face, that you had a royal flush at least. My word, but you are a fine player."
"I've taken my life through a bluff too often to lose my nerve at cards," Clifford said. "After all, it's a gift, and really I take no credit to myself for it."
"Perhaps you've got the gift of dealing the other chap the hand you want to," said Seymour with an ugly laugh. "You're too uncanny for me."
"What do you mean by that remark?" Clifford asked hoarsely. "Please explain."
The ugly laugh was repeated more insolently as Seymour crossed the room, and helped himself liberally to brandy. Evidently the young man was drinking more than was good for him.
"My meaning is quite plain," he said. "It is a good rule not to play cards with strangers—even if you meet them at Levi Raby's."
The inference was so plain, the insult so deliberate, that Clifford sprang up furious. The whole thing might have formed part of some arranged comedy for all Clifford knew, but he had forgotten everything but the indignity for the moment. He darted forward, but Rayne was too quick for him.
"Steady," the latter said. "If Seymour has forgotten himself, there is no reason why you—"
"Quite right," said Clifford, cool and collected again by a great effort. "I should be sorry to brawl in the house of a stranger who has offered me his hospitality. I think if you will allow me, that I will say goodnight."
With expressions of regret, Sefton followed him to the door. Seymour had drifted into a chair, and appeared to have lapsed into a drunken slumber. Then Sefton drew Clifford into a room furnished as a library, and put up the light.
"My dear fellow," he said, "really I cannot allow you to go like this. There is not the slightest justification for Seymour's abominable conduct. But for a promise made to his dead father, I should have cut him long ago. He got a bad sunstroke two years ago in India, and when he takes a little too much he is quite irresponsible for his actions. I'll get him to bed presently, and then we can resume our game pleasant."
Clifford was sorry, but really he had better go. He had made his mind up what to do. He would wait patiently outside the house for Rayne, and then track him down. A man who moved in society, and yet who possessed no habitation would be a good subject. Sefton expressed his regret politely—he was very nice over the matter.
"Well, if you will, you will," he said. "At the same time I confess that your feelings in the matter would be very much the same as mine. Well, what is it?"
A servant in livery entered with a letter on a salver. Sefton turned away with a muttered apology, and tore open the note. An expression of annoyance passed over his face.
"Is the man waiting for an answer?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," the servant replied. "I was to deliver the letter into your own hand."
"Then he must call again," Sefton declared. "But, stop, I fancy I have it in the house. Mr. Marsh, please don't go till I come back. I still have hopes that I may induce you to remain and continue the game."
Sefton left the room hurriedly, and closed the door behind him. The door was opened again a moment later, and a pretty dark-eyed girl, with a wrap over her head, came in. She drew back with a timid little stammering apology, then she stood still, with a face pale and full of distress. Clifford was too surprised to speak for a moment. He was face to face with the girl whom he had rescued at the card table.
"You here!" she whispered. "And what might you be doing in this—this—"
The girl paused, as if unable to express her feelings. Clifford explained.
"Then your game of cards is over, and you are just going," the girl said, relief, deep relief, in her tones. "You have been the guest of—of Mr. Sefton. A word in your ear, whispered because I dare not speak aloud. Don't come here again!"
Clifford's eyes asked a question, but the girl was backing away. Before she could say anything further, Sefton came bustling into the room. Surprise, suspicion, anger, shone in his eyes just for a moment.
"Myra," he demanded sternly, "Myra, what are you doing here?"
"I met this young lady to-night at Mrs. Raby's, where I was enabled to do her a slight service," Clifford said. "She was merely thanking me. As a matter of fact she came very near to being accused of malpractices at cards. Fortunately, I happened to be looking on, and I set matters on a proper footing. It was nothing."
Sefton nodded a little darkly, and the girl backed to the door. She gave Clifford first one beseeching, warning glance, and was gone. As to who she was, and what she was doing there, Sefton volunteered no information, and Clifford was too discreet to pursue the subject.
"I think I had better be going now," he said.
The man hesitated for a moment.
"Well, if you must, you must," Sefton said politely regretful. "But one moment, will you do me a slight favor? I have an important letter to write, and my hand is injured. I would get Rayne or one or the others to write the letter, only it has to do with a mutual acquaintance who would not like any of our set to know the circumstances of the case. Would you mind doing it for me from dictation?"
Clifford expressed his pleasure; indeed, he could do nothing else. Sefton indicated a table where pens and ink and paper lay. The paper was quite plain; it had not even a stamped heading, as Clifford noticed. Evidently Sefton's tastes were severe.
"Never mind about the address," the latter said. "Simply Tuesday night. Are you ready?"
"My Dear Friend,—I am very sorry to get your letter, the third of a similar kind during the past month. Really I don't know what you do with it all, though, of course, you are one of the very unlucky ones. Fortunately for me—and you—I have had a good run lately, and I am able to do what you ask. Still, I have to be pretty quiet, and, for the most part, I am lying low at my country seat, which is not a hundred miles from Tunbridge Wells. I enclose you the 'monkey,' and pretty hard it has been to get. You had better destroy this immediately—Yours as ever,
Clifford dashed the letter off, Sefton smilingly explaining that "C. M." stood for a nickname of his, by which he was known by a few intimates. He took a case from his pocket and produced a thick wad of notes. The envelope was torn in forcing them in.
"Deucedly annoying," Sefton said, "especially as I have no large envelopes in the house. It's not easy to get a hundred £5 notes in the limit of even a business envelope. If they were only notes for a larger amount! By the way, do you happen to have any notes for greater value about you?"
"As a matter of fact, I have," Clifford admitted. "I put £500 in my pocket when I came out to-night, all in £25 notes. I daresay you can get a score of them in your letter."
"Capital," Sefton cried eagerly. "Would you mind making the exchange, my dear fellow? It will make no difference to you, and it will be a great convenience to me."
Clifford made the desired exchange readily enough, and Sefton succeeded in getting the notes of higher value into the envelope. He sealed down the letter, and rang the bell, which was immediately answered by the footman.
"There," he said, "I fancy that is satisfactorily finished. And now, Marsh, can't I persuade you to join our party again. It seems to me—"
Rayne and the fourth member of the quartette came somewhat noisily in demanding to know what had become of their host.
"An unexpected letter I had to answer," Sefton explained. "And Marsh was so good as to write it for me. I'm trying to induce him to remain."
"I sincerely hope you will," Rayne said politely. "That young cub, Seymour, ought to be soundly kicked for the way he insulted you to-night. The only excuse is that he was drunk, and that a very little liquor overcomes him. However, we have put the little beast to bed now, and he is not likely to trouble you any more."
Clifford suffered himself to be overcome. After all was said and done his main duty was to find out all about Rayne, and it would be far more pleasure to do so from the inside of the house. These other men might or might not be the confederates of Rayne, but Clifford had to take the chance of that.
"Very well," he said. "I will play for an hour longer. We will forget the unpleasantness."
They went back to the smoking-room again. The room seemed to have grown very dark, Clifford thought. Sefton laughingly suggested a drink, which Clifford declined, and the offer was not pressed. At the end of an hour a genuine thirst possessed the guest, and he rose and filled himself a glass of soda-water at the sideboard.
"Don't forget the whiskey," Rayne laughed. "Not that I touch it my self. I find that lime-juice cordial on the little tray much more to my taste."
The hint was acceptable to Clifford, the suggestion of lime-juice being refreshing. He took a long steady pull at the grateful fluid, and placed it by his side. He was getting very tired and sleepy now; the long day with its early anxieties and the want of food up to a certain hour was telling on him.
"Upon my word, I can hardly keep my eyes open," he said.
He struggled on until the end of another game, and then the cards fell from his hand, and his head drooped forward on the table. The other men said nothing, they made no comment, but pulled steadily at their cigars, the abandoned cards lying neglected before them. For a long time nothing was heard but the steady breathing of the sleeping man. Then Rayne bent over and grasped a portion of Clifford's arm between his fingers.
"Wake up," he cried roughly, "this is no place to sleep, man."
No response came. Sefton looked on with an evil grin. He rose and went to the door and called "Myra" two or three times at the top of his voice.
"Just to make sure," he explained. "Pretty soundly off, I think."
"Sound as the floor," Rayne muttered. "Now are we on the right track, or have we made a mistake? Are we breaking a butterfly? Still, the chap was closeted with old Barrymore to-night, he comes from South Africa, and he admits that he knows all about diamonds. Go through his pockets, Sefton."
"Spoken with your own practical wisdom," Sefton laughed. "Nothing here but a packet of £5 notes to the tune of £500. Seeing that the Syndicate is decidedly short of the ready, and seeing that money is infernally tight in the City—and elsewhere—I propose that we annex the booty."
"Put from the chair and carried unanimously," the third man laughed. "But there does not seem to be anything else."
"Look close, make a thorough search," Rayne said curtly.
But nothing further rewarded the efforts of the party. Beyond the banknotes not a single scrap of paper or information of any kind was found on Clifford. Rayne frowned.
"He is either ignorant of the whole thing, or he is deeper than we anticipated," he said. "But a man who plays poker, and who has the nerves of this chap, is by no means a fool. My trusty friends, there is a man to beware of, to get out of the way."
The last words were spoken with a thrilling whisper, the grin died off the face of the third man. Sefton crossed to the door, and called "Myra" three times aloud.
"We must be careful," he said. "Myra was at Mother Raby's to-night, and our friend here did her a service. Myra is pretty well in hand, but girls are so sentimental, and, to do him justice, Marsh is a good-looking chap."
"What's to be the game?" asked the third man.
"Upstairs," Sefton said. "One of the rooms at the top of the house. Lay him on the bed there and shut the door. And if one of you carelessly turns the gas on after I have turned it out without the necessary formality of putting a light to it, why really it seems to me that—"
"Be silent, you fool," Rayne muttered angrily. "Your tongue will get you into trouble some of these days. Is there gas in the house?"
"After the second floor," Sefton explained. "The old boy didn't see his way to take the electric light everywhere. Come along."
"Better carry him in the chair," the third man suggested.
Silently the unconscious burden was carried up the stairs, and laid up on bed in a disused room. The blinds were drawn, and the gas turned on so that the conspirators could see that nothing had been left undone. Then the gas was turned off and on again, so that the singing of the escape made a hissing noise in the room. The door was closed again, and the trio of would-be murderers crept into the smoking-room.
"Come along," Rayne said huskily. "Let's get out of this. It has been a very bold and audacious dodge on the part of Sefton, but he'll have to try elsewhere after to-night."
Without another word being spoken the trio left the house. Upstairs in the darkened bedroom the noisy hiss of the deadly gas could be heard. Gradually the stentorian breathing of the man on the bed grew quieter. There was a sound in the empty house as of somebody creeping up the stairs, the soft opening and shutting of doors. In the dim light a white figure came along to the room where Clifford lay, the handle of the door turned, and the white figure started back.
The fumes of the gas caused the girl to reel for a moment. She, with her handkerchief tightly crammed into her mouth and against her nostrils, entered and felt her way to the window. Her heart was beating thick and fast before she found it, the spring blind flew up with a bang, the casement was pushed up. The girl drew a long, deep breath of fresh air, and then returned to the lock again. She found the tap of the gas bracket and the loud snake-like hiss suddenly ceased.
"Thank God I have come in time," she murmured. "Thank God, thank God."
The girl sobbed, and the tears came into her eyes. Having given the room time to clear, she lighted the gas again. With cold water and a sponge she worked at the figure on the bed. Perhaps the drug had not been quite so strong as the conspirators had intended, but at the end of an hour Clifford sat up on the bed. When the dreamy feeling passed away he saw that he was face to face with the pretty heroine of the card table.
"Where am I? What has happened?" he asked.
"You have been drugged and robbed," the girl said. "You must go away from here at once. Never mind about me. I shall be quite safe. Nothing can happen to me. Only please go at once, and ask no questions, or you will get me into serious trouble. If I should be missed they will come back for me—oh, do go."
The girl wrung her hands in an agony of distress. Dazed still and half-drunk, Clifford found his way down the stairs. In the open air he came to himself, the muddled feeling passed away. Gradually it was all coming back to him. He put his hand in his pocket, but his money was gone. The whole thing seemed incredible, an evil dream. At the very outset he had lost everything. He had half a mind to go back and force the truth from the girl. It seemed strange that people who occupied palatial houses should stoop to vulgar robbery. A policeman passing by stopped at Clifford's question as to who lived at 15 Arlington Gardens.
"Why, Lord Arlingbury, the Foreign Secretary, of course," was the reply. "Family out of town at present. Good-night, sir."
"Good heavens!" Clifford murmured to himself. "Am I mad or dreaming? What vile mystery is here?"
Utterly prostrate for the moment, Clifford walked along the road like a man in a dream. A little time ago he had felt so strong and self-reliant, now he was plunged in a deeper gloom than ever. His mind began to clear presently, and he saw things in their true light. The cleverness and boldness and audacity of the gang he had encountered almost paralysed him. It was impossible to believe for a moment that a Cabinet Minister of high repute was in league with these scoundrels. Suppose he went to the police and told his tale, and asked them to arrest the man who called himself Michel Rayne! Who would believe his story that he had been lured into the house of Lord Arlingbury, and drugged there, ay, and left to die a horrible death! The authorities would laugh at the whole thing. And if he had been suffocated by that poisonous gas, why the discovery of his dead body would merely have added one more to London's unsolved mysteries.
It was not the slightest use in turning in that direction. Neither could there be any object at present in going to Sir Arthur Barrymore and proclaiming his utter and miserable failure. Clifford longed to get away somewhere and think—the vastness of London appalled him. He would have given something now for his modest suit of tweeds, but that was out of the question. There was only one thing to do, and that was a desperate one.
"I'll walk home," Clifford muttered as he set his teeth together. "I suppose I shall get there some time tomorrow afternoon. Perhaps Madeline will find a way out. For myself, I am utterly and entirely beaten."
Indeed, he was more beaten than he had recognised. All the troubles and privations of late had told upon him, his head was still muddled and confused from the drug and the fumes of the poisonous gas. Presently Clifford was walking along in a kind of vacant dream, then he suddenly realised the fact that he was sitting on a doorstep quite incapable of going any further.
This would never do, he told himself. The spectacle of a man in evening dress sitting on a doorstep would sooner or later certainly attract the attentions of a passing policeman, and awkward questions might be asked. A belated little street arab eyed him hopelessly. If he had only a little money, and fourpence to get a bed.
Then suddenly he rose and staggered across the street. The ragged small boy began to run, he was just a shade too quick for Clifford, and his grimy paw closed on the two-shilling piece that had been glittering in the gutter.
"You get along," the small waif said defiantly, "a toff like you trying to do a pore little bloke out of his luck. What do yer want money for?"
"My good lad," Clifford said unsteadily. "The poorest wretch in London needs that bit of money no more desperately than I do."
Clifford turned away half-ashamed of the words literally forced from him. The urchin regarded him with a searching glance. The suspicions evidently passed away.
"He ain't coddlin'," the boy said. "S'help me if he ain't tellin' the truth. Well, well. Look 'ee, mister, let's go halves. It you'd been one o' hus, halves it would have been. Yer down on yer luck, and that's a thing as always touches the spot with Ikey Brown, which that's me. Come as far as my coffee-stall. Button yer coat and turn yer collar up, 'cause there ain't no dukes or retired publicans as patronises my barrow."
Clifford followed quite aimlessly. He seemed to care very little what he did or where he went now. He found himself presently eating bread and butter and drinking coffee with a relish. As he and his queer little companion turned away the latter thrust tenpence into his hand.
"That's your share, mister," he said. "Two slices and two cups is fourpence, ain't it? So you gets your exchequer blown up to the extent of the browns."
Clifford burst into a bitter little laugh as he dropped the money into his pocket.
"You are a good little chap," he said; "and if any luck comes my way this is going to be the best night's work you ever did. You say your name is Ikey Brown? Where can I find you if I want you?"
"Well, about here same time every night. Making my way home after selling my papers. And now where are yer going to doss to-night?"
"The problem is one utterly beyond my solution, Ikey."
"Thought so," Ikey cried triumphantly. "Well, ye can't go where I do, and there's no error about that. There's a place somewhere close by what caters for people as is down on their lucky. A clean bed for fourpence, and no questions asked. Sort of young Rowton House. Ye meets gents there, and ye meets thieves. But the place is clean. Been there myself once or twice. Come this way, and I'll put ye right."
Ikey was not far wrong in his estimate. The place was clean and sweet; there were rows of beds in one big ward for the men, an another for the women, as Ikey said. Clifford paid his fourpence to a man who looked like a retired policeman, who informed that if he wished to read or write a letter he would find a fire in the common room.
"So long," Ikey said, with a bird like jerk of his head. "See yer agen, most like."
"You may be certain of that," Clifford muttered. "We shall meet again, Ikey. Good-night."
Utterly exhausted, Clifford dropped into a chair in the common room. The place was bare, but very clean, the walls were white and fair. A score or two of people were there—men and women of every class. Clifford recognised the criminal and the woman with the hideous past behind her, the broken-down gentleman and the lady who had known better days; nobody took the slightest notice of him. Some were reading and some were writing letters. Clifford drew himself to his feet again in order to go to bed. In the doorway he stood aside to let a woman pass. As the gaslight streamed on her face he recognised the girl called Myra. He was not in the least surprised; he was past all emotion now.
"No getting away from me, Miss Myra," he said. "But then perhaps you had some good reason for following me here."
"No, I did not follow you," the girl said, turning. "It is what is called coincidence. It is really a kindly providence finding me with a friend."
"As to your friend, you may be certain," Clifford smiled. "But why do you come here? You don't mean to say that you propose to sleep here! This is hardly the place for one who aspires to know so great a society lady as Mrs. Levi Raby. Won't you come and confide in me? I am certain that we are companions in misfortune."
The girl hesitated no longer. She had partly hidden her face in a veil. At the far end of the room were two chairs, where it was possible to talk without being overheard.
"I came to look for somebody," Myra said. "I found that a man comes here at times who can do you and one I love a service. But he is not here, and I am going away when you come out. Did they rob you tonight?"
"They took everything I had, to the extent of £500."
"Oh, shameful! I did not think that they had gone so far as that. Let me tell you something, Mr. Marsh. The man called Michel Rayne is my brother. It is a most shameful confession, but he is one of the greatest scoundrels on earth. I stay with him for a purpose of my own, to help one whom I dearly love."
"But what were they doing in Lady Arlingbury's house to-night?"
"I cannot tell. I had no notion whose house it was. I was told to call for my brother at that address, and a footman let me in. Sometimes Mr. Sefton seems to be rich, at others he is poor as the rest of them. If my brother had used his wonderful talents honestly he would be a millionaire by this time. But there you are, Mr. Marsh, I heard you say to-night that you were fully acquainted with diamonds and the South African mines. Did you ever hear of a place at Cape Town called the Breakwater?"
"Of course. It is the place where they send criminals convicted of dealing illicitly in diamonds."
"So I understood. Well, my brother and the desperate lot you encountered to-night were for two years engaged in that trade. My lover had gone out with every prospect of making a fortune in the same line, for he had obtained a position of trust with the great De Beers Company. But my brother used him as a cloak and a foil, and when exposure came, as it was bound to do, my lover was the scapegoat, and he got a sentence of ten years on the Breakwater. To get to the bottom of that vile conspiracy is why I stay with my brother and share his varied fortunes."
"It is a sad case," Clifford murmured. "Do you ever hear from your lover?"
"Oh, yes. He escaped. He escaped by the merest accident. He is in England, living in a cottage in the heart of Ashdown Forest. I dare not write to him, I dare not see him, because I feel quite sure that my brother suspects. The poor broken-down gentleman that I use as a go-between comes here sometimes to sleep, hence my appearance. I pretend to take an interest in slum life; but it is a mere pretence. Now could you send a note to my lover for me?"
"Most assuredly," Clifford said. "More especially as I am on the borders of Ashdown myself. Give it me, and I will deliver it in person. And now, tell me, why did those men have me at that house to-night and treat you as they did?"
Myra raised her hands hopelessly, as if the problem were utterly beyond the power of solution.
"Who can tell what those crooked minds have in view?" she said. "In some subtle way they must have recognised the fact that you were an enemy of theirs."
"Well, that's perfectly true," Clifford said frankly. "I have to hunt them down to expose their schemes. But how could they have guessed it, how could they possibly have known? A few hours ago I was an utter stranger as to their very names; only to-night I received my instructions. And yet in a mysterious manner they found me out. Up to now they have all the best of it, but I swear that the next trick shall be mine. Help me, Miss Myra, and I will help you. It is ill work to ask a girl to plot against her brother."
"I had almost forgotten the relationship," said Myra bitterly. "He robbed me of my lover, and would force the attention of that hateful Sefton on me; he is a blight on society. Anybody that man comes in contact with he ruins. Why then should I hesitate? Am I to see him going on year after year, dealing misery all round, and say nothing because the same blood runs in the veins of us both?"
Clifford was silent for a little time. His companion spoke to him twice before he heard her.
"I beg your pardon," he said; "but I am utterly worn out. I am not the man I was."
"And I beg your pardon," Myra said. "I am very selfish; grief is always selfish, I think. I am keeping you talking when you need rest so badly. Good-night, my friend, good-night, and God bless you for all your kindness to a poor girl like me."
It was a little after eight when Clifford arose very anxious and depressed, but refreshed and invigorated by seven hours good sleep. He had to be careful with his coppers, four pence sufficing for breakfast, the remainder to be spent on the road. By buttoning up his overcoat and turning up the collar, he pretty well disguised his evening dress beneath. Then he set his face doggedly south, walking at a good round pace. By three o'clock he had reached Tunbridge Wells, where he spent his remaining coppers, and started on again for the last seven miles of his journey. It was past four when he reached his little cottage looking on the golf links at Crowborough. As he opened the door of the little sitting room kitchen Madeline flew to meet him. There were dark rings under her lovely eyes, the pretty face was white and anxious. For a little time Madeline contented herself with hanging round her husband's neck.
"I have been so dreadfully anxious," she said. "When I found in the village that you had not come by the last train, and no telegram arrived, I did not know what to think. All I could do was to hope for the best. How did you get here now, Clifford?"
"I walked, sweetheart," Clifford said in a voice that was not very well controlled. "I had to—my pocket was picked of all my money and my ticket. It is the kind of misfortune that frequently happens to a man at his last gasp."
"Oh, my darling, how dreadful," Madeline cried. "But never mind, so long as we are together again. Please don't say what your eyes tell me that you bitterly regret your selfishness in taking me from home. Dearest, poor as we are, I am far happier than I have ever been before. Do you think I would give you up for all the money in the world?"
"You are too good for me," Clifford said hoarsely. "And when I see you so sweet and smiling I feel that I must conquer fortune. And if there is anything to eat in the house—"
"Plenty," Madeline smiled. "Some Americans came along this morning and tried to buy that old dresser. I persuaded them to take my two Warren water colors instead. I asked them £5 for the two, and they did not demur. I am going to give you some tea, sir. Now sit down and rest yourself while I see to everything."
The tea was as good as Madeline boasted it would be, and Clifford felt cheered for it. Not till then did Madeline ask an account of her husband's adventures. Nor could Clifford complain that he had anything but an interested listener.
"What a horrible set of wretches," she cried indignantly. "And how I should like to hug the dear girl who saved your life. Oh, Clifford, Clifford."
Madeline bent her head and burst into tears. The realisation of that terrible danger had been too much for her for the moment. Clifford stroked her hair gently.
"That is all over, darling," he said. "I shall be more careful next time. Meanwhile I am still absolutely in the dark as to the way these fellows got to know."
"It seems to me you have been working in the dark all along," Madeline said as her tears ceased to flow. "If Sir Arthur Barrymore and that Mrs. Manton could trust you so well, why were they so reticent? It is very strange."
"It is all strange," said Clifford with a passing flash of anger. "Why did Sefton pretend his hand was injured, and why did he get me to write that peculiar letter?"
"It was all part of the scheme," Madeline suggested. "These men were waiting for you at Mrs. Raby's. Sefton lied when he told the story of the discharged servant. Then you went to his house—"
"To the house of a great statesman—nobody less than Lord Arlingbury. How was that done?"
"Ah, that passes a poor wit like mine," Madeline said. "I am trying to get at the reason for that letter. Could you repeat it, Clifford; or, at any rate, the gist of it?"
"Certainly I could; I fancy I could repeat it word for word. At any rate, I'll try, Maddy."
Slowly, but perfectly correctly, Clifford repeated the pith of the letter. Madeline listened thoughtfully, then the pensive expression of her face changed. Her eyes blazed eagerly.
"Oh, the cunning of it," she cried. "My dear boy, cannot you see? The letter is in your handwriting, it is signed with your own initials, it purports to go to a friend who wants money. It is the letter of a needy adventurer who has had a slice of luck which he shares with a fellow scoundrel."
"I never thought of that," Clifford said. "It certainly does bear that impression, come to think of it."
"Of course it does. But it does not stop there. What money did Sir Arthur give you after you had arranged to take the venture?"
"He gave me £500 in notes. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, my dear boy, how blind you have been, how blind you are! Five hundred pounds among the flashy class of men one meets is called a 'monkey.' In that letter in your own handwriting you say you have had a slice of luck, and enclose a 'monkey' that was hard to get."
"Go on," Clifford said quietly. "Evidently that little head of yours is a better one than mine. And I am afraid there is a great deal in what you are saying."
"The letter is yours. The confession that you have parted with a large sum of money given you for a definite purpose is yours. You speak of a retreat of yours which is not more than that distance from Tunbridge Wells. Your retreat is not more than that distance from Tunbridge Wells. But the worst feature has to come. Sir Arthur Barrymore as a man of business would assuredly take the numbers of those notes?"
"I suppose he would. If not, he could easily obtain the numbers from his banker's."
"Clifford, you parted with those very notes. Under the pretence that he couldn't get the thick packet of small value notes in the envelope, Sefton got you to change. And what will the result be? Your foes will write a derisive anonymous letter to Sir Arthur Barrymore, advising him to be more careful of this servant next time; they will enclose your letter and the number of the notes that made up the monkey. My dear boy, it would have been far wiser if you had gone to Sir Arthur himself."
"Would it, little girl?" Clifford said with a faint smile. "Could I get anybody but a loving wife to believe such a cock-and-bull story like that? Sir Arthur would kick me out of the house. The men argue that I have acted with deliberate honesty, in the comfortable assurance of the fact that I dare not make any disclosure. If I cannot reveal the position at once I am ruined more hopelessly than ever."
Madeline was suddenly silent. The latter point of view had not occurred to her before. And she had lived amongst sordid business so long that she knew how little one man trusted another so far as money was concerned. If Clifford could go back to Sir Arthur with the money still in his possession the story might be believed, but not without. Already a desperate resolve was forming in her mind, but as yet she did not tell Clifford this.
"It is horrible to think of the danger you have gone through," she said. "And if you accused those men of their abominable conduct they would laugh in your face and deny it all. Oh, what would I not give to know how they contrived to make use of Lord Arlington's house! It is the fact of the attempted murder taking place there that makes your story incredible to the average hearer. Clifford, much as I dread the future, I am going to be brave and strong, as befits the wife of a brave and strong man. Those rascals may not treat you like this and get off scot free. We are going to fight this out to the bitter end."
"Ay," Clifford said between his teeth, "there is nothing I should like better. But the loss of the money sadly cripples me. Without that I am utterly powerless. Only restore that, and I think I can see my way. But what is the use? I might as well expect to see a million at my feet as £500."
Madeline made as if to speak, and then changed her mind. Clifford was nodding in his chair, a deadly fatigue had come over him again. His brain refused to act for the time.
"I think I'll go and lie down for a time," he said. "I am dreadfully tired. Perhaps after a little sleep things will grow more clear."
Madeline encouraged the idea. She drew off Clifford's boots and made him comfortable on the bed. In a few moments he had dropped into a sound and dreamless sleep. Madeline felt quite sure that it would be many hours before he woke again. Very thoughtfully she went back to the little kitchen sitting-room and washed up the tea things. She had given up a home of luxury and ease for a life like this, but she did not regret it in the least. Never for one moment had she repented of her choice. Poor as they were, they had genuine love and affection here such as Madeline had never known in her great, cold, stately home across the Forest. And her father had enough and to spare. He could not take the money that he hugged to his heart with him to another world, he had no friends, no one to care for him. Surely he might part with a little from his ample store. The £500 that Clifford had lost would be as nothing to him.
Madeline thought of all these things as she looked out at the fast gathering twilight of the chill October night. Clifford was still sleeping soundly, and there was not much chance of his waking for many an hour to come. He would not have approved of Madeline's decision, but then he need know nothing about it if it was a failure.
"I'll do it," Madeline said to herself, as she donned her hat and jacket. "I'll go straight across the forest, which will cut off a mile or two, and see my father. I've never been that way in the dark before, but I fancy I can find the way."
She stepped out of the house and across the common. It looked easy enough now whilst there was light to spare, but presently the landscape began to grow strangely unfamiliar, as the best known spot will do in the gloom. Presently it became quite dark, so that Madeline began to grow a little timid. She stumbled on and on over the heather, now down a deep ravine, and now up the bank again. More than once she fell, more than once she was up to her knees in water. She thought of the forest tales of small deep bogs in which men and cattle had perished, she remembered tales now of old foresters who had wandered from the beaten track and been lost for the night, and these had been men who had boasted that they knew every inch of the moorland.
It was very lonely and desolate now save for a few trees in the distance. And when Madeline came up to the trees she recognised them as a clump she had passed before. Evidently she had been walking round in a circle, and now she recognised beyond question that she was lost, miles away from everywhere—lost in the forest.
A deadly fear gripped Madeline's heart for the moment. Whichever way she turned the outlook was quite hopeless. She would have turned back, but she had not the remotest idea which way she had come. She stood still for a moment trembling from head to foot. Gradually she forced her courage to come back to her.
"I am lost," she said. "I did not believe it to be possible. And yet in the daylight I should see my way without the slightest hesitation. Ah!"
Something loomed away ahead of her that looked like a building of some kind. It might have been the house of some forester, or it might be a cart-shed. With shaking limbs Madeline moved cautiously towards it.
It was no house that Madeline came to at length, but a deserted barn with a dilapidated sign-post on the left hand minus an arm and decorated by some rustic wag with a broken birch broom. Madeline recognised it with a thrill of gratitude. The broom had been there ever since she could remember, and it told her that she was not far from the right track as she had imagined. To the right was a deep, rutty path, and once she gained that she could go right along to her father's lodge gates. She struck the path without further trouble, and the shaking limbs grew firm and steady again.
Something was coming along to her now out of the pitchy darkness, something that bobbed and flickered and gave a faint white light on the masses of dead heather. Somebody always came along when they were not wanted. Evidently the owner of the lantern was in a hurry, for the light came nearer by leaps and bounds. Then a white face, in which a pair of dark eyes gleamed, came in sight. They were eager, searching, vengeful eyes that startled Madeline.
"Have you seen a man pass this way?" a strained voice said. "I—I beg your pardon; I did not see for a moment that I was addressing a lady. But have you seen a tall man with a short, thick, black beard?"
There was agitation as well as eagerness behind the query, and the dark eyes snapped angrily as Madeline replied in the negative. The man with the lantern wasted no more time, but pulled off a shabby tweed cap as a token of respect, and pursued his way up the path again with rapid strides. Madeline hastened on, wondering a little at this grim apparition, her own steps increasing as a thin, wetting rain began to fall.
Though she was on absolutely familiar ground now her heart was beating fast. The first flame of enthusiasm had died away, and she began to see the hopelessness of her task. She felt quite sure that her father would refuse her request. She ran as she drew near within full view of the lights of the house. The day she had been expelled from home her father had given orders that she was never to be admitted again.
Doubtless he had the same dour, sour servants still. Madeline decided that she would not give a menial the chance of refusing her admission. She would walk straight into the house, to the study, where her father always spent the hour before dinner. The big handle yielded to her hand and she was in the hall.
How familiar and yet how strange it all seemed. Silent and grim, as usual, with no touch of home or love about it. Poor and in bitter distress as she was, Madeline would not have undone the past.
The study door was open and a brilliant light streamed out. Madeline could hear the harsh tones of her father talking to somebody. A strange figure crossed the bar of light, and Madeline saw a tall man with a short, thick, black beard. In a vague kind of way she wondered if this was the same man who was being so eagerly sought for by the stranger with the lantern. Black beards seemed to be playing an important part in the mystery, seeing that the scoundrel Sefton also possessed one of these striking appendages. This man was in a hurry, too, for he spoke in quick, uneasy sentences as he paced up and down the room.
"I tell you I am not wrong," he was saying. "No, and I haven't been drinking lately, as you are good enough to insinuate. I saw him quite distinctly, and, what is more, he saw me. That is why I asked to see you, directly I got here, and yet you keep me waiting for a good hour or more."
"I had a most important piece of business to finish," Matthew Forfitt growled.
"As if any business could be as important as mine! That man would have killed me to-night if he had the chance. I tell you he is here, and you must put the authorities on his track; he is a danger to us."
"An escaped convict can be precious little danger to anybody."
"Oh, yes, he can, especially when he is innocent and has friends behind him. But I am wasting time here. I have to meet Jeynes to-night, and I dare not run the risk of a conveyance, so I must fain hoof it. The question is, are you going to take that stuff or are you not?"
"I don't know," Forfitt replied. "I am not going to be hustled. Come again on Saturday and I'll let you know. If I have given a favorable consideration to the transaction I shall be ready to complete it out of hand. It's not the slightest use your fussing and fuming with me, because it makes no difference. And if I decide to deal, you know, I shall give you a better price than anybody else."
"What a hard old brute you are," the stranger said, passionately. "At any rate, you won't mind locking the stuff up in your safe for me?"
"I can't even do that; I decline to take the smallest risk for anybody. I never trusted a soul in my life, and I am too old to begin that kind of thing now. If I make up my mind to deal on Saturday, the stuff will pass out of my possession in less than five minutes. Take that parcel along with you."
The strange man muttered something and strode out of the house with a cap flung on the back of his head. Madeline had a good view of him now; she was not likely to forget those strange, repellant features again. Without as much as the formality of saying good-night to his host, the stranger flung out of the hall and banged the door behind him. He did not see Madeline at all.
But the sour, thin face of her father, under the tangled thatch of white hair, looked out with an evil grin. Madeline had always known her father for a hard, merciless man, but she never associated him with rascality before. And yet the face that she saw now was most emphatically the face of a scoundrel.
Their eyes met at length; Matthew Forfitt's expression changed. He came slowly to the spot where Madeline was standing. He rubbed his thin hands together till the knuckles grew white. For a long time Madeline waited for him to speak.
"So you have come home," he said, in a dry, rasping voice. "To judge by your dress, the last two years have not been fat ones. That clever husband of yours has not made his fortune yet. Or perhaps he is dead, in gaol, under a cloud."
"He is neither," Madeline said. "Clifford is perfectly well."
"Then you have got tired of him. Nothing like a little grinding poverty to knock all the nonsense out of a girl. I always knew you would come home again. And you can't say that I didn't give you a chance. It was that man or me. Leave him, I said, and your home is always open to you. Cling to the fellow, and not one farthing to save you from starvation ever comes to a fortune-hunter."
"You are illogical, father," Madeline said, "to accuse a man of marrying for money when you take the utmost pains to convince him that that marriage leaves him poorer than before. He believed you, he knew that you were speaking the truth, and yet that marriage took place all the same. Clifford is no fortune-hunter."
"Then he is a fool, which is far worse. I don't mind a man being a fortune-hunter so long as it's somebody else's fortune he hunts and not mine."
"I am in trouble," Madeline said; "we are both in trouble for £500. I thought perhaps you might feel disposed for once to—"
"To help you! Oh indeed! Help a man I hate from the bottom of my heart. Help the conceited young fool who thwarted me and interfered with my plans. Ah, ah!"
Madeline wished that she had not come. She was only going to give this hard old man the chance of gloating over Clifford's misfortunes. If he had given any signs of softening she had been prepared to tell him the whole story, but she shrank from that now.
"I am sorry I asked," she murmured. "I might have known. But I have not come back to stay. Clifford is my husband and my duty is by his side. I love him as much, nay, far more than the day I married him. It has been a hard struggle, but—"
"Ah, so it has been a hard struggle, eh?" Forfitt chuckled, diabolically. "You have come very near to starvation. I am glad of it. You have seen black despair looking out of the grate at you in lieu of coals. It is the portion of the undutiful daughter. And all the time you could have been here in the midst of riches."
"Riches!" Madeline cried, passionately. "What are riches! What do they mean to you? A piling up of useless money, money wrung from the poor and needy, money made from the breaking up of happy homes. Money with blood on it. And yet if you lay dying to-morrow you have not a friend in the world who would come and turn your burning pillow for you. And some day—it may be to-morrow—you will be dying on that neglected bed, will know that you are going to meet your Maker and account for all your sins. You will remember the good and kind man you were to be when you wedded my mother. What will be the use of all your money to you then? Poor and needy and in distress as I am, I would not dare to change places with you."
The words poured hotly from Madeline's lips, the listener fell back pace or two. His face had grown a little paler than its wont. The words had gone home.
"Where did you learn that?" Forfitt sneered. "It sounds like a bit from some cheap melodrama. And now, if you have nothing more to say, I think you had better go. Doubtless your husband is skulking about somewhere to wait for the success of your mission."
"My husband has not the least idea that I am here," Madeline retorted. "I did not tell him I was coming, for he would have forbidden it if I had. And, what is more, he will never know. I can spare him that humiliation, at any rate."
Madeline moved towards the door and threw it open. The light from the hall streamed into the darkness like a spear and showed the steady rain beyond. The wind was getting up, too, and howled in the trees. But Forfitt said nothing except to indicate the umbrella stand.
"Take one," he said; "you will get wet going home."
"Certainly not," Madeline replied. "You would not even offer me an umbrella unless it happened to be a perfectly useless one, full of holes. I don't envy the feelings of a father who turns his daughter out of doors a night like this."
Without another word, Madeline stepped out into the thickly falling rain. As she turned she saw her father's stern figure gazing after her, but on his white, thin face she could see no shadow of regret or remorse.
"God help him," Madeline whispered. "What a life, what a future! To think that he should possess the keys of happiness and throw them away like that."
The door closed, the slip of light vanished, and Madeline was alone in the heart of the night.
Madeline's anger and indignation kept her warm for the time. She toiled on up the slope, past the familiar sign-post, whilst the rain steadily increased, and the wind grew to a gale. It became so bad presently that Madeline decided to stop somewhere for the night. She was pretty certain to lose her way again, and already she bitterly regretted her adventure. It was just possible that Clifford might sleep till the morning without missing her. At any rate she could not get back tonight.
She came at length to a building in a little valley, a stone building thatched with straw. The door gave way to a vigorous push, the place felt warm and comfortable and fragrant inside. Fortunately Madeline had a little box of wax matches in her pocket, and one of these she lighted. There was a table and a chair and an empty drinking horn, all as they had been left by some belated shepherd. There were steps to a loft above, and the loft was filled with hay. Madeline carefully extinguished her match and crept up the stairs into the loft. It was warm and comfortalble there, and the girl almost immediately fell into a fitful doze. Gradually tired nature asserted itself and she slept.
She never knew how long or how soundly, but she was aroused presently by what struck her as being a man's voice, the voice of a man who had stumbled on something and hurt himself. She could hear somebody moving down below. Probably it was only a shepherd who had come there out of the storm. If she lay quiet Madeline felt pretty sure that there was not the slightest probability of her presence there being discovered. Presently the faint rays of a light crept up the ladder, and hovering in lances on the roof of the loft. The lances grew more brilliant, and Madeline recognised the rays of an acetylene lamp. Shepherds do not, as a rule, carry acetylene lamps, nor do they hum snatches from the very last of the comic operas, as the man downstairs was doing at this moment.
The spirit of curiosity filled Madeline. Very quietly she crept from her nest in the hay and looked down the ladder. She could see her fellow in distress quite plainly. It was the same man whom she had seen in her father's library. He was smoking a cigarette now and wiping his wet clothing with wisps of hay. On the little table he had placed three flat green cases, and Madeline wondered what they contained.
She was not kept long in doubt, for the stranger lighted a cigarette and proceeded to open the case that lay at the top. As he did so streams of liquid fire flashed all over the place, living, bubbling streaks of blue and gold shimmering everywhere. It wanted no expert to tell Madeline that she was looking at the finest diamonds she had ever seen. The man's face softened as he played with the stones.
"So I've got you, my beauties," he muttered. "The grandest lot in the world. Properly handled they are worth a million. And I've got them and nobody is any the wiser. By Jove, if the other fellows only guessed. I shall be glad to see the last of them, all the same; I'm sorry that old fox would not take them to-night. What's that?"
The man looked cunningly about him, and covered the shimmering stones with his hand. But it was only the wind howling outside, only a sudden sound of wind on the panes.
"I must put you up," the stranger went on with his muttering. "I only took you out for company. The knowledge that that fellow Phil Henshaw is in the neighborhood makes me nervous. And there is no way of locking that confounded door."
He caressed the stones again; his whole attention seemed to be absorbed in them. The door opened and closed again and then opened once more. Madeline held her breath as she saw the figure of another man creeping in. The face was in the shadow made by the broad back of the first man, so that he could not see the diamonds on the table. A twig snapped under his feet, and the first man looked round. Like a flash he pushed the diamonds off the table and wheeled his lamp round so that its rays might temporarily blind the newcomer. It was then that Madeline could see his face. It was the man with the lantern who had made an inquiry of her earlier in the evening.
It was quite evident that he had not seen the diamonds, for the first man had shovelled some loose hay over them with his feet. His whole glance was concentrated upon the man behind the lamp. The man behind the lamp was in mortal fear. Some instinct told Madeline that. There was silence for a time.
"So I have found you at last, my friend," the newcomer said.
"It would be useless to deny it, Phil Henshaw," said the other. "Not that there is much satisfaction to be derived from the fact."
"Perhaps not, you rascal. I recognised you to-night as you were going up to the house of old Michael Forfitt and you recognised me. You managed to give me the slip, and I thought that I had lost you again, but fortune has been my friend for once. So you thought that you had me safe on the Capetown Breakwater for the next ten years."
"My dear chap, if you are so foolish as to dabble in illicit diamond buying—"
"Silence, you scoundrel," the man called Henshaw thundered. "Do you suppose that I don't know all about that, and that I am made the scapegoat of yourself and the man who calls himself Michel Rayne? Before long I shall have proofs in my hands, and that heap of missing stones will be discovered. That is why I escaped, that is why I am in England at the present moment. There are friends working on my behalf who will see me through to the end. But you are the man I wanted to meet."
"Now drop that tone, Phil Henshaw," the other man said, with a shake in his voice.
"I shall use any tone I choose. When I see you my blood boils and the red comes before my eyes. But for you I should be on the way to fame and fortune now. I should be the husband of the girl you persecute with your importunities. Drop that, I tell you, or I will come to London at any risk and kill you."
The last word came with a hissing whisper. The other man caught up a chair and made a smashing blow at the speaker with it. The blow fell short or the conversation would have come to an abrupt end. The newcomer darted forward.
"Murderous dog," he cried. "You bring your punishment upon yourself. Take that."
Madeline held her breath and watched in fascinated horror. The two were locked in a close grip now, and swayed to and fro across the floor. Their labored breathing came painfully to the listener's ears. She watched the combat proceed until the man with the beard was forced away and staggered towards the table. Then she saw the other antagonist shoot out his fist, a sickening blow followed, and the bearded one was crashed on the floor, where he lay like a log, his successful adversary bending over him.
"By heaven, I have killed the fellow," he muttered. "Well, he has got his deserts at last. I'll fling him into the bog, and he will never be heard of again."
Madeline dared not speak or move. It seemed to her that she was in the presence of a madman, who had lost his reason brooding over his wrongs. What could a young and defenceless girl do in a case like this? To interfere, even to show herself, might end in the loss of her own life.
She stood there watching, she saw the body dragged away as if it had been an empty sack, she heard the struggle and hard-breathing outside. Madeline dared not move for a long time, until it seemed certain to her that the madman had no intention of returning. Then she stepped down the ladder and made towards the door. As she did so the shimmer of the diamonds attracted her attention. It seemed just for a moment as if a dark evil face was watching her through the solitary window, as she glanced nervously round, but that might have been pure fancy. Madeline slipped the cases into her pocket. The diamonds were derelict and the property of the dead. Here was a way out of Clifford's misfortunes. The sale of one tiny stone would make all the difference, the rest could remain until it was possible to find an owner. Never did fierce temptation and crying opportunity come so beautifully together. And the risk of discovery seemed absolutely impossible. Clifford need know nothing about it. It would be out of the question to trace the gems to Madeline, so far as she was concerned.
What was that? Only the scream of the wind, or was it a shout outside? It was a cry right enough, for a minute later it was repeated; then came the sharp thud of quickly flying footstep, and the next instant a man burst into the cottage. It was the madman with the white face and the burning eyes. But he was not mad now, at any rate, for he took in the situation at a glance.
"You are the lady that I asked a question of just now," he gasped. "I presume you are sheltering here from the storm. My—my mind is a little confused at present, and I have got into a little trouble. Don't put that lamp out, let it pass as your own that you are using to show the way home. And if two men come here and ask you if you have seen anybody like me, for God's sake say no. As there is a heaven above me, I am an innocent man. Shield me, and I can prove to you what a good work you have done. Hark, they are coming. Promise me, promise me that you will do as I ask."
It was weak perhaps, Madeline thought, but she gave the desired assurance. The stranger flew up the ladder and hid in the straw. Madeline waited with a beating heart. She could hear voices coming gradually nearer as one called to the other. But she was not going back on her promise now, come what may.
"Confoundedly dark here," a voice growled. "What a fool you were to lose the lantern. Seems to me there is a light in that deserted hut. What luck! Come along."
The men stood in the old cottage, profoundly astonished to see Madeline standing there. The first of the men bowed awkwardly.
"Have you seen anybody, madam?" he asked. "We are looking for a clean-shaven man with dark eyes and pale face. There was another man with a bruise on his forehead, who passed us at a pretty good pace before my mate dropped the lantern into a bog and nearly got himself suffocated in getting it out. We let that man go because he had nothing to do with us, but the other man we are interested in."
"I have been here quite two hours, and am alone, as you can see," Madeline. "I am merely waiting for the storm to subside before I go home."
"Then he couldn't have come in here, George," said the first speaker to his colleague. "We got a sight of him a little while ago, but by great good luck he found a path and we got boggled in the heather. I suppose you didn't happen to see anything in the nature of valuables here, now."
"It never struck me to look," Madeline said. "But, of course, if you like—"
She paused and just managed to hide her confusion with a shrug of the shoulders. For in the doorway stood the man with the black beard listening to every word. He was not dead, he had watched her through the window, her fancy had not played her false. He shook his fist and grinned horribly and vanished. And Madeline knew that she was in his power!
Neither of the men seemed inclined to doubt the accuracy of Madeline's statement; nor did they seem to notice how the red and white alternated in her face. As a matter of fact, she was trembling from head to foot with the sense of shame—the fear of discovery. No doubt these men were policemen of some kind; there had been a quarrel between these two over ill-gotten spoil, and the authorities were keen upon the scent of the booty. And all the while Madeline had it in her pocket; all the while she was fully resolved not to give it up, and to save Clifford at any cost.
Come what may, Clifford should not suffer. Not for a moment did Madeline disguise from herself that she was acting disgracefully. But the bulk of the ill-gotten diamonds need not be touched; they would be kept till the proper time, and then restored to their owner. One small stone could not matter; Clifford would be free to win his way to fortune, and who would miss one stone among so many? Thus Madeline reasoned against her uneasy conscience. If Clifford was very lucky; she could even make confession and restitution.
"You are going to stay here, miss?" one of the strangers asked.
He spoke with the suspicion of an American accent, as did his companion. What were these American detectives doing here? Madeline asked herself. Perhaps they belonged to Pinkerton's or some great detective agency like that. She pulled herself together sufficiently to say she would stay till the rain stopped.
"I live close by," she explained, "so I am not in the least afraid."
But she was afraid—horribly afraid. If on the spur of the moment she could have invented some ingenious excuse to get these men to see her home, she would have done so; but her brain was numbed now, and no idea came to her. With a strange feeling of despair she saw the two strangers depart; their footsteps died away in the distance. Suppose the man with the beard came back now and forced the diamonds from her? He knew that she had them—he had actually heard her denial—and he would be sure to lurk close by with the object of getting his property back.
It seemed to Madeline that she must fall to the ground between two stools. If she stayed, the man with the beard would come back; if she went away, he would follow her, and violence might be done in the darkness. There was a step close behind Madeline, and a little scream escaped her. She had quite forgotten the man in the loft, who had crept down the ladder again. He looked quiet and self-contained now. In a strange kind of way, Madeline felt glad of even his company.
"Do not be afraid," he said. "I am not quite the desperado you take me for. Somebody seems to have been in the hayloft to-night besides myself. Is it possible that you were there when I was having a discussion with—"
"With the man with the black beard?" said Madeline. "I was. I thought you had killed him."
"I thought so, too. As a matter of fact, he was more or less shamming. Thank God my violence ended as it did! But if I had killed him I should have cast his body into one of the bogs, and never let my conscience suffer uneasiness."
The last words came in a slow, hissing whisper; the dark eyes gleamed with brooding hate. "But I am alarming you," the stranger said. "What I told you just now was not more than the truth. That man is an utterly depraved scoundrel. At his hands I have suffered terribly. To shield him and others I suffered imprisonment. I was lucky to escape, and found my way home. Even here I can do something to prove my innocence. But when I heard that that fellow was persecuting the girl whom I love—"
"Ah! I understand," Madeline cried, with a sudden light breaking in upon her. "You are Mr. Philip Henshaw, and the girl you allude to is Miss Myra Rayne."
"Well, that's quite true," Henshaw admitted, with a puzzled expression; "though how you know—"
"It was a message given by the young lady to my husband. It is a strange complication altogether, and the story is too long to tell now. My husband will meet you—I will arrange that—say, by the dead oak tree on the side of the common, to-morrow night. If anything prevent, I will meet you or send a note; that is easily accomplished. And now perhaps you will accompany me as far as the high road? It may seem foolish to you, but I am horribly afraid that I may meet the man with the black beard."
"It is not foolish of you at all," said Henshaw. "I will see you safe, and if I fall into the hands of those who are searching for me—Perhaps they are searching for somebody else, and my nerves affect me. Perhaps my whereabouts has been discovered. It is a terribly trying life, and sometimes I wish that it was all ended."
The man was innocent—Madeline felt quite certain of that. She wondered if he had anything to do with the mysterious quest upon which Clifford was engaged. It seemed to her very likely, seeing that diamonds were mixed up in the case all round. But, on the other hand, the affair seemed to be an international one, or why the presence of the American detectives? But it was getting late now, and there was Clifford to think of.
The weather was a little better now, and only a small, fine rain was falling. Here and there the clouds lightened, and a glimpse of the heathery landscape showed dimly. For some way Madeline and her companion walked in silence. No sign of the bearded man could be seen anywhere, though the thick furze could have hidden a hundred from sight.
"There is the high road at last," Madeline said. "I am infinitely obliged to you, and I need not trouble you any further. I don't fancy even the bearded man is likely to trouble me on the road, with the chance of people passing. If—"
Madeline paused, for her companion had turned away to the left and plunged into the heather. At the same instant the Americans appeared in sight, walking swiftly along in the direction of Brighton. They took no heed of Madeline; evidently they were unaware of the fact that she had had a companion.
Madeline was alone now, and, despite the ring of the high road under her feet, was by no means as easy in her mind as she had imagined. Quickly she passed along, starting at every tree and post, fearing that she was followed, and scoffing at her own alarm. And yet one of the big bushes by the roadside seemed strange. Then the bush moved, and a figure darted into the road. Madeline looked about her for some means of escape; if none offered, then she would have to trust to her fleetness of foot. From the distance came a steady hummning, and the two great flaming eyes came nearer and nearer.
"Is that you?" Madeline cried. "This is a perfect god-send. You will be able to save me a long walk. Pull up, or you will be on the top of me."
Who the occupants of the big motor car were, Madeline neither knew nor cared. She heard the bearded man utter an oath; she saw him turn away and strike a side path that led across the common to the village. The car pulled up with a jerk, and then Madeline saw, to her great surprise, that its solitary occupant was a woman. Her face was veiled, and her fur jacket hung loosely on her figure; but a certain nameless grade and charm were apparent to Madeline at a glance.
"You probably take me for somebody else," the strange lady said, in a musical voice. "But I pull up for the simple reason that I have to. I came down the last hill with the mere impetus of the car, but something has gone wrong with the gear. Now is it possible that you can tell me what is wrong?"
"Where is your chauffeur?" Madeline asked.
"My dear child, I came without one. I had important business here. My idea was to get it over, and return to London before daylight. Can you help me?"
"My husband is an engineer—a mining engineer; but he knows all about machinery. For his sake, I take an interest in it. Let me try my hand."
"By all means. Otherwise we will turn into the hedge and go and hunt up that clever husband of yours. You will find some fearful-looking tools in that pocket."
The damage was not great, as Madeline ascertained, and in a few minutes the car was once more speeding on towards the village. The lights in the houses began to twinkle out.
"Now I shall have to part with you," said the stranger. "Only, please tell me if you know where I can find the cottage occupied by Mr. Clifford Marsh."
"That is easily done," said Madeline, with a little thrill, "seeing that Clifford Marsh is my husband. You go down the lane, which is quite wide enough to take the motor. Our cottage is the white one at the bottom. Your name—"
"My name is not of the least consequence," said the stranger, with just a touch of haughtiness in her tones. "What I want is to see your husband alone. Be discreet and silent, and it will be the best for all parties, yourself included."
The motor had pulled up by this time before the cottage, and Madeline got down. She signed to her companion to follow, but the latter merely shrugged her shoulders.
"I don't think so," she said. "Time is very precious, and I have already lost quite enough of it over that wretched car. Send your husband here, please."
Again came the haughty tone that Madeline resented. But there was no time to think about that now. Madeline stepped into the cottage, and went into the bedroom. A candle was burning low on the dressing table, but the bed was not occupied. As Madeline had feared, Clifford had awakened, and gone in search of her.
Her absence may or may not have alarmed him. He might have thought that she had merely gone down in the village for something. Anyway, he was not to be found. Madeline heard the stranger's little white teeth clack together as she listened to this information. Then the latter flounced out of the car, and made her way in to the little sitting-room.
"Listen!" she whispered hoarsely. "I must see your husband at once. If he cannot be found in the next half-hour, it will be impossible for me to remain any longer. Go and find him."
Madeline obeyed mechanically. But she could not find Clifford anywhere. Perhaps he had followed her down to the village; perhaps he had become alarmed by her absence, and had gone to look for her across the common. But, whatever the explanation was, Clifford could not be found, as Madeline was obliged to admit a few minutes later.
"Oh, this is maddening!" the stranger cried, as she paced up and down the little room. "Your husband should not have left London; he should have kept in touch with us. Tell him he is to meet me in the print-room of the British Museum to-morrow, at four o'clock. He is not to fail at any cost. Do you understand?"
"If you will be so good as to give me your name," Madeline suggested.
"My name has nothing to do with it," was the impatient reply. "Only act as I tell you. I do not want all my pains for nothing. Good-night."
The stranger swept away into the car, wheeled it round recklessly, and was gone. Madeline returned thoughtfully to the sitting-room. On the floor the stranger had dropped an embroidered handkerchief case; and inside Madeline found a surprise for her.
It was a pair of long, shapely, velvet gloves!
So here was some little clue to the mystery, Madeline thought. She had evidently had an encounter with the lady of the velvet gloves. But how had that remarkable woman found out that Clifford had left London? And why should she want to see him in such a hurry, and how was he to get to London without money? Well, Madeline could see her way as far as that was concerned. She had a little money left from the sale of her two pictures, and the balance of the £500 could be made up before the day was out. If Clifford went to London she would be free to go over to Tunbridge Wells and there dispose of one of the small diamonds. The notes could be put up in a registered envelope and posted to Clifford, as if they come from some anonymous admirer, for his use and benefit. On second thoughts, Madeline decided to send no letter with the notes.
She had worked the matter out in her mind before Clifford came in. He looked uneasy and anxious, and, from the condition of his old tweed suit and heavy boots, he had been across the moor.
"Thank goodness you have come back," he said, with much relief in his face. "Old Mrs. Jones at the corner told me you had gone across the common at dusk. My dear girl, your dress is all torn, and your feet must be sopping. Where have you been?"
"Did you think that I had run away?" Madeline smiled to gain time.
"Well, I didn't know what to think. You see, we have had so much trouble lately, and one reads of such strange things in the paper. I feel myself as if my brain would go at times. And I suppose my nerves are not what they were."
"I don't think we need alarm ourselves about that," Madeline said, as she kissed her husband tenderly. "I had best tell the truth, Clifford. After you had fallen asleep a wild scheme came into my mind. I knew that, by some means or other, we must get that money, and I thought, perhaps, I could induce my father to advance it to you."
"My dear girl, my suspicion as to your state of mind appears to be more than justified."
"But I started off on the spur of the moment. It was dreadful work crossing that moor, but I managed it. It was only when I reached my father's that I realised my folly, but, as I had gone so far, I decided not to take my hand back from the plough. I walked into the house and saw my father. He has not changed in the least, Clifford."
"I don't suppose he has," Clifford said, quietly. "It is only people who have hearts and feelings who change, Maddy. But I am deeply sorry that you went."
"So am I now, Clifford. He was so cold and distant and so cruel, he seemed so glad that we are poor. Don't let us talk about it, Clifford, the thought saddens me."
"We won't, darling," Clifford said. "Did you have any adventures on the way home?"
Madeline told her story, but she said nothing of the diamonds. She told all about the meeting between the bearded man and Philip Henshaw, and the subsequent scene of violence, to all of which Clifford listened with more or less indifference. But his face lighted up, and his indifferent manner vanished when he heard of the veiled lady and Madeline produced the glove.
"What did you think of her face?" he asked.
"I did not see her face," Madeline said. "But she gave me a vague impression of being a really beautiful woman. I suppose I was speaking to the lady of the velvet glove, Clifford?"
"I should say that there is not the least doubt about it," Clifford responded. "Now I wonder how that remarkable woman came to know that I had already left London? Does she know of the great misfortune that has happened to me? On the whole, I should say not, or she would never have been so anxious to see me again. People of that class do not forgive failures. Madeline, there is no doubt about one thing—I must keep that appointment."
"Of course you must," Madeline said, promptly, "and very pleased and proud I am that I have the money in my purse to provide for the journey. And now I'll go and change my wet clothes and get you some supper. How tired I am, to be sure!"
The supper was despatched, and the things put away, the light was extinguished, and the little cottage slept—all but Madeline. She lay there quite still and quiet; she could hear Clifford's regular breathing as a heavy sleep lay upon him, but her brain was too active for sleep. Over and over again she traversed the events of the evening; if she fell into a doze, it was only to see the face of the bearded man rising vengefully before her. She tried to think of other things, she heard the clock downstairs strike one, but no sleep came.
At last tired nature asserted herself, and she dropped off. She was sleeping very lightly still, and a sudden snap of something downstairs brought her to herself again. She sat up in bed, looking intently for she knew not what. The idea of a burglar in a little cottage like that seemed absurd. And yet she felt pretty sure that she could hear somebody very stealthily moving about downstairs. Should she wake Clifford? But, then, it seemed a thousand pities to disturb him when he was sleeping so peacefully.
Who could the man be who had selected a tiny cottage for his depredations? Then suddenly there flashed into Madeline's mind a thought that caused her heart to beat thick and fast, and the little beads to stand out on her forehead. The bearded man had tracked her to the cottage, and he had come there to find the missing diamonds.
There could be no doubt that here was the source of the mischief. A chair scraped upon the floor, and somebody muttered something in a low voice. Madeline could bear it no longer. The precious stones were safely hidden at the bottom of a box in the bedroom, but that was not the point. Madeline felt that in another moment she would scream. She pressed Clifford's shoulder and whispered in his ear.
He was awake and alert in a moment. It was a trick that he had learnt in South Africa, and he had not forgotten it yet. He would have spoken aloud, only Madeline placed a hand over his mouth and lowered her own voice.
"A burglar," she whispered. "A man moving about downstairs. Don't you hear him?"
Clifford smiled at the suggestion. Doubtless it was a mouse. And it was not at all usual for Madeline to be nervous like this. Perhaps the visit to her father had tried her nerves to a greater extent that she had imagined.
"I don't hear anything," Clifford muttered. "By Jove, though, you're right."
He sat up in bed, listening intently. The soft noise was going on below, and Clifford smiled grimly. From sheer force of habit he still slept with a revolver under his pillow, and his hand stole for it now. It was certainly amusing to think of a burglar there in so poor a place.
"Now, what can that beggar be looking for?" Clifford mused under his breath. "He can't get anything of value here. He'll try upstairs presently."
"Oh, I hope he'll do nothing of the kind," Madeline said, with a shiver. "If he does—"
"He will get a warm reception. That's exactly what I want him to do, so that I'll catch him red-handed and not frighten him away. By Jove, Maddy, suppose it is one of my murderous friends looking for something that he supposes I possess. It's very likely."
The stairs creaked and were silent. There was a long pause; evidently the burglar was not going to take any risks. His head appeared presently, and a body slid into the room. Then the intruder crossed the fire place, and there was a clear space between him and the door. Clifford sat up very gently, and pointed his revolver. The unconscious burglar wheeled round, and the shiny blue rim seemed to hit him between the eyes.
A bitter, snarling oath broke from the intruder. There was a certain look of surprise, of mixed horror and fear on his face; the bruised features, raw from Henshaw's violence, were ghastly.
"If it's not a rude question, what are you doing here?" Clifford asked. "Allow me to don a few of my garments, and then I'll escort you downstairs. But, as yet, you have not answered my question. Once more, my good friend, what are you doing here?"
"It's a mistake," the other stammered between teeth that chattered. "I—I was on a long walk, and I missed my way."
Clifford merely smiled by way of reply. Hastily he huddled on his clothes, and hustled the stranger down the stairs. Once in the dining-room his manner changed.
"Now, you scoundrel," he asked, sternly. "What have you to say why I should not call in the police and hand you over to them? What do you say to that?"
"It's a mistake," the other said. "Besides, you know me, you can yourself vouch for my utter respectibility. Why, you were in my house last night playing cards."
"Playing cards," Clifford said bluntly. "Are you drunk, my good fellow?"
"Not so drunk as you were last night," the other said. "We—we had to put you in a cab. Come, don't say you don't recollect."
"You are quite mistaken," Clifford said. He was playing his own game now. This man had looked upon him as dead, and here he was in the flesh, with no recollection, or apparently no recollection, of the murderous plot so perilously near to success on the previous night.
"Perhaps I have made a mistake," the other muttered. "Certainly, the likeness is amazing. And the gentleman I allude to does not live in London. But it is all hanged nonsense. For some reason or other you are trying to deceive me."
"I beg you to believe what I say," Clifford replied, icily, "in the first place, I must emphatically state that I was never drunk in my life, and that I was never inside your house I can prove; to the satisfaction of any court of law. And, as I am very tired, and too lazy to do my duty, perhaps you will dispense with the formality of a police-van, and permit me to kick you off the premises. Don't let me catch you here again."
Clifford opened the door, and suited the action to the word. The intruder stumbled on in the darkness and up the lane with limbs none too steady. He wiped his wet, ghastly face.
"What does it all mean?" he muttered. "That fellow ought to be dead, he must be dead. And yet here he is in the flesh, and in the last spot I ever expected to see him. And what game is he playing when he pretends that he has never seen me before. A dangerous fellow, full of cunning, and with a nerve like iron. He must be got out of the way—after what has happened I shall have no peace till he is got out of the way."
"Did that man know you, Clifford?" Madeline asked. "He was the one I saw in the hut."
"So I suspected," Clifford exclaimed, as he divested himself of his clothes. "I fancy I puzzled him, and I am very certain I frightened him nearly to death. My dear Madeline, your burglar is no less a person than the murderous rascal, Sefton!"
A sudden dazzling light came over Madeline. Just in that instant she seemed to see everything. She could have spoken her thoughts there and then; but, as quick as her mental vision had cleared, as quickly everything grew misty again. On the whole she would not speak; she would wait, and try and piece the problem together during the daylight hours when she would be alone.
Clifford would go to London, of course. He decided the matter at breakfast time. On the whole, he imagined that the brilliant and mysterious Geraldine Manton would be far kinder to him in his misfortunes than Sir Arthur Barrymore.
"I don't know whether to make a full confession or not," he said to Madeline, as the time for his departure grew near. "You see, I am puzzled over the last development of Sefton's. Why did he come down here, I wonder?"
"And why did you pretend not to know him, I wonder?" Madeline said.
"Well, I confess that was a bit subtle. The man is such a clever scoundrel that I wanted to puzzle him. He evidently regarded me as being dead and out of the way. Seeing that I had luck on my side, he would expect me to denounce him as a murderous scoundrel. Instead of doing that, and allowing him to make good some cock-and-bull story of my getting drunk, I pretend that we are strangers. That makes him alarmed and uneasy, and gives him a kind of impression that there might be two of us, after all. I fancy that I acted for the best."
"But won't those men suspect?" Madeline asked, anxiously. "Sefton saw you talking to that nice little Myra Rayne. Wouldn't they come to the conclusion that the girl had a hand in your release?"
"Spoken like your thoughtful little self," said Clifford, with an affectionate glance at his wife. "The same idea had occurred to me. I hope that I shall be able to satisfy myself on that head before the day is out."
Madeline said nothing as to possible dangers, and her face was brave and smiling as Clifford kissed her good-bye. At the same time, she was terribly nervous—all the more because Clifford was uncertain as to the time of his return. That he would telegraph if he were detained the night was all the comfort he could give.
He came at length to his destination at the appointed time—the printroom in the British Museum. A handful of people were there, variously, engaged; here and there others were writing at the tables. The hour struck and the minutes passed on without any sign of the brilliant Geraldine Manton. An old lady in a green bonnet and gold-rimmed glasses looked up from her writing as Clifford passed and asked him a question as to a possible mistake in the catalogue.
"I am afraid I cannot help you, madame," he said. "These things are not in my line at all. I am merely waiting for a friend."
"Oh, yes, you can help me," the elderly lady said, in a voice that startled Clifford. "I am glad to find that my disguise is so efficient. Now sit down and talk. You may be watched, but I am quite sure that I am not—that nobody suspects my disguise."
"You are wonderful," Clifford murmured. "I suppose you know everything? But does Michel Rayne know who you really are?"
"He knows that I am in England, but so far he has not succeeded in identifying me. I may say that the same remark applies to you."
"But as Mrs. Geraldine Manton, the wife of an American millionaire!" Clifford protested. "You have been photographed for the society papers; you go everywhere. Why—"
"I hate to be questioned," Mrs. Manton interrupted. "The questions are for me to ask. Rest assured I have never been photographed. For the present I prefer to be a brilliant mystery. When you know who I really am, I feel quite sure that you will be astonished. So will other people."
"Rayne, was hot upon your scent the night I had the good fortune to save you."
"Because I was leading him on a false trail. I had never discounted the possibility of an accident, and it was only your promptness on that occasion that saved me from discovery. When I saw you again that same night at Sir Arthur Barrymore's, I made up my mind on the spot to use your services. But in the chemist's shop I was veiled. How did you find out that Mrs. Geraldine Manton was one and the same as your veiled lady?"
"Your left hand," Clifford returned. "You see, I noticed—"
"Hush! Not a word more! You are to forget that—forget it, I say. Do you hear?"
The command was uttered in a fierce whisper, the dark eyes glittered. The woman seemed to be moved to the very core of her being. Then she grew more calm again.
"Anyway, you did find out. And you agreed to be used for our purpose. And from the first you ignominiously failed. Those people robbed you and drugged you, and would have murdered you into the bargain but for good luck."
"So you know that story?" said Clifford, with a certain feeling of relief. "So you know I was actually taken to the residence of Lord Arlingbury? To suggest that his lordship had anything to do with the matter is absurd. Now will you kindly tell me how those rascals managed to gain temporary possession of that house."
"Easily enough. Lord Arlingbury and his family are abroad. The servants have gone also, and only an aged caretaker is left in possession. Let us say the caretaker is a little deaf and a little fond of intoxicants. There you are. A latchkey and a little impudence does the rest. The same game has been played by the gang in one or two of the best houses in London this autumn. Of course, it is easy enough to rig out a confederate as a footman. Now tell me what really happened?"
Clifford repeated his story freely enough. His companion smiled as he told all about the dictated letter.
"That was very clever," she said. "The letter was sent to Sir Arthur, but I took the liberty of intercepting it for the present. And I waited to hear the story from your lips. Sir Arthur would never have believed you, and he would have given you no more money. As a matter of fact, he could not find it if he would."
"A strange state of affairs for a man in his position," Clifford said.
"Ah! even millionaires are very hard up at times," Mrs. Manton replied. "Suppose he had embarked upon a great corner in big diamonds. Suppose he had put every penny he could scrape together on them, and from the holding syndicate he had borrowed the gems for the purpose of making a market. And suppose the gems had suddenly vanished, and that in less than three days they had to be returned to the syndicate. At present the syndicate, with the exception of one man, is utterly ignorant as to what has happened. But that state of ignorance cannot remain. The gems are gone. They are too valuable to dispose of; the game too risky. But the thieves say, in effect, to Sir Arthur, 'Give us forty thousand pounds, and the stones shall be returned.'"
Clifford whistled softly as he listened to this thrilling statement.
"So that is the position of affairs," he said. "'But how could those fellows know that I—"
"Barrymore is closely watched. You were seen to come out of his office. Then you were watched. And you admitted to an intimate knowledge of South Africa and diamonds. From the first I felt pretty sure that you were going to fail."
"Then why did you send me on that errand?" Clifford naturally asked.
"Because you were the blind. Whilst they were following you, I was free to act. Only, I wanted to know what had happened, and that is why I came to your house last night. You should not have run away like that."
"I lost my nerve," Clifford admitted; "and, though my story was true, I felt sure that nobody would believe it. Do you suppose for a moment that anybody would?"
"Well, I do—which is a big point in your favor. Sir Arthur wouldn't. Did you tell your wife anything? But of course you did. Married men always do. That being so, had she any suspicion as to who owned the motor-car?"
"She found a pair of velvet gloves," said Clifford, "which settled it. And now what can I do for you? Is there anything that you require at my hands?"
"Of course there is. I can give you no more money, because ready money is a very scarce commodity at present. But I shall require you to find out the residence of Michel Rayne, and to get the run of his house."
"I fancy I can manage that," Clifford said, after a long pause. "You will recollect that at Mrs. Raby's the other night, I was enabled to do Rayne's sister a favor. It matters little what that favor was. Now, Myra Rayne is a good girl, and she holds by her brother in the hope of finding out the disgraceful secret of her lover's humiliation. That lover, Philip Henshaw, has escaped to England, and, in fact, my wife saw him last night. But perhaps I had better tell you that little story."
The listener nodded eagerly. She followed Clifford with flattering attention.
"Capital," she said presently. "We must cultivate this Philip Henshaw. He may be very useful to us later on. And Miss Myra Rayne may be a perfect ace of trumps to us. I had not thought of her at all. So that, instead of being a failure, your discovery is likely to lead to a triumphant success."
Clifford was about to say something, when his companion interrupted him with an impatient gesture. For a few minutes her face was wrinkled with thought.
"I fancy I see my way," she said. "You know me, and all the world knows me, as Mrs. Geraldine Manton, the wife of a great American millionalire. At present I live in a big furnished house which I have rented from a nobleman. Why I came to England, and who I really am, will all come out in time. I may say that Sir Arthur Barrymore's affair was to me a mere side issue, into which I came more or less by accident. Now, I am giving a party to-night, and you will have to be there. Michel Rayne will be there, and so will his sister. I have not quite made up my mind how to act yet, but I begin to see my way. But by night-time I shall have the whole thing planned out."
"I shall have to go home and get my borrowed dress-clothes," Clifford said.
"Of course that will be necessary. There is plenty of time, because I should not need you before ten o'clock to-night. Merely give your name and pass into the house. Don't disguise yourself, and meet Rayne as if you were a stranger, or, at any rate, as if nothing happened the other night."
Clifford nodded and smiled. He was beginning to feel the fierce joy of the fight again. It was pleasant, too, to know that he had so capable, an ally.
"Very well," he said. "I shall be there. Now, shall I stay here or shall I leave first?"
Mrs. Manton rose, and walked from the table with a perfect similitude of an aged woman.
"I'll go first," she said. "You had better stay, perhaps, for a quarter of an hour longer. A la bonne heure."
Totally unaware of the trend of events, Madeline was working out her own little plan of campaign. It was all very wrong and very dangerous, but she was going through with it. It was all for love of Clifford, she told herself again and again. There was plenty of time—she had no mind to go to Tunbridge Wells before the afternoon train—and there was a lot to do in the cottage. Madeline tried to feel cheerful; she tried to persuade herself that she was not doing anything wrong; but, all the same, she was miserably guilty.
The morning wore away heavily, and the girl was glad at length when the time came to act. She had hidden the diamonds in a fresh place in her bedroom, and she carefully locked the door behind her before taking out one of the cases. How the gems glittered and sparkled in the rays of the October sun! What a fortune, what pleasure and happiness and freedom from care lay behind those shimmering stones.
Madeline pushed them out of her sight passionately. She felt that, if she looked at them any longer, they would sap her honesty and integrity altogether. A little more gloating over the gems, and she would require the lot. She selected the smallest of them, a brilliant about the size of a hazel-nut, and placed it in her purse. She started guiltily as she heard someone knocking at the front door. Perhaps the police had found her already. Madeline's face was white, and her knees shook, as she answered the summons. But it was only a girl, whose face was a shade less pale than her own.
"I think you are Mrs. Clifford Marsh," the stranger said, timidly. "Would you mind very much if I came in for a moment?"
Madeline hesitated. If she stayed much longer she would miss her train. At the same time, there was something about the pretty, timid girl that appealed to her. Madeline was always ready to sacrifice herself for others.
"Come in, by all means," she said. If she missed her train now, there was another about tea-time. "Now tell me what I can do for you."
"I hope you can do a great deal for me," the other said. "Mr. Marsh was so kind as to do me a great service the other night, and in return I told him a deal of my history. I have always been taught that husbands have no secrets from their wives, and that makes me hope that Mr. Clifford told you all about Myra Rayne."
"So you are Myra Rayne," Madeline said, as she pressed the girl's hand warmly. "Yes, Clifford told me all he knew. Have you come to see him?"
"I certainly came on the chance of finding him at home," Myra admitted.
"Then I am only sorry to say that he has gone to town," Madeline said. "But you need not be disappointed on that account. I am sure that I can do anything for you that he could. I know all about Philip Henshaw."
The girl's pretty face flushed, and the dark eyes sparkled.
"My lover!" she said. "Ah! if you only knew how he has suffered at the hands of my brother and his associates! I don't know whether or not Mr. Marsh has had time to find Phil, who is living close by here, but I am quite sure that—"
"I have found him," Madeline smiled; "in fact, I can lead you to him in less than half an hour. It would be quite safe to bring him here by way of the garden. Now, confess—did you not come down for that purpose?"
"It will be a great joy to me to see dear Phil again," Myra said, with a thrill in her voice. "But, dearly as I long to see him, I should never have taken the risk had I not made an important discovery in the finding of a friend of his who has been missing for a long time. He was Phil's greatest chum. I hoped he would be able to tell a useful story. And, now that I have found him, I have the unhappiness to discover that he has lost his reason. He met with an accident at the time Phil was arrested in Capetown—or, at least, they say it was an accident. The poor fellow can recollect nothing of that eventful night. Sometimes a shock brings the memory back, and I hope that the sight of Phil—"
"Yes, yes," Madeline cried, eagerly—"it shall be done. Where is your friend?"
"He is in the porch. He is a magnificent creature to look at, and so kind, and gentle. Come in, Mr. Dawlish. This is Mrs. Marsh—Mr. Oliver Dawlish."
A magnificent specimen of humanity stood and bowed before Madeline. His face was strong and handsome, but his eyes were sleepy and vacant. Dawlish spoke easily enough, but it was quite evident that some pressure on the brain clouded his intellect. When asked, he went quite obediently out into the garden again.
"Phil says he used to be so wonderfully bright and intellectual," Myra explained. "He fancies that the so-called accident was a murderous blow delivered by one of the scoundrels who was responsible for Phil's disgrace. If we could only get behind that clouded intellect, we might discover many strange things. At any rate, it is quite evident that these scoundrels intended to kill poor Oliver Dawlish. I have been seeking him for a long time, and in the faint hope, as I said, of the sight of Phil—"
"Well, the sight will not be delayed long," Madeline said, cheerfully. "Let Mr. Dawlish come inside while I go to look for the absent lover. Oh, no, you are not detaining me. I have to go to Tunbridge Wells, but that will do later on."
Quite forgetful of her own troubles, Madeline set out for the old oak tree where she had agreed to see Philip Henshaw if anything happened. Scarcely a quarter of an hour elapsed before Henshaw's head appeared above the bracken.
"Has anything happened?" he asked, anxiously.
"Nothing unpleasant," Madeline smiled. "Miss Myra Rayne has come down to see you, and she has brought a Mr. Dawlish with her."
"Dawlish!" Henshaw cried. "We thought he was dead. He had a bad accident—"
"Which seems to have unhinged his mind," Madeline explained. "He does not seem to take any interest in anything. Miss Myra hoped that the sight of you might do something. But perhaps you will come with me?"
"But don't you think that that would be a rather dangerous proceeding?"
"Not at all. When I say come with me, I don't mean literally. Yonder is our cottage, and by keeping to the furze you can reach the wall of the garden without being seen. Once there, the rest is quite easy. I shall be back before you."
Madeline had barely reached the house before Phil Henshaw crept over the fence. The big form of Dawlish could be seen as he strolled about looking at the late flowers. With a smile, Madeline signified to Henshaw to enter.
"I fancy you will do better without me," she smiled. "When you are ready for Mr. Dawlish, you can give me a call. Meanwhile, I'll try to amuse him."
Henshaw disappeared into the house, where Myra was awaiting him. There were no words spoken as he took the girl in his arms and covered her face with kisses. It was a long time before they came back to earth again, and Myra glanced at the clock.
"I must get back by the next train," she said. "It was risky to come at all. But I was pining for a look at that dear old face of yours, Phil; and besides, it seemed to me that we might do something with poor Oliver Dawlish. It was a cruell piece of luck to find that his reason had deserted him."
"Has he been to a doctor?" Henshaw asked.
"That I cannot tell you. He remembers nothing. Shall I call him in?"
Dawlish came in and shook hands with Phil, but there seemed no sign of recognition in his eyes—only a lift of the eyebrows, as if a familiar chord had been struck. But the gleam passed away, and the old smiling amiability returned. Phil Henshaw forgot his own misfortunes in pity for his old comrade.
"Don't you remember me and the good old times at Cape Town?" he asked.
"Seems as if I was at a place like that when I was a boy," Dawlish muttered. "I can see the water and the sea shining on something white in the distance. And there are men who talked of diamonds. You were there, too. You are old Phil Henshaw. But then you say you are Phil Henshaw, and that puzzles me. I had it all a moment ago, and then it all disappeared again. Somebody hit me on the head a long time ago, and I don't seem to care about anything else since."
"Where does he live?" Phil asked. "And who are his friends?"
"He says they are all dead," Myra explained. "The landlady tells me some lawyer sends her two pounds a week and pays the rent of the rooms."
"Well, we must get somebody to inquire into this," Phil said. "Unfortunately, I can't do it myself. There stands a man who can almost prove my innocence, and yet his mind is a perfect blank. It is very hard."
"It's terrible," Myra murmured, with the tears in her eyes. "But, my dear boy, we must go. I dare not risk missing the next train. I will try and come again, and perhaps our good kind friend here will allow me to—"
"I will do anything," Madeline exclaimed. "We all have our misfortunes, but I feel sure that the sunshine is not far off. Good-bye."
Madeline watched her new friends depart. She lingered after Henshaw had gone, and she felt that he was safe again. She had time now to turn to the consideration of her own affairs. The diamond was burning in her pocket. There was a train a little after four, which she would be able to catch if she started at once; so she locked up the cottage and made her way to the station.
She came to the shop in Tunbridge Wells at length—a big jeweller's, where they displayed all kinds of rare and precious things, and where silver and gold were bought. There was no doubt about the integrity of the place, and without hesitation Madeline handed over her diamond to an elderly man, with an intimation that she desired a loan.
"And what do you require?" the shop manager asked.
"Say five hundred pounds," Madeline managed to remark. "It is a good stone."
Under a glass the stone was carefully examined, the expert muttering to himself as he peered into the various facets. His face looked puzzled; there was a certain dryness in his manner that alarmed Madeline.
"I am sorry," he said, "very sorry, but I don't see my way at all. It is a strange stone, it has a wonderful brilliant core, and yet the edges are dull and lustreless. I should say it is French manufacture."
"Manufacture!" Madeline cried. "Then do you mean to say that it is not—not—"
She paused as the manager handed the stone back to her, unable to continue.
"Not a diamond, madame," he said. "Any expert will tell you that is paste!"
The dull, oppressive sense of failure had fallen from Clifford, and he was ready and eager for action again. It was good to be up and doing something, good to feel that he had not lost the confidence of his employers—at least, one of them. At the same time, it was not altogether pleasant to know that he had been used merely as a foil to mask the cleverness of his feminine colleague, and Clifford determined to show her that he was capable of better things. With this determination uppermost in his mind, he hurried home, threw his dress clothes together, and started for Cranborough Station, just in time to catch the next train up again. His feelings of astonishment may be imagined when he found Myra Rayne with Dawlish on the platform.
"Surely this is a very risky thing to do," he said, with a smile.
"Indeed, I had to come," Myra explained. "If we are fortunate enough to find an empty carriage, I will tell you all about it on the journey."
An empty carriage was found, but it would be just as well, Clifford said, if they did not go all the way to London together. Myra told her story, to which Clifford listened with profound attention. He shook Oliver Dawlish by the hand, but the latter was too interested in an illustrated paper to take notice of anything else.
"It is a dreadfully sad case," Myra whispered. "Mr. Marsh, have you met the poor fellow before? I fancied that you had, from your face."
"I knew our poor friend very well in Cape Town," Clifford said. "I thought I recognised him on the platform, but the expression of his face has so dreadfully changed. And so you hoped that the sight of Henshaw might restore his reason. Heaven only knows what results might have followed that event, but I am afraid it will require something more in the way of surgical operation. I'll get a young friend of mine, who is ambitious to set up as a brain specialist, to see him. Meanwhile, that reminds me—Mrs. Manton wants you to go to a party she is giving to-night. I have no doubt she has been trying to find you all the afternoon. Will you take this left-handed invitation from me, and drop ceremony? Mrs. Manton is on our side."
"She is a most remarkable woman," Myra said. "Certainly I will go, if you think my presence there to-night is likely to do any good. My brother—"
"Will probably be there, too. If you can kindly give me his address—"
"I am afraid I cannot," Myra replied. "He has one room somewhere in the City that he uses as a kind of office, but there is no furniture on the premises besides a letter-box and a chair. I live in my own rooms."
So there was no chance of getting any information from that quarter, Clifford thought. Busy as he was, he did not forget to leave a message for his specialist friend as regarded Dawlish. Dawlish might prove useful later on; at any rate, that poor wreck might be transformed into a powerful and valuable ally. Who knew what knowledge lay hidden behind that darkened brain?
Clifford killed time as best he could till the hour for his calling on Mrs. Manton came. He changed his clothes at a little coffee shop where he made a frugal meal. He would have a chance of making up for his abstinence later on, he told himself, grimly. Then he turned his steps in the direction of Grosvener Gate.
Mrs. Manton's party was more or less of an impromptu affair, but signs were not wanting that it was going to be well attended. During the short time the lady had been in London she had made her presence felt by the originality of her entertainments. They were generally got up on the spur of the moment, which perhaps accounted for their wonderful popularity. The handsome reception rooms were comfortably filled by the time that Clifford made his appearance.
Mrs. Manton skilfully detached herself from a group of admirers, and came in Clifford's direction. She was looking wonderfully stately and handsome in black velvet and old lace; she wore no jewels of any kind; the velvet gloves were in evidence, and for the first time she made no effort to conceal her left hand.
"They are all here except Mr. Rayne," she said. "I could not manage to get at him direct, so I got a third person to do it. Rayne is fond of baffling people, and he is fond of finding things out. When he hears that I have got something quite new to-night in the way of conjuring and the like, he cannot keep away."
"And the main part of the programme for to-night?" Clifford asked.
Mrs. Manton tapped her white teeth thoughtfully with the hilt of her fan.
"In the first place, to get Rayne's address," she said. "I particularly wanted his sister, but I could not find her at her lodgings. She would have been useful later on."
"You can make your mind easy on that score," said Clifford. "Miss Rayne has been off on an adventure of her own down my part of the world. But perhaps I had better tell you the story. I fancy it all forms part of the original problem."
Mrs. Manton listened carefully—more carefully than the occasion warranted, Clifford thought.
"Well, I shall be glad for the girl to be here," she said. "But to return to my original idea as to obtaining the private address of Michel Rayne. Of course, I know that he has what he calls an office in the City, but he must live somewhere; and, in case of accident, he probably has that address on his person—a card in his purse, or on his latch-key, or something of that kind. We must get that."
"You mean that we must procure it to-night?" Clifford asked.
"Of course. That is the reason for the party. Really, when I think of the money which is being spent over this business, I feel quite uncomfortable. I have arranged this conjuring business on purpose to get that address."
"You have a really good man coming, I suppose?"
"The very best. He is recently from the States. He will do exactly as I like here. But here is the man we are speaking of—Michel Rayne. I presume you are going to meet him as if nothing had happened?"
"More or less," Clifford laughed. "But I prefer to pretend that I don't recollect him at all. The idea worked splendidly with Sefton, and I don't see why it should not do so here. When you require my services, perhaps you will give me a sign?"
Clifford strolled off, leaving his hostess to her duties. Rayne looked round the room, and, as if quite by accident, found himself opposite to Clifford. He smiled and held out his hand. The easy, brazen effrontery of the man caused Clifford to tingle to his finger-tips. Here was a rascal who had deliberately intended to murder him merely on suspicion that he was engaged in the scheme for the recovery of the missing diamonds.
"I'm sorry, but I don't call you to mind in the least," Clifford said.
"Oh, indeed," Rayne responded, with a queer smile. "Ever had a sunstroke, Mr. Marsh?"
"Well, yes—once, in West Africa. But why do you ask the question?"
"Because that might account for your forgetfulness. Why, you played bridge with me the other night at Raby's, and you came on and played poker with us at Sefton's afterwards. Had you been dining, by any chance?"
"I had had an excellent dinner," Clifford said. "But the bridge and the poker! Really, I must have been exceedingly.... What happened after?"
Rayne looked as if he would have given a great deal to tell, but he merely smiled.
"You gave us an address, and we put you in a cab," he said, pointedly.
"Which was exceedingly good of you. The less we say about the evening the better. Only, I trust that I did nothing to call attention to my—my peculiar state of mind. You can never tell who some fellows are—you understand."
Rayne shrugged his shoulders, as if he understood perfectly without anything further being said. At the same time, he was palpably puzzled and uneasy. More than once he had met men who, under the influence of alcohol, had acted in a perfectly natural manner, who had dined and talked, and acted like people in the full possession of their faculties, and yet whose mind had been a complete and absolute blank afterwards.
Was Marsh's a case in point, he wondered, or was this a marvellous piece of acting? Perhaps the strong drug administered to him had affected his memory of a few hours before. Such cases had been known. And here was a man who, under the ordinary circumstance of the case, ought to be lying dead in the house of Lord Arlingbury, and his body should subsequently have been found under mysterious conditions.
As a matter of fact, he was alive and well, and smiling at the face of his would-be murderer. Whether he knew anything or not, one thing remained—somebody must have found Marsh lying utterly unconscious and at the point of death in the town house of Lord Arlingbury, and restored him to life again. On that score there could be no possible doubt whatever. But who had done so, and why was the discovery kept so quiet? Clever as he was, Rayne could not see any way of solving this problem.
"We are going to see something good to-night," he said. "The mysterious always possesses a strange fascination for me. As a rule, it does not take me long to see through those kind of tricks. But Mrs. Manton will only give us the best."
Clifford strolled away, on the whole not displeased with the encounter.
The room was quite full by this time and the hostess was flitting from one group to another, until she contrived to get near Clifford. He saw that she was waiting for him.
"I see that you have utterly puzzled Rayne," she said. "I have been watching his face."
"He doesn't know what to make of it," Clifford laughed. "And now have you any instructions for me? Is the plot to be a very intricate one?"
"On the contrary, it will be very simple when we get it going," Mrs. Manton replied. "Do you see old Lady Sloman over yonder? She is delightfully vulgar, very rich, and exceedingly proud of her diamonds. Do you see that stone she is wearing round her neck—the one in the plain setting?"
"It is certainly a most magnificent stone," Clifford said.
"I believe it is practically unique," Mrs. Manton went on. "Both Lady Sloman and her big, pompous husband are very proud of it. I have had it in my hand several times; in fact, it gave me the first idea for my little scheme to-night. Now listen, and I will tell you what you are to do. You are to gain possession of that stone and let me have it for a few minutes, after which you are to return it to Lady Sloman, without her knowing for a moment that she has parted with the gem at all."
"That is a pretty large order," Clifford smiled.
"Oh, it is. I am trying you with difficult tasks, but I shall admire you all the more if you are successful. Now go away and think it all out; and if you want any confederates or anything in that line, let me know, and they shall be forthcoming."
In reckless mood, Clifford crossed the room. He had fully made up his mind to do exactly what he was told, only as yet he had not the vaguest idea how the scheme was to be carried out. It was easy enough to gain an introduction to Lady Sloman, who was not popular, and did not attract the men about her, as a rule. She was noisy and communicative, and Clifford had only to sit down and listen to a ceaseless stream of talk which lasted till a slim little man with dark flashing eyes came in and bowed to the company.
"Will you keep my seat for me?" Clifford asked, as he hurried away in search of his hostess. "I should like to remain here if I may, Lady Sloman; but there is some message that I quite forgot to give to Mrs. Manton."
With a large, pleased smile, Lady Sloman intimated that the seat should be kept. Mrs. Manton was standing in the doorway, listening to the conjuror as he began his preliminary address. She looked up and nodded eagerly at Clifford.
"You have found a way," she said. "I can see it in your eyes."
"I fancy I have," Clifford responded. "Only, we shall have to make the conjurer a party to our plot—I mean an unconscious party. Ask him to do something creepy presently—a little something with the lights down —link fingers and that—all a la the old spiritualistic seances. I daresay he could show us something startling in that line."
Mrs. Manton gave a rapid gesture of assent, and Clifford returned to his place. There was a pause after the applause that followed the performance of the third illusion, and in the clatter that followed, the hostess said something to Professor Langhelm, who bowed and smiled. Clifford was uneasily moving his hands about as he talked to his vulgar, good-natured companion, and Mrs. Manton smiled as she, too, rapidly flirted her fan. Clliford had asked her to stand in the doorway when the trick commenced, and she had responded that she understood.
Professor Langheim explained that he was about to show a new yariation of an old trick. He hoped all the ladies present had good nerves, for his performance was startling. He should like to have all the lights out, and the doors closed. Then he would ask the whole audience to join hands so that he was the centre of a ring of clasped hands.
The audience ceased to chatter, and hands were joined and the lights were lowered. On one side of Clifford was Lady Sloman, on the other side a young girl in a state of considerable nervousness. No sooner were the hands joined and the lights down than Clifford began gently to draw his arms in. It was the old trick played by Slade and the impostors in the world of spiritualism. Soon he had one arm free, then gently, drew the other out, so that, without the slightest idea what had happened, Lady Sloman and the hysterical girl had joined palms, fully under the impression that there was a man between them. The thing is easily done when people are strung up to a high nervous pitch.
Clifford was absolutely free. He had only to feel lightly for the ample bosom of Lady Sloman and detach the stone. He had previously taken a good mental photograph of the room, so that he made for the door without noise or blundering. He touched Mrs. Mantons hands.
"Magnificent," she whispered, "grand! I felt quite certain that you would not fail me. Half a second, and you can return and replace the stone. There is no hurry, as the trick will take some time."
Clifford made his way leisurely back to his place again. He had to be more careful this time, as he had lost a little of his latitude, but the labored breathing of Lady Sloman helped him.
"I felt a cold, clammy hand touch me," she said, in an awed whisper.
This was Clifford's chance, and he did not hesitate to accept it. The gem was replaced, and then, very gently, Clifford proceeded to insinuate one hand into its place again, and then the other. So long as the nervous, tense excitement remained, he felt that he ran no risks. Long before the lights were turned up, at the request of the conjurer, Clifford was in the ring, with his hands in their proper places once more.
When the lights were turned up, the conjurer had vanished. The door was locked, and the key in Mrs. Manton's pocket. A voice from somewhere asked for the lights to be turned out again, and when they were once more put up the conjurer was smiling on the door once more.
"That is the mystery," he said. "I get you to join hands so that no very clever person can try to ruin my trick. One finds people in audiences sometimes who are not very fair. Now I shall show you quite another class of trick. Will some lady or gentleman give me a valuable article—the more valuable the better. Only, I hope they can afford to lose it, because the temptation to vanish and never return again might be too great for me. I want something that gives a deal of glitter and sparkle."
"Like Lady Sloman's magnificent diamond," Mrs. Manton said, with a smile.
Clifford took up the cue at once. He felt perfectly certain that the suggestion was made for him.
"Dare you venture?" he said. "It is so gorgeous, so splendid a jewel."
Lady Sloman smiled and bridled. The attention to herself and her gem were just what she liked. With eager fingers she began to detach it from her dress. Her big husband looked on just a little suspiciously. He was dull and pompous, and utterly without humor, and the conjurer's patter had evidently roused his suspicions.
"Better be careful," he muttered. "I don't half like this sort of thing."
"Oh, nonsense, Joseph!" her ladyship said, sharply. "We have no thieves or pickpockets here. Will you hand it to the conjurer, please?"
"Not to me, sir," the conjurer said. "To some gentleman friend. I prefer someone with a good stout nerve. Pick out somebody who answers to that description."
Mrs. Manton whispered to a girl by her side, and the girl immediately uttered Rayne's name. The suggestion was taken up at once, and Rayne smiled. There was not the slightest question as to his nerves, and, indeed, he was making a sign to be selected. Up to now he had been quite puzzled, and he was burning to find the solution of something.
"I have no notion who Mr. Rayne is," the conjurer said, "and I beg that nobody point that gentleman out to me. Let me see the gem for a moment, that I may be quite able to recognise it again. No, not in my hand, not even in my reach. It is indeed a magnificent diamond; I should recognse it anywhere. Now please blindfold me, and seal the knots of the handkerchief by means of these little bits of tape. I want you to be quite certain that after the lights are turned down, as they will be presently, the handkerchief is not removed from my eyes. It is quite easy. Only, let the work of blindfolding be done to everybody's satisfaction."
A committee of three performed the operation, sealing the tapes with a private signet ring, in such a way that the handkerchief could not be removed without breaking the wax. The audience were very quiet and attentive now, for they seemed to feel that a more than usually great effort was about to be attempted by the conjurer.
"Now I hope you are all quite satisfled that I cannot see," he said. "Madame's diamond has not left her hand, I presume. Very good. Then, perhaps madam will please place it in the breast pocket of the gentleman selected, and then hold his hands behind his back. When that is done, I shall be glad if somebody will extinguish the lights. When I ask to have the lights put up again, the gem will be found restored to its place on the bosom of the lady from whom it was borrowed."
A murmur of applause followed this daring promise. The lights were lowered, and then came strange sounds of rustling, the deep breathing of somebody who is struggling breathlessly, and then a cry as if from some person who has succeeded in a difficult venture.
"The lights may be put up again," the conjurer said. "The trick is done."
The lights flashed up, and there, sure enough, on the bosom of Lady Sloman was the diamond. A perfect storm of applause followed, to which the conjurer listened quite unmoved. He stood exactly on the same spot as he had done before the experiment began.
"So far so good," he said. "Will the three gentlemen who blindfolded me see that not one scrap of the wax has been broken. It makes the trick all the more effective."
Not one scrap of the scarlet wax had been chipped. The conjurer bowed and smiled with the air of a man who is well pleased with himself. As he looked towards Lady Sloman his manner suddenly changed and his face grew pale.
"There has been something wrong here," he said; "something that should not have been done. I am only a poor man, and I have my living to get, so that I feel it hard when gentlemen play their pranks on me. There is something on the breast of madame, but it is not the gem that was there a little time ago."
Something like consternation followed this unexpected speech. A stone glistened upon the ample breast of Lady Sloman; it was about the same size as the original, the gold setting was practically identical; but it was a dull stone, with no fire and lustre. Even the most ignorant of such matters could see that at a glance.
"It's been changed," Sir Joseph Sloman said, hoarsely. "There's some vile scheme here. That man does not leave this house until—"
"I never so much as touched the stone, remember," the conjurer said.
"Then I shall call upon Mr. Rayne to explain," the wrathful knight exploded. "The thing is infamous, disgraceful. A palpable forgery is passed off on my wife in exchange for a stone worth thousands—thousands! I have not been dealing in diamonds all these years without learning most of the tricks, and I'll get to the bottom of this one."
There was an ugly smile on Rayne's face as he listened to this tirade. As a matter of fact, he was as utterly puzzled as anybody else, but he resented the suggestion that he had some hand in the conspiracy. He was not quite sure either if the trick was still unfinished.
"I beg to say I have nothing to do with it," he said. "Lady Sloman dropped the gem in my pocket, and then she held my two hands behind my back, where I had placed them at the instigation of the professor. More than that I cannot say."
"Do you mean to say you felt nothing?" somebody asked.
"Absolutely nothing at all. I could swear that nobody came near me. And the stone has gone, as anyone may testify who places their hand in my breast pocket."
"Perhaps you wouldn't mind being searched?" suggested Sir Joseph.
Rayne flashed a glance at the speaker that was absolutely murderous. Just for a moment it seemed as if he would blaze out. Mrs. Manton came forward. She regretted what had happened, and she was quite sure that Sir Joseph did not appreciate the extent of the implied insult to one of her guests. That the obstinate man would be more obstinate for this interruption she knew for certain.
"I can't force him to be searched," he growled. "But I can call on the police and tell them the whole story. It's no time to stand on ceremony."
Mrs. Manton turned away with a shrug of the shoulders. As Clifford caught her eye he saw that a smile of triumph trembled on her lips.
"Come into another room," Rayne said, hoarsely. "I am ready to be searched."
"Look at his face," Mrs. Manton murmured to Clifford; her eyes were cast down, and she appeared to be pondering deeply over something. "Watch him carefully, Mr. Marsh. Then you will get some idea of the class of man you have to deal with."
Clifford glanced up, cautiously. Rayne stood with his head erect, and a peculiarly hard smile on his face. But the pupils of the dark eyes dilated like those of an animal in the presence of its prey. A perfect storm of hate blazed in them.
"Somebody will have to pay for this," he said. His voice vibrated as if two pieces of metal had been clanged together. "I might protest against this indignity, but I prefer to put up with it, knowing the small amount of charity one meets."
"I hope Sir Joseph will think better of it," Mrs. Manton murmured.
"I am obliged to you for that," Rayne responded. "After all, you could do no less. And there is your very clever conjurer."
"What has he got to do with it?" Sir Joseph asked hotly. "We knew perfectly well that he never touched the gem from start to finish. Besides, it was he who called attention to the fact that a change had been made. He would hardly have done that if he had had anything to do with this disgraceful business."
"You will have to apologise for those words presently," Rayne snarled.
"So I will if there is any necessity," Sir Joseph retorted. "I know that Mrs. Manton does not like this, and I am sorry to distress her. We are merely wasting time. If Mrs. Manton will let us go into the library?"
"By all means," Mrs. Manton said, in a cold voice, that clearly expressed her entire disapproval of the whole business. "If you want anyone to assist you, Sir Joseph, why—" She shrugged her shoulders; there was no more to say.
"Then I'll ask Dr. Glasgow to accompany me," Sir Joseph said. "And the professor; I particularly desire the presence of the professor."
"And you go, too," Lady Sloman said, with an appealing glance at Clifford. "I am quite sure that you will be useful. We can trust you, Mr. Marsh."
Clifford stammered and hesitated. It was the very chance he longed for, indeed he had fully made up his mind to be present at the inquisition. But it looked well to hang back, as if he exceedingly disliked being brought into it.
"Oh, come along," Rayne cried. "What does it matter who is present? I know nothing whatever about the business, as you will all see presently. I volunteered to be searched, but I didn't volunteer to stand here all night like this."
He turned on his heel and left the salon for the library, the rest following. Then the door was locked, and the search began. Rayne stripped his pockets of watch, chain and sovereign purse, his cigarette case he pitched on the table. He handed his coat and vest to Sir Joseph, who set eagerly to work, without any suggestion of apology, whilst Rayne opened his cigarette case and chose one.
"Even a prisoner is allowed to smoke before he is committed for trial," he said. "Won't you join me in a cigarette, Marsh? No? Well, perhaps it is as well to be on the safe side."
Clifford could not allow the sneer to pass. He reached out his hand, and took a cigarette at haphazard. One side of the case was filled with white cigarettes the other had tubes of a peculiar slatey grey color. Clifford had never seen anything like them before, and his curiosity was aroused.
"I wouldn't try those," Rayne said, a little hastily. "The white ones are Orenas, but the grey ones are slightly medicated. I use them for a touch of asthma I get sometimes. Still, it you want a new and not altogether pleasant sensation—"
He shrugged his shoulders, and Clifford selected a different cigarette. The case lay closed on the table. But Clifford was not quite satisfied. Rayne looked the last man in the world to suffer from anything like asthma, and, besides, he had appeared to be a little annoyed with himself when the grey cigarettes were disclosed. As Clifford's eyes were still fixed on the case, the conjurer touched his arm.
"That is a very common type of cigarette case," he murmured. Rayne and Sir Joseph were having a heated argument as to the necessity of taking off the former's shoes. "I dare say you have one very like it in your pocket."
"As a matter of fact, I have," said Clifford. "Why do you speak like this?"
"Because it would be so easy to change the cases," was the reply. "Let me look at yours. Ah, it is very much the same—plain silver, slightly curved. Now, sir, if you would like me to make an exchange, you have only to say the word."
The professor was not looking at Clifford, who had furtively passed him his own cigarette case, but was apparently taking the deepest interest in a picture on the wall. All the same, there was no mistaking the significance of the words.
"What do I gain by that?" Clifford asked. "The exchange would be discovered at once."
"It wouldn't, sir. Mr. Rayne goes out of this room more or less a free man. It's quite certain, that that gem will not be found on him."
"You feel pretty sure of this?" Clifford said, carelessly.
"I am certain of it, sir; I am only acting on instructions, only doing what I am paid to do. It is by no means the first time my services have been called in where the police—I mean I am very useful upon occasions. I do my work, but I ask no questions as to the play which is the background of my experiments. To-night you helped me very cleverly. You know how. Now, the question is—do you want that cigarette case?"
"I should like to have it for half an hour or so," said Clifford.
He spoke no more than the truth. There was something concealed behind that cigarette case. There were no keys or letters or anything of that kind, nothing more than the odds and ends that a man about town carries in his pocket.
"For half an hour or so, if it can be managed," Clifford repeated.
"That is quite easy. I give you the case and substitute yours in the place of it. Mr. Rayne goes out of here a free man. Sir Joseph Sloman makes him an apology, her ladyship also makes the apology. The other guests, who have looked coldly upon Mr. Rayne, will also have to show that they feel something is due from them. The man's vanity will be soothed; he will stay here and swagger. That class of gentleman always swaggers. All the time he will not think of the cigarette case, for he will have no chance to smoke. At the end of half an hour or so I can make the exchange once more."
"You are certain of your ability to do that?" Clifford asked.
"Absolutely sure, sir. Take this two-shilling piece and place it in any pocket you have, but do not tell me what pocket. And, if you like, I'll bet you ten pounds that the two-shilling piece is in my possession without your knowing it inside the hour. I make my task all the more difficult because I am telling you what I am going to do."
Clifford expressed himself as perfectly satisfied. Rayne had taken off his socks by this time, and was bitterly rallying Sir Joseph on the ill-success that attended his efforts. The conjurer passed a handkerchief over his forehead, as if the heat had been too much for him. The handkerchief fell on the table. He lightly snatched it up and put it in his pocket.
"There is your cigarette case, sir," he said. "See that it is all right."
Clifford opened the case and glanced inside. To his intense surprise, it was Rayne's case, whilst his own lay just where the other had been. For a bit of dazzling sleight-of-hand the thing would have been impossible to beat. The thing was so easy and natural that Clifford could not keep the surprise and admiration from his face.
"A mere nothing," the conjurer said modestly. "Only you had better assume your ordinary expression, sir. Sir Joseph appears to have pretty well finished his unsuccessful task."
The worthy knight was looking hot and uncomfortable. He had accepted the challenge as heartily as Rayne had thrown it down. The latter had stripped to the skin, and was now engaged in resuming his underclothing, all the time bantering Sir Joseph in a bitter strain. The conjurer had proved quite right in his prophesy that nothing would be found.
"And now I hope you are satisfied," Rayne said. "The missing diamond was dropped into my pocket, my hands were held behind me, so that I could touch nothing, and as soon as the experiment was ripe the light was turned on again. You have made a disgraceful accusation against me, and you have failed in your own way of proving it. The next thing to suggest is that I have an accomplice in the room."
"I begin to see that I have made a mistake," Sir Joseph said, with a heated face. "But where can the diamond have got to?"
"That is no business of mine," Rayne said curtly. "That is for you to decide. And now, as I am permitted to resume the outward garb of civilisation, perhaps you will be so good as to call in the rest of the party, and admit the failure of the indignity to which I have been exposed. If you had been a gentleman—"
Rayne shrugged his shoulders. It seemed to him that he held the winning cards, and he had no scruple in using them to advantage. Very leisurely he replaced the cigarette case into his breast-pocket, without even a casual glance. He was only thinking now of his own personal triumph.
Sir Joseph opened the door and called to the rest. They flocked in with a curiosity that nobody made the slightest attempt to disguise, a vulgar curiosity for the most part. But a glance at Sir Joseph's hot face, and Rayne's dark, saturnine features told them that there was no rare morsel of scandal for their delectation here.
"I fear there is some mistake," Sir Joseph stammered. "I must admit that Mr. Rayne was quite ready to submit himself to the search. And I may also say that I made a most rigid search. The diamond is not to be found."
Murmurs followed, though whether they were expressive of regret or disappointment it was impossible to say. Lady Sloman stood back from the rest, a piteous figure. The conjuror stepped forward and made a pass in the air. When his hand came down again, there was a vivid scarlet orchid in his fingers.
"Permit me to place that over the false stone, my lady," he said. "There! It is hidden. Now, I take this handkerchief in my hand and open it just so. Now, will some young lady accept the handkerchief and throw it over the orchid on her ladyship's breast. Thank you very much. Now, I proceed to grasp the handkerchief and tear away the orchid. I shake the cambric, and the orchid has vanished. See what takes its place."
A cry of amazement followed, for there, in the place of the vivid scarlet flower that veiled the false stone, was the real great blazing diamond in its place again. It was so rapidly done that everybody was bewildered.
"Bless my soul!" Sir Joseph exclaimed. "And to think that all along it was not more than—"
"A trick!" Rayne yelled. "A piece of impudent buffoonery, of which I am the victim. Do you mean to say that you had that stone all the time? And I have been actually searched, and all the commotion made, to heighten the effect of your experiment. It is lucky that there are ladies present. If I had you outside I'd thrash you within an inch of your life."
The professor stood abashed, but he did not look afraid of the threat. He was not the kind of man it would have been safe to use personal violence to.
"I crave your pardon, sir," he said. "At first I was going to make quite a different ending to my little trick. But when the gentleman here took it up so warmly I saw my way to some comedy. On the spur of the moment I allowed the little scene to go on, but almost before I had done so I saw that I had gone too far. But it was too late to draw back. I can only apologise."
Rayne fumed and fretted, but under the soothing hands of Mrs. Manton, he consented to smile. After all, it was absurd to lose his temper with so trivial a person as a professional conjuror. Rayne consented to stay a little longer; he confessed that he had nothing to do. Lady Sloman took possession of him, and Mrs. Manton was enabled to get away. She followed Clifford out on to the balcony, an eager expression on her face.
"Well," she asked, "have you had any success?"
"It is impossible to say yet," Clifford replied. "There were no keys, or papers, or anything of that kind, nothing more interesting than this cigarette case."
"But you didn't steal Rayne's cigarette case?" Mrs. Manton exclaimed.
"I merely borrowed it," Clifford said coolly. "Your friend, the professor, managed that for me. By the way, I presume he is an accomplice of ours in this business?"
"To a certain extent, yes. Of course, he only knew that he was to attain definite results, which he has done with signal success. But why the cigarette case?"
"There are more reasons than one," Clifford suggested. "In the first place, one keeps papers in cigarette cases sometimes, and there may be papers here; certainly the fellow owned nothing else in which he could hide papers. Out of a spirit of bravado, Rayne offered me his case when he was being searched to-night. I noticed that there were two kinds of cigarettes, the ordinary sort and another lot that looked like grey silurian notepaper rolled up. Rayne was quite annoyed with himself when he saw me attempt to take one of the latter. He said they were medicated, and used for asthma, or some nonsense of that kind."
Mrs. Manton nodded eagerly. She seemed to understand almost without being told.
"And so you have made a temporary change," she said. "Well, we are going to have more tricks before supper, so that our professor friend will easily find a way to restore the cigarette case to the proper owner, and regain possession of yours. Now I must run away, or I shall be missed. There is a little room at the back of the library where you will be quite safe. If you do discover anything startling, please let me know."
Clifford carefully locked himself in the little room, and proceeded to examine the cigarette case. If he had expected papers, or anything of the kind, he was doomed to disappointment. There was no sign of the like, only a neat row of some good-class white cigarettes on the one side, and a corresponding pile of the greys tubes on the other. Clifford took up one of the latter and gave it a careful examination. It was quite hard in the middle, and contained no more than a parcel of tobacco at either end. Perhaps there was something illicit inside. As Clifford fingered the tube, the core slipped out and uncoiled on the table. It was no more than a piece of letter paper, and in a neat hand, in the centre, the words—"Beemor's treat. 17. 12. 30."
There was nothing more than this. Clifford carefully copied the words and the figures into a pocket-book, and then proceeded to restore the cigarette to its original condition. It was easy enough work for a trained engineer and draughtsman, and in a few minutes it would have been impossible for anybody to say that the grey tube had been interfered with.
But what did it all mean, Clifford wondered? Were the cigarettes all the same, or did they contain different cyphers? At any rate, it would be no bad thing to see. Very carefully one after the other the tubes were examined, but no new message came to light. The contents of the whole lot were precisely similar. Clifford had just replaced the whole neatly when there came a knock at the door, and Mrs. Manton entered.
"Have you anything to tell me?" she asked.
Clifford explained what he had done. But, puzzle as they would, neither he nor his hostess could make anything of the cipher copied from the grey cigarettes.
"It looks like some kind of an entertainment," Mrs. Manton observed. "I am pretty clever at plot and intrigue, but these kind of things always baffle me. We must make it our business to find out who Beemor is, and what is the nature of the treat accorded him."
"It certainly looks like a man's name," Clifford said, thoughtfully. "Now you know a great deal about the gang we are pursuing. Did you ever hear of a Beemor amongst them?"
"Certainly not," Mrs. Manton replied. "And now I must not stay any longer. You had better hand that cigarette-case back to the professor, so that he may make the exchange. He is amusing everybody with his tricks again."
Clifford took the first opportunity of slipping the cigarette case back into the professor's hand, and almost immediately he called for a few cigarette-cases for a fresh experiment. He performed some puzzling and dazzling trick, and when Clifford reached for the case handed to him, he saw that he had got his own again. So, on the whole, the evening had not been wasted. From Rayne had been gathered what might prove to be a most important clue without for one instant incurring his suspicions.
"And now we are going to have some supper," Mrs. Manton cried gaily. "If the professor does not mind, we will have more experiments after. What do you all say?"
Everybody appeared to be delighted. The professor's experiments were so new and fresh that the sensation of surprise and pleasure was delightful. Rayne appeared to have forgotten all his displeasure, and actually took Lady Sloman in to supper. Her big diamond was in more danger than it had been during the evening, Clifford thought. He had dropped into a little table all to himself, for the legend of the cigarette puzzled him. Presently Myra Rayne came in, and sat down beside him.
"I cannot find any other table," she said, as if in apology. "Unfortunately, my partner had to go away quite suddenly—illness at home, or something of that kind. Mr. Marsh, have you made up your mind what to do about poor Oliver Dawlish?"
"I have done more than that," Clifford said. "I have asked my friend from Guy's to go and see him. He is only a young man, but he is exceedingly clever. You feel quite sure that Dawlish could help us if his mind were only clear?"
"Oh, I am absolutely certain. There was a struggle, the night that the gem was stolen and it was proved almost beyond doubt that Phil had a hand in the conspiracy. He said he was the victim, and he told no more than the truth. In the struggle, Dawlish was injured. He came to warn Phil, but he was a bit too late. And in the struggle he got hurt. Why, Phil says he could tell us the names of the guilty ones. I know one myself."
"And who may that particular one be?"
"My own brother! Oh, it is a shameful confession to make, but there it is. And my brother is mixed up with some awful business now in connection with Mr. Sefton and the rest. But, for Phil's sake, I should have gone away and got work elsewhere long ago. But I stay on, on the chance of being able to discover something."
"We are all trying to discover something," Clifford said; "probably one discovery will involve the other. But I assume that if Dawlish can be restored to health he will. But I cannot understand why his friends do not look him up. He always said that he had relations in England. I must see the lawyer who sends his allowance."
The supper was finished at length and the conjuring began again. Under cover of it, Mrs. Manton was enabled to have a little further conversation with Clifford.
"It was all done very well," she said. "The idea came to me this morning. I felt pretty sure that Lady Sloman would wear her big diamond, and I made up my mind that she should lose it for a time, and that Rayne should be suspected. I have a lot of cheap stones that came to me in a peculiar way; in fact, I thought I had found some real diamonds. One of them I got set as near like her ladyship's as possible; then you did the rest—at least, you and that very clever professor did so between you. I have the imitation stone in my pocket at the present time. As you are an expert at that kind of thing, I want you to take it away and give it a thorough investigation, and let me know what it is. It is not paste, or glass, or crystal—in fact, I haven't the remotest idea what it is."
"I shall be able to tell you," said Clifford, confidently; "no stone can puzzle me. You had better slip it into my hand when nobody is looking."
A moment later and the queer stone was resting in Clifford's pocket. But he did not waste any time in speculation upon it, he was more deeply engaged with other problems.
"Thinking of that treat?" Mrs. Manton asked. "I should like to meet Beemor, and take part in Beemor's treat, or any other's treat. What nonsense I am talking!"
Clifford looked up swiftly, with a queer light in his eyes.
"You are not talking nonsense at all," he said. "I believe you have guessed the problem, hit upon it by accident, as it were. Have you a directory in the house?"
"Of course I have! If you knew what a strenuous life I lead, you would not ask that question. A London directory is absolutely essential to me, and I must have one quite up-to-date. The edition published last month is in the library."
"Then, if you'll excuse me, I'll go and have a look at it," said Clifford. "When I come back, I flatter myself I shall have a little surprise for you."
Clifford slipped along in an aimless kind of way, but once he was in the library his listlessness vanished. He turned over the 'street' portion of the new volume of Kelly, until he came to the B's. Then he ran his eye along eagerly, and a little click of the lips denoted the fact that he had found what he wanted. For a short time he consulted the address written in his pocket-book, and once more his eye sought the directory.
He was going to close the book when Mrs. Manton came in.
"You are in luck," she said. "Your face tells too much."
"My face is all right when I am in company," Clifford laughed. "The problem is solved. We are looking for no man named Beemor, but for Beemor-street—the legend of a play upon words. And here, sure enough, is Beemor-street. The '17' is the number—17 Beemor-street. The other figure merely means half-past twelve. The cigarettes are signals, asking those who are given them to be present at 17 Beemor-street at 12.30. Can you keep Rayne for another hour?"
"I daresay I can manage to do that. But why?"
"Why?" Clifford exclaimed; "because I am going to 17 Beemor-street now. Unless I am greatly mistaken, we have discovered Rayne's address!"
Mrs. Manton's eyes sparkled. Her smile might have fascinated a man less devoted to his wife than Clifford. There was a look of intense longing on her face.
"If I were only a man!" she exclaimed. "Here, I have all the longing for adventure, and, I believe, all the courage to carry it out, and I can only plot and scheme without the fierce joy of doing. Well, you are an ally after my own heart. What do you expect to find at the mysterious address?"
"I don't know!" Clifford replied. "I have just been having another glance at the directory. As you say, it is the latest edition of Kelly. No name is opposite No. 17, so that I conclude the premises are empty—at least, so far as the owner knows."
"It's not a bad idea," Mrs. Manton said, thoughtfully. "All sorts of strange things might take place in London's empty houses if the criminal classes only turned their attention in that direction. But you will not find the house empty."
Clifford replied that he would lose no time in making sure of the fact. If only he had a thick short jacket and a pair of boots!
"I can find you with both," Mrs. Manton said. "You need not look surprised—when you know who I really am you will be surprised at nothing. Come this way."
When Clifford finally left the house, he wore not only a thick jacket and knee caps, but a pair of canvas shoes with indiarubber soles. The coat was no great thing in the way of fit, but that mattered nothing. He made his way quickly along in the direction of Beemor-street, and in a little time had arrived at his destination. No. 17, as he anticipated, proved to be empty. It had evidently been in that condition for a considerable period, seeing that the windows were thickly grimed with dust and half a dozen of house agents' notice papers were fluttering in rags on the panes.
And yet Clifford felt sure that things queer and strange were going on behind those dark walls. Very cautiously he crept down into the area and lighted a match. At any rate, there were signs of life here, for he could see the print of recent footsteps, and an empty milk-can stood by the side of the door. There were no signs of lights anywhere.
Clifford passed up into the street again, uncertain how to proceed next. Nobody had been up the front steps for many a long day, of that he felt certain. To get into the house was the next thing. As Clifford stood pondering there, a small boy passed, with the stump of a cigarette in his mouth, his hands in his pockets. The small boy stopped and eyed Clifford, with his head on one side.
"Blow me," he said, "blowed if it ain't my toff come to town again. How goes it?"
"Ikey Brown," Clifford exclaimed, as he recognised the little newsboy. "I fancied that we should meet again, Ikey. Do you want to earn a shilling or two?"
"Of course I do, sir. Extra pay for overtime and all that. Glad to see as you've got over that little trouble, gov-nor. How do I know? Why, you looks different, you talks of bobs as if you'd got familiar with them again."
"Well, let that pass for the present," Clifford smiled. "I had forgotten that you knew this locality very well. Can you tell me anything about this house—No. 17?"
"All there is to tell," Ikey said, promptly. "Been empty ever since I was a kid. An horrible murder took place here years ago, and they say as the place is haunted. Anyway, nobody will look at it, and no woman will stay in the house. All the same, I fancy as there's a caretaker now—an old chap, as looks like better days."
As Ikey spoke, the area door opened, and a man came up the steps. He did not look about him furtively like one who is doing wrong; he simply passed along the road, until he came to a public-house, into which he turned. He was a tall man, Clifford noticed, with a white beard and a general air of respectable benevolence. There was something in his carriage that suggested the Army, or so Clifford imagined.
"You stay here, Ikey," he said, "and keep a watch on that house, without being seen. I am going to follow the person who just came out."
Clifford hurried into the public-house, which was fairly empty, as it was getting late. Close by stood the tall man with the grey beard, drinking a small glass of whisky and smoking a cigarette, two of which he had just purchased. The man's dress was shabby and faded, his linen was frayed, and yet he suggested intense cleanliness. His face was sad and careworn, but there was no trace of dishonesty, Clifford decided. Unless he was mistaken, he was a person of integrity. Clifford wondered what a man like that could possibly have in common with Rayne and his gang.
The elderly man glanced at the clock and finished his whisky. The tones in which he bade the barkeeper good-night were quiet and refined. Clifford followed him back till he was safe in the house again without being able to scheme some way of getting inside himself.
"I'm afraid I shall have to give it up for to-night, Ikey," he said.
"Not a bit of it," Ikey replied, cheerfully. "If that's your game, you have a bit on me."
Ikey promptly tumbled down the area, and gave vent to a heart-breaking groan. It was so sudden and so natural that Clifford was utterly taken in for the moment. Ikey lay moaning there, and declared that his leg was broken; he whined, and hammered on the area door. Immediately the door opened, and the aged caretaker stood there with a candle in his hand. Here was the very chance that Clifford wanted.
He lost no time in making his way down the steps and in helping to carry Ikey inside. There was a flagged passage opening into a large room, partly furnished, with a table and an arm-chair, a bed being hidden in a corner behind a screen. A small fire burnt in the grate, in a cupboard were pots and pans and crockery.
"I hope the boy isn't hurt," Clifford said anxiously. "I was passing at the time, and the noise quite startled me. Nothing very serious, I fancy."
"More frightened than hurt," the aged caretaker said, with a smile. "Why will you boys persist in walking along the balustrades of the areas? You might just as well have broken you neck; as it is, there is nothing the matter."
Ikey rose at a glance from Clifford and hobbled painfully outside. He grinned to himself as he lighted a fresh cigarette and waited for his patron to appear. He was in no hurry to be off; he felt that there was adventure in the air, and he had every intention of sharing in it.
"I am afraid we have both wasted a lot of valuable sympathy," Clifford said, as he also made a move towards the door. "Dreadful creatures, these boys."
"And yet I would give a great deal to call myself one again," the whitehaired man said. "The pleasures of retrospection are not always pleasures. There was a time when—but no matter. Now I am glad to get these quarters free in exchange for living in the one room and trying to prove that the place is not haunted."
"Which, of course, it is not," Clifford smiled. "Do you ever go over the other rooms?"
"Never. It is no part of my bargain—even I could not come down to cleaning floors. But my efforts are in vain; the house has got a bad name, and nobody comes here."
Clifford listened to all this with polite attention. One thing he was pretty sure of—if there was any wrongful use made of the other premises, the old man knew nothing of it. Clifford decided to take a bold step.
"If I am not detaining you," he said, "perhaps you may allow me to make a little suggestion."
"My dear sir, you are not detaining me. It is pleasant to talk to a gentleman. Oh, your name is Clifford Marsh. I am Colonel Alfred Marston. Mine is the old story of the man who tried to make a competency into a fortune in the City. Now I am quite content to live here on a small sum of fourteen shillings a week and shelter."
There was truth stamped in every word. Clifford was sure of his ground now.
"There are worse things going on," he said. "I will not disguise from you, Colonel Marston, that I am here not altogether by accident. There may be certain things going on in this house that would astonish you if you knew them. Is the door at the top of these stairs locked?"
"It has been locked ever since I came here. But the keys are over the fireplace yonder."
"Good!" Clifford exclaimed. "Then, with your permission, I am going over the house. If my suspicions are correct I may call you to assist me. In any case, I don't want my quarry to know that you are helping me in any way. So long as you are not suspected, you may prove to be a valuable ally."
Colonel Marston nodded; there was a suggestion of the old fighting spirit in his eyes.
"As you please," he said. "All I can say is that I have neither seen nor heard anything suspicious during the whole time I have been here. But, then, I am a man of regular habits; I go to bed generally before this time, and I am a very sound sleeper. The people you allude to generally walk in the dead of night."
Clifford found the key at length, and gently let himself into the hall. He was by no means surprised to find a jet of gas burning there. The shutters had been put to behind the ragged blinds, so that no light appeared in the street. The gas jet appeared to come through the wall. Evidently the conspirators had tapped some body else's main supply, and thus escaped the attention of the company's collector.
The place was deathly quiet, nobody appeared to be here. From the dust on the gas tap it was evident that the light had not been turned off for months. Clifford moved cautiously along. It seemed to his fancy that he could hear something like a muffled groan close by. The door of the big empty dining-room stood open, and Clifford looked in. There was no fancy about it, for he could hear the muffled groans distinctly now; they seemed to come from under his feet. Evidently somebody was down there. There was a square cut across the boards, they were loose to the tread. As Clifford inserted his sinewy fingers a section of the boards gave and came away, disclosing a kind of square chamber below. Clifford could see a tier of iron steps; peeping down, he saw something moving.
"Come out of that, whoever you are," he whispered.
A white face looked up, shaking steps began to ascend the ladder; then Clifford started back and repressed an exclamation of surprise as he saw Oliver Dawlish before him. The latter was dazed and too utterly stupid to give an account of himself. What brought him here and how he had obtained access to the house he could not say. He was very pleased to see the light again, and he promised to behave himself if he were allowed to go away. He seemed to be frightened and timid, but bore no marks of violence.
Another man came suddenly into the room. He paused just an instant, the words "too late!" came from his lips, and then he made a dash for Clifford. So sudden was the onslaught that the latter was carried to the ground; his violent struggles were useless; it seemed as if the end had come.
"Pull him off, Dawlish," Clifford said. "My dear fellow, do pull him off."
Dawlish grinned in an amiable manner, but made not the slightest attempt to help. But if Clifford's words had no effect upon him, they had a marked effect on his antagonist. His grim face relaxed, he rose to his feet and helped Clifford from the floor.
"I am afraid I have made a great mistake," he panted. "If you will tell me your name?"
"My name is Clifford Marsh, at your service. If you are not one of the gang here—"
"Not I, indeed. I am Philip Henshaw, and I am really obliged to you and your sister for all your kindness to me. I came up to London to-day because I had some good news. I went to call upon poor Dawlish here, and found that he had gone out. I accidentally spotted him in company with that ruffian Sefton, and I followed him. I felt pretty sure that there was some deep conspiracy afoot, so I did not demand admission. As a matter of fact, I got in the back way by climbing a water-spout, and pushing back the catch of a window. None of the rascals are here to-night, it appears."
"No, but they may be at any moment," said Clifford. "Fortunately for me, I have made friends with the caretaker, who knows nothing of what is going on. I'll get him to take poor Dawlish home. Dawlish, where do you live?"
The question was asked twice before Oliver Dawlish appeared to understand. Then, in a parrot-like kind of way, he gave an address in Bloomsbury. Clifford hurried him away down into the basement, returning a minute or two later.
"We've got him out of the way, anyhow," he exclaimed. "And I hope the caretaker here will prove to be a really useful help. And now to make hay whilst the sun shines. In the first place, I should like to know how the rascals get here. Not by the front door or by the area, of that I am certain. I expect there is a way from the back from some quiet lane."
"Of course there is," Henshaw replied. "I stumbled upon it more or less by accident. There is a yard at the back and a balcony that opens out of one of the best bedrooms. We had better go and make sure of our ground there before we do anything else."
The back door was open and gave upon what passed for a garden. But it was choked with weeds now, and a strong ivy had grown over the supports of the balcony. As the two were strolling about there, a great light suddenly broke out in the room over the balcony.
Clifford grasped Henshaw's arm, and they both crouched down together. Fortunately, the shrubs and brambles were very thick there, so that their presence was not easy to detect. Two men were feeling their way along the miry path in the direction of the lane. One of them muttered something to his companion, and the voice struck Clifford as being familiar.
"I seem to have heard that fellow speak before," he said.
"Of course you have," Henshaw murmured. "It's that rascal Sefton. And when he is about, you may depend upon it that Rayne is not far off. We shall have the whole gang here presently. What are we going to do next?"
"Watch and wait. We are pretty certain to find something out."
"Yes, and they will find out that Dawlish has escaped them. What did they want him for?"
"Well, they can't identify us with the rescue, anyway. Perhaps Dawlish has shown signs of returning reason, and they had occasion to keep him out of the way for a time. We'll stay here till the rest of the gang have put in an appearance, and then we can act."
Presently two other men came up the path, and after that there was a long interval with nobody else to follow. So far as the watchers could see Rayne had not yet arrived. Time passed on, and Clifford was getting impatient. He could hear muttered voices from the room over the balcony, the strong light struck on a blank wall opposite.
"I am going to see what is going on there," Clifford said. "To try and walk through the house with all those fellows in it would be too risky. Those supports look strong, and so does that ivy round the pillars, so I am going to risk it. If you hear of anything like violence, you can pretend to be a police officer with a big following behind you."
Henshaw nodded and restrained a strong desire to follow Clifford. The latter made his way up the ivy, which was strong and appeared a good foothold, until he reached the balcony. In the thick shades cast by the strong light he could stand without any chance of detection, and look into the room. There was a large fire in the grate, there were instruments of all kinds, a furnace glowed in one corner, and in the furnace men were dipping what looked like pieces of glass. The process appeared to be slow and at the same time deeply interesting to Sefton, who smoked and watched, and to the hard-mouthed young man who was also of the party.
"Not enough," Sefton said, as he took up one of the small fragments of glass. "I should say that it required another two coats at least."
Clifford looked and thrilled with curiosity. Rack his brains as he would, he could not find any way to account for these proceedings. Coining was the first suggestion that entered his mind, but this was no coining. Though there was a furnace and a retort in here, no sign of metal could be seen anywhere, nor could Clifford see any moulds. It was absurd, too, to suppose that these people were making diamonds by a new method. If they were there would have been no need for the secrecy.
"At this rate we shall never be finished," one of the workmen grumbled. "We've been a fortnight at least over one lot and they are not done yet. Jock says there's another bagful."
"And Jock is quite right," Sefton said, with a sinister smile. "Look here, boys, you are getting well paid for this job, and it's no use grumbling. We don't get a big haul like this every day, and we are not going to take any risks. You'll have to go over the lot twice again, and there is an end of the matter."
Still Clifford could make nothing of it. He saw the bits of dull glass handed from one man to the other and dipped into the little retorts. Just for an instant he wondered if those dull crystal chips were the missing diamonds, but he gave up the idea in despair. No diamonds ever looked like those things, and Clifford was an expert in such matters. Perhaps the whole thing was part of some new and ingenious swindle. Clifford consoled himself with the reflection that he could come here in the daylight when these men were far away and make a complete investigation at leisure. He felt that he had discovered enough for one night. He must go back to Mrs. Manton and report progress.
He was about to turn away when the door opened and Rayne came in. He was still in evening dress, he carried himself jauntily, there was a cigarette between his teeth.
"What a set of fools you are," he said. "Why cannot you leave that poor idiot Dawlish alone?"
"He has been in queer company the last day or two," the hard-faced youth replied. "And more than once I have had an idea that he recognised me. So we brought him here to-night to keep him out of danger. A night or so in the dark will effectually dispel any gleam of reason that he might happen to be showing."
Clifford listened, with a murderous desire to injure the speaker. He saw Rayne's face grow dark and contemptuous before this explanation.
"What a brilliant diplomatist you would make," he sneered. "There is not the slightest chance that Dawlish will ever regain his reason. And yet you take all this trouble and take all this risk to break a poor little butterfly like that. And he has escaped."
"You don't mean to say that," the hard-faced youth asked, blankly.
"I do, indeed. Dawlish may be a fool, but he is a powerful man. I daresay he found the way from the house by some kind of instinct; anyway, he's gone, and it must have been by the way he came, for the front door is still fastened."
"That makes it rather awkward for us," the hard-faced youth said.
"Oh, rubbish! Who would take any notice of the ravings of an imbecile? Only, don't waste your time on that kind of thing any more. Give me one of those pebbles. I don't call those at all well done. Too dangerous as they are."
"Precisely what I said," Sefton cut in. "I shouldn't like to risk the voyage on that lot?"
"Of course you wouldn't. Can't you fellows understand? Those people know perfectly well who has done them over the matter. They didn't put the police on our track because they are playing some deep game of their own. Do you suppose that every bag and portmanteau of ours will not be searched directly we begin to travel. The work must be properly done or you get no pay for, it. Where are the others?"
Rayne turned to Sefton with a kind of challenge in his tone. The latter looked up rather uneasily, or so Clifford thought.
"I suppose you will have to know sooner or later," he said, half defiantly. "They were given to me, as you know, at the time the little coup came off, and I had them in my portmanteau. When I went to get them last night they were not to be found."
Something like an oath came from Rayne's lips. His face grew white with passion, but as yet no accusation was framed by him.
"That is a pretty confession to make," Rayne said, in a dangerously low voice. "If that is true it means that over a million is lost to the fraternity. It shows that you have been very careless over your trust. Why did you not see to it? Why did you not stay here all the time?"
"So I did," Sefton protested. "Every day and night I looked at them. It is not as if I had been out of town for a single hour."
"You mean to say that you have not been out of town?" Rayne asked.
"Of course not. I shouldn't dare with such a responsibility on my mind as that."
"You lie, you black, traitrous dog!" Rayne yelled. "Had you produced the diamonds to-night I would have spared you. But you have made up your mind to betray me, and I am going to speak. On the night of Wednesday last you went away from London with the share of the diamonds entrusted to you in your possession. You went to Ashdown and saw Matthew Forfitt, and offered the stones to him at a fraction of their value. Forfitt would give you no reply at the time, he would not even keep the gems till he saw you again."
"What rubbish!" Sefton stammered. "As if anyone would believe that I—I—"
"Well, we do," Rayne cried. "We have only to look at your face. Produce those stones, you dog, give them up, and go your own way, for I swear that you shall never see a penny of your share. And if you attempt to betray me—well, you dare not do that."
"I swear that I have lost the stones," Sefton said, sullenly.
Rayne rushed forward in a perfect fury of passion, and his fist crashed against the speaker's face. They fought like wild beasts, the others looking on in grim approval of the spectacle. One of the retorts was upset as Sefton reeled against it, and the shining fragments of glass were scattered all over the floor. One rolled as far as the window, which was close to the floor of the balcony, and Clifford touched it with his finger. It was too hot to hold, but he grabbed it again with his handkerchief. It seemed quite safe to take that risk whilst all the conspirators were fascinated with the fight. At last Rayne felled Sefton to the ground; he lay like a log, stunned, dead for all the others cared. With the glass safe in his pocket Clifford watched for the next scene in the drama.
Sefton lay there, with Rayne standing over him like a tiger, and none of the rest attempting to interfere. The man might have been dead for all they cared. He had robbed them of a great part of their booty, and any man there would have murdered him without hesitation. Not for a moment had it been possible for anybody to doubt the truth of Rayne's word—they had been clearly reflected on Sefton's ghastly face.
Nor was the hearing at all a pleasant one for Clifford. He had always known his father-in-law as a hard, greedy, grasping man, without the bowels of compassion, but he had never been identified with downright dishonesty before. Rayne had spoken truly in this matter; Sefton's feeble denial had only strengthened the accusation, and there was another thing. Madeline had actually seen Sefton closeted with her father on the night of her adventure. Well, perhaps this knowledge might be turned to advantage, Clifford thought. He might be able to force Forfitt's hand over it.
Sefton lay there quite unconscious, whilst Rayne poured out his accusation. Presently he began to stir uneasily, then he sat up and looked about him. He made no further attempt at denial as he rose unsteadily to his feet. He made a move in the direction of the door, but Rayne locked it and put the key in his pocket.
"We are going to have this matter out," he said. "We ought to finish you, and dispose of your body, which we could do quite easily. We may do it yet. But if you are to get any mercy from us, you must tell the truth."
A hoarse murmur of approval followed. Sefton muttered that he had told the truth, and that there was no more to say. Rayne's face darkened.
"Get the stuff out," he said. "It is plain to me that we shall have to refresh your memory."
"No, no," Sefton cried. "I'll tell you everything. The temptation was too strong for me. I was going to invent some story, but Rayne took me by surprise. My idea was to sell the diamonds to Forfitt and put the money in my pocket. But the old rat would take no risks, and I had to leave his house, with the stones still in my possession. Just before then I had come face to face with Philip Henshaw, and a rare fright he gave me. It was raining and blowing a gale when I left Forfitt's, and I took shelter in a hut there. Henshaw managed to find me as I was having a look at the stones, and he nearly did for me. He was going to bury me in a bog, when a couple of Pinkerton's men came up and Henshaw had to bolt."
"What are Pinkerton's men doing here?" Rayne asked, uneasily.
"Oh, I don't know. Anyway, there they are. When I got round a bit I went back to the hut for the stones, and a girl was there. She had the cases in her hand. I looked at her through the window. The Pinkerton men came back, and asked the girl if she had seen any valuables, and she said no. She managed to elude me, and there you are; so that girl has got the diamonds."
Rayne listened uneasily. He felt that Sefton was telling the truth now. But there was very little now to be got out of the man, for his face had grown pale and his eyes glassy. Rayne's prompt blow had had a greater effect than had appeared on the surface, for Sefton lay back on the floor again, utterly oblivious as to his surroundings.
"Put the rascal into the inner room and leave him there," Rayne said. "Turn the key on him when you go, and see that he has food to last for a day or two. He'll not get out of the dark room in a hurry. When I come back we'll decide what to do with him. Meanwhile, this is the work that needs my attention."
"What are you going to do now?" the hard-faced youth asked.
"I am going to verify the truth of Sefton's story," Rayne said, significantly. "If he tells the truth, well and good, but if Matthew Forfitt has the gems—"
Rayne paused and glanced around him. That there was some deep, significant threat here, Clifford did not doubt for a moment. A couple of the workmen took Sefton up and dumped him down in a room at the back of the apartment where the mysterious proceedings were going on, while another produced a bottle of wine, some water, and convenient food, and carried it to the room where the traitor was deposited.
"That will do," Rayne said. "And now I must be off. Seymour, see that the stuff is taken away and placed in the proper quarter. Good-night."
Clifford stole across the balcony, and slipped down that way. He felt pretty sure that there would be nothing fresh to see to-night. Before Rayne emerged he and Henshaw were out on the lawn at the end of the garden.
"And now what is the next move?" the latter asked as Clifford told his story. "Follow that fellow?"
"Not at all," said Clifford. "When the time comes we must catch them all together. You know that a good half of the diamonds are in the possession of some village girl, who told a lie to keep them without any idea of their value. We have to find that girl."
Madeline might have had cause for anxiety had she only heard Clifford speak at this moment. But, on the other hand, there was a deeper phase of the mystery that Clifford was not aware of. He had no idea that the stones had been pronounced paste by an expert in gems. Sefton was perhaps playing a deeper game than his late allies imagined.
"I'll just run round and see Colonel Marston," said Clifford. "I shall tell him everything that we have discovered to-night, then I shall go as far as Mrs. Manton's. We can do nothing until these fellows have their next meeting. What shall you do?"
"Go to my rooms," Henshaw explained. "I am perfectly safe there. Good-night."
Contrary to his usual regular habits, Colonel Marston had not gone to bed. Very cautiously Clifford knocked at the door, which was as cautiously opened. Ikey Brown had disappeared. The colonel listened with great interest to Clifford's story.
"It seems almost incredible to believe that such things could go on under my very nose," the colonel exclaimed. "Now, what are you going to do?"
"We are going to pursue what a great statesman called a policy of masterly inactivity," Clifford said, with a smile. "If we are going to succeed we must net the whole gang like a covey of partridges. We must move soon, because events will not permit of a long delay. Meanwhile, I will ask you to keep your eyes open, and let me know if you see or hear anything out of the common. Send me telegrams to the address that I have written on this scrap of paper. And now I must really go."
It was nearly one o'clock before Clifford left the house, and he saw that in one way and another he had wasted nearly an hour since Rayne's departure. A little vexed with himself, he hastened in the direction of Mrs. Manton's house. Late as it was, the window was still a blaze of light, and it was quite evident that the party had not yet broken up. The wonderful professor of conjuring was still a great source of interest and wonder, there seemed to be no end to his tricks. He was going on now from a sheer love of his business; evidently he was an enthusiast, moving amongst the guests, and thrilling them with strange surprises. It was some little time before Clifford got a chance to speak to his hostess.
"You look as if you had spent a profitable evening," she said. "And these people have been enjoying themselves immensely. What have you done?"
"I'll tell you when everybody has gone," Clifford said. "How long did Rayne stay?"
"I could not detain him for more than an hour after you had gone," Mrs. Manton said. "He told me he had a most particular engagement, and after that there was no more to be said. Perhaps you have seen him in the meantime."
Presently the guests began to dwindle away, and Clifford stepped into the library, so that it should not be said that he had stayed after the rest. He was glad of a glass of wine and some cake that stood on the table. Mrs. Manton came in eagerly.
"Thank goodness I have seen the last of them," she exclaimed. "Also I have sent the servants to bed. Now smoke and drink your wine and tell me your story."
It was a long story, and Mrs. Manton found it full of breathless interest. But she made no sign till Clifford had finished.
"A fine night's work," she said. "You know where to lay hands on the gang now, and that is something in our favor. Also, we know that they have the diamonds, or rather, a part of them. To find out this country girl, and get half the stolen property from her will be an easy matter."
"What are those Pinkerton men after, I wonder?" Clifford said.
"Oh, I am responsible for them; I am trying to kill two birds with one stone. They are, more or less, of an accident in this particular instance. But, the great point we have to discuss now is what those fellows were doing with those sham diamonds. As I told you early to-night, I am interested in another case where sham diamonds played a part. One of the stones in the one I gave you is what I palmed off on Lady Sloman."
"And, as you know, I have another one in my pocket," Clifford said. "To-morrow I will have a good look at them, though I cannot for the life of me understand why they are being used in this particular instance."
"You may depend upon it, they have struck some new and original swindle," Mrs. Manton said, eagerly. "I have not much to learn, but I am going to learn something here. Now let us see if we can suggest some ingenious solution."
An hour or more passed without anything satisfactory being arrived at. The clock struck half-past three when Mrs. Manton rose, with a yawn and a protestation of sleepiness.
"We had better give it up for tonight," she said. "I am quite tired out. Ah, you are a splendid ally, though, despite your first failure. Good-night—good—No peace for the wicked. Now, who wants me on the telephone at this time of night?"
The telephone bell was ringing furiously. Mrs. Manton took the receiver down and impatiently demanded to know what was the matter.
"Oh, yes," she said. "Mr. Marsh is here, as a matter of fact. We have been having a little party. But who are you, and where are you calling from? Crowborough? And you want to speak to Mr. Marsh himself? I'll ask him to come to the instrument...You heard what we said, Mr. Marsh. Somebody wants you at Crowborough. I hope nothing is wrong." Clifford hoped so, too, as he took up the receiver with some misgiving. The voice at the other end was altogether a strange one to him.
"I am Mr. Marsh," he said. "Is anything the matter?"
"Well, yes," came the reply. "I am Dr. Barr. An hour ago I was fetched out to go and see Mr. Matthew Forfitt; I called on your wife as I came back, and she asked me to give you a call where you are. You must come at once, please."
"Is there anything serious?" Clifford asked. "Mr. Forfitt is very ill, or—"
"Mr. Forfitt is dead," came the unexpected reply. "He was dead when I got there. But that is not the startling side of the case. There can be no possible doubt of the fact that Mr. Forfitt has been foully murdered!"
"So the plot thickens," said Clifford as he replaced the receiver. "I must get away in half an hour and catch the early train to Crowborough. My father-in-law has been murdered."
"How dreadful!" Mrs. Manton exclaimed. "Strange that you should hear this new fact after Mr. Forfitt comes on to the plane of our investigations."
"It is hardly so strange as you imagine," said Clifford thoughtfully. "From what I could see of Rayne tonight, he was not quite certain that my late esteemed father-in-law had not got the gems, all the same. Between the time he left the house in Beemor-street and the exact moment when I got my call from Dr. Barr it was quite possible for Rayne and Forfitt to meet."
"Provided always that the trains fit in exactly," Mrs. Manton said.
"We need not trouble about trains at all," Clifford replied. "A fast motor-car can now do the journey more quickly and in greater safety. At one o'clock Rayne left Beemor-street. At half-past two at the outside he could be at Ashdown. Forfitt sat up very late; he generally had his study window open. I am not suggesting anything, but—"
Clifford paused significantly, and Mrs. Manton added—
"You will be able to speak more definitely when next we meet," she said. "I hope for your sake that Mr. Forfitt has died without making a will."
"It is very likely he did. He was a very strong man, who had no kind of a thought for death. I will try and let you know something definite in the course of the day."
So down to the country forthwith went Clifford Marsh. It was still dark when he arrived, having stated that he would come down by the first available train, in his conversation over the telephone. But, dark as it was, and far from the station as the cottage was, Madeline was there to meet him. Her eyes were red, as if she had been weeping. Matthew Forfitt had been a hard man, but still Madeline could not quite forget the fact that he had been her father.
"It's a dreadful business, Clifford," she said, as she clung to his arm going up the hill. "It came as an awful shock when Dr. Barr knocked me up and told me the news. I suppose that some burglar, allured by the reports of my father's wealth was responsible for it. He always stayed up very late and he never wanted his study window closed."
"French windows opening on to the lawn, weren't they?" Clifford asked.
"Yes. The house is lonely, and there are so few servants. But you will see for yourself. Dr. Barr says he will drive you over after breakfast."
It was some time before noon when Clifford set out for the scene of the tragedy. All the blinds were down, and the house looked more desolate and gloomy than usual. Even the grim, sour servants seemed to have fallen under the spell of the tragedy.
A police inspector touched his hat as Clifford entered the library. Nothing had been touched, only the body had been moved for the purposes of the inquest.
"There must have been a great struggle," Clifford said.
"There was, sir," the inspector said. "Despite his age, Mr. Forfitt was a powerful man. And his antagonist must have been still more so. Look here."
The library table had been overturned in the desperate struggle, and the papers all littered about. The safe had been forced open, and a considerable sum of money and notes scattered aside. It was odd, the inspector thought, that the notes had not been taken. But, in the light of Clifford's superior knowledge, he did not see that it was odd at all. One of the gang had come after the diamonds, but whether he had found them or not remained part of the mystery for the present. But the thief had not come for money; that was absolutely certain.
A great pool of blood lay on the floor. Dr. Barr explained that the murderer had forced his victim to the floor, and then stabbed him to the heart. Grim and determined to the last, Forfitt had not deigned to cry out. There had been no call for assistance, of that one of the female servants was certain. She had been up nearly all night with a bad face, and if there had been anything out of the common she must have noticed it.
"Nothing in the way of a clue?" Clifford asked.
"Nothing whatever, sir," the inspector said, "of course if some suspicious characters are reported in the locality last night we shall hear of it before the day is out. But up to the present we are as much in the dark as yourself, sir."
The inquest came an hour later, but it was only a formal affair, to obtain the doctor's evidence as to the cause of death, and get a certificate for the burial of the body. Then the house was left in charge of the police and the late owner's lawyer.
"I am glad to be able to congratulate your wife on her inheritance," the latter said. "It is perhaps a little premature, but le roi est mort, you know."
"To tell the truth, I have never given the matter a moment's consideration," Clifford said. "Mr. Forfitt told me plainly never to expect a penny from him, and I never have. I felt quite sure he would leave his fortune elsewhere."
"Well, he didn't. He always scoffed at the idea of making a will. He said ten years hence would be time enough for that. The fact of the matter is, he could not make up his mind to part with the money even on paper. So there is no will, and, in spite of everything, your wife comes into something like twenty thousand pounds per annum. If she will do me the honor of looking upon me as her banker till affairs are settled, why—And, as to the funeral, I shall be very happy to take everything off your shoulders."
Clifford went away, strangely uplifted and unburdened in spite of himself. So that hard-earned, greedily-hoarded money was going to do some good at last. Madeline listened to the news quietly, but her face looked less haggard and her eyes calmer than Clifford had seen them for a long time. She was glad to know that poverty was a thing of the past.
Clifford went down to the post office and there despatched a long and cautiously-worded telegram to Mrs. Manton, asking for information as to Rayne's movements the night before. At the end of two hours, a little before luncheon time, came the reply. Rayne had been heard of up to two o'clock in the morning, when he was seen in a motor car in Piccadilly. Seemed as if he had a journey before him. At seven o'clock he had called at the Atalanta Club, where he had had a plunge in the swimming-bath, and subsequently breakfasted. He looked like a man who had been up all night, and he had had an accident to his right foot.
Clifford was not in the least surprised to get this information; indeed, he would have been surprised if nothing of the kind had transpired. But all these facts he kept to himself for the present, saying nothing on the matter even to Madeline. Their luncheon was a more elaborate affair than usual, for the family lawyer had been down to the cottage, where he insisted upon Madeline accepting a cheque at his hands for a hundred pounds. Madeline's face was bright and free from care now, but the knowledge of what lay concealed upstairs still troubled her. She would have to confess her crime to Clifford later on; indeed, she would feel miserable until she had done so. And from the bottom of her heart she felt glad that the gem had turned out to be paste. That fact, at any rate, prevented her from being an absolute criminal.
"It is good to know that we have said good-bye to poverty for ever," Clifford said. "My darling, you can't say how glad I am for your sake. To think that money would come to us after all."
"And to think there is an end to all anxiety," Madeline smiled. "Clifford, you will not undergo any more of those terrible dangers!"
"I must do that," Clifford said. "As a matter of fact, the real dangers are over. But I could not draw back when I have gone so far. Those people trusted me, and I cannot go back from my word now. In a few days I shall be free. But I must get to them again to-day. I shall come home by the train about half-past eight."
Madeline made no further protest, for, in her heart of hearts, she felt that Clifford was right. For his own credit's sake he could not draw back now. She must possess her soul in patience, and hope that the end was drawing near.
Mrs. Manton welcomed Clifford with effusion. She was glad to hear that the good fortune had come to Clifford and his wife. And meanwhile she had not been idle.
"Rayne is out of the way for the present," she said. "Without doubt he is sleeping after his all-night escapade. Yes, I am inclined to agree with you that he went down to Ashdown with a view to obtaining an interview with Mr. Forfitt. That must be followed up. Meanwhile, I have taken two guests into my house whom I call my poor relations. You told me that Dawlish was kept by a small weekly sum forwarded to his landlady from some solicitor. I got the name and address of that solicitor, and when I went to find him I learnt that no such man and no such address existed. There is another mystery to solve."
"I fancy I have solved that already," Clifford smiled. "If the truth were told, Rayne finds that money. You see, if Dawlish gets well he would go a long way to give Rayne and Co. a big term of penal servitude. Henshaw vouches for that. Doubtless Dawlish's relations look upon him as dead. If that money ceased he would go to the workhouse. The doctor there would say that the case deserved investigation and a specialist might do the trick. Hence the small pittance that keeps Dawlish as he is."
"Capital!" Mrs. Manton cried. "You are an ally after my own heart; I am only sorry that this is likely to prove our only investigation together. I have found your young specialist friend, who is coming here to see Dawlish to-day. Only, we must really push on; the danger of ruin is greater than you imagine."
Clifford, with an idea in his mind, went as far as Beemor-street. He passed round to the little lane at the back of No. 17, and there he found what he sought—a smooth, round track, such as is made by a big motor car with Dunlop tyres. By the gateway was a splash of petrol spirit; the place smelt strongly of it. Also, the gate-posts looked as if they could be easily removed, and this proved to be a fact. Inside was a tumbledown stable, filled with rubbish, and behind all the rubbish Clifford's eager eye detected the gleam of polished brass. A little further investigation, and the driving gear of a powerful motor stood confessed. With a smile of satisfaction, Clifford replaced the number, and took his way thoughtfully to the station.
There was not much light when he arrived, but, all the same, he made his way to Ashdown. The place was still in the possession of the police, no clue had been found, everybody was in profound darkness as far as the murder was concerned. Doubtless the motor had been left outside the gates, for Clifford could see no trace of it inside.
He put up the gas in the library and looked around him. He shook out the curtain and turned over the scattered papers before something gleaming attracted his attention. It was no more than a plain cigarette case, that might have belonged to the dead man.
"Ah," Clifford said softly to himself as he opened it. "Ah. So I am on the right track at last. I did not expect good luck like this."
He opened the case and turned out the contents on the table. There was only one cigarette inside, but that was sufficient for all practical purposes, Clifford decided. It was one of the silurian grey cigarettes, with the Beemor-street legend coiled up inside!
It is not to be supposed that the murder of such a well- known City figure as Matthew Forfitt should pass without a deal of excited comment. It was known pretty well now that the ordinary vulgar robbery was not the motive, or the notes in the safe would have been taken. The assassin had come for something—compromising papers of mortgages, perhaps—and he had probably found them. Mr. Forfitt was a methodical man, who kept a full list of all his holdings and securities, and, on an examination of this, nothing was found to be missing. Up to the day of the funeral the police had no clue, though Clifford felt quite sure that he could supply one without the slightest trouble.
All the same, he had his own task to finish first. He had not the slightest intention of drawing back from the quest, now that all this money had come to Madeline; he had made a promise, and he meant to see it through.
Nevertheless, the detection of the murderer was not outside his ken. He had noted one or two little things that had escaped the eye of the police—a certain mark, for instance, on the throat of the dead man, that did not look unlike the pressure of fingers wet with blood. Clifford, with the aid of Dr. Barr, had made a furtive snap shot of the dead man's head and throat, and a very ghastly photograph it made when he came to develop it. Of this he said nothing for the present, even to Madeline. That would come later on. The time was close at hand now when the promise to Sir Arthur must be fulfilled.
Clifford hastened back to town directly Forfitt's funeral was over. He had not seen Sir Arthur for some days, and a messenger asking for his presence at the latter's residence in Park Lane reached him just before leaving home. Sir Arthur looked a little greyer, and more haggard than ever. He had just come from the Continent, he explained. He had been away for the last few days, trying to raise a big loan.
"Which has been a failure," he said. "Good heavens! Is there nobody that I can trust? I am surrounded by a whole gang of thieves, yourself included."
He paced up and down the library, angry and suspicious. The blood flamed to Clifford's face.
"What do you mean by that?" Clifford asked, hotly.
"Oh! you are going to bluster, eh?" Sir Arthur cried. "You look very different to the man who came to my office seeking work. You took my money, you spent it at a dissolute companion's, as I have your own hand-writing to prove."
Clifford had actually forgotten Sefton for a moment, and the clever way in which the incriminating letter had been obtained from him. As he had expected, it had been sent to Sir Arthur. He was hardly to be blamed for regarding it as genuine.
"Permit me to explain," Clifford said. "The confession does poor justice to my ability, but there it is. And I fancy that I have made up for it since."
Sir Arthur listened with a face that expressed angry incredulity. It was quite plain that he did not believe a word of the story.
"And you expect to deceive me with a cock-and-bull fabrication like that?" he asked.
Clifford kept his temper with in effort. All the same, he had quite expected something of this kind. He was dealing with a man of the world, whose motto was that nobody could be trusted.
"I shall expect every penny of that money back again," he said. "I shall expose you—"
"You will do nothing of the kind," Clifford said, curtly. "You dare not mention the matter. Remember that you were to repudiate me if anything happened. As a matter of fact, I shall be very happy to hand your money back in a few days. As the husband of Mr. Matthew Forfitt's only daughter, money is very little object to me how."
Sir Arthur Barrymore was duly impressed, as Clifford fully intended him to be.
"I was not friends with my father-in-law," he went on. "Mr. Forfitt was going to leave all his money elsewhere, only he forgot to make a will. Under the circumstances of the case, I have no doubt that my wife will be willing to make the advance you require."
"I beg your pardon," Sir Arthur stammered. "I see that you are telling the truth, strange as it may seem. I thought you came here to bluff me. But, my dear sir, it would take four times your wife's fortune to make up the loan I require. I want nearly a million to cover the missing diamonds."
"I never heard how you lost them," Clifford said.
"Well, I might as well tell you. The whole thing will be public property in a day or two. They were stolen from my safe. One of the richest Americans who was on our side of the water came to look at them. He stayed past bank hours, and I put the gems in my safe. I had previously had warning from Mr. and Mrs. Manton that I was in danger; but, fool that I was, I took no heed. Late the next afternoon I had a telegram from my American friend, asking for another sight of the gems, and hinting at business. He would call at my office about eight o'clock, he said. I dressed early, and got to the office by eight. My man came, and we talked over a cigarette. Those cigarettes were produced by the stranger. Half-way through it I turned a little giddy and faint, and when I came to myself my man was gone, and the two parcels of gems were gone, too. There is the story in a nutshell. The make up of the scoundrel and his likeness to the rich American gentleman was remarkable. Then my ward came to me, and she called you in. Almost immediately that amazing Mrs. Manton—herself the wife of the American millionaire—came in, and grasped the situation at a glance. Manton has a large share in the syndicate that purchased the diamonds, and she keeps him quiet. But what is the good? It is failure all along the line. For instance, where is there a greater failure than yours?"
"I claim that I have not failed at all," Clifford replied. "Listen."
And he proceeded to tell his story. A little light crept into Sir Arthur's eyes, and a little of the old firmness came into his lips, as he followed the narrative. The recital was barely finished when Mrs. Manton entered. There was a certain suppressed excitement about her—a suggestion of being fairly pleased with herself.
"So you two have been making it up," she said, with her rare intuition. "But we will not go into that at present. Mr. Marsh, you must come with me."
"Can't you give me any comfort?" Sir Arthur asked.
"I can promise you we are on the right track now," Mrs. Manton said. "Come, you must admit that my colleague here has made marvellous progress lately. I have seen Mr. Manton, and he has agreed to another week's latitude. After hearing my story, he thinks it would be policy for the syndicate to lie low for another week. He has told his colleagues nothing of the truth yet. And in that week we shall succeed."
Mrs. Manton spoke quietly, but none the less with assurance. Sir Arthur smiled feebly. He glanced towards the door, and Mrs. Manton took the hint.
"Sir Arthur has business to do," she said. "Come with me, Mr. Marsh. We are going as far as my house, and we will take a cab. I have good news for you."
They drove along in silence for some little time. A spot or two of rain fell, and Mrs. Manton put her left hand up the trap for the window to be let down. It was the first time that Clifford had seen her use the left hand.
"I know what you are thinking of," she said, "the mystery of my left hand. Well, it shall be a mystery to you no longer. Some of the fingers are missing; I lost them on rather a wild adventure some years ago. Now, as it is very imperative that certain people should not recognise me by that deformity, I have had to resource to art."
"I know," Clifford said, quietly—"a specially-made glove, with artificial fingers. You could pull the gloves off, and the joints are hidden by rings."
"How did you find that out?" Mrs. Manton demanded.
"The explanation is simple, as explanations generally are. The night you met with that accident, your left hand appeared to be crushed. I pulled the glove off, and kept it; indeed, I had no alternative, as you disappeared so suddenly. The glove and the rings are in my keeping at present, and you can have them whenever you please."
"The loss gave me considerable uneasiness." Mrs. Manton said. "That night Michael Rayne was following me. Now it was imperative that I should not be identified, as I was then in the disguise of my true self—i.e., not disguised at all. Rayne knew me as Mrs. Manton only. If he guessed who I really was, why—"
Mrs. Manton shrugged her shoulders. Clifford ventured on a question.
"And suppose I guess who you really are, what then?" he asked.
"Nonsense!" Mrs. Manton laughed. "You haven't the remotest idea who I am, clever as you are; and, what is more, you are not going to know just yet. Have you done anything in the matter of those crystals as yet?"
Clifford replied that he had had no time. He was going to call on Wilfred Darrell, his clever young doctor friend, presently, and ask for the use of his laboratory.
"Well, you won't have very far to go," Mrs. Manton said, "seeing that Dr. Darrell is at my house at the present moment. As a matter of fact, he thinks he has discovered what is the matter with Mr. Dawlish. If his diagnosis is right, he will operate. I have given him the run of my house, to do as he likes. Mr. Henshaw is there, too, and naturally greatly interested in the business. But here we are, and now to see whether it is possible to get a step further in the problem."
The rising young doctor seemed to have taken possession of Mrs. Manton's house. He nodded to Clifford as he came in; he indicated a couple of boxes in the hall.
"Nurses'," he said. "They are upstairs, getting everything ready. My man will be here in a few moments to administer the ether. Oh, yes, I have carefully examined Dawlish, and I feel quite sure there is some small pressure on the brain—the result of a blow, undoubtedly. It is probably only a tiny matter, but it makes all the difference between sanity and insanity. At any rate, I shall not leave the poor fellow any worse than I found him."
It was a little time after that the second doctor came, and then followed an anxious hour or more.
Mrs. Manton was, perhaps, more disturbed than she cared to own, for she talked fitfully, and she was backwards and forwards to the window a dozen times.
"I did not imagine that I was the proud possessor of nerves," she said. "But I suppose they tell upon you as you grow older. I see the other doctor has just gone, and the nurse has ceased to run up and down stairs. Well, nurse, what is it?"
One of the women came into the drawing-room, calm and self-possessed, with just the semblance of a smile on her face. It was a good omen.
"Will you both come outside the bedroom?" she said. "Very gently, please, and do not look in. You may stay just for a moment."
It was dark in the sick-chamber, but not too dark to make out the bed. A figure just stirred, and then the voice of Dawlish came, feebly, but quite clear.
"I should like to know," he said, "I should like to know, where the deuce I've got to."
Mrs. Manton gave a little cry of delight, a cry instantly suppressed. Darrell came to the door, and shook his fist vaguely in the direction of the culprit.
"I'll tell you all about it presently," he said. "The operation has been successful, but whether it will reach my expectations I can't say yet. I'm going to give my patient some nourishment, and then a draught to make him sleep—a good, long, heavy sleep. After that I shall be able to leave him to the nurses for the rest of the day."
Henshaw came eagerly into the house a few moments after to hear the good news. The hunted expression left his eyes, and he smiled pleasantly. "I am more than glad to hear it," he said. "Ah! if you only knew what it was to feel that every footstep belonged to a detective! If Darrell succeeds, I shall be a free man within a week, and then I can claim my own again, and Myra, too."
"Myra Rayne promised to come and have tea here," Mrs. Manton said. "Seems strange that so good and pure a girl should be Rayne's sister."
Myra came timidly a little while later, and Mrs. Manton made an excuse to leave her and her lover in the drawing-room alone together. The girl's face softened, and her eyes filled, as she caught sight of Henshaw.
"This is very reckless of you, dear," she said. "You were safe in the country. If any of my brother's friends should happen to meet you in London—"
"But, my dearest girl, I am bound to come to London," Henshaw said. "I have got on the track of a man who can help me. And I had to see the good friend who is managing my affairs. And I am also anxious about Dawlish. Bring him back to reason again, and I fear nothing. But my innocence means your brother's destruction."
"I know it," Myra said, a little sadly. "Am I not in the plot myself to bring about his downfall? We are the same flesh and blood; I would shield him if I possibly could. But if you were a total stranger to me, Phil, and not my own dear love, I should be forced by my conscience to act just the same. It is my misfortune that I am the sister of a most abandoned scoundrel; but my duty is no less plain for that. You may be certain that he will escape punishment when the times comes."
"Ah! Do you think that he is getting uneasy, then?"
"I don't fancy so. Nothing seems to disturb his nerves. But I fancy he is going away. Signs are not wanting that he is preparing to leave England. What mischief he and his friends have been up to, it is not for me to say; but, from my brother's manner, I should say that the plot has been entirely successful. The other men have been used, but they will not benefit a penny by their labor."
"That I can quite believe," Henshaw said, grimly. "They will be cast off and laughed at in the end. But I fancy that Clifford Marsh should know this."
"You can tell him if you please. Oh, Philip, may the doctor be successful! My spying will be over when I know that your name has been cleared."
There appeared to be every chance of it from what Dr. Darrell said an hour later. Dawlish was going on very well indeed. He had come to himself directly the operation was over, and his eyes were clear. The few words he had spoken were full of sense.
"I am almost prepared to stake my reputation on the case," Darrell said. "We shall see after Dawlish has had a few hours' sleep. For all his reason seems dulled, he has had no real brain-rest since his accident. In cases like that, when a man is ever seeking to come back to his own identity, there is no real brain-rest, even in sleep. The constant irritation prevents anything normal and healthy like that. Clifford, are you coming round to my place to make experiments?"
Clifford started out of his reverie, and said that he would come round later in the evening, if Darrell had no objection, and take the chance of finding him at home. Whether the doctor was in or out would make very little difference. As a matter of fact, Clifford was thinking a great deal of what Henshaw had told him as to the probably early flight of Rayne from England. It was a complication he had not foreseen.
"I'll go round to Beemor-street tonight," he said, "I may pick up a fresh clue, or old Colonel Marston may have discovered something. What do you think?"
Mrs. Manton nodded approval of the scheme. Rayne must be made to remain in England for the next few days at any rate. That he would eventually betray his comrades, and go off with the whole of the spoil, he felt certain.
"I can't see what he is waiting for now," Clifford said, thoughtfully.
"It seems to me to be exceedingly plain," Mrs. Manton replied. "That man is a greedy wolf who is never satisfied. He does not mean to go until he has found the parcel of gems that Sefton tried to dispose of. Of course, the story that he told Rayne about the girl and the hut is all nonsense. He got that out of some romance."
"I'm not so sure of that," Clifford said. "He seemed to be telling the truth. But there are several points that puzzle me, and one of the greatest is why that fellow burgled my house the other night. But I suppose we shall now really get to the end of the tangled skein. And now I think that I had better be off."
A little later on Clifford was cautiously making his way up the ivy on to the balcony at No. 17 Beemor-street. So far as he could ascertain, the house was empty, and the big room that opened on to the balcony was nothing but dust and a long heap of charcoal where the retorts had been. Evidently the gang so recently working there had finished their task, all of which looked like flight in the immediate future.
Whatever the mysterious occupation had been, it was done now. Every room was empty, as Clifford satisfied himself by the supply of wax matches. Even the dark room, where Sefton had been forced and locked in, was open and deserted. On the whole, Clifford had gained nothing from the risk he had taken before confirmation of the fact that it would not be long before England saw the back of Rayne and his gang. He made his way back into the road, and from thence to the front of the house. It was just possible that the old colonel might have some sort of story to tell.
Colonel Marston came to the door, and expressed his pleasure at seeing Clifford again. He had been very careful, he said, not to pry into the mystery of the house, and he had heard nothing till last night.
"I was just going to bed," he said, "when from upstairs came a sound of groans. For a long time I thought that it was fancy, so I did nothing. But as the groans continued, I determined to investigate. It was rather risky work, especially after what you had told me; but I did not see anybody. I now satisfied myself that the house was empty. All the same, the groans continued, and for a long time I could not locate them. Finally I found a door leading out of a large room upstairs, and then I knew that I was not mistaken. The key was turned in the lock outside, and I entered with my lantern. I found a man on the floor, unconscious and moaning. I managed to get him down here, and made up a bed for him in my second room. Whether he is one of the gang, or a prisoner of theirs, I cannot say."
"Is he still in the same state?" Clifford asked.
"More or less," Colonel Marston replied. "He takes food fairly well, but I should say that he is suffering from brain fever. As I expected you to come along pretty soon, I did not call in a doctor. He would have asked too many questions, and probably have insisted upon calling in the police. That would not have suited you."
"Indeed it would not," Clifford said, dryly. "My dear colonel, you have acted with great discretion. If a doctor is needed, I can provide my own, who is more or less in the secret. I had better see the man, though, and know pretty well who he is. He is one of the gang, who has attempted to play the rest false."
As Clifford had confidently expected, the tossing, unconscious figure on the bed turned out to be Sefton. It was quite evident that he would not give any trouble for some time to come. He evidently badly needed the services of a doctor, and Clifford decided that he would get Darrell to call later on in the evening, all of which he explained to the colonel.
"It is more than kind of you to take all this trouble for a stranger," Clifford said. "Believe me, it will not be forgotten. I come to you, and you take my word for everything, without so much as asking a single question. Without your assistance I should never have so far succeeded."
"It has been a pleasure," the colonel said. "You don't realise what it means to be cut off by poverty like mine from the companionship of gentlemen. You cannot understand the delight it is to meet an educated man again. If I could get into the country once more, where I could keep books for a farmer, or something or that sort—But I dream."
"It shall be no dream," Clifford said. "My wife's father has just died, and left her a magnificent property in the county of Sussex. We shall most assuredly want a steward to look after the place. There is a pretty house just inside the grounds, which is empty. My dear colonel, you will have to work hard for the house and the £250 a year I can offer you. In the name of my wife and myself, will you take it?"
Clifford escaped presently, with those fervent thanks ringing in his ears, and made his way to those modest residence of Darrell. The latter had just returned from a second visit to Dawlish, and professed himself to be absolutely satisfied.
"My dear chap, it is a perfect success," he cried. "That chap has the constitution of a bullock. In a few days he will be out and about again. Later on, I have a little suggestion to make to you. I have heard all the story, and I can see my way to the preparation of a pleasant surprise for that scoundrel Rayne. Only, I must think out the details first. Ah! yes, I'll go and see that other scoundrel in Beemor-street for you later on."
Darrell bustled out again presently, leaving Clifford to the full enjoyment of his laboratory. This was a good opportunity to test the crystals and see what the gang in Beemor-street had been doing with them. The application of the stone to a fierce heat provided no apparent result.
"Very strange," Clifford muttered. "They are dull and greasy, and the outside facets look as if they have been made out of some badly-moulded glass; and yet, in certain lights, there seems to be a deal of fire at the heart of the stone. I'll try and melt one."
The process was again a failure; the stones declined to dissolve even in the fierce heat that Clifford obtained round the crucible. He picked up the pebble before it was quite cool, and suddenly dropped it into a basin of water. When he picked it up again, some of the grease seemed to have left the surface.
"Confound it!" Clifford cried, as he flung the stone on a marble slab—"confound it! Why—"
He paused, and picked up the stone again. He picked at a facet with his finger. Then he fairly danced with joy round the laboratory.
"Eureka!" he yelled. "What a fool not to have seen it before! But what an ingenious idea! The mystery is solved, and the situation saved, for a million!"
So, from a financial view, Sir Arthur Barrymore had another week to live. At the end of that time he had either to produce the priceless gems or confess the fact that he had lost them, and that his whole fortune would not liquidate the burden. But, as Mrs. Manton cheerfully informed him, much might be done in a week. They were well on the track of the thieves now, their suspicions were not aroused, and when the hour came a brilliant stroke of strategy might recover the lot.
"And please don't worry yourself about Sefton's story of the country girl and her share of the gems," she said. "We have no time to go into that now, and if the story is true, why it will keep. We shall find the country girl when the time comes."
So Barrymore went away, consoling himself as well as he could. On the whole, Mrs. Manton felt that she had no reason to be dissatisfied. In the first three days Dawlish had come on with rapid strides, Darrell's operation had been a brilliant success, though he refused to have his patient excited at present.
"Give him two more days," he said. "It is a marvellous recovery. In two days that chap will be able to get out again. He recollects all about that business of Rayne's, indeed I have bit by bit told him pretty well everything. Where is Marsh?"
"That is precisely what I cannot tell you," Mrs. Manton said. "He was to have seen me on Monday morning, but he did not turn up, and I have not heard a word from him since. Oh, I do not feel in the least anxious. Probably, he is following up some trail of his own. That young man is not likely to be caught tripping again."
But Madeline did not share the same opinion. She had heard nothing from Clifford, and therefore she had come to London miserably anxious. Clifford had nearly lost his life at the hands of this dangerous gang, and there was no reason why he should be any safer now than he was before. What was the use of all the money, Madeline asked, if she was to be subjected to torture like this. She and Clifford had been miserably poor, but the shadow of tragedy had not hung over them before.
Mrs. Manton was sweet and sympathetic. She was quite sure that Clifford had come to no harm. It was true that he had disappeared, but there was every consolation in the fact that Rayne had disappeared also. No doubt, for some good reason of his own, Clifford had followed him on his mysterious errand."Then you wouldn't call in the police?" Madeline asked, innocently.
"My dear child, if you want to ruin everything, call in the police," Mrs. Manton said with more than usual energy. "I daresay you wonder why the wife of an American millionaire takes so vivid an interest in the case, but you will know all in good time. Now take my advice and go home again. This trouble of yours is nearly at an end. By the end of the week the sun will shine again."
Madeline went off, comforted despite herself. There was something magnetic about Mrs. Manton. The latter smiled as she returned to a mass of correspondence. It was a strange whim in so rich a woman that she should always see to her own correspondence. She frowned a little as a footman entered with the information that a stranger desired to see her. He had sent in a card bearing the information that he was James Brodie, and that he was a dealer in antique gems and the like. Mrs. Manton bade the footman admit him; many and curious were her callers, who very seldom departed without an interview.
The stranger came in, a little bent man, with wrinkled features and toothless jaws. Mrs. Manton noted the fact that his eyes were bright and his dress exceedingly neat and well cared for. The man bowed and produced a small black bag filled with a fine collection of old paste buckles and the like, and spread the goods on the table.
"Pardon, madame," he said, with just the suggestion of a foreign accent, "but I hear it mentioned in the trade that you buy these things. Therefore I call and ask you to look at what I have here. They are mostly antiques, some of them very rare indeed. This one belonged to Madame Pompadour, this to Mary Queen of Scots. They can all of them be authenticated. They are not my property; I merely sell them on commission for a high lady who does not wish to appear in the matter."
Mrs. Manton looked keenly at the speaker as he spread the gems out to the best advantage. A queer little smile played about the corners of her lips.
"What do you want for that pendant?" she asked.
"Ah, that," the salesman said, with enthusiasm. "That is a gem. Old enamel and fine paste. You will observe the absolutely unique fastening. Say a hundred guineas. It is cheap."
Quite in an unbusinesslike way, Mrs. Manton admitted that the price was very cheap indeed. Much as she admired the gems, she did not want any at present. She had been very extravagant lately, and her husband had complained very much indeed. She liked the curios, but she had not the faintest intention of purchasing just now.
"Well, we might make some little exchange, madame," the salesman said suavely. "It is not exactly business, but I could see my way to make a little by the exchange. If madame has any paste unset, perhaps? Large stones that have lost their lustre."
The shrewd hard look was still in Mrs. Manton's eyes. She was thinking, but she was not for a moment thinking of the gems before her, or that she possessed some large paste stones that had lost their lustre. She was wondering what this man was doing here, and what part he had been selected to play in the matter of the Rayne mystery.
"I have a few large stones," she said. "They came to me in a rather peculiar way. I don't know what they are but as you are a judge you may be able to tell me."
The little man bowed and said nothing, but Mrs. Manton could see his lips twitching. She came back presently with a large handful of dull looking stones, which she passed over to her visitor. He took them gently enough, but his yellow fingers closed on them like a claw. He could not quite conceal his satisfaction from those keen eyes.
"What will you give me for them?" she asked.
"They are fine," the old man gabbled. "It is not business, but I will admit they are grand paste. One seldom sees old paste so large. But they have lost their lustre, and the art of restoration is known only to myself and another. In your hands they are valueless, in mine valuable. For them I will give you the pendant that belonged to Mary Queen of Scots."
"That is tempting," Mrs. Manton laughed. "What is this, Nation? Oh, a telegram. Wait and see if there is any reply to this. No, there is no answer."
Mrs. Manton read the telegram and carelessly crumpled it up and pitched it into the wastepaper basket by her side. Her face was absolutely unruffled, but the little dealer in art curios would have been astonished if he had perused the pink flimsy. It was signed 'Clifford Marsh' and despatched from an office near the Docks. It ran:—
"Old man disguised as curiosity dealer will call to try and buy paste; large stones you told me had recently come into your possession. Like those substituted for Lady Sloman's necklet. On no account sell. Very urgent."
Mrs. Manton had dropped this into the basket without even raising an eyebrow.
"You tempt me," she said, "but I must know more about you first. Come again to-morrow and bring a good reference with you. At present I can do nothing."
The dark eyes flashed with baffled malice, the bony hands trembled. Mrs. Manton reached for her paste and dropped it in a drawer. Then she rang the bell.
"Show this man out, Nation," she said. "If he calls again to-morrow I will see him. There is nothing else to wait for."
The little man bowed and retired. His face was white, his eyes gleamed like stars. He muttered something thickly to the effect that he would call again. Once alone, Mrs. Manton fished the telegram out of the basket and read it with an anxious face.
"So they have found me out at last," she said. "With a clever lot like that it was inevitable. But it matters very little now that the work is practically accomplished. All the same, I should like to know what the mystery about these stones is. That old fellow took a lot of risk and went to a deal of pains to get that poor quality paste. And why? It's not as if they were diamonds. Diamonds, indeed! Why, a child who had once handled a real stone could tell the difference at a glance."
Mrs. Manton took up a pellbe or two and eyed them with comtempt.
"So I was right about Clifford Marsh," she went on. "I felt pretty sure that he had been following Rayne. He has been on the Continent, or I am greatly mistaken, as the postal address near the Dock proves. Well, Nation, have you another telegram for me. You need not wait; I will ring if there is any answer."
The telegram, this time from the West End district, was also from Clifford. It was to the effect that Rayne was practically ready to flit, and that this time the absence would be a permanent one. Rayne had to be shadowed, and Clifford had other important business. Rayne was at present engaged for the next hour or so, at the Grand Hotel. Would Mrs. Manton arrange for him to be shadowed at once.
"The plot begins to thicken," Mrs. Manton murmured, as she dashed off a note which she despatched by special messenger. "Louise and Alice will do very well. Louise, too, knows a deal of Rayne's history, and the comedy will appeal to her acting powers. We'll give that young man something to think about."
Half an hour later a pretty, foreign-looking woman, with dark eyes and a fascinating, bold manner, was closeted with Mrs. Manton. Those eyes looked as if they could be pathetic enough on occasions, but they were dancing with mirth now.
"I want you as you go along to read up Mr. Rayne's dossier carefully," Mrs. Manton said. "You can destroy the notes I have given you when you have finished. Also, you will be careful to remember the little incident I have told you personally. You will find your man at the Grand. I can trust you to make your own opportunities as to the rest. It should be a little comedy after your own heart, Louise."
The girl showed her white teeth in a dazzling smile.
"It will be splendid," she said. "I shall puzzle that man; he shall give me the best that the best affords. He shall have something to occupy his mind for some time. It will be a change to the occupation I am on at present."
"So far you have done no good, Louise?"
"Nothing at all, madame. The deadly monotony of it, the effort to be so very, very good! I feel that I must break out and dance before them. But I hold myself in. I say that madame will move when the time comes."
"And so I shall," Mrs. Manton laughed, "But this big thing swallows up all the rest. You will be able to launch your thunderbolt in a few days, Louise. And now you can go away and make the best of your little holiday."
Once more the woman's teeth flashed out as she turned and vanished silently.
Rayne stepped off the Hamburg steamer and looked furtively around him. He appeared to have no baggage, nothing but the clothes he stood up in; his linen was dirty, and he wanted shaving badly. He might have been two or three days on the road, he might have been sleeping in his tweed suit. He saw nothing of a man who followed him at a respectful distance, a man with a hairy face and big glasses. He would hardly have recognised Clifford Marsh in that guise.
"So far, so good," Rayne muttered, as he called for a hansom. "I haven't been missed, or some of the gang would have been prowling about here to a certainty. And now to get a change, now to collect everything together, and a long farewell to England to follow. Michel Rayne's dead body will never be found; it will be a case of a desperate end, and the rest of the gang will deplore my loss without a single idea that Michel Rayne is still very much in the flesh. Ah, ah."
Rayne smiled gently to himself as he stopped the cab at length and got out. He wanted a good lunch, and he had made up his mind to have it, but not until he had changed his clothing. He made his way cautiously to the back of Beemor-street, and from thence into No. 17. The house appeared to be quite deserted, the big room looking into the balcony contained nothing; the door leading to the black hole was wide open.
"Sefton not here," Rayne muttered. "I wonder what they have done with him in my absence. Well, it matters very little one way or another. After to-morrow nothing will matter. They little know it is likely to be the final meeting."
Rayne passed up the next flight of steps until he came to the attics. There was a big room that seemed to be filled with empty boxes. Rayne pulled one of these away, or rather the lid of one, and disclosed a passage leading into an attic beyond. It was a small room, but very comfortably furnished; a good bed and dressing table, with a large looking-glass, on which lay a silver-fitted dressing-case. In one corner was a wardrobe.
"Just as well to have an address that is not known to the police," Rayne muttered, as he proceeded to shave. "Beastly nuisance having no hot water, though. Still, even the most superior of us cannot have everything. That's better!"
He gave himself a glance of satisfaction after he had washed and shaved, donned clean, glossy linen and a neat tweed suit. He swung jauntily away in the direction of the Cecil, and once there he proceeded to order something exceedingly dainty in the way of lunch. There were not many guests there to-day, so that Rayne was a little surprised when a darkeyed girl with a very pretty vivacious face seated herself at his table.
"What would madame like?" a waiter asked, obsequiously.
"It is a matter of indifference," the girl replied. "The same as this gentleman. Will you fetch it, please? Thanks. We shall have a pleasant lunch together, Mr. Michel Rayne."
Rayne looked up from his plate, just a little startled.
"It pleases me to hear you say so," he said. "The presence of beauty is ever a joyful adjunct to the feast. I am flattered by your recollection, but at the same time pardon my stupidity that I forgot your name."
"Are you sure that you ever knew it?" the girl asked, with a dazzling smile. "Not that it matters in the least, seeing that I know you. I came in here on the off-chance; one meets a friend sometimes when one is down on one's luck. I have no wish to cause trouble, but if I should be unable to pay for my lunch—"
"I should never be so ungallant as to see you getting into trouble! A little champagne?"
"Oh, no. To lunch here is a privilege and a pleasure that I appreciate, but I drink no wine. I never did, you know, since that night at Monte Carlo."
"What night do you allude to?" Rayne asked, just a little hoarsely.
"The night that Mrs. Raymond Steffan met with her—accident. Then there was the other occasion when the Englishman, little Romagne, was so silly over those cards. Dear me, I could tell you lots more marvels like these, and yet you do not remember me."
"I only wish that I could. To me you are a beautiful, if baffling mystery. Who are you?"
"Tell you that and lose half my fun? No, no. The superior knowledge is on my side, Monsieur Michel Rayne, and I mean to keep it. Latterly things have been very slow with me, what they call tight in the City. So when I saw you—"
"No good," Rayne said, curtly. "Not the slightest. Take your lunch and be content. But don't go so far as to expect money from me, Miss—"
"Call me Louise,"—the white teeth flashed very brilliantly again—"just Louise. Women are so very illogical. I want money. The little scheme you have on hand just now will not prosper, my dear friend, unless you give me money."
"Oh, indeed, my fair Louise. And perhaps you know what my little scheme is?"
"Of a certainty I do. But we are modest when we speak of a little scheme. So great a mind as yours takes no heed of little schemes. You fly high; there are great spoils to be got that go in a little place, spoil that sparkles. In a place like Hamburg—"
Something like an oath escaped Rayne's lips. Who this woman was and how she had contrived to learn so much was a mystery to him. But her mouth would have to be sealed. Rayne had seen quite enough of this class of adventuress to know that.
"Look here," he said, "I may, or may not, be in a big scheme, but big schemes are only carried out in connection with big numbers. My share is not going to be a fortune. What do you want, and when do you expect to get it?"
"Oh, I am by no means greedy. Let us say a hundred, payable the day after to-morrow here. And don't you try and get away, my friend, because you will be watched by those whom I can interest on my behalf. What do you say?"
Rayne forced a good-humored smile to his lips. The savage look had left his eyes.
"Very well," he said. "You are as fairly reasonable as I can expect. I'll meet you here the day after to-morrow and you shall have your money. Now as I have a most important bit of business elsewhere, I must tear myself away."
Rayne paid the bill and departed. As he drove off, the woman called Louise hurried out into the courtyard and pointed her late companion out to another woman who appeared to be waiting for someone there.
"That's your man," she whispered. "Take a cab and follow him."
Rayne finished his business at length—it was half-past seven before he had done. It was too late to think of dressing for dinner now, and he was hungry again after his exertions. He turned into a quaint little Italian place off Soho and ordered what was on the card. Hardly had he taken his seat before a woman dropped into the chair opposite him. She was fair, and cool and self-possessed, her grey blue eyes had a steely glitter in them.
"So you have forgotten me?" she said. "Ah, what a poor memory men have. When a woman—"
She paused and smiled. Rayne restrained an unreasoning impulse to get up and strangle the fair speaker. The whole world seemed to be filled now with good-looking adventuresses, filled with a full and intimate knowledge of Rayne's past.
"I don't know you," he said sulkily. "I have never seen you before. If you venture to say another word to me I'll call the manager."
"Then call the manager," was the smiling response. "You are quite at liberty to do anything of the kind. Once you do that, I shall call in the police. I shall say to them, do they remember a certain occasion four years ago when a young gentleman called Carter, staying at the Brighton Hotel, was robbed of a good deal of money and jewels. They would probably remember. And I should probably remember, too. We would both tell our story at the police station."
A wild desire to stamp and swear filled Rayne.
"All right," he said. "Don't let us quarrel over it. Is your memory a very good one?"
"My memory is excellent, far better than yours. What's my name? Call me Alice. It is just as useful as a surname and more romantic. Oh, yes, there is nothing the matter with my memory. For instance, I recollect the night of Thursday, 17th November, four years ago. I very well remember that I was in Paris at the time. A man who shall be nameless occupied a hotel on the Quai D'Artignac. He knew a rich widow and her daughter Clara, also a fascinating rascal called Losanne. About half-past twelve that night—"
"For heaven's sake hold your tongue," Rayne said, hoarsely, as he glanced uneasily about him. "You—you never know who may he listening. I don't know you from Adam, or Eve either. This is the second time to-day that—that—"
Rayne paused and the little blue-eyed stranger opposite broke into a little laugh.
"The second time to-day you have been recognised, eh?" she said. "Have you been hearing more scraps of your past history from lips as fair, if not fairer, than mine? But one has these unlucky days—and they are apt to prove expensive."
"Oh, I know that," Rayne said, impatiently. "The question is, how much? I have no money on me, and it will take a day or two to get."
"Well, let us say £50—to start with," was the reply. "And you will please understand that any attempt to evade this promise will be attended by quite unpleasant consequences. If necessary, your trip to Hamburg must be postponed."
Rayne ground his teeth together. At any rate, he must satisfy these harpies before he went. It struck him uneasily that they did not in the least resemble the ordinary female adventurer, except for their coolness and audacity. The money would have to be forthcoming; he dared not leave England till these claims were satisfied.
"Very well," he said. "I'll meet you here the day after to-morrow at the same time. No, I am not going to stay any longer, as my appetite is quite satisfied, thank you. Good-night."
Rayne went off swiftly in the direction of Beemor-street. He had important letters to write, and this was a favorable chance of getting them off. He approached the back entrance to his temporary retreat with more than his usual caution. Nobody seemed anywhere near as he entered the garden, then he stumbled against a man coming out. Rayne pushed him back as he struck a match that flared feebly in the face of Oliver Dawlish.
"What are you doing here?" Rayne demanded, holding the match high. Dawlish's face seemed to have strangely altered for a moment, then the blank look crept into his eyes again.
"I—I don't know," he said, vaguely. "I have lost my way. And you brought me here one night, or was it only a dream?"
"Come to think of it, I did," Rayne growled. "I wanted you to do some little thing for me. But you had better go home now. Or—stop."
"I tell you I have forgotten the way," Dawlish whispered. "My head is so queer. If I could only recollect and see things like other people! Which way do I go?"
A strange, wolfish gleam came into Rayne's eyes, as he pushed his companion forward in the direction of the house. The white face had grown diabolical.
"You go this way," he said, "into the house. Come along and don't be afraid. I fancy I can show you a way of being useful for once in your life."
Clifford was not long in following up his telegram to Mrs. Manton. He arrived after dinner, a necessary time, he explained, as his wardrobe was not quite what one naturally looks for in a fashionable house at that hour. Clifford looked exceedingly cheerful and on the best of terms with himself, despite the fact that he was dusty and dingy, and his linen bore eloquent testimony to the fact that he had worn it for some days.
"You are a colleague after my own heart," Mrs. Manton said, after she had shaken hands warmly. "Your wife has been here in great distress, but I felt certain that you would turn up all right again. I sent her back home to bring you a thorough change, because I felt sure that you had been following Rayne, and that you would have no time to waste in the making of a first hand toilette."
"That is a fact," Clifford laughed. "By a sheer piece of good luck, combined with a little smartness on my part, I found that Rayne was off to Hamburg. I had an idea that he was flitting for good, at any rate I felt pretty sure that he was travelling with the missing diamonds for his object. There was no time to lose, and on the spur of the moment I made up my mind to follow him."
"And your journey has not been in vain. I trust?"
"By no means. On the contrary, I have been exceedingly successful. As I suspected, that rascal is going to betray his colleagues, he is going to walk off with the whole of the plunder. But that will suit us very well, as we shall now have one to deal with instead of half-a-dozen. Of course I am speaking from Sir Arthur's point of view."
"Quite so. The great point in view is the recovery of the diamonds. We can concentrate all our energies on the capture of the gang afterwards. Rayne is laying his plans with his usual care. Doubtless his friends have no idea that he has been abroad."
"Of course not. But he may slip through our fingers at any moment," Clifford said.
"Scarcely," Mrs. Manton smiled. "I have seen to that. Rayne cannot get away before Saturday at the earliest. I am playing a little comedy with him, aided by two very clever actresses of my acquaintance. They have had a good deal of fun, and they have also succeeded in making Rayne thoroughly uneasy. It was a pretty plot, and I should like to have been there to see it played out. At the present moment Rayne is under the impression that he is being closely watched by two adventuresses who are intimately acquainted with his past life. He has to pay them certain blackmail, and he has none too much ready money. Now, on the whole, he could not get away before Saturday."
"Capital," Clifford cried, as Mrs. Manton proceeded to go into details. "And now I had better tell you what I have been doing. Fortunately I had some money which my wife had insisted upon giving me. As I said before, it was good luck that caused me to follow Rayne to the docks. Once there, and finding out where he was going, I decided to follow. It was risky work, but I kept out of his way till we got to Hamburg, and then I traced him to a certain hotel. Having been through a German school of mines for two years, the language presented no difficulties to me. Then I looked up an old friend of mine, to whom I told the greater part of the story. He was good enough to put me in touch with a private inquiry agent who knew all the suspicious characters in the place."
"Rather a large order, that," Mrs. Manton said.
"Well, yes. Hamburg is a pretty cosmopolitan place. At any rate, it did not take long to establish the fact that Rayne was spending most of his time with a diamond dealer and cutter, who had the shadiest of reputations. I felt quite sure that I was on the right track, and that my journey was not going to be in vain. The next thing to do was to try and get to the bottom of the conspiracy. The agent and an ally shadowed these two everywhere, until they found that a third party was taken into the confidence of Rayne and Co.—a man who possessed a small sailing yacht of the same class that they use at our watering-places for trippers. The owner of this yacht was a man who drank, and it was not long before we began to get the truth out of him. On a certain night, at a certain spot, he was to be anchored up, with his boat and no light showing."
"Ah, ah!" the listener exclaimed. "I begin to understand."
"It does become obvious at this point," Clifford resumed. "We figured it out pretty quickly, especially when a broken-down actor came on the scene. As far as I could judge, the scheme would be like this. Rayne was to be trusted with all the gems, which were to be disposed of to our Hamburg diamond cutter. Once that was done, his colleagues were to join him, and the plunder would be shared."
"Rayne would never have parted with a sixpence," Mrs. Manton declared.
"Of course he wouldn't. But to resume. On the voyage he would have been arrested by the broken-down actor, dressed as a detective, and he would have jumped overboard to avoid arrest. When the steamer reached here he would have been reported drowned. Of course the scene would have been enacted at the right spot, and of course he would have been picked up by the small yacht. That's the way we figured it out."
"And very cleverly you have done it," Mrs. Manton said, with sincere admiration. "My dear Mr. Marsh, I am perfectly certain that you have successfully solved the problem. It is a very pretty scheme of Rayne's to put all the money in his own pocket. And I am more than glad to find that he is to be trusted with all the diamonds. And talking of diamonds, why did you send that telegram warning me about that old dealer?"
"That will be fully explained all in good time," Clifford said. "I hope you did not part with any of those queer paste stones after my message."
"No; I did exactly as you asked, feeling sure that you had good reason for what you were doing. All that queer rubbish is still in my possession."
"I am glad to hear it," Clifford said drily. "Where did you get it from?"
"Well, I can only tell you indirectly. They came from a famous American lady detective. As I daresay you know, in following up one criminal clue, one frequently crosses the trail of another. This was a case in point. Our gang had a smaller plant, as well as the great coup, and the lady detective successfully thwarted it, at least she was successful to a certain extent, as a large parcel of the diamonds vanished. The lady thought she had actually found the stones, but they proved to be that rubbish instead. I can't tell you any more."
"You have told me a great deal," Clifford said with a dry smile. "That old dealer was no less a person than the broken-down actor, carefully made up for his part. He came back from Hamburg with Rayne, and I overheard part of the plot on the steamer. Hence my telegram. Mind you, he is a clever actor, and donned a brilliant make-up. They tell me that Edward Rudd would have made a great name but for the drink."
"So Edward Rudd has fallen to this!" Mrs. Manton cried. "I knew him well in the States, where he has helped me—I mean he was useful to me. I am exceedingly glad that you ascertained his name, and that you told me all this. Do you know where he is staying?"
Clifford produced a pocket-book and proceeded to consult it.
"I've got it down here," he explained. "I thought it would be just as well to follow Rudd and take the address of his lodgings. Rayne did not matter for the moment. Here it is—195 Momerton-road, City-road. I'll tear the page out for you if you like. And now to turn to a much more serious side of the matter. I want you to get Rayne here and chat with him. Do not arouse his suspicions and try to get the impression of his right hand on a piece of paper."
Mrs. Manton nodded admiringly. All this clever mystery was after her own heart.
"I'd do it to-night if I knew where Rayne was to be found," she said. "How stupid of me. Edward Rudd is certain to know, and when Rudd sees me he will deem it prudent to transfer his allegiance to our side without acquainting Rayne of the fact."
Mrs. Manton scribbled off a note which she carefully sealed and directed the servant to have delivered immediately by a district messenger.
"That should bring Rudd here without further delay," she said. "Time is pressing, and the sooner I see to that little matter of yours the better. I presume you want that print of the hand more or less in connection with the murder of Matthew Forfitt?"
"It is certainly a great pleasure to have to do with you," Clifford said. "You have guessed my little purpose exactly. I don't doubt that my late father-in-law was a great scoundrel, but this Rayne is a far greater. I am certain that Rayne went down to Ashdown on that fatal night, and I am certain that his hand committed the crime. If you get what I want for me to-night I shall produce evidence in a day or two that will hang Rayne. I am quite sure you can manage this for me."
"I am certain of it," Mrs. Manton replied. "But you shall tell me of your scheme all in good time. What piques my curiosity just now is why you should be so careful for me not to part with those paste stones. What value are they?"
"Will you fetch down all you have?" Clifford asked gravely. "Bring the lot."
Mrs. Manton returned presently with a large bag of dull looking fragments of glass. In reply to Clifford's query she declared that she had not parted with one of them.
"I expect the lady detective was Louise," she said. "She went for grain and her pains were rewarded with this chaff. They are all here, you may be certain of that. And I am itching to know why you were so anxious for me to keep them."
"Well, you shan't be troubled much longer," Clifford laughed. "What do you think of this?"
He took up one of the pebbles, and placed it on the edge of a marble table. Using a heavy bronze-handled paper knife as a hammer, he tapped the stone with some force. Then he rubbed it rapidly in his hand, and passed it over to Mrs. Manton for her inspection.
"What do you think of that?" he asked quietly. "For once I have outwitted you."
Mrs. Manton drew a long, deep breath. She regarded the pebble in her hands with dazed amazement. It was a long time before she could speak.
"You certainly would have been an ornament of our—I mean the detective profession," she said. "Of all the gangs who have ever gained a living by brilliant dishonesty certainly Rayne's lot are far and away the most clever. How was it managed?"
"That I can't as yet tell you," Clifford said. "But that is only a matter of time and analysis now. We are getting very near to the end of our quest."
"A quest that would never have been successful but for you." Mrs. Manton said. "Many men, after they had come to fortune like yourself, would have drifted out of the hunt. I shall never cease to admire the way you have stuck to me."
"A gentleman to see you, madam," the footman said as he came in.
"Rudd for any money," Mrs. Manton whispered. "He must not see you. Go into the inner drawing-room and make your escape that way. All right, Nation, will you show the gentleman in here. Glad to see you again, Mr. Rudd. Have you brought those old paste necklets to-night, or is it merely a friendly call?"
The little man with the blue chin and dilapidated suit of distinctly horsey cut stammered as Mrs. Manton repeated her question. He sat down in a chair, looking remarkably ill at ease.
"How do you like Hamburg?" the lady went on. "And did you have a very pleasant voyage home in the company of Mr. Michel Rayne? Before your degenerate days you used to play a stage villain remarkably well. You could not have a better study than Rayne."
"I hope I haven't done you any harm," Rudd said cringingly.
"No, but that is no fault of yours," Mrs. Manton said sternly. "Now do you know why Rayne got you to dress up and tried to impose you upon me as a dealer in curiosities?"
"Upon my honor I don't," Rudd protested. "I was practically starving in Hamburg when Rayne picked me up. On the voyage home he told me all about you, and what I was to do. I was to make up and pass as a dealer in antique jewellery and try to get certain paste from you which you kept in a washleather bag. When I came and saw who you really were I was so astonished that I almost betrayed myself. Didn't you notice that?"
"I put it it down to natural diffidence," Mrs. Manton said. "Rayne didn't tell you who I was?"
"No. He merely gave me an address and said I was to be sure and see Mrs. Manton."
"I see. And Rayne didn't know that you knew me—the real me, that is. I am greatly obliged by this discovery, because it tells me that Rayne has discovered my identity. I shall modestly obliterate myself so far as the case is concerned. It is a good thing that Rayne has learnt the truth too late to benefit by the discovery. But as to you, my friend, there need not be any disguise between us. You are out of luck again, your little scheme is knocked entirely on the head. You will get no money for your brilliant performance in the role of a detective who makes a sensational arrest aboard the Hamburg boat; that yacht will not be wanted."
"Oh, Lord," Rudd groaned. "Was there ever such a woman! You seem to know everything! I see I shall have to be exactly what is required of me."
"Unless you have said good-bye to your senses," Mrs. Manton said grimly. "I am going to trust you, not because I love you, but because if you betray me it is with the sure and certain knowledge that the next ten years of your life will be spent in gaol. I sent for you to-night because I am most anxious to see Rayne without delay. Go to him and say you have called here again about the stones, and say that, oh, say anything to save your own skin, and get Rayne here as soon as possible."
Rudd rose obediently and honestly enough. He would see Rayne, and perhaps Mrs. Manton would write a note. It would look less suspicious. It was fairly late when Rudd departed, and later still when Rayne came into the room with an easy smile on his face.
"You did me the honor to send for me," he said.
"Oh, I did," Mrs. Manton replied, with a brilliant smile. "You may smoke if you like. We can talk at the same time I am pressing these ferns. Do you know anything of the art of pressing ferns, Mr. Rayne? It is quite simple. I lay them flat like this on thick drawing paper and lay another sheet on the top of them. Come and try it."
"Delighted to become expert in so chaste an art," Rayne murmured.
"Always generous and unselfish," Mrs. Manton said. "We press the paper down, press it flat, and don't smooth your hand across in that way, it ruins the fronds. Good gracious, what a dirty piece of paper I have given you—your hands are all smeared with thick dust. Try this clean one."
"And leave the impression of my patrician right hand behind," Rayne smiled.
"Never mind. A little indiarubber will repair that mischief. Press it gently down, firmly does it. Thank you, very much—I fancy we have all the fronds flat this time. Then I gently place the whole thing on the shelf and leave the ferns to dry for a day or two, after which the whole of the layers are pressed under heavy weights for a time. Simple hobby, isn't it? So Arcadian!"
"Clever people have often Arcadian tastes, Mrs. Manton."
"I daresay. But, dear Mr. Rayne, one moment. Why do you persist—in private—in calling me Mrs. Manton, when you know that I am nothing of the kind."
Rayne was staggered for a moment by the directness of the question. He stammered and hesitated.
"I am only following custom," he said. "Everybody calls you Mrs. Manton, you gave that out as being your name, your visitors call you thus, then why should a humble individual like myself venture to fly in the face of the conventions by calling—"
"Calling me by my real name. Well, I merely sent for you to let you know that I am beaten this time. How long have you guessed the truth?"
"Only the last few days. But what has that to do with the matter?"
"Nothing. Only I am beaten, that is all. My connection with the case is finished. At last I have met a scoundrel who is altogether too clever for me."
Rayne smiled, but there was an ugly look in his eyes.
"You take too much for granted," he said. "It is a feminine fault all the world over, and one that prevents you from successfully coping with a man of more than average intellect. Mind you, I don't admit anything, I don't admit that I am anything but an independent gentleman called Michel Rayne, who is a figure in English society. You have chosen to make a case out against me, you and certain burglars, who shall be nameless."
"There is a good deal in what you say," Mrs. Manton admitted. She lay back, glancing at the clock from time to time. "As you say, I could not prove anything—to the satisfaction of the authorities, that is. I could not even prove that you tried to murder my young friend, Mr. Clifford Marsh."
"Indeed," Rayne laughed. "What do you mean by that accusation?"
"Why go into it? Why discuss the matter of Sefton's impudent temporary occupation of Lord Arlingbury's house, and what took place there. The thing is almost incapable of proof, the story would be received with incredulity by the police, but there it is. I am puzzled, but there are points that are quite as puzzling to you."
"And what may they happen to be?" Rayne asked indifferently.
"Why, Mrs. Manton's way of treating the case, for instance. And you have never yet solved the problem of how my young friend escaped from the chamber of death."
Rayne's eyes flashed for a moment, then he smiled again. He would have risen to go, but Mrs. Manton detained him. Front time to time she glanced at the clock.
Meanwhile Rayne's despised enemy was not allowing the grass to grow under his feet. He knew that Rayne would be out of the way for a bit in the safe custody of Mrs. Manton, so that he would be free to make a closer examination of the Beemor-st. premises than had been possible before. He felt that he was on the verge of discoveries of importance.
"What a fool I am!" Clifford exclaimed, as he walked along. "There is the very man ill and helpless who can be forced to give me all the information I require. I'll go and see Marston, and get him to give me an interview with Sefton. I daresay he can be seen by this time."
Colonel Marston was glad enough to see Clifford again. Sefton was progressing all right, but it would be some little time before he could leave his bed again. Dr. Darrell had been in regularly, so there was no anxiety on that head and no need to communicate with the police.
"The fellow is well enough to be spoken pretty plainly to?" Clifford asked.
"Oh, I should say so. You may put it as plainly as you like, because the man is helpless, and you will have the gang by the heels before he is well enough to save them. There is a light in the bedroom, and on the whole I had better stay away. I pose as an outside party."
The suggestion was sensible enough, and Clifford passed into the sick room alone. Sefton sat propped up with pillows, and his white face grew yet more pale as Clifford entered.
"I am going to have a straight talk with you," the latter said. "You are certainly in our hands, and before you are well enough to leave your bed Rayne and the lot will be laid by the heels. As to your share, the less said the better. If I tell my story of Lord Arlingbury's house, and Miss Myra Rayne comes forward to confirm it—"
"Then she did remain in the house!" Sefton said unguardedly. "I felt certain of it, though she was clever enough to evade the most searching cross-examination. There, I have betrayed myself. But I am ill and reckless, and I don't care very much what becomes of me."
"That is perhaps fortunate," Clifford said grimly. "Because you are likely to be most carefully looked after for many years to come. The time is very near at hand when Miss Rayne will be in a position to speak, and then you will all suffer. Still, I'll try and make it easier for you if you will only speak the truth. Where are those diamonds?"
"I lost my lot," Sefton said sulkily. "They came into the possession of a country girl who—"
"Oh! nonsense," Clifford said shortly. "I heard that tale before. I was on the balcony the night that Rayne forced the truth from you, and you were so knocked about. Do you suppose that I am going to believe any such preposterous rubbish as that?"
"I don't care whether, you believe it or not," Sefton said in the same dogged manner. "If you ask Henshaw he will tell you the same thing—a part of it. Why, he escorted the girl part of the way home. Ask him for yourself; I guess you know where he is."
"Well, I will. Now, as to the rest of the diamonds?"
"There were no diamonds. There was nothing but paste in Barrymore's safe. After we burgled it, and he was in a position to prove to the police that a genuine robbery had been committed, he stood on velvet. The real stones he must have disposed of."
A grim smile flashed about the corners of Clifford's mouth.
"We'll let that pass," he said. "As I said before; I witnessed everything that happened that night you were so knocked about, and I saw the great care being taken with that 'paste.' Now, if you will tell me where that stuff is hidden, I will see that it does not go too hard with you. At the present moment, if I tell my story you run a big risk of being imprisoned for life. If I suppress that story I may get you off altogether. Now will you tell me?"
It was Sefton's turn to smile. He saw his way at the same time to freedom and subsequent wealth. If he could only obtain possession—his brain was still a little confused.
"I'll tell you," he whispered eagerly. "In the big room looking on the balcony, by the fireplace, on the left hand side, is a loose stone. If you lift that up...Upon my word I am very tired."
The speaker closed his eyes, and Clifford crept from the room. His heart was beating high in anticipation now. A little while later and he was in the big room. Sure enough here was the loose stone, the light of a thin moon shone through the window. The stone was raised at length, and eagerly Clifford groped underneath. His fingers swept the sides and the bottom, but there was no reward for his search. The little hiding-place was empty.
Clifford moved away, sick at heart and disappointed. He would have gone further, but a big figure rose and gripped him by the arm. Clifford would have struggled but the other man whispered something in his ear, and he turned and rolled his eyes with amazement. He had utterly forgotten about Dawlish, who stood there with smiling reason in his face.
"You get out," he said. "Rayne is on the premises. You are spoiling everything. Never mind at present about the diamonds. Only make yourself scarce before Rayne comes down from his room. I'll take care you have the diamonds when the time comes."
Clifford felt slightly dazed for the moment. He had forgotten that the last few busy days with him had been equally busy days with the others. As a matter of fact, Dawlish had slipped from his memory altogether. Darrell had given hopes for him, and Henshaw was deeply interested in the operation, but, on the other hand, Dawlish had practically no connection with the affair that Clifford had so close to heart.
He pulled himself together, and Dawlish slowly relaxed his grip.
"Do you mean to say that Rayne is in the house at this moment?" Clifford asked.
"Most assuredly he is," Dawlish whispered. "He very nearly caught me out just now; he seemed near to guessing what I am doing here. But we need not talk of myself at present. Rayne is going to play into my hands. You had better go."
Clifford hesitated for a moment. He had never seen this Dawlish—alert, clear-headed, and vigorous. It seemed impossible that the lapse of a few days should make such a difference. And yet the man obviously knew what he was talking about.
"Why don't you go?" he repeated impatiently. "I am playing your hand as well as mine. Otherwise I should have had Rayne, as he knew, before now."
Clifford could see no other way out of it. He would go back to Mrs. Manton again and tell her exactly what had happened. Perhaps that clear head would be able to explain. Dawlish heaved a sigh of relief as Clifford vanished; he lapsed into his old listless self again.
Out of the dusky darkness of the place a spot of light grew and grew, until the rays of a lantern filled the room and a gleam shone on the sombre anxious face of Michel Rayne. He had lost all his easy, self-assured manner, he looked white and uneasy. He took no notice of Dawlish, who had taken up a piece of string and was deeply interested in the formation of a cot's cradle.
"Now where on earth has that fellow Rudd got to?" Rayne fumed. "He should have been here long ago. If he has played me false—But he dare not do that. Where is he?"
Ten minutes passed, and there was no sign of Rudd. Anxious as Rayne was, he would have been still more disturbed could he have seen Rudd at that moment. He addressed a question or two to Dawlish, who looked up in a bewildered way.
"It's not long enough," he said. "Give me another piece of string. I want more string."
Rayne smiled in a contemptuous way. After all, the poor fool was happy enough, he thought. He placed the black bag he was examining on the floor.
"You stay here," he said. "You are a big, strong fellow, and I want you to look after my bag. I'm going to see if the other men are anywhere about."
"I want to go home," Dawlish whined. "I want to go home for some more string."
"Oh, you shall go home presently. You shall have a whole penny ball of string. Only you must stay here till I come back. I shan't be long."
Dawlish nodded with the pleased air of a child who had been promised some chocolates. Rayne slipped away into the lane at the back of the house, and cautiously crept along. Under one of the lamp-posts two men were talking earnestly together. Something like a snarl came from Rayne's lips. He recognised these men as carrying the unmistakable mark of Scotland Yard. He crept back again in the direction of the house.
"So they are moving, too," he said. "I thought it was odd that Mrs. Manton should give the thing up so easily. I am being watched. But do they know exactly where to find me? I very much doubt it—unless Sefton has given me away. Sefton has vanished, nobody has seen him for days. It's more than possible, because the fellow is a craven at heart. And I've got the bag in my hand!"
Rayne looked at the bag as if it had been something poisonous. He darted back into the Beemor-street house, racking his brains for a way out, if only he had some idea what those two police officers knew! But there was no way of finding that out. He must get the bag away, but he dared not run the gauntlet with the thing in his possession. Very slowly he began to see his way. He would trust Dawlish.
By the light of the lantern Dawlish was still playing with the piece of string. Rayne snatched it away, and Dawlish gave a kind of whimper.
"I can show you a better game than that," Rayne said coaxingly. "Now, should you like a great treat, should you like to go a long way in a real steamboat? Ah!"
Dawlish expressed his delight. On the whole he was doing very well indeed. Nothing would please him better than to go for a ride in a steamboat and see the engines work. Rayne found it somewhat difficult to repress a laugh. Yet his face grew graver as he recollected what a fine specimen of humanity the poor wreck had once been.
"You shall go a long way with me," he said. "A very long way—across the water to Hamburg."
"I've seen it on a map," Dawlish said. "In black letters on a pink map. You are kind."
Rayne smiled. Clifford Marsh had been quite right in his theory that Rayne was the mysterious benefactor who had been keeping Dawlish all this time. Not that there had been any philanthropy about it. Dawlish might prove a useful foil, and in any case he would pay for his passage, as he would be judiciously lost in Hamburg, while he would probably never find his way back to England again. He looked up at Rayne with eager eyes.
"Now you are going to be very good," said the latter. "Listen to me very carefully. I am going to give my little black bag with the glass marbles to you to take care of. You must take very great care of them and hide them in your bedroom. If anybody interferes with you—"
"I will knock them down and run," Dawlish said with feeble ferocity.
"That's right. Don't say a word to anybody about the glass marbles, because if you do you will not get your beautiful ride in the steamer. Do you know your way home?"
Dawlish thought a moment. He did not care to appear too eager.
"Yes," he cried at length. "I recollect it. I came here because I had lost myself. But you go out of the lane and along Bridge-street, where the nigger is outside the tobacconist's shop, and past the clocks that plays 'God save the King.' Oh, I know."
"Then for heavens sake be off when you've got a glimmer of reason," Rayne cried. "Go at once. And you are to say nothing about the bag of marbles. Confound the fellow! He is going without the bag, after all. There! I shall come and see you tomorrow afternoon."
"You will come and see me to-morrow afternoon," Dawlish repeated in a parrot-like way. "You will come and see me to-morrow afternoon. Oh! I shall wait for you, and when you do come and see me to-morrow afternoon, you will take me for a ride on the water?"
"Oh! Lord, yes," Rayne grunted. "Do be off. Take the bag in your right hand and go."
Dawlish walked off very slowly, as if he were debating ponderous matters in his mind. Rayne followed him stealthily up the street as far as it was safe to go, The two men from Scotland Yard were still talking under the lamp-post; they took careful stock of the passers-by, but Rayne noticed with relief that no heed was taken of Dawlish.
"So far, so good," he said, with a deep-drawn sigh. "I can just slip round to-morrow and put that matter on a proper footing. Dawlish will say nothing of the matter—a mind in the same condition as his is always as secretive as an oyster. On the whole I fancy I shall permit my friends from the Yard to benefit by the fresh air. As I have nothing to do and nowhere to go, I'll return to my room and pass the time with a cigar and a French novel."
Meanwhile, Dawlish had gone back to his room, where, did Rayne but know it, he had not been for some days. He had his latch-key in his pocket and let himself in without meeting anybody. The bag of stones he proceeded to lock up in his wardrobe, after which he left the house again and made his way cautiously as far as Mrs. Manton's. There was just the chance that Rayne was keeping an eye upon him, but Dawlish felt pretty certain that his fooling had seen successful.
Mrs. Manton and Clifford were together. She did not seem in the least apprehensive of any wrong being done by Dawlish's presence in Beemor-street.
"If he does no good he can do no harm," she said when Clifford had spoken of the most recent development. "Rayne has been here, too, and, as I expected, he has found me out. Not that it much matters now."
"Did you get the impression of his right hand, as I suggested?" Clifford asked.
"Oh, yes, I had not the slightest difficulty about that. I was pressing ferns when Rayne came in, and I got him to hold a sheet down for me. It's on that sheet at the top."
Clifford lifted the paper down carefully and inspected the fair, clear impression with a grim smile.
"I'll take this away with me when I go," he said. "When I see you tomorrow I shall have a dramatic surprise for you. Hullo, here is Dawlish."
Dawlish came in looking a little tired, but there was a deep sparkle in his eyes that told how well satistied he was with himself. He flung himself down in a chair and asked permission of Mrs. Manton to smoke a cigarette.
"You nearly spolt it to-night," he said in a natural way to Clifford. "But for a lucky accident Rayne would have blundered on the top of you when you were searching in Beemor-street."
"What did he think of your presence?" Clifford asked.
"Oh! I don't count. Rayne has heard nothing of the successful operation performed on me by your clever friend Darrell, and he took me for the poor fool I had been for two years. I think I played my part very well; at any rate, I got Rayne to trust me. He is coming to see me to-morrow afternoon at my room, and I should like you to be present."
"I shall be delighted," Clifford said grimly, "I shall have a surprise for him."
"And I shall have a surprise for you," Dawlish laughed, "so that we shall be satisfied all round. Only you had better come early so as to give our friend a proper reception."
Rayne was as good as his word. He came round to Dawlish's rooms as arranged a little after three with evidence of the fact that he contemplated a journey. There was nobody in the room as he was ushered in; he could not know that Clifford was concealed in the adjoining bedroom, neither did he know that Mrs. Manton was in the parlor downstairs. Presently the folding-doors of the bedroom opened and Dawlish stepped out. The silly smile was still on his face, he grinned as he looked at his mentor. Rayne asked impatiently after the marbles.
"They are all right," Dawlish said. "Locked up away from everybody. It was exceedingly good of you to trust me, Mr. Rayne, especially as I could not return the compliment. Now, you murderous rascal, what have you to say to me?"
The words came quick, keen, and incisive, as if they had been cut out of steel. Rayne fairly staggered back from the big strong figure that towered over him. He could see the glint in the eyes of his antagonist, the look of power and reason. The sudden change was too much for Rayne, who could only stammer and hesitate and stammer again.
"I—I don't know what you mean," he said. "It is such a change from—from—"
"From the poor creature I was to the man I am," Dawlish cried. "So much for science. I am what I am. I see everything, the conspiracy against Phil Henshaw that eventful night, and that murderous blow on the head that laid me out. But the story shall be told, and Henshaw's name cleared. If you attempt to leave the room I shall take you by the throat and shake the life out of you."
Michel Rayne dropped helplessly into a chair. Cool, clever scoundrel as he was, he was utterly discomfited for the moment. But there was worse to come had he but known it. His scattered wits gradually began to come back to him; the first thing was to find out how much Dawlish knew. At any rate, he need not be identified with Mrs. Manton and Clifford Marsh.
"I have been away now for a week," Dawlish said. "You did not know it, but I have undergone an operation. At the present moment I am as sane as yourself. Already a full account of the Henshaw business has been submitted to the authorities; hence the fact that those detectives were in Beemor-street. Your brilliant career has come to an end, Michel Rayne."
"Give me a chance," Rayne whispered. "You were always a good sportsman, and that is why I ask you to give me a chance. I'm going to Hamburg, really."
"Well, I shan't stop you, though there are others who are interested in your movements who may be disposed to do so. Let it be Hamburg by all means."
"Then give me my little black bag," Rayne whispered huskily. "I ought to have gone before, I should have gone before but for two confounded women who stood in the way. I was going to close their mouths, but they'll have to go to the wall now. I throw myself on your mercy. Give me my little black bag and let me go."
Dawlish shook his head and smiled. The eagerness of the man amused him.
"I shall keep the bag and the marbles as a souvenir," he said. "It's no use getting purple in the face with passion and putting your hand behind you, because your revolver is not there. Besides, what would be the use of it in any case? I tell you I am going to keep that bag, and with all your confounded cleverness you cannot wheedle it out of me."
Rayne cursed himself and all the world impatiently. He measured Dawlish with his eye and abandoned a hopeless idea of gaining by force what he had failed to reap by diplomacy. To think that he had been fooled by so simple a trick! But then he had not the slightest idea that Dawlish had been restored to reason again. And Dawlish was a powerful enemy.
"You can go so far as I am concerned," the latter said. "Abandon all hopes of ever seeing the black bag again. What are you waiting for? By Heaven, when I think of the wrongs I have sustained at your hands I wonder that I don't choke you in your chair. Begone!"
The speaker stamped twice on the floor, and immediately Clifford Marsh entered the room, followed quickly by Mrs. Manton. Dawlish crossed over and locked the door.
"On second thoughts perhaps you had better remain," he said. "I fancy that my friends here would like to have a word with you. Sit down again."
Rayne complied with the suggestion; he was rather glad of a rest, in fact. Mrs. Manton was looking fresh and pleasant as she seated herself in her turn. Clifford stood up; he was stern and hard, and he carried two sheets of stiff paper in his hand.
"We are going to have the matter out," he said. "I will go back to the night when Mr. Sefton was so good as to offer me his hospitality."
"I thought you had forgotten all about that," Rayne sneered.
"I have forgotten nothing," Clifford went on. "It pleased me to assume ignorance, and that assumed ignorance absolutely puzzled Sefton and yourself. You guessed that in some way I was in the employ of Sir Arthur Barrymore in connection with the recovery of those stolen diamoods. Your plot to discredit me in the eyes of my employer was a neat one, but you quite forgot that you had Mrs. Manton to reckon with there."
"Please don't mention me," Mrs. Manton said. "I am beaten; Mr. Rayne and myself came to the conclusion last night that I was hopelessly beaten. I am taking my defeat very well."
"What is the reason of going into all this?" Rayne muttered.
"That will become more plain presently," Clifford went on. "You discredited me in the eyes of Sir Arthur, and then you tried to murder me. By good luck I escaped. I said nothing of this because I felt that my story would not be believed. It was too much to expect people to believe that I had been to the house of Lord Arlingbury—"
"Nobody would believe you for a moment," Rayne sneered.
"They would now," Clifford resumed, "because the girl who rescued me will testify to the truth. I am going to lay no information on this head because it so happens that the girl who saved me from death was your own sister."
A violent cry broke from Rayne. He trembled, and the sweat stood in beads on his face.
"Your own sister," Clifford said. "She suspected foul play, and stayed behind to make certain. And if that is not enough, I have Sefton's confession. He is at present lying very ill close by, but he has not been past confessing his part of the story."
Rayne made no further comment; be felt that he was being beaten all along the line.
"You are a sorry lot," Clifford said after a long pause. "You could not trust one another. Half of the diamonds were appropriated by Sefton, who lost them in a singular manner. You did not believe his story, and probably I should not have done, either, had I been in your place. You decided that Sefton had already disposed of the stones to my father-in-law, Matthew Forfitt."
"I don't know who you mean," Rayne said. "I never heard of the name."
"You will find all these lies absolutely useless," Clifford replied coolly. There was not the slightest trace of anger in his tones. "As a matter of fact, on the night that Sefton was so knocked about I was on the balcony outside the big room at 17 Beemor-street. I heard Sefton tell his story. I heard your accusation. Now, do you deny it any longer?"
"I deny and admit nothing," Rayne said. "Finish your idle chatter and let me go."
"There is very little idle chatter in what I am saying, as you will find to your cost before I have finished. You made up your mind where the missing stones lay, you made up your mind how to act. Time was when people had to depend upon trains, but that day has gone. The rich criminal can annihilate space and lessen the chance of detection by the use of a good motor car. Yours is a good motor car."
"I never possessed such a thing in my life," Rayne cried.
"You lie. Your car is in the shed at 17 Beemor-street, at this moment. You bought it four months ago at Cannon and Co.'s of Bond-street, and it cost £950. On the night I speak of you were seen in the car in Piccadilly. You went down to Ashdown and saw Mr. Forfitt. The study window opening on the lawn was open, so you walked in. Mr. Forfitt had not gone to bed; he was poring over his beloved books. I don't know whether the safe was open or not, but that is between yourself and the dead man. At any rate, there was a struggle and you killed that unhappy man. But the diamonds were not there."
"All this is sheer conjecture." Rayne cried. "You put two and two together no more—"
"Nothing more than four. Now look at this sheet of paper. It is an enlargement of a photograph taken in the presence of Dr. Barr, of Cranburgh, a photograph of the dead man's throat, where the print of a bloody hand had grasped it. I was particularly anxious that a doctor should be present when that photograph was taken, for reasons which will appear presently. The print has come out very clear, so that the prints of the palm and fingers are quite vivid. You will notice that it is a right hand. Oh, yes, you can tear it up if you like, because I have other prints at home. If I photograph the right hand of the murderer and compare it with the picture, I hang that murderer to a dead certainty. The cleverest lawyer in the world could not get out of evidence like that."
"No use without the hand of the murderer," Rayne said hoarsely.
"Perhaps not. But suppose I suspect you, for instance. I will not deny that I really have a photograph of the man who killed Matthew Forfitt."
Rayne passed a dry tongue over drier lips. He could not speak for the moment; he could do no more than bend his head and gasp.
"Very good. No two palms have the slightest likeness to one another. If you were innocent you would immediately come forward and desire to have your right hand photographed."
"Unless, unfortunately, in the meantime he had had an accident to his hand," Mrs. Manton said. "It would be a strange coincidence, but then stranger coincidences are happening every day. The hand gets badly scalded, the owner of the hand has a fall near the fire, and the red-hot bars blister it, burn it to the bone. What do you say, Mr. Rayne?"
A gleam of something like hate rose to Rayne's despairing eyes. He would have shrunk from a test like that had he been alone.
"I am very dull and thick-witted," Mrs. Manton resumed in a dry voice, "and from the first I could not hope to cope with so clever a man as Mr. Michel Rayne. All the same, the point I have just raised occurred to me directly I grasped what Mr. Marsh was after. It seemed to me that I must get an impression of Mr. Rayne's hand.
"That is beyond you," Rayne sneered. "You could not have managed that."
"And yet I have managed many things," Mrs. Manton replied. "For instance, I contrived to get hold of your cigarette case on the night of my party, I contrived to find out all about the secret side of the cigarettes, and about your hiding-place at 17 Beemor-street. I think you will admit that they were important discoveries. As a matter of fact I even succeeded in getting the very thing you say is impossible."
"When?" Rayne cried. "When? I challenge you to speak."
"I am going to speak; in fact, I am here for that very purpose. I got the impression of your hand last night. When you came in I was pressing flowers. I sent round for you for that very purpose. You know whom I mean by Rudd—the broken-down actor who played the part of the old curio merchant, and who was going to make the sensational arrest on the Hamburg boat just before you sighted the yacht. I see you understand."
Rayne looked helplessly about him; all the ground seemed to be slipping from under his feet.
"I am not clever," Mrs. Manton said sweetly. "But I find out little things. On the whole I don't fancy I have had the worst of the conflict."
Rayne cursed himself inwardly. And all along he had sneered at the woman. But she was speaking again, and his heart was beating strangely fast and thick.
"I was pressing ferns. I asked you to help, and I purposely gave you a dirty piece of paper that had been slightly smeared with wax. Then I gave you a clean piece and asked you to press it very flat and smoothly on the ferns. It was pleasant to see the way in which you innocently walked into my little trap. The impression was clear and perfect: I gave it to Mr. Clifford Marsh last night, and he has developed it. With what result I don't yet know."
Clifford held the two impressions up side by side. His face was very stern and hard now, his eyes had a steely glitter in them.
"Look on that picture and on this," he said. "One is flat, the other slightly curved, but no person with eyes could doubt that they are the same hand. Murderer, the camera that cannot lie has found you out! What have you to say to this, what more damning proof do you want of your crime?"
With his head bent upon his breast Rayne said nothing. A painful silence followed.
Rayne stood transfixed before the overwhenling evidence. Even in the moment of his deadly peril, with the shadow of the rope around his neck, he felt a certain sense of irritation that so strong and clever a rogue as himself should have been beaten by a mere amateur who had taken up this business for the sake of money. But there was no getting away from it, no chance of escape now. Here was the one photograph taken after the murdered man's death in the presence of a professional witness of repute, and here was the imprint of his right hand, out of which Mrs. Manton had tricked him.
His eyes wandered critically from one face to the other, but he could see no sign of mercy on either.
In a sudden spasm of rage he tore the offending photograph into a thousand fragments and scattered them about the room. Both Clifford and Mrs. Manton looked on with quiet faces. This outburst of passion mattered nothing at all.
"This does not avail you anything," Clifford said, "seeing that the negatives are perfectly safe. What do you propose to do now?"
Rayne grew calm again. He muttered something under his breath that sounded like disgust at being foiled by a woman. A strange stillness came over him. He lay back in his chair and coolly helped himself to a fresh cigarette.
"This isn't bravado," he explained. "I feel as if nothing mattered now. Let me freely confess that I am beaten. I have been beaten by a woman. After that nothing can possibly matter."
Rayne puffed at his cigarette as if he had made a pleasing statement. The man's callousness moved Clifford to a certain fierce indignation.
"Is your confession complete, do you think?" he asked. "Are you going to leave out all that?"
"Why should I say or deny anything?" Rayne replied. "Why should I make it easier for you? According to your showing the rope is already round my neck; there is no escape. Well, that being so, I make confession—I murdered Matthew Forfitt."
The speaker pulled at his cigarette again, and was silent for a moment. Then he resumed.
"You can guess pretty well what happened. I found that Sefton was going to play me false. He never can be anything but false. If he tells you anything at any time you will be wise if you act as if he had spoken to the contrary."
Clifford thought of Sefton's statement as to the gems being all paste, and that Sir Arthur Barrymore was the real thief, and nodded approval.
"But I need not go into details when you know so much," Rayne resumed. "I found out in what direction Sefton had been, and immediately concluded that Sefton had offered a big share of the diamonds to Forfitt. Mind you, Forfitt had dabbled in those kind of things before, rich and respectable as he appeared to be. When he was cornered, Sefton admitted that he had tried Forfitt, and that the latter would give him no definite reply. Forfitt was that class of man, but I didn't know whether to believe it or not."
"There was only one thing for it—to go and see Forfitt. I started straight away from 17 Beemor-street, in my motor car, calculating that I could get to Ashdown and back long before daylight. I had no particular plan in my mind only to ascertain the truth and force Forfitt to disgorge, if the matter had not gone too far.
"I got down right enough and left my car in an empty shed by Forfitt's lodge gates. I saw that there was a light still burning in the study—I have been there many times before—and I knew that the old man was poring over his books. His habits were fairly familiar to me. I felt pretty certain the windows would be open, and they were. I stepped into the room, and Forfitt looked up as I entered. I asked him point blank for the gems, and he replied that he had not purchased them from Sefton.
"I didn't believe it; I told him he was a liar. I asked to see his safe, and he refused. A bunch of keys was lying on the table, and I grabbed for them. My blood was up by that time, and I did not care much what happened. I found Forfitt to be a great deal stronger than I had anticipated; he struck me on the face, and my nose bled. On the table lay a big jack-knife that Forfitt had been using to cut his tobacco. It stood there with the blade open. With my hand all bleeding I grasped Forfitt by the throat—leaving the mark which led to my ruin—and with the other hand I drove that knife into my man's breast. He fell without so much as a groan; he fell to the floor—dead. But I did not care in the least; I felt quite safe. I ransacked everything, but I did not find the diamonds. I am afraid I did poor old Forfitt an injustice."
Rayne spoke with a callousness that aroused Clifford's indignation. But it was useless to express any feelings. The confession was complete now, and Clifford was heartily glad of it, for the door burst suddenly open, and Myra Rayne, followed by Philip Henshaw, came in. The girl's air was wild and excited; her face was deadly pale.
"I have been hearing things," she cried. "Michel, they say that you—you—that Mr. Forfitt, that unfortunate old gentleman—it is too dreadful. There might have been another murder—"
"There would have been but for you," Rayne interrupted. "So it was you who stayed behind in Lord Arlingbury's house and released our friend yonder. If he had been allowed to die I should be a free man at this moment. You had better go away, Myra."
"But it is horrible," Myra cried. "You are my own brother. To think that you should fall so low, to think that it was your own sister who paved the way to your downfall. And yet I could do nothing else, my duty lay plainly before me. Oh, Michel, Michel! And there was my dear lover Phil again."
"Who is quite innocent," Rayne said. "We made use of him. But there is no need for me to say anything about that, since Dawlish has come back to reason again. He tells me that already the evidence has gone to the proper quarter, and therefore Henshaw will soon be free to hold up his head again. It was a vile conspiracy that we played on him."
"I think you had better go away," Clifford suggested.
"I think she had," Rayne said. "I see some claret on the sideboard. Give me a glass, please. A condemned man generally gets what he asks for."
It seemed as if Rayne was going to be hard to the last. He took the glass of claret in his hand and played with it; his fingers had suddenly grown nervous. Then the passing anxiety left his face, and he grew quite composed again. He drained the claret to the last drop. His head gradually swayed forward, and he slipped to the floor from his chair.
"Exit!" he said. "I have beaten you after all. It has been a good fight, but it was bound to end like—this."
Mrs. Manton gave a little scream as she raised the fallen man's head. The eyes were closed now, and the heart was still. Rayne was likely to cause no more trouble in this world.
"He is dead," Mrs. Manton said. "When we were not noticing he contrived to place some poison in the claret glass. You had better send for a doctor, though I fear it will not be the slightest good. My dear girl. you really must go away. Take her away, Mr. Henshaw."
Myra was looking on with fascinated horror till Henshaw drew her into another room. For a long time she could say and do nothing, whilst Henshaw held her in his arms. Then suddenly she burst into a flood of tears, with her head on her lover's shoulder.
"It is best so," Henshaw said. "That man was bad to the core. So long as he lived he was bound to be a source of trouble and disgrace to you."
"I am afraid that is true," Myra murmured. "But the disgrace goes on. With the knowledge of what Michel was, how could I ever become your wife?"
"It is too late to think of that, darling," Henshaw whispered. "Did you not cling to me and refuse to lose faith in me at the time that disgrace hung over my head? Dear little girl, it makes no difference. You are, well, you are yourself, and that is enough for me."
A doctor had come in, the police had been summoned, but all as a matter of form. An inspector from Scotland Yard listened gravely to the story of Rayne's confession, and merely asked for copies of the damning photograph to confirm it. Of course an inquest would be held, but it is not likely to occupy many minutes. Meanwhile the room had better be locked up, and the key retained by the police. Nothing was found on the dead man.
"I did not want them to find this," Mrs. Manton said to Clifford, as they drove to the lady's house together, Henshaw and Myra following in a second cab. "I took the liberty of extracting Rayne's cigarette case from his pocket. It is more than possible that a certain number of the grey silurian cigarettes are inside. It is also more than possible that Rayne's gang will not hear of his suicide till to-morrow. We have, therefore, an opportunity of capturing the whole gang, which I particularly desire to do."
"How do you mean to go about it?" Clifford asked.
"By sending the cigarettes to the right addresses as a signal that the recipient's presence is required at Beemor-street at 12.30 to-night. My friend Rudd knows all about it, and he will see that the cigarettes are forwarded. This afternoon I am going to have a long interview with somebody in authority at Scotland Yard, after which my interest in the case ceases. After this week I am going back to America."
"For good and all?" Clifford asked. "I hope not. You have been a good friend to me."
"Yes, and you have been a good friend to me," Mrs. Manton smiled. "As a matter of fact, I may be back here any time—it all depends upon business. But one thing I can promise you—you will never see this Mrs. Manton again."
Mrs. Manton discovered the cigarettes she expected to find, and she kept Rudd pretty busy for the rest of the afternoon. Then she drove to Scotland Yard, returning about four o'clock with the air of one who is not at all dissatisfied with her day's work. She would not discuss business; she would do nothing but read a novel and smoke cigarettes.
"My holiday has begun," she declared. "We dine early and go to the theatre. I have telegraphed to Mrs. Marsh to come up and join us. We shall dine at the Savoy afterwards, and by the time we get home we shall have the report from Scotland Yard."
It was a little before one that a messenger from Scotland Yard was reported. Mrs. Manton's plan had been eminently successful; the whole of the gang had fallen into the hands of the authorities, and not a single one of them had escaped. But though a careful search had been made, no valuables of any kind had come to light. Mrs. Manton smiled a little as she heard this, but Clifford looked disappointed.
"All the same, there is no occasion to worry," Mrs. Manton said, as she turned to Dawlish, who sat by her side. "We could a tale unfold, eh?"
"Rather!" Dawlish exclaimed. "Now that the policeman has departed, I can speak. I am the authority on the missing diamonds."
"You mean to say you know where they are to be found?" Clifford asked.
"Rather so. At least, as to Rayne's lot. Sefton's lot I know nothing about. But Rayne's little parcel is in my coat tail-pocket at this moment."
Madeline's pale face and glittering eyes passed unnoticed in the excitement of the moment. Clifford smiled with the greatest satisfaction.
"So you have been as good as your word," he said. "How did you manage it?"
"Well, partly by stratagem and partly by good fortune," Dawlish explained. "As a matter of fact, your appearance in Beemor-street nearly spoilt everything. I went there to have a good look round on my own account, and ran against Rayne. I very nearly betrayed myself, but I suddenly recollected that Mrs. Manton had told me that Rayne had gone away for a day or two. In that case, he could have known little or nothing about my successful operation. You see the fellow had an interest in keeping me quiet and looking after me. That being so I let him regard me as a fool. The time for flight had come; Rayne was ready to depart with his ill-gotten gains. The bag of gems was in his hand. But he was waiting for Rudd. I knew quite well why he was waiting for Rudd, also I knew quite well that Rudd was not likely to put in an appearance.
"Rayne went out bidding me stay where I was. He came back in a few minutes, and in a great state of agitation and annoyance. I guessed what was up, because I spotted the detectives at the end of the lane. Mind you, Rayne all along regarded me as a poor demented idiot. He dared not stay any longer, and he dared not risk passing those detectives with the bag in his hand. Therefore he took the chance of handing it over to me. I was to have a steamboat ride for my pains and all kinds of pretty things."
Dawlish chuckled over his cigarette as he thought of it all.
"Well, I got the bag away, and Rayne was to call for it the next afternoon. He did call for it the next afternoon, which was to-day and what happened you all know. Here are the stones in their own great cases as I took them from the black bag, but if they are diamonds I am prepared to eat up the whole lot. And I know something about it, too."
The cases were turned eagerly out and laid on the table. There was a certain fire and sparkle in the core of each, but the faces were dull and lustreless. There was a peculiar smile on Clifford's face as he bent over them, and the smile was reflected by Mrs. Manton's.
"We will discuss all that presently," the lady said. "Meanwhile it seems to me that I can hear somebody ringing the bell. Late as it is, I expect two more visitors. Here comes the first."
The footman announced Mr. Manton, and a tall thin man with high cheekbones and a shabby evening dress came in. He did not look in the least like a multi-millionaire, but he was, and his name was famous to two continents. Mr. Manton was not a society man, and very few people outside the business part of New York knew him by sight.
"I am glad to see you, Mr. Manton," the hostess said, a speech that puzzled Clifford. "I fancy you are going to be rewarded for your patience."
"Well, I've trusted you a pretty long way," Manton drawled. "I guess there's not a man of my acquaintance who'd have given you so free a hand, too. The question is, was the game worth it?"
"I think so. You see if you hadn't possessed your soul in patience you would have lost, together with your colleagues, about eight million dollars, and Sir Arthur Barrymore would have been ruined. Nothing possibly could have been gained by undue haste."
"Which means of course that you have got the diamonds," Manton said. "And my wife will be enabled to show herself in public once more."
"I hope so," Mrs. Manton said. "Half the diamonds are lying on the table at the present moment. The other half are in the possession of a country girl who knows little of their value. To trace the missing half will be a comparatively easy matter. There are four cases, anyway."
Manton grasped at the shabby cases eagerly. Then his face expressed disgust.
"They told me you were a clever woman," he said. "When I cabled for you, they said that there was not your equal in New York. I was to keep my mouth shut, to say nothing about my loss, and trust entirely to you. It seemed pretty good advice, because even if the stuff had gone for good and all I should not be such a fool as to proclaim my loss to the world and damage my credit. But—these things!"
He tossed the contents of the cases on the table contemptuously. The stones lay there glittering dully, an occasional sparkle being reminiscent of the noble quality they were supposed to represent. Clifford's face rippled with amusement.
"I fancy the solution is nearer soluion than you imagine," he said. "But seeing that Mrs. Manton, who has taken so remarkable an interest—"
"Mrs. Manton has done nothing of the kind," the American said. "Mrs. Manton writes books that nobody publishes, and paints pictures that dealers won't look at. She is a blighted genius who shelters from the cold breath of the cruel world—at present she is full of divine afflatus in a little village near Chamount. If I told here tomorrow that all my fortune had vanished she would smile with her pretty eyes and say that the Simple Life was the only path to true happiness. All the same, that Simple Life don't prevent her having her dresses from Paris, and kicking up circuses if they don't fit. All the same, too, she wants to come to London."
"Then who is this lady?" Clifford asked, bewildered.
"She is a kind of wife," Manton explained—"an understudy for the use of London society. It was the scheme she mapped out for herself. She was in London, and she told me about the plot to get the diamonds belonging to myself and the rest of the syndicate. Barrymore wouldn't listen. Then the diamonds vanished, simultaneously with the appearance of the rich Mrs. Manton in London. Nobody had seen my wife, and therefore the delusion passed. It was a pretty scheme to get the big thief in the house under the eye of my charming ally here, and up to a certain point it turned out well; but these are not diamonds."
"I swear they are," Clifford said quietly.
"Oh! indeed. Then if you have got ten shillings to lay out you can have the lot."
"You would find it a bad stroke of business," Clifford said. "As a matter of fact you have very nearly fallen a victim to perhaps the cleverest gang of swindlers that ever emanated from the United States; and that is saying a great deal. Those men had thought everything out to the very last detail. They were not satisfied with getting the stones, they wanted to make recapture impossible. If you or any other expert had found those dull stones in their possession, what would you have done with them? Wasted no further time, I suppose."
"You are a brilliant genius to guess it at once like that," Manton said drily. "I should have chucked them in the fire. I should have regarded them as a kind of bait, same as they use Bank of Engraving notes and the like."
"And a few days ago I should have done the same thing," Clifford replied. "But I should have been very foolish. Now I know a diamond when I see it, considering that for years I spent my time in a School of Mines, and I thought I knew every way of faking diamonds; in fact, I did not think any dodge was lost on me. But I was wrong."
Manton began to grow interested, in spite of himself. He looked up and nodded coldly as the door opened, and Sir Arthur Barrymore came in, white and anxious.
"I have been all through this business," Clifford said. "I have watched the gang at work more than once. I saw these very stones chemically treated in some way, and I considered what it all meant. There was a big fight one night, a retort with several stones in it was upset, and one of the stones rolled so near me that I was enabled to gain possession of it without fear of detection. I put it carefully in my pocket with a view of making an analysis on the first possible occasion. What do you call those stones?"
"Glass or paste, or some precious substance like that," Manton drawled.
"At the first flush so should I," Clifford said. "But it ought to have struck me, as indeed it should have struck you after what I said about the retorts, that they could not be either. In a fierce heat like that glass would have melted to nothing. Tell me the only stones that could stand a temperature like that."
"Why, only the precious ones, of course," Manton said, scratching his head in a puzzled kind of way. "You say you saw them in the retort, and that they came out again intact. And yet nobody could call those things gems by any stretch of imagination."
And the Yankee carelessly stirred up the stones with his forefinger. Nevertheless, he was listening with a close attention to all that Clifford was saying.
"So I imagined," Clifford resumed. "I tested those pebbles in every way without the slightest satisfactory result. And yet in the heart of each seemed some fire. It was only the outsides that were greasy and dull and lustreless. I got annoyed at last, and banged the stones I was testing on the edge of a marble table. Like this."
Down came the pebble on the flat surface of the table, and a small hammer was applied to it with some considerable force. But the stones did not give as glass would have done; there was a splitting crack, and some fine fragments like powdered spangles hung in the air. The stones had grown gradually smaller, and once the lost fragments of the outside case had gone a brilliant diamond stood confessed.
"There!" Clifford cried. "What do you think of that? Now, sir, if you are prepared to part with that for ten shillings, repeat your offer—I am your man."
Manton said nothing; he was too utterly surprised for speech. In the palm of his hand a magnificent stone lay, filling the room with its wonderful flashes of light. It was as if some marvellous conjuring trick had been performed. Clifford rapidly treated every stone alike until the table was a cascade of blue and yellow fire.
"Well, if that don't lick creation," Manton muttered. "So that was the game, eh?"
"To make assurance doubly sure," Clifford said. "One of the gang was evidently a very clever chemist; indeed, no smart gang of modern criminals is complete without a clever chemist. He must have invented some solution applied by heat to cover and conceal the gems so that they could not be detected. Well, the danger is past; all you have to do is to crack the coating like the shell of a nut, and there you are. Why, if the police had captured all these things they would have been none the wiser."
"I am more glad than words can express," Sir Arthur said in a shaky voice. "I seem to have come back from the other side of ruin. Mr. Manton, from the bottom of my heart I thank you for your patience. You have lost nothing, at least you will have lost nothing when the rest of the stones are recovered. If we can only find that girl—"
"Oh! she will be found," Mrs. Manton cried. "Where is your wife, Mr. Marsh?"
"She slipped away a moment ago," Clifford said. "I thought she seemed very excited over my little discovery. I daresay she will be back in a moment."
At the same instant Madeline entered. Her face was pale, but the blue eyes shone like stars.
Sir Arthur had helped himself to a glass of wine.
"We must find that girl," he said. "I shall never know a moment's rest till I see the rest of the diamonds in Mr. Manton's possession."
"Then your mind is easy already," Madeline said quietly, as she laid some cases on the table. "The rest of the diamonds are here."
Every eye was turned upon Madeline. Her pretty face was very white, the deep-blue eyes had a tingle of purple in them, but her lips were steady, and the hand that held the cases did not tremble.
"Well, this is a surprise," Mr. Manton cried. "I have foreseen most things connected with this case, but this is totally unexpected."
"Indeed, you may well say that," Sir Arthur said, in a choking voice. "I never expected to see the rest of these gems—that amazing piece of good fortune was too much to ask for. I was going to offer my friend Mr. Manton everything I had and start the world anew. Marsh, I cannot say what I owe to your wife."
Madeline held down her head—there was a vivid blush on her face now. These people were making a heroine of her, when, all the time, she was little better than a criminal. But for a piece of pure good luck she would have disposed of one of those stones. But there had been a Providence in the whole business, and her money had not come too late.
"I think you had better see to Sir Arthur," she said. "He seems overcome."
Barrymore had indeed fallen into a chair, his face deadly white and his eyes closed. He had always boasted that he was a hard, keen man, with no nerves to speak of, but the strain of the last few days had been too much for him. The sudden transformation from ruin and disgrace to wealth and fortune again had unmanned him. For a little while he lay back in his chair until Manton coaxed a little brandy between his lips.
"I am better now," he said presently. "It is high time I recognised the fact that I am growing old. Please don't take any further notice of me."
"My task is finished," Mrs. Manton remarked. "Naturally, I expected to have to recover the balance of the diamonds, but Mrs. Marsh has done it for me. But we had better be quite certain that these are the genuine missing stones."
"No mistake about these being the original cases," Manton murmured.
Clifford tumbled the whole lot out on the table. There was just a moment of suspense as he applied his primitive test, but the coating scaled off the pebble, as before, and the real, royal blaze of the diamond stood confessed. In a short time the operation had been repeated until the whole lot had lost their dull shells.
A murmur of applause followed. As Madeline watched Clifford at work she gradually regained her composure. She knew that the others would require an explanation, and she was prepared to give them one. Clifford looked up at her with a smile.
"We have all told our story but you, dear," he said. "I am proud to see you so successful. And you kept your secret safe. How long have you known—"
"Known that I had the missing stones?" Madeline interrupted. "Not many minutes. Not until you exposed the ingenious imposture, Clifford. I thought that I had a lot of rubbish; I was going to tell you about it. But what Sefton said as to his being robbed by a country girl was literally true. I was the girl."
A murmur of astonishment followed. When it subsided, Madeline went on—
"But, perhaps I had better tell you the story from the very beginning. We are all friends here, and what I say will not go any further. As Sir Arthur Barrymore knows, my husband was robbed of the money handed to him, by Rayne and his gang. They decoyed him to the town house of Lord Arlingbury, which they had impudently gained possession of, and then they robbed him and tried to murder him. But for the blessing of God and the fine courage of Myra Rayne I should be a widow to-night. It makes me tremble to think of it."
"Steady, darling," Clifford murmured. "I would not dwell too much on that."
"I won't dwell upon it at all," Madeline smiled. "I am bound to state the bare facts. My husband was drugged and robbed, he was made to write a letter that, when conveyed to Sir Arthur Barrymore, would look as if he had betrayed his trust. Just for the time being Clifford lost his nerve and came home. We talked the matter over from every point of view, and decided that no sane person would possibly believe Clifford's story, and that his connection with the case was at an end."
"I confess I looked at it from the same point," Sir Arthur said.
"Of course you did. Nobody could blame you for that conclusion. You had pinned your faith in a moment of despair to a stranger, and he had betrayed you. We were not going to say anything as to the loss of the money, but try and make it up in some other way. Clifford went to bed, utterly worn out after his walk from London to Cranborough. Whilst he slept I had an idea. I would go and see my father and try and induce him to part with the money. On the spur of the moment I went."
Something like a grunt of sympathy came from Sir Arthur. He had had many business dealings with the late Matthew Forfitt.
"It was a mad scheme," Madeline went on, "and I regretted it almost before I had started. But we were desperate, and there was just a chance. The night was dark and stormy, and, though I knew the way well, I was glad to get to my father's house. Feeling that I should not be admitted if I gave my name, I opened the door and went in. My father was in the study talking to a strange man. The strange man was endeavoring to sell something of value, and my father had not made up his mind. The stranger was asked to call again and bring his valuables with him. That man was Sefton."
Madeline glanced at the eager ring of faces round her before she went on.
"It was Sefton, and he was afraid of somebody. He went away, and I saw my father. We need not go into what passed at the interview, but, needless to say, I did not get the money. After I left the house it came on to rain terribly—so hard that I had to seek shelter. I found it at last, and in a little hut some two miles from our cottage.
"To my surprise, there was a lantern on the table. I deemed it to be the lantern of some shepherd, for I was too tired to notice that the lantern was a cycle lamp. I found there was straw or hay in the loft. I decided to dry my clothes there in the hay; but I was so tired that I fell asleep. A noise woke me presently, and I looked down the ladder. A man was then eagerly regarding some cases of jewels. When I looked at him for the second time, I saw he was the same man who had been at my father's house; in other words, Sefton.
"Needless to say, I did not associate the man or the diamonds with Sir Arthur's trouble. I watched the man intently, so intently that I almost overlooked the presence of another man who had just crept in. He looked wild and repulsive then, and I did not like him. I did not know the newcomer was Philip Henshaw, burning with his wrongs, and upon the track of the man who had done him such a deadly injury.
"I knew there was going to be trouble, as I lay there in the hay, frightened and trembling. There were words, and a struggle, and it seemed to me as if Sefton was killed. Mr. Henshaw thought so, for he dragged the body of Sefton away to throw it into one of the bogs. As you know, that crime did not take place. I crept downstairs and picked up the jewels and hid them as two other men, who looked like police, came into the hut. I didn't know who they were."
"They were detectives of mine," Mrs. Manton said, "engaged upon another case that we need not go into. They also were searching for valuables. Pray go on."
"There is very little more to tell," Madeline resumed. "I lied to those men. I said I had seen no valuables, and all the time Sefton was grinning at me through the doorway. I was dreadfully frightened, and when Mr. Henshaw came back and saw that Sefton had escaped him by a ruse, thanks to the near presence of the strange detectives, I got him to come as far as he dared. After that I met a lady in a motor car, a lady who—"
"Shall be nameless," Mrs. Manton said. "But why did you keep your secret so close?"
"Because I imagined it to be no secret at all," Madeline said. "As my husband was away next day I took one of the stones to Tunbridge Wells and asked the value. I was told the thing was merely paste. Naturally, I concluded that the stones were all alike, and that my little romance was no romance at all. In the excitement of the past few days, the paste was forgotten, till, just now, Clifford exposed the ingenious disguise, and then it suddenly flashed upon me that I had those stones in my trunk, and that they might be diamonds after all."
Madeline sat down, feeling that there was no more to be said. Manton took one of the stones and offered it to the teller of the story with a low bow.
"Will you accept this from me as a souvenir of a most interesting occasion?" he said. "Please don't hesitate—I am a very rich man, and I am going to lose nothing. But for your courage and determination, and devotion to your husband, I should never have seen them again."
Madeline hesitated, and refused, but the American would take no denial. It was a princely present, but he felt that he must do something in return for all that Madeline had done for him.
"Shall I take it or not, Clifford?" Madeline said.
"My dearest girl, you can please yourself," Clifford smiled. "It is a jewel worthy of an empress, but, at the same time, I fancy that you have earned it."
Madeline put the stone away, with a murmur of thanks. All the same, her conscience was troubling her terribly. If Mr. Manton and the rest knew everything, they would not have been standing there, covering the girl with praise. It was a curious coincidence, too, that the very stone the generous American had given Madeline was the same one she had tried to dispose of in Tunbridge Wells. But of that she could say nothing at present, though Clifford must be told. Not till Clifford had heard and forgiven her could she be happy again.
"Well, I guess I must be going," Manton said, in his brisk, business-like way. "I'll just tot off the bits of glass to my cab and lodge them in the bank in the morning. All the same, I had better give you a receipt for them, Barrymore."
"I think you had," Barrymore said, "in case anything happens. Those stones have brought me bad luck, and I wouldn't handle them again as a gift."
The receipt was scribbled off and the cases placed in Manton's coat pocket. He shook hands all round, keeping that ceremony with his hostess to the last.
"I'll settle with you when we meet across the water," he said. "Those who told me you were the smartest woman in the States knew something; yes, sir, you have saved me a great loss, you have done your work well, and there has been no talk. Good-bye, Mrs. Manton."
"And good-bye to you," the lady laughed. "To-morrow it will be known that Mrs. Manton has left suddenly for America. I shall hand the keys of the house over to the agent, and I shall sail for home on Friday from Liverpool. Good-night."
Barrymore and Manton departed together, leaving Clifford and Madeline alone with the brilliant woman who seemed such a mystery. She was wearing gloves, as usual, but she removed the one from her left hand and exposed a pretty palm, though the beauty was married by the fact that three fingers were missing.
"It is not so very late after all," she said, as she took a fresh cigarette. "Now, confess, are you not anxious to know who I am? I see you are, both of you. In the course of your travels did you ever hear of Virginia Walters?"
"Of course I have," Clifford said. "She is the most famous lady detective in the world. Most of the American mysteries have been solved by that clever brain. And do you mean to say that the lady whom we know as Mrs. Manton of New York—"
"Is Virginia Walters, no less. I have never been found out yet in any of my disguises, though I have had some narrow escapes. Unfortunately for me, in a big affair, five years ago, I lost three fingers. They were severed by a bowie in a struggle. Mind you, all the criminal fraternity have heard of me, and they all know of my misfortune. Hence the wax fingers and the velvet gloves.
"The night I first met Mr. Marsh I had had an accident, and these wax fingers were crushed. Michel Rayne was close on my track; I felt sure he had spotted me. All the same, I was not after him then, and when he met me a little later, as Mrs. Manton, I knew that I had escaped detection. Really, I came to England on another matter, which had puzzled the police, and which I solved in a single day. Then I heard what Rayne was after, and I served Sir Arthur Barrymore. When he called me from his office on the telephone I knew from his incoherent speech what had happened. I was just going to the theatre. But the rest you know."
"How was the Mrs. Manton scheme worked?" Clifford asked.
"Oh, that was easy. Mr. Manton was in London incog. There was no chance of anybody seeing his wife, and I had asked her permission beforehand. Mr. Manton has a grim sense of humor, and he made no objection at all. He did not know at that moment how closely I should be identified with his interests before very long. When I found that Sir Arthur had been robbed, I saw Mr. Manton and suggested a policy of patience to him. Like a clever man, he consented. You have seen tonight how that policy worked out."
"And you are going to leave us at once?" Madeline asked. "I am very sorry."
"It is very good of you to say so," said Miss Walters. "I shall miss you both; in fact, I don't know where I have taken to two young people so much before. Courage and endurance are qualities that I greatly admire. And I have more than a suspicion that I should not have succeeded in the matter at all if it had not been for your husband, Mrs. Marsh."
"I am sure I should not have succeeded but for you," Clifford said. "But are we never going to have the pleasure of seeing you in England again?"
"Who knows?" Miss Walters answered. "My business takes me everywhere. I am here to-day and gone to-morrow; there are a score of cases crying aloud for my attention. In a year or two I hope to return, and then I shall live in England. Your life is so much more restful than ours. Now, I am going to bed, for I see that I have a busy day before me to-morrow."
For a long time Clifford sat thoughtfully over the pleasant wood fire that had been lighted in the bedroom allotted to himself and his wife. Madeline was doing up the braids of her shiny hair. She looked very pretty and pathetic in her white nightdress. When she had finished she came and sat down on the other side of the fire.
"So, it's all well that ends well," he said. "My darling, you are quite right. You always said that the sun would shine again for us."
"It comes in strange and unexpected ways," Madeline replied. "We are rich now, Clifford; we can afford to think of the future a little. Some time ago I dreaded it more than I do now. There was a special reason why I dreaded it."
Clifford looked up and met his wife's eyes. There was just a tinge of extra color in her face. Then he lifted her up and placed her on his knees, so that her head could rest on his shoulder.
"Now, go on and tell me all about it, darling," he said. "The surprise is going to be a pleasant one now."
"Not yet, Clifford. First of all, I have a confession to make. I could not sleep to-night till you had forgiven me. Clifford, I—I stole those diamonds."
"My dear child, what are you talking about? Those diamonds fell into your hands in a strange manner, and you deemed them to be paste. You told me so to-night."
"But I did not tell the whole truth, Clifford. I meant to steal them, or one of them at any rate. I thought they were diamonds. And that is why I told you nothing about them. My idea was to take one and turn it into money, and send you the notes anonymously, so that you could say that you had not lost the cash that Sir Arthur Barrymore had given you. It was a dreadful thought to occur to anybody, but I yielded to the temptation. I tried to sell one of the diamonds in Tunbridge Wells, but they said they were paste. Thank heaven that mistake saved me. And until to-night, when you made that discovery public I can only say that I did it for your sake."
Clifford said nothing by way of reply. He merely took Madeline's pretty, pleading face in his hands, and kissed it long and tenderly. Madeline was crying softly.
"I feel that I am forgiven," she ventured to say at length.
"My darling, of course you are," Clifford said. "One thing I am certain of, you would not have dreamt of such a thing for anybody else in the world. The faults that women do for the sake of their husbands and children are looked leniently upon by the recording angel, I am certain. And now for your other piece of news. Is that a confession, too?"
Madeline leant her head on Clifford's shoulder, so that he could not see her eyes.
"You have made me wholly and entirely happy," she whispered. "There is no cloud anywhere now, Clifford. I said I was looking to the future with dread, now I look forward with exceeding joy."
"It sounds queer," Clifford said, with just the suspicion of a catch in his voice. "No wonder that you felt a little bit anxious, Maddy. And so we shall have to make a home fitting the importance of the little stranger who will some day inherit the Forfitt wealth. The old house—"
"Not there, Clifford," Madeline pleaded. "We must dispose of that, though we can reserve this for a little time longer. The old house is associated to me by the saddest ties, sad memories that end in blood and tragedy. I should not like my child to be born there. And now I am going to bed. I am so terribly, heavily, happily sleepy."
Clifford pondered over the disclosure for a little time longer. Madeline was asleep now; he could catch her regular breathing. A pleased, proud smile was on his face.
"Strange that I never reckoned on that," he muttered. "I suppose men never do. Well, thank heaven, we have no fears for the coming of the little one now."
Mrs. Manton, otherwise Miss Virginia Walters, vanished the following day; the house was given over to the agents, and the brilliant woman's place knew her no more. Dawlish had gone north to look up his people, who had regarded him as lost. He could take up his proper position again now, and there was no lack of wealth there. He was going to South Africa again, he said, and he should take Phil Henshaw along now that the latter could hold up his head again. Already proper authorities were working on that matter.
"We'll go down to Cranborough tonight," Clifford said, "and put up at the old house, for a time at any rate. I've arranged to take down a few of Mrs. Manton's servants, and I shall pay off the old sour lot when we get there. But, if possible, I want to take poor old Colonel Marston along and instal him in his cottage. I've got a servant for him, too. Let's go and hunt up the dear old man without further delay."
Colonel Marston expressed his profound delight at meeting his friend Clifford Marsh's wife. He had got rid of Sefton, who had been removed to a hospital at the instigation of Dr. Darrell. He listened to Clifford's proposal with a queer smile, and a lip that quivered despite himself.
"It is good of you," he said. "If I don't say much, believe me I feel the more. And to change this lonely life for one of the companionship of my equals—When do I come?"
"With us—to-day," Clifford said. "We'll drive you round so that you can give up the keys, and you can leave your belongings as a present for your successor. Pack up what you want, and we will wait for you. Madeline can help."
"I shall only be too delighted if I can be of any assistance," Madeline cried.
But the old soldier would not have those fair fingers soiled, he said. There were tears in his eyes, so that he could hardly see what he was doing; her hands trembled. Madeline was feeling with joy what wealth can bring when it is bestowed on the proper hands. They got away from the lonely old house, where so many fateful things had happened, and then they looked up Henshaw and Myra, who was staying with an old nurse of hers.
"You are to come with us as well," Madeline urged. "You and Philip Henshaw."
"You are very good," Myra said. "You are all goodness, I believe. But I could not stay in a house where my brother—You understand. Besides, I have to stay for the funeral. Perhaps I may find some rooms near you—"
"How stupid of me," Clifford cried. "We are going to the Ashdown house for the present. Maddy's old nurse won't be back for weeks yet. Why not take the cottage, with your old nurse, and let Phil stay with us for a time. Before you are married we shall have moved into a different house altogether. Come down on Friday."
"The day after the funeral," Myra said, with a faint smile. "How good you are! And how I shall appreciate the rest and ease of mind! What do you say, Phil?"
"What could one say, darling," Henshaw replied, with enthusiasm.
And so it was arranged. The days passed, and the lovers came; the days passed still, and they were married and on their way to South Africa before Madeline could realise it all. The old house was let and, in a sunnier, brighter one, with all that wealth could procure, Madeline sat and waited for the crown of all the joy that was so soon to come.
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