a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: The Mystery Of Crocksands Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200101h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2012 Date most recently updated: April 2012 This ebook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. HTML version by Roy Glashan. 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
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
The spirit of Spring was in the air. Out in the parks the lilac hung in fringed tassels of pallid mauve and feathery white, and filled the air with its fragrance. Even there, in the dusty desolation of Martin's Inn, with its dreary old houses given over to the law and a monotony all its own, the sun was shining through the dusty windows and mocking the clerks and typists chained there with no thought beyond the task of the hour. In the square a dingy sycamore, with blackened, smoke-grimed trunk, was struggling into leaf; a warm wind drifted languidly from the west; and the girl in the small office behind that of her employer, Mr. James Melrose, the eminent head and only partner in the firm of Melrose and Clapstone, had allowed her thoughts to wander for moment.
Very good to look at was Miss Ellen Marchant, confidential clerk and typist to James Melrose. Certain clients outside the dull routine of city conventions would glance at her and wonder what so dainty and refined a girl was doing there. For she was quite young, not more than twenty-three at the outside, with a complexion of ivory and delicate rose, and a throat like milk, rising from a neck like a tall lily in the morning mist.
She had stumbled upon those letters quite by accident when looking for something else. And the sight of her dead father's handwriting after all these years had strangely affected her. Of course, she knew that in the days of Gordon Bland's prosperity he had occasionally enlisted the services of James Melrose in his professional capacity—indeed, Melrose and Clapstone had represented the family of Bland for generations; but here was a suggestion of a matter that had all the flavour of a sacred confidence about it. How, then, had these private papers found their way into an ancient deed-box pushed away into a dusty, almost forgotten cupboard?
In the office beyond James Melrose was closeted with a client of importance, and Ellen could hear the drone of their voices. A door opened and closed presently, and Ellen knew that her employer was alone. With her head held slightly high she walked into the sacred precincts and laid her packet on the table.
"I have just found these, Mr. Melrose," she said. "They were with a pile of papers of no consequence. They appear to be letters written by my father to my mother at a time when—I mean when they were not on very good terms, private letters, which——"
"Quite so, Miss Bland—I mean Miss Marchant," Melrose murmured. "Criminal carelessness on the part of somebody, no doubt. I will lock them up in my private safe."
Ellen was always 'Miss Marchant' to the client and the office staff, and nobody in the establishment had the least idea of her real identity. None guessed that she was the only daughter of the late Gordon Bland, of Belgrave-square, and at one time, next in succession to the historic estate called Crocksands Abbey, in North Devon.
There were plenty of folk ready to smile cynically at the idea of that brilliant rascal Chris. Wrath, making a fortune in Australia, or anywhere else for that matter, and who hinted pretty broadly that he could say a good deal about the tragic and mysterious death of Gordon Bland, which had occurred on Wrath's yacht in the Mediterranean off Monte Carlo; but, of course, this was so much scandal, and only spoken of in clubs and such places where Bland's own intimates foregathered and spoke regretfully of the fine fellow who was nobody's enemy but his own. Still, there was no getting away from the fact that Gordon Bland committed suicide, or was drowned, as Wrath said, in the nick of time to save himself from a disgraceful prosecution for fraud and forgery, and, therefore, Wrath came into the title and family property, a circumstance which would have caused old Sir George Bland-Merton to turn in his grave had he only known it.
All this had happened two years ago, and now Ellen Bland, in the name of Marchant, was a typist to James Melrose, the solicitor to the family. She had practically no relations. Her father had been the last of the line; and Crocksands Abbey could only come to her by will, and only then if her father had lived. But he was long since dead, and Christopher Wrath reigned in his stead. So she had decided to put her pride in her pocket and get her own living. When she had mastered shorthand and typewriting she had gone to Melrose and asked for employment in his office on her merits, merely stipulating that the old name should be dropped, and after some hesitation Melrose had consented. Whereby he secured the best secretary he had ever had, and the secret was faithfully kept.
There was one man who knew, and he was the last in the world to betray his knowledge. This was old Peter Gabb, an aged clerk long past work, and honestly entitled to his pension which Melrose practically gave him, though he came to the office still under the impression that the business of the firm could not do without him, a delusion that James Melrose did nothing to dispel, for Gabb had been a faithful clerk in his day, and he did no harm in Martin's Inn. He was a queer, dry old man, a deep repository of office secrets; and he had his own reasons for his affection for Ellen. From the first she had lodged with Peter and his wife at Dalston, and as a rule he and she went home together at nights. But never yet had he hinted at any knowledge of the girl's secret, and it was sure that Mrs. Gabb had never been taken into his confidence. At the very moment that Ellen was discussing the matter of those letters, Peter Gabb was making frantic search for them. But this Ellen was not destined to learn for some time to come.
"I am so sorry to trouble you, Mr. Melrose," Ellen said. "I mentioned it on the spur of the moment. But if you don't mind, as these letters refer to no particular business, and are from my father to my mother, I should like to keep them."
"Um! rather unusual, perhaps," Melrose said, "I remember. Still, you can keep the letters if you like, Miss Ellen."
Melrose spoke abruptly, as he generally did when alluding to his deceased partner Clapstone, for there had been much that was bad and wrong in Clapstone, and after his death it had taken Melrose all his time and the greater part of his fortune to put the old firm on its high footing again. Even now queer things were constantly cropping up, in the way of shady clients who levied something like blackmail on Melrose, and they came from all parts of the country.
"Thank you very much," Ellen said. "It is only a matter of silly sentiment, perhaps, but I should like to keep those letters. I think you knew my mother well, Mr. Melrose?"
"From childhood," Melrose said, a little gruffly. "By all means keep the letters. You might tell Gabb that I am ready to see those conditions of sale from Minter and Sons."
It was the man of business speaking now, and Ellen hastened away, quite the confidential clerk again. In the outer office Gabb was pottering about, after his way, with an assumption of energy that always amused Ellen. He was a little, spare man, with bent shoulders and features like a dried walnut, and his faded, tired eyes still had a certain shrewdness of their own. He seemed somewhat alert as Ellen delivered her message, then his whole aspect changed as he noted the parcel of letters in the girl's hand.
"Where did you get those from?" he asked, angrily. "If papers are wanted from the stock-room it is my work to hunt them up. I have been looking for those myself. Hand them over."
"I think not," Ellen said, coldly, for she had never heard the old man speak like that before. "I found them quite by accident, and Mr. Melrose knows it. Besides, in a way they belong to me. I—I can't explain, Peter, but I assure you——"
Peter Gabb looked furtively around, it was as if he had something on his mind that he did not want any one to share. The office was empty, save for him and his companion, but he dropped his voice to a thrilling whisper.
"Let me have them, dearie," he coaxed, "Let old Peter have them. They will only trouble you and make you unhappy; but I understand, yes, I understand, and in time, old as I am—look here, miss, I'll be quite candid. I know those are letters from your mother, and when I found them——"
"Then you know," Ellen exclaimed. "My secret is no secret so far as you are concerned. How long since, and how many more——"
"Only myself and Mr. Melrose," the old man went on; "and I guessed it from the likeness to your father. Ah, a rare good friend he was to me in the old days when he came here on business and before he ran through all his money. But the Blands were always like that. And the first time you came into this office I knew. And I was an honoured man when you came under my roof. I wouldn't tell you this now if you hadn't found the papers I laid aside for a moment after only coming on them myself an hour ago. Like fate it was. But as you value your future happiness, Miss Ellen, leave those to me for the present. They shall go to Dalston with us this evening, and when the proper time comes you shall come into your own again. If——"
Acting on an impulse wholly illogical, Ellen held out the papers to Gabb, and as he hastily stuffed them into his pocket a junior clerk bustled into the room. He held a card in his hand.
"Sir Christopher Wrath wants to see the governor," he said.
"Ask him to sit down," Gabb mumbled, with a strange light in his eyes. "Give him something to read, give him prussic acid, give him any deadly poison. What am I talking about? Sometimes my poor head gets that queer I don't know what I am saying. Tell Sir Christopher that he shall see Mr. Melrose immediately."
The clerk, with a wink at Ellen, disappeared from the room, and Gabb collapsed into a chair.
"The hand of Providence," he murmured. "All in God's time."
The City office of a respectable family solicitor is hardly the place to find mystery and romance, and Ellen Bland went back to her own room with her head in a whirl. No doubt Peter would explain all in good time; meanwhile the mystery remained. Why had he been so madly keen on retaining those letters, and why had he spoken so strangely when Sir Christopher Wrath's name was mentioned. The man who more or less had ousted Ellen from the succession of Crocksands Abbey was a client of her employer's, though she had never known him to come to the office before. Not that it was any business of hers so long as Wrath knew nothing of her identity. But why did Peter Gabb hate him so, and what did he mean, by his allusion to what might happen in God's good time? Why had the placid air of Martin's Inn so suddenly become charged with electricity?
All this was still uppermost in Ellen's mind as she put on her hat presently and went out to lunch. As she turned into the quiet place just off Carey-street where she usually ate her modest meal, she was conscious of a young man coming in her direction. He smiled something more than a welcome as he swept off his hat and showed a set of even white teeth in a face singularly open and honest, and tanned with the brown of a hard, open-air life. He was beautifully turned out, and his grey tweeds fitted him to perfection. He looked just a little out of place in the City.
"Now this is really jolly, Miss Marchant," he smiled. "Backed a winner this morning, don't you know, what?"
If Rollo Bly was under the impression that he had conveyed to his companion that a chance meeting had materialised he was pleasantly deceiving himself, for this sort of thing happened too often for that. Still, Ellen had not encountered Bly for over a month now, so that her greeting was a little more cordial than usual. Rollo Bly was one of the fortunate youths blessed with a more than sufficiency of this world's goods, and James Melrose had at one time been his trustee, so that he came occasionally to the office in Martin's Inn, hence his acquaintance with Ellen. She liked him well enough for his transparent honesty and his charming manners, but she rather despised his idle, butterfly life, and regarded him as a modern product not particularly gifted in the way of brains. Still, it was good to see some one connected with her old world again.
"Just going to peck a bit," Bly explained in his breezy way. "Had to trickle into the good old City on business—what? So, as we are both going the same way home, and all that, I thought perhaps we might sit at the same table, what?"
There was almost a plea behind the casual suggestion, and an entreaty in Bly's blue eyes that Ellen could not resist. And the magic of spring was in the air. That he would not offer to pay for her lunch Ellen knew—he had done that once before, and the lesson had not been wasted. That this young man with the fine connections and ample fortune was deeply in love with her Ellen did not realise—he was merely a nice young man with the instincts of his class making himself agreeable to a typist in the City. She had a good deal to learn yet, had Ellen.
Still, it was good to be there with one of her own class, and read the frank admiration in his eyes, and note the air of deference he paid her. They sat talking for quite a long time over their coffee until Ellen realised with a start that her hour was up.
"You are not living in London now?" she asked, as they walked out together. "Somehow you look like the country."
"Right on the target," Bly cried. "Fact is, I am spending the summer with a friend in Devonshire. Chap gassed in the jolly old war, and only just pulling round. With me on the French front over three years, and one of the best. He's got a sort of summer house-bungalow affair in the grounds of a place called Crocksands Abbey that he got hold of before the war, and the new landlord, Sir Christopher Wrath, can't rout him out. Awful bounder, Wrath, but one of these days, if I'm not altogether a fool—but that's another story, as good old Kipling says. Regular paradise of a place the bungalow, in the most glorious scenery. I suppose you don't happen to know that part of North Devon, Miss Marchant?"
Ellen stammered something by way of reply. The whole world seemed to be shouting about her beloved Devon this bright spring morning. Those letters, the visit of Sir Christopher Wrath to Martin's Inn, and now here was Bly actually living under the shadow of the lovely old house where she had spent some of the happiest days of her life, when her grandfather was alive, and her parents were on one of their long trips around the world before the trouble had arisen and the sinister misunderstanding shown itself.
There was a mist before Ellen's eyes as Rollo Bly talked on in his simple way of the glories of Crocksands and the bungalow on the wooded headland overlooking the sea. She could see every inch it as he spoke—the sloping park trending down to the bay, the green banks where the primroses made a carpet in the Spring. There were times when she positively ached for Crocksands, that fair domain that was to have been hers, and would have been had her father lived, for Crocksands, though entail property, was to have been barred of its entail, and Gordon Bland could have done what he liked with it. But then he had died before that happened, disgraced, and now the man called Sir Christopher Wrath reigned in his stead.
Her mind was full of that fair picture as she wended her way back to Martin's Inn presently, and she had said good-bye to Bly. He had held her hand a little longer than necessary, and had wondered, sentimentally, when he would see her again. It made Ellen smile, but, all the same, there was a little warm glow about her heart and a nice feeling that she had a friend there.
She was still dreaming about Crocksands and the wonderful afterglow of the sunsets over the western ocean as she arrived at Dalston that evening with Peter Gabb by her side. The little mean street, with its shabby houses all exactly alike, looked more depressing and sordid than ever in the evening mist. Then there was the frugal meal and the putting to bed of Peter Gabb's more or less bedridden wife. It was only when she was safely bestowed away for the night that Peter lighted his pipe and laid the packet of letters on the sitting room table under the shaded lamp.
"Now we can talk," he said. "I didn't mean to speak yet, Miss Ellen, not yet. But I have known ever since you came into the office. No mistaking your father's daughter—no, no. And a good friend to me and my dear wife he was in the old days. And when they told me as Mr. Gordon Bland had gone and disgraced his name I laughed. And why? Because I knew something. Ay, there's few secrets in the firm of Melrose and Clapstone as I don't know. Been a faithful servant, too. That's why they let me hang about the office, so as not to hurt my feelings and make me delude myself as I am earning my money. But I don't do anybody any harm, and I look for a thing as Mr. Melrose says don't exist. And I know better. A good man, Mr. Melrose, and a gentleman. Nearly ruined by his rascally partner, Clapstone, he was, but he pulled through and saved the old firm, and nobody any the wiser but me. And Christopher Wrath—Sir Christopher he is now—was at the bottom of it all. When his friends and relations thought he was safe in Australia he was in the city under an assumed name, and wanted by the police. I know, I know. And one night, three years ago, when I fell asleep and was locked in the office after they had all gone, I saw Mr. Clapstone and Wrath——"
Gabb had been maundering on with his head sunk on his breast and his fingers in his sparse, grey hair before he sat up suddenly and regarded Ellen with a sudden shrewdness in his eyes.
"But we'll come to that presently," he said. "I shall get to the bottom of the damned conspiracy before I die. I believe that's what Providence is keeping me alive for, Miss Ellen. And just as I found what I have been looking for all these years you stumble on it, too, and find it where I had placed it for safe keeping only this very morning. And so you forced my hand, as it were."
"But those are my father's letters to my mother, Peter," Ellen protested. "How they got into the office——"
"Well I can tell you that, anyway," Peter mumbled. "It was Christopher Wrath who made all the mischief between your father and mother. Your lady mother came near to marrying that scamp at one time. Very fond of him she was, surely. But her mother stopped that, and Wrath went away to Australia in disgrace. I'll tell you the whole story some time. Then Wrath comes back from Australia, as he said, with money and his own yacht, though it was only hired, and your father goes in it on a voyage to the South of France. That was not long after your mother died. She and your father were parted then, and I believe that Wrath was at the bottom of it. He knew how pure and good your mother was, and he could do nothing in that way, if you will pardon me, miss, but he was always a revengeful devil, and he preyed on your father's quick temper and easily aroused jealousy. We shall find it all in those letters which came into the hands of Melrose and Clapstone, who had to settle the deed of separation and pay over your mother's allowance."
Ellen sighed a little impatiently. The night was hot and stuffy, and the sordid atmosphere of the mean little house was more than usually trying to the girl.
"Clapstone had the business in hand," Peter went on. "It was at the time when Mr. Melrose was so ill—ah, well I remember it. And your mother had sent on those letters to the office. Clapstone was under the impression that he had destroyed them, but I took care of that. Then somehow they were lost for years, till we both found them, simultaneous like. We shall see daylight yet."
Ellen was hardly listening. A little group of factory hands went noisily past the house, a drunken man, cheerfully vocal, roared his way along. And down in Devonshire at Crocksands the spring breezes were whispering to the primroses in the park. Ellen could feel the call of it, and her heart grew heavy and restless.
"Those two, Wrath and Clapstone, were conspiring together to ruin your father and separate him from your mother, and nobody knew it but poor old Peter Gabb. And the owner of Crocksands—that's your late grandfather, my dear—was arranging with your father to cut off the entail, so that, there being no son to succeed, your father could leave Crocksands to you. I know that was so, because I managed to have a read of the draft deed before it was engrossed. And Clapstone sent it to be engrossed outside the office so that none of the staff should see it. Oh, it was all right, because your grandfather was on his death-bed, and Mr. Melrose so ill that he knew nothing of what was going on between those two rascals. God only knows what price Sir Christopher Wrath paid Clapstone for his share of the plot. And now he's dead, too, and Wrath thinks he is safe."
"But how does this benefit me?" Ellen asked.
"We shall come to that presently," Gabb chuckled. "Wait till we have gone over those letters. Then just at that critical time your father must needs go yachting with Wrath, who professed to have just come back from Australia with a fortune, and him hiding in London all the time under an assumed name, and borrowing money from his accomplice, Clapstone. Then came all that business of the forged cheques on Lord Maberley and your father's supposed suicide. Off Monte Carlo, that was. Do you remember the date, miss?"
"Of course I do," Ellen said, brokenly. "How could I forget it, Peter? It was a dreadful business, and Lord Maberley was most kind. He told me afterwards that if he had only known the world would never have been any the wiser."
"What was the date?" Peter whispered. There was a strangeness in his manner that set Ellen's heart beating faster. "When was it that your father disappeared off the yacht Starshine and his body picked up next day. Try and think."
"Three years ago on the third of next September," Ellen said, under her breath. "The date is burnt into my mind."
"That's right," chuckled Peter, horribly. "Now look at the last letter of the packet—the last one written by your father to your mother—and tell me what is the date of it."
"The fifth of September," Ellen gasped "Peter! And on that day my father was supposed to be buried out there! What does it all mean? What strange mystery is here?"
"That," Peter whispered, "that, my dear young lady, is what we have got to find out. Ah, I thought I should interest you."
Ellen stared at Peter Gabb in blank amazement. The sordid, mean street and the weight of trouble on her mind lifted now as she began to grasp the possibility of what the old man was saying.
"What does it mean, Peter?" Ellen asked breathlessly.
"Ah! that we have to find out," Gabb grinned. "There's a vile conspiracy somewhere, and we have got to get to the bottom of it. And what does it prove in the first place?"
Gabb leant eagerly forward and placed his face close to that of his companion.
"If it has any meaning at all, it proves that my father was alive three days after he was supposed to have made away with himself."
"You have hit it exactly, miss," Peter muttered. "And this particular letter isn't one of those written to your mother, but one sent long after her death. Look and you will see that it is addressed to the firm of Melrose and Clapstone. That was at the time when Mr. Melrose was very ill, and the matter must have been attended to by Clapstone. He put this letter away with the rest of the packet, and lost sight of it—probably did not require them again. We have a long way to go yet, but one thing we know now—your father was alive three days after his body was alleged to have been taken out of the Mediterranean. That's something, isn't it?"
"It frightens me," Ellen confessed. "But possibly my dear father made a mistake in the date. It was just the careless sort of thing that he would do. If we had further proof——"
"And we've got it," Gabb hissed. "That letter, like the rest, is in its original envelope. Look at the postmark."
"You are right again, Peter," Ellen said, after a brief inspection of the cover. "What do you make of it?"
"I don't make anything of it yet," Peter said, cautiously. "We are only groping our way at present. Now let us go over the ground. Your father was next in succession to the family title and the estates called Crocksands Abbey that went with it. If he had lived, to-day he would be Sir Gordon Bland, and the owner of one of the finest properties in Devonshire. If he had had a son instead of only one daughter—yourself—all this trouble would never have happened. You have been long enough in the employ of Mr. Melrose to know something about the law of entail, and Crocksands is entailed property. Do you know what that means, miss?"
"I—think so," Ellen said. "Property that descends in regular succession and cannot be left to anybody outside the family."
"Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. But entail can be broken and the property disposed of, provided that the owner of the property and the next heir, if he is of age, agree on that course and sign a deed to that effect. And I happen to know that some sort of arrangement was on foot between the late Sir George Bland-Merton and his heir, your father. And why? Because your father had no son and, as you were nineteen at the time, did not look like having one. The next in succession to your father was Christopher Wrath, and the old gentleman hated him like poison. Of course, if your father died without a son nothing could prevent Wrath from succeeding to the title, but if the entail was broken then your father could leave Crocksands to you, and Wrath could only have the barren honour, with nothing to keep it up on. I know that deed was actually drafted, because I once had it in my hand, and if it was ever executed then you are mistress of Crocksands to-day."
"What are you saying?" Ellen asked wildly. "I cannot possibly grasp it."
"And yet it might be," Gabb went on. "If that deed was ever executed, Sir Christopher Wrath is now living in your house and spending your income. And mind, the deed was drafted by Mr. Clapstone during the two years Mr. Melrose was getting over his bad motor accident. And I am pretty sure the old baronet put his signature to it. Probably the document was sent out to your father to sign when he was in the Mediterranean, which would be soon after Sir George Bland-Merton died. I can find that out at the office to-morrow by looking up the old letter books. And now, miss, I am going to ask you a few impertinent questions. You have met Sir Christopher, and——"
"There you are wrong," Ellen said. "I have never seen the present head of the family. He was smuggled out to Australia in disgrace about the time I was born, and so we never met. His name was taboo at Crocksands, you understand."
"I had forgotten that," Gabb muttered. "Not that it matters very much either way. I want you to remember what sort of a character Sir Christopher enjoys. The man is a thorough scoundrel. And he was the friend of another scoundrel, Walter Clapstone. I found out that Sir Christopher and Clapstone were up to some game at the time the former was supposed to be in Australia when all the time he was hanging about the city under an alias. What the game was I didn't know, but I do know that Clapstone was in it. This was at the time when Mr. Melrose was in hospital nearly two years over that motor accident of his, and Clapstone was making ducks and drakes of the old business. Then all of a sudden it was announced that Wrath had come back from Australia with a fortune, and he swaggered about the place giving himself no end of airs. This happened just about the time the old baronet died. Wrath and Clapstone were as thick as thieves, and they were always together in the office before Wrath got hold of his so-called yacht, and the next thing I heard was that your father was off to Monte Carlo with him. Lord only knows what evil spirit persuaded Mr. Gordon Bland to place himself in the hands of that ruffian, who wanted to get him out of the way, because he was not only at his wits' end for money, but also because if anything happened to your father the whole of the family property went to the black sheep of the flock, to say nothing of the title. Now, miss, do you begin to see the risk your father was running?"
"It is like a nightmare." Ellen shuddered. "But if you thought there might be trouble, why didn't you——"
"I didn't realise it at the moment," Peter said. "Besides, I had the office on my mind. Everything had been kept from Mr. Melrose during his illness, and at last I went to the nursing home where he was recuperating and told him everything. Ill as he was, he came back and kicked Clapstone into the street, and for nearly two years he fought for the good name of the firm. Luckily, he was a bachelor and had saved money, or he never could have pulled round. By that time your father was long since dead, and not until I found out who you were, miss, did I give another thought to Wrath. And I had nothing to go on until I found those letters."
For the moment there was nothing to be said or done. It was a restless night that Ellen passed, and she was pale and tired and listless over her work the next day. In her honest way she did her best to put this whirlwind of revelation out of her mind, and she was sitting in the private office busy over some correspondence when the announcement of Sir Christopher Wrath's name, followed by that individual himself, brought it all back again.
He came, big and black and swaggering in, a fine figure of a man, with more than his share of the family good looks, and his frank glance of admiration brought the blood flaming to the girl's cheeks. Chris. Wrath, as he called himself, was a popular figure with a certain type of woman, and he was quite sure of his ground where the sex was concerned.
"I beg your pardon," he smiled. "I had no idea Melrose had a lady here. It is not all business in the City, I see."
"I am Mr. Melrose's private secretary and typist," Ellen said, coldly. "I will tell him that you are here."
Sir Christopher Wrath bowed and smiled, not in the least rebuffed by Ellen's manner. He was not that sort of man. He lounged in a chair until Melrose came in and over-civilly received him.
"Egad, Melrose," he said, offensively, "but you know a pretty girl when you see one. Quite the angel unawares, what? Looked like a real thoroughbred to me, you sly dog."
"I suppose you are alluding to Miss Marchant," Melrose replied, frostily. "She is a lady, and perhaps when I tell that you will be good enough to stop and come to business."
"Oh, you need not get on your hind legs like that," Wrath said. "I know you city men are not all you pretend to be. Still, she is a devilish pretty girl, and—oh, all right. Now, look here, Melrose, I came to see you over that Crocksands business. The fact is I am infernally hard up, though I told you that when I called the other day. I want you to raise me, say, twenty thousand pounds on the property."
Melrose looked up at his visitor sourly. He was a fine figure of a man, was Sir Christopher Wrath, in his beautiful town clothes, but it seemed to Melrose that the pirate was hidden away behind the perfect morning coat and immaculate tie.
"Oh, indeed," he said, drily. "It is no business of mine, of course, but for a man who has comparatively recently returned from Australia with a fortune——"
"You can cut all that out," Wrath said. "Things are devilish bad in Australia just now, and I don't want to realise. If I do, it will be at a big loss, and I prefer to mortgage Crocksands Abbey for the money I need."
"Well, you can't do it," Melrose said, with an air of satisfaction that he took no pains to conceal.
"The devil!" Wrath exclaimed. "And why?"
"Because you are merely the tenant for life. Oh, I know you are Sir Christopher Wrath and all that, but don't forget that the property is strictly entailed. You have no more right to mortgage it than I have. Of course, if you were a married man with a son of age, then between you the two of you could cut off the entail and sell the place, if you liked. But until that happens you can only enjoy the income. Of course, you might borrow money from the Jews by insuring your life for a large sum and securing the payment of the policies on the revenue. But that would be a very costly affair. Oh, you need not swear—any lawyer in the city will tell you exactly the same thing."
"But it seems ridiculous," Wrath cried. "Of course, I shall marry some day, and in all probability have a son. But suppose anything happens to me, who takes my place?"
"Miss Bland," Melrose explained. "I mean the daughter of the late Gordon Bland, the man who committed suicide on your yacht in the Mediterranean. It's rather a strange thing, Wrath, that your predecessor, Sir George Bland-Merton, had made arrangements with his heir, Gordon Bland, to cut off the entail not long before the younger man took his life. And, to be quite plain, that was being done so that Crocksands Abbey might go to Miss Ellen Bland. The old gentleman couldn't prevent you coming into the title of course, but he could prevent you coming into the family estates."
"The old blighter always hated me," Wrath growled.
"Well, hadn't he good reason?" Melrose retorted. "Let us be quite candid, Wrath. You robbed him and forged his name, though he had helped you a score of times; and after you were more or less deported to Australia on the understanding that you didn't come back, Sir George made up his mind what to do."
"But the deed was never signed," Wrath exclaimed.
"Ah, that I cannot say. I know it was drawn up, and I have every reason to believe that Sir George's signature was appended to it. Very possibly it was sent out to the Mediterranean for Gordon Bland to sign. But, unfortunately, this happened just at the time when I was at death's door over that motor accident of mine. For two years I lay in a hospital, during which time my late partner, Walter Clapstone, was ruining the business. But you know all about that. I came back just in time to save the honour of the old firm, and it cost me every penny I had to do it. Then I kicked Clapstone out into the street——"
"By the way, what became of him?" Wrath interrupted.
"I neither know nor care. The man was an utter scoundrel, and I was glad to see the end of him. I told him if he showed his face in London again I would have him struck off the rolls, and all I know is that he didn't take out his certificate again, so that he is no longer entitled to call himself a solicitor."
"And Cousin Ellen Bland, where is she?"
Melrose looked up into the face of his companion.
"I can't tell you," he said. "She felt her father's disgrace terribly. She refused to see or receive help from friends who would have done anything for her. I suppose she is getting her living somewhere. And besides, if I knew where she was, I certainly would not tell you."
Wrath laughed unpleasantly. It seemed to him that he could see exactly what was passing in the mind of James Melrose.
"Ah, you think, perhaps, I should make some sort of arrangement with her, I suppose?" he said.
"You could not do that," Melrose retorted. "Miss Bland would only come into the Crocksands property if anything happened to you, and not then if you were married and had a son. But if that deed cutting off the entail has been signed by both parties, then, Sir Christopher—then you are no more the master of Crocksands than I am. If Gordon Bland had signed it on the very day of his sudden suicide, and the deed can be found, then Miss Bland is the owner of the property. It would come to her as her father's representative. In that case you would merely be Sir Christopher Wrath, without a penny from the family estates, and you would have to fall back upon that property of yours in Australia. But surely Clapstone warned you that this might happen? I know you used to correspond with him, and I know that you were both at Rugby together. Didn't Clapstone write and tell you that there was every chance of the entail being barred?"
"Certainly he didn't," Wrath said, and Melrose knew by instinct that the man was lying. "Why should he? Until that unfortunate affair in the Mediterranean which nobody regrets more than I do, I never had the slightest suspicion that I should come into the title and the property. Gordon Bland was a young man with a young wife, and, though his only child was a girl, there was no reason why he shouldn't have half a dozen sons. Why, when I came home three years ago I never gave the Crocksands succession a single thought. Bland and myself were fairly friendly, and as to his wife, I might say——"
"You might say nothing," Melrose interrupted, sourly. "I may be your family solicitor, or I may not. You are a damned scoundrel, and you were the cause of all the trouble that led up to Gordon Bland's domestic unhappiness, and, indirectly, that poor woman's death lies at your door."
In spite of his bravado, Wrath winced.
"Well, that is pretty plain speaking," he said, with a forced laugh. "If you know so much, probably you can tell me what it was that caused Gordon Bland to take his own life."
"Perhaps I can," Melrose retorted. "At any rate, I may have my own suspicions. They are only suspicions, and I am too busy a man to follow them up. But I can tell you this—there was a good deal of talk in the clubs at the time, and there are several of Bland's old friends who do not scruple to say that Sir Christopher Wrath could throw a light on that tragic Monte Carlo story if he chose. But I am not going to waste my time arguing the point. I am delighted to be able to tell you that you cannot raise any money on the Crocksands property. There is not a solicitor in London who would lend you a penny on it, and, what's more, I don't believe it belongs to you at all. I feel convinced that if Miss Bland had her rights she would be mistress of that fine old place in Devon. If you don't believe me, find where Clapstone is hiding himself, and he will tell you the same thing. However, I can't help you, and there is an end of the matter."
With this somewhat contemptuous dismissal Wrath turned on his heel and left the office. Outwardly he appeared to be the easy, prosperous man about town, with not a single trouble in the world; but, inwardly, he was boiling with rage, and full of murderous feelings against the man who had used him so despitefully. He had come there that morning perfectly sure of his ground, and certain that the next few days would see him in possession of the money that he so sorely needed. He posed amongst his friends and acquaintances as a reformed character, who had made a huge fortune in Australia, which he had come home to enjoy when once he had settled himself down to the life of a country gentleman. But when old Peter Gabb had told Ellen that Wrath had crept back furtively from Australia years ago with hardly a rag to his back, he had stated no more than the truth. By some dark means, or it might be by pure good fortune, Wrath had become Sir Christopher and the owner of one of the finest estates in North Devon; but beyond that he was without a penny in the world. Moreover, he was deeply in debt in connection with one or two sinister speculations of his, and, unless he could find a large sum of money within a comparatively short time, then the situation was ugly indeed.
Therefore, he had come in his swaggering fashion that morning to James Melrose with the intention of raising a mortgage on the family property, and what the lawyer had told him had been something in the nature of a knockout blow. Not that he doubted the truth of Melrose's statement for a moment. The statement of the case was much too plain for that. It was clear enough, therefore, that he had nothing to expect so far as the revenue of Crocksands Abbey was concerned.
And then, again, there was the disturbing information with regard to Gordon Bland's daughter Ellen. Wrath had never seen her; he had no idea what she was like; and, moreover, she seemed to have vanished. No doubt she was getting her own living somewhere in some obscure capacity, perhaps as a governess, or possibly in some business office. Girls were very independent nowadays, and most of them capable of getting their own living. If this girl could be found then possibly something might be done with her. That deed cutting off the entail might be in existence, as Melrose had suggested, and, if so, Ellen Bland might know where to put her hand upon it. It was more than probable that she had no idea of its value, and if Wrath could get it into his own hands then he would know how to deal with an ignorant girl.
As he walked moodily along the streets in the direction of his town flat in Merton-gardens he was going over the series of events which three years ago had ended in the disgrace and suicide of Gordon Bland in the yacht off Monte Carlo. Ostensibly, it was Wrath's own yacht, which he had hired in one of his fleeting periods of prosperity, with the idea of impressing certain simple rich people with whom he had scraped acquaintance and robbing them at his leisure. This he had duly accomplished, about the same time that he persuaded his cousin Gordon Bland to join him soon after the death of the latter's wife, and what happened afterwards Wrath did not care to dwell upon. He was an utterly abandoned scoundrel, but there were things that even the vilest criminal does not care to remember, even in his most reckless moments.
He sat in the luxuriously appointed dining-room of his flat late that evening after he had dined at home. It would take all his cunning and cleverness to get himself out of his present mess, and no one realised it better than he did. On the table in front of him was a pile of documents, mostly bills, and all of them pressing for immediate attention. And yet a few hours ago, he had regarded these as mere trifles. He would raise a large sum of money by a mortgage on Crocksands Abbey, and with this in his possession would discharge his pressing need, and launch out into a speculation which promised a wonderful return. Your criminal is always sanguine, and Wrath was no exception to the rule.
If he could only get hold of that girl! He was a man usually successful where the fair sex was concerned, and, besides, with that intimate inner knowledge of his he could persuade her to do almost anything, especially if she in the least resembled her mother. For there had been a time when the late Mrs. Bland and he had been on more than friendly terms, and if there had been a woman in his selfish life for whom he cared more than himself, that woman had been Ellen's mother. But the family had interfered. Wrath had been packed off in disgrace to Australia, and Mary Mallory had married Wrath's rival. All that was many years ago, but it rose clearly enough before Wrath's mind as he sat there late into the night moodily drinking and smoking. And presently it seemed to him that he could hear a bell ringing somewhere in the remote part of the flat. The servants had long gone to bed, and with a muttered oath, Wrath rose to answer the call himself. He did not want to see anyone at that time of the evening, and if the man at the front door proved to be one of his own associates, then he would make short work of the late caller.
He threw open the door and looked out into the lighted corridor. A man was standing there, tall and gaunt and haggard, pale of feature, and ragged as to his hair, with a once well-made suit of clothes, which now hung about him in greasy rags. But there was a sort of uneasy, jaunty impudence about him, stamped on the pinched features, and a smile at once insolent and fawning.
"Well, Chris, how goes it?" the nomad asked. "For God's sake let me come inside and give me a drink."
"Good Lord!" Wrath cried. "Good Lord, it's Wal Clapstone! The very man I wanted to see! Come inside, and I will give you as much to drink as you want. Never did I think I should be as glad to see anybody as I am to see you."
Christopher Wrath led the way across the hall of his flat into the inviting dining-room beyond. It was a little chill and dull after a warm day, and the log fire in the grate was welcome. So too, were the glasses and spirit decanter on the table, and the syphon by the side of a big silver box of cigarettes. Clapstone dropped into an armchair and warmed his thin hands at the grateful blaze.
"My God, how good it is after the last year or so to get back to this!" he muttered, with a comprehensive wave of his hand. "If you want to appreciate it, then go through what I have lately."
Wrath studied his companion under his brows. Evidently fortune had not dealt kindly with the once prosperous lawyer, for his air was one of profound dejection, and the wolfish gleam in his dark, moody eyes bespoke of a body suffering from sheer lack of nourishment. Evidently Clapstone had lived and fed and slept in the garments he was wearing for months. In all Wrath's experience—and it was not a small one—he had never seen a man nearer the extremity of all things.
"Help yourself to a drink," he suggested.
"Not yet," Clapstone muttered. "It is not a nice thing to have to say, but I haven't tasted food for two days. My God! I have had a time. Give me something to eat; anything will do. I will drink with you afterwards; but if I took anything now it would go straight to my head and you would have me on your hands all night, and you wouldn't like that."
It was not a pleasing prospect, so Wrath bustled about in the domestic part of the house, and reappeared presently with part of a cold chicken and some cheese and butter. He sat in his chair looking at the wreck of his former friend, whilst the latter ate wolfishly until his appetite was satisfied. Then a little colour crept into his thin cheeks, and those semitransparent hands of his ceased to tremble. He rose presently.
"I am feeling another man now," he said, as he poured himself out a stiff whisky and soda and took a cigarette.
"And now we can talk. Tell me what has happened in the last 18 months."
"Do you mean to say you don't know?" Wrath asked.
"Not a thing," Clapstone replied. "You see, soon after that old chap down at Crocksands died, and Gordon Bland thoughtfully put himself out of the way, I had a bit of a shock. You know what a lot of money I found for those schemes of yours all the time my late partner was laid up, and how badly we fared in connection with those various stunts. And I think you can guess where I got the money from."
"It was no business of mine," Wrath said, brutally.
"Oh, wasn't it?" Clapstone cried, with a sudden spurt of anger. "At any rate, you would have been in a pretty tight place if I hadn't found the cash. It was clients' money, and you knew it as well as I did. Over a hundred thousand pounds altogether, and don't you forget it. Oh, I know we did well at times, but, on the whole, we lost heavily. I had great hopes over that Monte Carlo scheme of yours, and I should have joined you there if Melrose hadn't come back to the office unexpectedly. That old fool Peter Gabb fetched him. He literally took me by the throat and threw me out into the street—I mean Melrose did. He told me that if I tried to take out my solicitor's certificate in future he would lay the whole thing before the Incorporated Law Society, and have me struck off the rolls. He offered to pay me two pounds a week provided I gave him my promise not to come within fifty miles of London. So I went off to Manchester, working that business you know of, because I hadn't the ready cash to follow you to Monte Carlo. And there I went a bit too far. Somebody gave me away, and under the assumed name I was using, I got two years at Chester Assizes. And there is the story in a nutshell. I can't get any more money from Melrose for the next three months at least, so I have to fall back upon you."
"How did you get here?" Wrath asked.
"Walked," Clapstone said, curtly. "Tramped it from Strangeways Gaol after seeing your name in the paper. I have starved, I have slept under hedges, I have spent several nights in a workhouse. At the present moment I haven't the necessary copper to pay for my bed at a Rowton House. If I hadn't been lucky enough to have found you this evening I should have slept on the Embankment."
"Well, what do you expect me to do?" Wrath asked.
"It isn't a question of expecting," Clapstone laughed, unpleasantly. "I am not going to want a meal or a decent suit of clothes so long as Sir Christopher Wrath of Crocksands Abbey is alive."
There was an underlying threat in this, and Wrath did not fail to notice it. But he had not the slightest feeling of compassion for this fellow-rascal of his, and he would have ordered him out of the flat without a single pang of regret in ordinary circumstances. But then, Clapstone knew a great deal, and it was just possible that he could give Wrath certain priceless information if he were properly treated. Therefore, the more prosperous scoundrel of the two affected a friendship he was far from feeling.
"No occasion to put it in that way, my boy," he said. "I am sorry that things have turned out like this, and if there is anything I can do you can count on me. But if you think I am rolling in money you are devilish well mistaken. I may be the great swell you say I am, but I am up against it nearly as badly as you are. At the present moment, I would give my soul for twenty thousand pounds. If I can't find it before long, then I shall be in serious trouble. I have spent every penny of my income for the next six months, and the bank won't let me overdraw another cent. I tell you, it is a desperate business. I was an infernal fool not to leave it alone; but I never could resist a good thing if the profits were big enough."
"Yes, I think I understand," Clapstone sneered. "But why don't you mortgage the family property?"
"Ah, that is a question you may be able to answer for me," Wrath said. "I saw Melrose this morning with the very idea of doing that same thing. He told me with every sign of satisfaction, that I couldn't do it. He said I was only tenant for life, and that I couldn't touch the property in any way without the next heir agreeing to it. Now, there is no next heir, because I am not married. As I told you before, I am the very last of my family, just the same as Gordon Bland was the last of his, with the exception of his daughter."
"His daughter?" Clapstone exclaimed. "In that case——"
The speaker stopped suddenly, as if he were conscious of the fact that he was saying too much, and Wrath did not fail to notice it. He had never trusted a man in his life, nor was he going to begin with this dubious acquaintance of his.
"Well, go on," he said. "What are you going to say?"
"Oh, never mind that for a moment, I suppose you know that if anything happened to you Ellen Bland would come into the estate?"
"Of course I know that," Wrath said, impatiently. "But show me some way out of the difficulty. Now, look here, quite candidly, was that deed barring the entail between the old baronet and Gordon Bland signed by both parties? Oh, you need not hesitate. I know that such a deed was drawn up, and, what is more, you were responsible. It was during the time that Melrose was in hospital in consequence of that motor accident of his. The old man signed it; then what happened afterwards?"
Again the derelict in the armchair hesitated. He was wondering how much Wrath really knew, and how far he could be deceived, because somewhere here was a thing that Clapstone hoped to turn to his own pecuniary advantage. He knew just how far he could trust his companion in crime; he knew that Wrath would let him die like a dog in a ditch if it suited his purpose. Therefore, it behoved him to walk carefully and keep a close guard on himself.
"I can't tell you," he added. "I know the old baronet signed the deed, because he came to town for the purpose, and I witnessed his signature myself. And I know that the document was posted to Gordon Bland, Poste Restante, Monte Carlo. But whether he got it or not, I can't say. Three day's later he was a dead man. He certainly didn't send the deed back to me, though he might have signed it and left it with some friend in Monte Carlo, or perhaps deposited it in the safe of an hotel there. If you ask me, I should make a guess that he did sign it, if only for the sake of his daughter. And if that is so, my friend, then you have no more claim to Crocksands Abbey than I have."
Wrath frowned ominously. All this he already knew, and he only made the inquiry by way of testing the accuracy of the disturbing information given him by James Melrose.
"Then you think the document still exists?" he asked.
"I couldn't say so," Clapstone replied, cautiously. "But it is just possible. On the other hand, it may have been destroyed, in which case you are all right. But why not look up Miss Bland and see if you can't come to some sort of arrangement with her? She is of age, and as heiress to the property therefore in a position to execute a deed barring the entail."
"Now, that is not a bad idea," Wrath said. "Do you know her? Have you any idea where she is to be found? According to Melrose she has disappeared entirely. Perhaps she felt her father's disgrace, perhaps she had some romantic idea of getting her own living; anyway, nobody knows where she is, and it is more than likely she has gone abroad under an assumed name. But still, if you have any information——"
"Not I," Clapstone said. "I have never seen the girl, and I have never been down to Crocksands Abbey. You will have to give up the idea up, anyway. And now, what are you going to do about me?"
"Well, I suppose I must help you," Wrath said, grudgingly. "Have you got anything in the back of your mind? Any real good scheme whereby we can make a bit?"
"Well, that is all a question of ready cash," Clapstone said. "If you could find a few hundreds we could go on with those bogus racing lotteries that we dropped just before you came into the title. We could work them from an office in Manchester easily enough. I can get an accommodation address there where no questions will be asked, and we could have all our correspondence sent to us by train. My word, you could do the whole thing from Crocksands. The ideal place. Nobody down there would ever suspect that the bogus company in Manchester is being run by Sir Christopher Wrath. Look here, I will do all the work, and take all the risk, so long as I share in the profits. But I don't want my handwriting to be recognised, in case some bygone victim identifies it. You provide me with an office down at Crocksands and a typist, and I will do the rest. Why, it's as safe as houses."
Wrath smiled evilly behind his cigarette.
"The very thing," he said. "I think I can find the typist you want. She'd come fast enough if I gave her money enough. I will put an advertisement in the London papers to-morrow and see that one of them reaches her. Then we will go down to Crocksands next week. But what about your wardrobe?"
"Oh, that's all right," Clapstone said. "I have got a stack of pawn tickets in my pocket. You can give me ten pounds now, and I will come back here in a couple of days, when you will hardly recognise me. Let's have the cash."
Wrath handed over the notes and a few moments later he was gazing thoughtfully into the fire.
"It is a risky game," he muttered. "But there's money in it, and perhaps something a little more romantic. If I can induce that girl to accept my offer, why, then——"
It was only Ellen's business training and the restraint she had learnt to put upon herself during the two years she had been in Melrose's office that enabled her to go about her work as if nothing had happened. But she was shaken to her soul with the revelations of the past few days, and gradually she was coming to a certain determination. She seemed to feel by a sort of instinct that somewhere or another in the world the document that meant so much to her still existed, and if it did she was not going to rest until she found it. It seemed almost incredible to her that her father would have neglected to sign a document that meant so much to his only child, especially when he knew the reputation of the man who would become head of the family if anything happened to himself. Therefore somewhere or another in some forgotten place that deed existed.
Still, the work had to go on, and for the moment, at any rate, Ellen was compelled to put the great problem out of her mind. She was unfeignedly glad when the Saturday morning arrived, and was looking forward to a quiet afternoon after the office had closed. She would lunch in the City at the usual place, and then walk as far as Waterloo Station and go by train to Hampton Court. She could stroll along the river's bank in the sunshine and have tea at a little place she knew of, and get back to Dalston in the cool of the evening. It would be good to be away by herself and get her disturbed thoughts into something like order. And yet when she was accosted inside the restaurant by Rollo Bly she found herself almost unusually glad to see him.
"Now, this is quite an unexpected pleasure," Bly said. "I never hoped to meet you here on a Saturday morning. I had come into the City on business, and I dropped in here for a mouthful of lunch before going up the river. I am off into Devonshire on Monday, and I shall not be back for months. Now, Miss Marchant will you be very much annoyed if I make a suggestion? If you have nothing better to do, why not spend the afternoon on the river with me and have tea at the Mitre? I must be back by seven o'clock. Awful cheek, and all that, isn't it?"
"No, I think that it is very kind of you," Ellen said. "I will come with pleasure."
It was the first time in her life she had ever been out with a man, and she was rather inclined to blame herself for having so readily fallen in with his suggestion. She knew by instinct that here was a man she could trust and she knew by the same instinct that his feelings for her were something more than friendly. But she did not know as yet how dangerously near she was to reciprocating the feeling, so she walked along by his side and travelled with him in the first-class carriage quite happy in the knowledge that for one afternoon at least she was going to spend a few pleasant hours with one of her own class and breeding.
It was very peaceful and quiet there on the river in the sunshine, for it was early in the season yet, and there were not many boats out. Still, it was beautifully mild and balmy, and by common consent they drifted presently into a backwater, where Bly tied up the boat and lighted a cigarette.
"Now, this is what I call really fine," he said. "Just you and I together apart from the world with no one to worry us, and no stupid people to ask questions."
"I often come this way," Ellen said. "I love the river; but it isn't nice to be always alone."
"Do you mean that you have no friends?" Bly asked. "Sorry, but that is a rotten way of putting it isn't it?"
"Well, it happens to be true," Ellen smiled. "Do you know, Mr. Bly, I haven't got a relation in the world. I am the very last of my family. For some reasons I am glad. You see I have no one to worry me, and I earn quite as much as I want."
"Yes, but you haven't always done this sort of thing I am sure," Bly said. "You weren't brought up to getting your living tapping a typewriter in a lawyer's office."
"No, I wasn't," Ellen smiled. "But when my father died there was nothing left for me, and I had to fend for myself. Please don't imagine that I regret it. All the same my childhood was a quiet one, so that I never had the chance of making any friends. I think you are the first I have ever had."
"Ah, I am real proud for you to say that, Miss Marchant," Bly said. "If ever there is anything that I can do for you, if ever I can help you in any way, I shall be really hurt if you don't let me know. Like you, I have not many friends, and I have more money than is good for me. At least, that is what people say. So if ever you want me, please write to me at The Crag, Crocksands Abbey, North Devon. I am going to stay down there for the summer with a friend of mine called Evors—John Evors, who is an Australian chum of mine. He came to England the year before the war on business of a none too pleasant character, and by chance found himself in Devonshire. There he managed to scrape the acquaintance of Sir George Bland-Merton, who then owned Crocksands Abbey. In the grounds amongst the woods is a kind of glorified summer house fitted with all sorts of modern appliances including electric light, which the old gentleman had built for himself not far from his own residence, and this he let on lease to my friend Evors. It's a topping place Miss Marchant."
"Yes, I know it is," Ellen said, thoughtlessly.
"Then you know it?" Bly cried.
"Yes; I might just as well tell you that I know it very well I—I spent some time there in my younger days. Mr. Bly, I wonder if I might confide in you."
Bly looked up with a smile in his blue eyes.
"I shall be more than honoured," he murmured.
"And yet I can't tell you everything," Ellen said. "The secret is not entirely my own. But strangely enough, it concerns Crocksands and certain people who used to live there. What I want to ask you is this. If you see me at Crocksands Abbey I want you to pretend that you have never met me before. If I am introduced to you it will be as a stranger. There may be occasions when we shall meet alone, and then it won't matter, but for the first time we come together it is as if we had never seen each other before."
"That is a solemn compact," he said. "I can't tell how delighted I am to hear that there is a chance of your coming down to Crocksands; and as to the rest, I am going to possess my soul in patience. But something tells me that you are going to need a friend, and I am that friend to the death."
With that he took the hand that Ellen placed in his, and carried it to his lips. He could see a certain embarrassment in her eyes, so he went on talking.
"You will like Evors," he said. "He is a really splendid chap, besides being a first class sportsman. He was badly gassed in the war, and is only just getting fit and well again. Like me, he is a great enthusiast on the subject of moths and butterflies. We go about at nights with lanterns sugaring the trees, and already we have obtained some rare specimens. But that blighter Sir Christopher Wrath doesn't like it. He calls us infernal poachers. He has tried three or four times to get Evors out of the bungalow, but he can't do it, so he makes himself as unpleasant as possible. Do you know, there is something wrong with that chap."
"In what way do you mean?"
"Well, I couldn't quite tell you," Bly said, vaguely. "But I feel convinced he is a bad egg. Evors met him once, many years ago in Australia, and I am sure Evors could say a good deal if he liked. Now let's go and have some tea."
Ellen went back to Dalston in the cool of the evening, more easy in her mind and contented than she had been for some days. She felt now that she had made the friend which before long she knew that she would need. And, moreover, if circumstances did carry her as far as Crocksands Abbey within the next week or two then she would have no fear that any sudden surprise on Bly's part would betray her. Moreover, she had been making a few inquiries on her own account and had discovered that not one of the old servants remained at Crocksands Abbey. They had all drifted away or been discharged since Christopher Wrath had taken over the reins, and even the housekeeper, who was more or less part of the freehold, had given place to a modern importation from London. There was nothing, therefore, now, that Ellen need be afraid of. It was a big enterprise that she had in her mind, and she would need all her courage to carry it through.
There were two or three letters waiting for her when she got back to the mean house at Dalton, and she smiled to herself as she read one of them. To this she scribbled a hasty reply which she posted personally a little later. Everything was going well now, and her mind was fully made up.
It was just before lunch on the Monday morning when she entered the private office of her employer, and asked if she might have a few words of private conversation with him.
"Why certainly," Melrose said. "What is there that I can do for you? No trouble, I hope."
"Not exactly," Ellen said. "I am afraid I am going to disappoint you, Mr. Melrose. But I am sure I am acting for the best. I am going to leave you—reluctantly, it is true, but really I must go. As a matter of fact, I have already taken another situation, which is subject to a reference from you. Will you kindly give me one?"
"Of course," Melrose said. "I shall be exceedingly sorry to lose you, Miss Marchant. But tell me, where is this new situation? Somewhere in London, I suppose?"
"No," Ellen said. "It is at Crocksands Abbey. I have arranged to act as private secretary to Sir Christopher Wrath, and I may remind you that I go not as Ellen Bland but as Miss Marchant. You will respect my secret, I know."
"Good heavens!" Melrose gasped. "Are you mad? Oh, my child, you must have taken leave of your senses."
The first stage in the passage to the goal was passed and Ellen was back at Crocksands once more. Just at first the mere joy of living the old scenes over again sufficed, and Ellen revelled in the ancient house that had stood in the golden valley long before the spacious days of Queen Elizabeth—for there was no more ancient family in Devon than the Blands and they had made history there. They had had their ups and downs, too, sometimes on top of the wave and again on the verge of ruin. A hundred years ago they had been noted as smugglers of the most daring type with an evil repute almost equal to that of the Doones; then the head of the house had allied himself to money made in trade, and since then the Blands and Bland-Mertons had come back into the fold of probity and respectability. Still the legends remained, and Ellen had absorbed them in her childhood's days with all the eagerness of a boy reading his first copy of 'Robinson Crusoe.' She knew the history of the Hundred Steps that led up from the beach to the ledge on the cliffs where the smuggled treasures were hidden, and the perilous path above that, which finished five hundred feet higher up in the old tower, which had once been a beacon light for ships passing up and down the Bristol Channel. The path was still more or less intact, and plain enough for anybody who once knew its secret, and more than once in days gone by Ellen had climbed it herself. It was a dangerous and hazardous undertaking requiring a cool head and a firm nerve, for one slip would have meant destruction on the rocks below. And once since she had been here this time Ellen had ventured to make that climb again. She saw by the moss and undergrowth straggling over the half obliterated path that it had not been used probably since she had essayed the climb herself, and she had been quite thankful when she came to the top.
She had counted up all the risks in her mind before she answered the advertisement that Wrath had more or less cunningly placed in her way, and it seemed to her that they were negligible. To begin with, she had found out that not one of the old servants, man, woman, or boy, remained at Crocksands, for Wrath had quarrelled with them all in the early days of his reign, and had dismissed them as a set of lazy incompetents, replacing them by a staff which he had engaged through an agency in London. There was no chance, therefore, that she would be recognised by any one on the premises. Moreover, it had been nearly five years since she had seen Crocksands last, and in that time she had altered almost out of recognition. She judged, too, that few of the old country families would call on the new owner of Crocksands, knowing his past reputation as they did, and in this Ellen was right.
There had been one or two formal visits to Crocksands out of respect for the late owner but these had not been followed up by any interchange of hospitality, so that, as far as the county was concerned, Wrath had no friends there. Moreover, he heartily despised his neighbours for a set of old fossils hopelessly out of date and wrapped up in the contemplation of their own dignity. Two days at Crocksands had convinced Ellen that her secret was safe.
Meanwhile, she had not much to do. There was a fair amount of letters to write, most of them to some mythical correspondent in Manchester, and these letters for the most part apparently had to do with racing matters. Ellen was not long in coming to the conclusion that Wrath was engaged in some dubious enterprise which might sooner or later bring him in contact with the law. Not that Wrath took a direct hand in the business, which appeared to be managed by an elderly friend of his whom he called Stone. This was a man with pale face and bent shoulders, a man with a ragged black beard streaked with grey, whose furtive manner conveyed the impression that he was in some way under a cloud. He crept about the house, appearing at unexpected moments much as a cat might; and, though his manner towards Wrath was one of deference there were moments when Ellen detected a certain truculent spirit which did not tally with Stone's position in the household.
There was a lady housekeeper, too, who had been introduced to Ellen as Mrs. Amberley. She was a tall, spare woman, with black hair and eyes, and the remains of what at one time had been great personal beauty. She was cold and distant, very firm with the servants, and yet in Wrath's company her behaviour was much like that of a beaten slave in the presence of her master. There were times when the dark eyes flashed and the thin lips compressed with a sudden half-smouldering passion, but these intervals were rare. So far as Ellen was concerned, she found the housekeeper friendly enough, and, in any case, the secret understanding between Mrs. Amberley and Wrath was no business of hers. Still there came one morning in the library when Wrath's manner to Ellen was a little more caressing and insolently familiar than it had been before, and Ellen was about to show her resentment when Mrs. Amberley came into the room. Just for an instant the dark eyes gleamed and the thin lines of the mouth grew rigid. It was quite evident that the woman had both seen and overheard.
"I am sorry to interrupt," she said, "but I must have a word with you, Sir Christopher."
Wrath turned and followed her out of the room.
"Well what's the matter now?" he demanded, roughly.
"Don't you try me too far," the woman said under her breath. She was quivering from head to foot, and her breast was heaving with a passion she could hardly suppress. "Don't you push me too far, Christopher. I tell you I won't have it. You leave that girl alone, or by heaven I will pull the whole fabric down about your feet! Have you no respect for your own class? Can't you see that Miss Marchant is a lady? Surely any ordinary typing girl would have been sufficient for your purpose. Now, don't interrupt me. It isn't often I venture to speak, but if I see or hear you say one word or make one gesture to that child that is in the least questionable, then I go into Barnstaple next day and tell my story to the nearest magistrate."
"What, you are not tamed yet?" Wrath sneered. "Don't talk nonsense. There never was a pretty girl yet who didn't appreciate a compliment from a man like me. Oh, very well, have it your own way then. That will do."
Mrs. Amberley said no more, but went her way, and Ellen resumed her work without further trouble from her employer. This was the sort of thing she had been rather afraid of; and it was a long time before she realised what she owed to the mysterious housekeeper in the way of freedom from Wrath's attentions.
Meanwhile, the days went on, with a certain amount of work and a good deal of leisure on Ellen's part, and she kept her eyes open. She was at Crocksands for a definite purpose and she never allowed herself to forget it. And then there came one afternoon when, quite unexpectedly, she overheard a fragment of conversation between Wrath and the man called Stone, that set her suspicions all ablaze. It was a slighting reference to James Melrose, and it fell from the lips of Stone. It was only a few words, to tell her that Stone knew all about Melrose, and bore him some sort of a grudge. She began to wonder if Stone was connected with the conspiracy that had enabled Wrath to take up his position there as the master of Crocksands. But how to find this out? For an hour or two Ellen walked about the grounds trying to work out some scheme which would enable her properly to place the man called Stone and then her inspiration came. Perhaps Peter Gabb would know. Peter knew a great deal more than she did herself, and possibly, if she could send him a description of Stone, he might be able to help her. It was at this moment that the idea of a photograph came into her mind.
Next morning she stood under the big entrance gate to the Abbey, and just outside the shadow of its tower with her camera in her hand. She was waiting for Stone to appear. He came presently, strolling down the drive so that she was able to snap him just as he emerged into the full flood of sunshine. Before the day was out the photograph had been developed and was on its way to Dalston, accompanied with a letter to Peter Gabb.
"I want to know who this man is," she wrote. "He is a creature of Wrath's, and evidently engaged in some very shady work for the latter in connection with what looks to me like a racing swindle. I don't know much about these things, but it is some sort of a lottery. However, that doesn't matter for the moment. I am keeping my eyes open, and picking up a lot of information, and I am quite safe, my deal Peter. You need not worry about me, nobody has the least idea who I am, and when I go into the village of Lyndale, some two miles away, I am never recognised, though I meet people whom I knew when I was a child here. Now as to this man Stone. He is exceedingly nervous as to his own signature. He never writes a line himself, though some of his correspondents are evidently intimate friends. When a letter has to be signed it is my place to do it. Strangely enough no letters in reply come down here, though every day there arrives a large hamper which I know contains letters, which are opened in a room at the top of the house, where I am never allowed to go. But I am getting off the subject again. This man Stone knows Mr. Melrose quite well, a fact I gathered by overhearing a conversation. I want to know who the man is because I have a feeling that he is in the conspiracy against me. So I managed to take his photograph this morning and I am sending the development on to you. If you know who it is please let me know. Don't address your letter here but to the Lyndale Post Office, to be called for. I will arrange for a medium by which we can correspond, meanwhile do as I ask you. I have an uneasy sort of feeling that I am being watched, and perhaps my correspondence, small as it is, has been tampered with. I know you will do this for me, Peter, and anything else I ask."
Ellen walled into Lyndale and posted the letter herself. She allowed two days to elapse before she visited the village again, and there found an envelope in Peter Gabb's straggling handwriting awaiting her. It was not till she was alone on the way back to Crocksands in the valley leading up to the lodge gates, where there was no chance of being overlooked, that she opened the envelope. There were only a few words inside, but these were pregnant enough, in all conscience.
"My dear young lady," Peter wrote, "I was very glad to hear from you, and to know that you are quite safe. You are right in saying that the man called Stone knows Mr. Melrose well. It would be far better for my master if he had never met him. The man at your end is changed, but I should recognise the scoundrel anywhere, because, my dear Miss Ellen, the two great rogues in the play have come together again, as you will realise when I tell you that Stone is no other than Mr. Melrose's late partner, Walter Clapstone, and what mischief they are up to I leave you to find out. Now as to other matters.. .."
Ellen tore the letter up into minute fragments and scattered them over the green shoots of the bracken. She had learnt a piece of valuable information, and, at the same time, began to realise what she was really up against.
All this time Ellen had been at Crocksands without catching sight of Rollo Bly or his friend Evors, though their bungalow on the side of the cliff looking over the west bay was not more than three hundred yards from the big house itself. But she knew that it was only a question of time. She had heard Evor's name mentioned, of course, by Wrath, who spoke contemptuously enough about him, because the two men were at daggers drawn, and Wrath had done his best to get rid of his tenant, so far without avail.
"He is an impudent scoundrel, Miss Marchant," he said. "One of the worst type of Australians. Why he should elect to settle himself down here heaven only knows. But he managed to get round my predecessor, and until his lease is up I can't shift him. The brute wanders all over the place trespassing in the woods after moths and butterflies. Some of these nights when I catch him I shall shoot the bounder. And now he has got another man staying with him who is almost as mad as he is himself. Last night I caught them fooling about the Tower with their lanterns and the stuff they smear on the trees. If they hadn't cleared out pretty quick we should have come to blows. I have got some machinery in the Tower—it's an invention of mine—and I don't want anybody to know anything about it until I am perfectly satisfied the thing is perfect."
"Oh, is that so?" Ellen asked. "I was wondering why the lower windows of the Tower were all boarded up, and the door locked. Somebody in the village told me that the Tower was used at one time as a sort of bachelor dormitory when this house was full. Is that right, Sir Christopher?"
Ellen asked the question innocently enough though she knew quite well that what she said was fact. As a child she had been in the Tower many a time. It stood right on the edge of the cliff, a thousand feet above the sea, just beyond the fringe of woods, and on the ground floor were two well-furnished sitting-rooms, with four bedrooms overhead. In the time of the old baronet the Tower had its own supply of electric light conveyed by wires from the house, and many an hour had Ellen spent there in that lonely place looking out over the sea.
"Yes, I believe that is a fact," Wrath said. "But at the present moment I don't allow anybody to enter it but myself. Oh, I see you are curious, my dear young lady, but I want you to remember so far as you are concerned. You won't forget, will you?"
"I will try and restrain my curiosity," Ellen said, demurely. "Do you know, Sir Christopher, it is rather a favourite spot of mine. I go there most afternoons."
"Oh, well, you can't do any harm, so long as you don't make any attempt to burgle the place," Wrath smiled. "Some day I will escort you over the Tower myself."
Ellen rose from the dinner table, over which the desultory conversation had taken place, and strolled out into the garden. The light was beginning to fade now, and a wonderful glamour lay over the sea. It was a perfect early summer evening, unusually hot for the time of year, so that Ellen made her way through the overhanging woods with the high ground under the shadow of the Tower so that she could catch the evening breeze. She was wondering in her mind how true Wrath's statement had been. For some reason or another he was concealing something in the Tower. It might or might not have something to do with Ellen's quest, but that she would know all in good time. Crocksands was beginning to become a house of mystery—so different from what it had been in the time of the old baronet. There was the mystery of the man called Stone, to begin with, the mystery of Mrs. Amberley, with her faded beauty and frightened air, and the unmistakable terror with which Wrath filled her. There were times when she answered him boldly enough, but, on the other hand, there were times when she cringed and cowered before his very gaze. And there were other mysteries, too, of which Wrath evidently knew nothing. He did not know, for instance, that a hundred years ago the owners of Crocksands had been daring and unscrupulous smugglers. Of the secrets of the house he knew nothing, because Ellen had elicited that fact by means of a few adroit questions. He did not know, for instance, that there was an underground passage from the vaults beneath the Abbey to the big stone basement in the Tower. This was all to the good, therefore; and the knowledge might come in useful in the course of time. It was pleasant, also, to realise that there was an ally so near at hand. Ellen felt a comfortable assurance that she could count upon Bly when the time came.
It was at that moment, turning a sharp corner in the pathway through the woods, that she ran into the man she was thinking of. He took off his hat silently, and stood there, waiting for her to give him a lead. It was possible that she might not want to speak to him; on the other hand, she might require his assistance. Ellen hesitated just a moment. She knew by experience that Wrath was not likely to turn out again, and, besides, from where she was standing she could command a full view of the house.
"We have been a long time meeting, Mr. Bly," she said.
"Well, upon my word," Bly said. "I have been keeping out of the way, and all that sort of thing. Waiting for you to give the sign. Don't want to intrude, don't you know."
He stood there, pleasantly smiling. In one hand he carried a net, and in the other a bottle of some dark fluid, evidently used for the purpose of smearing trees.
"I have just been thinking," Ellen said. "I think I made rather a mistake in asking you to assume that you had not met me before. Please don't ask me to explain. I shall probably take you into my confidence in due course, but for the moment I must play my own hand. I think it would be far better if I told Sir Christopher that you and I are acquainted."
"Absolutely delighted," Bly exclaimed.
"Yes. You see, you are a client of Mr. Melrose's, and we did meet in Martin's Inn on business. We will let it go at that, if you don't mind. When I get back to the Abbey to-night I shall tell Sir Christopher that I have met you, and that I had no idea of running against a client of my late employer's at Crocksands. I suppose I shall have the pleasure of seeing Mr. Evors one of these days."
"He is somewhere about now," Bly said. "He is a perfect maniac on the subject of moths and butterflies. But see here, Miss Marchant, I don't think your employer will be particularly pleased to know that you have run up against Evors."
"Oh, I have heard all about their quarrel," Ellen said. "I can't understand why there should be any objection to Mr. Evors being here. He is evidently a very quiet man."
"It is a personal matter, I think," Bly explained. "As a matter of fact, I am not allowed to say anything about it. All I can tell you is that it concerns a man called Gordon Bland, who, if he hadn't died, would be master of Crocksands today."
Ellen stiffened suddenly. This plain matter-of-fact statement that evidently concerned Bly little or nothing left her standing there almost frozen. She was thankful enough for the gloom of the night that hid her white face from her companion. She was on the verge of saying something that might betray her, then she managed to collect her scattered senses.
"I hope you don't think I am vulgarly curious," she said. "But any friend of yours——"
She broke off suddenly as the bushes parted and a tall, powerful-looking man in a rough tweed suit appeared. He waved his hand excitedly, and at the same time flashed a path of light across the trees from a small torch.
"Got him!" he cried. "Got him! At least, I don't mean exactly got him, but I saw the beggar distinctly. There he is, Rollo, there he is. Just over your head. If that isn't a Death's Head moth I'll eat my whole collection."
A big, feathery brown shadow trembled and fluttered at the end of the ray of light and then suddenly shot upwards. Without a word of apology, or even a glance in the direction of Bly's companion, the excited naturalist broke through the trees, and sprinted upwards in the direction of the Tower.
"Now you know what Evors is like," Bly laughed. "I am a bit keen, but I am an icicle compared with him. Personally, I don't believe it is a Death's Head moth at all. Much too early in the year, I fancy. But let's follow him."
They pushed their way up the slope to the open piece of cliff on which the Tower loomed brown and gaunt against the darkness. The Australian was standing there gazing upwards at the brown shadow that presently disappeared under the broad, open beams that overhung the upper rooms of the Tower.
"The beggar has gone in there, Rollo," Evors cried. "There, just behind that big beam. I am going to climb after him."
With that the speaker, still ignoring Ellen's presence, proceeded to swarm up the Tower by means of window-frames and ledges and protruding ends of timber. He managed to scramble up under the eaves, and presently a muttered sound of triumph came from his direction. Then the cry broke off short as the flashlight shot out again, and Evors dropped heavily to the ground with some dusty-looking object held in his hand.
"There!" he cried. "If you think——"
"Here, what the devil's the meaning of all this?" a passionate voice broke out. "What are you two blackguards doing here? If I catch you on my property again I will shoot both of you!"
Wrath stood there, white and passionate, in the rays of the lamp. There was nothing for it but for the two trespassers to slink away with muttered apologies.
"What a brute!" Evors muttered. "And, by the way, who was the girl you were talking to when I came up? But never mind about that for a minute. I have made a discovery. When I flashed that light on just now it shone through one of the windows in the top of the Tower. It's a bedroom, Rollo, a beautifully furnished bedroom, with a man lying asleep there. At least, if he wasn't asleep he was dead. An old-looking man, with a beard tinged with white—a sort of face that haunts one. What do you think is going on here? Don't you think that the secret of the Tower is why Wrath wants this place all to himself?"
Ellen was more than grateful for the shadows of the night that hid her agitation from the gaze of Christopher Wrath. She was shaking from head to foot with an agitation that she was perfectly powerless to conceal. She was conscious of the trembling of her limbs and the whiteness of her cheeks, though mercifully all this was hidden from the one man whom she had most reason to fear, and so long as she could keep her voice steady, then she would probably get through without losing everything that she had already achieved. It had been indeed a startling revelation which had fallen quite unconsciously from Rollo Bly's lips. He had told her, as if it had been a piece of ordinary information, that his friend Evors, was actually on the Crocksands Estate in connection with a man who was Ellen's own father. It was such an amazing statement that she had almost collapsed, but mercifully she had managed to control herself, and now she was dizzily rejoicing in the fact that Providence had placed in her way another ally in working out the tangle that lay before her. But all that would have to come presently; she would have to wait patiently until an opportunity arose for meeting Evors in a perfectly natural manner and hearing his side of the story, probably from the Australian point of view.
Now, for many years the late Gordon Bland had been a great traveller, usually accompanied by Ellen's mother, but occasionally he had gone to the other end of the world alone. Ellen knew that he had been in Australia, where, doubtless, he had met Evors, and apparently they had become friends. All this, however, would have to wait until the proper moment. But one thing was certain—the Australian was here for some purpose, some sort of reckoning with Wrath, and in a strange manner Ellen's father seemed to be at the bottom of the whole business.
All this flashed through her mind as she walked down the path from the headland, accompanied by Wrath. She was thankful for that suspicious, surly silence of his, because it gave her the breathing space which she so sorely needed. She knew that the man was consumed with passion, and in the few seconds that she had seen his face in the rays of Evors's flashlight she had read there something that seemed to her like fear. She must be alone to think over this strange revelation which had dropped so naturally from Bly's lips, and this, in conjunction with what she had learnt as to the identity of the man who called himself Stone, would give her something to reflect upon for some time to come. However, she was quite ready for Wrath now when he chose to speak.
"Curse those scoundrels!" he broke out, presently. "What do they want, hanging about my private property at this time of night? You may depend upon it, they are up to no good."
"I don't think they mean any harm," Ellen said, demurely. "So far as I could gather, they are enthusiastic collectors of moths and butterflies. I think I can vouch for Mr. Bly's respectability, at any rate."
Wrath turned upon his companion suspiciously. "Ah, I was going to ask you that," he said. "I happen to know that that man Evors is a bad lot. I knew something of him in Australia, and nothing to his credit. Would you mind telling me, Miss Marchant, how long you have known these men?"
"As to Mr. Evors, I don't know him at all," Ellen said, coldly. "I was talking to Mr. Bly when his friend burst through the bushes in mad pursuit of what he said was a Death's Head moth. I don't know anything about it, but I certainly saw a large moth that flew under the eaves of the Tower. Mr. Evors climbed to get it, and, I believe, succeeded. But you came up at that moment, and the two naturalists promptly disappeared."
"You are quite sure there was nothing else?" Wrath asked.
"Really, Sir Christopher, I hardly understand you," Ellen went on, in the same cold tone. "The whole incident was perfectly natural. Of course, if there is something in the Tower that you have to conceal——"
"I don't like your tone at all," Wrath said, angrily. "I have already told you that I am by way of being an inventor, and that certain secret processes of mine are locked up in the Tower. I feel myself more or less responsible for you. Surely you must see how unwise it is for you to scrape acquaintance with men as you have done in this case."
"I beg your pardon," Ellen said, warmly, "I have known Mr. Bly nearly two years. If an explanation is necessary, I may tell you that he is a client of my late employer, and he used to come to the office frequently."
"Still, you never can tell," Wrath muttered.
It seemed to Ellen that here was the moment to assert herself. She had come down to Crocksands for her own purposes, of which Wrath knew nothing. She had pretended to jump eagerly at the chance of taking employ in the service of a country baronet; but the real reason why she was in that part of the world was something utterly outside Wrath's calculations.
"I think I had better speak plainly, Sir Christopher," she said. "I am quite capable of looking after myself and earning my own living. If I do my work to your satisfaction, there is nothing more to be said. I like Mr. Bly; he has been very good to me on several occasions, and in my spare time I claim the right to do what I like. If that does not suit you, then we can part. I don't wish to be in the least off-hand, but that is my considered point of view."
"Oh, all right, all right," Wrath muttered. "Please yourself. But why didn't you tell me that you knew this man Bly? You have already heard his name mentioned."
Ellen fenced with the question. "Surely there is more than one Bly in the world," she laughed. "Probably I did not connect the man who was sharing the bungalow here with the Bly that I knew."
Wrath pressed the point no further, and Ellen was thankful when at length the house was reached. She passed up the flight of steps into the hall door, and entered the great room beyond. It was a large square apartment, with a gallery overhead from which the main bedrooms opened, and a magnificent lantern roof of stained glass. A log file smouldered in the open grate, over which a portrait of the founder of the house hung, surrounded by a trophy of arms exquisitely carved. There were fine Persian rugs on the floor, and some priceless suits of armour gleamed on the walls. Here the man who called himself Stone was seated with a newspaper in his hands, and opposite him, quiet and watchful as usual, the housekeeper, Mrs. Amberley.
It had occurred to Ellen more than once how strange it was that Mrs. Amberley dined with the rest of them, and spent her evenings mainly in the great hall. She sat there hour after hour, hardly speaking, with a world of silent introspection and unhappiness in those dark eyes of hers. Her fear of Wrath was ever present, and yet behind that timidity was a certain menace that Ellen could not fail to notice. Mrs. Amberley was in deadly fear of her employer, no doubt, but, at the same time, Ellen was sure that she had some secret hold upon the man, and if once she gave way to the smouldering wrath that spoke so eloquently in her eyes, then it would be a bad day for him.
Wrath threw himself down into a chair and gazed moodily into the fire. It was too early to go to bed yet, so Ellen cast round for a book to read. Then she recollected that she had left the volume in question upstairs in the musicians' gallery, overlooking the great hexagon room which was now, for some occult reason, called the music room, so she crossed the floor and went up the broad, carved staircase to fetch it. Leading out on the left was a wide corridor, which had been turned into a billiard-room, with heavy curtains at either end, and beyond the further pair was the musicians' gallery itself, half-screened from the big hall below by a sort of pierced open barrier, through which it was possible to look into the music room and hear and see all that went on there. Ellen's book was lying on one of the ledges there, and presently she returned with it under her arm.
When she got back to the hall again Wrath had vanished.
"Where has Sir Christopher gone?" Ellen asked. "There was something I wanted to ask hint before I went to bed."
"I think he has gone out," the man called Stone explained. "He said something about a visit to the Tower. Have you ever seen inside there, Miss Marchant?"
It was on the tip of Ellen's tongue to say that she had been there many a time, but she managed to restrain herself in time.
"I cannot say I have," she said. "Though I must confess that the place rather fascinates me. Wasn't the Tower at one time a landmark for smugglers, and also a lure for merchantmen coming up the Channel? You see, I have been reading the history of Crocksands, Mr. Stone, and I know a great deal about it. There is a tradition to the effect that at one time there was an underground passage from the vaults at Crocksands to the Tower. Do you happen to have heard anything about it?"
"Not I," Stone said, indifferently. "Those old stories don't interest me. You had better ask Sir Christopher. I should say that the story is a very improbable one."
Ellen let it go at that. She had had a motive in asking the question, because she felt that this man was in Wrath's confidence, and if the latter had been aware of any such underground passage then Stone would most assuredly have heard of it. There was nothing furtive in his manner, no suggestion of waiving the subject airily on one side, and Ellen was happy in the knowledge that she had gained another point.
"Do you know, I am rather sorry to hear that," she laughed. "I am intensely interested in these old legends, and I had imagined myself exploring those underground passages. However, if you say they don't exist there is an end of the matter."
"I am quite sure of it," Stone said. "Unfortunately, we cannot ask any of the old servants, because Wrath got rid of all of them. Still, it is a beautiful old house, and I should be happy enough here if it belonged to me. Mrs. Amberley, did you ever hear of an underground passage to the Tower?"
The woman addressed seemed to come out of a brown study, much as if the question had reached her from a long way off; then the ghost of a smile trembled on her lips, and she shook her head.
"Never," she said, in that faded voice of hers, that nevertheless had a certain hard metallic ring in it. "Such things do not trouble me. I think I will go to bed."
She rose, and in that slow feline manner of hers crossed the hall and disappeared up the staircase. Stone followed her with his shifty, watery eyes, then turned them on Ellen.
"There is a story behind that woman," he said. "Don't you think so, Miss Marchant? I wonder where Wrath got her from."
"I don't think it is any business of ours," Ellen said. "She is a strange woman, but I am rather attracted by her all the same, and I think I will follow her example. Good-night, Mr. Stone."
So far as Wrath himself was concerned, Ellen's work at Crocksands was more or less of a sinecure. At his dictation she wrote a few letters occasionally, but her real employer appeared to be Stone. It was with him she sat in the library from shortly after breakfast till lunch-time, engaged in a voluminous correspondence with certain people in Manchester, to most of whom she sent money in varying amounts, and always in Treasury notes or postal orders, which Stone himself procured in Lyndale and handed over to Ellen for transmission. The girl had been engaged in business long enough to realise that there was something sinister going on here. She wondered why as much as fifty pounds at a time was forwarded to a certain correspondent in Manchester, obviously for the purpose of inserting advertisements in papers published in the North of England. Then there were other remittances to printers of various coupons, all of which pointed to some big lottery in which Wrath and Stone were concerned. Occasionally, there were instructions to other members of the partnership in Manchester with regard to branch organisations on the Continent. Then there were other letters alluding to certain racehorses, so that very gradually the whole thing began to make itself plain to Ellen, until she had some sort of a grasp of the conspiracy.
From time to time large hampers arrived by train at Crocksands, always consigned from Manchester, and the contents of these Ellen was not permitted to see. She merely knew that they were carted up to a room at the top of the house, the door of which was rigidly locked, and that Wrath and Stone spent a large amount of time in going over them.
But the very next morning after the affair of the Death's Head moth three of the hampers had been delivered by cart from Lyndale station, and one of these had been badly damaged in transit. From it a shower of unopened letters fell out, all of them bearing a Manchester address, and before Wrath could come on the scene Ellen had managed to conceal some half-dozen of these. She was fully aware of Wrath's annoyance, and the quick way in which he had the hampers conveyed upstairs before Ellen could ask any questions. It was her obvious cue to appear absolutely indifferent; but presently, when she had the opportunity of opening the letters and noting the fact that each of them contained a postal order, she smiled to herself to realise that her conclusions had been warranted by events.
She could see now exactly what was going on. Stone and Wrath were running a big racing lottery on fraudulent lines, and the whole of the plunder would go into their pockets. She went back to her typewriter, and sat patiently down till Stone should return. He came back presently looking very disturbed and angry, and Ellen could see that his hands shook rather more than usual. It was always an unsteady hand, and Ellen, watching him at the lunch and dinner-table, had no trouble in guessing the reason why. She had never seen the man actually the worse for liquor, but no ordinary individual could drink what Stone did and not suffer the necessary consequences.
"Just half a minute, Miss Marchant," he said. "I am a bit upset. To tell you the truth, I have been having a few words with Wrath. Mind you, I am not complaining of him; he is quite a generous employer, and we have been working amicably for years. But he is a bit inclined to be brutal when he is upset, and there are times when I don't feel inclined to stand it."
With that Stone crossed the library, and, taking a bottle and a syphon from an open cabinet, helped himself liberally, after which he gradually cooled down and became his natural self again. The generous liquor seemed to loosen his tongue, and instead of going on with the usual work he lighted a cigarette and began to talk to Ellen in quite a friendly fashion.
"You are the smartest girl at your work that I ever came in contact with," he said. "You know, I rather wonder that one as capable should care for a humdrum job like this. You have no opportunities, whereas if you were in London still——"
"But I hate London," Ellen smiled. "I hate getting up at a certain time every morning and going to the dingy city day by day for eleven and a half months in the year. You see, Mr. Stone, I love the country. I was brought up in it, and it was only sheer necessity that drove me to town. Here in this lovely place I work about three hours a day, and I wander about in the sunshine for the rest. I feel a different girl altogether."
"Still, you have got your future to think of," Stone said, with a benevolent air that caused Ellen to smile. "Let me see, you were with Mr. Melrose, I think?"
"That is right," Ellen said. "Melrose and Clapstone; only there didn't happen to be any Clapstone."
"So I understand," Stone said, absently. "At least, I mean—you see, Miss Marchant, I used to know something of the firm. Very good people, I believe. Didn't I hear rumours to the effect that Clapstone had left the business? Something shady—what? As far as I remember, Clapstone got into trouble during the long illness of his partner, and afterwards—well, had to make himself scarce. Or perhaps I am thinking of some other firm."
Ellen kept her head well down, apparently busy in fixing a new sheet of paper into her machine. She did not want Stone to see her face just then, and she was wondering if this talk was merely coincidence, or if the man who called himself Stone was fishing for certain information. Did he suspect, for instance, the real reason why Ellen was there? Then she put the suspicion out her mind as absurd and groundless, and looked Stone in the face. He was smiling quite benignantly, and still blandly amiable, under the influence of his drink.
"Yes, I think you are right," she said. "Of course, Mr. Melrose did not tell me this. In the office our relationship was strictly that between employer and employed. But Mr. Melrose was very good to me, and I was exceedingly sorry to leave him. As a matter of fact, my information came from a man called Gabb."
"Ah!" Stone cried. "Peter Gabb, do you mean?"
He checked himself almost before the words were out of his lips, but at the same time he looked suspiciously at Ellen from under his brows. Then he made more or less a wild effort to recover himself. He laughed a little artificially.
"Poor old Gabb," he said. "I remember meeting him once on a matter of business—a queer creature, who ought to have been pensioned off years ago."
"I lived with him," Ellen explained. "I had lodgings in Mrs. Gabb's house at Dalston. It is very strange, Mr. Stone, that you should happen to know him."
"Oh! I don't," Stone said, hastily. "But Gabb was quite a figure in the city, a sort of survival. I suppose somebody pointed him out to me in the street one day. But let's get on with our work. We are wasting the whole morning."
Left to herself presently, Ellen had time to turn this conversation over in her mind. It was quite clear to her now that Stone had no real suspicion as to why Ellen had chosen to come to Crocksands, and no doubt his questions had been dictated entirely by a spirit of curiosity. But it was good to know that occasionally Wrath and the man called Stone had their serious disagreements, because the fact might be made use of later on, and Stone undoubtedly was in a position to say whether or not that deed cutting off the entail had been signed by Gordon Bland. Possibly he was actually in possession of it, and was holding it over as a weapon wherewith to extract a large sum of money from Wrath when the proper time came. Ellen had seen enough of her employer and his confederate to know that though their interests were more or less in common there was no real confidence between them, and either would have been prepared to throw over the other had it been to his advantage to do so. Therefore it seemed to Ellen that this man who called himself Stone was well worth watching. She could see at lunch time that there was a coldness between the two, and certain angry words were exchanged that caused her to rise from the table as soon as possible and make some excuse to get away. She would go up to the musicians' gallery and get a book from the library there, and spend the afternoon in one of the nooks under the Tower overlooking the sea. But in the library she sat down, and felt into a sort of waking dream. She was aroused presently by a suppressed scream and the noise of voices down below in the music room. Without hesitation she crept to the screen and looked down.
Standing there was Mrs. Amberley. She had a handkerchief pressed to her cheek, and when this was removed Ellen could see a red mark standing out evilly on the white flesh. A yard or two away was Wrath, in one of his most truculent attitudes. And in a flash Ellen could see exactly what had happened. The woman had been the victim of personal violence, and the stain on Mrs. Amberley's pallid cheek had been caused by a brutal blow from Wrath's fist. Sick and faint as she was with indignation, Ellen did not scruple to listen. She was on the verge of a discovery now.
"You cowardly, brute!" the woman cried. There were no tears in her voice, only a hard, hopeless indignation. Evidently it was not the first time she had suffered. "You miserable scoundrel! But you shan't do it—if you kill me you shan't! And let me tell you this. If anything happens to me I have left it so that other people will know what is going on, and you will get no mercy from them. Because of the affection I once had for you, you take this mean advantage. Why are such men as you allowed to live? And yet, God help me, a few kind words can bring me to your side again as if I were a dog. But you shan't do it, Chris, you shan't do it."
"Don't push me too far," Wrath muttered. "My whole future is at stake, and if I like——"
"Never!" the woman cried, "never! I will proclaim the whole story from the housetops first; and what would they say if they knew that I was your ill-treated wife?"
"Well, I know that," Wrath hissed. "Who is going to deny it? Now listen."
Ellen crept away, through the billiard room, and down the stairs into the open. Here was something to occupy her mind with a vengeance. She must go away to some quiet corner and think it over.
So this pallid, hunted woman with the slumbering eyes and the suggestion of the panther half-untamed despite the lash was the wife of Christopher Wrath. Something vile and sinister was going on here, and in some vague, intangible way, Ellen felt that it was not remotely connected with her own case. And yet it seemed almost impossible to link Crocksands Abbey, with its serene and ancient beauty and its old-world flavour, with vulgar crime.
She was thinking much the same as she sat presently at luncheon in one of the smaller dining-rooms looking out over the sea through a bewildering picture of sweeping woodland and uplifting crag, beyond the latticed windows, where in red and gold and pallid blue the arms of the ancient race blazed and twinkled. It was all exactly as Ellen had known it in the bygone days, when she had been so happy there; and the knowledge that this beloved place should have been all hers caused her to stir uneasily. She looked from Wrath, seated there, big and overpowering, and in one of his very best moods, to the silent woman at the other end of the table with that discoloured bruise on her white face. Stone, rather pale and obviously sulky, was drinking a great deal more than he ate, and Wrath was inclined to rally him on the point. Then one of the well-trained London servants brought in the midday post, which a groom had fetched from Lyndale, and Wrath turned to his correspondence. He read one letter with a lowering brow and an ominous frown on his face. He threw the letter across the table to Stone.
"You had better attend to that, my friend," he snorted. "And see to it that this doesn't occur again."
Stone said nothing; but it was obvious that he resented the way in which he had been addressed. Wrath turned to the servant who was waiting at the table.
"Tell Johnson to have the car round in a quarter of an hour," he said. "I find I have to go to Barnstaple."
He rose from the table at that, and gathered up Stone, so to speak, with his eyes. The two men went in the direction of the library, and, as Mrs. Amberley disappeared at the same moment, Ellen followed them. She knew that Stone was going into Lyndale in the afternoon in connection with post office business, and he would in all probability spend a few hours there, drifting from one hotel to another. Therefore, if Wrath was going to Barnstaple, evidently in connection with that disturbing letter, then Ellen would have a free hand for the afternoon, without the fear of being watched, and she meant to seek out Rollo Bly and his friend and hear all the latter had to say with regard to her father. She might even take them both into her confidence, but that she was rather loth to do for the present.
She paused for a moment outside the library door as the sound of high voices raised in a quarrel came to her ears. It was Stone who was speaking.
"I tell you I won't have it," he screamed. "I will not be treated like a dog, especially in the presence of the womenkind. Don't you drive me too far, because if you do I will break you, I will smash you, I will drive you away from Crocksands; back to the slum in Australia where you came from—and by God I can do it, Wrath; If I go to Melrose——"
"Not so loud, you damned fool!" Wrath muttered. "Do you want the whole house to hear what you are saying? If you have got anything up your sleeve why don't you out with it like a man? If it's anything good I will buy it at a fancy price."
"Yes, and cut my throat afterwards," Stone muttered. "No, you wouldn't do that, you are too big a coward. You leave me alone, and I will leave you alone. I am getting sick of this. Give me a few thousand pounds——"
"Yes, and where are they to come from?"
"Oh, that will be all right if our present scheme comes off," Stone said. "Meanwhile, I don't say anything till I see the ready cash on the table. But, mind you, I can do what I threatened."
There were sounds of movement inside the library, so Ellen crept discreetly away. She was beginning to learn things now, and that business training of hers enabled her to put two and two together. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, Stone held some secret with which he could keep a grip on Wrath—nay, more, he had actually threatened to disgrace and ruin him and drive him away from Crocksands; and if Wrath had no claim to the Abbey, as sounded probable, then the one person in the world who was the owner of the place had overheard that threat made. Was it possible that Stone either possessed that vital deed barring the entail or, failing that, could place his hands upon it when necessary?
Ellen went back to the little sitting-room behind the main dining-room, which Mrs. Amberley had made particularly her own. She wanted to tell the lady in question that she was taking her tea down into Lee Cove, and that she would probably be away till dinner time. But for the moment Mrs. Amberley was not there and Ellen waited, going idly over the various objects in the room, until a photograph in a tarnished silver frame caught her eye. She looked at the beautiful smiling face of the woman it represented with a consciousness that she had seen those features before. She was still looking at it when Mrs. Amberley came silently into the room.
"Well, do you recognise it?" she asked, with a tinge of deep bitterness in her voice. "It was only three years ago, though you would hardly believe it."
"Why, it's you!" Ellen cried. "I—beg your pardon, but I can see the likeness plainly enough now."
And yet it seemed almost incredible to believe that that fresh, bright, smiling face represented the broken, faded creature who stood there by Ellen's side.
"Yes, that is my phonograph," Mrs. Amberley said——"and taken barely three years ago. How old do you think I am?"
Ellen hesitated, and the woman smiled bitterly.
"Oh, I am not going to press the question," she said. "It is not fair. I am just over thirty, Miss Marchant, though you wouldn't think it, and when that picture was taken I was a happy women, free from all care. You see what three years' misery and unhappiness can do for one; and the man—but I won't go into that. Perhaps some day I will tell you the truth. Before long I know that I shall want a friend, and I have seen enough of you to feel sure that you are both brave and reliable. But not a word of this to a soul. You go off for your little picnic, and leave me to myself. The trouble is not very far away."
With her thoughts more or less in a maze Ellen left the house and walked up the winding path between the sweeping woodlands that led presently downwards to the shoulder of the cliff on which the bungalow was perched. She had seen Wrath drive past the lodge gates through the sombre valley where the rocks rose majestically on either side, with the spectre of the White Lady on the left and the Devil's Cheesewring opposite, so that she knocked on the door of the bungalow without fear of spies. She knocked again, but no reply came. Then, looking down over the edge of the cliff, she could see the figure of Rollo Bly on the sands busily engaged with a sailing boat that he and Evors kept there. She made her way down the winding path, and presently stood by Bly's side. He looked up with a glad smile.
"Delighted to see you, Miss Marchant—delighted," he said. "I began to think you had forgotten us."
Ellen smiled in reply. There was something almost boyish about Bly that attracted her in that sort of motherly fashion that girls so often assume before other and more intimate feelings are aroused by daily contact.
"I have been very busy," Ellen said. "By the way, was that a Death's Head moth after all?"
"Well, no it wasn't," Bly admitted. "It was one of the Poplar Hawks. I am afraid you thought we sneaked off the other night, rather like a lot of boys caught stealing apples, but we really had no business by the Tower, and Evors was annoyed to find that he had placed himself in the wrong. You see Wrath hates him so; indeed, I should not have been surprised to hear that you were forbidden to speak to us."
"I think I should have been if I hadn't been firm," Ellen smiled. "But I took the opportunity of telling Sir Christopher that you were a friend of mine, and I let him know that my leisure is my own to do with as I please. I don't think he liked it—but, still, I was perfectly firm, and he had to give way. As a matter of fact, he has gone to Barnstaple this afternoon, so I am free to do as I like. I wanted to see Mr. Evors, because I think he can give me some information that I require."
"I am very sorry, and all that sort of thing, you know," Bly went on in his boyish way. "But he isn't here. He has gone off to Woods Bay to look after some lobster pots we have got there. But he will be back in an hour or so, and if you will honour us we shall be delighted if you will let us give you some tea in the bungalow. It's a topping place."
"Yes, I know," Ellen said, quite innocently.
"You are pulling my leg," Bly cried. "You have never been inside the bungalow."
"Well, as a matter of fact, I have," Ellen said. "I hope you won't ask me any questions, because I don't want to say too much. Perhaps later on I may ask you to help me."
Bly turned his clear blue eyes in her direction.
"I would do anything in the world for you, Miss Marchant," he said. "I am rather a simple sort of johnny, who can't do much outside sport, but I am not perhaps such a fool as I look, and I don't think I am afraid of anything. Now, if there is anything I can do for you just say the word."
"Later on, perhaps," Ellen said, gratefully. "Mr. Bly, did it not strike you as rather strange that I should give up my job in London and come into this quiet corner of the world?"
"Well, it did," Bly admitted. "Not that it is any business of mine. Vulgar curiosity ain't in my line. But I was real glad to hear that you were coming. It sort of bucked me up and gave me—but it would be frightful cheek to say any more."
Ellen discreetly let it go at that, the more so because she had a pretty shrewd idea of what was on the tip of Bly's tongue. She knew without being told that his feelings for her were something more than ordinary friendship, and just at that moment the knowledge filled her with a warm glow of something like happiness.
"Just give me a few minutes," Bly said, "and then we will walk up to the bungalow together."
"There is another way up," Ellen said——"the smugglers' way, by the steps that end at the Tower. It is not an easy ascent, but I have tried it once, and I should like to try it again."
"Oh, so you have found that out, have you?" Bly cried. "I thought those steps were only a legend. I have asked lots of the old people about here, and not one of them really believes that the steps exist. You must have been here before——"
"Never mid about that," Ellen said, gaily. "And please don't comment on my local knowledge. I will just sit down here on the sand till you have finished your work, and then we will climb the steps together."
"Where beauty leads I am content to follow," Bly said, more or less fatuously. "I hope we shan't get into any trouble, Miss Marchant, it seems to me this is my lucky afternoon. I am going to embrace my good fortune with both hands."
They skirted round the fringe of the frowning cliff's where the Atlantic swell beat incessantly until they were lost to sight under the headland that towered up the best part of a thousand feet over their heads, and feathered almost to the water's edge with the great forest trees. How they had planted themselves and flourished there on the precipitous slope with its thin soil was a mystery, but there they were, and their luxuriance concealed the fact that the climb through them was a rather hazardous undertaking, and that if one of those ancient steps gave way or a boulder shifted the adventurers might be dashed to pieces on the rocks below.
So far as Bly could see, there was no sign of a foothold anywhere, till presently Ellen pushed a mass of growth on one side and disclosed what at one time had evidently been a rough step hewn out of the cliff side.
"There you are," she said. "That is the beginning of the path. I hope you have a strong head, because you will want it."
"I am not afraid," Bly said, quietly. "You had better go first, because you know the way, and if you happen to slip then I shall be able to catch you."
It was a fatiguing and laborious task in the blazing sun, and long before they were half-way to the top Ellen was heartily sorry that she had suggested the adventure. Since she had last climbed the steps the growth of spring vegetation had burgeoned wonderfully, so that it was quite a task in itself to find the way from one foothold to another. They came out presently on the side of the cliff at a spot where the trees had died away and where there was an open space of broken stone and shale which was almost perpendicular. Bly glanced down, and his heart came into his mouth as he did so. If he had been alone he would have feared nothing, but the fact of being there with the one woman in the world by his side seemed to take all the courage out of him and render him singularly weak and shaky at the knees. He felt convinced at the back of his mind that in some way Ellen had got off the beaten track, owing, doubtless, to the thickness of the undergrowth on the steps. He looked doubtfully at the crumbling expanse of shale overhead, and as he essayed to climb it the friable mass, literally crumbled under his feet, and set loose a hanging boulder that went crashing down the hillside and thundered into the sea. And, then, as Ellen looked at her companion, she realised for the first time that here was no frivolous, inconsequent boy, but a real man, face to face and ready to cope with a living danger. His lips were closely set, and there was a grim determination in those blue eyes of his. He spoke presently between his set teeth.
"Miss Marchant," he said, "we are in great danger here. If anything starts that shale going again we shall be carried down into the sea. We have evidently got off the track. Don't look down, whatever you do—don't look down."
"I am not in the least afraid," Ellen said, quietly. It seemed almost impossible to fear, with this new man by her side. "What do you think we had better do?"
"Let me think a minute," Bly said. "I must get you to a place of safety. I must manage to get a few yards back, so that you can be behind that boulder there. Then I will endeavour to reach the Tower and bring Evors with a couple of ropes from the bungalow. With luck I can manage it."
He was taking his life in his hands for her sake, and Ellen knew it. He slipped by her feet presently, and with great courage and daring managed to crawl along the top of the great boulder, which seemed to him to be firmly embedded in the side of the cliff. Just for a moment he hung there, clinging desperately, with his feet touching nothing, and then he managed to secure some sort of foothold.
"Yes, you will be safe down here," he said. "Let yourself slide, and I will catch you."
Without the slightest hesitation she obeyed. She could feel herself gaining momentum before a pair of arms gripped and held her like a vice. Then she was safely perched on the top of a big boulder and Bly's arms were around her.
"Thank God," he whispered between his teeth. "Ah, but that was a close call. When I think what might have happened to you, Ellen, I feel like a child. My dearest girl, my very dearest girl—but I can't say any more—I really can't."
He was looking at her with all his heart in his eyes, and all that was loving and tender in Ellen's womanhood went out to him. She swayed a little dizzily, and then she was conscious that Bly's lips were pressed to hers. It was only for an instant, and then he laughed in that boyish way of his.
"Well, I have fairly done it now," he said. "But I don't care. You were bound to know sooner or later, and I don't think you are very angry, Ellen, are you?"
"I wish I knew," Ellen whispered. "I don't seem to have any feeling at all just now. You are a brave man, Rollo, and I never cared for any one as I seem to care for you. And yet only a few minutes ago——"
"Oh, bother a few minutes ago," Rollo cried, joyously. "Let us think about something else. You have just got to sit where you are while I manage, somehow or another, to get to the top. You are not afraid to be left alone?"
"I don't think I am afraid of anything in the world," Ellen said. "But I don't think that you can manage it."
Bly rose to his feet. He knew too well the peril that lay before him, but he was going to risk it. He managed to skirt the treacherous bed of shale, holding on desperately to gorse bushes and patches of heather, until at length he gained the fringe of the woods beyond. And Ellen sat there lost in a whirl of thoughts for an hour or more, until Bly appeared, followed by Evors, carrying ropes between them, and a few minutes later the three of them were seated round a tea-table in the bungalow.
Ellen looked curiously at the tall, well-knit figure of the Australian. Here was a man who possessed a fund of information which before long she meant to share. She had managed to convey to Bly that he was to say nothing of what had happened during those few vivid moments on the edge of the cliff, and Rollo had agreed without a moment's hesitation.
"This is rather a romantic meeting, Miss Marchant," Evors said. "I understand from Bly that you are an old friend of his. I hope you did not think my manner was too abrupt the other night when we met outside the Tower, but Sir Christopher Wrath and myself are not exactly on friendly terms, and I was very much annoyed to think that I had given him the opportunity of ordering me off as if I were a common poacher. Not that it matters very much; it will be my turn next, because, as it happens, Miss Marchant, I have a score to settle with Wrath, and when the time comes he will realise it to his sorrow."
"Then he is an old acquaintance of yours?" Ellen asked.
"Oh, yes, I met him years ago in Australia. Up to a certain time we were friends, because he knew a lot of people in the other country that I knew, and he came with good credentials. But I am sorry to say, Miss Marchant, that your employer is a thorough scoundrel. I could tell you things about him that would set your teeth on edge. And the way he served a friend of mine was absolutely scandalous. Perhaps I ought not to tell you all this, seeing that you are living under the same roof as Wrath."
"Oh, you need not be afraid," Ellen said. "You are merely confirming certain suspicions of mine. I had more than suspicion when I took my present situation of the character of the man I engaged myself to. I came down here with my eyes wide open to right a certain wrong, and I was prepared to take any risk to do so. I know that there is danger in the air, but that is not going to deter me."
"I am quite sure it wouldn't," Bly cried. "Evors, if you had seen the plucky way in which Miss Marchant behaved herself this afternoon you would have been delighted."
"Please leave me out of the question," Ellen smiled. "Mr. Evors, would you mind telling me what you know about Sir Gordon Bland? Mr. Bly told me that he was a friend of yours."
"The best friend I ever had," Evors replied. "He helped me out of more than one tight place. I didn't know him before I went to Australia, but I met him there. I was a bit of a headstrong fool in those days, and I was always in trouble. As a matter of fact, my people sent me 'down under' to rough it and learn a certain amount of worldly wisdom. I took a long time over the lesson, and if it had not been for Gordon Bland I should not be here now. It was a bad day for my old friend when I brought him in contact with Christopher Wrath."
"Won't you tell me the story?" Ellen asked.
"Well, I would much rather not. You see, it is not altogether my secret. I have not even told Rollo Bly. The thing began in Australia, and was continued years afterwards at Monte Carlo. You see, I was at Nice getting over a bad wound just at the time of the Armistice. And there I saw Gordon Bland, who had come through the Mediterranean in Wrath's yacht. But, really, I am afraid that I had better say no more for the present."
Ellen sat there, alert in every nerve. All this was confirming exactly what she expected to hear, and yet she could not ask any more without taking Evors into her confidence. And so far she had not done that, even with Bly.
"As you please," she said.
"That is very good of you," Evors said. "Most women would have been annoyed with me. But it will all come out in the end, and you shall hear the story when I am ready to tell it."
With that he rose and opened a drawer in a writing-table. He came back with what appeared to be a photograph in his hand, and passed it over for Ellen's inspection.
"There," he said, "that is my late friend Gordon Bland, actually taken at Monte Carlo, and a really good likeness. Did you ever happen to meet him, Miss Marchant?"
Ellen came to a sudden conclusion.
"Yes, I have," she said. "Oh, yes, hundreds of times. Perhaps, Mr. Evors, you will be inclined to tell me a little more when I inform you that that is my father."
The words slipped from Ellen's lips almost before she was aware that she had uttered them. She had not intended, even in the light of recent events, to tell her new friends who she was, but the sight of those well-known features had strangely affected her, and the words she had uttered had come straight from her heart. She possessed no photograph of her father that had been taken in recent years, and the likeness that Evors produced was a wonderfully good one. It caught the expression of Gordon Bland exactly—the easy smile, the pleasant, rather weak face, and the amazing good nature of the man. Ellen gazed at it for some minutes whilst the others waited for her to speak.
"It is a truly wonderful likeness," she said, "and I hope that you will let me keep it, Mr. Evors."
"Certainly, if you put it in that way," Evors said. "But this is a most amazing thing, a most extraordinary coincidence, that your father's daughter should be down here acting the part of private secretary to Sir Christopher Wrath. I suppose he has not the remotest idea who you are?"
"I hope not," Ellen smiled. "It would upset all my plans if he did; and, after all said and done, there is no coincidence about it at all. Sir Christopher was in search of a private secretary, and I saw his advertisement—indeed, I think I should be justified in saying that he put the advertisement in my way."
"What do you mean by that?" Bly asked.
Ellen found some difficulty in explaining. She did not want to go into details on that point, but she had known—and women always know those things—that Wrath had taken a fancy to her at their first meeting. She had seen it in those bold, audacious eyes of his; she had noticed the frank admiration which in some men would have been flattering; but in an individual like that, from whom she shrank naturally, the animal side of Wrath had filled her with a certain amount of wholesome detestation. But then at the moment when she met him first she had known all about that mysterious letter of her father's, and she had already made up her mind to get to the bottom of the mystery. And when she had decided to answer Wrath's advertisement she had felt in her heart of hearts that the post was as good as hers. In a way she had been trading upon a man's natural weakness where woman is concerned; but she did not want to discuss this even with Bly.
"I don't think it much matters," she said. "The fact is, I am here in the old place where I spent some of my happiest days whilst my parents were travelling round the world, and I can assure you that I am not here entirely on sentimental grounds."
"You mean that you know something?" Evors asked, eagerly.
"I know a great deal," Ellen replied. "I know, though I cannot prove it, that if justice had been done I should be mistress of Crocksands Abbey to-day."
"You interest me more than I can tell," Evors said. "Would you mind taking me into your confidence? I don't mind telling you, Miss Marchant—I mean Miss Bland——"
"I don't think that name had better be mentioned for the present," Ellen smiled. "It might slip out at a highly inconvenient moment, and if that happened I should probably have all my trouble for my pains. But this I can tell you: After my father died, and I found myself practically penniless, I decided to go out into the world, and, get my own living. You see, I hadn't a single relative left. I am absolutely the last of my line, and, strange to say, the same remark applies to Sir Christopher Wrath. You must understand, Mr. Evors, that Crocksands is, or was, entailed property. My father was next in succession to Sir George Bland-Merton, and if he had lived he would have owned the Abbey to-day. Of course, Sir George knew the position of affairs, and made up his mind to cut off the entail, so that the property would become mine in case anything happened to my father. But it was put off from time to time, mainly because Sir George was a casual man, and my father was nearly always abroad. But there came a time when something had to be done. If my father had had a son it would not have much mattered, because that fact would have stood between Sir Christopher Wrath and the estate. I knew nothing at all about this when my father died in such tragic circumstances, but I picked up a good deal of law during the two years I was with Mr. Melrose, and I learnt that the deed barring the entail had actually been signed by Sir George, and subsequently sent to my father, who was in the South of France at the time, for his signature. That is an absolute fact."
"But did he sign it?" Evors asked, eagerly.
"Ah, that I cannot tell you," Ellen said. "I am pretty sure that he did; but if the document found its way back again to the office of Melrose and Clapstone, it must have been mislaid. You see, Mr. Melrose, who is a very good friend of mine, was laid up for a long time in consequence of a motor accident, and for over eighteen months he never came near the office. During that period everything was done by his partner, Mr. Clapstone, whom Mr. Bly of course, remembers perfectly well."
"Oh, I knew the blighter all right," Bly, said——"a real bad egg he was. He played ducks and drakes with the old practice, speculating and swindling clients out of their money, until Jimmy Melrose came back and kicked him out. If Melrose had not been a bachelor and a careful man the firm would have gone phut. But that has nothing to do with the case."
"Ah, there you are wrong," Ellen smiled. "It has a great deal to do with the case. At the time you speak of Mr. Clapstone was robbing the firm in connection with some doubtful speculations he was interested in, together with the man who to-day is called Sir Christopher Wrath."
"But he was in Australia," Bly cried.
"So every one thought," Ellen went on. "You see, Christopher Wrath was the black sheep of the family. He was sent abroad years ago with an allowance made him by Sir George strictly on the understanding that he did not come home. He broke his promise, and for some years was in London under an assumed name leading an exceedingly dubious life. Mr. Clapstone was in the secret, and it would probably never have come out but for a certain Peter Gabb, an old clerk in Mr. Melrose's employ. You see I lodged with Peter and his wife, and he was the only man who knew who I am, with the exception of Mr. Melrose. It was he who told me all about that deed, because he had actually seen it with Sir George's signature attached, and knew that it had been sent to the South of France for my father to sign. Whether he signed it or not is the important question. I am inclined to think that he did, and returned it to London. If I am correct, then it must have fallen into Mr. Clapstone's hands. You can see what a weapon it gave him. He was on the verge of bankruptcy, he dreaded the return of his partner, knowing what the consequences would be, and if he had that deed he would keep it to bargain with."
"Upon my word, you are a wonderful young lady," Evors smiled. "Your mind is as logical as that of a man. I take it that you came down here in your assumed name to see if you could find anything out. Have you had any luck?"
"I think I may say that I have had a great deal," Ellen said, "I know at any rate, that Mr. Clapstone is living at Crocksands."
"What!" Bly cried. "Living here?"
"Yes, and calling himself Stone. I had never seen him previously, but something about the man attracted my attention, and I managed to get a snapshot of him on my camera. I sent this on to Peter Gabb, hoping that he might be able to help me, and he wrote, saying that the man who called himself Stone really was the late partner of the firm. He is down here now living at Sir Christopher's expense, and, unless I am greatly mistaken, they are engaged in some racing swindle."
Ellen went on to explain exactly what she had discovered in that direction, and then supplemented it with an account of the quarrel she had overheard between Wrath and his confederate.
"I think that proves what I say," she went on. "This man Stone has a hold on Sir Christopher, some instrument by which he could turn Sir Christopher out of the place to-morrow, and he is not going to part with it unless he can see his way to making a lot of money in hard cash. And now I come to another point. I have a letter in my possession which proves conclusively that my father was alive two days after he was supposed to have taken his own life at Monte Carlo. It matters very little how that letter found its way into my possession but it was the chief reason why I answered Sir Christopher's advertisement and came down here. What does it mean, Mr. Evors? You knew my father because you told Mr. Bly so. Can you help me in any way?"
"I begin to think I can," Evors said. "Why, I was at Monte Carlo, and saw your father the day before his death."
Ellen drew a long breath.
"That is amazing," she said. "Mr. Bly told me that you were a friend of my father's and that you were down here looking for certain information. But perhaps you will explain."
"Well, it's like this," Evors said. "Not long before the Armistice I was rather badly gassed in France. When I got better the authorities sent me to the South of France to recuperate. A month later at Monte Carlo I ran into your father. I had met him several times in Australia, where we were on the best of terms, and I was delighted to see him. But I noticed at once that he was a very different man from the one I had known. I thought perhaps it was your mother's death that had made the difference, but after a short time I could see there was something deeper than that, and when your father told me that he was visiting the coast on board Wrath's yacht, the Sunstar, I began to have my suspicions. Of course, Wrath was not Sir Christopher then, and, so long as your father was alive, was not likely to be. And knowing as I did what happened in Australia, I was amazed to know that your father had so far forgotten certain incidents as to be even seen in Wrath's company, let alone been a guest on his yacht. I knew Wrath was posing as a rich man, and I knew too, that he was a mere adventurer. I was also aware of the fact that he was next in succession to this beautiful property, and that constituted living danger to Gordon Bland. Why, if Wrath had only dared, he would have killed your father and thrown him overboard. But in a way, I am putting the cart before the horse. Let me start at the beginning."
"Is it necessary?" Ellen asked, a little impatiently.
"I think so," Evors said. "It must have been eight or nine years ago when I first met your father in Melbourne. I was quite a soldier of fortune in those days, reckless and careless, and only living in the moment. Then I met your father and your mother. Of course, both of us being Englishmen, we foregathered, and were getting on very nicely when Wrath appeared on the scene. I am treading on rather dangerous ground now, Miss Marchant but I think I am justified in saying, that before Wrath was sent to Australia he was more or less engaged to your mother."
"Yes, I think that was so," Ellen said.
"But she subsequently married your father. I think they were perfectly happy, though I am going to suggest that your mother's only real love was that engaging and handsome scoundrel, Christopher Wrath. One could see it. Nothing wrong, of course, but there are some women who love admiration, and—well—perhaps I had better not say any more on that particular point. But I do know that there was a sort of estrangement between your parents, and that Wrath, though pretending to be the friend of your father, deliberately fostered it."
"I can't deny it," Ellen said, sadly. "My parents were estranged for some time before my father died. And if they hadn't been I should never have found the letter to which I attach so much importance."
"It is just as well, I think, to speak plainly," Evors went on. "I can prove to you, if you like, that Wrath was the deliberate cause of all that domestic unhappiness. He pushed his way into your father's life for the double purpose of getting money from him and seeking a certain means and petty revenge. Well, he was successful in both instances. But I did not know all that at the time. Wrath came along ostensibly with a proposal that your father and myself should share with him in the gold mine he had got hold of. This had been brought to him by a young man called Akers, an Englishman whose great hobby was acting. He was on the Australian stage, as was his sister Mary, who was really a talented and beautiful girl, and because of her popularity her brother was rarely out of an engagement. And it didn't take me long to realise that she was infatuated with Wrath. He could do almost what he liked with her. There are some women who cannot resist the great, strong, handsome animal of that type, and I am afraid that Mary Akers was one of them.
"Not that he cared two straws about her however, that has very little to do with the story. We scraped together a certain amount of capital and went up country—that is, your father and myself and Akers, leaving your mother at a Melbourne hotel. Wrath was to have joined us but at the last moment something prevented it, and he remained behind. The gold mine was a swindle from start to finish, and all the money found its way into Wrath's pocket. But that was not the worst feature of the case. We were deliberately lured into a desert country without food and without water, and we nearly died of thirst. There was not an ounce of gold in the mine, so we turned back and should assuredly have died on the way if we had not happened by great good luck to run into a lunatic Englishman who was trying to cross the desert in a motorcar. If he had gone another ten miles we should have missed him, and he would have perished as miserably as we looked like perishing. It was touch and go, any way, but we just managed to run the car back to the fringe of civilisation, and the situation was saved. When we got to Melbourne Wrath had vanished. So, by the way, had Mary Akers, though whether he had anything to do with that I don't know. The man was a thorough blackguard, but I have to give him the benefit of the doubt. And that is one score I have got against Wrath. A year or so later, by a bit or good luck, I came into my share of some family property, and I returned to England. Fortune brought me to Devonshire, where I met Sir George Bland-Merton. The old gentleman took rather a fancy to me, and he allowed me to take a long lease of this bungalow. Of course, in those days I had no thought of ever meeting Wrath down here—in fact I had forgotten all about the scoundrel, and was quite content with this little paradise of mine until the war broke out. Well, you know all about that. And now I am coming to the real point."
Evors broke off to light a cigarette.
"I met your father in Monte Carlo, as I told you. He seemed to be a broken man, anxious and worn out, with a shadow of some ever-present fear in his eyes. And then, because we had been old friends in the past, and he was bound to confide in some one, he told me. You know, my dear young lady, what an easy-going, kind-hearted man he was, and how careless he was about money matters. It appears that he had got mixed up with some sort of adventuress in Monte Carlo and was doing his best to shield her. Of course, it was a madly quixotic thing to do, but he would not even mention her name. It appears that this woman, or more likely some cunning scoundrel behind her had got hold of an acceptance drawn by a certain Lord Maberley in favour of some friend of his, and your father had managed to get it discounted at a Monte Carlo bank by endorsing it and paying it through his own account. Then, a few days later, the bill was pronounced to be a forgery, and Lord Maberley repudiated his signature. Instead of your father taking the right course, and telling the bank people how he had been deceived, he did nothing of the kind. I suppose that infernal woman got round him with a flood of tears, and all that sort of thing, and persuaded him not to bring her name into the case. At any rate, your father took the whole liability on his shoulders and acted as if he himself were to blame. In his careless way he offered to find the money as soon as he could rouse it, and no doubt thought that this would be all right. It seems almost incredible that a man could be such a fool, but so long as there are pretty adventuresses in the world this sort of stupendous folly will go on. Then a morning or two later your father awoke to the fact that there was a warrant out for his arrest on a charge of fraud and forgery which meant a certain five years in a foreign gaol. I implored him to go to the authorities and get them to confront him with the woman in the case. But he said no; he had given his word of honour; the woman was not to blame, because she was shielding somebody in her turn; and if gaol stared him in the face to gaol he would go. And the next thing I heard was that your father had committed suicide by jumping into a stormy sea from the deck of the Sunstar—and there the tragedy ended, so far as I was concerned. I saw Lord Maberley, and offered to pay him the money for the sake of my friend's name, but he would not hear of it. He was greatly shocked and distressed, and told me that if he had been consulted in the first place he should have acknowledged that forged signature as his own. He knew and liked Gordon Bland and would have done anything for his sake."
"That is true enough," Ellen said with tears in her eyes. "I saw Lord Maberley myself, and he told me much the same thing. But then, you see, my father did not commit suicide on the day when he was supposed to have thrown himself into the sea. And that is the mystery I have to solve."
"We must do our best to help you," Evors said. "I am convinced that there is one man who could tell us all about it if he would and that man, of course, is Christopher Wrath. There is some secret here which I have suspected for a long time, but what you have just told me in connection with what I know convinces me of it. But we can't do any more at present."
"I am afraid not," Ellen said. "And now, really, I must be getting back. Past 7 o'clock! Probably Sir Christopher has returned by this time, and if he misses me——"
She broke off, and rose to her feet. She walked up the woodland path towards the Abbey with Bly by her side.
"Upon my word, my dear girl, this is a most extraordinary thing," the latter said. "It would be a topping business if you turned out to be mistress of Crocksands Abbey after all. And whatever happens, you have two friends here you can rely upon. But look here, Ellen"—he went on, with a sudden change of manner. He was no longer the inconsequent boy, but the hard, tight-lipped man of the world he had proved himself earlier in the afternoon—"I don't like the idea of you being under the same roof as that blackguard. Oh, I know why he wanted you down here. Perhaps you don't quite realise what an attractive and beautiful girl you are. I hate to talk like this, but——"
"Oh, I am perfectly safe, if that is what you mean," Ellen said, calmly. "And I have a friend at the Abbey—and that's the housekeeper, Mrs. Amberley. I can't tell you too much, because the secret is not entirely mine, but Mrs. Amberley has a hold over Wrath, and she will use it if necessity arises. And now I really must fly. Don't detain me any longer. No, you mustn't kiss me, in case any one happens to be looking."
Wrath had not returned when Ellen got back to the Abbey, neither did he do so until it was nearly dark. When he came back he was in one of his blackest moods, so that Ellen was glad to make an excuse and seek the seclusion of her own room a little earlier than usual. She sat there in the darkness for quite a long time, thinking over the amazing and exciting events of the afternoon. How long she sat there she hardly knew, until the big clock in the Tower droned out the hour of midnight, and the whole house seemed to be steeped in slumber. She arose and turned down one of the electric lights, as she proceeded to undress, but she was feeling anything but tired still, and looked about her for a soothing book to read for an hour or so. There was nothing in the room, so, throwing a long, dark cloak over her night attire, she crept along the corridor in the direction of the musicians' gallery, where there was something in the shape of a library.
She knew every inch of the way in the dark, she had been there a hundred times before, so that she was not in the least afraid of coming in contact with the works of art and the old oak chests with which the corridor was lined. In an alcove in the gallery she turned on one light, and, having found the volume she required, pushed up the switch and in her bare feet walked along until she came to her bedroom door. Then she looked over the balcony into the hall below and saw that some one had flicked on one solitary spot of electricity there. Secure in her black guise, she leant over the carved oak rail to see what was going on. A moment later Wrath appeared, carrying in his hand a large basket which he placed on the table, and then disappeared, returning a little later with a cold chicken on a dish, some bread, butter, and salad, and a bottle of wine which he carefully placed in a basket and covered with a napkin. He was no longer wearing his evening dress, but a suit of shabby old tweeds, and on his feet were rubber soled tennis shoes, so that he did not make the slightest sound. He took up the basket and, crossing the hall, turned into the vestibule, and very silently left the house.
Where was he going and what did it all mean? Ellen asked herself. On the impulse of the moment she had half a mind to follow him, but in her scanty attire that was impossible, though the night was warm enough. Where was he carrying that food, and for whom was it intended? Ellen made up her mind that she would wait there until Wrath came back. Then she drew back as another figure crept furtively across the hall, evidently bent on keeping Wrath under close surveillance. The new-comer glanced over his shoulder, and the feeble light fell on the face of the man Stone. Then he vanished in Wrath's direction, and Ellen, greatly wondering, turned in to her own room.
At any rate, she was getting on, for here was one more mystery to add to the many with which she was surrounded.
Ellen had every reason to be satisfied so far with her enterprise, but, much as she had discovered, she was beginning to realise that there were other factors in the case with which she would have to reckon. In the excitement of revisiting Crocksands, and in pursuit of her own particular aims she had forgotten that Wrath had troubles of his own, and now she was beginning to remember certain things she had heard. Her work in St. Martin's Inn had told her that Wrath was in desperate need of money, and she knew, of course, that he had tried to mortgage Crocksands Abbey. And there were other letters, besides those she wrote at Stone's dictation, that brought a scowl to Wrath's face and an angry gleam into his eyes. Letters from all parts of the country were there, but mostly with a London postmark, and all of them asking for money. For the next week or so Wrath was away a good deal, generally in the car, and on each occasion he returned more morose and ill-tempered than ever. He even forgot to pay Ellen any compliments, for which she was sufficiently grateful.
And then there came one morning towards the end of the first week in June, when Wrath opened a letter at the breakfast table and threw it across to Stone with an oath that he was at no pains to conceal. He rose from the table and strode into the library, signifying to Stone that he needed his company.
"Here is a pretty nice business," he growled. "A fine hash you seem to have made of that concern in Manchester. As far is I can make out the police have raided Cotter's shop, and have gone off with a mass of correspondence from there. How on earth did you manage to blunder like this?"
"I don't see how you can blame me," Stone said, white and shaky. "I have followed out your instructions carefully; and, in any case, neither of us can be identified with the business. I have taken precious good care of that. Of course, I know that this lottery of ours is absolutely illegal, but then, you see, we are not running it from England. The head office of the syndicate, as you know, is supposed to be at Bucharest. The draw for the Derby took place there, or, at any rate, it was supposed to, and the winner will be announced in the London papers to-day."
"But, confound it, man, that's just the trouble," Wrath cried. "Read that letter again. Who is this man Goss, whom our friend alludes to as the man who claims to have drawn the winner?"
"Why, what on earth does it matter?" Stone asked. "The whole thing is a swindle from start to finish, and every penny of the thirty thousand pounds we raked in in reply to our advertisements goes into our pockets."
"It goes into my pockets, you mean, I suppose?" Wrath sneered. "Don't you forget that I put up all the money for the advertisements and circulars and the lottery tickets, and paid all the expenses. It's my show, run with my money, and don't you forget it. Oh, you shall have your pound of flesh when the time comes for dividing the booty; but it won't be quite so meaty a joint as you seem to anticipate. Still, we are getting off the track. Who is this man Goss?"
"Upon my word, you talk like a child. Dash it all, we must put up somebody as the ostensible winner of the big sweep. You wouldn't have anything to do with it, and I had to find a man who would tell everybody that he won our Derby sweep and be content with five hundred pounds for his trouble. I found Goss, a man under my thumb, and I arranged with him that he should pose as the winner and show his ticket. Then he was to go abroad with his share of the swag and give out that he intended to buy himself a ranch in South America. What more could I do?"
"Oh, don't ask me. You see what the letter says. It's from a correspondent of mine in Manchester—in fact, my agent Blatton, who runs a sort of banking concern in connection with the South Australian Produce Company, which I mean to float as soon as I have any spare capital. As you know, the mythical Blatton calls himself a banker, and I allowed you to use his firm and pose them as the representatives of the syndicate which acts as treasurer for the lottery money. And now Blatton's successor tells me that Goss has been arrested by the police in Manchester on a charge of fraud and forgery. Do you suppose anybody will believe after that that he really is the winner of our Derby sweep? Dash it, you might have got hold of some outwardly respectable man, at any rate."
"Yes, and what respectable man would be a party to such a transaction?" Stone retorted. "And how was I to know that Goss would make a fool of himself just at the moment when he was going to draw five hundred pounds simply for telling a lie and sticking to it? I admit it is a nasty mess, and for the present I don't see how we are going to get out of it. If the police make inquiries, as they are sure to do, then it will be awkward for us, because they will be certain to investigate into the past of Blatton and Co., and once they do that they will realise that the business is a mere fraud. And that brings you in, because you can't get out of the fact that you really are Blatton and Co. The authorities will come to the conclusion that the whole thing is a fraud, and, at the very best, we shall only get out of it by handing over all the money that came from the sale of those tickets."
Wrath's heavy jaw set into a firm line.
"Not if I can help it," he said. "There is over £30,000 locked away upstairs, mostly in Treasury notes, and that is going to be my salvation. If I have to give it up then my creditors will make me bankrupt, and they will take the revenue of Crocksands out of my hands. It is most infernally hard luck, just when everything is going so smoothly; and if it hadn't been for Goss making a fool of himself everything would have been all right. As it is, we have got to bluff it out, Stone. I suppose Goss won't give the game away?"
"I don't think so," Stone said. "He wouldn't gain anything if he did. In that case he would lose the £500 which would come to him after he gets out of prison, and Goss is not that sort of a fool."
"Well, I suppose I must take your word for it. I think the best thing you can do is to go to Manchester and see Goss. You won't have any difficulty in getting an interview with him, and I will tell you what to say. In the meantime there is nothing to be done but wait upon events."
"It will want some doing," Stone said. "If Goss gets bail the thing is easy enough, because I can slip up to Manchester in some sort of disguise and put him wise."
"Well, bail must be found," Wrath declared. "I daresay we can manage to arrange that with some man of straw who will go bail if it is made worth his while. Now clear out and let me think a bit. This business wants consideration."
It was three days later, after Stone had departed for Manchester, that a footman came into the library to Wrath with an intimation that Inspector Wilder of the North Devon Police wanted to see him on a matter of business. Just for a moment Wrath's face changed, then he was himself again.
"Quite so," he said. "Ask the inspector in."
Wilder walked into the room—small, alert, perfectly self-possessed, and entirely easy in his manner.
"Sir Christopher Wrath, I think," he said. "I have come to see you, sir, on rather unpleasant business."
"I am sorry to hear you say that," Wrath said in his best manner. "Sit down, inspector. Is there anything I can offer you? Perhaps a cigar, or a whisky and soda?"
"I am much obliged to you, Sir Christopher," Wilder said. "But if you don't mind, I think not."
"As you will," Wrath said. "Would you mind telling me in what way I can be of service to you?"
"Well, it's like this, sir," the inspector went on. "I understand that you are in some way connected with a firm in Manchester called Blatton and Company."
"Quite right," Wrath said. "They are colonial merchants, and also act as bankers to syndicates more or less connected with agrarian enterprises in South America and Australia. As a matter of fact, I have a controlling interest in the company, though I take no part in the management. You see, inspector, I have large interests in Australia as a stock breeder, and I am thinking of floating a big company to open out in the Argentine. That company, which you may have heard of, will be offered to the public as soon as I can make necessary arrangements. Meanwhile it is quite a small syndicate. All the machinery is run through the office of Blatton and Company, under my direction. As a matter of fact, there is no such name as Blatton left, for you see I have bought the name and the small business attached to it for the purposes I have indicated. But I haven't been near the place myself."
"So I understand," the inspector said. "Then I take it that you don't know that your firm has been acting as a sort of treasurer to a lottery which has its headquarters in Bucharest, and that they were the depositories of funds, mostly subscribed in this country, towards a Derby sweep."
Just for the fraction of a second Wrath hesitated.
"Well, I did hear something about it," he said. "As a matter of fact, my consent was asked. Do you mean to say that there is anything wrong about it?"
"Well, it's absolutely illegal," the inspector explained. "And I cannot understand why the authorities in Manchester allowed those advertisements to appear in the Northern papers."
"Ah, I am afraid you must blame me to a certain extent," Wrath said, with one of his most charming smiles. "I never realised that there was anything wrong about it. You see, I have been out of England for so long that I have forgotten; and, besides, such things are permitted in Australia. If I am right, the money was subscribed from England and sent to Bucharest with the idea of it being transferred eventually to Manchester, and paid out by Blatton and Company to the fortunate winner."
"Yes, that is quite right, perfectly right," the inspector said. "But when we came to place an embargo on the money we were informed by Blatton's manager that it was not there."
Wrath laughed in the heartiest possible way.
"Ah, well, inspector," he said, "perhaps the men who were behind the lottery knew a little more than you think. I should think it extremely likely that that money has not yet been transferred to England."
"Oh, I admit that we are rather in a quandary," the inspector said, frankly. "And I don't suppose we should have gone any further in the matter if a certain shady individual in Manchester had not been boasting in dubious public houses that he was the owner of the winning ticket. Rather strange that a man who hadn't a penny in the world could find five pounds for a ticket in a Derby sweep, especially when the owner of the ticket that drew the winner took the whole amount of the sweep."
"Oh, I don't know," Wrath said. "A gambler would do anything. I have known a gambler put the last penny he had in the world on a horse, even when he was starving."
"Yes, but this man I am speaking about, Goss by name, is a very shady character. He has been in gaol more than once, and we have strong evidence for believing that he is only the tool of certain people who are running this lottery. In other words, the whole thing is a gigantic swindle, and Goss was to have a certain amount of money paid him on condition that he pretended to be the winner. It's rather a serious matter, Sir Christopher."
Wrath lay back in his chair smiling, with the air of a man who is enjoying an exquisite joke.
"All this is very diverting," he said. "Now, I happen to know, as a matter of fact, and I am prepared to prove to you, that this man Goss, whoever he is, does not hold the winning ticket. I shrewdly suspect that Goss is a little more brainy than you anticipate. If he was on his last legs, and in desperate need of a few shillings, can't you see how he could make quite a little pile by telling people that he had won the Bucharest Derby lottery? Why, he could borrow pounds on the strength of it. He could have got credit in all the shady public houses; and it would not be difficult for such a man even to forge a lottery ticket with the same number as that on the winner's. Of course, it could only last a day or two, until the actual winner's name was announced in the paper, but it would be worth a good deal of money to Mr. Goss in the meantime."
"Ah, now there is something in that," the inspector admitted. "I have heard of it being done before."
"Very well, then," Wrath said, with a sudden change to seriousness. "Don't you think you had better make sure on this point before you go any further? And this I can promise you, my friend, that whatever happens, Blatton and Company will come out of it all right. I shall see to that, even if only for my own sake. I can't afford to have my name blown upon. It would never do for Sir Christopher Wrath, the owner of this place and the fifteenth baronet to be mixed up with anything shady. I would sacrifice half my fortune first."
Inspector Wilder was obviously impressed.
"Oh, I quite understand that, Sir Christopher," he said. "You see, I had to come and see you——"
"Naturally," Wrath interrupted. "And now I am going to show you something that will astonish you. An amazing coincidence that could only happen usually in the pages of fiction. If you will excuse me one moment I will fetch the thing I want."
Wrath left the library, and reappeared a minute or two later with a scrap of paper in his hand. It was a printed form with a perforated edge, and had evidently been torn out of something in the semblance of a cheque book.
"Now look at this, inspector," he said. "It is a ticket in the Bucharest Derby lottery, and you will see for yourself that the number is 23,004. Now, I paid £5 for that ticket, and I was informed by telegram last night that 23,004 had drawn Hazeldawn, the winner in this year's Derby. So, you see, I am the fortunate man, and Goss was merely pulling the legs of his friends. It is rather an extraordinary coincidence, isn't it?"
The inspector said nothing. He gazed at the strip of paper much as a bird gazes at a snake. Then he set his lips tightly, and a few minutes later left the house.
"An extraordinary story," he told himself. "But, all the same, I am not quite satisfied yet."
Naturally while all this was going on Ellen found herself with a good deal of time on her hands. But it was not until the afternoon of the morning on which Inspector Wilder had paid his visit to Crocksands Abbey that she had the chance of seeing Bly again. But now that Stone was away in Manchester and Wrath had gone off in the car to Barnstaple on one of his mysterious errands, Ellen felt it safe to go as far as the bungalow. She found Bly sitting outside smoking his pipe, whilst Evors was in the sitting-room busy over some correspondence.
"Now, this is fine," Bly said, eagerly, as Ellen came forward. "I began to think that something had happened to you. Is there any news? Anything fresh in the air?"
"Not very much," Ellen smiled. "There is something going on at Crocksands Abbey that I cannot understand at all. I know Sir Christopher is in great trouble about something, because he has hardly spoken to any of us for days. And early in the week Mr. Stone departed mysteriously for Manchester. Sir Christopher doesn't know I know he has gone to Manchester, but Mr. Stone told me himself. Then he hesitated, and said he was going to Scarborough, I believe there is some trouble over that lottery business, and yet I can't understand it, because Sir Christopher dropped a mysterious hint at lunch time to the effect that he himself had won a large sum of money over the Derby. But I am strongly under the impression that the money he speaks of is the proceeds of that lottery swindle. I told you about that, didn't I?"
"My word, so you did!" Bly cried. "Depend upon it, you are right, Ellen. Didn't you tell me that you had found some letters containing Treasury notes?"
"I did," Ellen said. "They came out of a hamper readdressed to the Abbey from Manchester. My idea is that all that money from the lottery is in the house at the present moment. Most of it, no doubt, is in Treasury notes, and these will be disposed of a few hundreds at a time in different parts of the country."
Evors came out of the bungalow just in time to hear what Ellen was saying. He stood there, smiling grimly and nodding his head, until she had finished.
"You seem to be amongst a choice set of friends," he laughed. "A blackguard baronet, a discredited lawyer, and a mysterious woman whom nobody knows anything about. You know, I have never seen this mysterious housekeeper of Sir Christopher's."
"She never goes out of the house," Ellen said. "She has not been outside the Tower gate since I came here. I am exceedingly sorry for her, because I know she is a woman who has suffered deeply. But I don't want to talk about her this afternoon. I want to tell you something that I saw a night or two ago."
Evors brought out a chair; and Ellen sat there presently drinking her tea in the warm sunshine. Then she went on to tell her interested friends the story of her visit to the music room in search of a book, and what she had seen afterwards in the hall at Crocksands. Evors listened without comment until the narrative was finished, then he rose and paced restlessly up and down.
"Now, that is very strange," he said. "It looks very much as if Wrath was hiding somebody here. Probably one of his scoundrelly confederates who has come in contact with the law. By Jove! this would be a fine place to hide anybody. Here are hundreds of acres of woods, with any amount of ancient outbuildings, and all absolutely private. It was rather a pity, Miss Marchant, that you couldn't have followed."
"Yes, it was," Ellen said. "But I couldn't very well. And by the time I had dressed myself Sir Christopher would have been far away. But doesn't it seem to you that this is his own secret? I mean that Mr. Stone knew nothing about it, or he would not be following Sir Christopher in that stealthy way. He had some sort of suspicion, no doubt; but he evidently was quite uncertain as to what Sir Christopher was up to."
"We will find out," Bly declared. "I don't suppose it would help us much, but, dealing with a man like Wrath, knowledge is always power. You may depend upon it that he makes frequent visits in the dead of night to the hiding-place of this mysterious stranger. We must follow in our turn."
"Yes, but how are we to know?" Evors asked.
"I think I can help you in that respect," Ellen said. "I don't go to bed very early, because I am rather fond of sitting up and reading at night. I need not quite close my door, and I can listen. You must wait up on that little knoll at the top of the hill till just after twelve. From there you will be able to see my bedroom window. It is the third in the west gable, so that you cannot mistake it. If you see my light go out suddenly and come on again in two flashes, you will know that Sir Christopher has just set out on one of his midnight expeditions. You can wait and intercept him by the path that leads to the Tower on one side and down to your bungalow on the other."
"The plan sounds feasible enough," Evors said. "And we can let it go at that, Miss Marchant."
It was two nights later before the watchers, seated just after midnight on the shoulder of the hill, saw the flashes from the window in the Abbey, and a little later on heard the sound of stealthy footsteps coming along one of the main drives through the woods that led up to the Tower. It was Evors's quick ear that first heard the sound of a breaking twig. He put his pipe in his pocket, and touched Bly on the arm.
"Somebody coming," he whispered. "Be ready."
It was fairly dark under the gloom of the trees, but they could make out a dim figure presently, and they followed discreetly until Wrath turned upwards, evidently on the way to the Tower. It was not so easy to shadow him now, because he had reached open ground, but with a little patience they kept Wrath in sight until they saw him pause just under the Tower and look around him carefully to see that he was not followed. They then heard a key grated in the lock, and the sudden closing of a door.
"Come on," Evors whispered. "We can get right up to the door, and perhaps with any luck we can hear what is going on inside."
But in that Evors was mistaken. For a long time there was no sound but the breaking of the surf on the rocks hundreds of feet below, and no sign of a light inside the Tower. For more than an hour they stood there, until the creaking of the door came again, and the watchers had barely time to drop into the heather before Wrath reappeared swinging an empty basket in his hand.
As he vanished at length, Evors tried the door of the Tower. But it yielded nothing and it looked as if the two men were going to have all their trouble for their pains. True, they had established the fact that somebody was occupying the Tower, but that did not help to any material extent..
"Lord, what a fool I am!" Evors said. "I had quite forgotten. You remember the night when I thought I had found a Death's Head moth, and I told you that some one was asleep in the Tower? That's the man that Wrath comes here to see, and we are going to find out who it is, come what may. Meanwhile we have not wasted our time, and Wrath is none the wiser."
Stone arrived back quite unexpectedly from Manchester with a budget of news for his employer. Everything had gone well so far but the ex-lawyer was not a little uneasy and disturbed as he listened to Wrath's boastful statement of the way he had managed to deceive Inspector Wilder. It was no doubt a most heroic thing to do, but Stone's trained legal mind could see pitfalls and dangers where Wrath could only see his own amazing strategy and bold diplomacy. If the thing came off, all well and good, but supposing that Wilder had not been deceived at all!
"Oh, you can make your mind quite easy on that," Wrath laughed. "He was like a child in my hands. Besides, they can't do anything. I was quite candid over my connection with Blatton and Company, and I told Wilder that if there was any scandal I would make it good out of my own pocket. You see, they haven't been able to lay their hands on the money which they think is still in Bucharest, and Wilder must know that the Bucharest people are not in the least likely to play into his hands by consigning any cash to Manchester now. When I told him that I was the winner of the sweep, and showed him the ticket, which I had filled in myself in my bedroom, he had nothing more to say. You never saw a man more startled and astonished in your life."
"Well, let us hope it will be all right," Stone said, dubiously. "But we are not past the danger-mark yet. A good deal depends upon Goss, and don't you forget it."
"What happened about him?" Wrath asked.
"Well, I haven't seen him myself yet. I went up to Manchester and hung around picking up what information I could. It is not a very serious case against Goss, and in all probability he will ask to have the matter dealt with summarily, which will probably mean six mouths at the outside. He had no money, so I managed indirectly to engage a lawyer for him. Goss was remanded for a week, and I'm going up to Manchester again to-morrow to put matters right. I think I shall do this: apply for a remand for another week, and ask for bail. I don't see how the magistrate can refuse to grant it, and I can so manage it that his own solicitor will offer to become security for the appearance of his client. I shall have to guarantee the amount in case Goss makes a bolt for it; but I think it would look rather well for the the man's own lawyer to offer bail on his behalf."
"Yes, that is not a bad idea," Wrath said. "I think I can leave it entirely in your hands."
Accordingly, a few days later, Stone was in Manchester again, and sat in a dingy police court, listening to the proceedings which had been instituted by the police against the man Goss. Stone had made all his preparations and retired discreetly into a dim corner of the court, not in the least anxious to make himself prominent in any way. He could not know, of course, that not far from him Inspector Wilder was taking notes of what was going on, and that he had prompted certain questions which would be asked presently by the solicitor representing the prosecution.
Then the little Jew lawyer, called Mostyn, whose forebears had been quite content with the name of Moses, rose at the proper time and asked for bail on behalf of his client. From his point of view Goss was the victim of petty persecution. He had innocently fallen into evil hands, and been made a tool of by cleverer men than himself. It was absolutely necessary, in the cause of justice, that the case should be remanded for two or three days, so that the speaker might be enabled to perfect the absolute defence which he had to this more or less preposterous charge. Whereupon the magistrate looked inquiringly at an inspector of police, and asked if the latter had any objection to the proposed course.
"Oh, no, your Worship," the policeman said. "If you think it necessary the authorities are prepared to grant a remand till Saturday, or perhaps Monday. But we take rather a serious view of this case, which is likely to lead to other prosecutions."
"Very well," the magistrate said. "Mr. Mostyn, the case is adjourned till Saturday morning at ten o'clock."
"Very good, your Worship," the little man smiled. "Now as to the question of bail?"
"It ought to be heavy," the police officer interrupted.
"I quite agree," the magistrate said. "Say the prisoner himself in a hundred pounds, and one or two sureties for at least five times that amount."
"That will do excellently," Mostyn cried. "I myself am so convinced of my client's innocence that I am prepared to become his surety to the extent of five hundred pounds."
Five minutes later Goss left the court a free man for the time being, and that same evening a meeting took place between himself and Stone in an obscure public house where certain arrangements were made and a sum of money passed.
"Oh, that will be all right guv-nor," Goss said. "I shall know what to do now, and, whatever happens, I shall keep my mouth shut. It won't be a matter of more than six months, and I am quite sure of my five hundred quid when I come out."
Punctually at ten o'clock on the Saturday morning Goss stepped jauntily into the dock, and the proceedings recommenced. Police evidence was gone through, and when the prosecution had finished the solicitor in the case asked that the prisoner might be committed for trial. Against this Mostyn issued a vigorous protest. The police case was the flimsiest he had ever heard; it was impossible that a magistrate so learned and enlightened as the stipendiary on the bench should send a man for trial on the testimony before the court. He asked for the case to be dealt with summarily, and wound up by saying that he intended to put his client into the witness box to give evidence on his own behalf.
"As you please, Mr. Mostyn," the magistrate said. "But I don't think you will do your client much good by such a course. I have practically made up my mind to commit the prisoner; but possibly he may be able to bring forward evidence that will put another complexion on the case."
With that Goss entered the witness-box, and underwent a long examination at the hands of his solicitor. Then when he had finished the representative of the prosecution got up. His first question came rather in the nature of a surprise, and Stone wriggled uneasily in his obscure seat.
"You are a racecourse tout, I think?" the lawyer asked.
"No, I am a sportsman," Goss said, jauntily. "I follow racing, if that is what you mean, as a professional backer of horses."
"Yes, a profession that requires capital, I believe. Now, for the last three months you have been entirely without means; at least, you have found it hard to get a living. Perhaps you will be good enough to tell me where you found the five-pound note which you spent on the purchase of a lottery ticket."
"What lottery ticket!" the witness asked, impudently.
"Oh, come, you know what I mean. The Derby lottery which eminated from Bucharest, and was advertised in all the Northern papers. You purchased a ticket, and I am not going to suggest that anybody made you a present of it."
"You are quite wrong," the witness grinned. "I bought no ticket, because I hadn't got the money to do it with."
The questioner was evidently taken a little aback by this reply, and pondered over his notes for a minute or two. He had not expected such a response to his query, and he was just a little annoyed with Inspector Wilder for having lured him on upon what looked like being the wrong track.
"But that won't do," he said. "You are not going to deny that you publicly boasted of having drawn the winner of the Derby sweep, and, moreover, you showed the ticket to some of your friends. Of course, if you deny that——"
The speaker shrugged his shoulders, and Stone breathed a little more freely. He was the one man here who knew that if another twenty-four hours had elapsed after the race for the Derby, Goss's name would have been announced in all the leading papers as the absolute winner of the great sweep. It was therefore, only by a bit of blind luck that this danger had been averted.
"I am not going to deny it," Goss grinned. "But I was only pulling the legs of my friends. I forged that ticket myself because I was desperately hard up, and I managed to borrow a few pounds on the strength of it."
"Oh, is that a fact?" the lawyer asked. "Am I to understand that you had no holding in the sweep?"
"Not a bob, sir," Goss laughed. "Lor' bless you, it's an old dodge, been worked a score of times."
The questioner dropped into his seat and conveyed that he had no further questions to ask. Five minutes later Goss was committed for trial, and left the court under the same bail as had been previously granted. There was no occasion for Stone to see him any more, and, with a feeling that the situation was saved, that individual left the court and made his way light-heartedly enough in the direction of his hotel. He would go back to Crocksands Abbey with an easy mind now.
But perhaps he would not have felt so assured had he been in a position to overhear a conversation that was taking place in a solicitor's office not far from the courthouse. There, Inspector Wilder was seated in a little back room talking over the events of the last hour or so with the lawyer who had prosecuted in the case of the Crown v. Goss.
"Well, what do you think of it, Inspector?" the lawyer asked. "Are you satisfied or not?"
"Emphatically not, Mr. Walton," Wilder said. "I don't doubt for a moment that Goss was telling the truth when he said that he had no ticket in that lottery. That he boasted he had is beyond all doubt, and I have no reason to disbelieve his statement that he made money out of his boast. But that is not the point. I feel perfectly certain that there is a big swindle here somewhere, and that Goss was to have been paid a huge sum of money for acting as the ostensible winner of the sweep. If circumstances had not played us false, Goss's name would have appeared in the public press as the actual winner. Still, we can't prove that now, and I don't suppose we ever shall. But I have seen the winning ticket, and I have talked with the holder of it. He lives down in Devonshire, in a fine place called Crocksands Abbey, and he is a baronet of ancient family. Outwardly, at any rate, he is very rich; but I have been making a few inquiries into his past, and I find that before he came by a stroke of luck into the estates he was desperately needy, and that in Australia he had the very shadiest reputation. Mind you, all this I have found out since I interviewed him at Crocksands. At the present moment he is up to his neck in debt, and as he cannot mortgage the estate he hardly knows where to turn."
"God bless my soul!" Walton cried.
"And that is not everything," Wilder went on. "Wrath has a sort of satellite and hanger-on called Stone. Now this Stone is really a disgraced solicitor, whose proper name is Clapstone, and for a good many weeks past Clapstone has been sending large sums of money to Manchester, in the form of postal orders and so on, which I suspect were despatched to pay the expenses of the sweep up here and advertise in the Northern papers. As Stone is practically penniless, Wrath must have found the money. He posed to me as a man of wealth and honor, and he said if there was any question of the integrity of Blatton and Co.—which, in other words, is Wrath himself—he would see that everything was made good. My belief is that the whole thing is a barefaced swindle, and that Wrath is at the bottom of it. But I shall know more about that in a few days; and, meanwhile, you had better continue your investigations on the lines that I suggested. I am going back into Devonshire to-night, and if there are any further developments I will keep you properly posted."
Meanwhile, Stone was on his way back to Crocksands, fully convinced that the whole danger was averted. In the course of time Goss would be sentenced to at least a year's imprisonment, and it would be greatly to his advantage to take his punishment, and say nothing, secure in the knowledge that at the end of his sentence he would be the better by five hundred pounds. It had been a very narrow shave, and Stone had quite made up his mind that he would have nothing to do with racing sweeps for the future. It was late that night when he sat in the library at Crocksands discussing the matter from all points of view with his employer, who had been inclined to take a sanguine view of the case from the start. In that arrogant way of his he did not doubt for a moment that Wilder had believed every word he said.
"So that's all right," he concluded, as he pitched his cigar into the fire and rose from his seat. "The next thing is to get rid of all that money we have upstairs, and get shut of those confounded creditors of mine. You have done very well, Stone, and I am not going to forgot it. If you only kept off the drink you might become a useful member of society even yet."
It was two days later before Ellen had the chance of meeting her friends at the bungalow again. She had watched Wrath drive away to Barnstaple on one of those mysterious errands of his, and she had walked as far as Lyndale with Mrs. Amberley, who had told her that she also was going a little way up the line to see an old acquaintance of hers who lived in the country. Then, with the coast clear, Ellen went as far as the bungalow.
"I am sorry I couldn't get here before," she said, as the two men rose to greet her. "Everything has been very quiet, and I have nothing to do. But I am very curious to know what happened the other night when you followed Sir Christopher."
"Ah, that was rather disappointing," Evors said. "But perhaps I had better explain. We followed Wrath as far as the Tower, which he entered, and where he remained for a hour. He took with him a full basket of provisions, and came empty away. You may say that that proves the fact that somebody is hiding in the Tower. Possibly a friend of Wrath's who is under a temporary cloud."
"Then you saw and heard nothing?" Ellen asked.
"Not a sound," Bly said. "We tried the door after Wrath had gone, but it was quite fast, so we had to come away with our trouble for our pains. But we have established the fact that some one was in the Tower, and it won't be our fault if we don't find out all about it. Evors has actually seen the man."
"Seen the man!" Ellen exclaimed. "How do you mean?"
"I shall have to go back a bit," Evors explained. "You remember the night when I thought we had found a Death's Head moth? I climbed up to the top of the Tower and looked in through a window there. I flashed my light on, hoping to locate the moth under the eaves, and I saw a man lying asleep on a bed. The blind was not quite pulled down, and I had a good view into the room. It was beautifully furnished, and I should say that the Tower boasts of every sort of convenience."
"What kind of a man was he?" Ellen asked.
"Well, from a casual glance; I should say an elderly man, with grey hair and a long beard. I can't tell you any more. Now, is there any other way of getting into the Tower besides the ordinary door? Didn't you tell me something about smugglers and an underground passage?"
"Certainly I did," Ellen said. "I have been along it more than once. In the old days, there used to be a beacon light on the Tower, which, I am afraid, was lighted for the purpose of luring ships ashore. Occasionally the Tower was used as a storehouse for smuggled goods, which were afterwards conveyed to the house by means of the passage I speak of."
"That is interesting," Evors said. "I should like to know how many people besides yourself are aware of the existence of the underground way to the Tower?"
"I don't believe anybody on the premises knows except myself," Ellen said "You see, when Sir Christopher came here he discharged every one of the old servants, and they all seem to have left the neighbourhood. There might have been one or two of them who knew about the passage, but I doubt even that. Certainly Sir Christopher doesn't. I don't think he was ever at Crocksands before he came into the property. It is quite a large passage, and opens out of a vault which is now used as a wine cellar. It leads up to the Tower, and a flight of steps takes you to the sitting-room. There is an oak panel by the side of the fireplace, and if you know the secret of the spring you can open it and gain access to the Tower in that way. I used to think it great fun when I was a child, and played all sorts of imaginary games. You see, the secret was practically mine and I revelled in it. Do you think we could possibly make use of the knowledge?"
"Oh, I think so," Evors said. "I have an extraordinary theory about that man in the Tower, so strange that I am not going to mention it to anybody yet. But, if I am correct, then we are on the verge of amazing events. Don't you think you could smuggle us into the house late one night when everybody is asleep? Isn't there some old entrance to the domestic apartments whereby we could get to the vaults without disturbing anybody?"
"Yes, there is," Ellen said. "I don't think there will be any difficulty. Perhaps some night, when Sir Christopher is away——"
"Why should we wait for that?" Bly asked, in his impulsive fashion. "Why not play the real conspirators' game? I mean, a few judicious drops in the whisky-and-soda of those choice scoundrels just before they go to bed. By Jove! it would be an adventure after my own heart. What do you. say, Evors?"
"Well, it's worth consideration," Evors said, with an indulgent smile. "But—hello! what's this?"
A small boy in uniform with a peak cap of a telegraph messenger appeared before the bungalow and handed an envelope to Evors. He ripped it open and read; then, dismissing the boy with a shilling and the information that there was no answer, he turned, with a sudden change of manner, to his companions.
"Now, here is a remarkable thing," he cried. "This is a telegram from Akers. That is the man I told you about who was with Miss Marchant's father and myself in that mining swindle when we nearly lost our lives and Wrath escaped having our blood on his head by something like a miracle. It is an extraordinary thing that he should turn up at this particular time. He says that he is with a theatrical company filling a date that has fallen through with a week in Barnstaple. By some means or another he has found out my address, and he is motoring over here to see us this afternoon."
"By Jove!" Bly cried. "It's a good thing that Wrath is not here. If he met Akers, all the fat would be in the fire. Does he realise that Wrath is so close?"
"I should say not," Evors replied. "He has been knocking about the world all this time with various companies and I don't suppose that he is aware of the fact that Wrath is now a baronet with a fine property. But those two must not meet, Bly. We had better go towards Lyndale, and meet Akers. Let me see, this telegram was despatched nearly an hour and a-half ago, and he says he is motoring over at once. He may be here at any moment. Let's strike across to the road through the park and walk along in the direction of the valley. We ought to cut him off before he reaches the lodge gates."
With that Evors jumped to his feet, and the three of them made their way down through the woods until they came to the road. There was not a soul in sight; indeed, there seldom was at this time of the afternoon, so that they reached the lodge leading to the pretty, romantic valley quite unperceived. Here they sat on a lofty pinnacle of moss-clad stone and waited patiently for the first sign of a car coming along the winding road.
"Upon my word," Bly said. "This is quite a romance in its way. I wonder if your friend Akers has ever seen his sister since the time you told me of in Australia. You remember who I mean—the pretty actress who was infatuated with Wrath."
"Ah! that I can't tell you," Evors said. "I know that the two were greatly attached to each other, and when Mary Akers disappeared it was a sad blow for her brother. He is probably looking for her still. She was such a pretty girl in those days; so full of life and vivacity, and as an actress would, no doubt, have gone very far. It is very strange how some people unwittingly wreck their own lives."
As Evors finished a car shot round the corner of the valley and came rapidly in the direction of the spot where the trio were seated; then a youngish-looking man, with an eager, clean-shaven, pleasant-looking face, jumped out.
"You needn't come any further," he said to the chauffeur. "You wait for me here. I shan't be more than an hour at the outside. Why, good lord! here's Evors himself!"
He came forward with outstretched hands, and after greeting him Evors made the necessary introductions; but he seemed to be almost blind to the fact that he was speaking to strangers, one of whom was a woman, for, after muttering something almost incoherently, he turned agitatedly to Evors.
"A most extraordinary thing," he murmured. "Just before I started, coming out of a shop in Barnstaple I saw a woman pass me in a taxi. You could have knocked me down with a feather. I could not possibly have made a mistake."
"What are you freaking about?" Evors asked.
"My sister. It was my sister whom I saw in that cab."
Despite what appeared to be his absolute lack of manners, there was something about this pleasant-looking stranger that appealed to Ellen. Apparently, he had not caught her name, and for some reason he seemed to be unaware of the fact that she and Rollo Bly were standing there. Akers had eyes only for Evors, and the latter seemed to be considerably impressed with what his new-found friend was saying.
"Are you quite sure?" he asked. "It seems almost incredible that your sister should be in this neighbourhood; and yet perhaps, when I come to think of it——"
Evors broke off suddenly, as if some startling idea had occurred to him. Then he turned to the man Akers again.
"I don't think you quite realise that I have introduced you to Miss Marchant and my friend Rollo Bly," he said. "Perhaps in the excitement of the moment you overlooked the fact."
The actor seemed to realise his responsibilities.
"I beg ten thousand pardons," he said. "I think if you understood, Miss Marchant, you would forgive me. You see, not more than an hour ago I saw a relation of mine whom I have been seeking for a long time. It was a dramatic sort of meeting, and I am afraid it has rather upset me. But, Miss Marchant, haven't I met you somewhere before?"
"I am afraid I don't recollect it," Ellen said.
"But, surely—just about the time of the Armistice, I was in town at the time, enjoying myself after all the trouble, and one afternoon I walked into the Piccadilly to tea. There I ran against a man named Tennent, who was in the same regiment as myself. He was having tea with a relative of his, a young lady, whose name I am sorry to say I have forgotten, and if I had met you casually in the street I should have said that you were the lady in question. I should probably have come up and spoken to you."
Ellen smiled a little vaguely. Now she realised where she had seen Akers before, but just at the moment she did not want in the least to be reminded of the fact. She had been having tea that particular afternoon with a distant relative, one Captain Tennent, and she recollected perfectly well that they had been joined at the table by a brother officer of Tennent's, who had been introduced to her in a name which had escaped her memory. But for the present, at any rate, she was loth to acknowledge this.
"Yes," she said. "I can quite understand. We are always meeting people who remind us of others and being astonished by the likeness. And yet, with so many millions of people in the world, these things are not so very strange, are they?"
Akers bowed and murmured something, that it was quite plain that he was not altogether satisfied. He had to let the explanation pass, then he turned to Evors again.
"Can I speak quite plainly?" he asked.
"Of course you can," Evors replied. "Bly is a particular friend of mine, and Miss Marchant lives here at Crocksands Abbey where she is engaged as private secretary to Wrath—I mean Sir Christopher Wrath, to give him his proper title."
"What?" Akers shouted. "That blackguard here? But I don't quite understand! Why 'Sir' Christopher Wrath?"
"Ah! there I shall have to explain," Evors said. "Unless I am greatly mistaken you have arrived here at a most critical time. But, perhaps, if Miss Marchant and Bly will excuse us——"
Ellen was listening to all this with the deepest interest. Then there flashed into her mind a sort of inspiration—a kind of knowledge that she alone possessed. It was no time for her to interfere in the conversation; but perhaps a little later on she would take her part in the unraveling of what appeared to be another side of the Crocksands mystery. She glanced at Bly, who seemed to understand something of what was passing in her mind.
"Shall we go a little further?" she said. "Let us walk round the valley and back by the Castle Rock. We can leave Mr. Evors and his friend to their confidences."
Bly was nothing loth. His opportunities for being alone with Ellen had been exceedingly limited, and here was a chance that he was not in the least disposed to lose. Just as they were about to part from the others a telegraph boy came hurrying up the valley on his bicycle. He could only be going to one place, so Ellen took it upon herself to detain him.
"You have got a wire for the Abbey?" she asked.
"That's right, miss," the boy said. "Name of Amberley."
"In that case you had better give it to me," Ellen said. "Mrs. Amberley is away for the afternoon, and I will deliver it."
She tore open the envelope and glanced over the contents. It was just a brief message from Wrath, to the effect that he had been detained in Barnstaple on important business and would not be back till late, or possibly not before morning. Then on the spur of the moment, Ellen turned and addressed Akers.
"I don't want to be in the least curious," she said, "but I gathered from what you said just now that you saw a relative of yours in Barnstaple whom you had not seen for a long time."
"I have not seen her for years," Akers said. "She is my sister. She disappeared in Australia in mysterious circumstances, and I have been looking for her ever since. Mary is very dear to me, Miss Marchant, and if you could only put me in communication with her again I should be more than grateful."
"I think I can do that," Ellen said, quietly. "That is, of course, if you don't want to get back to Barnstaple within the next hour or two."
"Yes, that would suit me very well," Akers said. "We are not playing tonight, and I am in no hurry."
"In that case you had better send your driver to put up in the village." Ellen suggested. "If you don't mind sitting here in the sunshine with Mr. Evors, and going without your tea, you will, I think, see your sister coming along the road, and if I am right—well, there is no more to be said."
Evors looked up with a startled expression his face.
"What do you mean, Miss Marchant?" he asked. "Are you actually suggesting that Aker's sister is in Lyndale?"
"Well, not at the present moment, perhaps," Ellen said. "But I think she will be. It is only a wild idea of mine, of course, but it is my impression that Mr. Akers sister and Mrs. Amberley, the housekeeper at Crocksands, are one and the same person."
Ellen turned away with that, leaving Evors to make the best of what she had said. She and Bly walked down the valley together, and, turning presently, were lost to sight on the grassy slope below the Castle Rock, where they sat in the sunshine looking out across the blue waters of the Channel. Bly was quite content to lie at Ellen's feet and look up into her face. There had been nothing normal between them in the way of an engagement—he had not given her even so much as a ring; but there had come a perfect understanding between them in that hour of deadly peril on the cliffs under the Tower, so that there was nothing to be said in the way of an explanation. An hour or two before that dramatic event Ellen had regarded Bly merely as a rather nice boy who was likely to prove a good friend in case of emergency. But all his fine manhood and sense of responsibility had come to the front at the first touch of danger, and quite clearly had come into her own heart the knowledge that she had cared for him all the time. She liked to hear him talk in that boyish way of his now that she knew how much strength and manhood lay behind it, and she was quite prepared then and there, to give herself up to the happiness of the moment. It was good to feel that Rollo Bly was by her side ready to protect her from all sorts of dangers, and that if the worst came to the worst, and she had to turn her back upon Crocksands baffled and defeated, she had found a haven against all the perils and trials of the world. She could never go back to the drudgery of an office again, because Rollo, with all his wealth, could give her something much better than that. But it was only for a moment that the material side of the question was uppermost.
"My word," Bly said; "It is good to have you alone like this. It's the very first time. And now that Wrath is out of the way we can stay here for hours."
He looked up into her face and took her hand in his. Then he put his arm about her, and drew her lips down to his.
"I'm a lucky beggar," he said, joyously. "I can't think what you can see in a chap like me."
"Can't you?" Ellen smiled. "You see Rollo, I didn't know. I always liked you of course; but if anybody had told me a month ago that I was going to marry you I should have laughed. Then came that afternoon on the cliff, and I learnt a great deal. Oh, yes, we are going to be very happy; but there is a good deal to do first, Rollo, and we must not lose sight of the fact."
"That's true," Bly said seriously. "We have got to get even with that blighter Wrath, and see that you come into your own. Which reminds me. What did you mean by telling that good-looking actor chap that his sister was here?"
"Because I believe she is," Ellen said. "You see, I am rather fond of Mrs. Amberley. She and I are quite good friends, and though she looks old and faded now, three years ago she was beautiful—far more so than I am."
"Ah, that's impossible," Bly declared, emphatically.
"Silly boy! But don't interrupt me. I have seen a photograph of Mrs. Amberley, taken three years ago, which would startle you if you saw her to-day. But then she never goes outside the house and I am sure that you have never met. This afternoon, after Sir Christopher had started for Barnstaple, she left the house to walk into Lyndale and take the afternoon train between there and Barnstaple. She said she was going to visit a friend up the line; but I believe now that she was going to Barnstaple itself. She wanted to keep her visit a secret and she told me to say nothing about it. You remember the story Mr. Evors told us about Mr. Akers, and that sister of his who was infatuated with Wrath. Of course, I may be wrong; but I feel pretty sure that Mr. Akers's sister and Mrs. Amberley are one and the same. I could tell a little more than that if I liked; but the secret is not altogether mine, and I am not going to betray it unless it's absolutely necessary. If I am wrong, we shall soon know, because before seven o'clock Mrs. Amberley will be back again, and will come this way. And if Mr. Akers does not recognise her then I am mistaken. If he does, Mr. Akers will have a chance to talk to her now that Sir Christopher is out of the way. But, come what may, Sir Christopher must be kept in ignorance of all this."
"It all sounds very thrilling," Bly said.
"At any rate, it is all part of the same mystery," Ellen said. "The one thing that troubles me is the fact that Mr. Akers and myself have met before. When he said he had come across me in a restaurant with my cousin, Captain Tennent he was perfectly right. He had evidently forgotten my name, but he did meet me, and I was rather disturbed to realise it. Still, I daresay we can take him into our confidence. I don't quite see how he is going to help us. But then you never can tell."
"Well, never mind about that for the present," Bly said. "Let's make the most of this beautiful afternoon. Whatever happens, your future is assured."
"Yes," Ellen said, dreamily. "You can't tell how happy that fact makes me. But if I can stay at Crocksands and call it my own, then I shall be happy indeed."
"And so you shall!" Bly cried. "So you shall, my darling, if it costs me every penny of my fortune!"
Meanwhile, Evors and his new-found friend were seated on the rocks just outside the lodge gates of the Abbey, trying to make something of the tangled skein which had found its way into the hands of the man from Australia.
"My mind is all in a maze," the latter said. "When I got up this morning I had no idea of what was going to happen in the course of the day. Now, here have I been looking for my sister Mary all over the world, and I come in contact with her, above all places, in a sleepy little town in Devonshire.
"You are quite sure you are not mistaken?" Evors asked.
"Oh, there is no mistake," Akers declared. "I saw her plainly enough in the taxi. I called out to her and waved my arms, but she did not see, and the street was so deserted that there was no one who saw me and attempted to stop the cab. So she vanished in the distance, and I was left there helpless on the pavement. But it was Mary right enough. The sun was shining on her face, and I was only a few yards away. But the thing that touched me most, Evors, was the extraordinary change. You remember what she was only a few years ago—a beautiful, smiling girl, full of charm and vivacity, and the joy of life. One of the happiest, sunniest creatures that ever breathed, and absolutely certain to make a big mark in her profession. But the woman I saw in the cab was old and faded, with pale face and melancholy eyes, and the air of one who has suffered terribly. She reminded me of a friend of mine who once did wrong and got into gaol. He was a happy, careless, handsome creature; but when he came out his hair was white and 30 years had been added to his age. Well, Mary reminded me of that. I tell you, it was terrible, Evors. What has happened to her since we last met, Heaven only knows. But I am going to find out, my friend; I am going to find out. You remember her infatuation for Wrath, and how she refused to hear a word against him, even when we practically proved to her that he tried to murder Gordon Bland and yourself over that gold-mining business. But when Wrath vanished I had an uneasy feeling that Mary followed him. If she did, then God help her."
"I am afraid you are right," Evors said. "You heard just now that Wrath is living here?"
"Yes, I did. What on earth does it mean? And where does the title of Sir Christopher come in?"
Evors proceeded to explain at some length whilst Akers listened with rapt attention. And Evors took upon himself to tell his friend the story of Ellen's dual identity. He knew that the fact would be safe with Akers, and he began to see how the latter was likely to prove a valuable ally in exposing this conspiracy which lay at the back of Crocksands Abbey.
"Ah I was quite certain that I had seen the young lady before," Akers said. "But what does she mean when she tells me that I shall probably meet my sister here this afternoon?"
"Ah, that I can only partly surmise," Evors said. "You see, Miss Marchant, as we call her, is by way of being Wrath's private secretary. She very pluckily came down here to try and get to the bottom of the mystery of her father's death, and expose the man whom she regards as an impostor. And, incidentally, to regain possession of Crocksands Abbey, which, by every law and right, belongs to her. Now, in the Abbey there is a lady housekeeper who calls herself Mrs. Amberley. From what Miss Marchant tells me, Mrs. Amberley features your sister in every way. A few years ago she was young and beautiful, and now she looks old and wretched. It does not want any vast amount of acumen to see that Miss Marchant has jumped to the conclusion that Mrs. Amberley and Mary Akers are one and the same."
"Well, we shall soon know," Akers murmured. "It is almost providential that Wrath is out this afternoon. Evors, I have got a big score to settle with that man when the time comes. I have been hoping against hope all this time, but what I have heard today confirms my worst fears. If this Mrs. Amberley turns out to be my sister, then I shall take her away from there——"
"Note quite so fast, please," Evors said. "I make every allowance for your natural feelings, my dear fellow, but there are other people to be considered besides yourself. If you do anything rash now you will put Wrath on his guard, and all the elaborate plans we have made for his undoing may fall to the ground. I implore you not to be rash. I am almost sorry that you have found out where I am. How did you manage it?"
"Oh, that was easy enough," Akers explained. "I met Benton in London, and he told me where you were living. Then, quite by chance, a confusion of dates threw us out for a week, and, on the principle of any port in a storm, we elected to put in a few days at Barnstaple on our way to the Plymouth theatre."
They sat talking there idly for some time till the sun began to go down, and just before seven o'clock a solitary figure appeared at the end of the valley and came along the road in the direction of the rock on which the two men were seated. Evors indicated the woman, then rose to his feet and walked towards the slope on the edge of the cliff.
"I have an idea that that is Mrs. Amberley," he said. "If I am wrong, you can follow me, and if you want me call out, and I shall hear. And good luck to you."
Akers sat there like a graven image until the slim figure in black came within a few yards of him. He looked at the white, weary face with narrowing eyes, and stepped out into the road.
"Mary," he said, gently. "Mary, I have found you at last."
The woman looked him in the face a moment, then swayed towards him, and would have fallen had he not caught her in his arms. Her limbs had turned as water under her, so that he almost had to carry her and set her down in an angle of the rocks where they could not be seen from the road.
"Now, tell me all about it, Mary," he said, gently.
For a time the woman could only sit there with the tears running down her face and sobs shaking her from head to foot. But after a time she grew calmer, and something like a smile trembled on that white, despairing face of hers.
"So you have found me after all this time," she said. "I hoped you never would. I hoped that none of the people who knew me in my happier days would ever meet me again. I had made up my mind to live here until the finish, which I prayed would not be long, but then one's sins always find one out, and I am no exception to the general rule. How did you manage it?"
"It was a pure accident," Akers said. "I happened to be in Barnstaple this morning and I saw you passing in a taxi. Good heavens, Mary! you have changed, and yet I knew you at a glance."
"Then you followed me, I suppose?"
"No, I didn't. I lost sight of you, and had to give you up. Then I came over here to see Jack Evors; you remember him——"
"Of course I do. I knew that he was actually living under the shadow of Crocksands Abbey long before I came down here with Christopher, and, because of that, I never go outside the house. But it was a case of necessity to-day, and I had to risk it."
Akers's face grew dark. "I must know the facts, Mary," he said. "You are posing here in the name of Amberley and acting as housekeeper to the man who is now Sir Christopher Wrath. I won't trouble you again with my opinion of that scoundrel, because you know it already. If you had never seen him you would be a happy woman to-day."
"Ah! God knows that is true," the woman cried.
"But then I suppose no man could ever understand a woman's infatuation for a rascal. You elected to go away with him, I suppose, without saying a word to me?"
"But you don't understand," the woman exclaimed. "There were reasons why Christopher should not remain in Australia. Perhaps, if I had realised what they really were, I should have stayed behind, and perhaps not. But surely, Gilbert, you don't imagine that I—why, Christopher Wrath is my husband."
"I suppose that ought to make all the difference," Akers said, bitterly. "But it doesn't. And if he is your husband, and you are Lady Wrath of Crocksands Abbey and the wife of a baronet of old family, why are you posing as his housekeeper? Why doesn't he properly acknowledge you, and allow you to take your place in society like any other wife?"
The woman shook her head sadly.
"Ah! that I cannot tell you," she said. "There are reasons, powerful reasons, of which I know nothing, why for the present Christopher cannot recognise me publicly as his wife. When he came into the title and the property he made me consent to come down here as his housekeeper. Gilbert, if you had lived the life I have for the last few years you would consent to anything for the sake of a little peace and quietness. I am absolutely alone in the world; I haven't a friend I can turn to, or any creature who cares in the least for me. Beyond Christopher's secretary, Miss Marchant, there is absolutely nobody."
"And you don't know who she is?" Akers said, quite forgetting himself in the excitement of the moment. "She is not Miss Marchant at all; she is the only daughter of Gordon Bland, who would be master of Crocksands today if he had not died so mysteriously at Monte Carlo. It was he who stood between Wrath and the succession, and there are lots of people to-day who believe that Wrath put him out of the way. It is a nasty accusation, is murder, but Wrath is quite capable of it. You say you are his wife—were you at Monte Carlo when that tragic affair happened?"
Mrs. Amberley rose to her feet and stood like a frozen statue confronting her brother.
"Is this dreadful thing true?" she whispered.
"Aye, it's true enough," Akers said. "And I firmly believe that if Miss Bland had her rights she would be mistress of Crocksands to-day, and possibly you know it."
The woman threw up her hands despairingly. "My God!" she cried. "My God! what have I done? I never realised this. Blind, foolish creature that I am. Would that I had died before this dreadful thing had happened!"
For some time Ellen and Bly sat there in the sunshine, quite unheedful of the flight of time. It did not matter much now with Wrath away, and as likely as not to be absent until morning, and Ellen had taken it for granted that by this time Gilbert Akers must have met his sister, because there was only one train she could return by, and only one method of reaching the Abbey, and that was by way of the valley. But there came a moment at length when it was necessary to come back to the affairs of life, so that Ellen rose in due course, and turned her face in the direction of the Abbey. On a ledge of rock just outside the gates they saw Evors sitting there alone, smoking his pipe thoughtfully.
"Well, what happened?" Bly asked, eagerly.
"It was just as Miss Marchant thought," Evors replied. "I waited until the lady turned up, and I saw quite enough to know that she was Akers's sister. So I left them discreetly, and I have just parted with Akers. He has gone back to Barnstaple; but before he went he gave me his address, and he says if we want him he can easily arrange to come over here at any moment. If I telephone him from the village he will start at once."
"And was I absolutely right?" Ellen asked.
"Absolutely. Mrs. Amberley is not only Akers's sister, but, unfortunately, Wrath's wife as well. That is why she kept out of my way when she heard I was down here. She admitted freely enough that she had been keeping out of my way; but there is no occasion to do that any longer. I never saw a woman so terribly changed. She was quite candid about the life she had been leading lately, and she has no illusions about Wrath left."
"I knew this," Ellen explained. "I knew it, because I overheard a conversation between those two; but I could not speak about it—I could not tell even either of you what I had heard. But now that she has told you I can speak freely."
"I think if I were you I should tackle her on the subject," Evors suggested. "From what I can gather she knows a great more than she cares to say. There is something mysterious going on at the Abbey; but that you already know. You might have an opportunity this evening, now that Wrath is away."
They walked along the drive together, and presently separated. Evors and Bly going to the bungalow, whilst Ellen turned in under the big gates of the Tower and presently entered the house. It wanted still half an hour before it was time to dress for dinner, so that Ellen made her way in the direction of the library with a view of clearing up her work and having the evening to herself. She had barely finished when the telephone rang.
She took down the receiver and made the usual inquiry. Then she heard Wrath's voice at the other end of the wire. It seemed to her that something had disturbed him terribly.
"Is that you, Miss Marchant?" he asked, in a hoarse whisper. "Can you find Stone for me—at once?"
"If you will hold on I will go and see," Ellen said. "I rather fancy he is down in the bay fishing. But I have only just come in, and perhaps I am mistaken."
However, Stone was nowhere to be found. She conveyed this information to Wrath over the line, and she heard him mutter something to himself that sounded like an oath.
"You must go and find him," Wrath said. "You must find him. There is no time to be lost. And give him a message. Tell him there is trouble at this end, which has come quite unexpectedly. A real live danger that threatens his liberty. Tell him something has happened in Manchester. I can't be more explicit, and I want to impress upon you that if any questions are asked you have heard nothing over the telephone. You understand?"
"Perfectly," Ellen said. "You can rely upon my discretion, Sir Christopher. I shall not say a word."
"That's good," Wrath whispered. "Tell Stone to clear out at once. It doesn't matter where he goes as long as he is not seen, and remind him that he knows how to get at me if he wants any money. But he must not sleep at Crocksands tonight. You may possibly have a visit from the police. If so, you have seen nothing of Stone and are quite ignorant of his whereabouts. It's a most unpleasant business, and I am taking a certain amount of risk in shielding a man who has no claim upon me. It is no concern whatever of mine, but Stone has been very useful to me, and I want to help him even if I get myself into trouble. I will explain when I see you in the morning."
So Wrath had no intention of coming back that night, Ellen told herself as she replaced the receiver. Something had gone wrong with the plans of those two rascals, and Ellen had very little difficulty in realising the source of the trouble. Beyond a doubt something had happened with regard to that lottery swindle, and the police had got upon the track. Still, she had made a promise and she would do her best to carry it out. She was still pondering over this new and dramatic development when Stone came into the library. In a few words she told him what had happened. Stone listened with much agape and face as white as chalk, for here was no hardened criminal of the same type as Wrath.
"What shall I do?" Stone stammered. "Where can I get to? I have no money. From what you tell me I should say that the police might be here at any minute I have done nothing."
"That is not for me to judge," Ellen said coldly. "From what Sir Christopher said this trouble has something to do with those transactions of yours in Manchester."
"What do you know about them?" Stone asked
"Nothing definite," Ellen said. "But please remember Mr. Stone, that I am not quite a child in business matters. I have done a great deal of correspondence for you and I am bound to say that I drew my own conclusions over it."
Stone ducked down suddenly. He fairly grovelled on his hands and knees as he caught sight of a man in uniform striding past the window of the library on his way to the front door. There was no mistaking the identity of the newcomer, for he had policeman written all over him.
"They are after me already," Stone moaned. "What can I do? Where am I to go?"
Ellen's mind was moving rapidly. There was something here much more important than the hiding away from the authorities of the man Stone. If she could hold him in her power a little longer she might play on his gratitude and induce him to give her certain information which she felt that he possessed.
"Did anybody see you come into the house?" she asked.
"Not a soul," Stone whispered. "I came along the avenue and through the window of the little morning-room straight here without meeting one of the servants. I must get away; I must have money. Upstairs in one of the rooms——"
"Yes, I know," Ellen interrupted. "In one of those locked rooms upstairs is practically the whole of the money you plundered from your victims over that Derby lottery."
"How did you know about that?" Stone said.
"For the moment what does it matter?" Ellen asked. "Come with me quickly. You shall have money when the time comes, but that time is not yet, and if I can help it, you will take nothing from that locked room in the Tower. This way."
She turned from the room, and walked across the hall until she came to a door in one of the passages, which she opened and disclosed a flight of steps leading from it into the great stone basement of the house.
"Now, go down there and wait for me," she said. "Feel your way carefully in the dark, and remain there till I come back. Don't move a yard when you get to the bottom of the steps."
In less than a minute Ellen was back in the library again, before a servant could enter the room with the information that somebody was at the front door asking to see Mr. Stone.
"I don't think he is in the house," Ellen said. "It is just possible he went to Barnstaple this morning with Sir Christopher. At any rate, he wasn't in to lunch."
The servant knew that this was true, and so far Ellen felt satisfied with the trend of events. Then, quite coolly, she walked across the hall into the portico where the man in uniform was standing. He touched his hat respectfully enough, and asked if he could see Mr. Stone.
"I am afraid you can't," Ellen said. "Can I give him any message if he happens to come back?"
"I really must see him personally, miss," the man said. "If you can assure me that he is not on the premises——"
Ellen shook her head. She did not want to tell a downright untruth, nor was she particularly anxious to shield the trembling wretch who was standing at the bottom of the stairs. A little later on she would care nothing as to whether Stone fell into the hands of the police or not. But it would not be her fault if that happened before she had wrung from Stone the information she required. That he held it she did not doubt for a moment.
"I am afraid I can't help you," she said. "You will probably find that Mr. Stone is in Barnstaple together with Sir Christopher. Sir Christopher won't be back until morning; but when he returns to-morrow I will tell him what you said."
But is was not quite so easy to shake off the man in blue as Ellen had anticipated. He had a great many questions to ask before at length he reluctantly departed, saying that he would return in the morning and hinting that he would probably not come alone. Once he had gone, and Ellen had furtively watched him disappear under the shadow of the Tower, she flew down the stone stairs into the vault below. She had a box of matches in her hand, and an electric torch she had taken from the library. She flashed the light on to Stone's white, wet face, and he gave a deep sigh of relief as she came towards him.
"Well?" he demanded, breathlessly. "Well?"
"I have got rid of the man for the moment," Ellen said, coldly. "But I had to tell him a great many lies before he was satisfied that you are not on the premises. I think I gave him the impression that you had already had a warning, and that you were not in the least likely to return. It was a horrible and degrading business, Mr. Stone, and perhaps you will tell me why I should have perjured myself to save you from arrest?"
"Arrest?" Stone stammered. "Arrest?"
"Oh, please don't try and deceive me," Ellen said, icily. "I am perfectly certain that the policeman had a warrant for your arrest in his pocket. And you know it. I am not a child, and if Sir Christopher Wrath's message to me meant anything it was that I should see you at once, and warn you to get out of the way. He knows. If the matter hadn't been urgent, he would never have confided all that to me. I think we had better understand one another, Mr. Stone. The time for plain speaking has arrived. I know perfectly well that you and Sir Christopher have been engaged in a disgraceful swindle and that the proceeds, amounting to thousands of pounds, are concealed in the locked room of the Tower. If I had done my duty I should have told the policeman so this afternoon."
"You are very good," Stone whined.
"I am nothing of the sort," Ellen said. "Please don't imagine that you owe me anything, because you don't. You regard me as just the ordinary mechanical typist who writes letters and copies documents without in the least understanding what they mean. But in this instance you are wrong. And, what is more, I happen to know your proper name."
"My proper name?" Stone stammered. "What——"
"Your proper name," Ellen repeated coldly. "You are Mr. Melrose's discredited partner, Walter Clapstone. And now I am going to make a bargain with you. If I can keep you securely hidden here for a day or two, and get you safely out of the country with enough money in your pocket to support you comfortably until you can find something to do abroad, will you hand over to me the deed signed by the late Sir George Bland-Merton and Gordon Bland whereby the entail of Crocksands Abbey was cut off? I know that you possess it, and that is the hold you have on Sir Christopher Wrath. You need not reply at once, you need not ask me why I am interested in this matter, because I should decline to tell you. But if I can hide you away in the Tower——"
"The Tower?" Stone cried. "Why, there is already——"
He broke off abruptly, as if he were saying more than he intended, then he turned his white, despairing face towards Ellen.
"Why not?" she asked. "I can show you the way; I can show you the secret passage that opens into the basement of the Tower. Take this torch and go along till you come to what appears to be an oak barrier. In the centre of it is a piece of carving with a rose prominently displayed. Press the centre of this, and you will find yourself in the Tower. There you can stay until my friends here can smuggle you into their motor boat and land you on the Welsh coast. It is only a matter of five-and-twenty miles, and they will supply you with money. And now Mr. Clapstone, do you agree or shall I turn my back upon you altogether? It is entirely for you to decide."
Ellen felt too sure of her ground to press her advantage unduly. She knew that Clapstone, otherwise Stone, was as wax in her hands now, and she had by no means lost sight of the fact that he had made no attempt to deny her suggestion that the vital document not only existed but was somewhere in his possession. He had hinted to her before in his more valiant moments that he held a certain secret power over Wrath, and she knew now that this had been no idle boast. When the time came, she felt sure that she could compel Clapstone to speak the truth. The man knew, moreover, that Wrath would throw his confederate over without the slightest hesitation, and that he would deny having taken any part in the big lottery. And on the face of it there was nothing to prove that Wrath had had anything whatever to do with it. But then, Ellen was not aware of the fact that Wrath, in his arrogance and impudence, had overreached himself during his interview with Inspector Wilder, when he had told the official in question that he was the actual winner of the prize. And this was going to count very heavily against Wrath when the day of reckoning came.
Any way, Clapstone was safe in the Tower by this time, and Ellen had agreed to see later on to his creature comforts. And early next morning she would see Evors and Bly and tell them what had happened. Before Wrath could return to Crocksands her friends would interview Clapstone in the Tower and compel him to agree to any course they cared to adopt. Whatever Clapstone might have at the back of his mind, his desire to preserve his liberty would override everything else. He must save that at any cost, and the price he would have to pay for his personal safety and a swift passage across the Channel would be either the surrendering of the vital document or the secret of its hiding place. Between the three of them the truth would be forced from Clapstone. Meanwhile, he was safe enough in the Tower, and Ellen went down to dinner presently with a comparatively easy mind.
It was the first time she had ever dined alone with Mrs. Amberley, so that there was a certain amount of constraint between them. When the meal was over at length and the two women were alone in one of the smaller drawing-rooms, Ellen felt free to speak.
"Is there any way I can help you?" she asked. "I want to be quite candid, if you don't mind, Lady Wrath."
The woman opposite half rose to her feet. "'How did you know that?" she whispered.
"I can only tell you the exact truth," Ellen said. "I overheard a conversation a little time ago between yourself and Sir Christopher when you were in the music-room. I was up in the gallery overhead, and I could not help listening. I think that on that occasion Sir Christopher rather forgot himself."
"Ah, that is nothing new," the woman said, bitterly. "It as a very shameful confession to have to make, Miss Marchant——"
"Please don't say another word about that," Ellen replied. "I cannot tell you how sorry I am for you. Ever since I came into the house you have had a certain attraction for me, and when you told me that that portrait in your room was your own, I began to understand. It seems almost incredible to me that any one could change so in so short a time. But why do you remain here? Why do you put up with such treatment at the hands of a man whom you must hate and despise from the bottom of your soul?"
"I wonder if I do," Lady Wrath laughed, mirthlessly. "My dear child, we women are strange creatures. You have on the one side a woman who has every kindness and consideration at a man's hands, and treats him as if he were merely made to provide her with money and pleasure. And the kinder he is to her the more she despises him. And, then, you have the other kind of woman, like me, who love to kiss the rod. She is neglected and ill treated, even beaten, and yet one kind word from her taskmaster, and she crawls back to his feet like a dog. I never dreamt that I belonged to that class; but I am afraid I do."
Ellen listened with tears an her eyes. It seemed almost impossible to argue with a despair like this.
"But surely you have friends?" she said. "Indeed, I know you have. There is your own brother, for instance—the man you met this evening. You see I know all about it. Why don't you get him to interfere, why don't you ask him to take you away from here altogether? Your life here must be a misery."
"This is a very strange conversation," Lady Wrath murmured. "I am wondering where you got your information from. Of course, you learnt quite by accident that I am Sir Christopher's wife, but how could you possibly know that Gilbert Akers is my brother? I know quite well that Mr. Evors and Mr. Bly are friends of yours, but that does not explain everything. And yet I suppose it is impossible to keep these things concealed for ever. Ever since I have been here, I have been keeping out of Mr. Evors's way, in terror lest I should meet him and be recognised. If he had met me, I know that he would have found out where my brother was, and told him what sort of a life I was leading."
"But why shouldn't he?" Ellen asked. "You must have known that your brother was looking for you everywhere, and you must have known that he was fearing the worst. Why does Sir Christopher keep his marriage a secret? Why should he bring you down here, pretending you are his housekeeper, Mrs. Amberley? I am quite sure that you have done nothing wrong."
"Have I not?" Lady Wrath whispered. "Have I not? Ah! if you only knew. But one thing I can assure you. I really am Lady Wrath. I was married in Australia before we came back to England. We came in an assumed name for some reason which I cannot understand, and my life has been one constant misery ever since. And yet I did not go into it blindfold. I knew perfectly well what was the character of the man I was marrying. All my friends were dead against him, and, without exception, they warned me of what sort of a future I was likely to lead. But in those days, I was wilful and headstrong, and I refused to listen. I was a popular figure on the stage, and the admiration I was getting from all sides quite turned my head. And even when I knew that Sir Christopher had made an attempt upon the life of his cousin, Gordon Bland, I refused to draw back. But I suppose Mr. Evors has told you all about that."
"Yes, I have heard that story," Ellen said. "From what I can understand Mr. Gordon Bland stood between Sir Christopher and the title. It was a horrible business altogether, and nothing could be proved, of course; but it is quite clear that when Sir Christopher sent those people up-country in search for gold, he never expected to see them back again."
"Ah, I did not realise that at the time," Lady Wrath said. "I did not really realise it till long afterwards. It was only when we got to England, and were living in a sordid way, that I learnt bit by bit my husband's past. He will not tell me even now why I am not allowed to assume my proper name and title. No doubt there is some disgraceful reason why, but I think, Miss Marchant, you have a good deal more to tell me yet."
"In what way?" Ellen asked.
"Well, to begin with, the reason why you came here. Why did you give up a good situation in London to come down to Crocksands Abbey and become private secretary to a man who must have offended all your nice feminine instincts the first time he ever spoke to you? Oh, I know Christopher's way with a pretty girl. I have watched it a score of times. Still, we need not go into that. You must have had some powerful reason for coming here. You said just now that you wanted to speak candidly. If that is so, then perhaps you will tell me what is your proper name?"
Ellen looked up swiftly. "I believe you know it already," she cried.
"My brother told me this evening. It slipped out quite casually that you are the daughter of Gordon Bland—the man who was supposed to have committed suicide at Monte Carlo rather than betray a vain and foolish woman who allowed herself to be dragged into a crime and did not realise it until too late."
"Yes, that is true," Ellen said. "And when I find that woman my task will be nearly complete."
Lady Wrath looked up with a queer expression in her eyes. It was some time before she spoke again.
"Let me find her for you," she said. "Let me introduce you to the woman who sent your father to his death. Mind you, she did not realise till too late what she was doing, because she was a mere tool in the hands of a clever and unscrupulous scoundrel. Because I am the woman who gave your father that fatal paper!"
It was some little time before Ellen grasped the full purport of her companion's confession. It had come so unexpectedly, this confirmation of all she had anticipated for so long, that it was some minutes before she could gather its full significance.
"Do you understand what you are saying, Lady Wrath?" she asked. "I must call you Lady Wrath now because that is your proper name. Do you mean to say that it was you who was responsible for the trouble that led up to my father's death?"
"Yes, that is exactly what I do mean," Lady Wrath said. "Directly my brother told me who you were, I saw that there was only one course for me. I made up my mind to tell you the truth. But before I go any further there is one thing I must say for myself. I want you to believe that what I did was done quite unwittingly. I never dreamt for a moment that your father would suffer so terribly for a mere act of kindness."
"You mean that you were being made use of?" Ellen asked.
"Oh, I was. You really must believe that."
Lady Wrath spoke with her eyes full on Ellen's face. There was unhappiness and misery in her glance; she was like a woman in the last grip of despair, and yet it seemed to Ellen that she was telling no more than the truth.
"Perhaps I had better explain," she went on. "It is rather a long story, and takes me back for some years. When your father was out in Australia all that time ago, I met him more than once. Your mother I hardly knew, but this fact I was aware of: In all his selfish, idle life there was only one woman that Christopher Wrath ever cared for, and that was your mother. I knew that the first time I ever saw them together. It was not what they said, or even the way they looked at one another, but I knew it, and the knowledge was like a dagger in my heart. There was nothing wrong, you understand—your mother was too good a woman for that—but I knew that Christopher had been her first choice, and that she had not married him because her family had stood in the way. She would have been terribly unhappy if she had, though that is not the point. I could see that she was a good wife, and that she cared a lot for your father in a quiet sort of way, but never as she had once cared for Christopher, and I knew that Christopher was doing his best to come between those two. Not because he ever hoped to re-establish his previous relationship, but because he hated Gordon Bland, and would have done anything to hurt him. If you ask me how I knew all this, I cannot tell you. Put it down to a woman's instinct, if you like, but it made me unhappy, because I loved Christopher in that blind, unreasoning way of mine, and I would have done anything he asked me to do. The time came when he did bring about a misunderstanding between your father and mother, though I never heard any of the details."
"That is perfectly true," Ellen murmured.
"Ah, so I thought. Mind you, my child, I had no illusions when your father and Mr. Evors and my brother went off on that gold-seeking excursion. I had an uneasy suspicion that something was seriously wrong. But even then I was fascinated by the man who has ruined my life. He told me that he had to return to Europe, and he asked me to go along. As his wife I went, and I have been deeply sorry for it ever since. And yet I would do it all over again, even with the knowledge of what I was destined to suffer. Ah, that is the way of some women!"
"You went to live in London, I think?" Ellen asked.
"Yes, we lived in London under an assumed name, in obscure lodgings off Russell-square. Sometimes we were well off and sometimes we did not know where to turn for a penny. I knew that my husband was engaged in underhand practices, and that he was concealing our presence in England from his family. Also, he was hand in glove with the man Stone. Stone is not his proper name."
"Yes, I am quite aware of that," Ellen said. "His name is Clapstone, and he used to be a partner with Mr. Melrose who was my employer before I came here. And perhaps, Lady Wrath, you can guess why I threw up my appointment in London and came down to Crocksands Abbey where I have spent some of my happiest years."
"I can make a pretty shrewd guess," Lady Wrath said. "You wanted to find something out. Wasn't there a sort of deed whereby you might have succeeded to this property? I don't know myself, but I have heard conversations——"
"We will come to that presently," Ellen said. "I want you to tell me all about my father."
"I had quite forgotten that," Lady Wrath said. "Will you please remember that when I went to Europe with Christopher I was not supposed to be his wife? We travelled in different boats, and it was given out that I had accepted an important engagement in London, and it was made to appear as if there were no connection between us. I have never been able quite to ascertain why Sir Christopher wanted to keep our marriage a secret, but he was very firm on the point and I always give way to him. Well, the time came when he went off to Monte Carlo. About that time he seemed to be quite prosperous, and he hired a yacht called the Sunstar, which he represented as his private property. I went to Monte Carlo overland and met him there, and there I was supposed to find your father. I was told that he was no longer living with your mother; in fact, she had died some time back, and they had never met after leaving Australia. I was induced to meet your father, merely as a friend of Christopher's, and he knew me as an actress who was taking a holiday. Then I saw a good deal of him, and we were quite friendly. But, except as a guest, I was never on the Sunstar. And then there came a day when Christopher informed me that he was desperately in need of money, and in danger of arrest for debt. He gave me a document which I did not understand, a long, blue slip of paper, which he called an acceptance.
"I know nothing about business, so I was quite ready to believe the tale that he told me. He said that Gordon Bland had a banking account with the Credit Foncier at Monte Carlo, and I was to ask him to get that acceptance changed into money. I was also to say that it was a personal matter of my own, and that I wanted the transaction kept a dead secret. Your father asked no questions, but in that impulsive, kind-hearted way of his obtained two thousand pounds in cash in exchange for that slip of paper, and handed it over to me. In all good faith, I gave it to Christopher and then I learnt afterwards that the thing was a forgery, and that the name of Lord Maberley had been used for the purpose of obtaining that sum by false pretences."
The speaker paused for a moment or two.
"You can imagine my distress," she said. "I dared not speak; I could not bring my husband into the matter without ruining him, and I asked your father to keep my shameful secret. Oh, I knew quite well that I had been made a tool of to rob him, but I was still so infatuated with the man who had brought all this about that I would have gone to any length to save him. I thought your father was a rich man, and that he would have found the money himself—oh! God knows what I thought. But instead of that the bank people discovered the forgery and, without waiting for a chance of getting their money back, they issued a warrant against your father. And rather than I should suffer, he fled on board the yacht and a few hours afterwards put an end to his own life. It was a horrible business altogether, and it changed me from a fairly happy creature, full of life and gaiety, and, I may say, good looks, to the dreary wreck you see before you. But that is the truth, and if you want me to say it openly, I will do my best to make amends for the crime, which has been haunting me for the last two years or more. My only excuse is that I was quite innocent of what I was doing when I took that paper to your father. And now you know that he was guiltless of any crime."
Lady Wrath ceased to speak. She lay back in her chair white and exhausted, and just for the moment Ellen was conscious of no feeling except one of the deepest pity for her. So far there was nothing more to be said. Sooner or later Evors and Bly would have to know this; but for the present there was nothing but to wait until Wrath returned to Crocksands Abbey.
Ellen went up to her room presently with her mind in a whirl and a feeling that it was utterly useless for her to go to bed. She sat for a long time with her bedroom door slightly open and a book in her hand, which she strove in vain to read. Then an hour or so afterwards it seemed to her that she could hear voices in the corridor, and then someone tapped at her door.
"Are you asleep, Miss Marchant!" Lady Wrath asked.
"No, indeed," Ellen said. "I am not even undressed."
"Then perhaps you would not mind coming downstairs. Christopher is back, and he wants to see you."
Ellen ran down the stairs and into the library, where she found Wrath pacing restlessly up and down the room. The man seemed to be oppressed and worried, for there was a scowl on his face, and deep lines were engraved on his forehead.
"Ah, here you are," he said. "You see, I have got back. Where is Stone to be found?"
"Does it matter?" Ellen asked. "I gave him your message, and he has gone. I told him that he would know where to write to you if he wanted money, and that was the last I saw of him."
As Ellen spoke she gazed rather apprehensively at her employer. It was not clear yet as to whether Lady Wrath had told her husband the secret of her identity; but if that had been the case, then Wrath's manner would have been different. Ellen decided that he did not know.
"Look here, Miss Marchant," Wrath burst out. "I am in the very devil of a mess. I told you that the police were after Stone in connection with some racing fraud, and that a warrant had been issued for his apprehension. And now it seems that I am in the same box with him. I had a telephone message in Barnstaple an hour or two ago to say that the Manchester police were after me, and for the present I am going to keep out of the way. Of course, I don't know anything at all about it, but I have decided to lie low until I am in a position to prove my innocence. I am going almost at once in the car to Exeter. Upstairs in one of the turret rooms are all those hampers that came from Manchester. I want you to get them all down to-morrow, and forward them by passenger train to an address in London which I will give you."
"I am afraid I cannot do anything of the sort," Ellen said. "You must not ask me to do that, Sir Christopher. I decline to make myself party to this conspiracy. By chance I happen to know what is in those hampers. You must not forget that I have had a good business training, and recollect that I transacted all the correspondence. I have felt for a long time that there was something wrong with regard to that Manchester business, and quite by chance I found out that thousands of postal orders and Bank of England notes were coming in those hampers from Manchester. I am not going to be brought into the business at all."
"You will do exactly as you are told," Wrath blustered. "Otherwise you are no longer in my employ."
"That will suit me very well," Ellen said, quietly. "But again I decline to handle those hampers."
Wrath blustered and stormed; but Ellen listened to all that he had to say quite unmoved.
"You are only wasting your time," she said. "If you want me to leave Crocksands Abbey to-morrow I shall be quite willing to do so, but I shall come back—oh, yes, I shall come back, because—well, never mind. And now, if you have nothing more to say to me, I think I will go back to my room."
Wrath turned upon her furiously. Then with a gesture he signified to Ellen that the interview was finished.
Wrath strode across the hall into the small dining-room, where his unhappy wife was awaiting him. It was well into the dead of night now, and the house was strangely silent. Lady Wrath looked at her husband with a certain dumb docility in her eyes.
"Now, listen here," he said. "I have been talking to Miss Marchant. She knows all about it—she knows the story of the swindle from A to Z. I was an infernal fool ever to have had her down here, but I didn't think a pretty girl like herself would have any real business head. Still, she will be out of the house in the course of the day, and she can go back to old Melrose, for all I care. Now, listen. I am in a devil of a mess. If I stay here I shall be arrested. The fact of the matter is I have been too clever. Clapstone and myself put up a very pretty swindle, and it would have gone all right if one of our subordinates had not opened his mouth too wide. It was a racing lottery, and the proceeds are in the house at the present moment. About thirty thousand, in notes and orders. But a man named Goss got into trouble, and he was the man we picked out as the ostensible winner of the big prize. He is in gaol now, and he would have had five hundred pounds when he came out, but he took somebody into his confidence, and that somebody went to the police. And now you know all about it. You stay here for a day or two, and at the end of the week pack up all your traps and go to the house off Russell-square where we used to hang out. I will send you some money in a few days, and you had better lie up there for a month or two and then join me in my hiding-place. So far as Crocksands Abbey is concerned, the game is up. I shall never come back here again, and neither will you. If those people find anything out they will understand why—but never mind that."
Wrath strode up and down the room smoking furiously, and muttering incoherently to himself.
"I was too clever," he said. "A jolly sight too clever. I thought I could fool the police, and I was wrong. I tried to bluff Inspector Wilder, and I thought I had succeeded. It was a mad thing to do, but it looked like good business at the time, and I fell headlong into my own trap. Otherwise, I could have put the whole thing on to Clapstone's shoulders and sworn that Clapstone was working the swindle from Crocksands Abbey without consulting me. But when I told Wilder that I myself was the winner of the big prize I delivered myself straight into his hands. It is extraordinary the mad things even a clever man will do on the spur of the moment. And yet I was quite pleased and ever, it is no use crying over spilt milk. You do as I tell you, and get that girl out of the house. Of course, she will tell the police all about that stuff upstairs, but that can't be helped now. I had a bit of luck last week, and got hold of a thousand or two, so that I shall be all right for the moment. But I am wasting my time chattering like this. You quite understand what you have to do?"
"Yes, Christopher," said the woman, meekly. "I am to pack up and go to London at the end of the week. But what about the servants? And who is to look after the house?"
"Oh, curse the servants and the house, too," Wrath broke out, furiously. "Leave them both to look after themselves. Say you are only going to London for a day or two."
And with that, and not another word, Wrath strode out of the room and into the drive, where the motor was awaiting him. The unhappy woman he had left behind him threw herself face down on the couch, and gave way to a passion of grief. Meanwhile, Ellen, in her room, was trying in vain to sleep. She was up betimes in the morning, long before the household was awake, and made her way through the silent, dewy woods to the bungalow. She had a few minutes to wait there until Evors and Bly appeared from the beach below, where they had been having their early bathe. They listened with the deepest interest to all that Ellen had to say, and it was evident that her story had greatly impressed them.
"Won't you come inside?" Evors said. "It won't take me many minutes to get breakfast, and perhaps you would like to have some with us? It is no time to stand on ceremony."
"What's the first thing to be done?" Bly asked.
"Well, that is rather difficult to say," Evors replied. "There is so much to do. I gather from what Miss Bland tells me that nothing is likely to happen for the next day or two. At least, not before Saturday. Of course, the police will be over here looking for Wrath, and the neighbourhood will be humming with scandal before the day is out. In all probability the servants will leave Crocksands Abbey as soon as they realise what is in the air, so that Miss Bland and that unfortunate woman will be left alone in the house. That is pretty certain to happen."
"Perhaps that would be just as well," Ellen suggested.
"Yes, perhaps it would," Evors agreed. "It seems to me the first thing we have to do is to interview the man Stone, or rather Clapstone, to give him his proper name."
"Yes, I think you are right," Ellen said. "But don't forget that I promised him safe custody across the Channel. I said that you would take him over in your motor-boat. After all is said and done, he is a poor sort of scoundrel, and had benefited very little by what he has done. It was Sir Christopher who directed everything and had most of the spoils. You see, I have an idea that Clapstone could tell us all about that deed. Can't we make it a condition that we don't do anything for him unless he tells us all about it?"
"What a splendid idea," Evors cried, "We will go and see him. You must smuggle us into the house, and take us along the underground passage as far as the Tower. I suppose by this time he is wondering where he is going to get any food from."
Ellen went off presently in the direction of the house, having arranged that her friends should join her later and accompany her on a visit to the Tower. So far nothing had happened, nor had Lady Wrath come down to breakfast. She sent a message to Ellen to the effect that she was utterly prostrated with a nervous headache, and intended to stay in bed for the present. It was about 11 o'clock before Evors and Bly appeared at the front entrance, and presently, when the servants were out of the way, Ellen admitted them to the house, and conducted them along the underground passage until they came at length to the oak barrier, in the centre of which was the carved rose, which concealed the spring that opened the door into the ground floor of the Tower.
A slight pressure on this, and they were well inside. They found themselves in a large, comfortably furnished apartment, fitted with electric light and a small electric cooker, which was driven by a cable connected with the plant at Crocksands Abbey. In a big armchair by one of the windows, Clapstone was seated, half asleep, and in an attitude of deep dejection. He looked up eagerly as the trio entered.
"You can pull up that blind behind you," Evors said. "There is no occasion for further concealment."
"But if anybody sees me?" Clapstone stammered.
"Oh, no one is likely to see you. Nobody ever comes up here, and the servants are still in happy ignorance of recent events. We have brought some breakfast for you, little as you deserve it. Now sit down and eat that, and we will talk when you have finished. There is a good deal to be said."
Clapstone resigned himself to the inevitable. He seemed to understand that everything was finished so far as he was concerned, and the one thing he had to think of now was his own safety. He ate the meal that had been brought him, and quite thankfully accepted a cigarette offered him by Bly.
"Now we can get to business," Evors said. "I may tell you, to begin with, that the whole story is public property. The police are after you, and they are after Wrath as well. Allow me to introduce to your notice Miss Bland. You have hitherto known her as Miss Marchant, but now there is no reason why you should not know that she is the only child of the late Gordon Bland. Don't interrupt, please. Moreover, Mrs. Amberley—or, to give her her proper name, Lady Wrath—has told the whole story of that vile conspiracy at Monte Carlo. That will be public property in a few days. We know now that Mr. Gordon Bland was an innocent man, and his name must be cleared. We also know that, probably on the day of his death, Mr. Bland signed that deed barring the entail of Crocksands Abbey, and returned it to the offices of Melrose and Clapstone, where it came into your hands, and as Sir George Bland-Merton had already appended his signature the document was complete. Now we want to know where it is. We know that you kept it as a hold over Sir Christopher Wrath, and unless you deliver it into our hands you can go hang, so far as we are concerned. But if you consent to do as we ask, then at dusk to-night we will run you across, and land you on the Welsh coast."
It was a mere piece of bluff, a bow drawn at a venture, but the arrow went home to the feather.
"Oh, all right," Clapstone gasped. "You shall have it. I kept it because I never trusted Wrath, and because I hoped to sell that document to him for a good many thousand pounds. It is in my bedroom at the Abbey. There is a compressed cane suit-case there with a false lining. Under that you will find the agreement, and you can make what use you like of it. It was signed by Mr. Gordon Bland the day before—I mean it was signed, anyhow, and was sent back to Martin's Inn, where it fell into my hands. It was hard luck upon me, but still——"
Clapstone stopped, as there came a step upon the stair leading to the upper room, and a man walked in. He was tall and thin, with a vacant eye and a pallid face, and a long, straggling beard that reached almost to his waist.
Ellen jumped to her feet, and moved forward. There was a strange light shining in her eyes as she crossed the room and impulsively laid her hands upon the newcomer's shoulders.
"Daddy," she whispered. "Daddy, don't you know me?"'
The man with the slumbering eyes and ragged beard crept slowly forward, like one who walks in his sleep. In his shabby clothing and neglected outer man he might have been some derelict recently picked up on a desert island. Ellen's words were evidently lost upon him, for he took no heed of them, and dropped into a chair quite vacantly. Then presently he seemed to make an effort to grasp what was going on around him, and a thin, uncertain smile trembled for a moment on his lips. The only one of the group there who seemed to retain a proper grip of the situation was Evors, who crossed over to the two windows in the room and threw up the blinds. They were the only windows on the ground floor at all, and they looked out on the Channel, that flashed and trembled in the sunshine a sheer thousand feet below, for the Tower was built on the very edge of the cliff, and, with the exception of one bedroom, there was no window that looked inland.
For some little time the strange apparition sat there with his head sunk on his breast, until Ellen laid a hand upon his shoulder and whispered something in his ear.
"It's Ellen," he murmured. "My child!"
The others stood awkwardly looking on. Bly wanting to say something, but unable to think of an appropriate phrase; Evors more cool and collected; and Clapstone red and ashamed and longing to be anywhere but in the presence of the man he had helped to injure. For the moment, however, Clapstone was thinking entirely of himself. He was wondering what this new development would mean to him personally, and whether, in the face of it, Evors would go back upon his promise to see him safely on the Welsh coast. Once there he would know what to do; but if this boon were not granted him, then assuredly before many hours were over he would be in the hands of the police.
Ellen turned upon him with flashing eyes. "You knew all about this!" she cried.
"I didn't!" Clapstone protested. "Upon my word and honour, I didn't! At least only quite lately. I had no idea whatever that Wrath was hiding any one in the Tower. He told me a lot of lies about the place, and I saw no reason to disbelieve him until one night, not long ago, I happened to see something suspicious going on in the Abbey, and I followed Wrath here. Then I knew; but I swear it was the first time!"
Ellen let it pass, all the more so because she was inclined to believe that Clapstone was telling the truth. She herself, it will be remembered, had been watching Wrath on the night in question. She had seen Clapstone following, and therefore, she was giving the man the benefit of the doubt.
"It was all a surprise to me," Clapstone went on. "Of course, when you showed me the way into the basement of the Tower by that underground passage, I knew that Sir Gordon was here; but previous to the time I mentioned I had no idea that he was any longer alive. No wonder Wrath wanted to keep the secret quiet."
"Let me understand what all this means," Bly asked. "If this is really your father, Ellen——"
"Oh, he is," Ellen cried. "Changed almost beyond recognition, but my father, all the same, thank Heaven."
"Oh, then Wrath is not Sir Christopher at all."
"Perhaps I had better be allowed to explain," Clapstone said, fawningly. "So long as Sir Gordon is alive Wrath was merely an outsider. He had no claim to Crocksands Abbey, and no right to spend the income. But, now you know where that deed is, everything is all right. If your father, Miss Bland, were to die at this moment you would be mistress of Crocksands."
But Ellen was not listening. She was too busy attending to her father, and trying to win some recognition from him of what was going on. Very gradually a weight seemed to be lifting from his shoulders; then he stood up and smiled.
"This is a strange thing," he said. "A very strange thing. Goodness knows how long I have been here, because I have lost all idea of time. It seems a lifetime, and all to no purpose, because the truth must come out, and I shall have to undergo the punishment I was cowardly enough to try and avoid. It was Wrath's scheme, and weakly I agreed to it."
"But there is nothing to be afraid of," Ellen urged. "You did nothing wrong, and, besides, Lady Wrath——"
"And who is Lady Wrath?" Sir Gordon asked.
"I almost despair of being able to tell you," Ellen said. "It is all such a dreadful tangle. But presently you will come face to face with the woman who called herself Lady Wrath, and you shall hear her vindicate your good name. But I don't understand, father—how did you get here?"
Gordon Bland passed his hand across his eyes as if trying to clear the mist from them. When he spoke at length his voice was clear and strong enough, and it was evident that he was fast coming back into his manhood again.
"Let me try and explain," he said. "Out at Monte Carlo I did something wrong. Not knowingly, if you will believe me, my child, but because I was asked to do so by a woman whom I liked and respected. To oblige her, I induced my bankers to discount an acceptance endorsed by Lord Maberley. That was for two thousand pounds. The acceptance was a forgery, and the bankers caused a warrant to be issued for my arrest. I could easily have cleared myself, but by so doing I should have condemned a beautiful woman to a long term of imprisonment. I preferred to face that punishment myself. And when I realised what was before me, I was afraid. I did not know what to do. I went on board Wrath's yacht, and there I thought it all out. I had made a mess of my life, I had lost the affection of my wife——"
"You didn't," Ellen cried. "It was all a dreadful misunderstanding, and Christopher Wrath was at the bottom of it."
"Well, at any rate, I thought so, my dear," Bland went on. "And that was just the same thing so far as I was concerned. We had parted in anger—at any rate, on my side—and before we could come together again your mother died. You were in England all the time, my dear, and you cannot know how her death affected me. I seemed to be absolutely alone in the world, caring nothing what happened, and in a fit of despair I decided to take my own life. By doing that I removed myself from a world I had ceased to care for, and the woman's reputation was saved. Mind you, I don't think she had lured me into that trap deliberately; I believe she was being made use of by others. But what did that matter? If I jumped overboard that rough night and was drowned, then the whole thing would be straightened out. And I did it."
Bland paused a moment before he went on.
"But I was not destined to be drowned, Ellen. I was picked up by a fishing boat and taken to a village about fifty miles further down the coast, which was inhabited by a handful of simple people who never saw in the papers anything that was going on in the world. By some means or another Christopher Wrath managed to find out, and came to see me. He suggested I should allow him to smuggle me back to England, and because I did not care what happened, I agreed. And that, in a few words, is how I come to be here; goodness knows how long. It is not so very difficult when you come to think of it; nobody ever comes inside the Abbey grounds, and my wants are few. Besides, all the old servants are got rid of, and Wrath posed as Sir Christopher, the owner of Crocksands. I think I heard you mention a certain deed, Ellen. That, I suppose was the document signed by Sir George Bland-Merton and myself, whereby the entail was cut off, and if I died without a son the property would go to you."
"That's right," Clapstone broke in, eagerly. "The deed came back to me at the office, and I have been keeping it ever since. So long as it did not fall into the hands of Wrath——"
"Good heavens, man, you are not taking any credit to yourself, are you?" Evors cried.
"I have done my best, sir," Clapstone whined. "I have told you where the deed is to be found, and if anything happens to Sir Gordon, then this young lady here is the mistress of Crocksands. You won't forget what you promised, Mr. Evors.
"Oh, that's all right," Evors said, contemptuously. "We will come and fetch you after dark to-night and run you across the Channel to the Welsh coast. It's a criminal offence to aid and abet a fugitive from justice, but I am going to risk that, because I have given you my word."
Clapstone heaved a deep sigh of relief, and took no further part in the conversation.
"But I cannot stay here now," Sir Gordon said.
"Nobody wants you to," Ellen replied. "You have got to come out in the light of day and assume your proper name and position once more. The man who has done all the mischief, the man who deliberately planned the conspiracy that brought you face to face with prosecution, is at this moment keeping out of the reach of the police. A warrant has been issued for his arrest and sooner or later he will be found. But the woman in the case is at Crocksands at the present moment and she is quite willing to make the facts public."
"Do you know, I am almost sorry to hear that," Bland said. "Isn't there some other way?"
"I am afraid not, Sir Gordon," Evors put in. "The truth must be told. I want you to cast your mind back a few years to the time we were in Australia together. You remember the infamous way in which Wrath behaved to Akers and ourselves over that gold mining business. It was his deliberate intention to send us all to our death. That was his way of getting rid of you and coming into the title and the family property. And when we got back out of that death trap I made up my mind that I would get even with Wrath if it cost me all my fortune. That is why you find me living down here. But it so happens that your daughter has forestalled me. Just before she came here she was getting a living as a typist in the office of your solicitor, Mr. Melrose, and when Wrath wanted a private secretary she applied for the post and got it. She will tell you why later on. But she found a letter written by yourself to Mr. Clapstone here, which was on a date subsequent to that of your death. And when I knew that somebody was being hidden in the Tower I jumped to the illogical conclusion that that somebody was yourself. What Miss Bland really was after was the deed we are speaking of. She felt sure that you had signed it, and that Clapstone was concealing it for his own purposes, and events proved that she was right. But, of course, you are not aware of the fact that Wrath married Mary Akers, though he insisted upon keeping the marriage a secret, and the same woman who was the cause of all the trouble is at Crocksands at the present moment, calling herself Mrs. Amberley, and acting as her own husband's housekeeper. I know she will be glad to meet you, and I am sure she will not rest until she has told her story and cleared your name."
"Yes, that's right," Bly urged. "Why shouldn't she tell the story? She is a deeply injured woman who was made the innocent victim of a dastardly conspiracy, which she probably might have exposed at the time, only she thought that you had taken your own life. And I don't think she had any idea that you left a family. She would probably argue that the mischief was done and that nothing could be gained by betraying her own husband. But she will be anxious to speak now, I know."
"Why shouldn't we go to the Abbey and see her?" Ellen suggested. "Think what a weight all this knowledge will take off her mind. Let us go at once."
But Evors had a suggestion to make first.
"I think it would be better, Miss Bland," he said, "if you went on and prepared Mrs. Wrath as we must call her now, for this visit. Besides, your father will probably like to change his clothing before he comes down with us. And I might also venture to suggest a visit to the bungalow and a shave."
Bland laughed for the first time. "Oh, I have got quite a wardrobe up in my bedroom," he said, "though I never use it. There are occasions on dark nights when I creep about the woods for the sake of a little exercise, and I have not cared to worry much about my personal appearance. As to my razors, they must be all eaten up with rust by this time."
"Oh, we can manage all that," Evors said. "Just run upstairs and change, and we will valet you at the bungalow. As a matter of fact, I am quite good at haircutting. You remember how I used to trim the rest of you when we were in the bush. Now, Clapstone, you stay where you are till this evening. Then, at nine o'clock creep cautiously down into the bay where the motor boat will be awaiting you."
They left the Tower a minute or two later, and Ellen made her way in the direction of the Abbey, there to tell Mrs. Wrath all that had happened in the last crowded hours. It was a long story that Ellen had to tell, and when she had finished at length she saw that the tears were running down the listener's face. But they were not altogether tears of sorrow, there was joy mixed with them, and a look of relief on the pinched features that was very good to see.
"It is all marvellous," she murmured. "You cannot understand how glad I am to hear that things have turned out so well. Of course, I will tell the story. It must be made public from one end of the country to the other. Not one single shadow shall remain on Sir Gordon's name when I have finished. Nothing matters to me now. My husband is a fugitive from justice, and as likely as not I shall never see him again. But I am anxious to meet your father and ask his forgiveness."
Ellen explained that Sir Gordon would be along in a few minutes; but before he came the shadow of a further trouble presented itself in the shape of a message over the telephone. Somebody wanted to speak to Mrs. Amberley and when she came back a few minutes later Ellen could see disaster written in her eyes.
"What is it?" she asked. "What is it?"
"Christopher," the woman said, dully. All the life and strength seemed to have gone out of her. "He is dead."
"Dead?" Ellen echoed. "I don't understand."
"An accident," the woman went on. "In his car. Not very far from Exeter, as far as I can understand. He was being followed by the police in another car, and going down a steep hill a tyre burst. The chauffeur was unhurt but Christopher's neck was broken, he died instantly. They are bringing him back here. Perhaps it is as well. Perhaps I shall feel the weight of it later on, because, with all his faults, I cared for that man, and there was nothing I would not have done for him. And yet I am bound to feel that it is all for the best."
"It is very terrible," Ellen murmured, sympathetically. "But perhaps you would prefer to wait. There is no reason why you should see my father for the next two or three days."
"No, no," the other said, emphatically. "I will see him now. My child, I have had so much suffering and misery the last three years that a little more or less makes no difference. See, I am quite calm and collected now. Sit down and tell me the whole of the story, so that when your father comes along I shall know exactly what to do and what to say."
The narrative was finished presently, and it was hardly concluded before Sir Gordon came into the room. He had elected to come alone, a decision which the other two men applauded. His change of dress, together with the removal of his beard and the shortening of his hair, had made all the difference in the world. It was as if 20 years had fallen from his shoulders. There was something of the boyish, sanguine smile and the eager, youthful look that Ellen remembered so well. A few weeks and her real father would be back with her once more.
"This is a most extraordinary meeting," he said. "But, my dear Mary, what have you been doing to yourself? I should never have recognised you."
He spoke with genuine pity and sympathy, so that the tears rolled down Mrs. Wrath's cheeks freely.
"Can you ever forgive me," she murmured.
"I am not going to say another word," Bland said. "You were a victim of a plot, the same as I was, and because the author of that plot is your husband, I will say no more."
"I am glad to hear you say that, father," Ellen murmured. "Because Christopher Wrath is dead."
They talked this new phase over for some time, until Wrath's widow grew calm and collected once more. It was her idea to leave the Abbey at once, but Bland would not hear of it. After all is said and done, Christopher Wrath was one of the family, and therefore he would have to be buried in the vault in Lyndale churchyard, and after that it would be Bland's business to see to Mary Wrath's future. The story would have to be told, of course; it must appear in every paper in England, until the whole world knew the amazing story of the disappearance of Gordon Bland and his return to Crocksands Abbey.
"I don't know why you should do all this for me," Mary Wrath said. "I am quite capable of getting my own living. Don't forget I am still young, and that with a few months' rest and peace, I shall probably get my youth and perhaps a portion of my good looks back. Then I shall return to the stage."
Four days later the remains of Christopher Wrath were interred in Lyndale churchyard, and within a week the whole flaming story was ancient history. It seemed to Ellen very much as if there had been no break in the pleasant tide of her life, and she was trying to realise that Crocksands Abbey had not been hers from the very first. It was all so quiet and peaceful there, all so tranquilly beautiful, when a week or so later the old servants were back again, and the life of the place moved once more on oiled wheels. And once again the Abbey gates were thrown open to the county, so that the neighbours who had never come near the place in Wrath's time flocked the Abbey to offer their congratulations. Meanwhile, Mary Wrath had gone off with her brother to a watering-place on the south coast, where she intended remaining for some months, hoping that fresh scenes and surroundings would bring back something of her youth again.
During the time all this was settling down, and things were growing normal again Evors and Bly remained discreetly in the bungalow, until such time as they might be invited to join the family circle at the Abbey. They had carried out their promise to Clapstone, and had been successful in landing him on the Welsh coast under cover of the night, and from that moment they had heard nothing from him again. He had dropped out of their lives altogether, and his name was never mentioned.
And then there came a beautiful summer evening when Ellen sat in the great drawing-room at Crocksands awaiting the advent of Evors and Bly, who were coming up to dinner. Sir Gordon stood, a handsome figure in his evening dress, looking at his daughter with a humorous twinkle in his eyes.
"I have been hearing things," he said. "You are a wonderful girl, Ellen, and I am exceedingly proud of you. But have you been altogether candid with me?"
"Oh, I won't pretend to misunderstand you," Ellen said, with a touch of colour in her cheeks. "You are speaking of Rollo Bly. He will probably have something to say to you to-night; but that is no reason why we should not have a little talk first. You see, dad, I have had rather a different training from most girls, and I have learnt to think for myself."
"Quite right, my dear, quite right," Bland said. "I don't mind telling you I have made inquiries through Melrose, and I hear nothing but good of that fortunate young man. As a matter of fact, when I was down at the bungalow last night he did speak to me. But, my dear child, I am not going to lose you as soon as we have come together again. Some of these days you will be mistress of the Abbey, and the wife of a man who, I am told, is almost sinfully rich. This is a big place, with room for us all, and I don't suppose I shall spend more than half my time here. The wander blood in my veins is beginning to call again, which you can't wonder at when you realise that I have been a prisoner for so long. That is why I want you and your husband to live and make your home in the Abbey."
"I could ask nothing better," Ellen said. "But I hope you won't be away more than you can help."
Before Bland could reply, the two guests were announced, and, as Evors stood talking with his host, Bly drew Ellen aside so that they stood in one of the deep mullioned windows behind the shadow of the heavy silken curtains, and they were practically alone in that fine old drawing-room.
"Do you know, Ellen," Bly said. "I was talking to your father last night, and he promised——"
"Yes, I know he did," Ellen laughed, happily. "We were discussing the same important topic when you came in. He is going travelling again presently, and we are to live at the Abbey."
"So, that's all settled," Bly smiled. "Do you know, Ellen, that you have never yet kissed me? Now, perhaps, as the other two can't see us, maybe——"
She raised her lips to his freely and willingly as a child might do, and he caught her in his arms.
"It's all been very wonderful," he said. "And yet I think the most wonderful part is still to come."
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia