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Title: The Nether Millstone
Author: Fred M. White
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Language: English
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The Nether Millstone

by

Fred M. White


AUTHOR OF
"THE SLAVE OF SILENCE,"
"THE CRIMSON BLIND,"
"THE WEIGHT OF THE CROWN," ETC.


BOSTON
LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY
1907


"SHE CAME SLOWLY DOWN THE STEPS AND STOOD BETWEEN THE TWO MEN"


CONTENTS

I. "THE CASTE OF VERE DE VERE"
II. DASHWOOD HALL
III. HORACE MAYFIELD
IV. A LEAF FROM THE PAST
V. THE SACRIFICE
VI. A CRUEL MISUNDERSTANDING
VII. THE ONLY WAY
VIII. FOUND!
IX. THE PARTING GUEST
X. SKIN DEEP
XI. THE DOWAGER LADY DASHWOOD
XII. LADY DASHWOOD SEES A GHOST
XIII. DESECRATION!
XIV. A FIERCE TEMPTATION
XV. NOT QUITE TOO LATE
XVI. THE UNFINISHED WORD
XVII. BREATHING TIME
XVIII. A FLAMING SWORD
XIX. A GUARDIAN ANGEL
XX. HALF TOLD
XXI. VINCENT DASHWOOD
XXII. WHO DID IT?
XXIII. THE SILVER CLUE
XXIV. A FRESH CALAMITY
XXV. PRIDE OR PREJUDICE
XXVI. IN RECKLESS MOOD
XXVII. A WARNING
XXVIII. MORAL FORCE
XXIX. STRATEGY
XXX. THE HEIR OF THE HOUSE
XXXI. UNDER WHICH LORD?
XXXII. MUST THIS THING BE?
XXXIII. A REBEL AGAINST FATE
XXXIV. MISTRESS OF HERSELF
XXXV. A FRIEND IN NEED
XXXVI. CONNIE COLAM
XXXVII. THE UNEXPECTED HAPPENS
XXXVIII. THE MYSTERY DEEPENS
XXXIX. HOMELESS
XL. IN PERIL
XLI. THE LESSON OF ADVERSITY
XLII. THE COURAGE OF DESPAIR
XLIII. GETTING NEARER
XLIV. THE DREARY WAY
XLV. THE WALLS OF PRIDE
XLVI. THE HEAD OF THE HOUSE
XLVII. "HOW LONG, HOW LONG!"
XLVIII. FACE TO FACE!
XLIX. A BOLT FROM THE BLUE
L. HARD PUT TO IT
LI. COLD COMFORT
LII. THE SPIDER'S WEB
LIII. THE WEB TIGHTENS
LIV. "EYES CLEARER GROWN—"
LV. NOT DEAD
LVI. FOUND!
LVII. A CLEAN BREAST OF IT
LVIII. "THE KING IS DEAD—"
LIX. "LONG LIVE THE KING!"
LX. OPEN CONFESSION

LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


"SHE CAME SLOWLY DOWN THE STEPS AND STOOD BETWEEN THE TWO MEN"—FRONTISPIECE

"SHE PLAYFULLY ASKED HIM NOT TO BE TOO LONG"

"UNDER THE SHADE OF A TREE MARY LAID DOWN AND CLOSED HER WEARY EYES"

"HE HAD MARY'S HAND IN HIS"


CHAPTER I—"THE CASTE OF VERE DE VERE"

There were tears in the girl's eyes—tears of futile anger and despair. The danger was so great, and yet safety was so near. If only the black horse would stumble or swerve, if only she could work the bit into that iron mouth and bring him to a standstill altogether. Her gloves were cut to ribands now; the blue veins stood out on the slender white wrists.

And still the horse flew on down the rocky path leading to the lych-gate. He would charge through the gate into the green old churchyard beyond, but no longer with his rider fighting for life on his back. The arch of the lych-gate would sweep her from the saddle with a blow that would crush the life out of her. Mary Dashwood could see that plainly enough; she knew that she had only a few more minutes to live.

She set her teeth and blinked the welling tears from her proud blue eyes. She was not afraid—no Dashwood was ever afraid—but the pity of it! She saw the great beeches rising on either side of the path, she saw the blue sky beyond, the song of the birds came to her ears. And she was only twenty-two, and life was very dear to her.

The moment was coming ever nearer. The black horse was thundering along the straight downward path; the lych-gate was in sight. Mary discarded the idea of throwing herself from the saddle; she would have only been dashed to pieces on the rocks on either side of the road. She had been warned, too, not to take the black horse. She bent low to escape an overhanging bough; her hat was swept away; the shining chestnut hair began to stream from her shapely head.

There was a crackling of sticks in the wood on the right; surely, a hundred yards or so ahead, a face looked over the high fence, the figure of a man was holding on to the overhanging bough of an oak tree. Mary Dashwood wondered if the man realised her danger. Perhaps he did, for he crooked a leg over the bough and hung arms downward over the roadway. He was saying something in a smooth, firm voice.

"Pull to the side of the road," said the voice. It almost sounded like a command. "Drop the reins and clear your stirrup as you near me. And have no fear."

The big horse thundered on. Despite her peril, Mary did not fail to notice how strong and brown and capable the stranger's hands looked...It was all done so quickly and easily as to rob the episode of romantic danger—two hands, warm and tender, and yet firm as a steel trap, grasped the girl's slender wrists, she was floated lightly from the saddle, and in the next instant she was swaying dizzily on her feet in the road. The pride and courage of the Dashwoods availed nothing now—it was but a mere woman who fell almost fainting by the roadside.

She opened her eyes presently to the knowledge that a strong arm was supporting her. A bright blush mounted to her proud, beautiful face. The colour deepened as she saw the look, half admiration, half amusement, on the face of her rescuer.

"Mr. Darnley," she stammered. "I—I hardly expected to see you here. A little over two years ago, in Paris, you saved my life before."

"It is good to know that you have not forgotten it," Ralph Darnley murmured. "And yet the coincidence is not so strange as it seems. I did not come to these parts moved by any unaccountable impulse—I simply had business here. And I was told that a walk through the park would repay me for my trouble. As I was making a start out, through a copse I saw your predicament and hastened to your assistance. A handy tree did the rest. The only strange part of the affair is that you should be here, too."

"Nothing strange about that," the girl smiled, "seeing that the Hall is my home."

It was a commonplace statement of facts, and yet the words seemed to hurt Ralph Darnley as if they had been lashes to sting him. The honest open brown face paled perceptibly under its tan hue. A dozen emotions changed in those clear brown eyes.

"I—I don't quite understand," he remarked. "When we met in Paris two years ago, Miss Mary Mallory—"

"Quite so. Mary Dashwood Mallory. But, you see, the head of the family was alive then. He died nearly two years ago without any children, in fact, his only son died years ago somewhere abroad—it was a rather sad story—and my father came into the title and estates. He is Sir George Dashwood now. You can quite see why he changed his name."

"Of course. Only you can see that I could not possibly know this. What a grand old place it is, and what a grand old house! You must have grown very fond of it."

"I love it," Mary Dashwood cried. The look of haughty pride had faded from her face, leaving it refined and beautiful. "I love every stick and stone of it, it is part of my very life. You see, I have practically lived here always. As my father was in the Diplomatic Service, and my mother died young, it was necessary for somebody to look after me. I spent my childhood here with old Lady Dashwood, who has now gone to the dower house—such a wonderful old body!"

But Darnley did not appear to be listening. He made an effort to recover himself presently. He was like a man who dreams.

"I can quite appreciate your feelings," he said quietly. "I understand that the Dashwoods have ruled here for three hundred years. It is a fine estate; they tell me the heirlooms are almost priceless. And yet I am sorry."

The girl looked sharply up at the speaker.

"Why should you be sorry?" she demanded.

"Because it is the end of a dream," Darnley said. "I rather gathered in Paris that your father was poor. The fact levelled things up a little. It is just possible that you may remember our last evening together in Paris."

"I recollect," Mary said, the delicate colour flushing her cheeks again. "But I thought that we had closed that chapter finally, Mr. Darnley."

"No. That chapter can never be closed for me. I loved you from the first moment that we met, and I shall go on loving you till I die. I asked you to be my wife, and you refused me. The future mistress of Dashwood could not stoop to the son of a Californian rancher, though I happened to be an English gentleman by birth. I hope I took your refusal quietly, though it was a great blow to me. There can be no other woman for me, Mary."

"I am sorry," the girl said, "but see how impossible it is. Perhaps I am a little old-fashioned, perhaps it is the fault of my bringing up. That like must mate with like has always been the motto of the Dashwoods. These new people, with their wealth and noise and ostentation can never cross the threshold of Dashwood Hall. My father is fond of finance, but he never dreams of bringing his City friends here."

Darnley smiled to himself. He recollected the days in Paris, when Mary's father had been hand-in-glove with many a dubious French financier.

"We are wandering from the point," he said. "In any case your strictures do not touch me, for I have no money. My poor father left me comfortably off, as he thought, but my mine of silver is ruined now, ruined by a firm of City swindlers whom I was fool enough to regard as honest men. It was a very bad thing for me when I came in contact with Horace Mayfield."

It was the girl's turn to start guiltily. The beautiful face flushed once more.

"I know Mr. Mayfield," she said. "He is the only one of my father's business friends who comes here. We make an exception in his favour, because he is so well connected. Frankly, I do not like him, but I thought that he—"

"That he is a cold-blooded and calculating rascal to the core," Darnley said. "I trusted him, and he left me almost penniless. Many people will tell you I am saying no more than what is actually true. And, because I am poor, I came down here thinking to find a little something that belonged to my people years ago. And so I met you, Mary, and discovered that I love you with the same old pure affection, that will go on burning in my heart till I die. It may strike you as strange that a poor man should speak to Miss Dashwood, of Dashwood, like this. Mind you, I am young, and strong, and able, and I shall come into my kingdom again. And love is worth all the rest; it is better far than money, or position, or pride of birth. If I could hear you say that you cared for me now! You are so beautiful; behind all your pride the woman's heart beats true enough. May God grant that you meet the right man when the time comes! I would give you up to him willingly and shake his hand on it. But to think of your being the wife of some brainless nonentity, of some brutal ruffian who has nothing but an old title to cover his moral wickedness, why the thought is unbearable. Mary, I think I could find it in my heart to kill that man."

The words came slowly and clear as cut steel. Calm as he was, Darnley's tones vibrated with passion. He drew the girl towards him, and laid his hands on her shoulders so that he could look down into the fathomless lake of her blue eyes. Strange as it was, Mary Dashwood did not resent that which would have been insolent familiarity in anybody else. There was something so strong and dominating about this man; she thrilled with a strange tenderness and pride in the knowledge that he loved her. True, on his own confession, he was penniless, but then he treated the loss of his money in a way that only a strong man could assume.

"I love you, dear," he said, very gently and tenderly. "I love you, Mary, and no words could say more. I shall live to see the ice and pride melt from your heart, I shall live to see the beautiful womanhood within you blossom like a rose. The day will come when you will be prouder far to own a good man's heart than you will be to call yourself a Dashwood. You may frown, but I feel certain that my words will come true. And, meanwhile, I am afraid that there is no hope at all for me, my dear."

"It is impossible," Mary said coldly. Yet her voice trembled and tears came to her eyes. "Oh, I know that you are a good man and true, but you must make allowances for me. And besides, love is only a name to me. I owe my life to you, and believe me, I am too grateful for words. And if the time should ever come—oh, how selfish I am. Look at your arm. It is bruised and bleeding. It must have happened when you lifted me from the saddle. You must come up to the house and have it attended to at once."

"I don't think—" Darnley hesitated; "yes I will. It's really nothing. Let me catch your horse for you and we will walk across the path together."

CHAPTER II.—DASHWOOD HALL

There were the lodge-gates at last, with the name of the Dashwoods carved in mossy stone, and the great iron gates from the cunning hand of Quentin Matsys himself. Beyond, the noble elms planted in the days of Elizabeth led to the house, a great Tudor mansion with gabled and latticed windows covered with ivy to the quaintly carved roof-tree. The gardens spread wide on either side; there was a thick hedge of crimson roses bounding the park, and in its purple glory the dappled deer reposed. Ralph Darnley drew a deep breath as he took in the splendid beauty and serenity of it all. For three hundred years the reign of the Dashwoods had lasted, and not a stain had shown itself on the family escutcheon all that time. Darnley could excuse all Mary's pride.

"It is exquisitely beautiful," he said, with a slight catch in his voice. "How vividly it recalls Tennyson's line—'a haunt of ancient peace.' I am trying to make due allowances for your feelings, Miss Dashwood. If I had been brought up here, my views would be the same as yours. I love old houses."

Mary smiled one of her rare tender smiles. Darnley's eulogy touched her. She led the way through a great flagged hall, the walls of which were a perfect dream of carving; from their frames dead and gone Dashwoods looked down. There was oak carving everywhere, the ceilings were panelled, in the stained glass windows masses of flowers stood. Ralph would have stopped to admire it all, but Mary hurried him on.

"We will go into the breakfast-parlour," she said. "Then I will endeavour to show you that I can be useful as well as ornamental. Excuse me one moment—I must get rid of these torn gloves. Ring the bell, please, for Slight, the butler, and ask him for warm water and towels."

Ralph laid his hand on the bell as Mary flitted away. The old butler came presently, a thin little man, pink and white, the embodiment of what an old servant should be. Ralph gave his directions clearly enough, but the man stood there shaking from head to foot. There was joy and terror and amazement on his face; the tears gathered in his rheumy eyes.

"Mr. Ralph!" he whispered, "Mr. Ralph come back from the grave! Come back after all these years! What will the master say if he knows? I'm dreaming, that's what is the matter; I've gone off my head or I'm dreaming. And after forty years!"

The speaker came forward tremblingly and touched Ralph's hand. Apparently the contact with warm flesh and blood reassured him, for the pink apple bloom came back to his cheek.

"The same and yet not the same," he went on. "Stands to reason as forty years must make a deal of difference. But you are Mr. Ralph over again all the same. I loved him, sir. I mourned for him like a child of my own. I taught him to ride; I taught him to use a gun. I had to stand between him and Sir Ralph when the crash came. And you are his son as sure as there is a Heaven above us."

"Not quite so loud," Ralph said. "Pull yourself together, Slight. I take it you are old Slight about whom my father talked so often. He did not forget you, Slight. On his deathbed he gave me a message for you."

"And so my dear Mr. Ralph is dead. Dear, dear. What shall I call you, sir?"

"You are to call me nothing for the present," Ralph said. "I am Mr. Darnley, Slight, and you are to be discreet and silent. I had quite left you out of my calculation when I came here to-day; in fact, I had forgotten all about you. It never occurred to me that you would discover the likeness to what my father was forty years ago. I will ask you to meet me this evening, say, at half-past ten at the lodge-gates, for I have much to say to you."

"And, meanwhile, is nobody to know anything about you, sir?"

"Not a soul. The present head of the house never saw my father. The only one likely to recognize me would be the dowager Lady Dashwood, who is at the dower house. I am placing myself and my happiness entirely in your hands, my faithful old Slight, and I ask you not to betray me. Rest assured that it will all come right in time. Meanwhile, I have hurt my arm, and I require towels and soap and hot water."

Slight went his way with the air of a man who dreams. He came back presently, followed by Mary Dashwood. She dressed Darnley's arm skilfully enough. The touch of her fingers was soft and soothing. She was a tender and feeling woman now, without the slightest suggestion of cold pride on her face.

"I think that is all," she said quietly. "How brave and strong you are: how little you make of your courage. And yet few could have done what you did for me to-day. But I am forgetting that my father will be glad to see you. Let us go to the library."

A tall figure rose from a mass of papers heaped on a table. Here in the library was the same restful air of calm repose, the same patrician silence that brooded over everything like the spirit of the place. A flood of sunlight, tempered by the amber and blue of the stained glass windows filled the room; the rays centered upon the tall figure with the thin white face and grey hair, standing by the table.

"My daughter has been telling me everything, Mr. Darnley," Sir George said. "It was well and bravely done of you...I am glad to see you in my house."

Darnley murmured something appropriate; he hoped that the expression of his face was not betraying his emotions. For the change in Sir George since they had last met was startling. The old, jaunty, easy manner was gone, the straight figure was lost, the iron-grey hair was white as snow. There were deep lines of care and suffering graven on the pleasant face, a suggestion of fear, or fright, or remorse. This was a man who carried some secret in his heart. Darnley felt that he would have passed Sir George in the street unrecognized. And yet the man appeared to possess everything that made life worth living. Ralph ventured to offer some suitable comment on the house and the beauty of the surroundings. A look of infinite sadness overcame the features of Dashwood for the moment. The slender fingers clutched as if at something unseen, as the fingers of a drowning man might clutch at a straw.

"Yes, it is perfect enough," he said dreamily. "A perfect house in a perfect setting. And Mary loves it even more than I do. It seems almost impossible to connect this place with sin and suffering and the sordid cares of life—what is it, Slight?"

"A telegram for you, Sir George," the old butler murmured. "Is there any reply, sir?"

Sir George murmured that there was no reply. He dropped the telegram in an unconcerned way upon the table, but his hand was shaking again, and his features looked terribly white and worn.

"From Horace Mayfield," he said huskily. "He is coming down to-day, on a rather important piece of business, and will probably stay the night. By the way, Darnley, it would give me great pleasure if you would dine with us this evening."

Ralph would have refused. It would have been an exquisite pleasure to spend a long summer evening with Mary in that delightful old house, but then it seemed impossible to be under the same roof as Horace Mayfield. It appeared strange that that handsome, plausible, well-bred scoundrel should be a friend of Dashwood. Ralph was framing a courteous refusal when he became conscious that Mary was regarding him with a pleading glance. Her face was weary and anxious looking, her eyes were alight with an appeal for help. She was asking Ralph to come, and yet she did not want her father to see how eager she was.

"I shall be delighted," Ralph answered. "Half-past seven, I think. And now I must be going."

Ralph turned away into the great dim hall followed by Mary. A ray of sunlight fell upon her beautiful face and grateful blue eyes.

"That was very good of you," she murmured. "Mr. Darnley, Ralph, if I should want a friend in the near future, I feel assured that I can rely upon you."

"I love you with my whole heart and soul," Ralph replied. "And some day you will give that love to me. I would give my life for you, if necessary, and you know it."

CHAPTER III—HORACE MAYFIELD

The cloth had been drawn in the old-fashioned way, so that the candles in the ancient silver branches made pools of brown light on the polished mahogany of the dining table. Here were palms and flowers, feathery fronds, rays of light streaking the sides of blushing grapes and peaches with the downy bloom on them. The candle rays glistened somberly on deep ruby red wines in crystal decanters; the table was as a bath of silver flame in a background of sombre brown shadows. A noiseless servant or two, gliding about, ministered to the wants of the guests. How peaceful, how restful and refined it all was, Ralph thought, the only jarring note being the person opposite him, a clean-shaven, hard-featured man with a glass screwed in his left eye. And what a hard, firm mouth he had. He was quite at his ease, too, in Dashwood's presence; he chatted with glib assurance to the man whom he had robbed as deliberately as if he had picked his pocket. Actually he had met Ralph in the drawing-room an hour before, with a smile and a proffered hand, as if they had been two men taking up the threads of a desirable acquaintance.

"She playfully asked him not to be too long."

Ralph's fingers had itched to be at the throat of the man, but he had to smile and murmur the ordinary polite commonplaces. He shut his teeth together now as he noted Mayfield's insolently familiar, not to say caressing, manner towards Mary Dashwood. Sir George looked on and smiled in a pained kind of way. He reminded Ralph unpleasantly of a well-broken dog in the presence of a harsh master. It was almost pathetic to see how Dashwood hung on any word of Mayfield. Surely there was some guilty knowledge between the two, some powerful hold that Mayfield had on his host. It was with a feeling of relief that Ralph saw Mary rise at length. He opened the door for her, and she playfully asked him not to be too long, it was so lovely a night.

"I'll come with you now," Ralph answered. "I don't care to smoke, and I never touch wine after dinner. I fear Sir George wants to talk business, which seems to me to be a desecration on an evening like this. Shall we go outside?"

"I think it would be nice," Mary said. "No, I shall not need a wrap."

She stepped through the double French window that led to the lawn. The full light of the moon flashed on her ivory shoulders and played in gilded shadows on her hair. As she looked upwards, Ralph could catch the exquisite symmetry of her face. A desire to speak possessed him, a desire to tell the girl strange and wonderful things. Here was his heart's object standing pale and beautiful by his side; he had only to stretch out his hands and the flowers were his for the plucking. It only needed a few words and the whole situation would be changed. But Ralph was silent, he was too strong and masterful a man for that. What he won he would win by sheer merit, by intrinsic worth alone. He could have purchased the kisses and caresses for which his heart hungered, but he knew that they would be no more than Dead Sea fruit on his lips.

"You are very silent," Mary said at length. "What are you thinking about?"

"About you," Ralph said boldly. "I was thinking how beautiful you looked with the fuller moonlight on your face. It is only when you recollect that you are Miss Dashwood, of Dashwood Hall, that I like your expression least. And you are not always happy."

"What do you mean by that?" Mary asked. There was a startled look in her eyes. "Why should I not be happy?"

"Why, indeed! But the fact remains that you are not. I do not want to appear inquisitive, but there is a worm in the heart of the rose somewhere. Mary, why do you allow your father to ask Mayfield here when you dislike him so much? Though you are exclusive and can show your pride, yet you allow that man to be insolently familiar with you. He laid his hand on your arm to-night, and I could have struck him for it. It is not as if you cared for him—"

"Oh, no, no," Mary said with a shudder. "I detest him. He is so cold and calculating, you cannot chock him off. I thought that when I refused to marry him—"

"Ha! I expected something of the kind. Mayfield is not the man to take 'No' for an answer once he has set his heart upon a thing. I told you before that he was a scoundrel, and I am in a position to prove it. Not that the fellow has done anything to bring himself within the grip of the law—your City rascal is too clever for that. And your father is afraid of him; he watches him as a dog watches his master. If he is in the power of that man he must get out without delay. He must raise money on the property—"

"He can't," Mary said sadly. "My father has not taken me into his confidence. But you can see how much he has aged and altered lately, and you looked quite shocked when you met this morning. I don't know what it is, but I feel that some evil is impending over him. That is why I asked you to be my friend. You see my father is not really a rich man. He has the income of this fine estate, it is true. I believe he could get rid of Horace Mayfield if he could raise money on the property, but that is impossible. Old Sir Ralph, my great uncle, had a serious quarrel with his wife—that is the present dowager Lady Dashwood, you understand. It must have been all Sir Ralph's fault, for she is the dearest old lady. The heir to the property took the side of his mother when the separation came, and left Dashwood Hall, declaring that he would never see the place again. There is only one man living who knows the whole facts of the case, and that is Slight. But his lips are sealed. The old man loved young Ralph Dashwood as if he had been his own child. Ralph the younger went off to America, and has never been heard of again. That was forty years ago. When old Sir Ralph died two years ago, and my father came into the property, no will could be found. So my father, being next of kin, succeeded to the property and the rents of the estate. It is a settled estate, and each possessor has only what is called a life-interest in it. Now it is just possible that some day an heir will turn up. It is more than likely that young Ralph Dashwood married in America, and left a family. Or he may be still alive, and is waiting to claim, for his son, that which he declined to touch himself. Most people know this, and that is why my father could never raise a penny on the family property. If he could, he would not long remain under the heel of Horace Mayfield. Oh, if we could only find a way!"

"I begin to understand," Ralph said thoughtfully. "If old Sir Ralph had died leaving a will, things might have been very different. Is that what you mean?"

"Partly. Sir Ralph died leaving a good deal of ready money. That will no doubt come to us in time, but for the present we cannot touch it in the absence of proof of the death of the youngest Ralph Dashwood. I mean the one who went to America. Old Lady Dashwood says she is sure that her husband did leave a will, and that he had divided all his money, with certain provisions. If that will could be found, we should be in a position to get rid of Mayfield. What a hateful thing this money is, and what misery it seems to bring everybody. But I am afraid that I am very selfish and exacting. Why should I worry you with our troubles?"

"My shoulders are broad, and I have very few of my own," Ralph smiled. "Indeed, I am more interested than you imagine. As I told you to-day, I am a poor man, thanks to one who is a guest here at the present moment. But, still, don't forget the fable of the mouse and the lion. I may find a means of freeing you from the net yet. But here come the others."

Mayfield emerged from the window on to the lawn. His cigar seemed to pollute the sweet-scented night; he was talking loudly to Sir George.

"We shall know presently," he said. "The worst of living buried in the country is that one is out of touch with telegrams and telephones. I told my secretary to wire directly he heard from Worham and his partner."

"Don't let us talk about it," said Sir George in a voice that shook a little. "Let us enjoy the beauty of the night...I began to wonder what had become of you, Darnley. So you and Mary have been communing with Nature together. You will have a cigar before you go?"

Darnley declined the offer. He did not care to stay any longer in Mayfield's presence. And it was getting on to half-past ten, when he had promised to meet Slight. He made his excuses and passed across the lawn in the direction of the avenue. At the end of the rose garden he paused to look back.

He saw the picture of the grand old house standing out in the moonlight; he could see Mary, pale and silent, a dainty figure in white and amber. He saw Mayfield bend familiarly to her, and the girl draw coldly away. There was a fierce tumult in his heart, a desire to go back and proclaim his story. He could stretch out a hand, and put an end to all that without delay. But he preferred to wait. He was going to win Mary, and wear her like a white rose on the shield of a knight. He was going to bend down the barrier of her pride, and win her for himself alone, as himself, and not as a man who had the advantages of fortune on his side.

These thoughts filled his mind as he walked down the avenue. He knew that he had far to go before the goal was in sight. He almost walked over a figure standing just inside the lodge gates, and his thoughts came tumbling to earth again.

"I beg your pardon, Slight," he said. "I was miles away just now. Let us sit on this tree stump in sight of the old house and talk things over."

CHAPTER IV—A LEAF FROM THE PAST

THE old man stood there in the moonlight, his face agitated and his lips quivering.

"I can hear the master's voice again," he murmured. "Time seems to have gone back with me. It is as if you had come like a ghost from the grave, Mr. Ralph. And it was close here that your father stood, after the great quarrel, and swore that Dashwood Hall should see him no more...And so you have come back to claim your own, sir?"

"I must be very like my father, or what my father was like forty years ago," Ralph said thoughtfully. "Sit down, Slight, please don't stand looking at me like that. I did not expect to be recognized in this way, and I am not here to claim my own, at least, not in the fashion that you mean. My father chose deliberately to forfeit his inheritance. My grandfather gave him the chance of coming into his own again. But he always refused, as you know, Slight. And now Sir George Dashwood reigns in his stead."

"The estate, the title—everything is yours, Sir Ralph," Slight said doggedly.

"No, no. Forty years ago there was a great upheaval here. It was a quarrel that could never be patched up or healed. At the bottom of it was family pride, the accursed kind of pride that stifles every feeling of humanity and turns hearts into flints as hard as the nether millstone. The upshot of that quarrel was a permanent separation between my grandfather and the present dowager Lady Dashwood; it drove my father into exile. It broke the heart of one of the best and truest women that ever lived. And all this to keep from so-called contamination the blood of the Dashwoods. Before my father went away he took steps to make his sacrifice complete. He executed a deed cutting off the entail of the estate, so that the late Sir Ralph could do what he pleased with it."

"I don't quite understand that, Sir Ralph," Slight said.

"Don't address me by that title," Darnley replied. "Let me explain. Most people believe that a family estate like ours cannot be left elsewhere. But if the heir likes to execute a deed for the purpose of cutting off the entail as it is called, why, the holder for the time being can do what he likes with the property. My father did this with his eyes wide open, and you witnessed the deed, Slight."

"I recollect it," Slight said slowly. He made the admission grudgingly. "It was my task to deliver it into the hands of old Sir Ralph. If I had only known!"

"You would have destroyed it. You would have carried your loyalty to my father so far. But the deed was delivered to my grandfather and subsequently he made his will. For twenty years there was silence between father and son, a silence which was broken at length by the father, who wrote to the son and asked him to return. Then Sir Ralph wrote once more to my father and said that he would give the latter twenty years to decide. He had made a will at the same date as that of the second letter, leaving everything to my father, provided that within twenty years of that date he claimed his patrimony. If the date passed, then everything was to go to the man nominated in that will. I need not say that the man so indicated was Sir George Dashwood. In other words, if I make no sign for six months, the property becomes his irrevocably. I can claim the property as my father's heir, and I can produce that will as proof of my claim."

"But the will was never found," Slight said eagerly. "We looked for a will everywhere."

"It was hidden away. In old Sir Ralph's last letter to my father he explained the hiding-place. I have only to let Sir George know where the will is, and he is safe. For the will directs the finder to the repository of the deed cutting off the entail, so that Sir George can prove his claim then to everything. At present he has no more than the income of the estate, and I have ascertained that he has many old debts to pay off. In addition to this he is under the thumb of a scoundrel."

"Ay, that he is," Slight muttered. "We servants learn a great deal more than you gentlemen give us credit for. That Mayfield means mischief. They say that he's rich. But riches don't content him. He wants to marry Miss Mary. And she can't bear the look of him. If only he can ruin Sir George, his path will be clear. Miss Mary would break her heart if she had to leave this place. From a child she was brought up here, she loves every stick and stone. And she was always led to believe that some day it would belong to her, because her father was the last of the old race, seeing that we all regarded Master Ralph as dead and buried. And Miss Mary had dreams of being mistress here some day, and, maybe, dreams, too, of a good husband and children of her own. Ay, it's a terrible weapon this Mayfield has in his hands."

"So it seems," Ralph replied. "I know the rascal well, for he ruined my father two years ago. Mind you, at that time, I had never heard of Dashwood Park. I was merely the son of a Mr. Darnley who had done well silver mining in California. Mayfield came to us in London and we trusted him, trusted him to such an extent that nearly all we had passed into his hands. It was only on his death-bed that my father told me everything, told me what my birthright was, and how I could secure it, if I did not wait too long. So I came down here to look about me, and to my surprise I found that I had met Miss Mary before in Paris. Is she a favourite here, Slight?"

"Ay, indeed she is, sir," Slight replied. There was a ring of passionate sincerity in his speech. "We all love her dearly. Strangers think that she is cold and distant. It may be so. But we all know the heart of gold that beats under that placid breast. It is in times of sickness and trouble that we know of the angel in our midst. I'm not denying that Miss Mary is tainted with the curse of family pride. But still...Ah, sir, if you ever looked out for a wife, why there is the very one for you. You the head, and she the mistress. It would be a happy day for me."

"That is just what I mean," Ralph said quietly. "Slight, I have been in love with your mistress for two long years. And I am going to marry her some day. But I have my own idea and my own way of leading up to that happiness. She must care for me for my own sake, and not because I am Sir Ralph Dashwood, of Dashwood Hall, and she a—pauper. No, no. My lady shall stoop to me, she shall tell me with her own sweet lips that a good man's love is worth all the pride of place, worth a dozen old families and a score of houses like this. Then she shall know everything, but not before."

"And that will be too late," sighed Slight. "Before that Mr. Mayfield will have ruined Sir George, and Miss Mary will marry him to save the old house. She would make any sacrifice and face any degradation for the sake of her pride. Though every fibre of her body may call out against the pollution of that man's touch, she would smile at him before the world and pretend to be happy. It's a dangerous experiment, Mr. Ralph, and don't you try it. I haven't lived in the world for nigh on four-score years for nothing. If you love Miss Mary, and if she comes to care for you, she'll care none the less because you are master of this good old place. And if her father is ruined—"

"My good Slight, her father is not going to be ruined. Unless I am greatly mistaken, he is exceedingly anxious to be rid of Horace Mayfield. I presume it is a mere matter of money, and for the sake of argument call it £50,000. Sir George owes Mayfield that sum. In the present circumstances he could not hope to repay it. A disgraceful bankruptcy may follow, a criminal collapse even, for Mayfield would not hesitate where his desires and interests are concerned. But suppose I could show Sir George a way to get this money? In that case he could rid himself of that scoundrel at any sacrifice. I have only to let Sir George know where the will is hidden and he is free."

"It would be wrong, sir, cruelly wrong to yourself," Slight cried. "You could never appear after that and claim your own. Sir George would be no more than an innocent impostor. And you, the real master of Dashwood, would be compelled to earn your bread."

"I don't see it exactly," Ralph smiled. "My father never intended to claim his inheritance. He cut himself off from England deliberately. And after all these years, would it not be a cruel thing to deprive Miss Mary of a home which she has come to regard as her own? But I have made up my mind, Slight, and nothing shall deter me from it. You may call me a visionary and a dreamer if you like, but my hands are strong and capable, and I have been taught to use my head. I want you to be discreet and silent; I want you to be my witness when the time comes. I should not have taken you into my confidence, but that you recognized me at once. All day I have been wandering about the dear old place. I have studied all its ancient beauties. We can't wonder that Miss Mary has come to regard it as part of her life. It has cost me more than a passing effort to restrain my covetousness."

Ralph stifled a sigh as he looked about him. He could see the fine old house clear cut against the sky; in the park the oaks and beeches hung like great sentinels guarding the home of the ages. And it was so still and peaceful, so suggestive of all that is worth having in life. A cry from somewhere broke the perfect silence, the bleat of a sheep from distant pastures.

"It shall be as you wish, sir," Slight said at length. "I could never refuse your father anything, and I can refuse you nothing when you look at me out of the past with his eyes. But sorrow and trouble will come of this; you mark my words."

"No, no," Ralph cried as he rose to his feet. "True and sterling happiness, the death and destruction of the family pride which has been our curse for many generations. I am going my own way to work and you are going to help me. Now come and show me the big window in the staircase that my father used when he wanted to leave the house late at night to visit poor Maria Edgerton, the child-wife, the child of the people, who was killed by our family pride as surely as if she had been murdered. My mother was a good woman, Slight, she had her husband's respect and affection, but his heart was always with the girl who suffered so much to become his wife. I hope that her grave has never been neglected, Slight."

"No, sir," Slight said huskily. "We have seen to that—her ladyship and myself between us. That is the window, sir, the big stained glass one with the light behind it. You can get up on to the leads with the aid of the ivy. At the bottom of the window is a brass knob. If you press it, the window opens inwards, and there you are. But I hope you don't need to burgle your own house, seeing that you are a welcome guest there. And, as I was saying just now—"

The speaker paused, for the soft, rich silence of the night was broken by a cry. The long drawing-room window leading to the lawn was still open; the lamplight flooded on pictures and china and flowers. A figure came to the window, a tall figure with upraised hands and hair wild and dishevelled.

"You scoundrel," the figure cried. "You have done this to ruin me!"

CHAPTER V—THE SACRIFICE

The speaker's tones rang out with passionate vehemence. He stumbled down the steps, into the garden, and repeated his accusation loudly. It all seemed strangely out of place there, Ralph thought; it was no spot for sordid emotions, and angry passions. The words rang clear and loud to the startled vault of heaven; a blackbird started from her nest and flew across the lawn with nervous twitter. Then another figure came from the drawing-room, the trim, immaculate figure of Horace Mayfield.

"For goodness' sake, control yourself Dashwood," he said curtly. "There is nothing in the world to make all this ridiculous fuss about. It is all the fortune of war. We tried to get the best of these fellows, and they looted us instead. It was no fault of mine that these cablegrams miscarried. My manager has sold me—a thing that sometimes happens in the City. All we have to do is to pay and look pleasant."

"But I can't pay, and you know it. Nobody understands the tenure on which I hold the property better than you do. If I wait for the money, what happens?"

"I am afraid it will be very awkward," Mayfield said. "People will refuse to believe that you have been a victim of a fraud. They will actually regard the fraud as your own. Whereas, if you pay up cheerfully, nothing can be said. Personally, I am all right. I kept my name out of the business so that you could have all the credit. Unfortunately, you will get all the blame as well. There may not be a prosecution; of course, it is not an easy matter to get the Public Prosecutor to interfere in these cases. The only thing for it is to take the bull by the horns and get out of all by paying."

Sir George laughed in a bitter kind of way. He stood with his back to the house, facing the man who had brought all this about. He seemed to be almost beside himself with fury. The whole man was transformed.

"I have no money," he said, "and you know it. You have deliberately brought me to this pass for purposes of your own. You have traded upon my love of gambling to get me into your hands. And I might have been happy and comfortable here. I was getting rid of my millstone of debt so nicely when you came along once more. But for you, I should not stand here now outside my own home, an honoured house for three centuries, a ruined and desperate man with a vision of a prisoner's dock before me. You are a rich man—"

"Possibly, Dashwood. At any rate, I am in a position to find money. But there is no kind of friendship or sentiment when one comes to business. You are not a child that you can accuse me of luring you to your ruin. Still, I am not disposed to take offence. I will undertake to settle the matter for you in time. But you must have a joint guarantee and I want another person to become security for you. You understand what I mean. If Miss Mary will be so good as to give me her word—"

A sudden cry of passion broke from the older man. He seemed to lose all control of himself. He dashed forward and smote Mayfield with fury on the mouth. The latter staggered back a thin streak of blood trickling from his under lip.

There was no outbreak, no display of passion, on the part of Mayfield. He was surprised and shaken by the impetuosity of the attack, but he stood there calmly, as he wiped the blood from his face. His features might have been carved out of solid marble, and the full light of the moon heightened the effect. In spite of his knowledge of the man, Ralph could not but admire him at that moment. One who could keep his feelings under such control would prove a dangerous foe.

It was a strange, weird scene altogether, terrible and repulsive by very force of contrast. The environment was so quiet and peaceful, so exalted and refined. Ralph stood as if rooted to the spot. He saw Sir George advance again, he saw the hand upraised once more. All the pride of rank and place had fallen from the man; he was transformed for the moment to a savage. Then Mayfield caught the uplifted arm and held it in a grip like a vice.

"You will gain nothing by this," he said quietly. "You seem to forget that I am a guest under your roof. Would you alarm your servants, would you have them know what their master is, when all his passions are aroused? Come, sir, this is not what one has a right to expect from the owner of Dashwood Park. You owe me an apology—"

The words were lost on Sir George. He wrenched himself free, he turned and faced the house with uplifted arms. The demon of anger still possessed him.

"I owe you nothing," he cried. "But for you I should be one of the happiest men alive. If I had been content to pay off old debts by degrees nothing would have happened. But I listened to you, with what result you know. You are a trickster and a cheat, a liar and a knave. You have laid a trap for me, and I have tumbled into it with my eyes open. What you mean to say in as many words is this—unless I can procure the sum of £50,000 in a few days I stand every chance of a criminal prosecution. You know exactly how I am situated, you know that I am helpless."

"You are not in the least helpless," Mayfield said sternly. "To a certain extent the fault is mine, and I am prepared to do all that is in my power. You have only to say the word and the money is yours. Promise me that your daughter shall become my wife, get her to say the word, and the situation is absolutely changed. I neither admit nor deny your accusations. You could not prove them—a jury would give a verdict against you, if you tried to do so. And if Miss Mary does me the honour to become my wife—"

"Never," Dashwood cried. "Never in this world. Our women only wed honourable men."

"Is that really so? And what manner of man will the world call you if I fail to come to your assistance? Control yourself—listen to me for a moment. Do you realise what will happen to you if I go away without coming to some understanding? The police will come here and arrest you, it may be when you are entertaining friends. They will take you away, with handcuffs on your wrists. You will stand in the dock charged with a vulgar conspiracy to defraud innocent shareholders, and the charge will be proved. And if you ever come out of gaol again, it will be as a broken and dispirited man. It will be useless, when it is too late, to look for any consideration from me, I am not likely to forget the blow you dealt me just now. And, whilst you are raving like a lunatic, we might be settling the matter comfortably over a cigar. You are a man of the world; at least you will be once more when this fit of midsummer madness has passed. Explain everything to your daughter if you like, put any face upon it that you please. Agree to my conditions and you can sleep in peace to-night, and every other night, for the matter of that. Listen to the voice of reason, and I will forget the treatment I have had at your hands."

But Sir George was not listening. Apparently a terrible struggle was going on in his breast. He could see now, how neatly and cleverly he had been trapped, he could see that he had no remedy against the man who had schemed for this position. And he was innocent himself of anything dishonourable. And now to give his daughter to this man! The mere idea was horrible. The meanest hound on the estate was far better off than Sir George at this moment.

"Do your worst," he shouted. His voice rang out on the startled silence. "Do your worst. If I could kill you now, I would do so. You are not fit to live, your presence is an insult to any honest man. I can see nothing, I am going blind..."

CHAPTER VI—A CRUEL MISUNDERSTANDING

Sir George clasped his hands to his eyes; everything for the moment had faded from his sight. The blood was rushing wildly through his head; there was a din like the clang of hammers in his brain. He was beside himself with grief and passion. His voice uprose again and broke the stillness of the night horribly. What were his title and his old family worth now? It was all as nothing, in the presence of this threatened calamity.

"Mary, Mary," he cried, "come to me. Come, whilst I have the strength left to tell you the truth. To-morrow I shall be too weak, to-morrow I shall not dare to give all this up. Come, and tell him that you will have none of him."

The speech ended in a yearning scream. It was a strange setting for so peaceful a scene. Ralph Darnley made a step forward, with the impulse to interfere, strong upon him. Then a figure came between the light and the window, and Mary appeared. She stood there, tall and stately in her white dress; her eyes were filled with stern disapproval. She came slowly down the steps and stood between the two men. She did not fail to notice Mayfield's cut lip and the spot or two of blood on his gleaming shirt front.

"What is the meaning of this?" she asked. "Father, you don't mean to say—"

"Ay, but I do," Dashwood said doggedly. "I struck him. Would that I had killed him! There would be far less disgrace for the family in the end. I struck him, and he took it quietly like the cur and craven that he is!"

"I hardly think that I deserve that," Mayfield said. "Whatever my failings may be, you will not find a lack of physical courage amongst them. Sir George has been very unfortunate in his speculations, and he chooses to blame me for it. We only got the news late to-night. A man in whom we trusted has played the knave, and Sir George is likely to suffer for it. To put the matter quite plainly, unless your father can find a very large sum of money in a few days he will probably be prosecuted. One can make any allowance for his feelings in the circumstances, but that is no reason why he should accuse one of deliberately laying a plot to ruin him. As to the assault upon me, why let it pass. In the excitement of the moment—"

"Pardon me," Mary said quietly, "I heard my name mentioned. My father's voice was raised so loudly that I could not help hearing something of what passed. You did me the honour to say that I might avert the catastrophe."

"That is so," Mayfield retorted in the same self-contained manner. "In certain circumstances I am prepared to stand by your father. I can say that it is a misunderstanding so far as he is concerned, and that I am prepared to take over the venture as it stands, and pay everybody who has lost confidence in it. I could write to the Press and vindicate the honour of the man who stood in the light of prospective father-in-law to me."

The girl's face whitened in the moonlight. Ralph could see the heaving of her breast. She had taken in the situation like a flash of inspiration. There was none of the grinning triumph of the successful rogue on Mayfield's face; it was all being quietly and decorously done, but the grip of iron was there all the same, the iron hand in the velvet glove. Mary essayed to speak, but words failed her for the moment. Sir George stood between the man and his prey with trembling hands outstretched as if to keep them apart. His lips opened, he gabbled something too incoherent for understanding, then he collapsed like a heap of black cloth on the grass. Something seemed to snap in his brain, then a blank came over him.

Mary forgot everything else in the dictates of humanity. With a cry she knelt on the grass by the side of the stricken man. Ralph came forward, slowly followed by Slight. It seemed natural that he should be there at that moment. Mary turned towards him instantly. Here was the friend in need that she so sorely prayed for.

"It is some kind of seizure," she said. "My father had one two years ago in Paris. He was warned then to avoid any undue excitement. Will you please help me to carry him to his room? Slight, call a groom up and send him to Longtown for a doctor."

"No occasion," Mayfield remarked. "Give me the key of the stables, and I will take my car into Longtown and bring the doctor back with me. It will take less time."

It was a weary two hours that passed before the doctor arrived. Still, his account was a fairly cheerful one when it came. It was merely a case of rest and quietness and careful nursing. Sir George had fallen into a kind of troubled sleep.

Ralph turned to go. Mayfield had volunteered to take the doctor home again. Slight was sitting with his master till Mary was ready to return. She stood by the window leading to the lawn; that means of exit was as good as any other, Ralph said.

"What were you doing outside to-night?" the girl asked keenly.

"We will go into that another time," Ralph suggested. "I did not mean to listen, but I heard everything. Did I not tell you that Mayfield was a villain?"

"I have felt it before now. Without any apparent cause for it, I have detested that man. And he has always acted as if he had only to say the word and I would consent to be his wife. On two occasions I have refused him. To think that men should be such villains where innocent girls are concerned! Of course, he has led my father into a terrible position, and my hand is to be the price of his freedom. Ralph, I am so dreadfully, horribly afraid of that man! How wonderfully he must have controlled himself when my father struck him! And how cleverly he insinuated that he might be allowed to appear as my future husband. I tell you I would give up everything to be free of this tangle. What is my pride, what is my home here, so long as the happiness of a lifetime is at stake!"

"That is a lesson that I have tried to teach you before," Ralph said quietly. "Mary, I love you. The time will come when you will love me. If ever you needed a friend in your life, you need one at this moment. I could show you a way out, but after that I should never dare to claim my reward, because the obligation in your eyes would be too great. I want you to care for me for my own sake. Still, you need have no anxiety. Within the next few hours Mayfield will be powerless to harm you."

"Ralph, you speak in enigmas. I pray you to be plain. Can't you trust me?"

"My dear, in this matter I cannot trust anybody; by Heaven, I can hardly trust myself. Ah, if you only knew how I love you and how great the temptation is! But the reward that I am working for will be all the sweeter when the time comes. Go sleep now with a calm mind, for I pledge my honour that things shall be as I say."

Mary's two hands had fluttered out to Ralph. She was moved by the deep sincerity of his words, for a broken smile, half respect and half affection, quivered on her face. With an impulse that he could not resist, Ralph drew the girl to him and laid his lips on hers. Then, with a sigh, he put her from him and turned towards the window.

"There," he said, "I ask no pardon for my audacity. I could not help it. And that kiss was as pure as if it came from your mother's lips."

"The first from any man," Mary murmured, a pink flush on her face. "You are a good man, Ralph, and it is a pity I did not meet you before the curse of the family pride fell upon me. Good night, and God bless you for all your kindness to me."

The window closed and the blind fell, the lights in the house began to vanish one by one, and still Ralph lingered there on the grass. He saw Mayfield return, he saw the last ray extinguished, save for the solitary glow in Sir George's bedroom. A clock over the stables struck the hour of two, and still Ralph stood there oblivious of the flight of time.

He was thinking of the dramatic scene of the evening. More than once he mourned his lost opportunities. He had all the strings in his own hand, the game was entirely his, and he felt, too, that in spite of her fateful pride, Mary was beginning to care for him. If not, why had she taken his kiss so sweetly? Ralph had only to proclaim his identity, he had merely to prove his title to the estate, and at once he would be in the position to free the present occupier of Dashwood Hall of his peril. And Mary would not refuse to marry the man whose blood was as pure as hers. But Ralph had made up his mind what to do. He would win her love as Ralph Darnley, afterwards the truth could be told. Why not to-night? he asked himself. There was no time like the present. He would go and find the will, he would let Sir George know where it was.

The house was still now, and Ralph knew the way...He was in the long corridor presently, here was the old oak dower-chest and the panel below it. Here was the spring by which the panel was released. The thing was ridiculously easy.

Ralph pressed in the spring and the panel came away. Within it was a long manuscript written on thick white paper. Ralph thrilled as he read the endorsement. Beyond doubt, here was the will of his grandfather, Sir Ralph Dashwood. All this was quite plain in the moonlight. It only needed now to put the will at the bottom of the dower-chest and write a letter to Sir George anonymously, and tell him where to seek for it. And Ralph had only to be silent henceforth, and the deception would pass for all time. Verily Mayfield's triumph was likely to be a very short one, and...

Somebody was speaking to Ralph: Mary, with her hair over her shoulders, and a candle in her hand. Her face was cold and set, her eyes filled with stern displeasure.

"Thief in the night," she said. "What is the meaning of this, Mr. Darnley?"

CHAPTER VII—THE ONLY WAY

A sense of blinding, unreasonable anger held Ralph for the moment. He was doing nothing wrong. He was acting entirely for the best, and here he was taken under the most shameful conditions—a miserable, degraded thief in the night. From the coldness of Mary's voice, from the scorn in her eyes, he could read the reflection of her thoughts. And yet he was acting from the highest and most honourable motives. Surely no man was ever impelled by a loftier idea of self-sacrifice.

"I ask what you are doing," Mary repeated. "Do not tax my patience too far."

There was no mistaking the menace in those clearcut tones. Thus would the daughter of the house of Dashwood address a burglar or other midnight intruder. Ralph felt that she would have been not in the least afraid to face a felon of that type; his face tingled as he felt himself set down in the same category. He cudgelled his brains for some plausible explanation which should be anything but the right one. The edge of the failing moon still left a shaft of pallid light shining through the great stained glass window; it flung into high relief the arms and motto of the family of Dashwood. And those arms and that motto belonged to the man who stood there with the shamefaced air of a boy caught in a fault.

"I am still waiting for you to speak," Mary went on. "It is possible that there may be some explanation of this amazing conduct of yours."

The cold, proud voice seemed to doubt it all the same. And yet one word would have swept all the clouds of suspicion away. Ralph knew that it lay in his power to bring that white, haughty figure to her knees; one inkling of the truth and the whole situation was changed. For all this belonged to Ralph; Mary was no more than an honoured guest in the house. Yes, it all belonged to him, the grand old house, the matchless pictures, the furniture from the time of Elizabeth, the great sweeps of upland country, and the farms lying snug under their red roofs.

A few words spoken, and what a difference there would be! Those words meant that Ralph would have held out his hands and asked Mary to come and help him to reign here. Ay, and she would have come, too. Her point of view would be entirely changed. And she must love him. Indeed, he had more than a feeling that she loved him now, without being aware of the state of her affections. Her heart would go out to him, and there would be peace and happiness for evermore.

The temptation was great, so great that the beads of perspiration stood out on Ralph's forehead. But he crushed the temptation down; his pride came to his assistance. No, when Mary came to love, she should love the man for his own sake, she should tell him so, and Dashwood should be as nothing in comparison.

"I came here to look for something," Ralph said at length.

"Indeed! Judging by what you hold in your hand I should say that you have found it. How did you manage to obtain entrance to the house?"

"Quite a simple matter," Ralph replied. "I climbed on to the leads outside the big window. By pressing a knob outside, the window can be made to open."

"Really! I have lived here practically all my life, and I was not aware of that fact. For an absolute stranger, your knowledge of the house is exceedingly comprehensive. May I ask if you have found what you were looking for?"

"I have," Ralph said huskily. "Permit me to replace it in the old chest. To-morrow, if your father is well enough, I will see him and explain. I beg to assure you that I have what criminal lawyers call a perfect answer to the charge."

"And you ask me to believe this?" Mary burst out passionately. "How do I know that you are not one of those who are in league against us? How do I know that your indignation against Horace Mayfield is not all assumed?"

"How do you know that I am a gentleman?" Ralph retorted. "You cannot explain why."

"Indeed I cannot," Mary said bitterly. "I trusted you, I regarded you as a friend. I asked for your assistance and you promised it to me. In my heart I thanked God that I had a friend that I could rely upon. Actually, you caused me to forget the difference between our stations in life. And now!"

The girl paused, with something like tears in her voice. She looked very sweet and womanly at that moment, Ralph thought. He could afford to ignore the suggestion of the social gulf between them. The temptation to tell the truth came over him again, but once more he fought the impulse and conquered it.

"In spite of your distressful pride, you are a very woman," he said. "I am your friend and more than your friend. For your sake, there is nothing that I would not do. It is for your sake that I am here to-night, strange as it may seem. A little time ago, fate placed me in possession of certain information closely touching on the fortunes of your house. Please do not ask me to explain, for I cannot do so without spoiling everything. Call me a sentimentalist, if you like—perhaps the air of the grand old place has affected me. Anyway, there it is. I came here to-night to place you in possession of certain information that would for ever have rid you of the hateful presence of the man who calls himself Horace Mayfield. I did not want to place you under any kind of obligation, so I chose this method—"

"But why?" Mary exclaimed. "Why? Have you not saved my life twice? Could a million obligations like this increase the burden of my debt of gratitude to you?"

"That is right," Ralph admitted. "Call me a Quixote if you like. I am. The day will come when your eyes will be no longer blind, when love will come before everything. I have my own way of getting my ends, and am too proud to rely upon anything but myself. I am going to make you happy, and you are going to be the mainspring of that happiness."

Ralph spoke almost with the spirit of prophecy upon him. It would all come right some day, but he little dreamed of the trouble and tribulation that were near at hand. All he could see now was that Mary's eyes were growing dim and softer.

"My knowledge is going to save you," Ralph went on. "But I did not wish you to know that I had any hand in the business. As I said before, you must not ask me to explain. I want you to give me your hand, and to say that you regard me as being still beyond suspicion. Oh, I know that it is a deal to ask. But a long pedigree and the possession of a grand old house are not necessary to the honour of a man. I admit that I crept here like a thief in the night. If you charged me, I should have nothing to say, my character would be forever ruined. If you—"

Ralph paused, and his face flushed with annoyance. A petulant voice calling for Mary broke the silence—shuffling feet came along the corridor. Dishevelled and dazed. Sir George Dashwood stood there, candle in hand, looking from the glorious white figure with the rippling golden hair to the faint outline of Darnley. The old man was haggard and trembling, yet a certain dignity sustained him.

"I have called you three times," he said. "I needed you, my child. I woke up with my head better and a raging thirst upon me. Then I thought that I heard voices here and I came out. The situation, Mr. Darnley, is singular. Permit me to remind you that it is not the usual thing—"

The speaker paused. He seemed to be struggling for words to express his feelings.

"Quite so, Sir George," Ralph said eagerly. "I—came back for something. I helped you into the house after your illness overcame you. Forgive me if I seem to have stayed a little too long in my anxiety to be of assistance. If you will take my advice you will go back to your room without delay."

Sir George muttered something to the effect that he was very tired. He babbled about cool springs in the woods, he accepted Mary's arm as a weary child might do. It seemed almost impossible to believe that this was the sprightly, gallant figure that Ralph had known in Paris so short a time ago. But when Ralph had gone by the way in which he had come, and once more Sir George was in his bedroom, a change came over him. He eagerly drank the soda-water that Mary had procured for him.

"No, no," he cried, "tired as I am, I cannot sleep yet. I was half asleep, I was between waking and dreaming, and I was dying of thirst. I came out into the corridor and saw you standing there with Ralph Darnley. There were certain words that seemed to be burned into my brain with letters of fire. You were angry with him, and yet he was going to be a friend to us. That was no common thief in the night, Mary. What was it he found? What was it that was going to rid us of the hateful presence of Horace Mayfield? Don't tell me that I was dreaming, don't say that it was all a cruel delusion on my part. The secret, the secret, girl."

The words came like a torrent. Out of his white and hazard face, Dashwood's eyes gleamed like restless stars on a windy night. The clutch on the girl's arm was almost painful in its intensity. Mary wondered why she was trembling so.

"Hush," she said. "You must sleep now, or you will be really ill again. Leave it till the morning, when you will be better able to understand. I cannot tell you now; indeed, I know no more than you do yourself. But now you must go to sleep!"

CHAPTER VIII—FOUND!

Sir George lay back on the bed with weary eyelids closed. His last effort had cost him more than he knew. Mary's will had conquered for the moment, and he felt disposed to obey. All the same the strange thread of logical reason was going on in his mind. The only thing that could save him and preserve the proud traditions of the Dashwoods must be something in the way of papers or documents of some kind. He lay there, allowing Mary to make him comfortable for the night. He lay there long after the girl had departed to her own room and the house was wrapped in close slumber. But the quietness was soothing to Sir George's brain. His mind was growing stronger and more logical; the dazed dream of the scene in the corridor began to shape itself into concrete facts.

What had Ralph Darnley been saying? Yes, it was all coming back now. Darnley had learned certain facts somewhere, bearing on the fortunes of the house of Dashwood. Surely there was nothing so wildly improbable in this, seeing that Ralph Darnley had passed the best part of his life in America. The late Ralph Dashwood, the original heir to the property, had lived in America, too. Of course, America was a large continent, but that was no reason why Ralph Dashwood and Darnley's father should not have been friends. Had not Ralph Darnley admitted that he had business in the neighbourhood of Dashwood Hall? Perhaps he had come to make money out of his information. But then the young fellow was a gentleman, and would not stoop to that kind of thing.

Still, he knew there was no getting away from the fact, for had not Dashwood heard it from the younger man's lips? A means whereby it was possible to get rid of Horace Mayfield for ever! The mere idea sent the blood throbbing through the sick man's veins, and brought him in a sitting position in bed. That meant documents or papers of some kind; it could really mean nothing else. Dashwood remembered vividly now that Ralph had been standing by the old dower-chest in the corridor and that he had had a paper in his hand. So far as Dashwood knew, the old chest had not been opened for years. It was by no means a bad hiding-place. Perhaps—

Slowly the sick man dragged himself to his feet. He had promised Mary that he would lie quietly there till the morning, but he could not find it in his heart to keep that promise. Sleep was out of the question. Dashwood looked at his watch to find that it was only just half-past three, five hours before it would be time to rise. It seemed like an eternity. And all the while that fiend, Horace Mayfield, was sleeping under the same roof. Suppose he had been listening to what was going on. Suppose that he had had his suspicions attracted to the dower-chest! The mere thought was intolerable; it was impossible to lie there with such a torture praying on his mind. And the house was as still as death.

Sir George lighted his candle, though the bright summer dawn was creeping up from the east and the birds were beginning to twitter outside in the garden. The long corridor was getting pink and saffron with the strengthening colour from the great window. And under it lay the object of the sick man's search. Here it was with the lid unfastened and a mass of papers on the top. The first document was long in shape, neatly folded, and bearing an endorsement in a legal hand. The paper was yellow and faded, but the ink was quite plain for the eye to read. Yes, here it was, right enough, the yellow paper that meant happiness to all and the full splendour of the house of Dashwood.

"How did he know, how did he discover it?" Sir George muttered. "My hands are so shaky that I can hardly hold the paper. The will of Sir Ralph Dashwood, dated 1877, and duly witnessed by the family lawyer and his clerk...Provided that for the space of twenty years after this date my son Ralph does not appear either by himself or by the heir or heirs male of his body...Ah, six months more and the property comes to me absolutely! Strange that the will should come to light so near to the time appointed by Sir Ralph for—but that hardly helps me, seeing that my danger is so close at hand...What is this? A deed executed by Ralph Dashwood the younger cutting off the entail...I wonder where that is? Perhaps the yellow sheet of parchment lying by the side of the will...By Heavens it is! Oh, this is a direct interposition of Providence to save the good old name from disgrace. And this is what Ralph Darnley was looking for as a pleasant surprise for me. Armed with these documents, I can raise all the money necessary. I can kick Horace Mayfield out of the house, I can—"

The speaker staggered to his feet and pressed his hands to his throbbing, reeling head.

He was nearer to collapse again than he knew. He would have denied the fact that he was terribly afraid of Mayfield, but it was true all the same. The aim of the financier had never been quite hidden from his eyes; for some time past he had an instinctive knowledge of what Mayfield was after. His family pride had bidden him to have no more of Mayfield, but he had not listened. Proud as he was, he had not hesitated to stoop to gambling transactions, with the risk that he would not be able to pay his debts if he lost. Surely he deserved a sharp lesson and a cruel awakening.

But he was free now, fortune was on his side. His great good luck sent him trembling from head to foot like some amazed criminal who has been discharged by a stupid jury. He would have to give up nothing. He was still Sir George Dashwood with a grand estate, and a house with a history of three hundred years behind it. He would go to London to-morrow with those papers in his possession and his bankers would be ready to accommodate him to any amount in reason. He would pay the sum that Mayfield had mentioned, and wash his hands of the whole transaction. He would show the world how a country gentleman deals with these things. It never struck Dashwood that he was a feeble creature who had juggled with the good name that he proposed to hold so highly; he little realized the deep self-abnegation that had led to this dazzling piece of good fortune.

"Kick Mayfield out," he repeated, "after breakfast. Let him see that I am not in the least afraid of him; make him understand that we are little better than strangers for the future. Ah, that will be a triumph."

He hugged the papers to his breast, like a mother with a child. There were weak and senile tears in his eyes. He had lost nothing after all; the fine old house, the wide and well-kept estate, the great timber in the park and the deer there, were all his. He started as the sound of a footstep fell upon his ears. It seemed to him that somebody was creeping along the corridor. Perhaps it was Mayfield, who had found out what had happened. Mayfield was strong and unscrupulous, and he might try to gain possession of those papers by force. Sir George would have hidden himself, but it was too late, and besides it was broad daylight now.

The first rays of the morning sun shone on the old man as he stood there huddling those precious papers to his breast. He might have been some clumsy thief detected in the act. With a sigh of relief he recognized the figure of Slight coming in his direction. The old butler only looked a shade less distracted than his master, and his eyes were drawn and haggard; obviously he had not been to bed.

"What—what are you doing here?" Sir George stammered. "Why are you spying upon me like this? Why are you down so early?"

Slight made no reply. His gaze was fixed in a dazed kind of way on the papers which Sir George was still hugging to his breast. There was something like horror in the old man's eyes. There might have been the proofs of murder there.

"So you've got them," he said in the voice of one who talks to himself. "So he has carried out his threat and they have passed into your possession. Take and burn them, take and pitch them on the fire, and watch them till the last ash has vanished. You will be a happier man for it, Sir George, and a great wrong will be averted."

"What does the man mean?" Sir George cried in astonishment. "Slight, what are you talking about? Say it all over again. If you are mad or drunk—"

"Not mad," Slight said mournfully. He seemed to have come to his senses suddenly. He spoke now as one does when acting under a great restraint. "Not mad, Sir George, and as to the other thing, why...But the secret is not mine. I promised solemnly not to open my lips. I have given you the best advice one man can give another, but more I dare not say. Burn them, burn them, burn them, for the love of Heaven!"

Slight turned away and seemed to totter down the corridor. The full light of the strong morning sun was shining through the gold and crimson glories of the great stained glass window now, the birds were singing sweetly outside. The park grew fair and green as the dew rolled back across the fields; the garden blazed in the sunshine. Sir George saw all this as he looked through his bedroom window. The fierce joy and pride of undisputed possession were upon him; everything was safe now.

"Slight is mad," he murmured. "What does that old man know? What can he know? Let me put these papers away where they will be safe. How shaky I feel; how my head swims! If I could only get an hour or two of sleep..."

CHAPTER IX—THE PARTING GUEST

The big clock on the breakfast-room mantelpiece was chiming the hour of ten as Sir George came downstairs. He was a little later than usual, and he apologized to his guest for his want of punctuality with a courtly air. He was not accustomed to country hours, he said; he doubted if he ever should be. He made no allusion whatever to his last night's quarrel, his manner was perfectly natural and easy. If anything, there was a suggestion of bland patronage in his tone.

Mayfield glanced keenly at his host from time to time. There was something here that he quite failed to understand. He had expected to find Sir George apologetic and rather frightened. On the contrary, he was more like a bishop who entertains a curate than anything else. And Mayfield could get nothing from Mary, who sat at the head of the table, cold and stately, yet serenely beautiful, in her white cotton dress. Mayfield ground his teeth together and swore that Dashwood should pay for this before long. He held the fortunes of the baronet in the hollow of his hand; his passion for Mary was the more inflamed by her icy coldness. It would be good to humble her pride in the dust, to compel her to come to his feet and do his bidding. All the same, Mayfield had made up his mind to have an explanation after breakfast. He smiled and talked, though his anger was hot within him.

"Mr. Mayfield will want a time-table presently, my dear," Sir George was saying in his most courtly manner. "I am afraid that we have intruded too long already on his valuable time."

"I have always time to spare for you," Mayfield said with a snarling smile. "And Miss Mary need not trouble about the time-table. You forget that I have my car here which will get me to London by mid-day. Before I go I should like to have a few words with you, Sir George. You will pardon me for mentioning it, but we left matters in rather an unsatisfactory condition last night."

The little shaft passed harmlessly over Sir George's head. He smiled blandly.

"To be sure we did," he said. "You are quite right, we will settle things up before you go. What do you say to a cigar on the terrace after breakfast? No, you need not go, Mary. I have a reason for asking you to listen to our business conversation. We had a quarrel last night, when I regret to say I lost my temper. For that exhibition of unseemly and vulgar violence I sincerely beg your pardon, Mayfield. I apologize all the more humbly because we are not likely to meet very often in the future. Henceforth our business transactions promise to be slender, for after this week I am determined that the City shall not see me again. You will quite see, Mayfield, that in future our intercourse must cease. It is rather painful to talk to a guest like this, but you will understand me."

Mayfield's face expressed his astonishment. He wondered if Sir George had taken leave of his senses, and deluded himself into the belief that he was the possessor of a vast fortune. And yet the speaker was absolutely calm and collected. What could possibly have happened since last night to change him like this?

"Perhaps I am rather dense this morning," Mayfield said slowly, "but I cannot follow you at all. Yesterday I explained to you the position of affairs fully. We had been deceived by a trusted servant of mine, and you were called upon to pay £50,000. Failing this, you would perhaps have to face a criminal charge. Unfortunately, your hold upon the estate is so slender that it would not be possible for you to borrow any large sum of money. Not to speak too plainly, your position was, and is, a desperate one. Partly because I was in a measure instrumental in bringing about this lamentable state of affairs, I offered to advance you the money. In other words, I offered to give you £50,000. It is true there was a condition, but I merely allude to that in the presence of Miss Dashwood."

Mary's face flamed. Her heart was heavy within her. So far as she could see, this was the master of the situation. He held the demons of Disgrace and Bankruptcy at bay. What was the cherished possession of Dashwood worth so long as the shadow of dishonour lay across the threshold? For the sake of the grand old home and the grand old name, Mary would have to listen to Mayfield's proposal. She glanced from him to the smiling face of her father, who had risen from the table and produced his cigar case.

"Quite so," he said genially, "you are perfectly correct. You made that proposal, and, like a cur, I forgot myself and insulted you. I went so far as to say that you had planned deliberately to bring this thing about. It was ruin on the one hand and the sacrifice of my dear child on the other. Pray take one of my cigars. There are chairs on the terrace, let us continue our discussion there."

"Why go over the old ground again?" Mayfield asked impatiently. He flung himself into one of the big basket chairs on the terrace. "Has there been any material change in the position since last night? Not a bit of it. If you could find this money—"

"There is no if about it, my good Mayfield," Sir George replied. "I can find the money. It will be paid over to my creditors by the end of the week, and I will take care to let the world know what a victim I have been. The money will be paid."

A quick angry cry came from Mayfield's lips. The mask had fallen from his face for the moment. His disappointment was clear and hideous.

"What?" he exclaimed hoarsely. "Do you mean to say that you have found the wi—"

He paused and shut his lips together with a vicious click. He was going to say too much. He glanced at Sir George to see if the imprudent words had had any effect on him, but the head of the Dashwoods seemed to be immersed in his own pleasant thoughts. Only Mary noticed, but it was not till many days afterwards that she was to attach any significance to the speech.

"The money is going to be paid," Sir George went on. "By the end of the week I shall have finished with the City forever. I am not going to make any accusation, but in the clearing of my own name I shall not give any heed to others. Amongst the 'others' I need not say I am alluding to you."

"And there I am kicked downstairs," Mayfield said bitterly.

"If you like to put it so. I could speak a little more freely if you were not my guest at the present moment. But you quite understand me."

"Your patience will not be unduly taxed," Mayfield said grimly. "If I am not mistaken there is my car under the portico at this moment. But, before I go, I have something to say. You will not forget your personal obligation to me."

"A matter of £5,000. I assure you it had not escaped my memory. By the end of the week—"

"Quite so. By the end of the week. You wanted that money badly at the time. I lent it you on the condition that you allowed me to take a judgment for the debt. I brought a friendly action against you to recover the money, and you allowed judgment to go by default. It is a little formula that is sometimes gone through in the City, Miss Mary, to enable one or more fortunate creditors to have the preference over the rest. When I signed judgment I was in a position to levy execution as it is called. That is another technical expression that means that I am in a position now to place men in possession here and to hold everything till the debt and costs are paid in full. In vulgar circles this is called 'having the bailiffs in.' It happens with such people as struggling tradesmen and the like who cannot pay their rent. It is held to be a terrible disgrace amongst the poor. Common men come in and take possession of the drawing-room, where they smoke clay pipes and drink beer. Try to imagine a dirty creature of this kind with his feet on your Louis Quinze furniture, Miss Mary. The very idea causes you to look pale and ghastly. And yet such things have happened, and history is always repeating itself."

The speaker paused and smiled, his words were horribly slow and grating. Mary laid her hand on her heart as if some sharp fear thrilled her.

"Is—is it possible for you to do this thing?" she asked.

"Indeed it is," said Mayfield with the same hard smile. "I could do it to-day—as soon as I reach town, in fact. Quite like a scene from a modern melodrama, is it not? Well, good-bye, Sir George; goodbye, Miss Mary. I see my luggage is on the car and my chauffeur is waiting. I will not intrude myself on you any longer. When my slaves of the law, with their clay pipes and dirty boots arrive, there will be no necessity to ask them to have dinner at the same table as yourself. Good-bye."

With a sign of his hand, Mayfield motioned to his chauffeur. The great car came along with a fuss and a clatter, and Mayfield sprang to the side of the driver. He pulled off his hat with a gesture of mocking humility and the car dashed away. Sir George sprang up, but too late. The car was disappearing now in a cloud of dust down the drive. With a face white as death Mary turned to her father.

"Is this thing true?" she asked hoarsely. "Are you still in that man's power? Is it quite impossible for you to get the money to-day?"

"Quite," Sir George groaned. "I—I had forgotten that judgment. I should have waited; I should not have shown my hand so soon. But he will never do it; he was dismayed to find my position so strong; he merely meant to frighten me."

"He will do it," Mary cried. "I saw it in his face, in his wicked eyes. A disgrace like that would break my heart, father. What is to be done to avert this awful calamity? No sacrifice could be too great. And I can think of absolutely nothing!"

CHAPTER X—SKIN DEEP

Mary spoke as one who is moved to the very core of her being. It was not merely a painful and unpleasant incident that faced her, but something in the nature of a great and overwhelming tragedy. The girl's pride was part of her being. She accepted it naturally, as in the order of establishing things. Usually she was brave enough. She would have encountered any physical danger with coolness and courage, but the mere suggestion of this outrage frightened her.

Well, she could look to her father for assistance. He had behaved with great fortitude during the recent interview with Mayfield; indeed, it might be said that he emerged from the combat victoriously. Doubtless, he could find some way out. The old blood had asserted itself before, and it could do it again.

"Why are you so silent?" Mary asked. "Tell me what is to be done. A disgrace like that would be horrible—after such contamination, Dashwood would never be the same to me again. Father, you have found a way?"

But Sir George made no reply. The bland and easy dignity had vanished, the suave smile with which he had greeted Mayfield was not to be seen. He had suddenly become a poor feeble wreck of a man again, and he burst into senile tears. They were real tears, for Mary could see them trickling down his face. She trembled with an alarm and anger that she had never felt before.

For tears formed no part of her woman's armour; she left them to children and the fretful mothers of the poor. In all the traditions of the house, there was no mention of tears. Both men and women had met their misfortunes with hard faces and dry eyed. It had been left to Mary to be ashamed of a male Dashwood. Perhaps there was something in the bitter scorn of her face that caused Sir George furtively to remove the tell-tale drops.

"I'm not myself," he whined. "I have had a deal of trouble and Mayfield is a great scoundrel. I had to have that money hurriedly—a disastrous speculation. If I had not been high up in the service of my country, it would not have mattered so much. But my creditors were pressing, and Mayfield offered to help me. Of course, he wanted what he called security. It seemed so natural when he explained to me. And all the time he wanted to get me into his power."

"Oh, why go over the same ground again?" Mary cried. "Something must be done without delay. Those horrible men must not come here."

"Perhaps it was only a threat on Mayfield's part," Sir George said feebly.

"It was nothing of the kind and you know it, father. There was deadly malice in every word that he uttered. And before then you had got the better of him. You acted like a true Dashwood—I was proud of you. And now you sit there, and, oh, I cannot bring myself to say the hateful word. Why did you behave so nobly a little while ago, and so cowardly now? You seemed to have found a way out."

"I had," Sir George whispered. "Last night you left me in the depths of despair. I could not sleep, I could think of nothing but what you told me about Ralph Darnley. I wondered if perhaps he was secretly my enemy. Then it occurred to me that he was looking for some papers in that old chest. I could not rest till I was satisfied; I also searched the old chest. And what did I find? I found the late Sir Ralph Dashwood's will and I found his unhappy son's deed cutting off the entail. If no son of the second Ralph turns up within the next six months, everything is mine. You can understand how the full force of that discovery overwhelmed me. Here was a way out of all my difficulties. That is why I was in a position to face Mayfield fearlessly this morning. Within a week at the outside I could raise the money to be clear of him. I had quite forgotten the smaller item. I should have remembered it, I ought to have been smooth and smiling before Mayfield's face until I was ready to be clear of him for ever. And now he can strike me a deadly blow before I am ready to meet it. Of course the inconvenience—"

"Inconvenience! Can you speak of so disgraceful a thing by such a name? Dearly as I love the old house, I would rather see it and all its treasures burnt to the ground. I could put the match to it myself."

Mary's voice rang out with passionate anger. Her blue eyes blazed. There was no trace of exaggeration in what she said, she would have been ready to carry out her threat.

"It won't last long," Sir George muttered. "I'll go to London to-morrow and take those papers with me. As soon as they have been verified, the bank will advance me all I need. But business of this sort takes time. People are very chary of parting with their money unless it is well secured. Probably by the end of the week—"

"The end of the week! And the blow may fall to-night! We must have that money now."

"Impossible, my dear child. I'm afraid you do not appreciate the situation. When I came into the property I was heavily in debt. I had to pay off those debts; also I had to keep up the house in a way that befitted the traditions of the family. The consequence is that I am constantly overdrawn at my bank as far as the people there allow it. They don't like it, because they feel that if anything happened to me, or some son of young Ralph Dashwood came along, I should find myself not in—er—a position to meet all my liabilities. Therefore, to go to them to raise this money would be worse than useless. I am afraid that we shall have to put up with the inconvenience till the end of the week, when those papers I found will have been properly verified."

Mary restrained the passionate anger that flamed within her. It was a cruel blow to find her father so wanting in courage when the critical moment came. He was prepared to sit down and weep, when hourly the danger was drawing nearer. Instinctively Mary's thoughts went out to Ralph Darnley. He would not have taken the blow like this, though he had not the good fortune to call himself a Dashwood. He would be up and doing. Perhaps it would be as well to consult him and ask his advice. She felt ashamed of herself as the thought occurred to her. And yet she had no other friend in the world. Despite her exalted position, Mary was a very lonely girl.

What was the use of all her pride? This splendid isolation faded to ashes now that she was face to face with the task before her. Evidently her father meant to do nothing, he would submit tamely to the degradation and wait for it to pass.

There were dead and gone Dashwoods smiling, or simpering, or frowning from the walls—soldiers and statesmen, scholars, famous beauties, and not one of them had ever seen the tainting of the family name. It was left to Sir George to submit tamely to that. Mary could see that his eyes were still wet.

"Something must be done," she said. "Are there no jewels that one could turn into cash? Strange that I have never given a thought before to the family jewels! But surely in a family like ours there must be historic diamonds and the like. Did I not hear once from somebody that the Dashwood emeralds are unique? I am told that it is no uncommon thing for great ladies to take these jewels to men in London who advance money on them. I have listened to such stories with incredulity—I begin to see now why things like this have to be done. Let me have them and I will go to London this afternoon. My cheeks flame with shame when I think of it; but I suppose there are harder tests of one's endurance. Where are they, father?"

"They are not here," he said. "I believe there are some magnificent heirlooms in the way of family gems, but they are not in my possession. You see we are merely a collateral branch of the old tree, so we have nothing to do with the jewels. At present I understand they are in the possession of the dowager Lady Dashwood. They came to her as a matter of right on her marriage, and I am told that she has retained them ever since. If her son had lived and come to the title and married, then his wife would have taken the stones as a matter of right, being the wife of the reigning head of the family. Whether or not they would come to you on your marriage is another question. Anyway, you would have the right of wearing them after the dowager dies. But this is a matter about which I know really nothing. As you are aware, my dear, Lady Dashwood does not like me. For some reason or another she has a violent prejudice against me, and she never asks me to the dower house if she can help it. Of course with you the thing is different—she brought you up and regards you more or less as her own child. It is just possible that she may tide us over the difficulty."

"Which means that you will go and ask her," Mary said eagerly.

"By no means, my dear," Sir George responded. "I could not stoop to ask a favour of that kind from any woman, however pressing the necessity. It seems to me to be more a question between one woman and another. Now from you, the request would seem quite natural. If you care to undertake it—"

But Mary heard no more. She could not trust herself to reply. Slowly and coldly she walked from the room, her hands locked convulsively together. Truly the family pride was a shattered reed to lean on, a skin deep thing after all. And the strong capable face of Ralph Darnley rose like a warm vision before her.

CHAPTER XI—THE DOWAGER LADY DASHWOOD

The silent moody dinner was over at length; Slight was placing the dessert on the shining mahogany. Mary rose presently and walked over to the open window. Over the park the moon was gleaming like a silver shield against the pallid sky; the deer moved like ghosts in the pearly dew. It was more sweet and peaceful than ever, and yet Mary dwelt bitterly on the mockery of it all. What an enviable mortal she appeared to be, and yet how little did she deserve that envy. The hours had crept on and the thunderbolt had not yet fallen. Perhaps the blow would be delayed till to-morrow, which was a soothing reflection, for nothing had as yet been done, though Mary had made up her mind to invoke the aid of Lady Dashwood. She had not been across to the dower house yet, for Lady Dashwood had gone out on one of her rare visits to a neighbour, and at seven o'clock had not returned. There would be plenty of time afterwards, and Mary stood by the window, drinking in the full beauty of the night. She had made up her mind to tell Lady Dashwood everything and throw herself upon the elder woman's mercy. She turned to her father, who was gently complaining to Slight of the quality of the claret he was pouring out.

"I am going to the dower house now," the girl said coldly. How could a man be so trivial at such, a moment, she wondered. "I may be late, father."

Sir George murmured something in reply. He was still absorbed in the contemplation of his glass. He had evidently forgotten the importance of Mary's errand. The girl was very chill and her heart very cold and empty and lonely as she passed down the old elm avenue and through a path leading by a great belt of evergreens to the grounds of the dower house beyond. It was a Tudor mansion a little older than the Hall itself, and it boasted some wonderful gates and a rose garden famous throughout the county. The whole facade of the house was covered with roses, too, and the night air was heavy with their fragrance. The back of the house looked on a green forecourt, and a long conservatory led to a set of cloisters, which made a deliciously cool spot in the hot weather. There Mary usually found her aged relative, but she was in the drawing-room to-night. She rose as the girl entered, a tall figure with a mass of white hair done up in some old fashion that was not without its charm. Lady Dashwood's face was white as her hair, and it bore the impress of some great and lasting trouble that never would fade away on this side of the grave. Her eyes had the same haunting care in them, the same suggestion of remorse. A keen observer might have been justified in regarding Lady Dashwood as a woman who was being weighed down with the burden of a terrible secret.

But her smile was sincere enough as Mary came forward; her slim hands shook as she laid them on the girl's shoulders and kissed her. Then she seemed to discern that something was wrong, for she sighed as she looked into Mary's face.

"Sit down, dearest," she said tenderly. "It is very good of you to come and see me so late. But there is something the matter, Mary. I have not known and loved you all these years without being able to read that transparent mind of yours. What is it dear? You know that I will do anything in the wide world to save you from unhappiness."

"Dearest of foster mothers, I know it," Mary whispered. She blinked away the rare tears that would rise to her eyes. "It is selfish of me to come and worry you at this time of night, but there is no help for it. We are in great distress."

"Does that mean your father as well as yourself, or rather that you are worrying about him? What has he been doing now to cause you all this anxiety? Something to do with those speculations over which I have helped him more than once in the past."

"Have you?" Mary asked with a startled blush. "He never told me. He wrote to you—"

"More than once, my dear. As heir presumptive to the estate, I suppose he thought he had a right to do so. But I am afraid that I can't help him again—at least, not just at present. But then I don't suppose it is so very serious."

"It is disgrace," Mary said in a low voice. "It means the intrusion of strangers, men sent down to take what is called possession till the debt is paid. It is a matter of £5,000, and it must be obtained at once—before mid-day to-morrow. Perhaps I had better tell you all about it, but it would break my heart to see this disgrace fall on Dashwood. Dearest tell me that you will find me the money or the means to get it!"

Lady Dashwood made no reply for a moment. A still more ashen pallor crept over her white face. She placed her hand to her heart as if to still some poignant pain there, her rings shimmered and trembled in the lamplight.

"Tell me everything," she said huskily. "My punishment is coming, my sin is finding me out at last."

"Your sin?" Mary cried, "If ever there was a good woman in the world, you are one. I hate to hear you speak like that, my more than mother. Surely you must know how good and pure your life has always been. And you talk like this! If there is any mystery here, any secret that lies like a shadow over our house—"

"Was ever a great family without its trouble?" Lady Dashwood asked. "You must not take my foolish words quite so seriously, child. Perhaps by brooding over them, one is apt to magnify troubles. So your father has discovered this will and the deed by which my unhappy boy cut himself off from his inheritance. Strange that the papers should be found just now."

"Why?" Mary asked. "Why just now? Did you know of their existence?"

But Lady Dashwood made no reply. She seemed to be lost in a sea of troubled thoughts. Mary did not repeat the question. After all, it mattered very little either way. Lady Dashwood came to herself with a start.

"But we have the present to think of," she said. "Your father will be able to do as he likes now, therefore the trouble caused by this hostile creditor is all the more to be deplored. He is some business man, I presume?"

"Yes," Mary explained. "By birth a gentleman. His name is Horace Mayfield."

A startled cry came from Lady Dashwood's lips, the grey pallor was on her face again.

"Do you happen to know the man?" Mary asked.

"Oh, yes; I know him and his family. A bad man, a hateful man. Never mention his name to me again. Mary, he must be got rid of at all costs. I have no great head for these things, but I see the necessity of getting out of the hands of Horace Mayfield. As you say, in a week's time it would not matter. As it is the thing is urgent. Is it so utterly impossible to find this money?"

"It is out of the question for us," Mary said haltingly. Her face was burning now that she was coming to the pith of her errand. "My father could not place his hand on a fifth part of the sum. I racked my brains to find the way out. Then it occurred to me that there were certain people who lent money on the security of jewels and valuable plate, and things like that. I had never heard our family jewels mentioned, but I felt quite sure that they existed. My father told me that they were in your possession, that they belong to you so long as I remain single. Dear mother, do you see what I mean? Do not put me to the pain of having to speak more plainly. And it is only for so short a time! By the end of the week the stones will be in your hands again. I could go up to London in the morning and take the jewels to one of the big dealers who do business of this kind...The disgrace would be averted. I hate to come here with a proposal like this, but I can think of no other way. You are not going to refuse me this great favour?"

"You want me...to lend you...my jewels?" Lady Dashwood gasped. There was no trace of anger or displeasure in her voice. She looked strangely white and drawn, as if suddenly, years had been added to her life. "How do you know I have any?"

"I asked my father. No, he did not suggest it. He told me that our family collection of stones was a famous one; he said that everything was in your possession. Then in shame and agony of spirit I dragged myself here to ask you to do this thing. My own proper pride held me back, my family pride urged me on."

"The curse of the race," Lady Dashwood cried. "The besetting sin of the family will ruin us all yet. Heavens! the mischief that it has brought about already. It made my wedded life a long intolerable bondage, rendering me old before my time. It was responsible for the great sin which caused my son to leave home for ever. And yet I fed you on the family pride, I held it before you day by day until you have grown so cold and hard that I alone know of the kind and generous heart that beats within you...But enough of this. You want me to lend you some of my jewels. If I tell you I have none, what then?"

"My father told me that they were in your possession, Lady Dashwood."

"My child, you must not speak to me in that tone. It hurts me dreadfully. Suppose the stones are gone, suppose that I have parted with them one by one to preserve a fearful family secret! Suppose that I parted with the last diamond yesterday! What would you say if I told you that?"

Lady Dashwood had suddenly lost her reason. Mary could see no other explanation for this extraordinary speech. And yet the speaker looked guilty enough, there was a shamed flush on her withered cheeks. She rose from her seat and moved to the door.

"Wait a moment," she said. "I may find a way yet. But my sin is going to find me out and my sacrifice shall be all in vain."

CHAPTER XII—LADY DASHWOOD SEES A GHOST

With faltering hesitation Lady Dashwood made her way into the dark hall beyond the drawing-room. She bore little resemblance to the grand dame that her friends knew. In spite of her silks, her laces and her flashing rings, she looked like the ordinary woman who is suffering from the burden of a great affliction. There were tears in her eyes as she walked along. The house was strangely silent; no servants were to be seen anywhere as Lady Dashwood reached a door leading to the green forecourt with the cloisters beyond. She stepped out into the moonlight slowly, she passed across the garden under the brown stone archway that led to the cloisters.

There she paused and looked about her furtively. There was nothing to be seen but the shadows made by the moonlight. Like a thief in the night Lady Dashwood crept along till she came at length to the end of the cloisters, where there was a stairway leading to some dilapidated apartment overhead. Once again there was a pause, and after that the aged lady began to climb the stairs. At the same time there came the unmistakable sound of voices overhead.

Lady Dashwood started and almost lost her balance. The sound was so unexpected, so utterly unlooked for. The voices were quite clear and distinct, too, on the still air. Lady Dashwood had no desire to play the eavesdropper, but it was impossible not to hear everything. The one voice was low and pleasant, and yet clear and commanding.

"I tell you it is impossible," the pleasant voice said. "You must allow me to conduct this business in my own way. I have already given you my word that everything will come out right in the long run. There is still six months of the time to expire, remember, so that you need do no violence to your conscience."

"Yes, but you have not taken Lady Dashwood into your calculations, sir," the other voice said.

"Indeed I have, my good fellow. I have forgotten nothing. Everything has been most carefully mapped out. As Lady Dashwood is more or less of a recluse, there is nothing to be feared from her. It will be a very easy matter to keep out of her way."

The listener fell back, clutching at her heart wildly. She was compelled to lean against the brown walls of the cloisters for support.

"I am dreaming," she murmured. "I shall awake presently and find myself in bed. I am getting old and fanciful, and my mind is playing me strange tricks. The owner of that voice has been dead for many years; it is a mere chance resemblance. And yet it is as real as if I had gone back over the wasted years. Is it possible—"

The speaker paused. It seemed to her that the two men overhead were coming down and she had no mind to be caught listening. She turned away swiftly, her slim ankle in its satin slipper gave a turn and a cry of pain escaped her. A moment later and Slight was by her side, looking at her with mingled sympathy and suspicion.

"Your ladyship has hurt yourself," he said. "Permit me to take you back to the house. What are you doing here at this time in the evening?"

There was something almost masterful in the tone of the question. In spite of the pain that she was suffering, Lady Dashwood turned a cold displeased eye on the speaker.

"You sometimes forget yourself, Slight," she said. "It is a failing of old and privileged servants. Your place is over at the Hall. What are you doing here? You were ever a man to do strange things in a strange way. Have you some secret here?"

"We have had many secrets together, my lady, and we may take most of them to the grave with us," said Slight coolly. "I have been too long a friend of the family to be treated like this. And your ladyship must just come back to the house at once. You are in pain."

"Pain or not, I am not going back yet, Slight. I came here for something that I had left in one of the cloister chambers, and I heard your voice. I should have thought little of that, for you are permitted to come and go as you like. But you were not alone, you had a companion with you. And I heard his voice, too, Slight."

The withered old servant looked slightly confused. Then his dry face grew hard and dogged.

"I am not going to deny it, my lady," he said. "A—friend of mine, who—"

"Is a gentleman. No mistake about that, Slight. And the voice was so like that of my poor dead boy that I almost died of the sound of it. What does it mean, Slight; who are you hiding up there? I am going to see."

"Indeed, your ladyship is not going to do anything of the kind," said Slight hastily. "Besides, my friend has gone. There is another way from the cloister chamber, remember. And your ladyship has just got to come back to the house."

Lady Dashwood sighed impatiently. Slight had been her own servant for nearly forty years, and she knew the dogged obstinacy of the man. She knew his sterling honesty, too, and how faithful he could be to a trust.

"Very well," she said. "If there is anything to tell me, you will tell it in your own way. But that voice startled me—it was like a voice from the grave. It was as if my boy had come back to me once more. Slight, if you are deceiving me—"

"I'm not deceiving anybody," Slight said in an aggrieved voice. "I leave that to my betters. If your ladyship will lean on my arm, I will try to ease your foot as much as possible. The shortest way is to cut across the grass."

It was rather a slow process, for Lady Dashwood's foot was getting painful. She came at length to the great stone doorway leading from the forecourt into the house; she looked back over her shoulder, and as she did so she grew almost rigid.

"Look!" she whispered. "What did I tell you? Don't you see it, Slight—the figure standing over there by the laurels in the moonlight? See, the rays on his face. Don't tell me that my eyes deceive me, Slight. It is my boy come back again."

Slight muttered something under his breath. In reality he was objurgating Ralph Darnley for his careless imprudence in standing there with his face turned to the dower house. Yet the old man's frame never moved a muscle.

"What does your ladyship mean?" he asked. "I can see nothing."

"That is because you are not looking in the right direction, Slight. Over there by the laurels. Do you dare to tell me that a man is not standing there? It is my son Ralph come back from the grave! The fine figure, the gracious open face, the determined eyes. Has time stood still with him that he looks so young? And yet it is forty years since...Ralph, Ralph, it is your mother who calls to you."

The words rang out with startling stillness in the great cloister. The young man standing there started and turned round. He had been absolutely lost in a deep study, contemplating the old house. He came tumbling down to earth again, and became conscious of a white-haired, richly-dressed old lady who was holding out a pair of arms in his direction. He could see the pleading, loving look on her face, he noticed the menace and anger in Slight's eyes. Without further ado Ralph stepped back into the bushes, his feet making no sound on the mossy turf. It was like the slow diminishing of a dream.

"He has gone," Lady Dashwood cried. "I have frightened him by my notice. Did you not see him, Slight? Did you not observe the extraordinary likeness?"

"I saw nothing but a young man who was trespassing," Slight said evasively. "Your ladyship is full of fancies to-night. You will laugh at yourself in the morning."

Once more Lady Dashwood sighed impatiently. She managed to drag herself back to the drawing-room without the aid of Slight. She dropped into a chair white and quivering, whilst Mary regarded her with eyes filled with deep concern.

"Something has happened to you," she said. "What is it? Can I do anything?"

"Nobody can do anything," Lady Dashwood whispered. "Mary, I have seen a ghost. I not only saw the ghost, but I heard the vision speak. And they wanted to persuade me that it was an old woman's foolish fancy...I meant to have done something for you to-night, but I forget what it is and where I put it. I can think of nothing but my ghost. And I want to be alone, my dear, you cannot think how much I want to be alone! Ring for my maid now and go. Don't think me unkind, my child. Come back in the morning, and I will try to help you in the way you need. Kiss me and say good-night."

Mary bent down obediently and kissed the faded, unsteady lips. Her errand had been more or less of a failure, but she could not pursue the subject now. She could only ring the bell and depart as she had come. To press the matter nearest her heart would have been wanting in tact and delicacy. Very sorrowfully Mary took her way across the park in the direction of the Hall. She would come back and see Lady Dashwood after breakfast, and then if she could get what she required, she would go to London at once and get matters settled by the family solicitor. She might be an hour or two too late, but she had to risk that.

The drawing-room windows were open; on the terrace in front Sir George was passing up and down with a distracted air. Mary could see that his tie was ruffled and that his hair had been stirred as if by a high wind. He paused as the girl spoke to him.

"What is wrong?" she asked. "Has anything happened?"

"The very worst," Sir George groaned. "They came soon after you had gone...three of them. One in the servants' hall, one upstairs, and one in there, the drawing-room. A foul man with a foul pipe. Look and see the creature for yourself!"

CHAPTER XIII—DESECRATION

A feeling of almost physical sickness held Mary for the moment. She had dreaded this thing, and at the same time she had hoped against it—it had seemed almost impossible that such a calamity could happen to Dashwood Hall. Mary would have scoffed the idea that she regarded ordinary humanity as different clay to herself, but it was so all the same. It did not seem right that one in her station of life should be called upon to suffer an indignity like this.

And yet here it was, blatant and hideous, and so transparently vulgar! Mary knew the full significance of the disaster; she had seen something of it, two years before, in the house of one of the estate farmers who had fallen into the hands of a money-lender. She had seen the mother of the family bowed and distracted, whilst a gin-soddened wretch sat in a priceless oak chair and puffed some dreadful tobacco. And the man had been quite insolent when Mary had spoken to him.

That was bad enough, but to have the same thing at Dashwood was a thousand times worse. It seemed to Mary that she could catch the reek of that vile tobacco now. But something had to be done; it was useless to stand there idle.

"Have you spoken to the people?" Mary asked. "The servants—"

"Are all in bed except old Slight," Sir George whined. "Slight managed that. The other servants don't know anything for the present."

"Well, that is something gained. I have been to see Lady Dashwood. It was the most shameful moment of my life, but I managed to ask for the jewels. No, I did not get them—I don't believe that Lady Dashwood has them. I believe that she has some secret trouble of her own; I begin to believe that there is something terribly wrong with our family. There is no hope from Lady Dashwood."

Sir George whined in a feeble kind of way. Mary's heart overflowed with bitter contempt. This was the head of the family, the man to be relied upon to uphold the traditions of a long line of glorious ancestors! The girl steeled herself to face the inevitable; she knew now that she would have to rely solely on her own exertions. She passed through the open window into the drawing-room, which would never be quite the same to her again. Nothing appeared to be altered; the soft shaded lamps were here, the mellow subdued light playing on old furniture and pictures, and the flowers artistically arranged in their priceless vases. Surely sorrow and shame and humiliation would not touch the picture with chill fingers!

There he was, lounging back on a Chippendale couch, with his muddy boots on a hassock of Gobelin tapestry, his sullen face half-ashamed and half-defiant. His profession would have been apparent to anyone who had ever met one of the tribe before. Those men were of a race apart, idlers and loafers, who can face sorrow and suffering and the breaking up of homes without a spark of human feeling. The man looked up at Mary's pale haughty face, with a certain dumb admiration in his bleared eye.

"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" Mary demanded. "Tell me that."

"It's all right," the object said, without removing his pipe. "There's the document on that little marble table. Suit of Mayfield and Co., £5,193 17s. 4d., debt and costs. If you pay within seven days, all right; if you don't then the auctioneer comes in. No use making a fuss about it. Pay us and we go, don't pay us and we stay. Treat us well, and we'll treat you well. It isn't the first time I've been in swell houses like this."

The man was so coolly, unconsciously insolent that Mary could make no reply for a moment. It seemed incredible that she, who had always had the reverence of every man and boy in the village, could be treated like this. Nothing seemed to pierce the creature's dull hide.

"But you can't stay here," she said. "That is impossible. I suppose the idea is to see that nothing is taken away. Nearly all the furniture belongs to the family; most of the things are what are called heirlooms. We could not dispose of them if we wanted to. We could make you all comfortable in one of the empty lodges."

"Won't do," the man on the sofa said huskily. "Had that game tried on me lots of times. I sit up here all night, whilst my mates get a rest. We take it turn and turn about. Better keep your breath to cool your porridge. You can go to bed now without any fear of burglars. I'll see that nothing goes away from here."

Mary turned away, sore and helpless and sick at heart. She, who despised tears so heartily in others, felt like bursting into hysterical weeping now. The humiliation was almost more than she could bear. She would have welcomed any calamity that was likely to overwhelm the old house and lay it in grey ashes at her feet. Fiercely, angrily, she grasped her father by the arm and led him from the room. Sir George trotted along feebly, muttering in a small voice. He was as useless as a woman in a storm at sea. He sat down in the library with his hands folded in his lap, and looked anxiously for any suggestion from Mary.

"Is there nothing you can do?" she demanded impatiently. Could this feeble, white-faced creature be the same jaunty, debonnaire figure that had been so popular in the Paris salons? Mary asked herself. "Is there no way out of the difficulty?"

"I—I am afraid not," Sir George stammered. "I am so dazed and confused that I can think of nothing. Most unfortunate that business about Lady Dashwood and the diamonds. Wonder what she has done with them. Very selfish of her."

Mary suppressed a desire to scream. Ralph Darnley flashed into her mind suddenly, and she wondered why. Anyway she could not ask him to help her, even if he had the means to do so. She had repelled his advances more or less scornfully, and one does not borrow money from a man in conditions like that.

"Lady Dashwood is powerless to help us," she said with an effort. "Unless I am greatly mistaken, she has a sorrow far deeper than ours—"

"Impossible," Sir George said testily. "You are talking nonsense, my dear. What blow could be heavier or harder to bear than ours? But I trust that we shall meet it with proper dignity. Nothing can deprive us of our dignity."

Mary laughed aloud. The echo of her mirth came back mockingly in the silence and almost frightened her. Heavens! was it possible that Sir George had no idea of the pitiable figure he presented at that moment? He went on to suggest fortitude and calmness. He had heard of the same thing happening in the castle of a duke. Worse things had taken place in the chateaux of the aristocracy in the French Revolution.

"Ay, but they knew how to live and die like gentlefolk," Mary said bitterly. "I understand that you are going to sit down and tamely submit to this thing?"

"My dearest child, how impetuous you are! There is nothing else to do. By the end of the week I shall have more than enough for all my needs. Still I think, I think that there is a way to get out of the difficulty, without anybody being any the wiser. The remedy, however, lies in your hands. Of course, it requires a certain amount of self-sacrifice on your part. I am bound to confess that I could desire other channels for the amelioration of the situation. Still, as I said before—"

The voice was cringing and fawning; there was something mean and furtive on Sir George's face as he spoke his polished periods. A certain sickness of heart gripped Mary; she was conscious of a sensation of absolute fear.

"Pray do not be diplomatic with me," she said. "I have seen so much of that kind of thing in Paris. What are you concealing from me?"

"Your tone is not filial," Sir George complained. "I did not mean to tell you; I was going to spare you the pain. I thought perhaps you would agree with me that patience was the best line to take. But I see that you desire to strike a decisive blow; at any cost you long to get those impossible creatures out of the house. Our boats are not entirely burnt as you seem to imagine—one slender plank of safety remains. Not to elaborate the thing too much, I may say I have had a note from Mayfield. I should like you to read that note and consider its inner meaning carefully. Mayfield has come down from London in his car to-night, and is staying at his old fishing quarters at Swainson's farm. He more or less apologizes for the course that he has taken, and reminds me that friendship must not be mixed up with business. He does not allude to the way in which I so flagrantly assaulted him, which strikes me as being generous on his part—"

"But he has come here to gloat over our misfortune," Mary cried. "I see that my instinct did not play me false when I estimated the man."

"There you go, there you go," Sir George said testily. "I gather from the letter that Mayfield regrets his precipitate action. But, on the other hand, he fears to lose his money. He wants a substantial security for it. He says in his letter, which is an exceedingly gentlemanly one, that an amicable understanding is quite easy. He suggests that if you like to send for him and discuss the matter, he has no doubt that affairs may be arranged."

Mary started forward and laid a hand upon her heart. She was conscious of a fierce pain there, as if the organ of her being had suddenly stopped its beating. So this was the way out! She had only to smile, to raise one pink finger, and the horrid miasma in the drawing-room would fade like some unspeakable nightmare. Mary dropped into a chair shaking in every limb.

CHAPTER XIV—A FIERCE TEMPTATION

"And so that is what you mean!" Mary said slowly when at length she had found sufficient breath to speak. "Stripped of empty phrases and diplomatic trappings, I am to make a bargain with Horace Mayfield to save the honour and reputation of our house."

"Let me point out to you that the thing can be done to-night," Sir George whispered.

"Oh, I know that. That is why Horace Mayfield is here. He has returned on purpose. He has carefully calculated the place where the wound is likely to hurt most. He knows the full extent of my pride, my idolatry for the old house and the old name. And I am to make a bargain with him. I am to exchange myself for freedom from the disgrace and humiliation. And that is a course that you seriously suggest."

"I have not said so," Sir George muttered. He held his head down. He could not meet the flashing blue scorn in his child's eyes. "These things happen every day. Look at Lady Cynthia Greig. She married Newman the financier, who started life goodness knows where. And she was supposed to be the proudest girl in London."

"Oh, I know. There was some whisper of a terrible family scandal involving a deal of money. And the last time I saw Cynthia, she looked like a beautiful white statue. There was a fierce, hard gladness in her voice when she told me that she was dying of consumption. Yet, so far as I know, Mr. Newman is an honest man."

"Does not the same remark apply to Horace Mayfield?"

"Certainly not. I judge him from your own lips. You declared that he had robbed you of a large sum of money, that he had deliberately worked it so that it appeared as if he had been defrauded by a dishonest servant. And all this to get me in his power. And you did not reply to that letter of Mr. Mayfield's with the scorn that it deserved; you waited to hear what I had to say about it."

Sir George protested mildly that he could do nothing else. But Mary was not listening. She glanced at the familiar objects about her; she passed over to the window and pulled up the blind. The moon was shining peacefully upon the rose garden and tinting with silver glory the old gates beyond, as it had done many times the last two hundred years. It all looked so sweet and graceful, so refined and restful. No shadow of disgrace had ever rested on the house before, no slander had ever made a target of the house of Dashwood. And now the tongues of the whole county would be wagging. The price to pay was a terrible one, but Mary did not hesitate. It never occurred to her that she was deliberately estranging the very pride that she hugged so closely to her heart, that trouble and misfortune could be borne with dignity and fortitude, that the gossip of the idle mattered nothing. She reached out a hand to her father, and he understood.

He took a note from his pocket and passed it over to the girl. It was only a few lines that Mayfield had written, but there was no mistaking their meaning. Mary felt that the words had been written for her alone; very clearly the issue had been thrown into her hands. She crossed over to a table and began to write. She was burning and trembling from head to foot; therefore she was surprised to see that her handwriting had never been bolder and firmer. Without heading or ending of any kind she wrote this message to Mayfield:—

"It is getting late now, but it is not too late to talk business to a business man. I am sending you this at once, so that you may get it a little after eleven. If you will be so good as to come over to-night we may settle matters at once."

She read the letter aloud and folded it calmly. Sir George nodded a sort of shamefaced approval. Under his brows he had been watching Mary with the keenest anxiety all the time. He knew that the girl's scruples were justified; that he ought to have torn up Mayfield's letter and treat it with the contemptuous silence that it deserved. But he merely smiled and nodded his head.

"I have done it," Mary said. "God knows the price that I am likely to pay for my sacrifice, if the sacrifice is worthy of the occasion. Where is Slight?"

Slight replied to the bell in person. His small red face had an angry flush; his grey hair stood up all over his head like a clothes brush.

"Take this over to Swainson's farm," Mary said, "and wait for an answer. The letter is for Mr. Mayfield, as you will see, Slight."

The old butler drew back a few paces. He regarded the letter as if it had been something noisome to sting him; his face grew obstinate and dark and almost murderous. Slight was a fanatic in his way, as Mary had noticed many times.

"Beg pardon, miss," he said doggedly, "but I respectfully decline to do anything of the sort."

It was no time to argue with the old servant. And Slight was something more than an ordinary butler; he was a friend of the family. Despite his blunt refusal, his manner was as respectful as the most exacting could have wished. Then he seemed to forget everything; his passion broke out and burst all bonds.

"I've been here for more than forty years," he said. "I was bred and born on the estate, and on the property I hope to die. I know the Dashwoods better than they know themselves. It's all pride, pride, and nothing else matters. And it's part of your pride, Miss Mary, to make terms with Mayfield, who is one of the greatest rascals that ever drew breath. You may be surprised to hear me say this, but it's true. That man has brought all this about. He's done it for his own ends. He's waiting for you to own that he is master of the situation, and he dictates his terms. And that he shall some day come here and lord it over us is one of them. And it's your pride in the old house that is going to play into his hands. Don't you do it, Miss Mary, don't you let that scoundrel come here. If it happens—"

"Silence," Mary cried. "Slight, you are forgetting yourself."

"Maybe," Slight responded; "but I'm not forgetting you. And I won't take that letter; not if I lost my place for it. Besides, I've got something else to do. I've got to save you from yourself if possible."

Slight turned quickly and left the room. With an exclamation of annoyance, Sir George crossed the lawn in the direction of the stables, with a view of calling upon one of the helpers there. By the time he had succeeded, Mary was ready with her letter. She looked very white and stern and proud as she stood there in the moonlight. The fading light fell upon her neck and shoulders and turned them to ivory. A fitting mistress for that grand old house, truly! She was like one of Tennyson's cold and immaculate heroines, she had a sort of fierce satisfaction in the knowledge that she came without a pang to the altar of the family sacrifice. She was quite blind to her own insensate folly; she would have been astonished to know that she was doing a wrong thing.

"Please take this note to Swainson's Farm for me, Walters," she said in her sweetest manner. "It has been forgotten, and I am exceedingly sorry to give you all this trouble. There is no occasion for you to wait for an answer."

Walters stammered something to the effect that it was a pleasure, and went his way. In the distance, old Slight was stumping off across the park with evident determination. A shade of annoyance crossed Sir George's face.

"We must get rid of that fellow," he said. "Really, the insolence of these family retainers is past all bearing. You will see to this to-morrow, Mary!"

Mary made no reply. She was not in the least angry with old Slight. She understood the old man's feelings exactly; she knew his love and affection for her.

Sir George's vapid attempts at conversation almost drove her mad. She wanted to be alone to think. She passed into the drawing-room, muttering that she had forgotten something. The lamps were still burning, the great bronze clock chimed the hour of twelve.

The dreadful object on the satin couch had fallen asleep; his shock head was thrown back, and from his lips came a long and regular snore. A poisonous scent of foul tobacco filled the air. Surely no sacrifice would be too great to get rid of this, Mary told herself. Mayfield would come along presently like some malignant fairy; he would wave his wand, and this terrible invasion would disappear as if it had never been at all.

But Mayfield would demand his price. Of that Mary had no doubt. For a long time now the girl had known that he cared for her. He had made no effort to disguise his feelings from the time that they had met in Paris two years ago, when Mary was paying one of her visits to her father in the French capital. And Mayfield was of the class of men who always get their own way. Sooner or later Mary would be absolute mistress of Dashwood Hall, and it was no mean thing for a man to have the chance of sharing such a home with his wife.

But the cost of it all; the sacrifice entailed! From the bottom of her heart Mary loathed and despised the man who was plotting to make her his wife. She knew him to be an utterly unscrupulous rascal, a fitting instrument to sway the dishonour of the Dashwoods. A few days more of this unspeakable degradation and Mayfield would be powerless. It was only a matter of making the neighbours talk, of tittle-tattle at tea tables. And in a few days it would all be forgotten. Other people had gone through the same humiliation and had come out of it as if nothing had happened, but they were not Dashwoods...A long snore came from the figure on the couch, and the man stirred uneasily.

CHAPTER XV—NOT QUITE TOO LATE

Mary seemed to flame from head to foot. The momentary hesitation passed. No, it was quite impossible to support this kind of thing for the best part of a week; the thought of slanderous, wagging tongues was unendurable. At any cost these creatures must be removed; even the servants must know nothing. So far as Slight was concerned, he was absolutely to be trusted. Mary's mind was made up for good and all.

Time was passing more quickly than she knew. As she stood there the clock chimed the half-hour after midnight. A few minutes later and Mary heard her father calling her. She understood him to say that Mayfield had arrived.

"Let him come here," the girl said independently. "I am quite ready."

Sir George shuffled off again in the direction of the library, where Mayfield stood on the mat before the fireplace smoking a cigarette. There was not the slightest suggestion of triumph about him, his face was calm and set. He looked like some under-secretary who is about to read statistics to a House of bored listeners. He had left his eye-glass behind him, so that the cynical expression was absent.

"She's in the drawing-room," Sir George said. His manner was almost cringing. "She—she prefers to discuss the matter with you alone. Perhaps she thinks that you are more likely to listen to her than to me—Mayfield."

"She's right there," Mayfield said almost brutally. "It is a matter between ourselves. Sorry to put you to all this inconvenience, Dashwood, but there was no other way of teaching the lesson. But you need not worry, half an hour will see the whole matter settled, and even your servants will not be any the wiser. I arranged the thing so that you should have the maximum of experience at the minimum of inconvenience."

Sir George muttered something to the effect that his companion was very thoughtful. There was not an atom of fight left in him, and he took no heed of anything but his own personal comfort. The sooner Mayfield and Mary came to an understanding and those cattle were cleared out of the house, the better. After that Sir George could go to bed.

Without undue haste or eagerness, Mayfield passed into the drawing-room. There was just a sardonic touch in his smile as he noticed the snoring hog on the yellow satin lounge. He quite understood why a sight like that could touch Mary's pride to the quick. Strange what queer pawns in the game of life a clever man had to use at times! Mary was standing in the window-frame looking out into the night. Everything seemed so still and peaceful; there was no jarring note save the snore of the man in possession. Mayfield just touched Mary on the arm and she turned. Her face flushed for an instant, and then it became deadly pale again.

"Not in there," she said, "I cannot breathe in the house to-night. Do you know what I should have done had this happened a century or two ago?"

Mayfield did not know, but he could give a pretty shrewd guess as he glanced at the steely blue glitter in Mary's eyes. A certain pride of possession thrilled him.

"I think you know," Mary went on. "I should have asked you here to discuss the matter, to appeal to your better nature. And when I failed I should have killed you first and myself afterwards. I could do it now if I had the weapon to my hand."

Mayfield nodded. Far better to let Mary talk herself out, he told himself cynically. She was not the sort of girl to yield without a struggle, she was no frightened child to sue for terms. But in the letter she had written to Mayfield she had sounded the note of surrender. He was here now as conqueror; to see her walk out with all the honours of war. And surely she was worth all the strategy if any woman was, the tall, fair beauty with those flashing eyes and the skin of alabaster glistening in the rays of the moonlight. A prize worth the winning, a daughter of the gods, if ever there was one.

"But these methods are out of date," Mary went on in the same bitter strain. "I am told that they do things in different fashion to-day. You have done me the honour to ask me to share your future life and I refused the offer."

"Why?" Mayfield asked. "My family is equally as good as your own."

"I know it. But noblesse oblige. You are what you are. And so you planned and plotted for this; with diabolical cunning you saw where you could strike me in a fatal spot. You came here to-night in a position to make your own terms."

"Not quite," Mayfield said quietly. "There is another way for you. So far as I understand your father is in a position to make his holding sure in a few days. The house is large and the presence of a few guests, however undesirable, makes little difference. It is, I admit, not a nice thing to have one of the great unwashed smoking shag tobacco in the drawing-room, but it is only a matter of days. The matter is in your hands for you to decide as you please. I am not going to coerce you."

Mary laughed scornfully. The mirth sounded harshly against the silence of the night; the man on the satin cushions stirred and made a gurgling noise in his throat. Mary's mood suddenly changed and she shuddered. She was bitterly conscious of her complete inability to do anything. She had expected Mayfield to take his triumph openly; she was just beginning to understand what a strong and dangerous foe he could be.

"You know how to gloss it," the girl said. "But there is going to be no tacit ignoring of the real truth between you and me. You have brought this all about to force my hand. You have calculated upon my pride of race, and my pride of place. You know—nobody better—what suffering this is likely to afford me. And you are in a position to remove the pain and the humiliation with the stroke of a pen."

"Yes, I could do that," Mayfield said, speaking as if the suggestion threw an entirely new light on the situation. "As a matter of fact the thing is absurdly simple. I have only to send a telegram to my lawyer—one of your servants could take it to Longtown and despatch it even at this late hour. My lawyer could come down by the morning mail, getting here before six o'clock, and send those fellows packing. Then the incident would be forgotten as one forgets an unpleasant dream. You see, my resource is practically without a limit. I can meet you in any way that you please."

"I have felt that for some time," said Mary coldly. "And in return for this—kindness!"

"Surely there is no occasion for me to repeat my conditions! Besides, 'conditions' is not a pretty word to use in dealing with a lady. You will not find your bonds irksome, you will not find in me a very exacting lover. It can go out to the world that there is an engagement between us and in due course a marriage will follow."

Mayfield spoke quietly enough, but his looks belied his tone. There was a fierce volcano under that placid exterior, a strong, consuming passion, and a will to lead Mary when once Mayfield had the power over her. Some instinct told the girl this.

"It sounds prosaic enough," she said. "I suppose I must take you at your word. And yet all the time I know perfectly well that I am doing myself a great wrong in the eyes of God and man. I am not so strong as I think—I am not strong enough to place my happiness before humiliation. I must have time to think this over."

"Take as much time as you like. I will come again to-morrow, if you please. You shall not throw it in my teeth afterwards that I have hurried you in any way."

Mary sighed helplessly. The man was so strong and she was very, very weak. She might have gained the full advantage of her pledged word and broken it deliberately afterwards. It was the code of honour that Mayfield would have possessed himself if he had seen any advantage by so doing. "And suppose I play you false?" Mary asked.

"You will never do that. I am not in the least afraid; I trust you implicitly."

Mary turned back, baffled and defeated at every turn. The night seemed to have grown suddenly chill, for she shivered as she made her way into the drawing-room. It wanted but a feather in the scale now, to make up her mind for good and all. Her eyes were drawn by magnetic attraction to the sprawling figure on the cushions. The harsh note smote her like a thong.

"Look at him," Mayfield whispered, "does it not fill you with pain? And there he is likely to remain till the sight of him drives you beyond endurance. One word from you and the loathsome episode is past. Why do you not say the word and finish it?"

The words seemed to sink into Mary's soul. Ralph Darnley flashed into her mind, but she put his image resolutely aside. She pointed towards the door.

"You had better go," she said huskily, "go before I change my mind again. You will find some telegram forms in the silver case on the library table. Need I say any more than that? You can come back and show me what you have written."

Mayfield bowed and departed without showing the faintest indication of his victory. Mary staggered across to the window, with her hands to her dry, hot head. A shadow seemed to rise from the gravel of the terrace, a shadow with a white face framed in grey hair, the form of Lady Dashwood, limping a little, but otherwise strong and resolute.

"You have been there long?" Mary asked. "You have been listening."

"Yes, yes," Lady Dashwood said in a strange thrilling whisper, "listening, and waiting for my chance. It is not too late yet, my child. Thank God, I am in time. You must not do it, you must not heed, for the sacrifice would be all in vain. Come, let me tell you what I mean. You are not used to dealing with scoundrels—I am!"

CHAPTER XVI—THE UNFINISHED WORD

Mary placed her hand to her head in utter bewilderment. The world seemed to have changed in the last few hours. Hitherto, life at Dashwood had progressed on oiled springs, calm and peaceful. There was the regular decently appointed day, with its routine of refined duties, the dinner and the pleasant contemplation of placid evenings. Mary had swung like a proud planet in the still atmosphere. And now everything had passed into the wildest topsy-turveydom.

Even Lady Dashwood had altered. The quiet, self-contained woman, whose very restfulness had been one of her greatest charms! The sweet expression of her face had vanished; she looked aged and anxious, almost fierce.

"What does it all mean?" Mary asked. "What has come to everything and everybody? It seems almost impossible to believe that here at Dashwood—"

"Trouble comes; but trouble comes everywhere. It enters the palace as easily as the cottage, my child. And my fault, all of it. But come outside and talk to me. Mary, you must have nothing to do with that man!"

"But how do you know?" Mary asked. "I—I am not yet certain myself. Who could have told you anything?"

"But you are certain, child. You had made up your mind. The misery of your face tells me so. And you sent a note to that man. Would you have done so unless you had made up your mind to surrender?"

Mary looked down, and the red of shame flamed into her face. Come what would, she could not turn to either side and escape humiliation.

"Slight told me," Lady Dashwood went on. "He came to me at once. My dear, you must not be angry with old Slight. He worships the very ground you walk on; he would lay down his life for you. And he knows everything; I shrewdly suspect that he knows even more than I do. Slight is something more than a servant, he is a valued friend of the family. And he came to me as I have said. He tells me that Horace Mayfield has got his wicked fingers in here; that he has plotted to make you his wife. That must not be, Mary, that must never take place. Surely you can defy that man, can order him out of the house."

"I could," Mary said slowly, "I am not afraid of him. As yet I have not pledged my word. Still, I am quite helpless. Look into the drawing-room and see for yourself...That is what we have to put up with, three of them for the best part of a week. By eight o'clock to-morrow morning the servants will know everything; before the day is out we will be the talk of the county. I could not show my face after that. The degradation would make me old before my time. It is not as if I cared nothing for Dashwood, I love every stick and stone of it, the place is part of my being. It was your house for nearly forty years. Can't you understand my feelings?"

"I ought to," Lady Dashwood said bitterly. "It was I who first fostered those feelings. I tended them; day and night I watered them and fed them till they grew like a plant. With the lesson of the past before my eyes, I encouraged your pride. And now it is the master passion of your life. Everything has to be sacrificed to the old name and the old place. As for me, I should not hesitate for a single moment."

"And never know the feeling of happiness again!" Mary cried.

"Oh, my dear! happiness and I parted years ago. The old never expect happiness; there are too many ghosts, too many gaps, and too many memories. Peace is the greatest possession that one can expect at my time of life. And if you do this vile thing, then I shall have to go down to the grave without it. I am a wicked old woman; I am suffering now because I dare not tell the truth; but rather than this wrong shall be done, I will speak, though I made a death-bedside promise not to do so. Suppose I told you that you have less right at Dashwood than I have!"

The last words came with a fierce whisper that struck a cold chill to Mary's heart. Had Lady Dashwood suddenly lost her reason? But that white quivering face had no dull insanity upon it; the dark eyes were full of horror but not of madness.

"What do you mean?" Mary asked.

"I—I cannot tell you. I was sorry to say as much. Do you suppose that Horace Mayfield loves you in the ordinary sense of the word?"

"I believe he does, if that has anything to do with the question."

"Dear child, that man is incapable of any such feeling. Love is a sacred thing. Horace Mayfield is a cold-blooded and designing scoundrel. Your beauty may inflame him, but there is no love behind. He calculates that it will be no bad thing to call this his home. He plays upon your sinful pride as a master plays the violin. He knows that you would do anything, even to marrying him, to keep the scandal away."

"It is the only way," Mary said; "Horace Mayfield is too strong for us. What is that?"

Something stirred in the bushes close by, a crooning song was but half audible.

"It is your old nurse, Patience," Lady Dashwood explained. "She was sitting with me to-night when Slight came over hot-foot with the news. Patience has one of her lucid moods to-night. And Patience knows everything. The secret is hers, too."

"I am tired of this mystery," Mary said; "why is Patience Ray hiding there?"

A thin, bent figure emerged from the bushes; a dark withered face in a frame of thin grey hair looked out. It was an old woman, toothless and haggard, yet the eyes were sharp and shrewd now. For some years past the aged creature had been suffering from decay, but there were moments when her wit was as sharp and shrewd as ever.

"I couldn't stay away, dearie," the thin piping voice said. "It was like a mercy that God gave me back my mind to-night. The wicked old woman may do a lot of good before she dies yet. Don't you do it, dearie. Tell him that the proper owner is coming back to Dashwood, and that your face is your only dowry. Because I've seen the heir, as I knew that I should do before I die."

"What is she talking about?" Mary asked in utter astonishment. "Patience, explain yourself."

But the old woman shook her head and refused to say any more. She muttered to herself something about disgrace and the house of Dashwood.

"Smoke the rats out!" she cried shrilly and suddenly, "smoke them out! It is the only way to clear Dashwood of such vermin. Put the match to the faggot and burn them out. That's what I would do if I had my way. And to think that it should come to this after all these years. Mistress, mistress, what a couple of wicked old women we are."

"We are that," Lady Dashwood said mournfully. She did not chide the wild speaker's words as Mary had expected. "Our sin is going to find us out, Patience. Mary, I implore you to do what I ask you. I implore you to spare me the pain of a full confession. Send the man about his business and have none of him."

There was passionate entreaty in Lady Dashwood's tone, so that Mary was troubled in more ways than one. The heart pulled her one way, pride and reason another. And behind it all was a haunting sense that something was terribly wrong here. There was some dreadful meaning underlying the wild words of old Patience. As Mary stood there, cold and dispassionate in the moonlight, Horace Mayfield emerged with a telegram form in his hand.

"I have been some little time," he explained, "the forms were mislaid. But what is the meaning of this, Miss Mary? Surely it is late for Lady Dashwood to be abroad."

Mayfield spoke calmly enough, but his eyes looked troubled. He glanced from one to the other of the group anxiously.

"I came to see Mary," Lady Dashwood said coldly. In some magical way she had recovered her self-possession. She was cold and collected, a veritable grande dame in the presence of an inferior. "I had received certain information as to what has recently taken place here. It seems that Sir George Dashwood is under obligations to you, and that as these obligations have not been satisfied, you have put the law in motion. In the language of unfortunate people in a lower walk of life, you have 'put the bailiffs in.' It probably occurred to you that this would cause Miss Dashwood a deal of suffering!"

Mayfield bowed with exaggerated politeness.

"We have known each other a long time, Lady Dashwood," he said. "We have had some business transactions together, and you have never been at any great pains to conceal your opinion of me. Therefore, I should gain nothing by an endeavour now to appear in a more favourable light in your eyes. To be candid, when I set the law in motion, I was not blind to the fact that my action would cause Miss Dashwood a certain anxiety."

"Shameless!" Lady Dashwood cried, "more shameless than I expected."

"Smoke them out!" came shrilly from the lips of the old woman, "Burn the rats out! Put the firewood and the candle together and burn out the vermin! Burn Horace Mayfield! Burn him and the other rascals in a pile together!"

Mayfield started, he seemed as if about to say something, then apparently he changed his mind, and ignored the speaker altogether.

"As you please," he said, "I shall be glad to have your views on the matter."

CHAPTER XVII—BREATHING TIME

"I had no intention of seeing you," Lady Dashwood said. "To think that you are the son of my dearest friend! It is well that she died before she knew. I came here to see Mary, because I knew exactly how you had played on her feelings. For purposes of your own, you have been diving into the family history. Many things you have discovered, but many things remain a secret to this day. Clever as you are, you have no inkling of the shameful truth. If I chose to speak now, I could disperse several of your pleasant dreams. I took an oath by the bedside of a dying man to say nothing, and I have regretted my promise ever since. A promise like that is a sacred thing; to break it is a deadly sin. Yet there are some promises that God never intends one to keep. Mine is one of them. So long as I alone suffer, it matters little. But when others are to suffer for my silence, others whom I love more than I love myself, then it is time to break the vow and let the world know everything. By my silence I doom yonder beloved child to lifelong misery. If you cared for her—"

"Pardon me," Mayfield interrupted, "that is what I am trying to prove. My methods may not commend themselves to you, but I hold that everything is fair in love and—"

"Hold," Lady Dashwood cried; "you pollute the word with your tongue. What can you know of love in its better and higher sense? Would you be standing here to-night if Mary were a pauper instead of heiress to Dashwood Hall?"

Mayfield had no reply for the moment. Clever man of the world as he was, the question found him dumb. He could only fall back on the commonplace.

"Why put an impossible case?" he asked. "If it comes to that, why are you here at all? Miss Mary and myself have come to an understanding—the understanding will be complete as soon as I have dispatched this telegram. We are going to stifle the voice of scandal between us. Where is the young footman who was going to take the message to Longtown?"

"The message is not going to Longtown," Lady Dashwood whispered hoarsely. "I can guess what that message means to my beloved child. Mary, fetch your father here. The hour has come when God tells me that I may break my word and speak."

The flimsy telegram form crumpled in Mayfield's grip. His face had turned deadly white with baffled fury. He fought down the anger in his heart and forced a smile to his lips.

"I am afraid we are all going too far," he said. "Let us wait till the morning. Lady Dashwood gives me no credit for magnanimity, I know. I am going to prove that she wrongs me. After all, I have other resources. There are other ways than this."

He tore up the telegram deliberately, and dropped the fragments on the terrace. He must conciliate the old woman at any cost. It would not be difficult, once she had gone, to get Mary to pledge her word. Deep down in his heart, Mayfield was angrily wondering what secret Lady Dashwood had to disclose. He could tell by the expression of her face that it was something dramatic. He turned to Mary who was regarding the fragments of the telegram with anxious eyes.

"I am afraid I do not understand," she said, "I am so worn out and tired that my brain seems incapable of grasping anything. I thought that that telegram was going to be the means of removing those men and averting scandal. If there is any other way of saving our house from such a calamity—"

"That can be managed," Mayfield smiled, "nothing easier. Come with me a moment and I will show you how it is done. Perhaps Lady Dashwood would also like to see—"

"No, I am quite satisfied for the present," Lady Dashwood said coldly. "Thank God, I have been able to save the situation. I understand that you are staying at Swainson's Farm for to-night. As the farm is on my way home, I shall be glad of your company so far, as there is something that I wish to say to you. I will wait for you at the bottom of the rose garden. Come along, Patience."

The old bent woman muttered something and shook her head. She stood there with her cunning, beady eyes fixed on the noble facade of the old house. There broke from her a dry chuckle, as if her inmost thoughts were not displeasing.

"You let me alone, my lady," she said. "It isn't often as my mind is as clear and bright as it is tonight. And don't you worry about Miss Mary. I'm an old woman, and I'm not good for much, but I can prevent that."

A haggard, shaking hand was pointed to the entrance of the drawing-room where Mary's figure stood out under the soft light of the shaded lamps. Then Patience turned away and plunged into the bushes. Again and again Lady Dashwood called softly, but no answer came. It was peaceful and silent once more under the light of the waning moon.

Mary had passed back into the drawing-room with Mayfield. The girl's head was in a whirl. At the same time she could not forget Lady Dashwood's warning and the strange hints she had dropped. Mayfield had been impressed also, or he would not have been in such haste to tear up the telegram. Why was he afraid of Lady Dashwood? How could he tell that there was something under the surface?

"Perhaps you had better explain to me," the girl said. "The events of the past hour have puzzled me. You went to the library to procure a telegram form. You were going to send a message to your solicitor asking him to be here in the morning with authority to remove those men. As they are your creatures, is it not possible for you to get rid of them?"

"No," Mayfield explained, "these people represent the sheriff. My solicitor is acting for me in the matter, and there would be certain formalities to go through before I could take matters out of his hands. But there are ways of keeping such matters quiet that you little dream of...Wake up."

The snoring creature on the yellow cushions turned over uneasily at a vigorous application of Mayfield's foot and opened his eyes. He sat up presently and demanded to know why he had been interfered with. There was no civility in the man's manner; he evidently had no sympathy with misfortune.

"Speak in a proper manner," Mayfield said sternly. "I happen to know that you will be out of this house in a few hours. There is nothing to grin about, fellow. I suppose that you would not have the slightest objection to earning £5?"

"So long as it's all right, mister," the other growled, "but if you've got some little game on and think that you are going to get me out of the house—"

"Nothing of the kind. Do I look like that kind of person?"

"Never can tell, mister. I've had the dodge tried on with me by them what has handles to their names. Still, there is no objection to hearing what you've got to say."

"That is very nice and obliging of you," Mayfield said grimly. "I am going to make no effort to undermine your virtue. We do not want the servants to know who you are or what you are doing. There's £5 cash for you if you can manage this. I'm told it is often done. What do you suggest?"

As he spoke, Mayfield played thoughtfully with some sovereigns. The big man grinned.

"Now you are speaking fair," he said. "If people meet us all right and don't regard us as convicts or bushrangers, why, we can meet other people. The three of us have been in many a good house together. The last time we came down to go over the place to give a proper estimate for electric light. You've only got to look wise and potter about with a foot rule and a notebook, and there you are! We can pretend to be measuring outside when the servants come down in the morning, and I daresay Sir George can arrange for our food to be given us somewhere handy. Bless your life, there's many a way of doing it, if you'll give me the brass for the other two chaps and settle it at once."

Mayfield handed over a little pile of sovereigns and the man shuffled off in the direction of the kitchen. Mayfield smiled at the success of his errand.

"There," he said; "I fancy that is all right. Only you must tell Sir George exactly what has happened so that there is no confusion in the morning. Sir George is thinking of having the electric light installed. The men are here to take measurements. They will keep the joke to themselves. You ought to be very much obliged to me."

But no protestation of gratitude came from Mary's lips. The light of a great scorn was still in her eyes.

"Lies and prevarication and deceit," she said. "I seem to have found myself in a very network of falsehood. The poorest girl on the estate is happier than I am. It may be as you say, it may be that we shall escape the tongue of scandal. But what are you going to do—how long is the deception to go on?"

"That depends on yourself," Mayfield said coolly. "You can defy me if you like, and take the consequences. But it shall not be said that I have treated you unfairly. That is why I am giving you another night to think the matter over. Now go and tell Sir George what has happened."

Mary turned on her heel and left the room without another word. There was a sinister smile on Mayfield's lips as he watched the girl's drooping figure.

"The thing will pass as far as she is concerned," he muttered. "And now to tackle Lady Dashwood and have matters out with her."

CHAPTER XVIII—A FLAMING SWORD

Mary dragged herself as far as the library. Sir George was pacing up and down the room, trying to soothe his nerves with a cigar.

"What a time you have been!" he said impatiently. "Why did you not return before, knowing how anxious I should be? Mayfield came for a telegram form, so I presume he has made matters right with you? Did Walters take it?"

"So far as I know, Walters has gone back to bed," Mary explained. "The telegram was not sent, for reasons best known to Mr. Mayfield. There is no occasion to be angry. It was no fault of mine—and has nothing to do with me. Mr. Mayfield suggested that I should have another night to think it over. It is not his code of honour—"

"Code of honour! The fellow hasn't got one! There is no trusting him! And now everybody will know of this disgrace of ours."

"They won't. Mr. Mayfield has arranged all that. He seems to be clever at this kind of thing. But perhaps I had better explain."

The anger and irritation died out of Sir George's face as he listened. He expressed no feeling of disgust or abhorrence at the trick to be played upon his household; on the contrary, a suppressed chuckle broke from him, a chuckle instantly smothered as he noticed the white scorn on Mary's face.

"I beg your pardon, my dear. Of course, it is all very wrong, but in the circumstances, what else could we do? I have not the slightest doubt that Mayfield will make it all right to-morrow. And now we must go to bed."

Mary turned aside and went wearily in the direction of the hall. Usually, she gave her father a warm and dutiful kiss before retiring, but she really felt that she could not do so to-night. She had always freely expressed her contempt for tears as a woman's weapon and as a solace in the hour of trouble. But the tears rose to her eyes now as she thought of her father and the sorry part he had played. It seemed almost incredible that the head of the house of Dashwood could act so meanly.

And she herself! How much better was she behaving in the hour of trial? The girl's face flamed as she thought of it. In her heart of hearts she knew that the proper thing would have been to face the matter and see it out to the end. Yet her pride had impelled her to make an appalling sacrifice to silence tongues that did not matter in the least. What would Ralph Darnley have thought of it all had he known? How strange that Ralph should come into Mary's mind now, she told herself, strange that she should revert to him when danger threatened.

"You need not wait on me to-night, Kelly," Mary told her maid. "It is so very late and I want to be alone. Have you been asleep in my chair all this time?"

The pretty little maid admitted that she had. She went her way presently and Mary began slowly to undress. But tired as she was she felt that somehow sleep to-night could not be for her. Usually, she dropped off directly her head touched the pillow; the silence of the old house was very soothing. But not to-night, for the place seemed full of weird noises, the noises that the invalid hears when pain prevents slumber. Mary lay there, but she could not sleep. It seemed to her that somebody was moving about the corridor. Surely she heard a footstep, and something like the scratch of a match.

Mary rose and slipped on a dressing-gown. Candle in hand, she opened the door. And, surely enough, she was not mistaken. A dark figure was there, a figure that muttered and crooned, as if seeking something. Mary approached the intruder.

"Patience!" she exclaimed, "what are you doing here? And how did you get into the house? I thought that you had returned to the dower house with her ladyship."

Patience looked up and smiled in a weak, watery kind of way. She was not in the least afraid, and there was just a suggestion of slyness in her aged, faded eyes.

"I forgot something, my dearie," she said. "There was something that I made up my mind to do and then I forgot clean about it. It was one of my good nights, and my head was as clear as yours. Her ladyship told me everything. But she didn't tell you everything because she dared not. Ay, we are two sinful old women for certain."

"Never mind about that," Mary said soothingly, "I daresay it will all come right in the morning. But you should not have come here like this. You had better lie down on the couch in my dressing-room and go to sleep."

"But there was something that I wanted to do," the old woman whined. "I thought of a way of saving you, of saving everybody. And then it clean went out of my head."

Patience wrung her hands and the tears stood in her faded eyes. She appeared to be deeply distressed about something. She stopped suddenly, and stood alert and listening.

"Did you hear that?" she demanded. "They are in the kitchen. All three of them together! I saw them just now, but they did not see me. They were laughing together, and one of them had gold, which he was dividing with the rest. And they have come here to bring disgrace on this noble house. And there was I standing close by with a way to get rid of them in my head...There was something that I wanted, and I couldn't find it. So I came to look, and I forget what it was. Such a beautiful plan, too, so very simple and yet perfect. My dearie, can't you help me to think what it was? If you can only help me we shall get rid of these men, and the trouble and disgrace will vanish, never to return. It isn't often that I get a good idea in this poor head of mine, and to forget it like that is cruel, cruel!"

Patience wept a little, and began to wring her hands again. Mary's old nurse had been in this state now for some years, though there were times, for longer or shorter periods, when she was in possession of all her faculties. She was not in the least dangerous; as a privileged old servant she had been allowed to wander from one house to the other at her pleasure. But Mary had never seen her so wild and excited before, and the thing troubled her.

"What do you know of our trouble?" she asked.

"Her ladyship told me. It was something to do with some money that Sir George owed to Mr. Mayfield, and which those men had come to get. And her ladyship could not help you, for Mr. Vincent has made her sell all her jewels already."

Mary fairly started. Was it possible that she was on the track of another family trouble, some new and black disgrace of which she had hitherto known nothing? It seemed hardly fair to take advantage of a weak-minded old woman in this, and yet—

"Who is this Mr. Vincent that you speak of?" Mary asked.

"Mr. Vincent—that is all I can tell you. He is young and handsome, and yet so wicked and unscrupulous. And it is to prevent him from speaking out that my lady has sold all her jewels. They are not hers to sell, but they have been disposed of all the same. I really do know who Mr. Vincent is, and why he has such a hold over her ladyship, but something gets in the way of my brain and I can't think what I ought to say. And I'm so tired."

The old woman suddenly dropped into a chair and began to whine like a child that has walked too far. Mary was accustomed to these sudden changes and knew how to humour them. She fairly lifted the old woman from her seat and led her to the dressing-room. Obedient as a child now, Patience lay down and closed her eyes. A moment later and she had fallen into a placid sleep. Mary regarded her with eyes of envy.

"After all she is better off than I am," she murmured, "and her troubles are nearly over. What a blessing it is to be able to sleep when you want to! And here am I on the brink of a fresh and darker mystery than my own! I begin to understand now why Lady Dashwood looks so haggard and worried. And what does this Vincent know, who can blackmail my poor old second mother in this way! All the family jewels, over £30,000. Oh, how sad it is to be almost without a friend in the world! And yet Ralph Darnley promised me—"

The colour rose to Mary's face as she pronounced Ralph's name. It was the one reflection that sweetened her thoughts as she lay on her bed waiting for the sleep that would not come. She turned from side to side; she could see by the saffron gleam on the blind that the summer dawn was close at hand.

Then at last she fell off into a kind of fitful slumber that was a mass of confused and hideous dreams. She was in some vague, indefinite kind of trouble, tangled up with a scheme of Mayfield's, and across a yawning gulf Ralph Darnley was holding out his hands to save her. And then it seemed to her that Ralph kissed her, and that she did not in the least mind it. After that they drifted apart again, and once more the baleful influence of Mayfield was uppermost. They were falling together down a deep pit with flames at the bottom; the fumes were so great that Mary could not breathe.

She woke up with a gasp and a cry, struggling for breath. The whole thing had been so vivid that Mary could not realise for a moment that she was sitting up in bed. Yet there she was, with the early morning sun shining through the blinds, and still she held her hand to her throat and fought for the breath that would not come.

Surely there must be something wrong here! Why was the room so insufferable, where did that stifling air come from? Then a draught of air came from somewhere, and the bedroom was almost instantly filled with a maze of thin smoke and vapour. There was no longer room for doubt. With a quick cry Mary sprang from her bed, for the Hall was on fire!

CHAPTER XIX—A GUARDIAN ANGEL

There was no longer any question as to the house being on fire. Very rapidly Mary proceeded to don her clothing; her idea afterwards was to alarm the house. The girl was not conscious of any feeling of fear, though she was trembling from head to foot. She had had but a poor night's rest, and the strain of the previous day had tried her. And now as she huddled into her clothing, she was conscious of a kind of relief, the feeling that if the house was burnt down a way had been found out of her troubles.

There was an emotion almost of gladness in the thought. But the pride of race and place came back, and Mary hastened to her task. Dashwood Hall must be saved at any cost—the historic house must not be allowed to perish. There were pictures and works of art there that had almost a national interest.

Mary flung the door open and strode boldly into the corridor, but she did not gain a yard before she was driven back by a dense mass of suffocating smoke. The corridor was filled with it, thick, black, and overpowering. It was absolutely impossible to force a way through that blinding cloud. Mary screamed at the top of her voice, but no reply came. Already her brain began to reel, already her lungs almost ceased to work.

There was only one thing for it—to shut the door and seek for some other exit.

Back in the bedroom the air was comparatively pure. The window looked on to a green court with a high hedge of clipped yew trees beyond. It was one of the quietest and most shady rooms in the house, and Mary had chosen it for that very reason. In the winter she occupied another apartment. But its very quietness frightened the girl now. As she looked out of the small diamond casement in the great stone mullion, she realised that it would be impossible for any grown figure to squeeze through. She might have taken the risk of jumping down on to the grass, but the bars of the mullion window were too close together to permit of the attempt. And already the draught from the open window was drawing the smoke into the room.

Listening intently, Mary could hear the sound of shouts and the tramping of feet; now, she caught the echo of horses' hoofs as mounted messengers galloped down the drive. She shouted aloud, but nobody appeared to hear her. The thick high hedge of yews seemed to smother her voice. It was dreadful to be caught in a trap like that, but Mary resolved to meet her fate bravely.

Probably the volume of smoke would cause unconsciousness long before the dreaded fire reached its victim. There would be no pain or suffering. It seemed to Mary that she had heard people speak of such things before. Well, she would die alone, and nobody would know how the end had come.

Not quite alone! Suddenly Mary remembered that old Patience was in the dressing-room and looked towards the couch there.

She rubbed her eyes in astonishment. Patience was no longer there. Perhaps she had not been able to sleep, probably she had aroused herself very early and gone about her business. At any rate, she was not in the dressing-room, and Mary felt glad of it. The horror of the situation was lessened by the absence of the demented woman.

Greatly daring, Mary opened the window and screamed for help once more. She could hear yells and calls, and presently the steady throb of what she knew to be an engine. But all the time the smoke was growing thicker and denser in the room. So far Mary could not hear the crackling of flames, she was not sensible of the fact that the room was getting any warmer. There was always the hope that the fire might be subdued before it got a good hold of the building. A great deal of timber had gone to the building of Dashwood Hall, but the walls were of the most solid masonry, and it was quite possible for the fire to burn out a room or two without going any farther.

Something like an hour passed, an hour that seemed like eternity. The shouting and the tramping and the thudding were still going on. Then came a lull for the moment, and it seemed to Mary that somebody was calling her by name, somebody inside the house. She waited a moment, thinking perhaps that it was her excited fancy, but once more the call came, and this time from the corridor.

Mary thrilled as she heard the voice. At last they had discovered her absence. She opened the door and called in reply. The smoke was thick as ever, but there was no sign of flame. Out of the dense whirling mass a figure emerged and staggered breathlessly into the bedroom. It was the figure of a man with his handkerchief pressed to his mouth. He gasped for breath and closed the door behind him. His face was blackened and grimed with smoke, but Mary had no difficulty in recognising Ralph Darnley.

"Again," she said unsteadily, "you are like a guardian angel to me. This is the third time that you have come to save my life. Had they forgotten me?"

"It was all a misunderstanding," Ralph gasped. "In the confusion it was assumed that everybody was out of the house. Somebody professed to have seen you going off in the direction of the dower house. My landlord woke me up, saying that the Hall was on fire. And Lady Dashwood sent a message to ask if you were all right, and then we understood. It occurred to me that it would be impossible for you to escape by way of the window, and whilst the rest were discussing the best thing to be done, I made a dash for it. The house is full of the most blinding, suffocating smoke, but I can see no flames anywhere."

"And so you took your life in your hands like this for me?" Mary faltered. There was something almost of affection in the eyes which she turned on the stalwart figure by her side. "I was actually thinking of you at the very moment that you appeared. But how did you manage to find the way to this wing so easily?"

"I suppose by instinct," Ralph said. The question seemed to confuse him. "How brave and calm you are! But we are wasting time here. Mary, there is only one way for it. We shall have to fight our way through that smoke. There is no other chance. It will be quite a blindfold labour. But perhaps you could pick your way—"

"In the dark, with my eyes shut," Mary cried. "If I am to die, then at least I shall die in good company, with a brave, true man by my side. I shall not perish alone."

"You will not perish at all," Ralph said between his teeth. "You are reserved for a better and a sweeter fate than that, my darling. Heaven is going to rescue us for one another, despite your pride and despite anything that Mayfield may do. But these heroics are out of place in the face of the common danger. You have water here and towels?"

"Plenty of both in the dressing-room," Mary said. "What do you want them for?"

But Ralph made no reply. He had a stern task before him, and no time to waste in words. He took a couple of the largest towels and dipped them in the water jugs. Then he wrung out the moisture and wrapped the cold wet fabric round Mary's head. After he had led her to the door, he did the same for himself. Then he took Mary by the hand, and whispered that she was to lead the way.

The task was no easy one, well as Mary knew every inch of the house. She felt her way to the top of the stairs at length, but her head seemed like bursting now. Still, the pressure of Ralph's hand gave her courage. With him by her side, she felt like daring anything. As presently the air began to grow cooler and sweeter, it seemed to Mary that she was conscious of the scent of the roses.

Then the cloth was pulled from her face, and she felt the full delight of her lungs again. A great crowd had gathered on the lawn, the people burst into a torrent of cheers. It was all like a dream to Mary.

She saw that Ralph was standing by her side breathless and triumphant.

"Do not crowd us like that," he said. "Please let Miss Dashwood have as much air as possible. Neither of us is the least hurt by the fire; indeed, so far as I can see, this is no fire at all. Has anybody a conveyance that will take Miss Dashwood as far as the dower house? It is only a little way, but still—"

There were scores of people ready to comply with the request. Then the crowd parted as if by a kind of instinct, and Lady Dashwood appeared. She was pale and breathless, but not for one moment did she forget herself or her position.

"My dear child," she said, "you must come with me at once. Fancy you being in that house all the time and nobody any the wiser! And they tell me that a gentleman who is a stranger here volunteered for your rescue in the bravest possible manner. If he is here I should like to thank him warmly for—"

"This is Mr. Ralph Darnley," Mary explained. "He is not a stranger, for we met in Paris two years ago. Let me introduce Mr. Darnley to you."

Ralph bowed and moved towards the hand that Lady Dashwood held out to him. There were gracious words on his lips.

"It is impossible to thank you," she said, "but if you will come as far as the dower house with me, I dare say that I shall be able to—to—"

The words seemed to freeze as Lady Dashwood's glance travelled over Ralph's face. Lady Dashwood took a step forward and would have fallen if Ralph had not put out an arm and supported her. Then there was an awkward silence.

CHAPTER XX—HALF TOLD

The meeting was quite an unexpected one for Ralph. He had his own powerful reason for not wishing to come in contact with Lady Dashwood, but the thing was done now, and there was no help for it. Ralph was the first to recover his self-possession. He saw that the colour was coming back to Lady Dashwood's face, and that it was very far from her intentions to make a scene. That would probably come later.

"There seems to be no conveyance here," Mary said. "And really it is not worth while to make all this fuss about me. I am quite myself again and capable of walking as far as the dower house with Lady Dashwood. Meanwhile, there is other work to do."

The excitement of the moment had passed, and willing hands were back once more at the task of putting out the flames. Of the little group of principal actors in the scene, nobody was more calm or more collected now than Lady Dashwood.

"Perhaps we had better walk," she said. "We can take the short cut through the shrubbery. And I shall be very glad if Mr. Darnley will accompany us. I presume, sir, that you have not had any breakfast?"

"I haven't," Ralph said. "Sir George has gone over to one of the farms for his. If you will be so good as to give me a mouthful of something, I will come back here and do my very utmost to save the old house. It would be a great pity to lose it."

"Indeed I am glad to hear that you are so anxious about the place," Lady Dashwood said with a significance that puzzled Mary, though it was by no means lost on Ralph. "The Hall is one of the finest places of its kind in England."

Ralph ate his breakfast in silence; Mary was silent too and pleaded a headache. She had had no sleep, she said, and was in need of rest. She ate little and drooped like a lily over her plate. When at length she rose, Ralph rose also.

"Please don't go yet," said Lady Dashwood in a voice with a touch of command in it. "I will just see that Mary is made comfortable, and then I should like to have a word with you, sir. There are so many willing workers at the Hall that one more or less will make no difference."

Ralph bowed. Lady Dashwood would be glad if he would go as far as the drawing-room. He waited there till his hostess returned, proud and white, with a stern expression in her eyes. She shut the door behind her and pointed to a seat.

"Pray do not stand," she said. "We may be some little time. Did I not understand my—Mary, to say that you are Mr. Ralph Darnley?"

"That is quite correct," Ralph said quietly. "Miss Mary made no mistake."

"Possibly not. The mistake is on your side. I do not wish to seem in the least curious or impertinent, but have you no other name?"

"For the present, none," said Ralph. "Will not your ladyship oblige me by leaving matters just as they are for the moment? My happiness, the happiness of everybody, depends upon a complete and absolute discretion. I did not desire to see you—"

"No! I gathered that when I saw your face a night or two ago in the shrubbery. The moon was shining on your features, and it seemed to me that I was face to face with a ghost. But let me show you something, Mr. Darnley. It is a miniature of a man whom I have not seen for nearly forty years, the picture of my son. He left home for reasons which I need not go into, I never looked on his face again. I have never before shown the picture to anybody, but I have my very good reasons for showing it to you. What do you think of it?"

With trembling hands the old lady passed a miniature in a small gold frame over to Ralph. He gazed at the picture long and intently, with a flush on his face and something that was very like moisture in his eyes. He was silent for so long that Lady Dashwood felt constrained to speak.

"Well?" she asked. "I will try to restrain the natural curiosity of my sex and not ask too many questions. Did you ever see that face before?"

"You force me to reply," Ralph said slowly. "You have the advantage over me, Lady Dashwood."

"Please do not call me Lady Dashwood. Oh, I am not going to try to force your confidence; that will come to me in time. Only you have not yet replied to my question. I asked you if ever you have seen that face before?"

"Many a time and oft," Ralph said. "Is it very like me?"

"Like you! It is a speaking likeness. When I came face to face with you to-day, it required all the seventy years of my social training to keep me from bursting into tears and throwing my arms about your neck. And nobody recognised you! But I forget that forty years have elapsed since my boy was in the midst of us. And now tell me, why do you persist in calling yourself Ralph Darnley?"

"I have never been known by any other name," Ralph replied. "Perhaps the time may come some day when I—but we need not discuss that. Please do not think me churlish or wanting in courtesy to you, Lady Dashwood."

Lady Dashwood shook her head mournfully. Something like tears stood in her eyes.

"I have no right to ask anything," she said. "I forfeited my right years ago. But, unless I am greatly mistaken, you could call me by a sweeter name than Lady Dashwood. My dear boy, I do not wish to pry into your secrets—you could not act in anything but a straightforward manner, I am certain. Your face tells me that. Nearly forty years ago I lost a son like you. How like he was to you I have proved by showing you that miniature. My son left Dashwood Hall vowing that nobody should ever see his face again there, and he kept his word. The blame was mine, and only mine, but I have been terribly punished for my treachery and deceit."

"I can hardly believe you guilty of those things, Lady Dashwood."

"Oh, but I was. It was the cruellest wrong, and he found me out. From that day to this I have known no happiness. Why do I talk like this to a stranger? I think you can guess. When I saw your face in the cloister the other night it seemed as if God had forgiven my sin and given my son back to me. Is that so?"

"This is very painful," Ralph stammered. "Will you trust me and be patient?"

"I can be patient. I have been patient for forty years. And your face speaks for you. Go on."

"There is little more for me to say," Ralph resumed. "For the present I can tell you nothing. If the son you speak of came back to-morrow not a soul would recognise him but you."

"And old Slight," Lady Dashwood said meaningly. "Pray do not forget him."

"And old Slight. Quite true. And I am the image of the Ralph Dashwood who left his home nearly forty years ago. There were reasons, therefore, why I did not desire to meet you, Lady Dashwood, till the time was ripe. But circumstances were too strong for me; sooner or later it had been my hope that—that—"

"I begin to understand," Lady Dashwood said as Ralph hesitated. "For the present you desire to be just Ralph Darnley. But the deception cannot continue for long."

"For long enough," Ralph smiled. "Let me confide in you to a certain extent. Lady Dashwood. I am a sentimental man as my father was before me."

"I know he was," Lady Dashwood said absently. "If he had not been, my punishment might have been less—but I am assuming too much. Please go on."

"I am a lonely man. My mother died early, and my father and myself were thrown a great deal together. We spent most of our time in California, where the population is not great. You can understand how it was that I became so retrospective. And when I came to hear of the mystery that my father had kept till the end, I began to have dreams of my own. I began to see myself the master of a lovely place, like Dashwood Hall, for instance...You see that I am speaking from my heart to you now, and I know that you are going to respect my confidence and sympathise with me."

"As long as you look at me with those eyes of—yours," Lady Dashwood murmured. "We are going to be great friends, thank God. But please go on."

"Well, I had my dreams of the kind of wife who would make my home a Paradise for me, and two years ago I met her in Paris. She was proud and reserved and haughty, but all the same I knew that my instincts had not played me false. The girl likes me—of that I am certain. It sounds egotistical, but I believe that she loves me without knowing it. Had I told her of the fine old house and the good old name, there would have been no obstacles in the way. But I gave the curb to my inclinations, and my secret remained untold...For nearly two years I did not see that girl, not till I came down here less than a week ago. Can you guess who it is!"

"Mary," Lady Dashwood cried. "My dear, dear Mary! And she does not know, one does not dream—indeed, how should she? You want her to—"

"To care for me, Ralph Darnley. Mary has a terrible curse, her family pride comes before her duty, and even before her religion. It is the idol that she has come to worship. Mind, I am by no means blind to the girl's virtues; I should not love her as I do otherwise. But I want to break down that family pride, I want to show Mary and prove to her that it is a mere nothing by the side of love and duty and common humanity. That is why it is merely Ralph Darnley who speaks to you to-day. When Mary owns her love for Ralph Darnley, and holds that love better than her pride of race, then I can speak. It may be that there is a hard lesson to be learned first, but I shall not shrink from that."

"That is how your—my son used to speak," Lady Dashwood murmured. "So gentle and firm, and yet so kind and considerate! You are going to make Mary happy despite herself."

"That is my intention," Ralph went on. "Look how she is acting now. Sir George has come within the grip of a scoundrel. I am alluding to Horace Mayfield. He has schemed out all this trouble and disaster so as to get Mary in his power. The girl's senseless pride has been Mayfield's strongest weapon. You know all about those sheriff's men, of course. Rather than have a whisper of the trouble spoken, Mary is ready to marry Horace Mayfield and condemn herself to lifelong misery and humiliation. It seems almost incredible that a girl should be so frozen into the ice of her family pride. But Mary is not going to marry Horace Mayfield, she is destined for me. The lever to remove the stone from the path is mine, and I shall know how to use it when the time comes. Already I have so brought it about that Sir George can be free of Mayfield in the course of a few days, but there is still Mary to deal with. I do not quite see my way clearly with her, but fate may play into my hands and find me an instrument which—"

Ralph paused hurriedly, for another man came noisily into the room. He was rather like Ralph as regards figure and feature and trick of expression, but his face was effeminate, and his very black eyes a little shifty and sinister. In dress and manner he had the air of a gentleman, but at the same time there was a suggestion of loudness and hardness about him that belied the description. He did not see Ralph, for he advanced noisily into the room.

"I've been looking for you everywhere," he said. "Why are you hiding here, old lady?"

CHAPTER XXI—VINCENT DASHWOOD

Ralph's face grew stern as he stared at the intruder. The new-comer returned the stare with insolent audacity. The pleased and softened expression had left Lady Dashwood's features, she looked white and anxious, and Ralph could see that her hands were trembling. It was quite evident that she was greatly afraid of the man with the cold black eyes.

"Beg pardon," the newcomer muttered. "Didn't know you were engaged. Friend of yours?"

"Mr. Ralph Darnley," Lady Dashwood said. "A very old friend of the family, or, at any rate his father was. Let me introduce you to Mr. Vincent Dashwood."

"I have heard of you," said Ralph, with a queer vibration in his voice. "I understand that one time your father had some idea of claiming the succession to the property. I have heard my father speak of your branch of the family."

Dashwood muttered something that Ralph could not quite follow.

"We could tell a different story, the old lady and self," he went on suggestively. "I shall have a pleasant surprise for Sir George some of these days. I'm only waiting for some papers from the other side and I shall move. My father married a Californian lady, you see, and they are pretty careless there in their keeping of records. Still, it is only a matter of time."

"That is very strange," Ralph said grimly. "My father also married a Californian lady. Oh, you need not look so uncomfortable; I am not likely to interfere with your claim. Indeed, I may be in a position to assist you a little later."

Just for the moment there was a queer grey tint on Vincent Dashwood's face. He seemed to be horribly frightened about something. But the expression passed, and his old saturnine look returned. Ralph was smiling, too, as if something amused him. Lady Dashwood glanced from one to the other furtively, as if she feared some outbreak of violence. There was no means of reading Ralph's thoughts from the expression of his face, or Dashwood would not have been standing there so utterly at his ease. For he was a scoundrel of the vilest type, the class who do not hesitate to blackmail women.

"Well, I'll just go and look round till you have finished with the gentleman," Dashwood said airily. "Then mind that you are ready for our little business, old lady. I've got to be in London this evening, and no mistake about it. By the way, the Hall is in the hands of the firemen and police, but I'm told that no great damage has been done."

The speaker swaggered from the room with his hands in his pockets, whistling as he went. Ralph's expression grew stern and hard.

"So this is one of the crosses that you have to bear," he said. "At the risk of being curious, I must ask you a question. Is this the man for whose sake you have been raising money on the family jewels? How long has it been going on?"

Lady Dashwood clasped her hands and the tears came into her eyes.

"Nearly two years," she whispered. "Thank God, you have come to me, for my strength would not have borne the burden much longer. Nobody knows anything; nobody suspects but Slight. And he pretended to be my grandson. We were both utterly deceived. He knows everything, he told me all about the original quarrel, he had letters which I had written from time to time to your—to my son. And he is an infamous scoundrel. He desired me to keep his presence and his claim a secret, and for the credit of the family I did so. The few who know him think he comes from the Yorkshire side of the house. He traded on my fears; he knew what I thought of him. And when he had drained me of thousands, and in sheer despair I pressed him to push on his claim, he always pleaded that he could not get certain papers—his mother's marriage certificate, I think it was. Mind you, I believed in him implicitly; with all the sacred private information he had, I could do nothing else. And Slight also was equally deceived. He has had nearly everything of mine that he could lay his hands on. You see that I am powerless to protest; if I had forced him to speak, there would only have been a scandal. He has been getting bolder lately or he would not have spoken so freely to you just now. And directly I saw your face to-day I knew at once that it had all been a hideous mistake. You will free me from that man, Ralph?"

"Not quite yet," Ralph replied. "You must play your part a little longer. If, as you say, you have nothing more to bestow, you need not be afraid of him. That man has given me a new idea for bringing about the object that I have most closely at heart. I am going to make use of him, if necessary. If it is not necessary, then I shall make very short work of Mr. Vincent Dashwood. But before that you must tell me everything. Mind, I say everything as regards my—your son's marriage with Maria Edgerton. I believe that marriage was the cause of all the mischief."

"Indeed it was," Lady Dashwood said. Her voice was filled with the deepest sadness. "What will you think of me when you hear of the part I played in that unhappy affair? But I cannot tell you now, I am unfit to go into the matter at present. The shock of meeting you has been almost more than I can bear. Come and dine with me here on Saturday night, and I will tell you everything. My dear Ralph—if I may call you so in private—is it possible that your coming is the augury of a happier time for me? Happiness I won't ask for, but I should like to go down to the grave in peace."

"It shall be no fault of mine if you do not," Ralph replied. "I have planned out my scheme and I am going through with it to the end. There may be troubles and trials to come, but everything is going to end happily for us all. Good-bye."

Ralph held out his hand, but Lady Dashwood drew him down to her chair.

"Give me a kiss, my bonny boy," she whispered. "It may be as well for us to keep up the formality and play the drama till the time comes, but it is no harm to kiss an old woman and let her look into the eyes that she has seen in her dreams for forty weary years. God bless you, Ralph, and prosper your schemes, for nothing you do will be wrong."

Ralph went on his way presently through the shrubbery in the direction of the Hall. A great crowd of people still lingered there, but the police had kept almost intact the trim lawn and the beds of brilliant flowers. Inside the house were a posse of police and a few firemen from Longtown. In the stable yard the scarlet fire engine glittered in the sun. So far as it was possible to see, no great harm had been done.

Nobody was allowed in the house except the firemen and police, an inspector informed Ralph, who had asked for Sir George. None of the structure had been much damaged, none of the furniture had suffered anything except from smoke and water. There was just a suspicion that one of the great beams under the hall floor was still smouldering, and the firemen were going to stay until they were absolutely sure on the point.

"Most extraordinary thing, Darnley," Sir George said. "There seemed to be nothing but smoke. Slight will tell you that there was nothing but smoke. At the present moment an expert in this kind of things is making an examination with a view to discovering the cause of the outbreak. Nuisance to have these people here, but it can't be helped."

"Better these, Sir George, than Mr. Mayfield's friends," Slight croaked. "At any rate, we have got rid of them for the present. If somebody set the house afire on purpose, they could not have done us a better turn, seems to me."

Slight spoke loudly as a man in a kind of uniform came up. He touched his cap to Sir George, and looked fixedly at the old butler. Evidently he had overheard what was said.

"Many things more unlikely than that," he said. "Sir George, I think that I have discovered the origin of the mischief, if you will kindly come this way."

"Of course I was joking," Slight said indignantly. "You don't suppose that I mean to imply that the fire was anything but an accident, Mr. Sayers?"

"All the same it was no accident," the official said grimly. "If you will come this way, I will prove to you that the fire was a wicked and deliberate act on the part of somebody."

CHAPTER XXII—WHO DID IT?

There was a smile on Slight's face, as if he rather enjoyed the situation. After all was said and done, the culprit had been successful in bringing about the thing the old butler most desired. Fortunately no harm had been done to the house; there was nothing the matter beyond the damage caused by smoke and water, nothing that the work of a day or two could not put right. At the same time this attempt to destroy the house had been the means of removing from it the trio whose presence had been so great a humiliation. The police had cleared everybody out of the house, indeed the Hall was likely to remain empty now till they had investigated the causes of the fire.

"It might have been worse, sir," Slight whispered to Ralph. "It's a good way of getting rid of those fellows till Sir George is ready to pack them off altogether. Whoever did this was a sort of friend of ours."

Ralph started. Slight's suggestion had given him a sudden idea.

"That may be," he said, "but you will admit that the experiment is a risky one. The place might have been utterly destroyed. Still, it is yet to be proved that this is the work of an incendiary. I can hardly believe that it is."

The inspector led the way to the Hall. So far as the eye of a novice could judge, it was here that the fire had burst out. The floor was black and scarred and a few beams were still hot from the effects of the flames. The floor was littered with some crisp ashes.

"Now I want to call your attention to this, Sir George," the inspector said. "Nothing has been destroyed here, nothing but the floor and a portion of the ceiling. There must have been a very fierce blaze here, and yet there is nothing for the flames to feed on. Then where did all those crisp short ashes come from? See what a pile there is of them! What was it that burnt here so fiercely?"

"It certainly is a strange thing," Sir George murmured.

"Very strange, sir. There was nothing left on the hall floor last night, I suppose? No packing cases or anything of that kind, Sir George?"

"There was not," Slight exclaimed. "I can answer for that, nothing whatever."

"Which renders my suspicions all the more certain," the official went on. "The short crisp ashes represented straw, a large bundle of straw dumped down on the floor and set fire to by some person or other. Please look at this."

The speaker stooped down and gathered up a handful of the crisp ashes, smoothing them out on the palm of his hand. At intervals there were yellow shining specks in the grains.

"Will you kindly look closely?" he said. "Amongst the charred mass you can plainly see specks of straw that have escaped the fire. It seems to me an amazing thing that anybody could carry straw into the house like this without being found out. But there it is, and there is an end of it. You are quite sure as to the straw, Sir George?"

"Quite," Dashwood muttered. "Most amazing. We did not go to bed till very late, which makes it all the more remarkable. It must have been practically daylight before the miscreant could have begun to work."

"It certainly is a novelty," the Inspector replied, "but I want to convince you fully that I am right in my conclusion. You will see that parts of the ashes, very minute parts, are plastered together as if they were wet. Also you will see that the floor has been burnt in a kind of channel nearly as far as the door. It is only a narrow channel, but at the same time it is perfectly well defined. Now, what caused the floor to burn in that erratic manner? I am going to tell you. Let us follow that track up as far as the door. There is a large stone with little cracks at the side into which a liquid of some kind has fallen or run rather."

The speaker bent down and rolled a scrap of paper into the moisture which lay shining in the crack of the stone. Then he handed the paper to Sir George.

"Will you kindly smell that, sir," he asked, "and tell me what you make of it?"

"No trouble at all about that," Dashwood exclaimed; "the stuff is paraffin beyond a doubt."

"Precisely. The straw was dumped on the floor and then saturated with paraffin. If the straw was slightly damp, that would account for the dense quantity of smoke. The paraffin ran into little ripples over the floor, which accounts for the strange track of the flames. But we can ascertain that to a certainty."

A question or two being asked, it was discovered that a large can of petroleum was missing from one of the tool-sheds. A little later the empty tin was discovered in one of the flower-beds. The discussion was at its height when Mary appeared. She looked very pale and shaky, otherwise she maintained her self-possession. But as she listened to the strange story it seemed to Ralph Darnley that she was disturbed about something. The pallor of her face became more marked, her eyes filled with something like fear. Did the girl know anything about it, Ralph asked himself? If not, why did she appear to be so strangely moved by the plain recital? The thought was ignoble and unworthy, but Ralph could not free himself from it altogether. He drew Mary a little apart from the rest; he could see that she was trembling with some strong emotion.

"The old house has had a very narrow escape," he began. "All Horace Mayfield's carefully prepared plans were very nearly in vain. If the house had been destroyed—"

"I—I did not look at it in that light," Mary stammered. "As you say, nothing could have mattered had the house perished. Where are those men now?"

"I don't know. It does not in the least matter. As things stand at present, the police will not permit anybody to be in the house except one or two like ourselves. Until their investigations are complete and they have gathered all their evidence, nobody will be permitted to sleep in the house. The men you speak of will be treated just like anybody else. It seems as if Fate were fighting on your side, Mary. You have no occasion to fear Horace Mayfield now."

Mary smiled faintly. It was evident that she was deeply troubled about something.

"I think I understand you," she said presently. "The loss of the house would have been a dreadful grief to me. But, still, these natural misfortunes happen to all of us, and I daresay I could have suffered the loss as well as most people. And the blow would have possessed many compensations. To be free from Horace Mayfield, ah!"

Mary finished her speech with a deep, long-drawn sigh. But the whiteness did not leave her face, the look of fear still lurked in her blue eyes. Ralph took a step forward and bent down so that he could whisper his words into Mary's ear.

"Your pride would have carried you through that," he said. "At the same time, your position had driven you almost to despair. You know more than you care to say, Mary, you know more than the rest of us how the fire came about. Can you look me in the face and deny it? Are you going to tell me the truth?"

Mary's face flamed with anger. She stepped back, and her passionate eyes flashed in Ralph's direction. He could see the crimson mounting to her temples.

"Perhaps you would like to accuse me of the crime?" she asked breathlessly. "Perhaps you would like to suggest that I did it to save a scandal? That I risked my own life, and the lives of other people, because I was afraid of a paltry disgrace? Is there anything else that you would like to imply, Mr. Darnley?"

"You are talking nonsense," Ralph said coldly, "and you know it. I am not insinuating anything of the kind. But you know quite well who the culprit is."

Suddenly Mary's manner changed. She grew quiet and docile. Ralph could see that her lips were trembling, and that she found it hard to keep back the tears.

"Forgive me," she whispered. "Think how hard I am tried, how hard it all is for me. If I were a man I should probably take a more rational view of the case. Remember how my whole heart and soul are wrapped up in this house, I could fight to save it from contamination as a mother would try to shield an erring son. If I lost it I should die!"

"You would not," Ralph said. "If, by any trick of fortune, Dashwood Hall passed out of your possession, it would be the very best thing that ever happened to you. If you had to go out into the world to get your own living it would be the making of your character. It would bring out all the natural nobility of your nature—you would look back to the past with remorse. Of that I am certain."

"Indeed," Mary said coldly. "Perhaps you would like to bring that misfortune about?"

"I should," Ralph retorted. "If I could be cruel to be kind like that, I should not hesitate for a moment. But we are getting a long way from the point. I said that if you had no hand in this business, you know who did it."

"I have my suspicions. But, until I can verify them, it would be wrong to speak. Even if I knew for certain, I should hesitate to tell anybody what I had discovered. One thing I can promise you—the attempt will not be made again...What are those people so excited about? Have they made some fresh discovery? Let us go and see."

Sir George and the Inspector were closely examining some shining object that the latter held in the palm of his hand. There was a grim look on Slight's face.

"What is it?" Ralph asked. "What is the latest sensational development of the mystery?"

"This, sir," the Inspector exclaimed. "We have found this match-box under the burnt straw."

CHAPTER XXIII—THE SILVER CLUB

The silver match-box was a peculiar one and quite out of the common run of such things. It had a spring lid deeply engraved with a hunting scene, in the centre of the medallion a pair of initials were ingeniously woven together in small stones. The Inspector asked Sir George if he could identify it as part of the family property.

"Never saw it before," Dashwood said promptly. "I am certain that the thing does not belong to anybody in my house. What do you make the initials to be?"

"'V.D.' or 'D.V.', sir," the Inspector said. "That is perfectly plain. Now does anybody know a person who bears those initials? I should say that the matches are of foreign make, for they are flat, wooden ones, such as one rarely sees in this country. The first thing we have to do is to find out who is this 'V.D.' or 'D.V.' is. He seems to have dropped his matchbox into the fire. Probably, the blaze startled him by its suddenness. But I don't suppose we shall find much difficulty in proving who the owner is."

Sir George shook his head: evidently the puzzle was utterly beyond him. Slight crossed over to one of the windows as if the whole subject had ceased to interest him. He made a sign to Ralph and the latter joined the old servant. He could see that Slight was suppressing a certain excitement.

"What is the matter?" he asked. "Have you solved the problem?"

"No, Mr. Ralph, I've only made it worse," Slight whispered. "I know quite well who that box belongs to, for I've seen it in his possession a score of times, to say nothing of the initials. Did you not meet a Mr. Vincent Dashwood at the dower house to-day?"

Ralph started in his turn. Vincent Dashwood's initials were on that box surely enough. And, that being the case, what did Mary know of the man? Was she shielding the man who gave out more or less directly that he was the proper owner of Dashwood Hall? Mary was not the girl to show any clemency to an impostor, and if, on the other hand, she did not regard him as an impostor she would be the last person to pretend to a position that she had no right to occupy. But Slight would know.

"I did meet that man you name, but I can't understand how you came to know it so soon," Ralph said. "A tiger, if I ever saw one, Slight. And he let me know pretty clearly that he had more than a passing claim to a deal that other people are enjoying. Is Mr. Vincent Dashwood pretty well known to people here, Slight?"

"Not to anybody but her ladyship and myself," Slight replied. "Mind you, I can't make out whether he's an impostor or not; at least, I was very uncertain in my mind until you came along, sir. He claims to be the son of the late Ralph Dashwood and he has proofs that would satisfy any court in England; and anyone except me. As yet he can't produce the certificate of marriage of his mother and father. But he has any number of private papers,—letters from her ladyship to her son and all the rest of it, to say nothing of being familiar with the place. He didn't want to make a fuss about his claim; he wanted to have it quite plain first. He's been here for a long time."

"Blackmailing Lady Dashwood, I suppose? The fellow is too cowardly to claim the property out and out. In that case he would either have to substantiate his claim or run the risk of a long term of imprisonment if he failed. And, meanwhile, Lady Dashwood displays a weakness that is almost criminal. She half doubts this rascal, and yet at the same time she allows him to take the proceeds of the disposal of the family jewels. Half of the weakness is dictated by the dread of Miss Mary finding out the truth. If there are other reasons—"

"Ay, there are other reasons, Mr. Ralph," Slight said in a broken voice. "If you only knew everything, you would pity her ladyship. She has kept this secret as well as she has kept the rest. Miss Mary knows nothing; she was meant to know nothing."

"And now she will know everything, everybody will know everything. The story of the match-box will have to be told, and the owner will have to explain how it came here and who he is. You should have known better, Slight, than try to keep a secret like this. Sooner or later the explosion was bound to come. What are you going to do about it now?"

"I'm not going to do anything, sir," Slight said bluntly. "It is not for me in my position to push myself forward. Let the police hunt the matter up for themselves. If Mr. Vincent Dashwood likes to lie low it makes no difference to us."

Ralph smiled at the suggestion. It was so like the policy of the house to leave things to chance like this. In a vague way, Ralph began to see that Fate was playing into his hands. He would let the rod fall. He would be cruel to be kind. As to the rest, it was in Mary's hands; all would depend upon how she behaved for the next day or two. It all stood out clearly in Ralph's mind now like the thread of a connected story.

"I'll go as far as the dower house," he said thoughtfully. "I should like to say a few words to Mr. Vincent Dashwood. Am I likely to find him there?"

"You are that, Mr. Ralph," Slight snapped. "When he isn't spending the money that does not belong to him, he is generally to be found not far from her ladyship. And this game has been going on for the last two years. I'm an old man, and hope I know my position in the place to which God has called me, but I've come very near to shooting that man more than once. Calls himself a Dashwood, and he has all the papers to prove himself a Dashwood, and yet he is no more a chip off the old block than I am. And yet you can't trip him up in anything, only in one way."

"And what is that?" Ralph smiled.

"Well, he wasn't astonished to see you, sir. He pretends to be the son of the late Ralph Dashwood, and, as such must have a pretty good idea of his father's physical appearance. Now you are the very image of what Mr. Ralph used to be. And this Vincent does not comment upon your likeness to my late young master. Why don't you step in, sir, why don't you step in and drive the blackguard away?"

"All in good time," Ralph replied. "You may rest assured that I shall speak out to some purpose when I am ready. Now I'll go as far as the dower house. I take it that the family will sleep there tonight."

Ralph crossed the lawn thoughtfully in the direction of the dower house. He understood the footman to say that her ladyship was somewhere in the garden.

Lady Dashwood was found at last, seated under a spacious cedar tree, which was one of the ornaments of the garden. She was not alone, for Vincent Dashwood was by her side. The man seemed to be hot and angry about something, and it was evident that Lady Dashwood had been weeping. A quick anger possessed Ralph, and it was all he could do to refrain from laying hands on this impostor, who was causing such trouble and misery here. A few words and the bubble would be pricked. Still, there was always the great plan before Ralph's eyes, the plan of his life with which nothing must interfere. He would have withdrawn now, only Lady Dashwood caught sight of him and beckoned him to her side. Vincent Dashwood scowled openly at the intruder.

"I was just coming over to see you," Ralph said. "You will be pleased to hear that the fire has done no particular damage, nothing that a little soap and water and some paint can't put right. But for the present the police and the fire people prefer that the house should not be used. As to the servants—"

"They can all come here," Lady Dashwood said. "I will go over and see Sir George without delay. But, seeing that the house is all right, why do the authorities interfere in this unreasonable way?"

"They think that they have made an important discovery," Ralph explained. "They are under the impression that the fire is not an accident, and, really, I have been converted to the same opinion. It seems almost incredible, but somebody brought a lot of straw into the house and set it on fire, after saturating the mass with paraffin. There is no doubt about the straw, for fragments of it can be seen in the ashes, and distinct traces of paraffin can be found. Had not the floor and the walls been as hard as iron, a great tragedy might have taken place. But, to make matters certain, the police found a silver match-box with a monogram in the ashes."

"The blackguards!" Vincent Dashwood cried. "I'm glad of that. Let us hope that the box will lead to the discovery of the culprit."

"That is not quite likely," Ralph said drily. "I came over here on purpose to get at the bottom of that match-box business. It is rather a novelty in the way of a box, for I have seen it—even the matches are original. The monogram on it is 'V. D.,' which happens to be your initials, Mr. Dashwood. To go further, old Slight says the box is yours. Can you account for this strange happening?"

Dashwood started and changed colour. He plunged his hands into his pockets apparently in search of something he was unable to find.

"I've lost it," he cried. "There is no denying the fact, Mr. Darnley, that I had just the kind of box you describe. It is possible that I dropped it, and the culprit picked it up. I should hardly be likely—to—"

The speaker paused, and Ralph filled in the rest of the speech for him.

"I perfectly understand," he said drily. "It is hardly likely that Mr. Vincent Dashwood would go out of his way to destroy a property which sooner or later he looks forward to enjoying as his own. I think that is what you mean to convey?"

CHAPTER XXIV—A FRESH CALAMITY

Dashwood nodded sulkily. He had a vague idea that Ralph was making fun of him in some way. Still, he was understood to say that such was his precise meaning. Lady Dashwood rose and walked off in the direction of the house; she had to see to the comfort of her expected visitors.

"I hope you will dine with us to-night, Mr. Darnley," she said. "Just Sir George and Mary, with Vincent here—nothing more than a quiet family party."

"Too quiet and too family for me," Dashwood muttered. "You can count me out. Besides, I have the most important business in London to-night."

Lady Dashwood looked relieved. There was no mistaking the expression of her face as she turned away. Dashwood noticed it, and his face flushed dully. He made a motion to follow, but Ralph laid a strong hand upon his arm.

"One moment, if you please," he said, "I should like to have a few words with you on the subject of that match-box. The police are pretty certain to ask you a great many questions concerning it, as you can see for yourself?"

"Let 'em ask," growled Dashwood, "it's nothing to do with me. I dropped that box, and the chap who set fire to the house picked it up."

"But suppose that chap, as you call him, happened to see you hanging about the house at a very early hour in the morning, a groom or somebody of that kind, who was prepared to swear to your identity? What then, my dear sir?"

Ralph was only drawing a bow at a venture; he was really working out a little theory of his own, but the arrow went home to the feather. Dashwood's face turned to a dull grey; he seemed to be utterly unnerved for the moment.

"Look here," he blustered presently, "what do you think you are likely to gain by asking me all these prying questions? Suppose I was hanging about the place last night. What then? Isn't it natural? Can't you understand the interest I take in my own property? You don't suppose that I should be likely to burn down a house of my own that contained some fifty thousand pounds worth of artistic treasures?"

"Your logic is too strong for me," Ralph smilingly admitted. "As the claimant to the property and the title you are hardly likely to destroy the house. But there is one thing that puzzles me—if things are as you say, why do you not press your claim?"

"Because I am short of a certain document. It is rather an important document for it happens to be my mother's marriage certificate. But I am informed that the proper paper will comes into my possession soon, and then I can move. Till that time I have decided to let sleeping dogs lie."

"Meaning that Sir George is to remain in blissful ignorance, I presume?"

"That's about it. Let him make the best of his reign. And that stuck-up daughter of his! She'll get her face to the grindstone before she is much older. Besides, there is another matter. Lady Dashwood has to be considered."

With difficulty Ralph disguised his contempt. A fine consideration the speaker had for Lady Dashwood! He was trading cunningly on her weakness and her desire to avoid scandal. It was his cue to pretend that he did not care to take any steps during the lifetime of the unhappy old lady. He had stripped her pretty well of all she had, without any risk to himself. So long as the golden stream flowed he need never fear.

Directly he came to make his claim he would be asked searching questions and would have to satisfy keen legal minds of the honesty of his proofs. Meanwhile, he preferred to blackmail an innocent old lady who was too ill and broken down to protest. Ralph read the fellow like an open book, but he was going to make use of him later, if needs be. Therefore it was that he disguised his feelings now.

"That sounds very creditable," he said. "It is very good of you to consider Lady Dashwood's feelings in this way. I hope she is correspondingly grateful."

"She isn't anything of the kind," Dashwood protested. "She fairly hates me. Every bit of affection that she has is centered on Sir George Dashwood's girl. Everything must be made smooth for Mary. Maybe her pride will have a bit of a dash before long. I don't know why I am telling you all these things, except that you seem a good sort. For all I know to the contrary, you may be a police spy inquiring into my past. All the same, I don't think the old lady would stoop to that kind of thing."

"You are quite right," Ralph said drily. "I'm sure she couldn't. I must be going now. I shall not have the pleasure of seeing you at dinner to-night?"

Dashwood winked significantly. There were better attractions elsewhere. The air seemed to be all the sweeter and purer after he had gone. Very slowly and thoughtfully Ralph made his way across the fields in the direction of his temporary abode. Fate seemed determined to place all the threads in his hands; everything was arranging itself just as he could have wished. His plan of action became quite clear and plain. There were certain circumstances to be taken into consideration, more particularly the way that Mary would act in the future. And Vincent Dashwood would be an important pawn in the game. By the time that it became necessary to dress for dinner Ralph had worked it all out.

He walked across the fields in the direction of the dower house. It was a lovely night, clear and bright, with no breath of air stirring. Ralph could see the red gables of the Hall beyond the noble elms and beeches, and a pleasant picture rose before his eyes. He could see himself as master of the place with Mary by his side—not the Mary of the proud, cold face and haughty eye, but another Mary, soft and beautiful, as she emerged chastened and purified from the furnace of the family pride. There would be trouble and humiliation first, but it should all come about, or Ralph would know the reason why.

He was still debating the matter as he reached the dower house and a well-trained footman took him as far as the drawing-room. The blinds were not down yet, so that the room was filled with the saffron glory of the sunset. It was all so refined and homelike, so different to anything that Ralph had ever seen before. It was the thing that Ralph had dreamt of, the homelife that had occupied much of his waking dreams. It lay before him now, but there was much to be done first.

Lady Dashwood came stately and smiling into the room. The look in her eyes was warm and affectionate as Ralph took her hand. Mary was not down yet, she explained, but the girl was dressing for dinner, and she was much better for a long sleep. Then Mary came into the room, serene and calm, with a flush on her beautiful face as she caught sight of Ralph.

"You have heard all the good news?" she asked. "The Hall has not been in the least damaged by the fire. My father ran in to tell me a little time ago, and he has gone back, preferring to dress at home. I understand that we shall be back home on Saturday."

"So I am told," Ralph replied. "It has been a great inconvenience, of course, but it most opportunely rid you of very undesirable visitors. By the time that Saturday comes you will be in a position to defy them."

"Indeed, I hope so," Mary said, with the deep flush still on her face. "My father intends to bring those documents so marvellously recovered here with him to-night, and to-morrow he will take them to London. Mr. Mayfield is a clever man, but circumstances have been too strong for him this time. Mr. Darnley, you are our good fairy; without you I have not the least idea what we should have done."

"Don't be so sure of that," Ralph smiled. "The fairy of my time always seemed to want something in return for past favours, and you may find that I am keeping very closely to precedent. But is not Sir George very late?"

A big clock over the carved oak mantel chimed the hour of eight. Lady Dashwood shook her head, and explained that one must make allowances just now. There would be no great harm done if the dinner waited for five minutes. It was all the same to Ralph, who asked nothing better than to sit in that perfect atmosphere and contemplate the beauty of the girl before him. He had to wait some time for the prize, but he knew that it would fall into his fingers at last. There was one short cut to victory, but he wasn't going to take that way. He watched the sunshine playing on Mary's face, he seemed to see clean through the mask of pride to the pure white soul below.

"I am going to ask you a question," the girl said. "You have never told me what was your business here, except that you had lost your money and that you had come into these parts to pick up something from the wreck. Is everything gone, Mr. Darnley?"

"Everything," Ralph smiled, "save honour. My father trusted Horace Mayfield, and the result is that when I leave here I shall have to get my living. I don't quite know what I am going to do, but I am strong and capable and steady. I may say—"

"Here is Sir George at last," Lady Dashwood exclaimed. "What a hurry he seems to be in. Mary, my dear, will you please to ring the bell and tell Seddon we are ready for dinner...Why—"

Sir George had come hurriedly into the room. The white tie had come unfastened and hung in two streamers down his shirt front, but he did not seem to notice it. His face was as white as his tie; his forehead was damp with moisture.

"Ive lost them," he cried; "stolen out of my desk! All those precious papers! And now I am more in the power of that scoundrel Mayfield than ever! I—I—"

He dropped into a chair and burst into a flood of maudlin, senile tears.

CHAPTER XXV—PRIDE OR PREJUDICE

Ralph's first feeling was one of contempt. It was almost incredible that a man of Sir George's position could behave in so childish and weak a fashion. Here was the diplomatist who had been so popular in Paris, so bland and dignified, assuming the role of a silly girl who had lost some foolish ornament. For the time being he had cast his manhood entirely behind him. He sat on the couch with the tears streaming down his cheeks, great sobs burst from his chest.

"Gone!" he wailed. "Absolutely vanished. I locked them up in a desk last night, or the night before, and now they have disappeared. Don't tell me they have not been stolen, because I know better. Besides, nothing else is disturbed. And those papers were there to prove my absolute claim to Dashwood Hall. With those documents in my possession I could have raised as much money as I needed. I could have returned here in a day or two and rid myself of that scoundrel, Mayfield, for ever. He meant to cover me with ignominy and disgrace, but the fire prevented that. And now he has managed to get those papers stolen."

"That is impossible," Ralph cried. "He did not know of their existence."

"Why not! How can you prove that he didn't know? He is one of the cleverest scoundrels in the world. He gets to know everything, and he was actually under my roof on the very night that the papers were so marvellously recovered. It is just possible that he was spying about all the time."

"It does not seem at all probable," Lady Dashwood said in a faint whisper.

"Oh, yes, it does," Sir George replied. "I'm quite ready to argue it out either way. We will admit that Mayfield didn't know till later, till the next morning, in fact, when I told him what had happened, and practically ordered him out of the house. He saw at once then that he no longer held me in his grip; he wanted nobody to tell him that those precious papers were close at hand. He made up his mind to obtain possession of them without delay. Therefore, he invented the idea of the fire—a fire that would cause a deal of smoke and confusion and yet not do much harm. Under cover of the fire he stole the papers."

Ralph was listening with a kind of painful toleration of the snuffling speaker. A startling idea came into his mind now. He glanced at Lady Dashwood, who seemed to read his thoughts. In the light of their especial knowledge, facts pointed to quite another individual as the culprit. If the fire had been the work of an incendiary, then that criminal was undoubtedly Vincent Dashwood, whose match-box had been found in the ashes. Vincent Dashwood had palpably been uneasy when the missing match-box had been mentioned, he was still more uneasy at Ralph's suggestion that he had been hanging about Dashwood Hall within an hour or so of the outbreak. Was there some deep and powerful reason why Vincent Dashwood desired to see the old house burnt to the ground? Was it to bury some secret in the ashes?

The more Ralph pondered over this, the deeper the mystery became. He could see quite clearly how Mayfield's scheme would benefit by possession of those papers. What he could not fathom was what Vincent Dashwood had to gain by a disastrous fire. He would go into this without taking anybody into his confidence, Ralph thought. There was yet another danger that struck much closer at the root of his happiness—the position in which Mary stood in the face of this catastrophe.

He glanced across at the girl, who stood on the far side of the drawing-room with the light of the shaded lamps on her face. He could see that her features were pale and drawn, that there was a hunted, haunted look in her eyes. It was quite evident that she fully appreciated the danger of the situation. And yet the feeling uppermost in her mind was the feeling of bitterness and sorrow for the sorry part her father was playing.

"I should like to understand the position fully," she said. "What difference does the loss of those papers imply? Cannot you do without them, father?"

"I am helpless, my dear," Sir George groaned. "I am the head of the family, and the man who enjoys the revenue of the estates, and I shall probably continue to do so until I die. But for the next six months or so I could not raise a penny on the property, not till the time mentioned in the late owner's will expires, when I become legally possessed of everything, even though a direct heir of Ralph Dashwood appears. Then I can borrow as much money as I please. Now, I am absolutely at the mercy of Horace Mayfield."

The pallor on Mary's face deepened; hope faded from her heart. She was in the toils again and made no attempt to disguise the fact. It was quite immaterial to her who had those papers, so long as they were gone.

"Let me make the position quite clear," she went on, in a hard, level voice. "Let us revert to the condition of affairs existing before those papers were found; let us assume that they never existed at all. You owe a very large sum of money, father, a sum that it is impossible for you to pay. If you fail to raise the amount, which we may take for granted, something like disgrace and dishonour falls on you. That is not your fault, I know, but other people will not think so, and the head of the house of Dashwood will stand before his fellow men stamped as little better than a felon. Is that so?"

"That is the way in which the world will regard it," Sir George groaned.

"Quite so, father. You can't find the money, and nobody will find it for you. As I know already, it is useless to appeal to Lady Dashwood."

"Quite, my dear," Lady Dashwood murmured. "I would give anything to avert the disgrace, but I have nothing. I am a wicked old woman, and my sins are finding me out. I have parted with everything, even to my jewels, to keep a certain secret, and I see now that the sacrifice is going to be all in vain."

Mary turned and laid a soothing hand on the speaker's arm. There was something sweet, almost affectionate in the action.

"A fellow feeling makes us wondrous kind," she said bitterly. "After all there is a way out of the trouble, there has been a way out all along. Our blessing in disguise in the matter seems to be Mr. Mayfield. We will ignore for the moment that he has himself brought the situation about for his own ends. The fact remains that he can keep the disgrace away. He has offered to avert the catastrophe at a price. I am the price. By saying one simple word everything is changed. And in six months, you, my father, are master of Dashwood absolutely. I have only to say, 'Yes,' and the thing is done. It is a simple little word, which has been the cause of untold misery to thousands of poor girls. But, after all, there have been greater sacrifices for less satisfactory results. And now let us go into dinner."

The girl spoke quietly enough, but nothing could disguise the bitterness and scorn that rang in every word. It was all very wrong, it was dictated by motives clearly open to question, but in spite of everything, it seemed to Ralph that he had never admired Mary more than he did at that moment. He knew of the anguish of disappointment and despair that filled her cup to overflowing; he could realise the difference that the last half-hour had made to her outlook on life; he knew how much she hated and despised the man to whom she was once more tied by the hands of Fate.

He knew also that filial love and affection had nothing whatever to do with the fatal resolve. It was family pride that was the mainspring of the action. Mary stood there, proud and defiant now, with the lamplight streaming on her face, and Ralph knew now that the time was coming for him to act. The lesson would have to be learned, the bread of affliction must be eaten to the last sour crust.

"Will Mr. Darnley please to ring the bell?" Mary went on evenly. "We shall have the servants wondering what is the matter. It is already half-past eight, and punctuality is one of the cardinal virtues at the dower house. If you will look into the mirror opposite, father, you will see that your tie is all disarranged...Give me your arm, Mr. Darnley?"

There was not a trace of any emotion now about Mary. She watched her father rearranging his tie with a critical air; she began to discuss the flowers on the dinner table as if nothing had happened out of the common. She bore the brunt of the conversation all dinner time, for the others were strangely silent. From time to time Mary flashed a challenge from her eyes to Ralph, as if defiantly ignoring his views. And yet she dreaded her next meeting with Darnley. She knew him to be poor and friendless, she believed him to be of no particular family, but still she valued his good opinion deeply. She would have denied that if it had been put to her directly, but in her heart of hearts she could not disguise the true state of her feelings.

"Why are you looking at me so?" she said.

"Was I?" Ralph asked. "I had no idea that my looks betrayed me so badly. But I will discuss the matter with you when we are alone."

It was an audacious speech, but it sounded quite naturally from Ralph's lips. Mary could feel the colour rising to her cheeks; she felt annoyed that she could not better control her feelings. For the rest of the meal she was silent like the rest, and said no more till Lady Dashwood gave the signal for departure.

CHAPTER XXVI—IN RECKLESS MOOD

Once the ladies had departed, Sir George brightened visibly. He reached out eagerly for the claret and drank two glasses rapidly. Ralph declined the decanters, and also the cigar that his host handed him. He contented himself with a cigarette; he replied more or less vaguely to Sir George's idle chatter. It seemed almost incomprehensible to him that a father could sacrifice a daughter to a scoundrel like Mayfield, and accept the situation as if it had been the most natural thing in the world.

"I feel bound to have a few words with you, Sir George," he said presently. "More by accident than anything else I seem to have been dragged into your family secrets. We will not go into the reason why I was in a position to render you a service a night or two ago. It is unfortunate that that service should have proved useless, but it is more than probable than those papers will turn up again."

"Never," Sir George said emphatically. "Mayfield will take care of that. He knows that so long as he holds the papers I am quite in his power. He will lend me the money to put me right in the comfortable assurance that at the expiration of six months it will come back to him again. Take him all in all, Mayfield is perhaps the most clever scoundrel that I have ever come across, which is saying a great deal."

"You are convinced that Mayfield is a finished scoundrel, then?"

"My dear fellow, what other conclusion could I come to? His every action proves it. He has worked this thing out in the most cold-blooded way. The fellow ought to be hounded out of society and kicked out of every respectable house. No club should tolerate him. He's a rascal clean through."

There was honest indignation ringing in every word that Sir George said. Ralph listened with cynical amusement.

"And yet you are going to give your only child as a hostage to the man who has planned your social ruin," he said. "You are going to sell your daughter, and the price is to be the silence of a scoundrel! Good heavens, man, can't you realise the enormity of your crime! To save yourself from unpleasantness, you permit your daughter to give herself up to a lifetime of horror and degradation. Is this a specimen of your family pride? You are so fond of the race, so passionately attached to it, that you are paving the way for that rascal Mayfield eventually to succeed you as the head of the house! If you do this thing you will be judged for it, as sure as we are face to face at this moment. If you permit it, then you are a greater rascal by far than even Mayfield is."

Ralph's words rang out clear and true, his voice vibrated with anger. A dull flush mounted to the face of the elder man, a feeble anger filled his eyes.

"I can't permit you to speak to me like this," he protested. "I—I must be the best judge of what is right and proper for my child. And Mary is pretty certain to have her own way in the end. My good fellow, you speak as if Mary's future was in your special keeping. Anybody would think that you had fallen in love with the girl."

"I have," Ralph said calmly. "I love Mary with my whole heart and soul. I can see the beauties of her mind as clearly as I can see the beauty of her face under that crust of pride and arrogance. It will be my task to remove the husk so that the flower can be seen in all its loveliness. It may not trouble you much, it may be no particular satisfaction to you, but Mary is not going to marry Horace Mayfield. When the time comes, Mary will marry me. But I fear that there is a time of humiliation and suffering and poverty before her first, poverty in which you will have your share, Sir George. It rests practically in the girl's own hands; she can take up the sunshine of the future when she chooses."

"The fellow's mad," Sir George muttered. "Clean mad. My dear Darnley, you are talking the most abject nonsense. On your own confession you are a poor man; you have lost everything as I did by trusting to that scoundrel. I mean to Mayfield, who—"

"Precisely. We both know that man to be what he is. And in spite of what you know, you are going to let your daughter marry him and give her your blessing. Truly the family pride of which you boast is a poor thing! You are prepared to commit a crime to support it. Now tell me your honest opinion—do you suppose for a moment that Mayfield would marry Mary if she came to him empty-handed?"

Sir George shook his head; he was man of the world enough to see Ralph's point.

"I don't think he would," he said. "Mayfield is sufficient of a business man to know the value of money. Of course he's fond of the girl, which is quite natural. But I fail to see what your question has to do with the matter."

Ralph was not blind to the hopelessness of his task. Truly it is difficult to know the real standard of even one's closest friend. Up to a certain point, Ralph had regarded Sir George as an honourable man, who would have shrunk from any act calculated to pain or harm any fellow creature. Dashwood would probably have protested himself that such was the case. And yet here he was, prepared to sacrifice his only child on the altar of his sinful selfishness.

A bitter contempt filled Ralph; he would have liked to turn on this man and tear him to tatters with sharp-edged words. Were all people alike when it came to the test? Ralph wondered. He half rose from his seat, and then sat down again. It was impossible to quarrel with Mary's father; there was nothing to gain by such a course. And Sir George seemed to divine little of what was passing in the mind of his young companion.

The elder man had regained his equanimity now. He was sure that Mary would do what he called the right thing. It was rather a nuisance, and so forth, but then it was absurd to imagine that any girl could imperil the good name of such a family as the Dashwoods. As Sir George sipped his wine, he caught sight of his own head and shoulders in a Florentine mirror on the far side of the room, and, unconsciously almost, set his tie straight. It seemed incredible to Ralph that the man could think of such things at such a moment. But there it was. Sir George poured out for himself another glass of wine.

"I can see that you are vexed," he said in his polished easy way. "As a friend of ours you naturally would be. In addition, you are naturally prejudiced against our friend, Horace Mayfield. So am I, but we must make the best of it. After all, there are many standards of honour. Mayfield is a business man; he has been trained to methods which are not in accordance with our views. All is fair in love and war, he would argue. We must not be too hard on our fellow creatures, Darnley."

"The fellow is a scoundrel," Ralph said hoarsely. "He is bad to the very core of his being. He would never see the inside of Dashwood Hall again if you could be free of him. And when I think of your daughter as that man's wife—"

Ralph paused. He was unable to proceed. His quick imagination travelled on ahead of him; he could picture Mary's future in the darkest colours. He knew only too well the fire and force and passion that lay under the cold exterior. He could guess at the unspeakable humiliation to come from Mayfield's very touch. And this would go on not for days, but for years. And Mary would never murmur, she would confide in nobody, she would hug the galling chains to her breast until the canker entered the heart of the flower and killed it...

But Dashwood was talking again. Ralph was so lost in his own gloomy thoughts that he had some difficulty in picking up the thread.

"And there is another thing, my dear fellow," Sir George murmured. "You will excuse my saying so, but you are taking on yourself a little too much. Mary owes her life to you on two different occasions. I am sure that we are both of us exceedingly grateful to you. And you have proved yourself to be a real friend in other ways. Still, that does not give you the right to harp upon this topic quite so freely. When Mary marries Mayfield—"

"She never will do so," Ralph cried, forgetting himself for the moment. "Rest assured that this hateful marriage will never take place. You may look surprised, but wait and see. I have not finished with Mayfield yet. After this evening is over, and I have heard Miss Dashwood's decision for the last time—"

"I decline to discuss the matter any further, really I do," Sir George protested. "My dear fellow, your remarks are in bad taste. As a gentleman, you must see that such is the case. I must ask you to change the subject."

Ralph placed a firm bridle upon his tongue. He had almost forgotten himself; he had come very near to betraying the great secret.

"I beg your pardon," he said. "As you say, I am going too far. I shall not err in that way again, but will leave you in peace to your cigar and your claret. Perhaps I shall be able to get some music in the drawing-room. The quietude of this house fascinates me, all the more because I have not been accustomed to this kind of thing."

Sir George smiled in a benign manner.

"I can understand your feelings," he said. "By all means leave me to my cigar. It has been a very disturbing evening."

CHAPTER XXVII—A WARNING

Ralph crossed the great hall in the direction of the drawing-room. He had made up his mind what to do. So far as he could judge, the blow would have to fall before long. When once Mayfield had an inkling of the truth, Ralph felt pretty sure that Mary would be no longer under the necessity of submitting to his persecutions. Mayfield posed as a rich man, and indeed he seemed to have the command of money when he needed it, but Ralph had reason to know that there was a deal of tinsel mixed up with the gold. If it could be proved to Mayfield that Mary was no longer an heiress he would refuse to carry out his part of the contract. He would recognise at once that the whole scheme was a failure, and his cautious philosophy would do the rest.

There were two ways of getting rid of Mayfield, the first being for Ralph to declare his own identity. But by doing so he would go far to defeat his darling ambition of winning Mary's love on his own merits. Still, he had been prepared to run this risk if Mayfield's persecutions continued. But now Fate had placed in his hands another weapon by which it was possible to be rid of Mayfield and carry on the love campaign at the same time. Whether this alternative would have to be used without delay depended on Mary. Ralph meant to see her now and force her to say what she was going to do. There was no time like the present. In the silence and the moonlight this thing should be done.

Just for a moment it seemed to Ralph that the drawing-room was empty. There were the shaded lamps throwing a subdued light on the old furniture and the panelled walls. Ill at ease as he was, Ralph was conscious of the refined, soothing air of the place. Then a gentle voice called him, and he crossed to a distant corner of the room where Lady Dashwood was seated. Her face was white and troubled.

"My dear lad," she whispered, "I felt certain that you would come to me. Sir George cares nothing so long as he has his comforts. Mary is out of the room; she has gone up to see old Patience, so that you can speak freely. This is a terrible catastrophe; it places that poor child absolutely in the grip of the scoundrel. She recognises that; she is prepared to bow to the inevitable. You have only to look into her face to see what she is going to do. And I am to blame for the whole miserable crime."

"My dear Lady Dashwood, how could you possibly avoid it?"

"Oh, you will know some day when the truth is told. Ah, if you had a bare idea of what a miserable, wicked old woman I am...But there is no occasion to go into that here. The question is, can you help me, can you do anything to prevent this thing? I used to pride myself on the fact that I had a great deal of influence over Mary. But when it comes to a question of family pride, I am helpless. Still, this marriage must be prevented at any cost. If you will not speak out, I shall be compelled to do so."

"There is no occasion," Ralph said. "I pray you to leave me to do this in my own way. Mary will never become the wife of Horace Mayfield."

A murmur of relief came from the aged listener. Her face cleared somewhat, but the tears were still dim in her eyes. At the same time, Ralph's words were a great comfort to her. She laid her fingers on his hand lovingly.

"I like to hear you speak like that," she whispered. "It reminds me of your—of my dear son. Ralph, are you sure that you can carry out your boast?"

"Quite, Lady Dashwood. As surely as I am standing here before you, I can prevent this hateful marriage. I can prevent it even if Mary tries to thwart me. But I must have her decision from her own lips first. I am going to be very cruel to be very kind in the long run. And whatever happens, I am going to ask you to trust me implicitly. Even if things look very dark for us all, you are not to lose your faith. Remember, if events seem to point to the triumph of one who is hateful to you, it is all being done with one end in view. Now promise."

"My dear boy, I promise freely. When you look at me with those brown eyes and speak to me with that voice from the other side of the grave, I could promise you anything. I feel that you have come to save me; that my life is destined to end in peace. But I am afraid that Mary is going to suffer yet."

"Oh, she is," Ralph said almost sternly. "It is good for her that she should suffer. But I shall have no fear for the result after she is tried in the furnace. Maybe I am no better than a Quixotic fool, but I have my aim clear before me. And now I must see Mary for some moments alone."

"I will send her to you," Lady Dashwood murmured as she rose from the chair. "Ralph, you fill me with new hope and courage. I feel that I am going to do some good with the remainder of my life yet. But do not be too hard on the child, remember that she is more or less what I have made her. And may she listen to the voice of reason!"

It was a little time later that Mary came in. She looked white and weary; her eyes had a metallic gleam in them. All the same, she flushed under Ralph's steady gaze. She murmured something to the effect that she had no idea Lady Dashwood was not there.

"Never mind about Lady Dashwood for the present," Ralph said. "In fact, I asked her to leave us together for a time. I have something important to say to you, Mary. Come out on the terrace with me."

It was not so much a request as a command and Mary felt the hot blood rising to her face. And yet she could not decline coldly with Ralph's eyes on hers. He seemed to possess some magnetic influence over her. Without a word they passed side by side out on to the terrace.

It was a perfect night, with a full moon swinging high overhead. In the distance the silver light played on the roofs and chimneys of the Hall. Ralph stood in rapt contemplation of the scene for a moment.

"It is absolutely perfect," he said. "A good old house in a grand old English landscape. And for three hundred years a Dashwood has reigned here. Truly a thing to swell the heart with honest pride. No wonder you are fond of it, Mary; no wonder you would make any sacrifice to retain possession of it. But the price is too heavy. To-morrow you must send Horace Mayfield about his business."

"It is too late," Mary said coldly. "I have made up my mind. Other women have made far heavier sacrifices than this. And I shall get used to it."

"Never! You are not going to do it. I will not permit you to commit this sin."

The girl's face blazed with anger, then her cheeks grew white again. She would have liked to turn upon Ralph with passionate scorn, but her sense of truth and justice held her back. For what he said she knew to be dreadfully, hopelessly true.

"Yes, a sin," Ralph said quietly. "The deliberate violation of a sacrament. You will go to the altar with a lie on your lips, your whole life will be a lie. To my mind, one of the most horrible things is the sight of a young girl who has married an old man for the sake of his money. To me it is hideous. And your sin will be worse than that, far worse. Picture it, think of it, Mary, before it is too late."

The girl's head drooped, in spite of her pride and her courage, the tears streamed down her face, her frame was shaken by passionate sobs.

"Too late," she said. "Oh, I cannot draw back."

"Because you sacrifice everything to your foolish pride," Ralph replied. "I see that it is quite useless for me to plead any longer. Therefore, I must take my own way to prevent your wasting your life in this fashion. Would Horace Mayfield care for you if he heard that you had lost your fortune?"

"The question is needless," Mary whispered. "Of course he wouldn't."

"Let us argue the matter out from that point of view, then. Say that a merciful Providence interferes to prevent this sin of yours. You lose your fortune. Mind, there are many less likely things than this. Your fortune takes wings and flies away. You are free from Mayfield, and also you lose the Hall. What would you do then?"

"But you are picturing an almost impossible case. Such a thing is not the least likely."

"Indeed, it is. The late heir to the estate vanished and never returned. There was a violent quarrel, the facts of which are only known to Lady Dashwood. Her son died far away without even communicating with his relatives again. So far as we know, he may have left a son behind him. He may have told that son everything or nothing. But suppose that son finds out the truth. What is to prevent his coming back and claiming everything? He would get the title as a matter of course; he would get the estates also if he puts in an appearance before another six months have gone by. If this happens, you are no better than a pauper, Mary. What do you say to that?"

"I do not believe in the existence of the man."

"No, but I do. Mary, that young man lives. He will declare himself and bring in his proofs before many days are over. He is the instrument chosen by Providence to prevent this deliberate sin of yours. Your reign at Dashwood is over; within a few days you will be as poor as—as myself. Thank God, we shall save you yet."

A little cry came from the girl's lips and she stood like a white statue in the moonlight.

CHAPTER XXVIII—MORAL FORCE

It was some time before Mary spoke again. Ralph wondered if she had any inkling of the real truth. He had perhaps said a little too much, and perhaps, on the other hand, he had not said quite enough. Suppose that Mary jumped to the immediate conclusion that he was the heir. What then? She would ask him the question point blank, and he would be compelled to speak the truth.

But Mary's perception was at fault for once. As her eyes sought Ralph's face it was evident that she had not the remotest idea who he was. And this was just as it should be, from Ralph's point of view.

For he was doing what the world would call a foolish and Quixotic thing. He loved this girl with his whole heart and soul; he knew that she was the one woman for him. But not yet; until that sinful pride was humbled in the dust there would be no happiness for Mary. Her character would have to be cleansed and purified in the fire of adversity first. Ralph knew quite well what noble qualities lay under that mask of pride and ice.

He could have called the girl his; he knew it. He had only to proclaim his identity, and Mary Dashwood would have asked no better fate than to become the wife of the head of the family; she might have given her heart into the bargain.

But Ralph would have none of it that way. Mary should come to him and sue for pardon; she should proclaim in all sincerity that love was best of all. She should feel that there was something far better than being mistress of Dashwood Hall. Then the truth might be told and the old order of things re-established.

All this Ralph had worked out in his mind as a novelist works out a plot. And Fate had played into his hands. A stern, hard time was coming for Mary, but it would be the making of her in the end. Ralph could see it all in his mind's eye as he stood by Mary's side and looked into her troubled eyes.

"I don't understand," she said slowly. "I am afraid that I am not so hard and resolute as I believed myself to be. And things have moved so rapidly lately, that I am dazed. First comes the knowledge that my father is—is—"

The girl hesitated and broke down. Ralph completed her sentence for her. It sounded harsh and unkind, but the lesson had to be learned.

"Is not the man you took him for," Ralph said. "His family pride is not a durable article. To play his part properly he should have coldly and politely told Mayfield to do his worst, and ordered him out of the house. That is the course one has a right to expect from the head of the house of Dashwood. But, alas, for the weakness of poor human nature! Your father knows Mayfield to be an abandoned scoundrel, and yet he makes a compact with him. A bargain is arranged between them, and you are the price to be paid, Mary. And, upon my word, your pride seems to me to be as hollow a thing as that of your father."

"That is false," Mary cried passionately. "I am sacrificing everything for the honour of the house."

"Not from my point of view. As I said before, you are committing a great and deadly sin with your eyes open. At the altar you are prepared to soil your lips with a horrible perjury. You are going to promise to love, honour, and obey the man whose very presence makes you shudder. But, fortunately, there is no need for that. To all practical purposes you have ceased to be mistress of Dashwood, and when Mayfield knows this, he will dismiss you as a mere incident in his career. The new heir will take possession of the title and the property."

"I am glad we have got back to him again," Mary said coldly. "Your personal remarks are exceedingly distasteful to me. Who is the man you speak of?"

"Vincent Dashwood. Did you not guess it before? Has it never occurred to you that he had some powerful motive that kept him here all this time? You must be aware how Lady Dashwood dislikes him—"

"Oh, yes, yes. Several times lately I have asked who the man was, but I could not succeed in getting a satisfactory reply. I knew that Lady Dashwood was afraid of the man. He is not a bit like a gentleman, but seeing that he was a Dashwood, I have always been more or less civil to him."

"He does not think so," Ralph said with a smile. "In fact, he thinks that you have treated him very distantly and haughtily. He hinted to me that he was going to make you pay for it later. Still, a most objectionable creature."

"I seem to be surrounded with them lately," Mary said bitterly. "But why all this mystery and secrecy? If the man is the person he claims to be, why did he not make his identity known long ago? Oh, he is an impostor, defrauding Lady Dashwood. So long as he can get money out of her he will do nothing."

"Perhaps Lady Dashwood will enlighten us on that point," Ralph said. "I may say that in California I knew the late Ralph Dashwood very well. Had I not done so, I should not have been here on private business to-day—"

"Then you know if the late heir to the property had a son?" Mary interrupted.

"Certainly he did. And Vincent Dashwood claims to be Ralph's son. If he can prove this, then he takes the estates and the title. I have talked the matter over with him, and I gather that he is waiting for one particular document before claiming the property. The document is his mother's marriage certificate. You may say that that is easy to obtain. Not so in California, where records of that class are not kept so rigidly as they are here. Lady Dashwood will tell you that the young man came with the strongest proofs of his identity, letters that she had written to her son, and other papers of that kind. He knows all the secrets of the House. Lady Dashwood never catches him tripping."

"Very strange!" Mary said. "And yet he makes no claim!"

"For the reason that I told you. He led me to understand that he is loth to disturb existing arrangements during the lifetime of her ladyship. On the whole, I regard this as an exceedingly fortunate business for you!"

"Fortunate?" Mary exclaimed. "An incident that renders my father and myself penniless!"

"Yes. It prevents you becoming the wife of Horace Mayfield. Directly he hears of this thing he will turn his back on you for ever. He is too much a man of the world to waste time in idle regrets; he will look out for another to take your place. On the whole, it seems to me that Fate has been very kind to you."

"Indeed." Mary's voice was very cold, her face colder still. "You seem to be glad."

"I am glad. I am rejoiced to find that Providence is not going to allow you to wreck your happiness and imperil your future in this way. Nothing could please me better than to see you dependent upon your own exertions for a living. You will be all the better for it; it will cleanse and purify you. And then you will discover that the best thing in the world for a good woman is a good man's love. It is my love for you, Mary, that makes me take this view of things, that impels me to rejoice in the fact that you are nearer to me to-night than you have ever been before. And some day you will own it."

"Never!" Mary cried passionately. "Oh, you make me hate you, you make me forget how much I owe you. I could never become your wife."

Ralph smiled. There was something very soothing in the sweetness of the night. Many a time afterward that scene rose up before his mind.

"You shall be my wife," he said in tones of quiet power. "The scales will fall from your eyes and you will ask me to forgive you. Oh, my dear, I know the beauty of your true nature better than you know it yourself. I can see it all before me as clearly as if I were endowed with the gift of prophecy. We all have our lesson to learn, and it is no fault of yours that the lesson has come so late. And when my confession has followed yours, we shall know the meaning of true happiness, but not before."

As if he had said the final word, Ralph turned in the direction of the house. A world of passionate scorn, defiance, anger trembled on Mary's parted lips. How dare this man, how dare any man, talk to her like this? And yet at the same time the girl was fully aware of the power and masterful purpose behind Ralph's words. She was glad in her inmost heart to know that he cared for her so much. After all, Mary had her dreams of love and romance like other girls. She was dimly conscious of the sweet and tender womanhood that underlay her pride and ice. And she knew that no scorn or invective could turn Ralph from his purpose.

"Very well," she said resignedly. "You are a strong man, and I am a weak woman. I daresay you imagine yourself to be paying me a compliment. But I should put that dream aside if I were you, for it is never likely to come true."

"It is no dream," Ralph smiled. "Nor is the happiness so very far off. Now let me take you back to the house again, for it is getting late."

As Mary slipped her hand under the proffered arm, a gentle sigh escaped her. She wondered why she could not be angry with this man, why every word of his thrilled her and filled her with such happiness as could not be expressed in words.

CHAPTER XXIX—STRATEGY

Meanwhile the police were pushing on their investigations into the causes leading up to the fire at Dashwood Hall with great energy. The clue of the match-box was held to be an important one, and now that the owner of the toy had been discovered, important developments were expected. In the interim, Vincent Dashwood returned from London, having forgotten all about his loss. It was brought back to his mind with unpleasant force after luncheon the following day by a visit from the inspector of police.

Dashwood was lounging at the table, smoking a cigarette. Lady Dashwood sat opposite to him, her slim hands folded in her lap. She was looking white and worn; her eyes seemed to seek her companion in weary misery.

"I don't see what you have to complain of," Dashwood was saying. "I've done everything to please you. Here I am, a kind of mystery in the house, living more or less on your bounty, whilst all the time I might have been Sir Vincent Dashwood, with a fine property behind me. And any time I want a few pounds you grumble."

"That is not a true statement of the case," Lady Dashwood said in her resigned way. "You told me you could do nothing till you received the certificate of your father's marriage. As to the rest, I accepted you implicitely as my grandson. After the proofs that you placed in my hands, I had no alternative."

"Much as you would have liked one," Dashwood sneered.

"Yes, if you will force me to speak plainly. Many a time I have prayed that a child of my son's should be sent to me. But you are not in the least like your father. He was wild and headstrong, and he never forgave the shameful way we treated him, but he was a gentleman."

"Meaning that I'm not one, eh? Well, hard words break no bones. For the sake of peace and quietness, I've kept my claim from everybody but you; to please you I have suppressed the truth till I can get that certificate. And in return you promised me that I should not suffer. And now you refuse me a paltry £500."

"I have not refused it you. I have not the money. And you have had all my jewels, jewels valued at nearly £30,000. In my weakness and folly I parted with the property which does not belong to me. £30,000 in the space of a year! Where has the money gone?"

"Now if that isn't just like a woman," Dashwood growled. "I daresay those stones were valued at the sum you mention, but to get that for them is a different matter. To be candid, I pawned your gems for less than a third of that money. And when I tried to raise a further loan on the same security, I was met with a pointblank refusal. So you see, I have not been so very extravagant after all."

Lady Dashwood sighed bitterly. She was getting used to vulgar scenes like this. And yet there was hope that before long she would be freed from the bloodsucker. She watched him now as he sat sprawling in his chair, flicking the ashes of his cigarette into a priceless Sevres dessert dish. How could she ever have taken him for her grandson, she wondered? Why had she been so weak and feeble?

A servant entered at the same moment with an intimation to the effect that somebody desired to see Mr. Dashwood. The gentleman was waiting in the dining-room. A dull flush of annoyance came over Dashwood's face.

"Some meddling creditor," he muttered. "A London tradesman, who has managed to get my address from somewhere. Good-bye to all peace if once my retreat has got known. Tell the man to call again, Charles. I can't see him."

"Begging your pardon, sir," the footman said respectfully, "it is not a tradesman, and he said he must see you on the most important business. The gentleman is Inspector Drake, the head constable from Longtown."

Dashwood's teeth clicked together; his face turned to a dull ashen hue. He had been suddenly stricken by some mortal fear; he could not disguise the fact from Lady Dashwood. Her heart sank within her as she glanced fearfully at the white set face on the other side of the table. She wondered what new disgrace was here.

"I—I'll come in a minute," Dashwood muttered thickly. "This room is so hot that it makes one feel quite faint. Charles, give me a glass of brandy from the sideboard. A large glass without water. Ah!"

The white face resumed a little of its colour and the teeth ceased to chatter as the potent spirit got in its work. With an uneasy swagger, Dashwood crossed over to the door, but his heart was beating thick and fast and there was a great lump in his throat that he could not quite succeed in swallowing. But the inspector of police knew nothing of this as he responded curtly enough to Dashwood's insolent salutation.

"And what can I do for you?" the latter asked. "This is a very inconvenient hour for me."

"Very sorry for that, sir," the official said coolly. "But my duty is plain. I should like to have a few words with you as to the fire at Dashwood Hall."

A strange sense of relief, almost of exultation, came over the listener. He could breathe more freely now; all his swagger came back to him. The visit of the officer had nothing to do with any episode out of a dark and dubious past.

"What can I tell you about that?" he asked. "I know nothing of it."

"Well, it's like this, sir," Drake proceeded to explain. "We have established beyond all shadow of a doubt that the fire was not caused by accident. Straw was laid deliberately on the floor of the hall, and as deliberately soaked in petroleum. We found the rest of the straw, and also we found the empty drum of oil, which had been taken from one of the outhouses. All this must have happened in the early hours of the morning. It was a very good thing that the timbers of the house are so sound, or nothing could have saved the place. As it is, the fire burnt itself out."

"But what has all this got to do with me?" Dashwood asked impatiently.

"Half a minute, sir. I was merely telling you that this was the work of an incendiary. Once having established the fact, we will get to business. We searched in the ashes, and we were so fortunate as to find this."

Drake held up the familiar match-box and handed it to Dashwood. He looked just a little uneasy, but there was no suggestion of guilt about him.

"We found this peculiar match-box in the straw, sir," Drake went on. "The theory is that it was dropped by somebody who was connected with the fire. Suppose that the culprit was disturbed, or perhaps the sudden blaze was so fierce that the box fell and could not be recovered. I want to know if you have seen this box before?"

Dashwood turned the silver toy over in his hands for a moment. There was nothing to be gained by concealing the truth.

"I understand your insinuation," he said. "As a matter of fact, that box belongs to me, and, as I dare say you are aware, my initials are engraved upon it. The box is a novelty in its way; I bought it some years ago in America. Do you mean to say that this was found in the ashes of the fire?"

"It was, sir. I picked it up myself. The butler, Slight, recognised it as belonging to you. Now you will see why I came to you."

"Oh, of course. So your beautiful intelligence suggests that I had some hand in that fire. If you only knew the true position of affairs, you would know that I am the very last person in the world to want anything to happen to the Hall. But that is a detail which we may come to presently. Meanwhile, I am prepared to accept the responsibility of calling myself the owner of the box. I must have been careless enough to drop it and somebody picked it up—the somebody who tried to set fire to the Hall. I'm afraid that I can't tell you any more than that."

"All the same, I'm afraid I must go a little farther, sir," Drake said. "That box is yours and it was found in the ashes of the fire. It appears that some time before the fire broke out one of the servants at the Hall was called up to take a message to Mr. Mayfield, who is staying in a farmhouse not far from here. The servant's name is Walters. He went back to his quarters over the stables, and as it was a fine night and he did not feel in the least sleepy, he sat by the open window and smoked a cigarette. He says that a little before two—close to the time when the fire broke out—he saw somebody come from the direction of the house and cross the lawn. The figure was moving rapidly, and apparently desired to escape observation. When Walters was asked if he could recognise the figure in question, he said positively that he could. I asked him to give it a name, and, to make a long story short, he said it was you, sir."

There was no mistaking the dry suggestiveness in Drake's manner. He was not in the least apologetic now, he made his statement with the air of a man who is sure of his ground. Dashwood changed colour slightly.

"This is ridiculous," he cried. "The idea that I should have any motive for destroying the old house is out of the question. If you knew who I really am—"

"That is not the point, sir. The question is were you there?"

"Yes, I was," Dashwood said in a kind of sullen desperation. "I was out at that hour. The best thing I can do is to come as far as the Hall and have it out with Walters. I see that the time has come when I must tell the truth."

CHAPTER XXX—THE HEIR OF THE HOUSE

Sir George Dashwood sat in the Gothic library at Dashwood Hall bewailing his hard fate in a manner which would have been called peevish in a less distinguished man. He wanted to know when he was going to get back the full possession of his house again; he desired to be informed why Horace Mayfield had not been to see him. He did not appear to be listening to what Mary had to say. Also he was full of the fact that the more or less mysterious Vincent Dashwood had made a dastardly attempt to reduce the old house to ashes.

"You don't seem to understand," Mary said with some impatience. She was standing in the window of the library with the sunshine full on her face. Through the great mullion, with its crested devices, she could see the deer in the park beyond. "You do not seem to comprehend that this is a blessing in disguise. So far as I can see, the house is not a bit the worse for what might have been a terrible disaster. I am bound to confess that I don't like Mr. Dashwood, but at the same time I am quite sure that he had nothing to do with the fire—the fire which prevented anybody from knowing of the disgrace that had fallen upon us."

"No thanks to that young man," Sir George grumbled. "I tell you he was responsible for the fire. His match-box was found there. Walters saw him by the house. Why Lady Dashwood doesn't get rid of the fellow passes my comprehension."

"But I have just been trying to explain to you, only you won't listen," Mary responded with some show of impatience. "There are the most powerful reasons why Mr. Vincent Dashwood does not desire the destruction of the house. Mr. Darnley told me all about it last night. Vincent Dashwood claims to be the son of Ralph Dashwood."

Sir George started as if something had stung him. He had been so wrapped up in his own selfishness up to now that he had no ears for anything else. Mary's statement almost overpowered him. Many things suddenly became plain to the baronet's understanding.

He rose to his feet and paced up and down the room in terrible agitation.

"Is this really a fact?" he demanded. "I cannot believe it, and yet, and yet, I have met that fellow a good many times, and the oftener I see him, the more does he impress me unfavourably. I see now that there must have been some powerful reason why Lady Dashwood should tolerate the man. But why did she not tell us at once, why did she go on feeding him with money? for I can now quite see why she was not in a position to do me a favour the other night. If what you say is correct, Mary, then we are little better than beggars. Still, the reason for all this mystery—"

"Is not so strange when one comes to understand, father. It appears that Ralph Dashwood married an American lady somewhere in the wildest part of California. There has been a great difficulty in finding the marriage certificate. Lady Dashwood is quite convinced that the man we are speaking of is her grandson."

Sir George broke out into feeble whinings, he grew almost tearful. And as he became weak and sentimental, so did Mary grow harder. If this crowning blow had to fall, then nobody should hear a word of weakness from her. For her part she could have fought this man, even if it had left her penniless before the world. She clenched her teeth upon her lip to keep down the rising tide of bitter reproaches. Then she turned to see that Vincent Dashwood, together with Inspector Drake, had entered the room. The former looked heated and indignant, for he had been giving a piece of his mind to the policeman.

"I am glad to find you here, Sir George," he shouted. "The police are making all kinds of accusations against me. They say, forsooth, that I have tried to burn the house down, and all because a match-box of mine was found in the ashes. I suppose I am not the first man in the world who has lost a match-box. And I've been telling Drake here that I have every reason that the house should not be injured."

"So my daughter informs me," Sir George replied in the same whining voice. "Seeing that you claim to be the son of Ralph Dashwood—"

The other man laughed defiantly. All the same he could not meet the glance that Mary turned upon him. His bold eyes were turned to her face, then they dropped as if looking for something on the floor.

"I'm very sorry," Drake put in, "but this is a serious matter. The finding of that box, the mere fact that Mr. Dashwood was seen here at the hour of the fire, all make it necessary for me to take certain steps—"

"I must speak," Vincent Dashwood broke out. "I did not mean to proclaim the truth, because I was not ready to do so. And there was Lady Dashwood to be considered. Still, as I see that Mr. Drake is prepared to go to the extreme length of arresting me for the alleged act of arson, I am compelled to declare the truth for my own protection. Drake tells me that he has lived in the adjacent town of Longtown all his life, so he must be more or less acquainted with the family of Dashwood. He knows, for instance, that Mr. Ralph Dashwood left here forty years ago, and that his friends have seen nothing of him since. I suppose that statement is not too much for your intelligence, Drake?"

"I am quite aware that you are quoting facts, sir," Drake said grimly.

"Very well. I'm glad to hear that you believe something I say. It is not generally known, but it will be clearly established before long that Mr. Ralph Dashwood married an American lady, by whom he had one child, a son. To go farther, I may say that that son now stands before you. I am the only son of Ralph Dashwood, born in lawful wedlock, as Lady Dashwood perfectly well knows, and therefore the property belongs to me. There is no such person really as Sir George Dashwood; as a matter of fact, Sir Vincent Dashwood—in other words, myself—is head of the family and owner of the place. There is only one proof necessary, and that I hope to have in my hands in a few days. I allude to the certificate of my parents' wedding. And now, Mr. Drake, after hearing all this, can you suggest that I should gain anything by burning this house down? If I had had an impulse in that direction, I could easily have waited for an opportunity of committing that folly in a safer fashion."

Drake was bound to admit that the astounding revelations made all the difference in the complexion of the case. Sir George Dashwood listened with a dark look on his face. Mary turned to the door to see that Ralph Darnley was standing there. The mere knowledge of his presence seemed to support and comfort her in this trying hour. Yet she did not feel the poignant sorrow and sense of loss as keenly as she should.

"Mr. Darnley will tell us if this is true," she cried.

"Lady Dashwood will tell you so, at any rate," Ralph responded. "I have taken the liberty of listening to what this gentleman had to say. It so happens that I can throw considerable light on the story. As I told you last night, I knew the late Ralph Dashwood very well, though I had not the honour of meeting the man who claims to be his son. Perhaps Mr. Dashwood will reply to a few of my questions. Will he tell me, for instance, in what part of California his mother lived?"

"Certainly I will," Vincent Dashwood replied without the slightest hesitation. "It was in Jackson County; I understand the town was Courville."

"I should say that is perfectly correct," Ralph said. "In fact, I have every reason to know that it is correct. And the name of your mother?"

"Alice Montrose. But where the wedding took place, I can't say just now."

"That is also correct," Ralph went on in the same solemn way. "I am in a position to prove that Alice Montrose was the wife of Ralph Dashwood. It is the legal verification of the marriage that you seek?"

"That's it," Dashwood cried eagerly. "Once that is in my possession, the rest is easy. As I said before, I did not desire to proclaim my identity just yet for several reasons. But I have been compelled to speak for the sake of my honour. And if you, Mr. Darnley, who seem to know so much, can help me to discover that particular document, I shall be eternally grateful to you. Anything that I can do for you by way of reward—"

"I shall make use of you, no doubt," Ralph replied. "Your claim appears to be a very strong one, and everything is going in your favour. So far all you say as to the marriage of Ralph Dashwood and Alice Montrose has been correct. You are in urgent need of the certificate. Let me make the dramatic situation complete by presenting you with the paper that you most desire. If you will look at this long slip of paper, you will see that it is a copy, certified, of the marriage in question. As you seem to be the person most entitled to the paper, it is with pleasure that I place it in your hands."

Vincent Dashwood's face turned from grey to red, and then to deadly white. Then he suddenly burst out into a hoarse whoop of triumph and he danced round the room with every manifestation of extravagant joy. He would have shaken hands with Ralph, only the latter did not seem to see the trembling moist palm extended to him.

"Is this real?" Sir George groaned, "or is it all some hideous dream?"

"It is real enough," Ralph said. "It is a case of 'the King is dead, long live the King.' Pray allow me to offer you my congratulations, Sir Vincent."

CHAPTER XXXI—UNDER WHICH LORD?

Vincent Dashwood seemed to expand, he stood there smiling benignly, he had lost his strange uneasiness of manner altogether. And yet Mary did not fail to notice the furtive look in his eyes. There must be something wrong here, she thought; it was impossible to regard this man as the head of the family. For three hundred years Dashwood had been ruled by a gentleman, a man of honour.

And this smirking creature, with the red, grinning face and cunning eyes, was neither. Mary knew him to be little better than a blackmailer. And if he was the person he claimed to be, why had he not come forward and proclaimed his identity before? She could not believe that Vincent Dashwood had hidden his light under a bushel merely because he was short of one particular document.

The girl did not believe that he would have spoken now had not the awkward incident of the match-box compelled him to do so. And here was Ralph Darnley actually pushing forward the cause of the new claimant and giving him the one proof that he needed.

And yet the thing was impossible; surely the walls of the house would collapse about the head of so poor a ruler as Vincent Dashwood. The old familiar objects around Mary filled her with a kind of dumb pain. She was going to lose them all—the pictures and the gardens, the horses in the stables, and the very deer that loved her. What the future held for her, Mary had not considered. She brought herself back to the present with an effort; she became aware that Vincent Dashwood was speaking.

"This—this is really extraordinary," he cackled. "Like a scene from a play. I had my own good reasons for not proclaiming my identity for the present, but you all see that circumstances have been too strong for me. And then at the critical moment Mr. Darnley comes along with that paper. How it came into his possession—"

"That is easily explained," Ralph said in his grave way. "It was given to me by Mr. Ralph Dashwood in circumstances that I need not go into here. Primarily, the certificate was to have been forwarded to the solicitors of this estate."

"Quite so, quite so," Dashwood said loftily. "Really, it doesn't matter. The point is that my proofs are now complete. My idea was to do nothing and say nothing till Lady Dashwood—my grandmother—had become resigned to the change in the condition of affairs. It is perhaps natural that the good lady should look coldly on me and that all her affection should be for Mary here. And I am bound to say that Mary has not treated me with the friendliness that I could have wished."

Hot words rose to the girl's lips, but she checked herself with an effort. Doubtless the new heir was doing his best to be agreeable, perhaps he did not know how offensive he was.

"But I am not going to be vindictive," he resumed. "It is only natural that you should feel a little sore and hurt. One doesn't turn out of a snug crib like this without turning a hair. As a matter of fact, there is no reason why you should go at all, at least, not for some time to come. I don't suppose I shall ever marry—I'm not that kind of chap. There is no reason why Mary and the old gentleman and myself shouldn't be very snug here together. Mr. Dashwood wants little more than the run of his teeth at his time of life."

Mary's cheeks flamed at the unconscious humiliation. She was being offered a home as a pauper and a dependent; it was infinitely worse than going into a workhouse. Mary had never dreamed of being humbled and crushed in the dust like this. Before she could reply, Slight looked into the doorway, his dry, red face screwed up into the semblance of respect. He announced Horace Mayfield in a loud voice.

Mayfield came in, glass in eye, serene and self-confident, his hard mouth looking more like a steel trap than ever. The quiet triumph in his eyes was not lost on Mary; she did not fail to note the gleam of possession as he glanced at her. There was cold consolation in the knowledge that after all Mayfield was powerless to hold her soul and body in thraldom any longer.

"I beg your pardon," Mayfield said, "I seem to be intruding on a family conference or something of that kind. Slight did not tell me, though I have every reason to believe that he was listening outside the door. What are you doing here?"

The question was flung headlong at Vincent Dashwood, who had started and changed colour as Mayfield came in. Evidently these two knew one another, for Mayfield was rudely contemptuous, Dashwood cringing yet defiant. Was there yet another vulgar mystery here? Mary wondered wearily.

"Perhaps I had better explain," Ralph said. "This, Mr. Mayfield, is an unexpected, but nevertheless dramatic situation. Let me present you to Sir Vincent Dashwood, only son and heir of the late Ralph Dashwood, who died some time ago. Sir Vincent had some natural hesitation in declaring his identity; he was loth to upset existing arrangements. We must all respect proper feeling of that kind. One reason Sir Vincent had for keeping his personality a secret was the fact that he lacked the legal proof of his parent's marriage. By a fortunate chance I was able to supply the omission. Still, we need not go into that. The fact remains that Sir Vincent has now established his claim, as the family solicitors will admit without unnecessary delay. Unhappily, this new condition of affairs makes it very awkward for Sir George—I mean, Mr. George Dashwood. By this cruel stroke he finds himself practically a pauper. And on Miss Dashwood the blow falls with the same heavy weight. The heiress becomes dependent upon the charity of the head of the family."

As Ralph spoke his eyes were fixed on Mayfield's. He was searching keenly for any sign of anger or emotion. But Mayfield did not betray himself. There was a red spark in his eyes and the big veins stood on his forehead, but nothing further. And as Ralph proceeded a faint smile grew at the corners of the cruel mouth.

"This is exceedingly interesting," he said, "and to think that Sir Vincent should have kept this from so old a friend as myself."

There was mocking bitterness in the speech and Dashwood fairly writhed under it. He seemed to hang in a kind of agony on the next word. His sigh of relief as Mayfield turned from him was not lost on Mary. Mayfield turned abruptly to the girl.

"This will make a great difference to you," he said. "For my own part, I am disappointed at the strange turn of affairs. Still, I am philosophic enough to take my chances. In reality I came here to say good-bye to you. I will not see you for some time to come."

The whole thing was so cool, so icily audacious, that Mary had no words for reply. This man had accepted the change in the situation with instant readiness, there was not so much as a shade of regret in his voice. Mary had gone out of the sphere of his affection, and he was prepared to drop her like an old glove. The blood flamed into her face at this fresh humiliation; the pride of the family was serving her badly now. Her trembling hands went out to Ralph. He saw what was passing in her mind.

"Take me away from here," she whispered. "Take me out into the fresh air or I shall die. What have I done to deserve this degradation? And get my father to come, too. Has he lost all his manhood that he stays here?"

They went out into the sunshine and the air at length, and Dashwood was alone with Mayfield. The latter closed the door and lighted a cigarette. There was a grim ferocity in his eyes that caused Dashwood to turn sick.

"So you've done it, you rascal," Mayfield muttered. "I daresay you will tell me that your hand was more or less forced. Perhaps it was. And yet if I raise my little finger you will pass the next ten years of your life in gaol."

"Don't," Dashwood said with difficulty, "don't talk like that. The cards were all of them literally forced on me. Why should you mind?"

"Why should I mind? Why, man alive, you have 'queered my pitch' as some of your dissolute companions would say. I was going to marry Mary Dashwood, the great heiress, everything was ready to my hand. A little later and the thing would have been accomplished. Only one thing bothered me—I am at my wit's ends for some ready money, which I must have before long. And, as things stand at present, Mary Dashwood could not raise anything on her expectations. But I was going to play the bold game and risk everything, even my liberty, on this stake. I was never more surprised in my life than when that fellow Darnley explained the situation. I nearly gave you away."

"I saw that," Dashwood said hoarsely, "my heart was in my mouth. It was very good of you to remember an old pal who—"

"Old pal be hanged," Mayfield cried. "I'd have betrayed you fast enough had it been to my interest to do so. I saw my game like a flash. They are going to let you into the thing without a fight. But not for very long, my boy, so you had better make the most of your time. As Sir Vincent Dashwood you are all right, you can play ducks and drakes with the estate if you please; in fact, you are going to start with a mortgage of £50,000. That sum of money you will pay over to me."

"What for?" Dashwood asked uneasily. "Why should I do it?"

"Call it what you like. Call it blackmail. But I'm going to have it all the same."

CHAPTER XXXII—MUST THIS THING BE?

Mr. George Dashwood staggered into the hall at the dower house with an exaggeration of grief that filled Mary with contempt. The dethroned head of the house seemed to have no thought for anything but himself. His eyes were filled with tears, his voice was weak and tremulous with selfish emotion.

"This is dreadful," he moaned. "Really, I had expected something better at your hands, Darnley. Still, I suppose you are merely here to fulfill a promise to Ralph Dashwood. Most selfish of a man to keep in the background all these years and then spring a mine on one like this. And here am I, at my time of life, with nothing to fall back on, not even a pension, for I commuted mine when I left the Service. Still, that young fellow did not behave at all badly. Don't forget, my dear that he offered us the free use of the Hall for the present, at any rate. And he said that he was not a marrying man. Well, if you play your cards properly, Mary—"

Mary turned her face away and hid her hot cheeks in a great bowl of dewy roses standing on the hall table. It was no use, she could not keep the tears back any longer. This was the crowning humiliation of an unspeakable day. For her father to deal her this blow in the presence of the one man whose respect she valued so highly was the refinement of cruelty. She rushed from the hall with choking words to the effect that she must go and tell Lady Dashwood everything.

"What's the matter with the girl now?" Dashwood asked peevishly. "Not one word of sympathy has she uttered. Children have no feelings nowadays, Darnley. I suppose she was angry about the new head of the house. What better arrangement could be made? It would settle all the difficulties at once, especially now Mayfield is out of the way. I thought that our young friend put it very nicely."

"Did you?" Ralph responded coldly. "I may not be a judge of these matters, but I fail to see how you could accept that invitation. Of course, a few days' residence at Dashwood to get your personal belongings together would be another matter."

"But what am I to do?" Dashwood asked feebly. "I am an old man, I have been accustomed to the best of everything all my lifetime, and here I am cut off from all my pleasures and not a penny to call my own. I can't starve, my good fellow, and I couldn't stay here with Lady Dashwood; she gets on my nerves terribly. What am I to do? Really, I feel in absolute need of a cigar and glass of champagne. It is not my habit to drink at this time of the day, but my condition calls for it."

Dashwood crept away with many a sigh and groan, and Ralph was left to his own by no means pleasant thoughts. He had deliberately struck the blow, and now that it had fallen, he was inclined to be dismayed at the result. It was very hard upon this feeble old man, it was very hard upon Mary, but Ralph steeled himself for the fray. Things were going to be worse yet, the lily was going to pine upon the stem. Still, it would never do now to become infirm of purpose, let the consequences be ever so bad. Yet, if the worst came to the worst, it would be easy to sweep away the whole network of intrigue and fraud by the raising of a finger. It was necessary that Mary should learn her lesson to the last letter. That the girl would fight hard against her misfortunes Ralph did not need to be told. That she would refuse to eat the bread of charity at another person's expense he was perfectly sure. He was still debating the problem when Mary entered the hall again. Her face was very white; there were dark rings under her blue eyes, which were now swollen with tears. The girl flushed as she saw the sympathy in Ralph's face.

"Do not think me weak," she pleaded. "I am finding out that I am only human after all. I have always despised tears, but the pain at my heart was so great that tears brought the only cure for it. But I did not come here to talk about myself. I have been telling Lady Dashwood everything, and she has expressed a desire to see you. What have you done with my father?"

"He has gone to the dining-room. He declared that exhausted nature required a stimulant in the form of champagne. I am afraid that you will not find your father much use to you in the dark hours to come, Mary."

"I'm afraid not," Mary sighed, "but won't you go and see Lady Dashwood? She is upstairs in her sitting-room. Of course, she is upset; in fact, she has been saying all sorts of strange things which are beyond my comprehension. Why has she taken such a strange fancy to you, I wonder?"

But Ralph did not appear to be listening. There was every prospect of a painful interview before him. He passed up the stairs to the pleasant room looking over the gardens which Lady Dashwood had made her own. She signed for the door to be shut; as Ralph, came towards her, she advanced with both hands outstretched.

"You will guess why I sent for you," she said. "Mary has been telling me everything. So the man who calls himself Vincent Dashwood has made a bold move at last!"

"He really didn't," Ralph smiled. "But had we not better sit down? My dear grandmother, you are going to become a party to the conspiracy. Let us no longer keep up the pretence of not knowing the relationship in which we stand to each other."

Lady Dashwood extended a shaking hand, and Ralph touched it with his lips.

"Perhaps I had better make a full confession," he said. "I am your grandson. I knew that you would recognise me by the likeness to my father. Old Slight did so at once and very nearly betrayed me. I had forgotten Slight. I pledged him to secrecy, I had nobody to fear but you, and it seemed to me that it was quite easy to keep out of your way. But circumstances were too strong for me. Then I saw that you were going to respect my wishes and I was safe. Forty years have gone by since my father left the Hall, so that nobody was likely to guess my identity."

"Yes, but who is this Vincent Dashwood?" Lady Dashwood asked. "Oh, I am not quite so foolish over that man as you may think. He came here and declared himself to me. He had the most absolute documentary evidence. He had many of the letters which I had written to your father—letters to which I never received any reply. Old Slight was more mistrustful, and submitted the claimant to a rigid cross-examination. The man was not to be shaken in a single detail. We were bound to accept his statements. But one proof was lacking, the certificate of his parents' marriage. He desired to have his claim kept quiet till that proof was forthcoming. This was after Mary and her father came into possession. You can imagine my distress and grief, seeing that I loved Mary so, and I hated the intruder in proportion. He preyed upon my weakness, he seemed to read me like an open book. If you had not appeared, he would have gone on blackmailing me till the end. But when that man came face to face with you, I knew that he was an impostor, that he had never seen my son Ralph. And now he has decided to play the bold game, seeing that nothing more is to be expected from me."

"Not quite that," Ralph explained. "Fate played into my hands. The man was more or less forced to disclose his identity. Let me tell you all about the match-box...Now you see exactly how it is."

"But this is monstrous," Lady Dashwood cried, "you have only to speak and the wicked scheme collapses. You will not let this go on, Ralph?"

"For the present, grandmother. For the present we are going to say nothing. A little time before my father died he told me who I was. We had lost our money, but that did not matter as my father was provided for here. When I came to find out how the land lay, to my surprise I discovered that the only woman I could ever care for was installed at the Hall as mistress. I had no idea that this was going to happen when I met Mary two years ago in Paris. Her father had not assumed the family name then. And when I came face to face with Mary and held her in my arms, I knew that the old love was stronger than ever. And here was a solution. Those people were occupying my place, the place that belonged by birth to me, Sir Ralph Dashwood. If I had proclaimed and asked Mary to marry me, she would have consented. She would have regarded it as her duty to do so. But that is not the marriage of my dreams. Perhaps I am romantic: I want Mary to marry me, me, plain Ralph Darnley, for love of me, and deem the family pride well lost for a good man's affection. It is the living, breathing woman I want, not the lovely mistress of that family who puts the pride of the Dashwoods in front of everything else. Suffering and trouble and poverty shall be her portion. She shall go out into the world and see what noble souls are there who rise superior to fierce temptation though they have no family pride to boast of. Then, when the scales have fallen from Mary's eyes, and she sees as I do, then will I ask her to share my life with me. My dream is to come back here with a bride who deems love and pity and sympathy to be far above the steady sentiment that says, 'I am a Dashwood, and the rest are as dirt under my feet.' You see what I mean, don't you? And that is why I am asking you to help me in the matter. Let this little impostor strut his passing hours on the stage; let him be our puppet. I shall know how to punish him when the time comes."

CHAPTER XXXIII—A REBEL AGAINST FATE

Lady Dashwood smiled through her tears. She had eyes of affection for this tall, handsome, earnest man who paced up and down the room now with the burning words on his lips. He was moved to the very heart; it seemed to him that his scheme was the only way. Lady Dashwood felt that she could hesitate no longer.

"You are very eloquent, Ralph," she said, "and whatever the faults of your scheme may be, you are terribly in earnest. It is not for me to stand in the way. God knows the family pride that I did so much to foster has done harm enough. It drove your father away from home, it came between me and my son and my husband, and rendered all the best years of my life a blank and a desolation. Some day, when I have the courage, I will tell you why your father left home, and the shameful deceit that I put upon him. And all to save the family dignity! And now Mary is as hard as I ever was. Still, the good that lies in that girl of mine—"

"I know it," Ralph cried. "Mary's is, in reality, a beautiful nature. But the fires will go out one by one if the cinders are not cleared away, so that by the time Mary comes to middle age she will be a cold and distant woman with none to love her. This is why I have practically turned her out of house and home. Her proper pride will not permit her to be dependent upon anyone; you may offer her a home here, but she will never accept it. She will elect to go out into the world and get her own living."

"Which she is not the least fitted to do, Ralph."

"Of course she isn't," Ralph exclaimed. "With all her courage and pride and beauty, she has no equipment to battle with the world. And yet it is the best thing that could happen to her. She will realise her own helplessness, she will come to acknowledge that the typewriting girls and the shop assistants have qualities and virtues that she does not possess. Oh, those lovely blue eyes will come to see at last, the mind come to learn that there is dignity in labour and cheerfulness in the struggle that put family pride to shame. And then Mary will be the bride for me, the noblest and sweetest mistress that ever yet ruled at Dashwood. You may laugh at me, grandmother, but that is my dream. Wherever Mary is, I shall not be far off, she will have a friend in me."

Lady Dashwood's tears were falling fast now. For the first time she fully understood the breadth and beauty of Ralph's scheme. It seemed hard that the misfortune should fall upon Mary, and yet it was all for the best. Still, tradition and training are not to be put lightly aside, and the idea of Mary taking her place with the working women of the county was a vision that caused Lady Dashwood a pang.

"Let us hope that everything will turn out right," she murmured. "I will not betray your secret, Ralph; I am an old woman, and you are a strong, masterful man. Still, I shall be bound to offer Mary a home here, and I am afraid that I shall be glad if she accepts it."

"She won't," Ralph said confidently, "she is too proud. Besides, after what has happened, she could not stay so near to Dashwood Hall. Remember, she has reigned there, she has looked for homage as naturally as a queen. She will go away; probably she will try to obtain some occupation in London. Anyway, I will see that she does not starve. And when the lesson is learned and the clouds have cleared away—"

Ralph paused, there was a strange, tender thrill in his voice. Lady Dashwood seemed to catch some of his enthusiasm, for a smile lighted her face.

"You are a clever lad, my dear," she said, "you are one of those who compel Fate to work for them. Well, it shall be as you desire, so far as I am concerned. And now let us go down and see what the others are doing."

Mary was nowhere to be seen, but Mr. Dashwood was in the library. He seemed more calm and resigned now; he was reading a letter which appeared to give him some satisfaction.

"From—from Sir Vincent," he said, getting the name out with some difficulty. "I suppose we must call the young fellow by his proper title now. Still, he will of course, have to satisfy the family solicitors first."

"I have one or two further proofs that will induce the family solicitors to maintain a policy of silence," Ralph said. "The best thing to do is quietly to accept the new situation. People will talk for a day or two, and then the incident will be forgotten."

"I suppose so," Dashwood muttered. "Anyway, this is from—er—Sir Vincent. I am bound to confess that it is not at all a bad letter. Between ourselves, the fellow is by no means a gentleman. Still, that's not quite his own fault, probably his mother was quite a common sort of person. I beg your pardon, Lady Dashwood."

"We need not go into that," Ralph said hastily. "Sir Vincent has written to you—"

"Really quite a nice letter. He has a suggestion to make. It appears that he is by no means disposed to stay quietly here and live the life of a country landlord. He does not care for sport to begin with, in fact, he dislikes a rural life. And he seems to think that marriage is—is not good enough. He therefore proposes that Mary and myself should look upon Dashwood as our present home, that Mary should take her place as mistress there. Really, this gets us out of a great difficulty. I have no money beyond a pittance of a hundred or so a year, and Mary has nothing whatever. As a sensible girl, she will accept this offer."

Ralph said nothing. It was not for him to persuade George Dashwood one way or another. He rather despised the weak creature who had posed as the head of the family. But Ralph could give a shrewd guess at Mary's answer.

Mary came back presently a little before tea-time. She had been over at the Hall, she said, looking after certain belongings of her own. The trace of tears was still on her face, but her small mouth had a steely purpose. She lay back in her chair in the great hall, sipping her tea, and looking out into the garden beyond. Ever and again there came a yearning look in her eyes. She said nothing, and vouchsafed no information, when a footman brought her a telegram presently. With a guilty air her father placed Vincent Dashwood's letter in her hand.

"I want you to read that, my dear," he said blandly. "To my mind, it is an admirable letter and the sentiments in it are beyond question; in fact, I may admit that I was quite touched by it. The fellow is evidently a gentleman at heart. I want you to read the letter carefully and send a reply on behalf of both of us."

Dashwood spoke glibly enough, but he was obviously ill at ease. He seemed to have lost all his dignity, his haggard face looked almost mean as he glanced furtively at Mary as she read the letter through, very slowly. Her face grew hard and bitter, though something like a contemptuous smile flickered over her lips.

"This is generosity indeed," she said. "So the beggars are to be offered a home, with board and lodging and perhaps wages. I am to be mistress of the house where for two years I have had my own way, in a house where you have been master. We are to humble our pride and take the place of the housekeeper and steward, to be polite to a man whom, from the bottom of my heart, I loathe and despise. Oh, the situation would be farcical but for the note of bitter tragedy in it. So you want me to answer this letter. So far as I am concerned I answer thus."

With fierce energy Mary tore the letter across and then across again, and flung the fragments amongst the flowers on the great hearthstone.

"My dear," Dashwood protested, "really, Mary. Have you considered what you are going to do, that you are practically penniless?"

"There is always a home for Mary and her father here," Lady Dashwood murmured.

"That—that is very good of you," Dashwood stammered, "but I could not think of putting you to so much inconvenience. Mary may do what she pleases, but for my part I am going to accept the offer so kindly made by the new—er—head of the family. I presume that Mary means to stay here for the present, at any rate, and—"

"No," Mary cried. She had risen to her feet, and was glaring from one to the other of the little group with eyes filled with resolution. She was very pale, her lips were trembling, but she contrived to keep her voice steady. "No, I will not remain here, I will not stay anywhere to eat the bread of charity. Dear Lady Dashwood, you will forgive me if I seem to be harsh or ungrateful after all your loving kindness to me. But I have been troubled and humiliated enough, and I could not stand any more of it. My father can do as he chooses: if he likes to humble himself in this way it is no business of mine. But I am going away to London; everything has been arranged. The telegram I had just now confirms it. And I have got my belongings together. My plans are made, and it only remains for me to say good-bye."

Lady Dashwood rose hastily to her feet. She felt vaguely alarmed and agitated, now that matters had come to this pass. She gripped Mary by the hand.

"Going," she faltered, "going, and when and where? Oh, do nothing hastily."

"There has been nothing hasty about it," Mary said as she kissed the speaker. "Believe me, I am not doing anything that is rash. And as to the rest, I am going very soon indeed. In fact I expect to sleep in London to-night."

CHAPTER XXXIV—MISTRESS OF HERSELF

It was all working out now exactly as Ralph had hoped and wished for. Never had he admired Mary quite so much as he did at that moment. And yet his heart smote him as he realised that after all there was something akin to harshness in his action. Still, the case would have been very much the same had he declared his identity and proclaimed the fact that he was the proper owner of Dashwood Hall.

Mary would in that case have remained in much the same position, though the situation would have perhaps lacked its present dramatic features. Mary stood there with a proud look on her face; she was ready to meet the world and conquer it single-handed. How many bright strong young lives had set forth with the same cheerfulness and failed! Still, it was a step in the right direction, Ralph thought.

"Had you not better give the thing further consideration?" he said. "In the ways of the world you are little better than a child. Of your courage and resolution there is no doubt. But there are other qualities needed to make a living to-day. You must have a good knowledge of some business or profession."

"I can paint," Mary said. "Many people have told me that I should have made an artist if I had had to earn my own living."

Ralph nodded grimly. He had seen several of the girl's drawings. There was no necessity to point out the vast difference between the best efforts of the amateur and the finished work of the professional, tricks of the trade learned frequently after years of bitter struggling.

It seemed a pity to discourage Mary at the outset of her career. And Ralph was not anxious for the girl's success. He turned the situation over rapidly in his mind.

"You can try," he said. "There is a friend of mine, the daughter of a once famous general officer who gets her living by working for the cheap illustrated papers. She has no great talent, but she manages to get a living. If you like, I will write to her and ask her to—"

"It will be too late," Mary cried, "I am going tonight. I could not stay here a day longer after what has happened. The mere sight of the old house brings the tears to my eyes and makes me feel weak and irresolute. I have something like thirty pounds in money and a little jewellery. And my maid has given me the address of a respectable woman who lets lodgings.

"Oh, I shall be happy enough when I am away from here and have plenty of hard work to do. Only the other day I was reading a story about a girl, like myself, who went to London and began to work for the magazines. It made a different creature of her; for the first time in her life she was really happy."

"She made a large income from the start," Ralph smiled, "and presently she had a great hit with an Academy picture. Subsequently she married the editor—proprietor of a popular paper—and he bought the old home for her?"

"You have read the story?" Mary asked.

"Indeed I haven't," Ralph replied. "There are so many stories like that that I had no difficulty in imagining the plot. Oh, if you only knew how different the real is from the ideal! Still, I would not dissuade you from your ambition for a moment. It will do you all the good in the world. But you shall not go alone."

Mary glanced haughtily at the speaker. There was an air of command, a suggestion of possession, about the speech that the girl resented. Who was Ralph Darnley that he should adopt this tone towards her? And at the same time Mary knew that he was the one friend she had, if she did not count Lady Dashwood.

It was a melancholy confession, but Mary had made no friends. For the most part members of her own sex did not like her, she was too cold and self-contained for them. She did not enter into their sentiments and pleasures. It had not been the girl's own fault so much as the fault of her environment.

And now she was going out into the world alone with a few pounds in her possession, and with not a soul to give her a helping hand. There was something very pathetic about it, Ralph thought. She knew so very little as to what lay before her.

"I wish you would wait till to-morrow," he murmured.

"No," Mary said with a proud toss of her head. "It is not the slightest use trying to break my resolution. I tell you I could not remain here, I could not stay even with Lady Dashwood, knowing that my father was sponging on the good nature of the man at the Hall. It seems a dreadful thing to me—"

"That is a most improper observation to make," Dashwood said peevishly. "A most impertinent remark to address to a father."

"I am very sorry," Mary said penitently, "it seemed the only word to use. And it does hurt me so dreadfully to see how coolly you have cast your pride aside. If you will come with me, father, I will work for both. We should at any rate have the consolation of knowing that we have done nothing to sully the name of Dashwood."

The girl spoke pleadingly, with a yearning tenderness in her voice that Ralph had never heard before. He was rejoiced to see the lesson of adversity working so soon. For his own part, he could not have resisted that seductive invitation.

"Certainly not," Dashwood replied. "Nothing of the kind. I have no desire to make the acquaintance of what people call apartments. I went to see a poor friend of mine in apartments once. I saw his dinner. Good heavens! what a repulsive mess it was. Served up by a red-headed maid-of-all-work, with a black smudge on her face. No, no, I prefer the graceful hospitality of my friend—er—Sir Vincent Dashwood."

Mary turned in the direction of the door as if the discussion were closed.

"I am disappointed," she said. "But there is nothing to be gained by standing here talking over my determination. I am going as far as the Hall to say good-bye to some of the old servants, and hope to catch the 7.05 train to London. As I said before, I know where to go when I reach my journey's end."

Mary passed out into the peaceful sunshine of the garden. Lady Dashwood looked imploringly at Ralph, who smiled in reply. From the bottom of his heart, he was feeling for the girl, but he did not falter in his purpose. It was very brave of Mary, but at the same time very pathetic. Ralph stole after the lonely figure; he found her standing by the old sundial in the garden. Her fingers were tracing idly over the quaint inscription on the stone. Ralph could see that her eyes were filled with tears.

"Is there anything I can do to help you?" he asked.

"I'm afraid not," Mary whispered. "And you are the only friend I have, besides Lady Dashwood. I have not the art of making friends: I never had sympathy with the pastimes and pleasures of the ordinary girl of my class; I did not feel lonely here, because it was so lovely a place. Dashwood Hall was always sufficient for me. And now when I come to leave it, it breaks my heart to go. You will laugh at me perhaps, but I have a strange feeling as if I had the whole world to myself and that there was nobody else in it. It is as if everybody had turned away from me. There was even something that hurt me to-day in the way that Mr. Mayfield let me know that I was free as far as he was concerned. I dread the thought of living by myself in London, the idea makes me tremble. I, who have been so cold and proud, will have to approach people and ask favours at their hands. I hope you understand me; it is dreadful when nobody understands me."

Ralph made no reply for a moment, he was afraid to trust his own voice.

"You are a very woman," he said at length. "With your pride and your coldness there are the same impulses and passions common to yourself and the meanest of us. As to this pride of yours, I regard it as a hateful thing. What is a Dashwood living on a fortune that none of you have ever earned, compared with the man or woman who has risen superior to circumstances and made an honoured name in the world? The girl who goes out and gets her own living, or to support a widowed mother, is far superior to you. But I say these things loving you with my whole heart and soul and being, and hope that some day I shall call you my wife. I want to see all that harshness and coldness of yours cast to the wind, I want to see your face sweet in sympathy with poor humanity. But you are not going the lonely way as you seem to imagine. I am going to look after you; I will not be far away. For the present my work is finished here, and there are powerful calls that take me to London also in a day or two. You will let me see you, Mary; you will let me bring you and my young artist friend together?"

"I shall be glad indeed to see you," Mary cried, holding out her hand with an impulse that she would have found it hard to account for. "Oh, I am not so strong and self-reliant that I need nobody to confide in. The more my mind dwells on the future, the more I seem to dread it. And you have been so good and kind to me, I owe so much to you. I begin to see that there are gentlemen in the world, though they boast of no pedigree, and—"

"Well, that is a good lesson learned," Ralph smiled. "Let me walk with you as far as the Hall, for I have a telegram to send from the village. And then, if you will allow me, I will return to the dower house with you. There are one or two things that I have to say before you go."

Mary smiled through her tears; for a second her soul seemed to show in her eyes.

CHAPTER XXXV—A FRIEND IN NEED

It was a long telegram that Ralph despatched from the village, for he only received a few pence out of the half-sovereign that he placed on the counter. The operator sighed at the prodigious task before him. Then Ralph went off in the direction of the Hall to wait for Mary in the park. It was some time before she came; the children of the villagers passed on their way from school, and presently Slight came along, with something like a frown on his rosy, wrinkled little face. He eyed Ralph with marked disfavour.

"What's this about Miss Mary, Sir Ralph?" he asked. "Perhaps I shouldn't have called you by that name. But Miss Mary has been up to the Hall to say good-bye. She says she is going to London for good, and that she is not coming back again. Going to try to get her own living, or some such foolishness."

"Your manner is not respectful, Slight," Ralph said coldly.

"I can't help it, sir," Slight replied. "Really, I can't. I love Miss Mary as if she had been a child of my own. I taught her to ride, I taught her—but there! If you only knew what a heart of gold she has! And now to go and soil those pretty hands with work. And you could prevent it by holding up your little finger. Thank God, there is no occasion for me to stay at the Hall, for I've saved enough for my old age, though I don't deny that it will be a wrench. And to-morrow the whole lot of us are going to hand in our resignation in a body."

"Indeed, you are not going to do anything of the sort," Ralph said sternly. "Don't let me hear any more of this folly. If you do go, you will not come back again when this present head of the family has gone his way, which will be only a matter of a few months at the outside. I look to you to stop the silly action, Slight. I have given you my word before that this thing is not likely to be permanent. And when you come to know everything, you will see how wisely I have acted in the matter."

Slight's indignation cooled as quickly as it had heated. He scratched his white head in some perplexity. And the look he turned upon Ralph was one of fatherly affection.

"How like your father you do speak, sir," he said. "I suppose you must have your own way as he used to. And if I hadn't been a wicked old rascal these things would never have happened at all. My sin has found me out sorely."

"I am getting tired of this," Ralph said impatiently. "What sin are you alluding to? And Lady Dashwood is always harping on the same string. What wickedness were you two up to in the old days? What does it mean?"

"So her ladyship has not told you, sir?" Slight asked in a whisper. "She never told you about the old Squire and your father's first wife Maria Edgerton? She was the daughter of a farmer across the valley. The most beautiful creature that I ever set eyes on. Well, well, to think that you didn't know."

"I don't know," Ralph said. "My father never spoke of his first wife. And yet I always felt that his love for her was the passion of his life. He was a good husband to my mother, but still—and now you are going to tell me that story, Slight."

"Begging your pardon, sir, I'm not going to do anything of the kind," Slight said shortly. "I couldn't dream of doing anything of the kind without her ladyship's permission. You ask her, and she will tell you everything; indeed you have the right to know. And don't you worry about the servants at the Hall, because they will do exactly as I tell them. Make it as soon as you can, sir, for the old place doesn't seem the same without the lovely face and the blue eyes of Miss Mary looking after us. I'm an old man, and for over fifty years I've served the Dashwoods faithfully, and it does seem rather hard to think that I shall have to go on fawning and cringing to an impostor like the man who calls himself Sir Vincent Dashwood. There won't be much of the fine old cellar left if he stays here any time, I can tell you."

"Patience, Slight," Ralph replied. "It is only a matter of months. Here is Miss Mary coming down the avenue. I shall look after her, I would not have one hair of her head injured. And some day perhaps, Slight, if the fates are good to me, you will be serving me as you served my grandfather, with Miss Mary as mistress of Dashwood by my side. That is my desire, Slight, that is the one great ambition of my life. And you can keep that secret with the rest."

Ralph turned away and joined Mary as she came down the avenue. She tried to smile, but her lips were white and unsteady.

"That is finished," she said, with a brave attempt at cheerfulness. "It is awful to think that I shall never see the dear old place again. But I am not going to give way, I am going to show the world how a Dashwood can behave when trouble comes."

The girl drew up her head with an air of pride, she never seemed quite to forget what the family required of her. It was in moments like these that Ralph loved her least. It was this very foolish self-consciousness that he desired to conquer.

"It does not require a Dashwood to do that," he said. "Thousands of people make these noble sacrifices every day, and take no credit to themselves for it. When you get out into the world you will see another kind of pride and courage and devotion that will put your fetish to shame. If I were to say that this is the best thing that could happen to you, you would laugh the idea to scorn. Nevertheless, it is absolutely true. What money have you?"

"Perhaps thirty pounds," Mary explained; "and certain articles of jewelery. But I am not going to part with them like the girl in the story did."

Ralph felt by no means so sure of that, but he said nothing. He was very silent till the dower house was reached, silent and a little guilty too, for he it was who had brought this about. He was sending Mary into the world to battle for her life alone. On the whole, he was not sorry that the girl had refused Lady Dashwood's offer of a home; that was a specimen of the right kind of pride at any rate. And yet, now that the hour of Mary's departure drew near, he dreaded the parting. After all, the experiment was a cruel one, it was not yet too late to save the situation.

Lady Dashwood was crying now; the dogcart stood by the great stone porch; Dashwood fidgeted about in a half-shamed kind of way, yet frowning disapproval of the whole business.

"Really, we are making a deal of fuss about nothing," he said. "Anybody would think that Mary was being led away to instant execution, instead of behaving in a way that makes me thoroughly ashamed of her. It is my clear duty to exercise my parental authority. As it is I am not going to do anything of the kind. Mary shall have her lesson. She will very soon get tired of playing the part of the unattached female. She will be back in a week."

And this was Mary's farewell greeting as she drove away from the dower house. She kept her face steady, and looked neither right nor left, not that she could see anything, for her eyes were blinded with tears. Behind the tears, one vision stood out bright and clear—the strong, reliant face of Ralph Darnley, the warm pressure of whose grip still tingled on Mary's fingers. It was good to know that she had one true friend.

The station was reached at last, and Mary was alone. She dismissed the dogcart; she did not want the groom to see that she was going to travel third class. It was rather a snobbish idea, and Mary despised herself for it accordingly. The porter and the ticket officer looked astonished as Mary asked the third-class fare to Victoria. How little things seemed to remind her of what had been!

"I am going third," she said firmly. "Will you please to see that my two baskets are placed in the luggage van, Gibbons?"

Gibbons touched his cap respectfully. It was the last outward recognition of her social station that Mary was destined to receive for some time to come. She had a vague idea of a carriage to herself, where she could have an hour or so to regain her composure. She had never had any difficulty in this way when travelling before. But first-class passengers, liberal towards the guard, and third-class trippers, are different things, as Mary speedily discovered. The train was very full, so full that Mary was content at last to find herself packed with nine other people in a stuffy compartment, including a crying child a surly workman, who smoked a foul pipe and spat liberally on the floor. One window was closed for the benefit of the fretting infant and the poisonous atmosphere of the place caused Mary to turn faint and giddy. Long before she reached Victoria her head was aching, her temples throbbing horribly.

Noblesse oblige! It was by no means a promising start, but Mary was not going to take her hand from the plough yet. And that dreadful journey could not last for ever. Victoria was reached at length, and it was possible to breathe a little comparatively fresh air again. Mary saw her two dress baskets placed on the platform and looked at them in a helpless kind of manner. Hitherto a maid or a footman had done all this kind of thing for her. An impatient porter wanted to know whether the boxes were to go on a cab or whether they were to be left in the cloak room.

"Make up your mind, miss," he said rudely. "I can't stand here all day."

"A four-wheeler," Mary gasped. "I—I'm sorry, but my head aches so dreadfully that I can't even think properly. Will you call a cab for me?"

CHAPTER XXXVI—CONNIE COLAM

The porter summoned a cab gruffly and the baskets were placed on top. Mary's proffered coppers purchased a certain amount of civility so that the porter asked the address. Mary gasped and stared in a blank kind of way. She had absolutely forgotten the address. She recollected now that she had left the card on the hall table at the dower house. How she longed from the bottom of her heart to be back there again in that cool shadow. But the grimy face of the cabman recalled her to her senses.

"I have stupidly left the address behind me," she said. "I remember the street, and I daresay you can inquire when you get there. I am very sorry—"

"Miss Dashwood, I think," a cool, firm voice, with a subtle suggestion of laughter in it, smote on Mary's ears. "So you have forgotten the address. Not that it matters in the least, for you are coming with me. You haven't taken your room?"

"No," Mary stammered. She was utterly taken off her dignity by the easy manner of the stranger. "I had the address given me, the address of a respectable woman near the British Museum who had apartments to let. Unfortunately, I left the paper behind me. But you will excuse me if I say that I have not the pleasure—"

"Oh, that is all right," the stranger said. "I'm a friend of Ralph Darnley's. He sent me a very long telegram to-day to a certain extent explaining the position of affairs, and asking me to meet you and place my services at your disposal. Perhaps you have heard Ralph speak of me, Connie Colam."

"Only to-day," Mary said; "and then he did not allude to you by name. Still, it is very kind of you to take all this trouble, especially for a stranger like myself. How did you recognise me?"

"There were what the Americans call 'pointers' in the telegram," Miss Colam laughed. "But please get in or we shall have the cabman abusive, and that is a consummation decidedly not to be wished. Please drive to 16, Keppel Terrace."

The ricketty vehicle got under way at length to Mary's great relief. She laid her aching head back against the dirty cushions, wondering if in the whole weary world there was another girl as miserable and heartsick as she was. She raised her hot lids presently to the face of her companion. The critical edge was already dulled, but in no circumstances could Mary have disapproved of her companion. A very dainty and refined face was Connie Colam's, with a pleasant frank expression and a sensitive mouth. At the same time she did not lack in certain suggestions of courage and resolution.

"I hope you approve of me," she said demurely.

"I like your face, if that is what you mean," Mary replied. "I shall be able to thank you presently for all your spontaneous kindness. Meanwhile, I have the most dreadful headache. After we have found my rooms—"

"Oh, your rooms are found already. For the present you are going to stay with me. We are going to join forces. My late chum has gone to Paris for a year, and you are going to occupy her bedroom. That is all arranged."

Mary murmured something that was intended for gratitude. She had always professed a profound contempt for the helpless type of girl who lets things drift, but she was letting herself drift now with her eyes wide open. And though she was not prepared to admit it, she was almost hysterically glad of the companionship and sympathy of the stranger. As she stood on the platform a little time before, the horrible sense of desolation had gripped her, the awful feeling of loneliness that comes to the friendless in London.

Yes, she was passionately glad of this companion. She did not even desire to know whether Connie came of a good family or not, her one idea now was to lie down and get rid of a wretched wearing headache. Where was her pride of race and station now? Where were the force and courage that rose above circumstances and fought physical weakness under? Mary was content to leave everything to her companion—the paying of the cabman, the arranging of her boxes, the setting out of her various treasures.

"Now you are going to lie down at once," Connie said. "I'll bathe your head with Eau de Cologne, and as soon as I have settled you comfortably, I'll make you a cup of tea. It is one of my great accomplishments. I make my own tea from my own private supply. You lie there and think of nothing."

Mary closed her aching eyes; the touch of those deft kindly hands was very soothing. The air was full of the faint scent, and gradually Mary dropped into a sleep. It was an hour later before she opened her eyes again; the stinging pain had gone. Connie stood by the side of the bed with a cup of tea in her hand.

"You are better," she cried. "I can see that in your eyes. And what beautiful blue eyes they are. A little cold, perhaps, but they won't be so cold when they have looked at the world through our spectacles. Now drink your tea, and when you feel up to it you can come and look at the sitting-room."

Mary was almost herself again when she entered the sitting-room. It was a fairly large room, with a dining-table in the centre and a large table, littered with brushes and paints and panels, which stood in the window looking on to the street. A score of sketches in black and white faced Mary. So far as she could see, it was clever work, but not the kind that appealed to her. The sketches partook of the light and frivolous kind, some of them had more or less feeble jokes attached.

"Are these yours?" Mary asked. "Are they studies of some kind?"

"Not at all," Connie said cheerfully. "They are translations from the Yankees. The originals are very clear, but a little too trans-Atlantic for our stolid English taste. So I more or less copy them and my editor adapts the jokes. I do six of them every week for The Wheezer, which is a very useful commission for me."

"But that sounds like piracy almost," Mary exclaimed.

"Perhaps it is," Connie said in the same cheerful way. "It is pretty easy work, and I get six shillings a drawing. That is an average of thirty-six shillings a week. I know artists who have exhibited in the Academy who are glad to accept such a commission. It is better than working for the Razzle Dazzle anyway."

Mary shuddered. In a way the Razzle Dazzle was familiar to her. She had once caught one of the stable boys deep in that appalling mass of bad printing and worse literature.

"So you have actually worked for that paper?" she managed to say.

"Oh, yes. Two shillings a drawing, and pay once a month. Do you know that the Razzle Dazzle is a property worth £10,000 a year? Their serials are imported from America, and dressed up by hacks, who get two shillings a column for their work. The Wheezer is far better than that. Besides, it is practice. Some day I hope to drop this kind of thing and get regular commissions for the better-class weekly papers. The illustrating of stories in the sixpenny magazines is the goal of my ambition."

All this was so frank and open that Mary could not resent the tone of the speaker. And yet she paled at the degradation of the class of labour.

"It must be very trying work for a lady," she said. "I mean for a lady born."

"Perhaps it is," Connie said thoughtfully. "But it is not so trying as your landlady in the room demanding her back rent, coupled with a threat that if it is not paid to-morrow she will put your boxes into the street. And that has happened to me more than once, though my father was a general officer and my mother the daughter of an archdeacon. I was quite alone in the world then; I will never forget it. Try to fancy what it means for a young friendless girl to be turned into the streets of London! I dream of it at night sometimes...That afternoon I walked into the office of the Razzle and told one of the assistant editors how I stood. It was like dragging the words from me. And he gave me some work to do, and I sat up all night over it. Soon after that I was carrying just one solitary sovereign. But what a lot that little coin meant to me! And that is why I have a tender spot in my heart for that unspeakable old Razzle. But I don't know why I am worrying you with all these sordid details."

"Go on," Mary said in a hushed, awed voice. "You are opening up a new world to me. You are making me feel ashamed of what I had hitherto regarded as an exemplary life."

"We'll go into that presently," Connie said. "I've got to go and see a friend of mine who is ill. We take her work and try to sell it. If it sells, well and good. If not, we say that it has gone, and make up the money amongst us. It sounds wrong, but it is meant in the proper spirit. I shan't be long. Ring the bell and ask the landlady to clear away."

Connie vanished from the room, apparently taking all the sunshine with her, and Mary proceeded to ring the bell. She wondered vaguely how many years it was since she had entered that house. She did not hear the landlady address her at first.

"Oh, I beg your pardon," she said. "Yes, I am going to stay here for the present with Miss Colam. You are Mrs. Speed...Where have I seen you before? Your face is so very familiar to me. It brings back recollections of my early childhood. You make me feel as if all this has happened before."

"I know the feeling, miss," the landlady said. "But I don't suppose you have ever seen me. My very early days were spent on the estate of Sir Ralph Dashwood, of Dashwood Hall. Maybe you have heard of it, miss?"

CHAPTER XXXVII—THE UNEXPECTED HAPPENS

Just for a moment Mary felt inclined to disclose her identity. It warmed her heart and brought tears to her eyes to hear this kind of voice from the past. The wound of separation was too recent for Mary not to feel it keenly. The woman's face was so familiar, too; it reminded the girl oddly of somebody else, somebody that she did not like, but to whom for the moment she could not give a name.

Then Mary's pride came back to her and the natural impulse to confide in the woman was crushed down.

"I suppose I made a mistake," she said. "After all, it is not an uncommon thing to find chance likenesses to your friends in other people. You must find London a great change after being brought up in the country."

The woman sighed deeply and a look of pain came into her eyes. It was evident that she had felt the change far more cruelly than Mary had imagined. The girl longed to ask further questions, but she restrained her curiosity. Nor could Connie Colam throw any light on the subject after she returned. She knew very little about Mrs. Speed, except that she was a widow with a grown-up son, who had been a great trouble to her. The son appeared occasionally, and Mrs. Speed always seemed to be in deep distress afterwards. Mary was still debating the matter in her mind at bedtime. After breakfast the following morning there were more important matters to occupy her attention.

"Now you are going to show me what you can do," Connie said cheerfully. "I take it that you have come up here with a view to getting your own living. If you have any money—"

"You may get that idea out of your mind altogether," Mary smiled. "I have a very few pounds to keep me going for the present, and a little jewellery to fall back upon. I have not been used to this kind of life, and I shall probably find it trying at first. But I am going to succeed. We have lost our position socially and financially, and I would not be beholden to those who have taken our place. I need not say more than that."

"That is just as you please," Connie said somewhat coldly. "I see you are terribly proud and reserved, but you will grow out of that. And I like your face. But please don't make up your mind that it is a very easy thing for a girl to get her living in London. When you come to know the inside of a pawnshop, and share the last sixpence with a friend, you will be all the sweeter and better for it. Now show me your work."

Not without some pardonable pride, Mary displayed her drawings. There were pretty landscapes in water colours, studies of groups of flowers in oils, and the like, all the conventional kind of stuff that girls produce at finishing schools under the eye of some discreet and clever master. But they did not seem to impress Connie, who handled them with some contempt. Mary's sensitive face flushed.

"You do not seem to care for them," she said with a challenge in her voice.

"Oh, it isn't that," Connie replied. "It's the uselessness of the things. I daresay that a good many of your friends have seriously advised you take up art as a career."

"Two or three people," Mary protested, "who are in a position to judge."

"Oh, I know all about that," Connie said without ceremony. "It was just the same with me in the happy days. My dear Mary, that pretty, pretty stuff of yours is all very well to bring you in flattery from bazaar managers, but the milk-stool school of art is no good when you get into the market. Painters, real painters, mind, not daubers like us, find colour work dreadfully hard to sell. There isn't a dealer who would give you five shillings for what you have there. Could you do work like mine, for instance?"

"I'm afraid that I should not care to attempt it," Mary said coldly.

"There you go! Too vulgar for you, of course! You would never get the price of your lodgings out of your class of work, believe me. I know, because I tried it myself. But you will need to have your lesson like the rest of us, and I will give you the names of a few of the most likely dealers in London. You start off directly after breakfast and go the round of them. I shan't be back to luncheon because I've got an hour or two on one of the evening papers getting out sketches of a fashion plate for a lady's page."

Mary grasped eagerly at the suggestion. She wanted to prove that Connie was wrong. With her head high and heart full of hope, she set off presently.

On the whole, it was a morning to be remembered. It was hot and stuffy, and Mary was not accustomed to the blistering, trying heat of London pavements. She was tired and worn out and her head ached terribly by the time she got back. Nor was there any difference in the weight and contents of her portfolio.

Alas, for the blood of the Dashwoods! It was all the same to those flinty-hearted dealers. Mary might have been the meanest beggar in London for all the reception she met with. Struck by her distinguished appearance and haughty beauty, a cringing shop assistant or proprietor would probably ask her business, but what a change when the portfolio was produced! It was the same in one shop after another, contemptuous inspection, rude denial, a suggestion that the shopkeeper had more rubbish already than he knew what to do with. The tears were at the back of Mary's eyes now; unconsciously her voice grew soft and pleading. One dealer, a little kinder than the rest, did suffer the drawings to be laid out before him.

"No use, my dear," he said with a sympathetic familiarity that, strange to say, Mary could not bring herself to resent. "Bless your soul, cheap lithographs and German reproductions have driven them out of the market. If you offered me the lot at half-a-crown each I couldn't take them. It'll save you a lot of trouble and disappointment if you put the whole batch on the fire. Why should I buy that group of flowers for five shillings when I can sell you a photogravure of Watts's for half the money? Your work has been out of date since the mid-Victorian period."

It was the same everywhere, not so kindly expressed. At one o'clock Mary returned to her lodgings utterly tired out and ready to cry in the bitterness of her disappointment. How hard people were to one another, she thought. It never occurred to her that this hardness had been her own great besetting sin in the past. She was even inclined to quarrel with Connie because the latter's prophecy had come so cruelly true.

But Connie was not in yet, and therefore Mary had to fight out her trouble alone. Still, she had learned already a deeper and more important lesson than she was aware of. She began to see that there was a world beyond the narrow limit of the Dashwood horizon. There were other men and women living in the world quite as worthy of respect. Mary took her sketches and dropped them one by one slowly into the empty grate. Then she put a match to them and watched them burn away to ashes. It was a full and complete confession of failure, and Mary felt all the better for it. She rang the bell for a glass of milk to drink with her frugal meal that was already set out on the table.

Nobody came in reply to her ring. Mary was not aware that it was an understood thing in a general way that nobody rang the bell except at stated times such as just after breakfast and the like. In houses of that class the lodgers were expected to be away all day more or less. Otherwise, they were really obliged to look after themselves. After the third ring Mary went downstairs to investigate.

So far as she could judge the house was deserted. The dingy first floor smelt horribly of cheap, stale, cigar smoke. The sordidness of the whole thing struck Mary with peculiar and unpleasant force. It was all so totally different to what she had been accustomed to. She wondered where Mrs. Speed was to be found.

Then voices came from the dining-room, voices raised in anger. A man and a woman there were quarreling violently. It seemed to Mary that the man's voice was familiar to her, but she could not be quite certain as yet.

She made up her mind to go down into the basement—the dark, warm basement that seemed to reek with the ghastly smells of bygone meals. Mary wondered how people could live in an atmosphere like that. She was standing in doubt at the head of the kitchen stairs when from the dining-room she heard her own name.

There was no mistaking the allusion to Dashwood. Quite naturally Mary stood to listen. It was the man in the dining-room who was speaking.

"I tell you I must have it," he said. "What reason have you got to be fond of the name of Dashwood? It never brought us any good. If Ralph Dashwood had not been a fool, and you had played your cards right, you might be living at the dower house now, with a handsome income and a staff of servants to wait upon you."

The woman made some kind of reply that Mary could not quite catch, though she knew by the choke in the voice that she was sobbing. The man resumed.

"I tell you I must have it," he said. "No use to tell me that you haven't got the letters; for I have seen them in your possession. It's a letter sent from Lady Dashwood to her son and the date is 9th September, 1884. Now you make a note of that, please. If I don't have it, I shall find myself in serious trouble. What game am I playing? I'm playing for more money than you ever dreamed of."

"Money!" the woman said bitterly, "that is always your cry. But it has not prevented you from taking all mine. And I owe three quarters' rent, which has to be paid to-morrow. If it isn't paid to-morrow, I shall be sold up and turned into the street."

CHAPTER XXXVIII—THE MYSTERY DEEPENS

No reason to tell Mary now that it was Mrs. Speed who was speaking. She recognised the tired, faded voice by this time. But the other voice was still more familiar.

"That's bad," the man was saying, "why didn't you let me know that things had got to this pass? I daresay I could have helped you."

"No, you would have promised to," Mrs. Speed cried, "and disappointed me at the last moment. All my savings have gone into your pocket; you have wheedled everything out of me till I haven't so much as a penny left. And now you come here for more of those letters! That you are up to no good I feel certain. I know by your dress and style that you have had the command of money. What are you doing there?"

"Never you mind," the man said sulkily, "you'll know all in good time. I'm playing for a big stake, and for once in a way it has turned up trumps. Only I want that particular letter. When I get the letter I can answer certain questions. Give me the letter, and I'll pledge my word that within a week you shall have all the money you require. Only you are to ask no questions, and you are not to move away from here mind that!"

"Oh, if I could get away from here!" Mrs. Speed sobbed. "Give me a chance of earning my living, and that is all I ask for. I'll ask the agent to give me another week, though I am afraid he won't do it. I've put him off too often."

It was perhaps wrong of Mary to stand listening, but some fascination held her to the spot. She had a strong desire to see who the man with the familiar voice was.

"Then you are going to let me have the letter?" he said.

"I suppose so," came the weary response. "Never a thing yet that you made up your mind to have that you didn't coax out of me. But the letters are hidden in a box at the top of the house, and they will take some finding. Come again to-morrow at the same time, and I'll see what I can do for you. But if I consulted my own inclination I should go and see Lady Dashwood and tell her everything. I am sick of this intrigue and mystery."

The man said something in a soothing kind of voice, and then followed a sound like a kiss. Then a match was struck, and the heavy, dense atmosphere became impregnated with the smell of fresh tobacco, after which the dining-room door opened and the man came into the hall.

Mary walked swiftly back to the foot of the stairs. Without being noticed now, she had a good view of the man's face. She started, but managed to check the exclamation that rose to her lips. No wonder that the voice had been familiar to her. For she was gazing at the dark, sinister features of Sir Vincent Dashwood!

It was only for a moment, and then the front door opened and the man swaggered out. Without troubling any further about her milk, Mary crept up the stairs again. She had plenty now to occupy her thoughts. What was that man doing here, and what letter was it that he was so anxious to obtain? And why had he so powerful an influence over Mrs. Speed? It was open to Mary to ask the question, but she decided to do nothing of the kind.

After all, questions of this sort would be worse than useless. They would only arouse the suspicion and perhaps incur the curiosity of Mrs. Speed. Still, the whole thing was a most extraordinary coincidence—not quite so much of a coincidence perhaps if Mary had looked into the mind of Ralph Darnley?

But as the girl could not do so, she had to figure out the problem as best she could. She recalled vividly to mind now the strange suggestions made by Lady Dashwood, as to a great sin in the past with which she was intimately connected. And here, according to Mrs. Speed, the latter was an accomplice either before or after the fact. And why did the man who came here in such urgent need of a certain letter require that document, seeing that he had been accepted all around as Sir Vincent Dashwood?

Mary was still pondering the problem when Connie came back. The latter was her own bright and cheerful self again, she had done a good morning's work, and she had been paid for it to the extent of nearly a sovereign. She was inclined to take a light view of life. She made no allusion to the portfolio, for which Mary was grateful.

"I am very hungry," she said. "How nice this pressed beef is, and the lettuce, too! I have had better, but as things go in London they are very good."

Mary was silent. The beef was stringy and a little dry, the lettuce wilted and yellow. In her mind's eye the girl could see the luncheon table of the dower house at this particular moment; she could see the dusky, cool room, with the breeze coming off the flowers in the garden. She could see the snowy cloth and the crystal and the salad, cool and refreshing in the great silver bowl. There would be nectarines and peaches too from the ripe south walls of the garden. The whole atmosphere of it flooded Mary's soul and brought the tears to her eyes.

"You are homesick," Connie said softly; "I used to be the same at one time. And, of course, this luncheon is not at all nice, only I like to pretend that it is. But you shall tell me all about yourself when you come to know me better. And you shall also tell me what luck you had with the portfolio this morning."

"I had no luck at all," Mary said presently, "nothing but slights and insults, rebuffs and bitter humiliations. I might have been a servant girl for all the civility I received. And even one man, who seemed to have a heart in his breast, told me to come home and burn the lot."

"Wherefore you bounced out of the shop indignantly," Connie laughed.

"Indeed I didn't, I was too utterly crushed and sorrowful for that. I crept here and made a bonfire of my precious drawings, and I am ready to ask your pardon for the cold way in which I accepted your good advice this morning. There!"

It was a great deal for Mary to say, a confession that she had failed, that she was utterly wrong, the like of which she had never made before. Her face was flushed now and her lips were all trembling. Connie looked at her with undisguised admiration.

"You have won a greater victory than you know," she said quietly. "It is very hard for anyone brought up as you have been to admit a failure. I had a letter from Mr. Darnley this morning in which he told me a good deal about you. I hope the day will come when you will learn to appreciate Ralph Darnley properly."

"I think I do," Mary said, with the red mounting to her cheeks. "He is a good man, and I owe him a great deal—my life itself on two occasions. But he—he did not quite understand."

"Didn't he?" Connie asked, her eyes dancing with mischief, "he is an audacious man. He thinks that he is good enough for any girl. And so he is, bless him! Oh, you will learn your lesson in time, my dear. And when you do, you will be one of the luckiest girls in the world. To be the wife of a man like that, ah!"

"You think so highly of him as that?" Mary asked.

"Ay, I do, indeed. Oh, how I could love that man if only he cared for me! I could open my heart to him to-morrow, and thank God fasting for a good man's love. Fancy the sweet rest and peacefulness of it all, fancy laying down the weary struggle, the fearful dread of the needs of the morrow with the assurance that you had that man to protect you! But your eyes will be opened in time, you will come to see that love is the best of all things."

Connie had dropped her voice almost to a whisper and her dark eyes were moist. Then she seemed to wipe away the tears with a smile and was her sunny self again.

"Please don't laugh at my sentimental manner," she said. "Let us talk about you and your affairs. We may take it for granted that you have abandoned all idea of making a fortune out of the milk-stool order of art. You feel quite sure that you could make nothing of my kind of work."

"I should absolutely hate it," Mary shuddered. "Please don't be offended."

"Oh, I am not in the least offended. I felt just like you at first. Did you ever try your hand at designing? One or two girls I know do well at that."

Mary didn't know; as a matter of fact, she had never tried her hand at anything of the kind; but she was perfectly willing to try. A horrible feeling of helplessness was growing upon her; she wondered what she would have done if Fate and Ralph Darnley had not thrown Connie and her together. For the next hour or two she tried her hand at designs of various kinds, only to feel that she made but a poor hand at the business. By tea-time her head was aching terribly and she dropped into the armchair with a sigh of misery.

"They are pretty bad," Connie said in her candid way; "we shall have to wait a little longer before we find your proper vocation. For the present you will have to fall back upon colouring cards—Christmas cards, and post cards, and the like. That pretty chocolate-box type of work of yours will do admirably for that class of thing. You shall do a few specimen cards to-morrow, and I'll give you the address of a man who will commission more. Only it is terribly hard, you will get paid at the rate of half-a-crown a hundred."

Mary's heart sank within her. Half-a-crown a hundred! At that rate it would be impossible for her to make more than fifteen shillings a week. She pointed out the fact to Connie, who agreed with a cheerful nod.

"You have worked it out pretty accurately," she said. "There are hundreds of girls who do it, and the worst of the thing is that so many girls can earn pocket-money that way who have no need to do anything at all. It is the same with typewriting, the same with everything. And, after all, it is quite possible to live on fifteen shillings a week."

CHAPTER XXXIX—HOMELESS

Connie refused to be drawn into further conversation for the present. She was very busy touching up certain sketches which she informed Mary were intended to illustrate the pages of a popular lady's novelette, the published price of which was a halfpenny. They were dreadful drawings, as Mary could see, grotesque exaggerations of the work of George Du Maurier, impossibly tall females, with regular doll-like features and long lashes, with men of the same type. Five drawings went to each novelette, and the price paid was thirty shillings.

"As a matter of fact they are not mine," Connie explained, as she put the finishing touches to the figure of a severely classical duchess; "they are the work of a friend. She has been very ill lately and her work has fallen off in consequence. This lot would have been rejected by the editor, only I happen to know his assistant, who suggested that I should take them back and patch them up before they came under the eagle eye of the proprietor. I can get the money for them this evening, and tell Grace that the editor asked me to bring it along."

"That does not seem quite—quite the right thing," Mary suggested.

"Oh yes it does," Connie said bluntly. "Grace Cameron is a lady, and a great friend of mine. This commission is all that she has to live on. I happen to know that last night she spent her last two shillings on the peculiar tonic medicine that is needful to her. Can't you imagine the poor girl's state of mind if those drawings had been returned? What would you do if you were the Recording Angel?"

Mary was silent. She had not looked at it in this light before. The delicacy and tactfulness of it, the fine self-abnegation, appealed to her strongly. With Connie, time was money, every hour she wasted represented the loss of some necessary of life. And here she was cheerfully spending her own golden minutes so that a poor invalid should not lack the peace of mind necessary to her recovery. This was a practical sermon for Mary, worked out to a womanly and logical conclusion. If Ralph Darnley could have looked into Mary's mind now he would have been pleased with the success of his experiment.

"Oh, how good of you," she cried, "how womanly and sweet! You are actually sacrificing yourself for the needs of others. I should never have thought of it."

"I shouldn't at one time," Connie admitted frankly, "but I was a spoilt child in those days, and gave no heed to anybody but myself. And when I came to London alone and penniless and friendless, it was Grace Cameron who first held out a hand to me. And Grace is capable of doing really good work. She is very different from me. If she could only get into the country for a time and regain her strength she would be heard of. But that is impossible!"

"Why?" Mary asked. She was deeply interested now. "Why can't she?"

"Because she helps to keep a widowed mother. One pound a week goes to the poor old mother who is so proud of her girl's success. It is one of the most pathetic and charming stories in the world. Mrs. Cameron is the widow of a clergyman who left her very badly off, and Grace came to London to gain a name with her brush. She did not succeed, but she never let her mother know, she has always sent her something. And that 'something' makes all the world to the dear old lady. You may call it a deception if you like, but I call it one of the grandest things I have ever heard of. And all the while Grace is hoping for the name that does not come, the name that will enable her to go into the country and turn her back upon those impossible duchesses for ever. The story is known to a few of us, and we take it in turn now that Grace is ill to do her work for her. I am going down to Grace's rooms after supper, and you can come along with me if you like."

"Oh, yes, yes," Mary cried, "I should love to go with you. You may think that I am very foolish and ignorant, but you are opening up a new world to me. Positively I did not know that there were such things as these; even you are a new type to me. And here am I, who have been living with my head in the clouds, regarding the universe as being made up of people like the Dashwoods and others, whose privilege and duty it is to serve them. How selfish!"

"Well, you are not selfish now," Connie said. "You had the pluck to turn out and get your own living rather than eat what you call the bread of charity."

"Pride," Mary exclaimed, "every bit of it pride. I was bitterly wounded with a trick that Fortune had played upon me; in my arrogance, I left home, though one kind heart bleeds for me, I only had my narrow point of view. And I hate this kind of thing, I could cry aloud at the sordidness of it. I can't endure it patiently as you do."

Connie laughed unsteadily. A mist crept into her eyes.

"It is because I have schooled myself," she said. "It is so weak to complain. But there are times when I should like to die and make an end of it all."

Again Mary had nothing to say. She was learning to plumb the depths of her own selfishness by comparison with others. She was beginning dumbly to understand what Ralph Darnley must think of her. And yet he had made no secret of his love and affection. She was strangely silent as she walked along with Connie in the darkness of the evening. They came at length to a mean little street leading off Tottenham Court Road, and before a fairly respectable house there, Connie stopped. Presently Mary found herself shaking hands with a tall, thin girl, who gave her the strange impression that her new acquaintance was made of some fragile china. Her clear skin was deadly pale, and the dark eyes seemed to burn in the face like sombre flames. The slender frame was racked now and then by distressing fits of coughing.

Yet there was a subtle strength and power about the girl that appealed to Mary. Here was a girl after her own heart, one who would struggle to the end, and if she had to die she would fall in her tracks without a murmur.

Yet everything was against her. She had no natural advantages like Mary. There was more shame for the latter. Hitherto she had lived entirely for herself; her bounties had been dispensed with a haughty hand.

She had never dreamed of a kingdom inhabited by such brave, pure souls as these. Despite the shabby little sitting-room it was impossible to mistake Grace Cameron for anything but a lady. She had a smile of sweet sympathy as Connie made the necessary introduction, and spoke of Mary as another of the elect who had come into the arena.

"You have my sympathy," the girl said with a pleasing smile, "I could wish a woman foe of mine no harder fate. Anybody can see that you have not been used to this kind of thing—you are too recently a commander to know the bitterness of being commanded by the canaille we frequently have to deal with. We cannot all meet our misfortunes as cheerfully as Connie does. But you will learn your lesson in time. Tell me, have you heard anything as to those last drawings of mine?"

"I have the money for them at any rate," Connie said without looking at the speaker. "Mr. Scudamore was very kind."

Grace Cameron drew a deep breath of relief, a wave of pink rose to her cheeks.

"They were dreadful," she whispered. "But I was so ill on Monday and Tuesday that I had to drag myself to the work. My hand shakes terribly still, and I have some kind of a commission that I must finish to-morrow. It is a design for the cover of a new penny weekly. I have the scheme sketched out, but I am afraid that I shall not be able to finish it. And I know that my mother is in great need of a few pounds. How hard it is to be like this."

The last few words rang out passionately. Connie patted the speaker's shoulder.

"Don't despair," she said, "give me the rough design and I will put in the colour. Take at least five hours! Well, what of that. Give us some supper presently—it matters little what time we get home in the morning. Mrs. Grundy has no terrors for the true and tried children of Bohemia."

Connie's cheerfulness seemed to be unflagging and unfailing. She had no great aptitude for the brush, but she had the great gift of patience. The hours wore on, supper came and went, and presently a clock somewhere struck the hour of two. Then at last Connie held up the coloured design in triumph.

"There," she cried, "I guess they will be satisfied with that. I wish I had some of your boldness and originality, Gracie. I think we've done it this time. What a shame it is that good stuff should go for so little money! And now I really must be off. Mary looks tired to death. I'll post this for you, if you like."

Mary was tired and worn out, but she was not thinking of herself as she dragged along by Connie's side. She had learned a great deal in the last four-and-twenty hours.

In a vague, disturbed way she felt ashamed of herself. She did not notice the little cry that broke from Connie as they stood before the house where their rooms were. The place was all in pitch darkness, a litter of straw lay before the door. As Connie applied her latchkey and pushed back the door the house sounded curiously hollow. Footfalls clanked on a bare floor. Connie struck a match and held it aloft.

"The house is empty!" she cried, "the people have gone. These things happen with the struggling poor when they are threatened over their rent. Let us go and see if they have packed our belongings in the confusion."

The little sitting-room was empty of everything, the bedroom the same; nothing was left.

"My writing-case!" Mary cried, "my purse, too, in my box. And in the case—my jewels. Connie, Connie, what will become of us?"

CHAPTER XL—IN PERIL

Connie was the first to recover herself. She knew far better than Mary how great the danger was, how great the need for coolness and judgment. And she had been in dire straits like this before. She held the flaring match above her head and looked round the deserted room. On the mantelpiece stood a fragment of candle stuck in the neck of a bottle, and this Connie proceeded to light.

"Now we can go over the house and see if they have placed our belongings anywhere," she said cheerfully. "I have been in one or two strange predicaments, but never anything quite so bad as this. Still, I am sure that Mrs. Speed is an honest woman. It is more than likely that she has placed our goods and chattels somewhere."

But though the house was searched from top to bottom, nothing could be found. Mary did not give way, though she was tired out and weary, and sinking for the need of food. She had not yet lost her robust country appetite; she had not brought herself down to exist on weak tea and bread and butter, as Connie did.

"It is downright cruel," she cried. "That woman knew that we should come back, that you are in the habit of entering the house with a latch key. And to go off with all our wardrobe like this; to take everything. What are we to do?"

"It must have been some terrible mistake," Connie said. As usual, she seemed loth to judge anybody harshly. "The poor woman could not pay her rent. No doubt the landlord had threatened to come in tomorrow and take everything. And Mrs. Speed has a young family. She probably went to the agent and asked for time—"

"Oh, I know she did," Mary cried, recollection suddenly coming back to her. "As it happens, I overheard the conversation. There was some man here, a man I know something about, though we need not go into that. And Mrs. Speed seemed to be terribly short of money. I heard her say what was going to happen. Oh, Connie, my head is so confused that I cannot think, I shall wake up presently and find myself at the dear old dower house again. I did not dream that there were things like this in the world; I did not think it possible."

"There are worse things," Connie said sadly. "It is very terrible—very indeed; but what can poor people do? And yet there are others who waste thousands on their dress and amusement and pleasures, little dreaming of the sort of hell that forms half the life of the poor. Mrs. Speed sees that her household is in danger—her furniture is the one thing that stands between herself and the workhouse. The poor creature is so distressed that she has no thought for anybody else—she forgets our existence. She finds another house to go to, and she hires a man to come late at night and remove the things. I understand that there is a contractor who holds himself ready for this kind of thing. He employs very rapid workmen, and he uses vans with no name on the cover. The thing is easily done in this stony-hearted town, where your next door neighbour is a matter of indifference to you.

"Mrs. Speed is in the new house waiting to receive her goods. In the haste and confusion everything is packed, sent away. I have no doubt we shall get our belongings back again."

"And meanwhile, we have lost everything," Mary protested. "We have exactly what we stand up in. And every penny of my money, to say nothing of my jewels, has gone. We ought to go straight to the police."

"No," Connie said firmly. "A year or two ago I should have done so without hesitation, but not now. Ah, my dear I know how the poor live, how fierce are their temptations. When the great Day of Judgment comes God will be tender to His poor."

The fierce flame of Mary's anger died away, and a feeling of shame succeeded it. She was forced to recognise the many ways in which her companion was the superior of herself. Should she ever grow soft and sympathetic like that? Would her misfortunes render her more lenient to the failings of others? And yet Connie had said that she had been at one time the child of hard selfishness.

"Perhaps you are right," Mary admitted. "But what are we going to do? Where are we going to sleep to-night? And have you any money?"

"Two shillings," Connie replied. "Two shillings in my pocket, more by accident than anything else. My bank has vanished with my tin box. We can't go back to Grace's lodgings at this time of night. But that is not the worst."

Mary's heart sank within her. Could there be any worse than this?

"It is that very question of lodgings," Connie explained. "Nobody will take us without belongings. They would regard us as a pair of swindlers."

"Swindlers!" Mary's face flamed at the new word. The late mistress of Dashwood Hall regarded by a common Cockney landlady as a swindler!

"It seems so cold, so hard-hearted," she protested. "And just now you were speaking of the virtues of the poor, their kindness to each other, and—"

"My dear Mary, there is no kindness like it in the world, because generally it is the very essence of self-sacrifice. But there is another side to the matter. They have to be careful, they are compelled to look coldly on outsiders, they—but why am I preaching social sermons to you at this time of night? We must make the best of it till morning and then try to find Mrs. Speed."

It seemed a hopeless kind of business to Mary. Something like looking for a needle in the proverbial truss of hay. But the girl's wits were sharpened now by this sudden contact with adversity. She began to see a way.

"It may be possible to find Mrs. Speed," she said. "It will be weary work, but the thing has to be done. The man I was speaking about, the man who was here yesterday—he is calling here to-morrow for a certain letter. I could force him to...but that shall be my business. The question is where shall we sleep? Not on these bare boards. And I shall drop if I don't have something to eat."

The dawn was breaking in through the shutterless windows now—the red dawn of the summer day that gives London an added touch of beauty. It would be broad daylight before long. The presence of the light gave Mary a new courage.

"It is useless to think of sleeping anywhere," Connie said. Her face was pale and downcast, all the colour had gone out of her eyes. Mary had not before seen her friend on the verge of despondency, and the knowledge spurred her to new efforts.

"Let us go for a walk before the place gets hot and stuffy and full of struggling humanity. A London crowd always makes me so sad—it is awful to think that every man and woman streaming past you is engaged in the struggle for bread."

"Come out of this," Mary said hoarsely. "Let us feel the sunshine. This is heart-breaking, nerve-destroying work, but I am not sorry that I came. Let us go and watch the sun rise, and if there is any place where we can get something to eat—"

There was, at the end of the Embankment, a coffee stall, the leaden-eyed proprietor of which regarded the girls without emotion. He had served all classes of customers in his time, and, these well-dressed girls, with an unmistakable air of class about them, inspired him with no curiosity. He filled up the thick cups of muddy coffee and cut the stodgy bread and the debatable butter. It was hideous stuff altogether, but Mary was astonished to find with what zest she was devouring it. A flashy woman, terrible in her cheap finery, staggered up and demanded tea. A man, unmistakably a gentleman, with a well-cut suit of clothes, partook of cocoa and a slice of bread. His coat collar was turned up, and Mary surmised that this was to hide the absence of a shirt. The girl was learning her lesson with terrible swiftness. Another man, with a bag in his hand, hurried up and breathlessly asked for tea. His face was white and pink by turns, he looked about him a furtive kind of way. From behind the barrow a powerful figure shot out and grabbed at the shoulder of the man with the bag. The latter showed fight for a moment, then his white face broke into a profuse shower of moisture.

"Better come quietly," the powerful man said. "You can have a cab if you like, though it does not matter much at this time of day. You've given me a long chase."

The two vanished in the direction of the Strand, where now the houses and spires were all golden in the purple mists. Mary shuddered.

"What does that mean?" she asked. "Was—was he some criminal?"

"That is it," Connie explained quietly. "And the other man was a detective. Oh, it is a horrible place, this London, if you come to see it from the underside. I long for millions of money to turn this city into a paradise. You think I am always cheerful and careless, but my two years here have left a mark upon me that I will never get rid of. Let us walk along the Embankment as far as Westminster, and then strike West for the Park. I feel a perfect longing for flowers and green grass. We will go through Park Lane, and speculate as to what the millionaires there are dreaming about—the people who have a hundred times as much as they can spend, and are yet greedy for more. Oh, my dear, if you only knew how tired I am, so utterly worn out."

Connie sat down on a seat on the Embankment and burst into tears.

CHAPTER XLI—THE LESSON OF ADVERSITY

Hitherto Mary had been entirely dependent upon her newly-found friend. She had come up to London with the proud intention of making her own living, a Dashwood ready to defy Fate and overcome it from the first onset. On the contrary, she had been a living example of the weakness of the unemotional when confronted with the problem of existence. If it had not been for Connie, she shuddered to think of what might have become of her by this time. But there was stirring within her now those high attributes and noble qualities that Ralph Darnley had discovered behind the armour of selfishness and ice of pride. It behoved her to act now that Connie had failed.

That poor Connie's breakdown was only temporary made very little difference. Mary must become the head of the expedition now. She placed her arm around the other girl's waist and kissed her tenderly. Mary had never done such a thing in her life before. She would have found it physically impossible. And here it seemed the most natural thing in the world.

"You must not give way," she whispered. "Dear Connie, you can't tell how much I admire and respect you. We are going to be friends as long as we both live. You have taught me more in the last two days than I ever learned before."

"I shall be better presently," Connie sobbed. "I am so tired. Let me put my head on your shoulder and rest a little. Only don't let me go to sleep, as we shall have some horrid policeman making us move on, and I have not come quite to that."

The weary head fell back on Mary's shoulder and the weary eyes closed. Five minutes later, and Connie had passed into the land of dreams. It was not much past three yet, and the Embankment was very quiet, save for the passing of the wretched wanderers, who seem to find nowhere rest for the soles of their feet. There were evil-looking creatures, both men and women, slouching along and hideous faces once human leered at Mary, but the daylight seemed to take all the audacity out of this. There were others, too, who had fairer faces, and who turned aside with proper respect as they saw the sleeping girl with her head on Mary's shoulder. A policeman came along like the head of the universe and paused before the seat.

"This isn't quite the thing," he said. "Hope there's nothing wrong, miss?"

The man was gruff, but utterly sympathetic. Mary took heart of grace. Fancy her, the heiress of the Dashwoods, explaining the sordid situation to a London policeman!

"We have had a great misfortune," she said. "When we got back to our lodgings to-night our landlady had vanished, taking all her furniture along. And everything of ours had vanished also; we could do nothing till to-day. And my friend is so worn out that she has fallen asleep, as you see."

The red-faced policeman whistled. He needed nobody to tell him that he was face to face with a lady of the real West End type. He was a policeman of experience. That Mary was telling the truth he could see from the look in her eyes.

"Very sorry, miss," he said. "Don't disturb the other lady. I'll keep an eye on you till I go off my beat at seven o'clock."

The man touched his helmet and passed silently on. The incident touched Mary and brought the tears to her eyes. She was surprised to find how the once unwonted tears rose to her lids. She did not realise perhaps how steadily the ice was melting from around her heart. But she did realise what a great palpitating thing the life of the town was, its cruelties and its misfortunes, and the tender touches that spring from the impulses of a common humanity. Mary was learning her lesson.

She sat there till the sun glinted on the bosom of the Thames; she saw the barges gliding down with the tide; she watched the first rush of cabs from the stations. And ever and anon the cool vision of Dashwood rose up before her. If she were at home now she would be out in the garden gathering roses to decorate the huge bowls in the drawing-room. She wondered if the Blois was out under her window, and whether Clegg, the head gardener, had looked after the new phloxes properly.

She could see it all now as it would be in the dewy sunlight. Well, if the worst came to the worst, she could go back to the dower house again, but she would not go alone. Connie should accompany her and Grace Cameron. It would be a glorious thing to take the pallid, hollow-eyed painter down there, and send her back to her beloved work with an elastic step and the light of health glowing in her brown, ambitious eyes. Mary was beginning to understand what wealth could do and what glorious privileges it possessed. She began to understand what Ralph Darnley had been thinking about her. Well, the time would come when Ralph should learn his mistake. All these things, and more, Mary dreamed of as she sat patiently there with Connie's head on her shoulder. The latter stirred presently, and opened her eyes to the glory of the day. It was past seven now, and the greatest city in the world was awake to the struggle for existence. It was some little time before Connie's mind was clear enough to grasp the situation.

"I have been asleep for three hours," she exclaimed. "What an intolerable burden you must have found me. Why didn't you wake me?"

"Perhaps I have been dreaming myself," Mary smiled. "Anyway, I did not seem to notice. And there was a policeman who was very kind. I was watching the day break over the river, and it took me back to the old home. It seemed to me, Connie, that I had not been as frank with you as I might. Let me tell you why I left home. It will be a new experience for me to have a girl friend to love and confide in."

They sat for an hour longer, and Mary told her story. She was surprised at the ease and fluency with which the narrative came from her. And she was surprised, too, to find how much better she felt for the telling.

"Oh, well, nothing can deprive us of the pleasures of memory," Connie said. "I like to dream of the old home sometimes, though there is a deal of pain with the joy in it. And you have the consolation of knowing that you can go back when you like, and find a real loving welcome waiting you in the bargain."

"I shall never really go back under present conditions," Mary said. "But I see now that this is no reason why I should not visit my dear Lady sometimes. Wouldn't it be a glorious thing to have a nice holiday down there! To take you with me for a fortnight, to take Grace also, and leave her with Lady Dashwood till she was quite herself again. Now I know that you have been scheming and planning for a long time to get a real chance for Grace. If I told Lady Dashwood she would never hesitate for a moment—it would be as good as done. That is the plan I have in my mind."

Connie caught at Mary and, heedless of passers-by, kissed her affectionately.

"An angel unawares," she said with an unsteady laugh. "That is what you are. Oh, my dear, you must not put these temptations in my way, you must not try to make me discontented with my lot. For two years I have not seen a green field, or caught a sight of the sea. It is two years since I was so extravagant as to go to Hastings for the day. I took my lunch and passed the whole afternoon in the glen at Fairlight.

"I met a doctor there, he was just recovering from a dangerous illness—such a nice fellow! And it seemed the most natural thing in the world that we should tell our story to one another. I wonder if I shall see that young doctor again?"

"I wonder," Mary laughed. "But what are we going to do now?"

"Have a proper breakfast at a place I know of," Connie said. "Then we are going to sit on the grass in the Park, and you will have a sleep whilst I look after you. Grace does not get up till about mid-day, so we won't bother her just yet. Perhaps she will be able to find us another lodging. My dear Mary, your white face is quite a reproach to me. Let us go to breakfast at once."

The breakfast was plain, but good, and eaten in a clean room, which was something. Then the two wandered into the Park, given over at this hour to nursemaids and children, and under the shade of a tree Mary lay down and closed her weary eyes. The warmth was soothing. Mary found herself wondering what they would have done had it been a wet day...Her mind began to wander now...she was back again in the garden at Dashwood, she was rambling the summer woods with the breeze in the old elms overhead. Then gradually the world seemed to grow dark, and she slept.

The sun was high overhead when she came to herself again. She felt fresh and vigorous now, ready for anything. Then the humorous side of the thing struck her and she laughed. The idea of a Dashwood sleeping out all night like a common tramp! And yet Mary did not quite realise how near the most prosperous of us is to the workhouse. A trick of Fate, misfortunes over money matters, a long illness, and the thing is done. There are thousands of such instances every year.

"Do you feel equal to moving yet?" Connie asked.

"Under the shade of a tree Mary laid down and closed her weary eyes."

"My dear, I feel equal to anything," Mary cried. "My courage has come back to me. And now what do you propose to do next?"

"The next thing is to call on Grace and tell her of our misfortunes. We must not repeat last night's experiment if we can help it. Besides, there are those drawings for the Wheezer which are promised for to-morrow. They were all finished and lying on my table when the catastrophe happened. I must get them back to-day."

CHAPTER XLII—THE COURAGE OF DESPAIR

Grace Cameron was making a pretence of breakfast when Mary and Connie arrived. Her pallid face was more flushed than usual, her cough very distressing. But she had no thought for herself directly the story came to be told.

"You poor dears!" she cried. "What a cruel misfortune! To have lost everything in this way is doubly terrible. Oh, if it were only possible for you to stay here! The house is almost full up, and my landlady is independent accordingly. I am expecting every day that she will ask me to go—the breakfast in bed and my late rising give a great deal of trouble. There seems to be nothing that I can do."

"Oh, yes, there is," Connie said cheerfully. "You can help us wonderfully. For the moment we are absolutely penniless. Our idea is to take a bed sitting-room together, for a few shillings a week, and restore confidence, in lieu of personal belongings, by paying the rent in advance. I want you to lend me a sovereign for about a week."

"But my dear, I haven't got it," Grace said in deep distress. "I only kept a few shillings out of the money you gave me yesterday, the rest I posted to my mother not an hour ago. If I had only known! And I suppose you can't possibly draw any more money from the Wheezer till the end of the week!"

"I might have done so," Connie said. "I had the week's drawings finished. They must be in to-morrow or I shall certainly do no more work in that quarter. They were all lying ready on my table when I came round here last night."

"Oh, this is dreadful," Grace cried, with the tears in her eyes. "If you had not returned here then, this dreadful thing would never have happened. To think that your kindness and goodness to me should have produced a result like this! Oh, Connie, what are you going to do, what can you do?"

"Oh, please don't," Connie said unsteadily. "It was no fault of yours. I daresay we shall manage to muddle through some way or another. It is a great pity that so many of our circle are so hard up just at present."

"And Miss Dashwood is as badly off?" Grace asked.

"Please don't call me Miss Dashwood," Mary said. "It makes me feel as if I were not one of you. Yes, I am in the same boat. Still, I dare say—"

Mary's voice trailed off into a whisper. An idea had come to her. She was quite ready to humble her pride now; she no longer shrank from the idea with a pain that was almost physical. If the worst came to the worst, she could telegraph to Lady Dashwood and ask for a few pounds by wire. And yet that seemed a weak thing to do, seeing that she had left the dower house so short a time before, determined to make her way in the world. But that would have to be done before nightfall, unless—

Unless! There was yet another way out of it. The recollection of the dramatic scene between the so-called Sir Vincent Dashwood and Mrs. Speed came with vivid force to Mary. The man had come for some important letter. What the letter was and what it had to do with the Dashwood succession mattered nothing at that moment. At any rate the letter was needed, and Vincent Dashwood had promised to come back for it. And Mary did not fail to remember now what Mrs. Speed had had to say about the trouble she was in over her rent. That trouble had culminated with disastrous swiftness, and to save her furniture the woman had vanished in the night.

With a mind full of her own troubles, she had probably given no heed to Vincent Dashwood. But it was necessary to his success that he should find her.

No doubt he was hanging about now somewhere in the locality of Keppel Terrace waiting for a sign. And here was the desperate chance that Mary needed.

She, too, would spend the next few hours in the neighbourhood of Keppel Terrace. Her mind was made up and she resolved to act without delay. She rose to her feet with a smile and made her way towards the door.

"Where are you going?" Connie asked.

"I have a little idea of my own," Mary said. "I can't tell you everything, because it is in a way mixed up with my private affairs. But I think that I shall be able to get everything back before we sleep to-night. I am not going to be a helpless burden on you two poor dear things. I want you to feel that you have been entertaining the proverbial angel unawares. I may not be back till late, but you need not be anxious. After my experience of last night, I am not afraid of anything."

"Let her go," Grace said, as Connie would have detained the speaker. "She is anxious to do something, and I feel that she will succeed."

Mary went down stairs with a firm, steady tread. She was not in the least afraid now. Whatever she lacked, there was no question of her courage. And she was going off now on an errand of mercy and relief. The knowledge thrilled her, she was conscious of emotions and feelings now that she had never felt before. The warm hot blood was coursing through her veins; there was a gladness about her heart that made her feel strangely young and buoyant. She would have liked to meet Ralph Darnley now and tell him many things that had not occurred to her before. She was ashamed of the way that she had treated that man. And he was good enough for her; as Connie had said, he was good enough for any girl. What did birth matter, what did anything matter, so long as the man was good and true and the woman sweet and tender? It came to Mary with a crushing force that the Dashwood pride was a poor and feeble thing by comparison.

She was still turning these new sensations over in her mind when she arrived at Keppel Terrace. The empty house seemed to look at her with blank, mocking eyes. For a long time she walked up and down before the house. An hour, two hours, passed before Mary noted anything to attract her attention. Then she thrilled as she saw Vincent Dashwood come swaggering along the terrace. He paused at the step of No. 16, and looked up at the house. Mary could see his gesture of passion. As he stood there, evidently nonplussed by his discovery, a boy came up to him and handed him a card, which he read and then tore up.

Greatly daring, Mary came along the pathway. She pulled her veil down and pretended to ring the bell at No. 17. Her back was to Dashwood; she calculated that he would not notice her, that she would be the last person in the world he was likely to meet. But Mary was trembling from head to foot.

"All right," she heard Dashwood say. "I suppose the lady told you what I was like?"

"That's it sir," the boy said. "The lady knew as you would come. She gave me a shilling for this job. I've been hanging about here since dinner time."

"Well, here's another shilling for you," Dashwood said in great good humour. "Tell the lady that you delivered the card properly and that I'll call after dark. As it happens, I know the address on the card you gave me."

The boy went whistling off down the road and Dashwood swaggered away. Here was a piece of luck that Mary had not expected. She had made up her mind to loiter about the street till she saw Dashwood, provided that he had not come and gone already. But she knew perfectly well that Dashwood and early hours did not go together, and upon that fact she had acted. Her idea was to follow the man, knowing that sooner or later he was certain to look for Mrs. Speed. But here was a piece of real good fortune on which she had not reckoned at all. Dashwood had read the address, and then, with his usual carelessness, had torn up the card. Mary was off the doorstep as soon as it was safe, and the pieces of torn card were in her hand. She had only to put them together and the address was here.

This was splendid! Here was a way of proving to Connie and Grace Cameron that she was a friend to be relied upon. Mary's heart warmed at the idea of it. Her fingers trembled as she pieced the fragments of the card together and read the address. It was clearly set out in a neat handwriting.

No. 24 Hamerton Gardens, N. W.—surely the new house was some distance away. Mary had yet to learn that these midnight flittings necessitated a change of neighbourhood at a considerable distance as to locality. A friendly policeman directed Mary into the Strand, and another told her which 'bus to take. By the time the girl arrived at her destination she had fourpence in her possession.

But she did not care about that. She was on the right track now, and if luck were dead against her she could walk home. Here was Hamerton Gardens at length, and the litter of straw and refuse before the house testified to the fact that somebody had recently occupied the house or left it. With a courage that was all her own, Mary walked up the steps and rang the bell. As nobody responded to the summons, she opened the door and walked in. She had made no mistake, she recognised the umbrella stand at a glance. There was no linoleum down in the hall as yet and the stair carpets were rolled up on the floor.

Somebody crossed the hall and entered a little room on the right. Mary fairly gasped as she noted the tall figure in the grey silk. She wondered if she could credit her eyes. For the tall figure in the grey silk was Lady Dashwood!

CHAPTER XLIII—GETTING NEARER

Mary drew back a moment to see what was going to happen. She ought to have been utterly taken by surprise at her discovery, but she felt no emotion of that kind. She was past the feeling—life had been too full of thrilling incidents during the last few hours for that. It never occurred to the girl that she had made a mistake. In an instant her mind was made up. Very swiftly and silently she darted after Lady Dashwood, and followed her into a room at the back of the house. There was a grimy specimen of the London charwoman on the floor, scrubbing the dirty boards apparently in readiness for the laying of a roll of linoleum that stood in one corner. A bottle half filled with beer ornamented the mantelpiece, and from this the worker on the floor frequently refreshed herself, as her red face testified.

She looked up angrily as Lady Dashwood entered. The intruder had to ask her question twice before she drew a reply.

"Mrs. Speed isn't in," the woman said, "and if she was, she would not care to see any visitors as yet. We only moved in here last night, and not so much as an odd man to help for love nor money, and me fit to drop."

"I am sorry to hear that," Lady Dashwood said in her gentle manner, "I have come up from the country especially to see Mrs. Speed. Can you give me any idea what time she is likely to be back again?"

"No, I can't," was the surly reply, "not before tea-time anyway. If you like to wait in the dining-room, you can do so—you don't look the sort to go off with anything. And there's an armchair or two in there."

As Lady Dashwood turned she came face to face with Mary. She stood quite still, too utterly surprised to speak. Mary took her by the arm, and led the way to the dining-room. She pushed one of the chairs forward, and invited Lady Dashwood to sit down. Then Mary closed the door. She smiled at the helpless amazement of Lady Dashwood's face.

"Mary, my dear child, what are you doing here?" the elder lady gasped.

"I might ask you the same question," Mary said. "What you regard as a most strange coincidence has a very prosaic explanation. Oh, my dearest, if you only knew how glad I am to see you again! If you only knew how I have missed you. But I need not go into that now; there will be plenty of time presently. My dear, I have been learning things the last two days and have been making discoveries. You may not believe it, but I am glad that I came here, yes, glad, glad!"

"You are looking fairly well," Lady Dashwood observed. "A little pale and drawn, but there is something in your eyes that I never noticed before. A sort of new strength and tenderness combined, not so hard and proud. But you seem pale and tired."

Mary laughed. She had good reason to be pale and tired. She wondered what Lady Dashwood would say when she heard last night's adventure.

"I am utterly worn out," she said frankly, "and yet I am glad I came to London. You can't tell how much good it is doing me. Strange as it may seem, I am quite happy, and all the more so because I am fighting for the good of other people. Hitherto, I have never thought of anybody but myself. As you know, I came up to London with an idea of getting my own living. I was going to be very proud and independent I had a vague idea that being a Dashwood would make the ground clear for me. I blush now to think of my ignorance and folly. But I am wandering from the point. You will recollect that Mr. Darnley offered to ask a friend of his in London to assist me.

"I refused the offer, of course, in my stupid way. But Connie Colam met me at Victoria. What I should have done without her, goodness knows. She was kindness itself to me. And in a very short time we became fast friends. Fancy me, me, giving my heart to a girl who lives in Bloomsbury, and gets her living by doing horrible drawings for a low-class paper!"

"It seems strange," Lady Dashwood murmured, "I hope that she is—"

"My dear, Connie is a lady. Oh, if you only knew how my eyes have been opened! And there is another girl, a lady, too, called Grace Cameron. But you are going to meet them and satisfy yourself that I am not degrading the great house of Dashwood. Grace Cameron is an invalid, and last night we stayed at her house very late finishing some work for her. We did not get home till past two in the morning. What do you think of that for a Dashwood?"

Lady Dashwood could not repress a smile. It seemed very dreadful and unconventional, but there was a glad, tender ring in Mary's voice that the elder lady liked.

"We walked home through the streets at that hour," Mary went on, "and when we reached our rooms the house was empty. Everything had gone! And that brings me to the cause of my presence here at this moment. Our landlady was Mrs. Speed, the woman who has just moved in here. She had got into trouble over her rent; she was afraid that her furniture was going to be sold up, and when we were out last night she had taken everything away. No doubt the poor woman was half distracted, but it was a cruel thing to do with us. She might have given us a hint. She might have left our belongings behind. But she didn't and there we were bereft of everything that we possessed in the world at two o'clock in the morning."

"Oh, my darling," Lady Dashwood cried, "what did you do then?"

"There was nothing to do. We had very little money and nowhere to go. So, as it was a fine night, we slept on the Thames Embankment and breakfasted at a coffee stall in the morning. Mary Dashwood sleeping in the streets! Fancy it! To-day I discovered where Mrs. Speed had gone, and I am here to demand the return of our goods and chattels. But I can quite understand why you are here."

"What do you mean?" Lady Dashwood faltered.

"Well, I will tell you. When I went to Mrs. Speed's to share rooms with Connie I was struck by the appearance of the woman. It seemed to me that I had seen her before, and in some strange way she recalled my very early childhood. I seemed to recollect the creature years and years ago sitting in your boudoir and crying. She was wearing a black dress. It is one of the fragments of memory that cling to one long after the surrounding circumstances are forgotten. I could not get rid of the feeling, and I asked the woman about it. She said I must be mistaken, because she came from a place called Dashwood, near Dashwood Hall. I doubt if she knew my name. I had my own reasons for not betraying my identity as you can imagine, but when Mrs. Speed told me that, I knew that I was not mistaken. And knowing that she came from the old place, I was not surprised to see you here after all."

Lady Dashwood's agitation deepened. Mary could see that she was greatly moved.

"The woman spoke the truth," the elder lady whispered, "her people lived on the estate for many generations. And for years I have lost sight of her. I can't tell you the story, Mary, because it is not all mine to tell. And this morning I received a telegram from Mrs. Speed at this address saying that she was in great trouble and asking for an interview. I did not send any answer to the telegram because I decided to come in person. When things are explained, they always become more simple."

"Not in this case," Mary said boldly. "My dear, I have found out something far more important than that Mrs. Speed comes from Dashwood. I was going to the kitchen to get a glass of milk yesterday morning when I heard what sounded like a quarrel in the dining-room between Mrs. Speed and some man. The man's voice sounded so familiar to me that I stopped to listen. He was after some letters, the name of Dashwood was mentioned—one letter was of the greatest importance. And then the man came out; he did not see me, but I recognised him. Can you guess who he was?"

Lady Dashwood made no reply for the moment. Her face had grown very pale and her long, slim hand shook so that the rings on her fingers shimmered in the light.

"You had better tell me," she ventured to say at length. "I fancy I can guess, though I had not expected treachery as black as this. The man was—"

"Sir Vincent Dashwood. Oh, there is no mistake about it. I saw him as plainly as I see you at this moment. He had called at Keppel Terrace to threaten and bully. It seems that he had had all Mrs. Speed's savings. And he told her that if he could have that particular letter he would let her have as much money as she needed. She spoke then of the danger in which she stood in regard to her rent. She was going to see the agent of the property the same day. Probably he would not wait any longer, and hence the sudden flitting in the night. What does it all mean, Lady Dashwood? Why should this Sir Vincent want that letter? And how much longer are we all going to remain under the tyranny of that man?"

Lady Dashwood made no reply. There was a sound of voices close by, and in one of them Mary recognised the querulous tones of Mrs. Speed.

"Go and see her," Mary said, "I will wait here. But please do not disclose my identity. And when you have finished, wait in the street for me. My business with Mrs. Speed will not take long. After that, I want you to come and see my new friends, I want you to know what manner of life I am living. There are other things that I shall want to know too, but they will keep for the present."

CHAPTER XLIV—THE DREARY WAY

Mary's patience was fairly well tried before she had an opportunity of seeing Mrs. Speed. She heard the latter cry out in astonishment at the sight of Lady Dashwood; she heard the two take their way up the uncarpeted stairs; she could hear restless footsteps overhead. It was quite an hour before they came down. Mary could not quite hear what was passing, but she heard enough to know that Mrs. Speed was in tears.

The tears gave way to a sullen red as Mary came out of the dining-room. She said nothing as the girl beckoned her into the room and shut the door.

"We need not waste any time," Mary said, "you will guess what I came for."

"Who told you where to find me?" was the terrified question in a whisper. "You don't mean to say that in Keppel Terrace they know already—"

"I am not concerned as to what Keppel Terrace knows or thinks," Mary said coldly. "I came back to our rooms last night very late with Miss Colam. To our great surprise and consternation we found the house empty. Our own things had gone with the rest. You might have left them, as they did not belong to you. Miss Colam, who has had more experience in the seamy side of life than I have, says that this midnight flitting is quite usual with a certain class of people. She gave me an experience of a friend of hers, but in that case her belongings were left behind. What did you suppose that we were going to do?"

The woman shook her head sullenly. With her wider knowledge of the world she seemed to think that she had an easy prey in Mary.

"I don't know," she said, "and I didn't care. I've been too badly used by the world to have much sympathy left for other people. And I had to move. The agent told me that he was going to put an execution in to-day, and I had no time to lose. I don't want to keep your traps and things; I daresay they are here somewhere. Come again in a few days' time, and I will see what I can do for you. I'm busy now."

The speaker advanced half threateningly towards Mary, with an intention of bustling her out of the room. Mary's eyes flashed angrily as she stood before the door.

"Now listen to me," she said in clear, incisive tones. "As a landlady of experience in such matters you must know that it is almost impossible for Miss Colam and myself to obtain other lodgings without our boxes and things. Last night we slept out of doors because we had nowhere to go. You think that because you live so far away from Keppel Terrace you can do as you like. If I go from here now without our belongings I shall at once see the agent of the Keppel Terrace property and tell him where you are to be found. I can easily get the address of the agent from the people next door to your last house. I don't know much about the law, but you can be punished for this kind of thing, I feel quite certain. Now what are you going to do?"

The battle was over almost as soon as it had begun. The woman lost her threatening air and her face became pleading. The easy tears fell from her cheeks.

"I'm sure I don't want to do anything wrong," she said, "only you don't know all the trouble and anxiety that I've been put to. When I came to London first I had money in the bank and a good house of furniture, very different from the miserable sticks I have about me now. I was doing well. Oh, you think you know what trouble is and misery, but wait till you see the son you have loved and slaved for grow up to be a curse and a blight to you; I sacrificed everything for that boy and he has ruined me. He gets money from everybody, he has had all mine, and I go on giving him more. He never comes near me unless he wants something. If you knew everything, you would be sorry for me."

Mary made no reply for the moment. She was piecing the puzzle rapidly together in her mind. She was wondering what the connection was between the erring son and the man who called himself Sir Vincent Dashwood. She would have asked a question or two, but it did not seem discreet to do so at this moment.

"At present I need all my sympathy for Miss Colam and myself," Mary said coldly. "You will be good enough to find our boxes. There is a desk of mine that I need, a little desk in a leather case. I shall be glad to know that it is safe."

"I think I saw it a little while ago," Mrs. Speed said eagerly. She seemed quite anxious to make amends now. "I fancy it was in one of the bed-rooms. I hope you will believe me, miss when I tell you that I had clean forgotten all about you two young ladies. You see, I had to get away at a moment's notice. There was the house to find and the van to arrange for. One way and another I was fairly worked off my feet. If you'll come along with me now, I'll see what I can do for you. There's a great pile of boxes upstairs."

Most of the missing boxes were identified at last, but they were more or less buried under a great heap of things. Mary gave a sigh of relief to find that the precious writing-case was intact and the lock unbroken. And there was a box of hers on the top of the pile, and in that she knew was all that she would require for a day or two. If she could get that away she would be able to supply Connie with what was necessary in the way of linen. And it would be as well to leave the rest until she had procured fresh lodgings.

"Get your woman to call a cab," she said, "I'll take this box with me and the others can remain till we are ready for them. Directly we have somewhere to go I will send you a telegram with the address, and you will give our belongings to one of the carriers."

"You may depend on that, miss," Mrs. Speed said eagerly, "I'm sorry this happened, I am indeed. If I had only thought of it I would have given you a hint before. Now I'll go and see if I can get a cab for you."

The cab was procured at length and the precious box hoisted on the top. Lady Dashwood was patiently waiting at the end of the road. The cab pulled up, and Mary hailed her friend eagerly. A great weight had fallen from her mind, she could see the way clear for the future now. If misfortune dogged her, she had made up her mind to go back to the dower house. But now she was spared that blow to her pride.

She wondered, with a tender smile on her lips, if Ralph Darnley would call this the proper kind of pride. In her mind Mary decided that he would. It would be possible now to arrange to stay for the present under the same roof with Grace Cameron. Then Mary remembered with dismay that her ready cash had been locked up in a box, and that the box in question was not on the top of the cab. Not that she was afraid of anything happening to the money; still, money was urgently needed.

The jewels were safe anyway—they reposed in the cab on the seat opposite to Mary. And Lady Dashwood was seated by her side. The girl was in high spirits: tired as she was, she was happier than she had been for years. It came to her now that she had an object in life, something definite to live for. She was doing good in the world; her eyes had been opened to the nobility of life as lived by the brave poor. What a poor thing the Dashwood pride seemed by comparison.

"You must know that I have been entirely successful," Mary said gaily. Lady Dashwood had never heard her speak in this tone of voice before. "I have bearded the lioness in her den and actually got the better of her. I am more than pleased with the success of my scheme and the way in which I have worked it out, Lady Dashwood. Please don't tell me that you are going back home by an early train."

"I should like to go back at once and take you with me, child," Lady Dashwood said. "You don't know how lonely I am without you! And yet I am quite sure that you are learning a valuable lesson in these sordid surroundings."

Mary's face flushed with pleasure. A few days before she would have resented a suggestion like that from Lady Dashwood or anybody else. Her mind had been closed to everything, had been too proud to learn. And now Lady Dashwood's remark was a compliment.

"Yes," she said softly, "I am learning a great lesson—the lesson of humanity. It is astonishing how my mental vision has cleared already. I blush with shame to think of the uselessness of my past life. But you will come with me and see the dear companions who have taught me this lesson?"

"I think I will," Lady Dashwood said, "I need not get home till the last train. I have half promised to dine informally with an old friend of mine in Stratton Street. I shall have plenty of time to see your friends. I am quite sure that they are ladies; you could not be happy with them otherwise."

"Oh, they are," Mary cried, "and now I am going to tell you all about them and their hopes and ambitions. Grace's story is quite a pretty romance in its way. It will tell you all about her, so that you need not betray your lack of knowledge."

Mary rambled on in a pleasant way until the cab reached its destination. There was a pure, womanly ring in her voice that Lady Dashwood noted with gladness. She had always deemed Mary too hard and cold, too unsympathetic to the weaknesses and failings of other people. The elder lady's eyes were moist as she descended from the cab, and Mary guessed the reason. And then it came to her, too, that she would have been glad if Ralph Darnley had been with them.

CHAPTER XLV—THE WALLS OF PRIDE

"Now I must get you to pay for the cab," Mary went on in the same gay voice, "for I haven't the money, at least, not in my pocket. You will find the place very small and mean, but it is not quite so bad as some of the cottages on the Dashwood estate. If ever good fortune took me back there as mistress I should do a great deal with the cottages on the place. I begin to understand now how trying is the lot of the poor. But I am dreaming again. Please come this way."

Grace Cameron lay on a couch in the window getting as much fresh air as possible. Towards her Lady Dashwood looked with special interest, for Mary had told Grace's story at some length. The girl flushed as she noted the striking personality of her visitor. She essayed to rise from the sofa.

"No, don't you move, my dear," Lady Dashwood said. "Quite by accident I met Mary here, and she insisted upon bringing me to see you both. I think she has told me everything about you. And it was quite natural that I should like to see you. So this is Connie Colam. I think you are a couple of very brave girls."

And Lady Dashwood proceeded to kiss them both in the most natural manner. She found her way into their hearts at once.

"You are a darling," Connie said in her candid manner. "It is good of you, Lady Dashwood. We were eating our hearts out with anxiety when Mary came in. And Mary looks quite the conquering hero, I declare."

"Victory!" Mary cried, "my clever detective scheme has been quite successful. I have brought all we need with me, and the rest will follow on the despatch of a telegram. I have had a long interview with Mrs. Speed, and so far as I can see—"

"I hope you gave her what she deserved," Connie cried.

"I'm ashamed to say I didn't," Mary confessed. "The poor woman appeared to be in distress. She said that she had forgotten all about us, and I believed her. It seems that she has a dissipated, selfish son who has brought her to this pass—Lady Dashwood, what is the matter?"

"The London heat always tries me like this," Lady Dashwood murmured faintly, "I daresay I shall be quite myself when I have had a cup of tea. Connie shall make it for me—Mary says that she has the real art of tea-making. So this is the place where you work. You look as if a good rest would do you good, Grace."

Grace Cameron smiled wearily. It was one of her bad days, and the heat had affected her. Her mind was filled now with pictures of the sea breaking cool over the rocks; she thought of deep woods where the breeze played in the trees.

"I can't afford to rest," she said; "if I did not go on working I should lose my reason. And I do hate London so. Still, I have a mother more or less dependent upon me, and for her sake I have to go on. If I could manage to get into the country for a few weeks I think I could regain strength. Connie is an angel of goodness, but I can't let her do my work for me much longer."

"That's sinful pride," Connie said with something between a laugh and a sob. "What vexes her is that her substitute is so poor a workman. Still, there is a deal in what Grace says, and if she could be in the country, not too far away from London, where—"

Lady Dashwood glanced up and met Mary's pleading eyes. She understood exactly what the girl meant without asking a single question. She crossed over to the couch and took Grace's thin white hand tenderly in her own.

"There is nothing easier," she said, "let me be the fairy godmother. I am a very lonely old woman, since Mary made up her mind that she would go out into the world and earn her own living. I was very sad about it at the time, but I am not so sad now. Because the day is coming when Mary will return to her old home, and be happier by far than she has ever been before. Still, I am very lonely now, and I should welcome some bright young face to gladden the whole home and make life more tolerable to me. The dower house is a grand old place, and any artist would soon fall in love with it. Bring your work down there, Gracie, come and live in the open air and forget your anxiety for the future. When I looked at Mary just now, her eyes asked me to do this thing. But I am not doing it to please Mary so much as to please myself. It is very selfish of me, I know—"

"Selfish!" Grace cried, "I could love you for what you say. The mere thought of it makes my heart beat all the faster. But for the sake of others—"

"Never mind the others," Connie cried, "go away and get well. I dare not think what I should do if I had the same opportunity. Go away and do your own work. How can you have the face to stay here and allow me to do your drawings for you? It is the most selfish thing I ever heard of in my life, and I decline to put up with it any longer...Oh, my dear, it is the very thing that I have been praying for. Don't hesitate, Grace—think of your mother, of the grand future. If I loved you less than I do—"

The smile faded from Connie's face, she had hard work to keep back the tears. Lady Dashwood's smile, too, was watery and unsteady. She was glad to find that Mary had fallen in with companions like these. She could understand now why the girl had softened and improved. Hitherto she had regarded Mary as perfect, but this was a chastened and purified Mary of whom she had never dreamed. She could see the working of Grace's mind in her face.

"You are very good to me," the girl said slowly, "everybody is good to me. I never knew how much goodness there was in the world till my health began to fail. It made me hard and bitter to see those frivolous society people roll by in their carriages, and think that the money they wasted on one abandoned toy would have sufficed to give me back the strength I needed. Mary knows what I mean."

"I do, indeed," Mary said with a flush on her face, "but I had to pay for my knowledge of my selfish folly by the loss of everything that I held most dear. And now that I have learned my lesson, I have nothing to put it into practice with. Still, the point does not refer to Lady Dashwood, who is quite sincere in what she says. If you hesitate any longer, Grace, I shall regard myself as a murderess. You will not carry your pride so far as to endanger your life."

"No, no," Grace cried, "you are all right and I am wrong. I know perfectly well that if I stay here like this I shall die. Therefore, with the deepest gratitude, I have decided to accept Lady Dashwood's offer. Oh, if you only knew how I long for the sight of a green tree—"

"Then that is settled," Lady Dashwood said, "you are to come and take Mary's place without delay. I will come up on Saturday and fetch you. And I decline to hear a single word of thanks—it is a mutual pleasure, Grace. Now, let us have the cup of tea, and then I must be going. And I am very glad that Mary has made friends with you girls."

Lady Dashwood departed presently, and for a little time the girls were silent. Grace lay there looking out of the window, her eyes filled with happy tears. Already in her imagination she could hear the murmur of the trees over her head.

"I can't help it," she said presently, "I feel as if a great doctor had told me to live after another surgeon had passed the sentence of death. An hour ago I did not seem to care what happened, now I can feel the joy of life in my finger tips. My ambition is singing a tale of hope in my ears...But what about you both? What are you going to do?"

"Yes, what are we going to do?" Connie said in tones of dismay, "we have no money. Mary was too proud to ask her relation for any, which was quite right. Unless, perhaps, Mary has recovered her purse, in which case—"

"Well, I haven't," Mary explained, "I forgot all about it. Still, it is only a matter of a day or so, and, meanwhile, I have something that will do quite as well. I daresay Grace's landlady will find us a spare bedroom."

"I believe there is such a thing in the house," Grace said dubiously, "but my landlady is by no means a nice person, and she has done very well lately. She is sure to ask to see your boxes, and if you tell her the truth she will not believe you. Still, you must find quarters somewhere for to-night, and it would do no harm to have the woman up and see her."

The landlady came, hard of face and none too pleasant of manner. She listened in grim disapproval. She did not wish to insinuate anything, but she had suffered in the past. She attached a value to the possession of personal belongings, she had little faith in lodgers who came without them. To all this Mary listened with a heightened colour and a rising temper.

"I suppose a week, or say a fortnight's rent in advance would do for you?" she asked. "It seems the likeliest arrangement for a woman of your stamp."

"Nothing better, miss," the woman retorted, "money talks. Pay a sovereign on account, and I shall have no more to say. Pay me, and I'll treat you well; on the other hand—"

"There is going to be no 'other hand,'" Mary replied with her head in the air. "Perhaps you will be so good as to change me a five-pound note?"

The woman gasped. She could not possibly do such a thing.

"Very well," Mary went on, serene in her victory, "you need not stay any longer. I'll go out and get change, and let you have the sovereign without delay."

The woman vanished with a respectful salutation. Mary crossed over to her writing-case.

"My education is growing apace," she laughed, "my dearest Connie, will you be so good as to tell me the way to the nearest pawn-broker's?"

CHAPTER XLVI—THE HEAD OF THE HOUSE

The lights in the great silver candlesticks at the dower house shed a soft radiance over the dinner-table where Lady Dashwood sat alone. It was not yet dark, the saffron glow of the setting sun still struggled with the candles. Most of the dishes had been removed, and little remained but the peaches and the nectarines and the great bloom tinted grapes in the silver baskets.

Lady Dashwood sat there alone. She had peeled one of the russet and golden peaches, but the fragrant luscious fruit lay neglected on her plate. Her mind was far away from her surroundings.

The peacefulness of the night suited her more or less painful meditations. The same spirit of refinement and rest seemed to brood over the house; it seemed hard to associate a place like that with misery. And, perhaps, on the whole, Lady Dashwood was not altogether unhappy.

She had more or less expected Ralph Darnley to dinner, but he had declined at the last moment. He had written to say that he might have the pleasure of coming later, but even as to that he was not quite certain.

And so it came about that Lady Dashwood was alone. She had plenty of food for thought. There was yesterday's adventure, for instance, the finding of Mary in that unexpected way, and the visit to Grace Cameron's rooms.

Well, Lady Dashwood was not sorry that she had been, she was not sorry either that Mary had made up her mind to try her future in London. In some subtle way Mary had vastly improved. She had always shown a proper affection for Lady Dashwood, she loved her passionately, but she had always been somewhat reserved. She had not thought it right for a Dashwood to be demonstrative like other people. And she had cared very little for the sufferings of other people.

And now all this was changed. Mary had made the great discovery that she was only human after all, and had begun to take an interest in sorrow, suffering and gladness, and pleasure. Lady Dashwood was glad of that. Her own life had been one of constant self-repression. Perhaps that was all the more reason why she longed for an open display of affection now.

She was pleased to find that Mary was learning her lesson and that Ralph Darnley had been right. Ralph had prophesied from the first that all Mary needed was the fire of adversity to burn the alloy out of her system, and leave nothing but the pure gold behind. And his policy had been wonderfully successful.

But how much longer was this to continue? was the question that Lady Dashwood asked herself.

How long before Ralph would declare himself, and sweep away the blight that hung over Dashwood Hall at the present moment. Already people were beginning to talk, already the servants had strange tales to tell. Dubious men were staying at the Hall, a class of beings quite unknown to that historic house.

Sir Vincent Dashwood was entertaining a party at dinner to-night; he had brought his friends down from London with him earlier in the day. As yet nobody had called upon the new owner of Dashwood Hall, for people were holding aloof. They wondered, too, why the deposed head of the house had cared to stay on there. What Mary was actually doing in London was not known to anybody outside the home circle, but her action was approved of. Lady Dashwood hoped that the present state of things was not likely to last; she was going to ask Ralph to see Mary and judge for himself whether the punishment had not already gone far enough. Mary had had her eyes opened and would never be her cold, proud self again.

The peach was finished slowly, and Lady Dashwood was thinking of rising from the table. This solitary dining in state was a terrible trial to her. She had reached the time of life when she craved for young people to be about her. The house was very quiet, so quiet that the loud clang of the front door bell fairly startled Lady Dashwood. She placed her hand to her heart in some alarm.

Surely something dreadful had happened! No friend of the family would ever ring the bell like that. It was, perhaps, a late telegram to say that Mary—but the noisy voices in the hall did not suggest any catastrophe. Two or three people were talking at once; Lady Dashwood was sure she could smell tobacco smoke. Somebody laughed in a loud, vulgar way. What could it all mean?

The staid butler came into the dining-room, his manner respectful as always, but there was a flush on his face.

"My good Charles," Lady Dashwood exclaimed, "what is the matter?"

"Your ladyship may well ask that question," the aggrieved butler replied, "but I beg your ladyship's pardon, I am forgetting myself. We were sitting down to supper in the housekeeper's room when that ring startled us. I went to the door. Sir Vincent Dashwood was there, and those other men,—I mean gentlemen, together with Sir George,—I mean Mr. Dashwood. And they want to see your ladyship."

"At this time of night! Are they mad, Charles? Is it possible that gentlemen who are perfect strangers to me—are smoking in my hall? Are they—are they—sober?"

"I think so, your ladyship," Charles said dubiously. "Mr. Dashwood is all right. As to the rest, I really cannot say. But they are bent upon seeing you, at least Sir Vincent is. He—he seems to think that you would find it nice and informal."

"Informal, certainly," Lady Dashwood said frostily. "Ask them into the library."

The speaker was outwardly calm. But she was shaking with a righteous indignation; a brilliant red spot flamed on either cheek. It was a very haughty, stately figure that entered the library, a few moments later.

"This is an unexpected pleasure," she said. "You will pardon my old-fashioned ways, but I am not accustomed to entertain strangers at this hour."

"That's all right;" the head of the house laughed unsteadily. His eyes were slightly glazed and he had some difficulty in balancing himself. "It's all right, grandmother. Mr. Dashwood did not want to come; he said it wasn't quite the thing."

"I'm glad of that," Lady Dashwood said haughtily. Her cold eyes swept over the figure of George Dashwood, who stood by the doorway a picture of confusion. "Mr. Dashwood was right, and as to these friends of yours—"

"They're all right," the head of the house went on. "Mr. Cotton and Mr. Newfell, my grandmother. Cotton is something in the City, made a pile of money there. When he isn't making money he spends his spare time in going over old houses. I told him about this one, and he is anxious to see it. It is just the kind of place he wants to buy, and if he offers me a fancy price for it, you will have to find somewhere else to go, old lady."

Lady Dashwood stood there trembling. She had no words to meet this unpardonable insult. And the speaker was quite within his right. He was in a position to sell the dower house if he chose. The head of the family had that privilege, seeing that the little property formed no part of the settled estate.

"I am afraid Lady Dashwood objects," the man called Cotton said.

"Indeed I should, sir," Lady Dashwood replied. "I am afraid I can't blame you so much as my—my grandson for this unpardonable intrusion."

The City man flushed, but he had the grace to say nothing. The head of the house fairly tingled.

"Insult be hanged," he cried, "what are you talking about? We only looked in just to give my friend Cotton some idea of the place. I'm not anxious to sell. It's a thirsty night, you fellows. Ring the bell, somebody, and ask the butler for a whisky and soda."

"Better not," Cotton said, "it isn't quite the thing. Besides, you have had enough already. I can see that we ought not to have come here at all."

Lady Dashwood felt almost grateful to the speaker. There was silence for a moment, and then from the hall came the sound of Ralph Darnley's voice. Here was somebody at any rate who could grapple with the situation. Forgetful of her real dignity, Lady Dashwood turned away and crossed over to the hall. She was shaking from head to foot now and the tears had gathered in her eyes.

"You poor dear soul," Ralph whispered, as he kissed the trembling lips. "Charles has been telling me all about it. He was so full of the matter that he almost forgot himself. So you are already enjoying the fruits of the change of proprietorship. Go back to the drawing-room and compose yourself. I will soon get rid of those men for you."

Ralph strode into the library. His fingers were itching to be at the throats of the men. But that could not be. He was so angry that his politeness was exaggerated.

"Lady Dashwood is very sorry," he said, "but you will have to excuse her to-night. She is not accustomed to visitors, especially at this time in the evening. Sir Vincent, your display of family affection is a little too exuberant."

"I did not want to come, sir," Cotton said sulkily.

"Thank you; therefore you will not mind going. Good-night, gentlemen. Good-night, Mr. Dashwood. You will pardon me, I am sure. Well?"

For the head of the family sat sullenly in his chair though the rest had got beyond the shadow of the front door by this time. He looked up defiantly at Ralph.

CHAPTER XLVII—"HOW LONG, HOW LONG!"

"If it isn't a rude question," he said, "who are you? What do you mean by interfering in this way?"

"It does not matter in the least who I am," Ralph replied. "To put it bluntly, Lady Dashwood has asked me to get rid of you. Until you have disposed of this portion of the property, the house belongs to her ladyship. Your dissolute companions have already gone. I don't blame them, however. I have no doubt that they expected a congenial welcome here. They probably drew a wrong picture altogether of Lady Dashwood. They had the grace to be ashamed of themselves."

"Once more," Dashwood said with drunken gravity, "who are you?"

"As I said before, it does not in the least matter," Ralph replied. "At the present moment I am acting on behalf of Lady Dashwood. I know that it is not the slightest good to appeal to your better feelings, for the simple reason that they don't exist. Will you be so good as to go, or am I to resort to force?"

Dashwood laughed. The hot blood mounted to Ralph's face and the full force of his passion tingled to his finger-tips. He threw open the long window that led to the lawn; then he advanced to the figure lounging in the chair. He wasted no time in argument, but bent over the chair and dragged Dashwood out by the throat. A moment later the latter was flung violently on to the grass, where he lay dazed and confused for a moment. Presently he picked himself up, and loafed after his companions, who were noisily walking down the avenue. It was a relief to Ralph to know that the fellow was not seriously hurt.

As if nothing had happened, he made his way to the dining-room. Lady Dashwood was pacing up and down the room, her face white and set, her eyes full of flaming anger. All the fiery blood of the race was raging in her veins now.

"So they have gone," she cried. "A pretty outrage indeed! I shall have the villagers here next dropping in on their way from the inn of a Saturday night. Have men of that class no manners, no respect for the feelings of others?"

"You can't altogether blame them," Ralph said soothingly. "Probably they took you to be what that drunken ruffian yonder would call 'a good sort.' They judged you by him, and I am quite sure that Mr. George Dashwood did all he could—"

"He didn't," Lady Dashwood flashed out. "He is a coward and a poltroon. He is not worthy to be the father of a girl like Mary. Fancy him cringing and fawning on a man like that for the sake of a good home and the dainty food that he loves better than his independence! But I don't blame him and the man who calls himself Sir Vincent Dashwood so much as I blame you."

"Me!" Ralph asked in some surprise, "what have I done?"

"Everything. You have brought all this about. If it had not been for you, this disgraceful scene could not have happened. For purposes of your own, you have placed a puppet on the throne at Dashwood—a disgraceful, drunken image, that is not worthy to be called a man. Why do you do it?"

"I think you know perfectly well," Ralph said gently. "I am very, very sorry; I could not have foreseen anything like this. Won't you forgive me?"

All the hot, rebellious anger died out of Lady Dashwood's heart.

"I must, when you speak to me like that," she said. "When you look at me with your father's eyes, and speak to me with his voice, I could find it in me to forgive you anything. But you must own that it is very hard to bear, Ralph. When you came back here like a figure from the grave, I began to hope that God was going to be good to me in my declining years. I have sinned heavily, but I have paid the penalty. When I saw you that day at the fire I recognised you at once, as Slight had done. My prayers had been answered, and one of my flesh and blood had come back to claim the old inheritance. And you had come to free me from the hateful attentions of the impostor who so grievously insulted me to-night. But you did nothing of the sort; you tried to hide yourself from me as if you were guilty of something shameful."

"But, my dear grandmother, I told you why," Ralph protested. "I had to work out my life's romance in a way that seemed best to me. And Fate played into my hands—the little affair of the silver match-box forced the so-called Dashwood to speak. Still, it will not be for long. I saw the family solicitors yesterday—they are by no means disposed to let matters remain as they are. Have you any idea as to the real identity of the man who calls himself Sir Vincent Dashwood?"

"I had," Lady Dashwood said. "But I was certain yesterday. I saw his mother. Oh, but yesterday was a day of surprises."

"His mother," Ralph cried. "Is she still alive? She was Agnes Edgerton, sister of my father's first wife. Is not that so?"

"Absolutely correct, but I did not know it till yesterday; I thought that she was dead long since. I have never heard a word of her since she left the village seventeen years ago. And because she knew of my crime, because she knew of the great sin that hangs over the house, she wrote to me and asked me to help her. It appears that she had been residing in London at a place called Keppel Terrace, where she has tried to live by letting lodgings."

"That much I know," Ralph said. "She wrote to my father from time to time. What I did not know is that she had a son. Please go on."

"It was a most pitiful letter she wrote me. She was going to lose her home if she did not receive a certain sum by a certain time. The letter came too late for me to help. It was followed by a telegram asking me to send the money to another address. Had you not come into my life, had things been different, I should have sent the money and thought no more about it. But things came into my mind and a vague suspicion that I felt bound to verify. I went to London yesterday and I saw Mrs. Speed. She told me that it was her son who had brought her to this pass. Of course, up to that time I had no idea she had a son. I asked her to show me his photograph, and she did so. You can guess whose likeness it was?"

"I can guess now," Ralph said. "Of course, it was the man who is at present master of Dashwood Hall. Did the woman know that?"

"Oh, dear, no. She has not the least idea. But you can see now where the impostor got all his knowledge, and how he came into possession of so many documents."

"Not quite," Ralph said, "I want a little light on this particular spot."

"Well, that is easy. When your father fell in love with his first wife, Maria Edgerton, they took the sister Agnes, now Mrs. Speed, into their confidence. She received and kept all the letters, at least, she seems to have kept the letters after Maria Edgerton died. Of course, when the affair came to the ears of your grandfather and myself we were terribly annoyed. Mind you, I had nothing whatever to say against Maria Edgerton. She was very good and beautiful, but very simple indeed, and ignorant of the ways of the world. We thought that we had put an end to the affair, but we failed, and your father and Maria Edgerton were secretly married. Even then we had hopes of hushing up the scandal. Your father had to go away with his regiment, and we persuaded his wife that he was dead. I did that, and old Patience helped me. And so did Slight—we were all in the disgraceful business. Don't ask me why I did it; call it the curse of the family pride if you like. We thought the woman would go away and forget. Instead of that she pined and died. When the news came to me I felt like a murderess. I have never been the same woman again, I never shall be. And your father found it all out, he came home, and there was a dreadful scene. He went away declaring that he would never come home again, and he kept his word. I dared not write to him directly, but sent my letters through Mrs. Speed. Now you can understand how her son has come to be so well posted in the secret history of our house. He must have read and re-read those letters till he had them by heart. But his mother did not know, she does not guess. How much longer is this state of affairs to continue, Ralph?"

Ralph shook his head. These revelations came as a surprise to him. And it was a very sad and very dreadful confession that Lady Dashwood had made to him.

"All that I have heard confirms me in my opinion that I have acted for the best," he said. "I cannot absolve you from blame, grandmother, indeed I cannot. For the sake of the family pride, you have suffered this remorse for nearly forty years. And yet, in the face of it all, knowing that Mary was coming into the property some day, you fostered the same spirit in her. I love Mary, and the one great object in my life is to make her my wife. But I wanted to be loved for my own sake, and not for the sake of the family fetish. My plan—"

"Is succeeding," Lady Dashwood cried. "Nay, it has succeeded already. Go and see Mary, call on her and ascertain for yourself whether I am speaking the truth or not. She has only been gone a few days, but already the change has worked wonders. Put your future to the touch, and you will not be disappointed. Only end this dreadful state of affairs, turn that man out of the Hall, let me see the place sweet and wholesome again before I die."

Ralph hesitated. It was a tempting picture that Lady Dashwood had drawn for him. But he could not quite entertain the idea that already Mary had changed her nature entirely, as a grub turns to a butterfly. At the same time Lady Dashwood's plea was not one to be turned from lightly.

"I will see Mary," he said, "I will go to her tomorrow. I must see Mrs. Speed also, for I have a message to deliver to her from my father. You see, I had no idea where to look for her. Patience my dear, dear lady, patience. After the lapse of forty years you will not mind waiting for a few days longer."

CHAPTER XLVIII—FACE TO FACE

"You are getting on," Connie cried, "after a time you will become a Radical. Already you are fast forgetting the caste of Vere de Vere, especially after your visit to the pawnbroker's yesterday. Tell me, did you feel very much afraid?"

"Well, no, I didn't," Mary laughed. "It was not such a dreadful experience after all. You see, I had the face of our landlady before my eyes. I tried to think of nothing but the fact that we had another night out of doors before us. I don't believe I even trembled as I placed a diamond ring on the counter and asked a loan of five pounds on it. Perhaps I was just a little afraid of being given in custody on a charge of dealing with stolen goods. Ah! the glow of satisfaction when I found that money in my pocket! Will you believe me, Connie dear, I was thinking nothing about myself, but about you and Grace. And when I got back here and saw your faces it was the happiest moment in my life."

Connie kissed the speaker affectionately. She was genuinely touched, though she did not care to own it. She pointed to the brushes and paints on the table.

"Well, don't be prodigal," she said. "I've managed to get you five hundred cards to paint and they will take you a whole week. And now I'll go and find some fresh work to do. Thanks to Mrs. Speed's exit, I have lost my Wheezer job. As the drawings were not on time I've been told that I need not ask for any more work. It is such a pity, because it was such regular, steady employment."

Connie spoke lightly, but Mary could see she felt it. She painted on at her cards till nearly luncheon-time, until her back ached and her fingers were almost too stiff to hold a brush. But there was peace and contentment in her heart, a feeling of happiness and gladness that she had never felt before. She took a glass of milk and a bun presently, and then put on her hat to go as far as Mrs. Speed's. Though the promised telegram had been sent, the necessary boxes had not turned up yet. And Mary was getting anxious. She would go and fetch the boxes; in the circumstances, the luxury of a cab would be justified.

Mary swung along the street with a free step and a sense of joyful elation. She had not gone far before somebody touched her lightly on the shoulder. She started and turned to find herself face to face with Ralph Darnley. He looked bronzed and well. The tan on his handsome face brought with it a whiff of the country. There was no mistaking the genuine pleasure that shone in his eyes as he held Mary's hand in his.

"I called at your rooms," he said, "and they told me that you had just gone out. I followed quickly with wonderful luck. Where are you going?"

"Off to the wilds of North London," Mary laughed. She felt a strange sense of gladness in the presence of Ralph; a certain shy happiness possessed her. "Our late landlady went off with our boxes. We had to sleep out the night before last."

"So Lady Dashwood told me," Ralph replied. "It must have been a dreadful experience. And yet you look very well and happy, Mary."

The girl laughed in a shy kind of way.

"I really believe I am," she confessed. "Mind you, it was very dreadful at first. I felt so utterly lost and sad that I very nearly came back and proclaimed my defeat."

"At the expense of the family pride?" Ralph laughed.

"Yes," Mary said quietly with a flush on her face. "I am coming to the conclusion that the family pride is a great mistake. It made me so cold and self-contained. I never seemed to know what it was to have sympathy for anybody. To be a Dashwood is a great thing, of course. But there are far higher and nobler aims. Those two girls I live with made me thoroughly ashamed of myself. They are ladies who get their own living by art work—but, of course, you know all about Connie Colam. What a nature she has!"

"One of the noblest in the world," Ralph said quietly. "Mary, I hoped that you would grow like her. I hoped that her example would be a benefit to you. With your beauty and her disposition, you would be one of the most perfect women that God ever made. Ah, the man will be lucky indeed who calls Connie Colam his wife."

Mary assented warmly enough, and yet at the same time she was conscious of just a tinge of passing jealousy at the high praise of her friend. Ralph had told her all along that he loved her, that there was no other girl in the world for him. Had her coldness killed that love? Then she told herself that it did not matter, seeing that the affection was not returned in the way that Ralph meant. All the same, she could not rid herself of the impression that such a thing would take all the light out of her life, and leave her alone and desolate indeed.

"Connie thinks very highly of you," she said shyly.

"That is very good of her," Ralph replied with something like a sigh, "but we are too good friends ever to care for each other in any other way. Still, she is doing you good, Mary. There is something about you that I can't describe, some subtle change for the better. I never noticed till now that you had such a sweet and tender smile and there is a thrill in your voice that makes you pure and womanly. My experiment has been a success."

"What experiment is that?" Mary asked innocently.

"What am I saying?" Ralph laughed. "I have a confession to make later, but it is not the time to go into that. It is good to be by your side again, listening to your voice. Now, tell me all that you are doing."

Mary did not need to be asked. She fairly bubbled over with delight. The deep thrill that Ralph had noticed in her voice touched him and caused a chord to throb in response. It seemed almost impossible to believe that this was the Mary of the old days, the proud, distant creature whose head was in the clouds contemplating the glory of the family. She was tender and warm and confiding, and the flush on her face gave the one thing needed to make her fair and radiant beauty complete. This was the girl that Ralph loved, the woman of his fondest dreams. He felt as if he could walk by her side for ever.

"But you will think me conceited," she said presently; "I have talked of nothing but myself for half an hour or more. Please do not laugh at me."

"Certainly not," Ralph said indignantly. "I have no intention of laughing at you, Mary. It is a positive joy to me to hear you talking like this! And so there are better, truer things than the Dashwood pride and the family pedigree. You have seen what noble womanhood can do for itself, what a dignified thing honest labour is. Do you remember what I said to you the night that you came to London, Mary!"

"I recollect," Mary whispered softly. "You prophesied for me. You said that I should be better and purer for the sacrifice. You said that I should see life as it is, and learn what a poor thing the family glory was by the side of humanity. And I have learned the lesson, Ralph, I am quite content now to work for my living; I am trying to forget Dashwood and all its glories. Why, I have even become accustomed to London bread and butter."

The girl burst into a merry laugh in which Ralph joined from pure sympathy. Here was the model wife for which he had been looking.

"That is important," he said, "but there is another lesson that I am anxious about. You have become a child of the people now, a recruit in the great army of labour. But with your new womanhood has there not come another and sweeter dream to you, Mary? Have you not pictured someone by your side to help in the struggle?"

The girl's face flushed crimson, but she bravely met Ralph's eyes.

"Yes," she said frankly, "we were only talking about it last night. Oh, I have gone a long way indeed since I saw you last."

"That is good to hear. And when the right man comes along you will not refuse him simply because he does not have a long pedigree?"

"Please do not say too much about it," Mary pleaded. "If you only knew how dreadfully ashamed you make me feel! As if it mattered, as if anything mattered, so long as the woman loved the man and he was worthy of her affection. There, Ralph, do you need me to say any more than that! A man does not need a long pedigree or a fine estate to be a gentleman. But, really, you are making me false to my creed, and I shall not tell you anything else till I have seen Mrs. Speed. This is the house. Will you wait outside?"

"Certainly not," Ralph said, "I have something to say to Mrs. Speed as well as you. You will perhaps be surprised to hear that she is an old friend of my father's. Come along."

Mrs. Speed came up from the kitchen very hot and very red, and inclined to be angry at being disturbed at this time of the day. She began to explain volubly to Mary why the boxes had not yet been sent off. In the hall a man was calling for the landlady. She broke off in her exclamations and stared at Ralph. She seemed terribly agitated, her face grew white, her eyes astonished, as Ralph held out his hand.

"A ghost!" she said, "a ghost from the grave. And yet it could not be; after all these years, it is impossible that the form of—well, what is it?"

The man in the hall came swaggering into the room. He glanced at Ralph, and would have vanished had not the latter detained him.

"This is an unexpected meeting," he said. "I did not expect to see you here so far away from home, Sir Vincent Dashwood."

"Sir Vincent Dashwood!" Mrs. Speed cried. "Then who, sir, are you, I'd like to know?"

CHAPTER XLIX—A BOLT FROM THE BLUE

Just for a moment it looked as if Ralph's pretty scheme was destined to fall to the ground. Naturally, Mary had the haziest idea of what was taking place. She could only see that the man whom she knew as Sir Vincent Dashwood was looking most terribly uneasy and casting imploring glances at Mrs. Speed.

It seemed strange that anybody should in any way be craving the good favours of the faded-looking woman, but such was the case. If she had had the so-called baronet's life in her hands he could not have regarded her with more entreaty. And, as to her part, Mrs. Speed looked from one man to the other in a dazed kind of way, as if she had not the slightest idea what was taking place. Her face turned from red to white and then to red again; she seemed to have some difficulty with her breathing.

"I—I don't understand," she gasped. "You are asking for me. It must be wrong to say that this gentleman is Sir Vincent Dashwood."

Ralph had recovered his equanimity by this time. His obvious course now was to prevent Mary from guessing at the true nature of the situation. She must not know yet. And she had been so sweet and frank and candid with Ralph that not for the world would he have her know the trick that had been played on her, yet. That confession would have to come at the proper hour, with the proper setting, say the rose garden at the dower house on a moonlight night.

"Nevertheless, I am quite correct," he said. "I assure you that the gentleman who has just come in is no other than Sir Vincent Dashwood, of Dashwood Hall. As a matter of fact, I was in the fortunate position of placing a valuable proof of his identity in his way. But the matter has developed itself so recently that it is possible few people know of the change."

"Sir Vincent Dashwood!" Mrs. Speed repeated, as if the words had some fascination for her. "And so he is Sir Vincent Dashwood. And who, sir, may you be?"

The question came about in the form of a challenge. Mrs. Speed moved a step forward as if to stand between Ralph and the other man. There was just the suggestion of protection in the movement. Ralph smiled in reply.

"It does not much matter who I am," he said. "As a matter of fact, my name is Ralph Darnley, and I came to you with a message from the late Ralph Dashwood, who, at one time, was married to your sister."

"You knew him very well?" the woman asked in the same dazed way.

"I knew him very well indeed," Ralph replied, "but that we will go into presently. In the meantime, this young lady desires a word with you. Perhaps you will be so good as to settle with her first, my business will keep till afterwards."

And Ralph moved off in the direction of the passage. Dashwood could do no more than follow him in the circumstances. He looked restless and anxious and whistled rather ostentatiously to cover his agitation.

"Upon my word you have made it very awkward for me," he said. "I never dreamed of seeing you here. Mrs. Speed is an old friend of yours, I presume."

"I have never seen her before to-day," Ralph said, aroused by the eagerness of the question. "I came to bring her a message as you heard. She appeared to be surprised to see me, but not more than she was surprised to hear of your new dignity."

"She didn't know it, you see," Dashwood explained. "I—I haven't told her yet. She was very good to me in my poorer days, and I am grateful for it. Still, she knows the truth now, and there is an end of it. Odd that I should find you mixed up like this with quite a different phase of my life. Don't you think so?"

"Not at all; it is not in the least odd if you knew everything. Still, it does not matter. You can afford to disclose your identity now."

"But I can't," Dashwood replied, "those lawyer people are making a great fuss. Anybody would think that they had the title and estate to dispose of. All the family recognise my position, nobody makes the least objection, and yet those solicitors ask for all kinds of additional proofs. I don't half like it."

Ralph made no reply. He knew all about the objection raised by the family lawyers and was in a position to enlighten Dashwood's mind to a painful degree.

But all this would come in time; meanwhile, the puppet must play his part in the comedy. Any further conversation was cut short by the entrance of Mary. In a tentative kind of way Dashwood wanted to know what she was doing here.

"No getting away from the old faces and the old places," he said. "I come to see Mrs. Speed, so does Mr. Darnley, and you turn up at the same time. What are you after?"

"It does not in the least matter," Mary said coldly. "I happened to be staying under Mrs. Speed's roof at the time she had the misfortune to change houses; in her hurry she took away with her certain things belonging to me. I came to fetch them. It is very simple. Are you quite ready to go, Mr. Darnley?"

"I think I will come," Ralph said impulsively. "What I have to say to Mrs. Speed will keep till another day. She seems to be very unsettled here as yet. Perhaps you will take that message to Mrs. Speed for me, Sir Vincent?"

Dashwood's anxious features cleared wonderfully. His air had hitherto been one of guarded suspicion. He had a vague idea that Ralph was concealing something. It would be no fault of his if Mrs. Speed and Darnley met again.

"Certainly, certainly," he said. "Is that your cab at the door, Mary? Let me lend you a hand with those boxes. We shall have the pleasure of seeing you down at Dashwood before long, I hope. Independence of spirit is all very well, but you will find your new life a little trying after a bit. And there is always a home for you at the Hall. Drop me a line to say when you are coming. Good-bye."

The speaker fairly bundled Mary into the cab. Ralph followed with a grim smile on his face. He was just as anxious to get away himself; it would be a pity if his scheme broke down just as everything was going on splendidly.

"What does it all mean?" Mary demanded as the cab drove away. "What connection is there between that man and Mrs. Speed? And why did she look at you as if you had been some accusing ghost? And why was our friend so afraid that Mrs. Speed should know his new title?"

"What a list of questions!" Ralph laughed. "Would you mind if I deferred the reply for a few days? Do you suspect that anything is wrong?"

"Of course I do," Mary exclaimed. "That woman has some guilty knowledge on her mind. So has Sir Vincent Dashwood. And you looked angry and confused as he came in. I know that Mrs. Speed came originally from our part, that she is the sister of Ralph Dashwood's first wife. She knows all about the family quarrel and the tragedy that followed. And she is in possession of certain papers that Vincent Dashwood needs."

"How do you know that?" Ralph asked.

"I overheard the conversation at Keppel Terrace. Vincent Dashwood came here to get those papers; I heard him say so. And he is at yonder house to-day for the same purpose. If that man turns out to be an impostor, why, my father—"

"I implore you not to build up on that," Ralph said warmly, "pray don't. Your father will never be Sir George Dashwood. If you come back to the Hall again in the same capacity as before, your experience—"

Mary laughed good-naturedly. Her face cleared; she discerned exactly what was passing in the mind of her companion.

"Very well," she said, "I will dismiss that contingency from my mind. Notwithstanding, I should dearly like to come back into my kingdom again. But you need not be afraid that I should revert to the old order of things. The change in me is permanent; the old pride and coolness have gone; I have learned to love and feel for my kind. Do you know what I would do if the property were mine? I would turn the dower house into a retreat for broken-down artists and authors and the like, where they could regain their strength and rest at no expense to themselves. Oh, I would do so many things to render the lives of deserving people happy."

Mary's cheeks glowed and her blue eyes sparkled with a tenderness that Ralph had never seen in them before. There was soul in the girl's face now, the soft expression without which woman's beauty counts for nothing. And from the bottom of his heart Ralph was glad. It was hard work to keep from Mary the fact that the kingdom she so longed for was in her grasp.

"It does me good to hear you speak like that," he said. "No, I must not come in, for I have a great deal to do. Give my kind regards to Connie, and say that I shall call the next time I am in town. I am very anxious to see Miss Cameron also. But you say she is coming down to the dower house on Saturday. Goodbye."

Mary's hand lay in Ralph's for a moment and their eyes met. And then the girl knew that Ralph still loved her, and the knowledge thrilled her with a sudden happiness. She did not dare to stop and analyse her feelings, but deep down in her heart she knew that when the time came Ralph would have his own way.

CHAPTER L—HARD PUT TO IT

With a sigh of passionate relief Vincent Dashwood watched the cab drive away. He hardly knew what he had to fear, and yet he discovered the fact that he had got rid of some great danger. True, Ralph Darnley had more or less betrayed his secret to Mrs. Speed, but then that discovery might have been made at any moment.

Dashwood called impatiently to the tenant of the house. No reply came. He walked into the dining-room muttering to himself. Mrs. Speed stood there by the fireplace, her hands clasped convulsively together, her face hard and grey. Once in his life Dashwood had been in court and heard a woman sentenced to death. It came back to him now that the face of the criminal had looked exactly like Mrs. Speed's.

"What on earth is the matter with you?" he asked brutally.

"Wait a moment," the woman said hoarsely. "I was thinking, I was trying to get it all clear in my brain. It seems impossible, altogether preposterous. He told me that you were Sir Vincent Dashwood. He wasn't mad, was he?"

"Perhaps not," Dashwood grinned, "but I shall think you are if you go on like this. I didn't dare to tell you at first because you do such foolish things. You are quite good enough to have written to the old girl and told her everything. It is a very fortunate thing that Lady Dashwood regards you as being no longer in the world."

"Is it? Are you sure that Lady Dashwood thinks me dead?"

"Of course she does. I got that out of her by judicious pumping. Now that Ralph Darnley has given me away I can tell you the whole truth. I got sick of plodding in the City on small pay and hard work. One or two things you told me gave me an idea of the game. I got hold of all those letters and things and learned them by heart. Gradually, the whole story was mine. Then I pretended to you that I had something to do in the north. I didn't go north at all; I went down to Dashwood and introduced myself to the old lady. She asked me a lot of questions, and I replied to them satisfactorily. Of course, she did not recognise me as the boy I was when we left the parish seventeen years ago. And she put old Slight on me, too. Well, I satisfied old Slight, too, though at the first go-off he also regarded me as an impostor. Still, I hadn't the nerve to go the whole thing, and pretended that I desired to wait till the old lady was dead. And she was so much in love with the girl who was here just now that she allowed me to have my own way. It was only when I looked like getting into trouble over a charge of burning the Hall down that I had to speak. And blest if Ralph Darnley did not come forward and produce the very marriage certificate that I needed. It was as easy as falling off a house. Everybody gave way to me without a struggle, I stepped into the estate and the title. That is not more than a week ago. The only people who made a fuss were the lawyers. That is why I came to you for those letters. But I shall soon stop the mouths of those old landsharks, and then we shall have a good time. No more dodging about and worrying over your rent in the future, mother."

But Mrs. Speed shared no joy in the prospect of her emancipation. The grey look had not left her face and the strained terror was still in her eyes.

"I didn't mind it," she said. "At any rate, I have tried to be honest. And so you claimed the estate of the Dashwoods on the ground that you are the son of Ralph Dashwood, and all the time Ralph Darnley, as he calls himself, was looking on. Has the man any bitter grudge against you?"

"Why should he? I never saw him in my life till a little less than a month ago."

"And he permits this farce to go on! Why? What strange scheme has he in his mind? Oh, why did he not turn up before, and prevent this great temptation from being forced on you?"

The listener stared in astonishment at Mrs. Speed. A feeling of danger troubled him. He caught the woman almost roughly by the shoulder and shook her.

"What is the matter with you?" he demanded. "Why can't you speak out? Who is this Ralph Darnley that you should be in such mortal fear of him?"

"There is no Ralph Darnley," Mrs. Speed cried. "That man is Ralph Dashwood, the son of the Dashwood who married my sister and then disappeared. How do I know? Why, he is the very image of his father, as the latter was as a young fellow. Directly he came into the room just now I recognised him. You could have knocked me down with a feather. I have a portrait of Ralph Dashwood upstairs—I only turned it out last night. And when I show you that photo you will have no doubts as to who this Ralph Darnley is. Why he is allowing you to stand in his shoes is a mystery. When he comes to declare his identity he will make very short work of you, Vincent."

"Go up and get that photograph," the listener said hoarsely, "I'll get to the bottom of this."

The photograph was a faded one, but there was no comfort in it for the man who chose to call himself Vincent Dashwood. It was exactly as his mother had said. Making due allowances for the change in fashion and dress, it was Ralph Darnley who smiled out of the photograph into Vincent Speed's terrified eyes.

"You're right," he said, "right as rain. No use disputing the thing in the face of evidence like that. But what is that chap waiting for, why is he making a cat's paw of me like this? No wonder that he could supply me with a copy of the marriage certificate of his father's second matrimonial venture when he was the offspring of the alliance. The question is? How much longer is he going to keep me on the string? Still, nobody else knows. The best thing I can do is to push a mortgage through and make myself secure with as much money as I can lay my hands on. Perhaps I may manage to bamboozle Lady Dashwood out of a bit more. At any rate, she does not know anything of this business, for—"

"Fool," Mrs. Speed cried, "of course she knows. Hasn't she seen Ralph Darnley?"

"Well, yes, he seems to be a prime favourite at the dower house."

"Naturally. Why, as soon as her ladyship set eyes upon the young fellow who chooses to call himself Ralph Darnley she would recognise him. Do you suppose that you could deceive a mother over a thing like that? She recognised him instantly. So did old Slight. So would anybody who knew his father."

"Then why on earth didn't he kick me into the street?"

"Who can tell? Perhaps he came back to see how things were before he disclosed himself. At any rate, he has fooled you. Oh, why do you stay here like this, when at this very moment there may be a warrant out for your arrest?"

Vincent Speed, to call him by his proper name, started and changed colour. It seemed hard to lose everything just as the whole world was in his grasp. At any rate, he would not go empty away, he would bluff it a little longer. Let him have a week or so, and then the foe could do as he pleased. It would be an easy matter to raise a vast sum of money on the family estates.

"I can't go back now," he said, "I must carry on the game till I have made it worth while. And it is a strange thing to me if Lady Dashwood knows anything. She is too simple-minded to be able to keep up the deception. She would show it in her manner if she had made the discovery that I am an impostor. She is just the same to me as she ever was. Swells of that sort are not given to conceal their feelings.

"Oh, are they not?" Mrs. Speed said bitterly, "I know better. They can stoop like the rest of us when it suits their book to do so. Well, go your own way, and see what you can do, Vincent. It is just possible that when the time comes, I can find a way to win Lady Dashwood over to our side; at least, I can use her as an advocate for clemency as far as you are concerned."

"What do you mean by that?" Speed asked eagerly.

"I will not tell you," Mrs. Speed said with some show of firmness, "I have let you learn too much already. And the secret is not entirely mine. Now you go your way, and let me hear from you how things are going. But they can only go in one way. Badly as you have used me, bad son as you are, I can't forget that you are my son. It is no fine thing to be a woman—men never suffer as we do."

Vincent Speed went away with a troubled mind and an uneasy feeling that some disaster was hanging over him. The more he thought over the disclosures of the past hour, the more they puzzled him. Well, he would have to struggle on a little longer, until he had a large sum of money at his disposal. He drove down to Bedford Row, where the office of the family solicitors was situated, and sent in his card to the head of the firm. The latter received him with somewhat cold politeness—he would like to know what he could do for Sir Vincent.

Speed went on to explain. But no response came from the clean-shaven man on the far side of the table. Mr. Morley shook his head.

"We can't do it," he said. "In the present circumstances it is impossible. Of course, we have many clients who would be prepared to lend money on the Dashwood property, but we are not yet satisfied as to—er—the legal aspect of your claim. Till that point is cleared up to our satisfaction, we must decline both to arrange the mortgage or even to part with the deeds relating to the property."

Speed protested, but protested in vain. And nothing moved the iron-faced man from his purpose; he might have been a statue for all he heeded those threats and expostulations.

CHAPTER LI—COLD COMFORT

In an aimless kind of way Speed stepped into the street and turned his steps in the direction of the City. It had occurred to him almost in the light of an inspiration that Horace Mayfield might be of use at this juncture. Mayfield's office was full of clients; the place had an air of prosperity. But the head of the firm looked tired and jaded as Speed came into his private room; the fingers on his cigarette shook terribly.

"Sit down," Mayfield said curtly, "I have been wondering what had become of you. I have been expecting to hear about that sum of money we spoke of. Now that you have come so easily into the estate there can be no difficulty. The man who calls himself Ralph Darnley evidently is not aware of his own identity."

"Oh, isn't he?" Speed sneered, "that's just where you make the mistake. I have had no end of an eye-opener this morning, in fact, what you might call a regular staggerer. It came from my mother. I wish that I had taken her into my confidence from the first. But perhaps I had better tell you all about it."

"It would perhaps be as well," Mayfield said grimly. "Go on."

Speed proceeded to tell his story. Long before he had finished Mayfield's grey face became still more ashen and the fingers on his cigarette trembled visibly.

"So the ship has foundered," he said. "I've got a shrewd idea as to the game that Darnley is playing. I took that man for a fool. As a matter of fact, he is the cleverest chap I ever came across. To be candid, I did his father out of a lot of money. I played much the same game with Sir George Dashwood. And it seemed to me that Ralph Darnley was going to take it lying down. He made no face; he took no proceedings. And then it came upon me like a thunderbolt. At the time he was working up a case against me. He put it into the hands of the cleverest firm of criminal lawyers in London. He arranged such a damning lot of facts before me that I was bound to sacrifice everything to save a prosecution. I scraped the money together from all kinds of sources. I robbed other clients to get it. At the moment all my speculations go wrong, of course. I'm in a desperate hole, Speed; there isn't a man in London who is in such a hole to-day. If I don't get £30,000 by Monday I shall have to bolt—and there is no safe place to bolt to nowadays. You will have to get me this money on mortgage."

"But I can't," Speed protested. "I went to the family lawyers just now, and they refused to have anything to do with it. Said they were by no means satisfied as to my legal position. They went so far as to declare they not only decline to raise money on the estate, but they refuse to give up the deeds."

Something like a groan came from Mayfield's lips, but his busy brain was working all the time. He saw where the difficulty lay. With Ralph out of the way he could, and would, crush Speed like a fly. He would expose the impostor without mercy, and then things would revert to the old order as they were before Ralph Darnley appeared.

An accident to Ralph Darnley! The real owner of the estate out of the way! Properly manipulated, this might mean the recovery of that money from Darnley's solicitors. It would at any rate mean the return of George Dashwood to his own once more, the putting of the screw on Mary. The idea whirled in Mayfield's mind like a dazzling wheel. He did not dare to look at Speed; he was afraid of the tale his eyes might tell.

"I must have time to think this over," he said. "Meanwhile, you had better return to Dashwood as if nothing out of the common had happened. I'll come down and dine with you to-morrow night and stay till the morning. Then get hold of this so-called Darnley, and see if you can pump any further information out of him. If you could possibly induce him to dine with us so much the better. Only, if I were you, I should not say that you had asked me. I've got a scheme working in my mind, but it is not quite safe as yet, so we need not discuss it."

"All right," Speed said moodily, "you are a much cleverer chap than I am, and I shall rely on you to find some way out of the trouble. When I think what is slipping through my fingers like this, I could commit murder."

Speed spoke vehemently, with a voice that rasped hoarsely. Mayfield started, to find that his thoughts and Speed's were running in such parallel grooves. He made a gesture of impatience, indicating that he should like to be alone. Speed lounged out, lunched freely, and, with the courage that is born of wine, took his way to the station with a resolve to return to Dashwood without delay.

Everything seemed just the same there; there was no suggestion that anybody knew of the deceit which had been practised on the old house. Even Slight appeared to be more respectful than usual, but this was all prearranged; Ralph had travelled down by the same train as Speed, and Slight was fresh from an interview with the man whom he called his master. It was after tea that Speed went over to the dower house. His heart was beating a little faster than usual; he felt his colour come and go as Lady Dashwood came into the garden with a basket and a pair of scissors in her hand. Her greeting was cold and formal as usual; but Speed could not detect any change in her manner.

"Let me hold the basket for you," he said graciously. "You are going to get some roses?"

"Yes," Lady Dashwood replied, "I prefer to arrange my own flowers. And I have a young friend coming to stay with me to-morrow, an acquaintance of Mary's."

So far all was well, for the speaker did not refer to Mary as Miss Dashwood; it was evident to Speed that he was still regarded as one of the family. He wondered if Lady Dashwood had any idea as to his real identity.

"I saw Mary to-day," he said. "She had been lodging with a woman I know, a Mrs. Speed. She has been very unfortunate of late, and—"

"I know Mrs. Speed quite well," Lady Dashwood replied. "Her father was a tenant on the estate many years ago. And I have heard all about the misfortune. In fact, I was in London yesterday, and called upon Mrs. Speed, who had written to me. What is the matter?"

"A thorn from one of the roses," Speed said in some confusion, "in my finger."

He was staggered at the information delivered in Lady Dashwood's quiet, level voice. Why had his mother not told him? Why had she withheld this fact from him? Perhaps she had forgotten it in the agitation of the startling disclosures of the morning. But Speed took fresh heart of grace from the news. That Lady Dashwood was not talking at him he felt certain; her voice was too matter of fact for that.

"That's a strange thing," Speed continued to say in a fairly steady voice. "I did not know it before. Let me get the roses for you from the top of the tree, they are so much finer. Have you seen anything of Ralph Darnley lately?"

"Not for a day or two," Lady Dashwood replied. "He has been in London, but I believe that he is coming back some time to-day, and I should not be surprised if he came over here later."

As a matter of fact Ralph put in an appearance before the basket of roses was filled. If the suspicions of Speed had been rocked to sleep, they were awakened now, when he saw the way in which Lady Dashwood smiled at the newcomer. There was real affection in her glance; the pressure of her hand was warm and clinging.

"So you have come back again," she said, "I have quite missed you. And I have felt so lonely all day. Won't you take pity on me and dine with me to-night?"

Ralph expressed his gratification at the request. There was no fault to find with his manner towards Speed. The latter was puzzled and worried.

"You have not dined with me yet," he said. "What do you say to coming in to-morrow at half-past seven? Positively, I won't take a refusal."

Ralph hesitated just for a moment. Perhaps a feeling of curiosity moved him, for he inclined his head presently with a smile.

It was hard work to keep up appearances with this man, but it was not going to be for much longer. Ralph had made up his mind to that as soon as he had parted with Mary that morning.

"I shall be pleased," he said, "Lady Dashwood, won't you let me come into the house and help to arrange those flowers? I have a woman's weakness for that sort of thing. You should see how the roses grow in California."

The pair walked towards the house and Speed lounged away. On the whole he had no cause to be dissatisfied with the afternoon's work. He was still puzzled and uneasy, but Lady Dashwood's manner had gone a long way to reassure him. But he was frightened over Lady Dashwood's visit to his mother. He was inclined to be bitter against the latter because she had not told him. The problem still filled his mind as he reached the Hall and stumbled into the dining-room. He poured himself out a large glass of whisky and soda, and took a cigarette from the silver box on the table. And there on the table beside the cigarettes lay a telegram. Speed tore it open and rapidly cast his eye over the contents:—

"Make no mistake as to Darnley to-morrow night. He must dine with you. All arrangements made and plan complete. Wire reply immediately.—MAYFIELD."

Speed chuckled to himself as he filled in the reply form. If Mayfield had laid his plans after his own fashion then success was bound to follow.

CHAPTER LII—THE SPIDER'S WEB

Speed rose next morning with a sense of his dangers and responsibilities. He had sat up late the night before, thinking things over to the accompaniment of much whisky and soda. Therefore, his head was heavy and his eyes were dull as he crept down late to breakfast. He was inclined to take the gloomiest view of the situation; the cheerfulness of Mr. George Dashwood irritated him.

Whatever Dashwood's faults were, he did not number dissipation of that degrading kind amongst them. He looked cheerful enough as he sat before the open window reading the paper and smoking an after-breakfast cigarette. He greeted Speed heartily.

"Why do you smoke here?" the latter growled. "You know I can't stand the smell of tobacco before I've had my breakfast. Go outside and finish it."

"All right, my dear fellow," Dashwood said politely. There was something almost cringing in his manner. "Sorry to annoy you. Fine morning."

The speaker appeared anxious to please. He wanted to ignore the unpleasant feeling that Speed despised him. There was little chance now of burning incense on the altar of family pride; Speed took care of that. He was at no pains to conceal the fact that he regarded Dashwood as a pensioner, dependent upon his bounty, and to be treated accordingly. Dashwood had fallen a long way indeed when he accepted the hospitality of his supplanter.

"What a confounded nuisance that old beggar is," he muttered, heedless of the fact that Slight stood by the sideboard. "I shall have to get rid of him altogether. If he had the spirit of a man he would not stay here. And they talk of the pride of the Dashwoods. Slight, why aren't there any curried eggs and some devilled kidneys? Am I always to be telling you about it? What a fine thing it is to be a pampered, lazy lout of a man-servant. What are you gaping at?"

"The eggs are under the silver cover, sir," Slight replied. "The kidneys are here over the spirit lamp, sir. The rest of your remarks are unnecessary, sir."

"Oh, are they? Did you behave in this insolent way in Sir Ralph's time?"

"Sir Ralph was a gentleman, sir. He knew how to speak to his dependents."

"Oh, did he?" Speed roared, "I suppose I don't. If I like to swear at my confounded flunkeys I'll do it. They can take it out in extra wages. If this kind of thing goes on we shall part, Slight."

"Very good, sir," Slight responded. "You have only to say the word. You may be interested to hear that only last night I had great difficulty in preventing the whole of the servants from resigning in a body."

Speed had no more to say. He was half afraid of a quarrel to the end with Slight. The latter knew too much. The studied insolence that underlay his respectful manner proved that. He moved about the room now with the air of a man who is depriving himself of the decencies of life. He poured out the coffee in a lordly way, as if under protest. Speed made advances towards conciliation.

"Mr. Mayfield is coming down to-night," he said, "he will dine here and probably stay till to-morrow. Tell the housekeeper this. Mr. Darnley will dine here also. I should like the cook to be sure of something extra. I can leave you to see to the wines."

"Mr. Darnley dining here, sir?" Slight asked with a rising inflection of voice. "Coming here to-night to meet that—I mean, Mr. Mayfield?"

"Well, why not? Any objection to make, Slight? Any little alteration to suit you? You have only to mention it."

Slight muttered a hasty apology. He had come very near to betraying himself. As he looked into Speed's bloodshot eyes he saw something there that filled his heart with a sudden fear. For the old man knew everything; there was not a single move in the game with which he was not acquainted.

But Speed had forgotten all about Slight and his little slip. A small liqueur and a cigarette put him on good terms with himself once more. It was a beautiful day, too, with a soft breeze and brilliant sunshine. Across the park the deer were moving in a dappled line; the fine old gardens were looking their very best. As Speed paced up and down the terrace one gardener and another touched their hats to him. It filled him with a feeling of pleasure—flattered self-importance. It was worth the risk to be the head of a place like this, to feel that it was all his own. And only two years before he had been the slave of the pen, the toady of a sweating employer.

Speed felt that he could never give it up again. In his heart he was a murderer, so far as Ralph Darnley was concerned. He had read somewhere that there were several different kinds of poisons that left no trace behind. One of these was the virus of the cobra. No doubt that could be obtained in London, where money could procure anything. A drop of that, and Ralph Darnley was a dead man. Nobody would be any the wiser, it would be assumed that he had died of heart failure. A comparatively small outlay might procure the poison. It would be worth while going to London to see.

In these circumstances Speed knew that he would not have hesitated. He really could not give up the place. He had always naturally been of extravagant, luxurious tastes, and now he was in a position to gratify them to the full. The new West End tailor grovelled before him; jewellers and wine and cigar merchants laid their stocks at his feet; he had only to choose the list. If he rang the bell a score of servants were ready to wait on him; the costliest wines were at his disposal.

No, it would be impossible to give it up. Speed's mind kept harping on the matter of those poisons. He must try to find out where they could be procured. Once Ralph Darnley was out of the way, nobody would trouble him any more. Once that event happened nobody would dispute his claim. But then perhaps Mayfield had an idea. Mayfield was a clever, long-headed chap, who was not disposed to be scrupulous. On the whole, perhaps it would be as well to leave things to Mayfield.

There would be plenty of time to discuss matters before dinner. There was more than time as it turned out, for Mayfield arrived unexpectedly before luncheon. He looked drawn and worried, Speed thought, but there was a grim determination in his eye that Speed liked. Mr. Dashwood met Mayfield in the friendliest possible manner. If he felt any disgust towards the newcomer he disguised it very effectively. He went off presently under a strong hint that his host and Mayfield had some important business to discuss. He was going as far as Longtown, he said, and should not be back before dinner.

"That's the way to get rid of him," Speed said as he lay back in his chair, a large cigar between his lips. Slight had placed the wine on the table and vanished. "What a useless old encumbrance he is about the house. I shall have to get rid of him, Mayfield. When I wrote my generous offer I hoped that Mary would come, too. Those confounded servants want keeping in hand, and, besides, nobody seems to care about calling here, so long as there is nothing in the shape of a mistress about the place."

"Everybody has been wise," Mayfield said cynically. "Anyway, I am glad you have not got rid of old Dashwood yet. He is going to be a puppet in the play. We shall be able to make a very effective use of him before the day is out. Nothing happened yet, no kind of move on the part of the foe, I suppose?"

"No," Speed explained, "nothing. I saw Lady Dashwood last night. She treated me just in the same way as usual, which is all the more strange if she knows who I really am."

"I don't suppose for a moment that she knows who you really are," Mayfield said. "She may know who you are not—and that's her grandson. But if Darnley was out of the way things would be quite different. Nobody would worry you any longer. How did you manage to get him to come and dine here to-night?"

"The thing worked out easily enough. I simply asked him and he said yes. He hesitated just for a moment and then he smiled in a queer kind of way. But one thing you may be sure of—he would not have come had he known that he was going to meet you."

"Perhaps not," Mayfield grinned. "Shall we dine here to-night?"

The question was put so abruptly that Speed started. He could see that something evil was brooding in the mind of his companion. Mayfield's eyes were taking in the arrangements of the room as a general might survey a field of battle. There were three long windows in the room, leading to a kind of balcony outside. In front of one of the windows was a double screen in carved oak, which shielded the window and made it into a kind of alcove. Mayfield noted all this with grim satisfaction, for a smile played about the corners of his hard mouth.

"I asked you if we dined here to-night?" he said again.

"Oh, yes. Why not? We generally dine here—it is so much more pleasant a room than the big dining hall. Why do you ask?"

"We will come to that presently," Mayfield replied. "I take it that those windows open to the terrace outside. Is there a seat behind that screen? I mean a seat that one could lounge in."

"A big armchair," Speed whispered. "What are you driving at?"

CHAPTER LIII—THE WEB TIGHTENS

"We shall get to the point all in good time," Mayfield said deliberately. "That screen forms a kind of cosy corner and entrance to the terrace. If a good dinner gave you a headache, and you could not stand the light, you might do worse than sit in the big chair and smoke there whilst the others sat around the table. I planned it all out coming along, with the recollection of this room in my mind. But the geographical situation is even better than I anticipated."

"What on earth are you driving at?" Speed asked with nervous irritation.

Mayfield laughed. There was something hard and grating in his mirth.

"Well, I'll put it in the form of a parable if you like," he said. "Suppose that you and I found ourselves in a very tight place. It wants no imagination to conceive that, you say. Very well, the situation is granted. We are in the warm corner, and the same man is keeping us there. I need not say I am alluding to Ralph Darnley. If I don't get him out of the way, I am a ruined man. Another few days, and I shall have to fly the country in disgrace; I shall be brought back and put on my trial. The result of that trial is a foregone conclusion and society will be deprived of my presence for some years to come. My only hope is in help of a substantial nature from you."

"That's all right," Speed whispered hoarsely, "you shall have as much as you like, if you will only show me the way to raise the money."

"That's precisely what I am going to do. Darnley must be got of the way. Then you will have all the money you need. Listen to me. Darnley dines here to-night. He will not stay late because of my presence. When the dinner is practically finished you will plead a headache, and go and sit in that big chair with the window open. From time to time you will put in a remark to show that you are still there. When Darnley rises to go I shall walk as far as the hall with him and help him on with his coat. It may happen that he will smoke a cigar that I shall select for him—a fresh cigar to carry him home. A few whiffs of that cigar will make him very giddy, for my cigars are strong. I have made arrangements for a message to come to Darnley about half past ten saying that Lady Dashwood desires to see him at the dower house to-night.

"Now, if my memory serves me correctly, the quickest way to the dower house is along the terrace here. Darnley will go that way. He will be very giddy and sleepy. You are in the alcove whilst I am talking to old Dashwood. This is where Dashwood comes in, where he will be a witness for me. As Darnley staggers along, you get out on to the terrace. You happen to have a loaded stick handy. I don't wish to suggest any connection between the two events, but it is just possible that Darnley will be found in the park to-morrow morning, with his head split open and his pockets empty. That would be a fortunate accident for us."

"Yes," Speed said with chattering teeth, "it—it would. But I don't quite—"

"Oh, the rest is quite easy. I call to you directly I fancy things are safe, and you come into the room grumbling at the light. I only want you to answer a question, and so prove that you have been in the room all the time. We don't lose sight of one another after that, not till everybody has gone to bed, when I slip out and place the body so that it can be found to look as if robbery had been the motive. Can you do it?"

Speed nodded without reply. The room had grown suddenly dark, for a thunderstorm had come up from the west. There was a lurid flash of lightning followed by a clap of thunder, and then the rain came down in torrents. It was only a matter of ten minutes before the light came back again. Speed nodded once more.

"All right," he whispered, "I am a fairly powerful man, and physically, I have nothing to fear from Ralph Darnley. Besides, you say he will not be in a condition...It's a dreadful thing to think of, Mayfield, but I can't give this up. I really couldn't go back to the old life of drudgery again. Only please don't revert to the subject. Let us have another glass of wine and forget all about it for the time being."

The afternoon wore on; evening came at length, and presently with it, Ralph Darnley. He entered the big dining-room where the others awaited him. His easy manner changed as he caught sight of Mayfield. Just for the moment he felt a desire to walk out of the room and leave the house. He had not expected an insult like this. But, on the other hand, he had asked no questions; he had accepted the invitation as much out of curiosity as anything else, and, besides, Mary's father was there. And Ralph had been in more questionable circumstances before now.

"I think you know Mayfield," Speed said carelessly.

"We have met on several occasions," Ralph said quietly, "we have had business relations together. But I hardly expected the pleasure."

"Well, you have nothing to regret as far as the business relations are concerned," Mayfield said with a laugh. "Still, it is possible to forget all about that for the moment. My friend, Sp—I mean, Sir Vincent, has asked me to stay here for a night. Upon my word, he is a man to be envied! It isn't often that a place like this tumbles into a man's lap. With most of us virtue is its own reward."

Ralph made some suitable reply. He was annoyed and angry with himself for coming. But there was no getting out of it now; he would have to go on till half-past ten at least. It was a relief in its way when Slight came in with the announcement that dinner was ready. That meal would occupy two hours at least.

There was everything set out just as it had been in the old days, and yet there was a subtle difference. The house lacked the presence of a mistress; it needed the refining influence of a woman. And, in his mind's eye, Ralph saw the woman there, smiling and tender at the head of the table, her eyes looking into his. It was worth all the discomfort and unpleasantness of such a meal to know that the time would not be long now. The puppets had nearly finished their parts, and the hour for their removal was close at hand.

But the dinner dragged all the same; only Mr. Dashwood made spasmodic efforts at keeping up the flagging conversation. He was fitfully gay, perhaps he noted the look of displeasure in Ralph's eyes.

The cloth was removed at length and the wines sparkled red and white under the soft, shaded lamps. Mayfield slipped out of the room presently under pretence that he had forgotten his cigar case. Directly he entered he turned to Ralph.

"A message has come for you," he said. "Lady Dashwood would like to see you at the dower house on your way home. She will not detain you long."

"In that case I must not be late," Ralph replied. He was glad of the excuse to get away a little sooner than he had expected. "What is the matter with our host?"

For Speed had started, the cigar fell from his fingers. The false message was a signal to him that the tragedy had begun, and he was expected to play his part when the time came. He placed his hand to his head and groaned.

"A bilious headache," he said, "they give me a lot of trouble from time to time. This one has been coming on all day. The light hurts my eyes fearfully. If you will excuse me, I'll go and sit in the shade behind the screen. I shall be able to hear all that is going on from there."

Ralph murmured his sympathy. All he wanted to do now was to get away. He was heartily sorry that he had come at all. Half an hour slipped away, half an hour's talk about mining speculation, to which Mr. Dashwood listened eagerly. Everything in the nature of gambling always appealed to him.

"I am afraid I must be going," Ralph said, "It is necessary for me to get away early if I am to see Lady Dashwood to-night."

"Don't go without a cigar," Mayfield urged as he proffered his case. "There are no finer cigars in the world, though I say it myself. Do try one."

Ralph held out his hand for the case. It certainly was an excellent cigar. There was something very soothing about it. Mayfield followed Ralph into the hall, only to return a moment later with the information that the visitor had departed. Then came the sound of a movement from behind the screen, followed by what might have been a moan of pain.

"Poor chap," Mayfield said with ready sympathy. "Now let me go on, Mr. Dashwood, and explain to you what I meant about those South African shares. I want to prove to you what a good thing they are, if only you have the pluck to take them and hold them."

"Provided that you've got the money," Dashwood laughed, "but, as you are aware, I have no money; fortune has been very unkind to me lately. Still, on the other hand—but you do not seem to be listening to me."

"I—I beg your pardon," Mayfield stammered, "I am listening to something outside. Let us ask Sir Vincent if his head is well enough to offer an opinion. I say, Dashwood, would you mind coming here for a moment. Your relation here says—"

"All right," came a little voice from behind the screen, "I'm coming. Why can't you leave a fellow alone? I declare I'm shaking from head to foot with cold. Let us sit here out of the draught...I'm fairly stung with the cold."

The speaker's teeth were chattering, his face was a ghastly blue colour. And, for a long time afterwards nobody spoke besides Mr. George Dashwood!

CHAPTER LIV—"EYES CLEARER GROWN—"

"I'm glad she's gone," Connie exclaimed as the cab drove away and the last flutter of Grace's handkerchief had vanished. "Let us hope she will have a happy time with Lady Dashwood. But why didn't your dear relative fetch her as arranged? Why that telegram? I hope there is nothing wrong at the dower house?"

"Of course there is nothing wrong," Mary laughed. "It is not like you to imagine things. What is the matter with you this morning, Connie?"

Connie remarked tearfully that she did not know. For once in a way she was on the verge of tears. Perhaps she missed Grace, for her manner had changed, directly the cab was gone.

"Now I am going to know all about it," said Mary. "You are the dearest friend I have ever made as yet, and it hurts me for you to keep a secret from me."

"What a change!" Connie said, a smile flashing through her tears. "What has become of the cold, reserved girl that I met some days ago at Victoria Station? Well, I'll tell you what is the matter. You know that I lost those sketches the night Mrs. Speed went away and left us in the lurch. They were badly needed, and I could not supply them. They had to fake up some old blocks and it caused no end of trouble. The long and short of it is that last night I had a curt intimation that I need not expect to get any more work for the Wheezer. It means that my poor little weekly income has vanished for the present. It's very hard just at a time when—"

"Oh, my dear," Mary cried, "how dreadful! And this is why you kept up before—"

"Before Grace. I could not possibly tell her, it would have been hateful to spoil her pleasure like that. But it has been hard work, Mary. Two or three times to-day I have had to struggle to keep from positive blubbering. I hate to snivel, but I suppose we are all prone to that at times. What to do I don't know."

Mary looked up from the packs of postcards she was engaged upon.

"Please don't worry," she said, "it isn't as if we were penniless. I am certain that you will get something to do before long."

"My dear girl, don't forget that the rent and the bread and butter go on just the same. And don't forget either that whilst the grass grows the steed starves."

"Not when the other steed has plenty of oats to spare," Mary laughed. "What do you think of that for an epigram? If painting fails, I shall take to literature. I'm quite sure that I shall be as good an author as an artist. Don't think me hard or unsympathetic, Connie. I know how good you are, I know that you would cheerfully share your last shilling with me, little as I deserve it. And I am going to do the same by you. I have some three pounds left of the money I borrowed from that convenient relative at the pawnshop, and I calculate that I can raise quite two hundred pounds altogether. Within a short time you will find fresh work to do."

Connie's tears were falling freely now. The burst of grief seemed to do her good, for the sunny April smile flashed out again.

"You shall do as you like, dearest," she said. "Pride is a very sinful luxury for people in my position. And I had forgotten all about that Pandora's box of yours. It is just possible that on the strength of my Wheezer work I may get a commission from the Honeysuckle Weekly. I believe they pay a slightly better price than the other papers. Let us have an early lunch, and then I can go the round of the offices. Don't worry if I am back late. And you can have a good long afternoon at the postcards."

Mary had a long afternoon at the postcards indeed, for tea had been a thing of the past for some time, and as yet Connie had not returned. Her head was aching now and her hands were stiff with the toil. How hot and stifling it was, how different to the coolness of the dower house. And Grace was there by this time, doubtless.

Mary's day-dreams vanished suddenly at the sound of a cab outside. Connie stepped out of the cab, followed by a tall, manly figure in a frock coat. From his quiet air and manner Mary put the stranger down at once as a doctor. She had little time to speculate as to that, for she saw to her distress that Connie's hat was off and that her head was bandaged up with a handkerchief. She staggered as she reached the pavement, and would have fallen but for the man by her side. Mary flew to the door with words of quick sympathy on her lips. She could see a curious tender smile on Connie's lips; her face was red; her eyes were shining with some great happiness.

"Not much the matter," she said. "I got jumbled up in the Strand, and the side-slipping of a motor threw me under a dray. The wheels did not go over me, and I have not come home to die or anything of that kind. I got a blow on the head, and I suppose I fainted. When I came to myself I was in Charing Cross Hospital. Dr. Newcome was very kind to me, and insisted on seeing me home in a cab. Strange as it may seem, Dr. Newcome is an old acquaintance of mine, Mary. This is Miss Dashwood."

"I am very happy to see you," the doctor said in a pleasant voice. "I am also glad to say that there is very little the matter with Miss Colam. I am almost glad of the accident because it has brought Miss Colam and myself in contact once more. I met her two years ago at Hastings, when I was getting over a bad illness."

"Then Dr. Newcome is your doctor, Connie," Mary cried.

Connie flushed to her eyes. The stranger dropped his Evening Standard on the table and affected to fold it neatly.

"I wish I could think so," he said. "We only met for a day. Dreadfully unconventional, was it not? But I was very lonely at that time and very ill. My outlook was rather gloomy, too. But I wanted to see Miss Colam again, and when I got back to London I called at her rooms only to find her gone. I hope she will believe me when I say that I have been looking for her ever since."

"The fortune of war," Connie said with a red face. "Nomads like ourselves are always changing quarters. And here I am just as poor as I was that day at Fairlight. I hope you can say more for your prospects, Dr. Newcome?"

"I have been very fortunate," Newcome said gravely. "A distant relative died and left me some money. The money arrived just in time to enable me to buy an exceedingly good practice. I was calling on a house surgeon friend of mine at Charing Cross, when Miss Colam came in. And I do hope she won't change her lodgings again without letting me know."

There was no mistaking the significance of the last few words. Clearly Connie had found the haven of rest for which her tired soul at times longed for. Mary remembered what she had said as to the man to cling to for protection in the hour of need, and what a blessed thing the man's love was for the lonely and depressed. In her mind's eye Mary could see herself alone in those dingy lodgings, painting her postcards and waiting for, what? It was, perhaps natural that the figure of Ralph Darnley should rise before her now.

"I won't," Connie promised. "You will come and see me again, Dr. Newcome?"

Newcome promised eagerly. He would be in town again in a day or two. Would the girls dine with him, and go to the theatre afterwards? He had an aunt in London, who he was sure would join the party. He would ask her to call on Connie.

"So this is an end of your trouble," Mary laughed, when Newcome had departed. "It is quite plain to me that you will very soon have the share of that practice at your disposal, dear. And if the happy expression of your face means anything, it tells me that you are not going to refuse the offer."

Connie hid her blushing face and laughed. She remarked that Dr. Newcome had left his paper behind him. With some show of interest, she turned over the paper. Then she stopped, and a little cry broke from her.

"Oh, Mary, listen to this!" she exclaimed. "'Mysterious outrage in Dashwood Park. Only this morning the body of a well dressed man was found lying in the avenue of Dashwood Park, the residence of Sir Vincent Dashwood. Robbery appears to have been the motive, for the pockets of the unfortunate man had been turned out, and his watch and chain were gone. As the sufferer was in evening dress, and had every appearance of being a gentleman, inquiries were made, with the result that the gentleman has been identified as Ralph Darnley. He is at present lying at the dower house in a precarious condition!'"

With a broken cry Mary rose to her feet. Her face was white as death and her hands were convulsively locked together. In a faint voice she asked for a time table; she wanted to know what time the next train went.

"You are going down to Dashwood?" Connie asked.

"Oh, of course I am," Mary wept. "I could not stay away. I must be near him so that I may know how he is progressing. I must help to nurse him back to life again. I owe him everything—my very existence, my new self, my womanhood that has come as such a precious thing to me. And to think that once I was fool enough to prefer pride to the affection of a man like that, who—"

"Mary, Mary, you love him. You love Ralph Darnley like that!"

Mary's eyes shone with a strange light. She flung her hands above her head despairingly.

"I know it now," she said, "now that it is perhaps too late. Yes, ever since I first met Ralph I have loved him with my whole heart and soul."

CHAPTER LV—NOT DEAD

Mayfield's face was grim and set; there was just a flash of contempt in his eyes for Speed, who was breathing hard. The dramatic part of the situation was lost on Mr. George Dashwood, who could think of nothing else beyond the speculative possibilities that Mayfield had been holding out to him.

"You don't seem to be any better," Mayfield said to Speed, "you look ghastly. Anybody would think that you had been caught in some crime."

Behind the contemptuous words there was a note of warning to Speed. Anybody less blind than George Dashwood would have noticed how agitated he was. Speed caught just a glimpse of his own features in a quaint old mirror over the fireplace. He could see that he was green and grey by turns; he started at his own haggard face. Small wonder, then, that Mayfield had given him a warning.

"I'm feeling like a corpse," he said. "It's agony for me to sit up any longer. If you don't mind, I think I'll go to bed."

"Why not try the fresh air?" Dashwood suggested. "It is a cure sometimes."

"Drizzling with rain," Speed replied. "Darnley turned up the collar of his overcoat as he passed the window. I could see him from behind the screen. On the whole, I should be far better between the sheets."

As he spoke Speed shot a questioning glance at Mayfield. The latter nodded.

"Perhaps it would be as well," he said; "if you feel as seedy as that. I must not be long, either, as I have to leave pretty early to-morrow. I'll just finish my discussion with Mr. Dashwood over a cigar, and then I'll follow your example. I suppose the butler comes around and fastens up all the windows?"

"The rest of the house," Speed explained. "I generally fasten the windows here myself. I'll leave you to do it to-night, Mayfield. Don't forget. One never knows what sort of person is hanging about a house like this."

Speed crept out of the room and across the hall, on the way to his room. He was shaking from head to foot still and his legs were hardly equal to his weight. He lighted a candle with a trembling hand, taking several matches to do so. Out of the shadow came Slight, who watched his master with a curious expression.

"Perhaps you will permit me to do that for you, sir?" he suggested politely.

"Go away," Speed cried. "Go to bed. Think that I'm too drunk to light a candle? Why do you follow me like this? Send my man to me. Gone to Longtown for the night, has he? Oh, I recollect giving him permission now."

Speed staggered up the stairs, and into his own room. Once there, he opened a cupboard and produced therefrom a bottle of brandy. He poured out half a tumbler and drank it greedily. He placed his hands over his eyes as if to hide some horrible vision. He was free now to give way to his feelings; he was no longer under observation. He would have given ten years of his life to recall the last half hour.

He sat there, gazing into space and making no effort to remove his clothes. An hour passed; then there was a tap on the door. Speed started violently; he was half afraid that the arm of the law was groping for him already. His face cleared a little as Mayfield came in and closed the door very carefully.

"Well?" the latter said. "Are you getting over it? I'm more than sorry I started this little business. If Dashwood had had any power of observation he would have seen that there was something worse than illness the matter with you to-night."

"It was awful," Speed groaned, "you would feel just the same if you'd done it. All the time I was pretending to be ill behind the screen, I was standing by the open window. I heard Darnley say good-night to you. I stood with the loaded stick in my hand. And as he passed by the window under the veranda I struck him down...He fell stone dead without a single groan. He lay there absolutely still. And I would have forfeited all I had to recall those last few moments. If you could have seen his face—"

"Oh, never mind that," Mayfield said brutally. "The thing is done and there is an end of it. And you know perfectly well that you would do the same thing again to-morrow. So he lies there in the verandah, does he? What about the stick?"

"The stick is hidden in the laurel bushes. We can burn that when there is time."

"To-night. Our work is not finished. Darnley must not lie there. We shall have to carry him as far as the drive. It is a bit risky, but the thing must be done. Everybody has gone to bed now. Dashwood and old Slight can testify that neither of us have been out of the house since dinner time, so we are quite safe."

"Let him lie where he is," Speed whispered, with chattering teeth. "People will think that he came back for something after we had gone to bed, and that he had encounter with some prowling burglar. That's just as good as your plan."

"No, it isn't," Mayfield said impatiently. "Mine is much more artistic and reasonable. We have saved our own necks; now we want to put suspicion upon somebody outside. We've got to carry the body of Ralph Darnley as far as the avenue; we've got to turn out his pockets as if he had been robbed. We can bury what he has on him and destroy the loaded stick at the same time. Everybody has gone to bed. Come along."

Speed protested and groaned. But it was all the same to Mayfield. He contemptuously indicated the brandy bottle, and suggested that Speed should derive a little fleeting courage from it. Another strong dose and Speed declared himself to be ready.

They crept down into the hall and from thence into the darkened dining-room. In the hall Speed hastily snatched a big Inverness cape from the stand. His intention was obvious. He wanted to throw this over the body...It lay there quite still under the shelter of the verandah; outside the rain was gently pattering on the grass. With half averted head, Speed flung the cloak over the still black form.

He was heedless of the rain; both were heedless of the rain by this time. It was not a tiring work, for the night was warm, and Mayfield had caught a little of Speed's nervous excitement. He did not notice that it was raining at all. They staggered on for some five hundred yards along the avenue. Speed declared that he could not go any farther.

"This will do," he panted in a hoarse whisper. "Under the oak tree. It's just the very spot where a man would stop to light a cigar. You do the rest, Mayfield."

Mayfield did the rest cautiously enough. It was the dark before dawn; the birds were not yet awake. A rabbit dashed across the road, and Speed started. Mayfield was only at work a moment; it seemed like ages to Speed. They stole quietly back to the house without meeting anybody; they gained the dining-room at length. It was just as they had left it, nothing to show that anybody had been there. Then they were back once more in Speed's bedroom.

"I must have some more brandy," he said. "I believe I could drink the bottle. You are not looking quite so cool and self-possessed as usual, Mayfield. Take a drop."

"I hate the stuff," Mayfield growled. "All the same, I don't mind confessing that I am just a little bit shaky. I could do it with some whisky. I suppose I could find a decanter of it on the sideboard?"

"Always there," Speed explained. "There must have been some rain when we were out, for my coat is quite damp. So is yours. Better take it off."

Mayfield peeled off his dress coat carelessly. He took the candle and proceeded to make his way down the stairs once more. Surely enough the big glass bottle of whisky stood on the side-board. Mayfield helped himself liberally, and filled up the glass with a spurt of soda from a syphon. Somebody behind him coughed.

"It's only me, sir," the thin respectful voice of Slight said. "I've got a touch of neuralgia, and couldn't sleep, sir. And just now it seemed to me that I heard somebody about. Got the idea of burglars into my head, sir."

"Oh, that's all right," Mayfield said with a suggestion of relief in his tone. "I couldn't sleep either, so I came down for a drink."

Slight bowed respectfully. But his old eyes had not overlooked the fact that little beads of wet glistened on Mayfield's trousers, and that his dress shoes were spotted with mud. Very silently and respectfully he crept away up the back stairs, and so to the room of one of the menservants—a young protege of his. He was sleeping soundly enough as Slight laid a hand on his shoulder. He struggled to a sitting posture.

"Mr. Slight," he said sleepily. "What is the matter? Is the house on fire? Why you do look serious? What is the matter?"

"I don't know," Slight replied. "It may be murder for all I know. And I thought that I was too clever for those two chaps. Get up and dress yourself, Walters. As soon as ever it is light we've got something to do. Don't sit there asking a lot of foolish questions. How did they manage it when he went so early?"

Walters stared at the speaker, who pulled up abruptly.

"I dare say you think I am talking nonsense," he said. "Nothing of the kind, my lad. Just put your clothes on and come as far as my room. If anything has happened to that bonny lad of mine, I'll never forgive myself."

CHAPTER LVI—FOUND!

The morning was just breaking as Slight and his companion left the house. By the time that it was possible to see they began their search. By this time too, Walters had more than an inkling of what was wrong. They went first in the direction of the dower house and then back again to the avenue. It was broad daylight now, and the sun was climbing up over the hills behind the river. Nobody was to be seen yet, nothing heard but the mad song of the birds welcoming the glory of the morning. Presently Walters paused and pointed to a black huddled object under one of the great oaks.

"What's that?" he whispered with a blanched face. "It looks like a man sleeping there."

A cry half of anger, half despair, broke from Slight. He crossed the drive and fell on his knees by the side of the limp figure. His tears ran without restraint down the old man's withered face. He was beside himself with grief.

"It's Master Ralph," he moaned. "I knew that I should find him like this. But when he went off so early last night I felt that that message had done those two ruffians. It made me feel easier in my mind. If I'd told him of my suspicions he would only have laughed at me. And to think that I should find him dead like this."

"Perhaps he isn't dead," Walters suggested in a whisper.

"Perhaps, not. You are a sensible young chap Walters. He isn't dead, either. I can feel him breathing. Good job it was a warm night. Good job, too, he lay under a tree so that the wet couldn't get at him. There's blood all over the back of his head. A nice murderous crack he got there. And here am I doddering like a silly old woman, whilst there is work to be done. Go over to the corner of the wood yonder, and pull up one of those gorsed hurdles there. Be sharp, boy."

Walters returned presently, dragging after him a hurdle which was filled with gorse. And then on this, with their coats and vests under his head, they laid their unconscious burden. A faint groan broke from Ralph; he opened his eyes for a moment.

"It's concussion of the brain, that's what it is," Slight said, with tears running down his face freely. "I've helped once or twice in the hunting field before now. Just you get hold of the other end of the hurdle, and start off on the left foot. We'll get Mr. Ralph as far as the dower house and send for a doctor."

It was not far away to the dower house, the inmates of which were speedily aroused. A little time later and one of the footmen was riding for a doctor. They made Ralph as comfortable as possible. Lady Dashwood came into the dining-room presently, where Slight was waiting to see her.

"This is a very dreadful business, Slight," she said. "Mr. Ralph was robbed and half murdered on his way from the Hall, they say. Strange that you found him."

"Not so very strange, my lady," Slight replied, "seeing that I set out early to look for him. I thought last night when your message came—"

"What message do you mean? I sent no message to the Hall."

"Well, that's very strange! Mr. Mayfield is staying at the Hall. He told Mr. Ralph that you wanted to see him very particularly last night, and he left early in consequence. Call me an old fool if you like, my lady, but I had a fancy that those two men meant mischief to Mr. Ralph. I couldn't sleep for thinking of it. I came down-stairs very early this morning, and I found that Mayfield, not yet undressed, helping himself to whiskey and soda. And there was mud on his dress shoes. I couldn't stand it any longer, so I set out at daybreak to look for I didn't quite know what. And I found Mr. Ralph. How those fellows managed it, I can't say, but they did manage it. And it is no fault of theirs that they're not a pair of cold-blooded murderers."

The doctor came presently. He was upstairs for a long time, but when he came down again his face was not so grave as might be expected.

"A bad blow," he explained. "A bad concussion, but no brain injury as far as I can judge. And the patient is going on as well as I could expect. Oh, no, he isn't going to die. He has too good a constitution for that, and he has taken good care of himself. I'll come back in the course of an hour or so and report again."

There was nothing for it now but to wait and hope for the best and keep the patient quiet. Well satisfied with his efforts, Slight returned to the Hall. When he got back there he found that Mayfield had already departed. Speed, restless and irritable, and giving the impression that he had breakfasted on something potent, demanded to know where Slight had been. Mr. Dashwood had not come down to breakfast yet.

"Where have you been gallivanting to?" Speed demanded imperiously. "I'll put a stop to this. Pack up your traps and go. You'll not serve me any more."

"You never spoke a truer word than that," Slight said coolly. "I sha'n't serve you any more, for the very good reason that you won't be here to serve. If you raise a hand to me I'll break your head with this hot water jug, old man as I am. I was out early this morning looking for a murderer's work, and I found it. It was I who found the body of Mr. Ralph, and took it to the dower house. And he is not dead; and what is more to the point he isn't going to die, you cold-blooded assassin."

Speed's face turned a ghastly grey. His bluster had left him.

"I know now how it was done," Slight went on. "I guessed it all as soon as I heard that Lady Dashwood sent no message as to wanting to see Mr. Ralph last night. The dodge was to get him to leave the house and pass along the verandah. You shammed being ill, and pretended that the light was too strong for you. That enabled you to lie and wait till Mr. Ralph came along. Then you hit him with a loaded stick, the one that used to hang in the gun room. James missed that stick just now and told me so. And there poor Mr. Ralph lay till everybody had gone to bed. Then you stole out and carried him as far as the big oak tree, and left him there with his pockets all turned out as if robbery had been the motive. But one thing gave you away. Mr. Ralph left the house when it was raining. He walked under the balcony out of the rain till he was struck down by you, so that he lay sheltered.

"If he had walked from the house to the oak tree, under which we found him, his clothes would have been all wet. Whereas they were perfectly dry. Therefore, his body must have been carried to the old oak after the murderous assault had been committed. Probably you threw some kind of wrap over the body in case you met anybody—rabbit poachers or the like. Oh, you are very clever, sir, but you didn't work your plans quite so secure as you might. You have so arranged it that you can call Mr. Dashwood as a witness to prove that you had not been outside the house after Mr. Ralph left; but there are other things. I came down early this morning to find Mr. Mayfield here at the whisky and soda. His dress shoes were covered with mud. I've got those dress shoes, for I sent Walters home to get them."

Speed started again. He recollected now that Mayfield had made a fuss before starting over the loss of his evening slippers.

"And I've got yours," Slight went on. "I've got proof that you were both out in the rain last night, after everybody had gone to bed. And Mr. Ralph isn't dead. And before very long I shall have the pleasure of giving evidence against you both, and seeing that you don't either of you do any harm to society for some years to come. And I don't altogether absolve Mr. Ralph from blame. If he had spoken out in the first place, all this trouble would have been saved. If he had said openly, 'I am Sir Ralph Dashwood,' why—"

"He isn't," Speed said feebly. "I am Sir Vincent—"

"Vincent fiddlestick," Slight cried shrilly. "Just as if I didn't know who you were after seeing Sir Ralph for the first time after his return. I was a blind old fool not to have guessed from the start. I might have known where you learned all the family secrets. And when Sir Ralph came home my eyes were opened. He would not let me say anything, for he had his own reasons for concealing the truth for the present. But I knew who you were when I spotted who your mother was, Mr. Vincent Speed."

The wretched listener made no response. It was hopeless to continue the fight in the face of such evidence as this. Slight still held the hot water jug in his hand, ready for anything in the shape of an assault, but he need not have been alarmed.

"You are not so clever by half as you think you are," Slight went on. "You have only been the cat's paw of Mayfield all along. He knew all about Sir Ralph, though he may not have known my young master's reasons for concealing his identity. If this murder had been successful, and you had not been found out, what would have happened? Mayfield would have had you betrayed and kicked out of the house, and Mr. Dashwood, as Sir George, would have come into the title and estates again. And Mayfield would have married Miss Mary. That was Mayfield's little game as far as I can see it. I may be an old man, but I'm not quite devoid of wit for all that. And that's why I am no longer in your service, and so you can make the best of it."

Slight marched out of the room, feeling that he had vindicated his position and his manhood. Speed stood there gnawing his nails, sick at heart, fearsome of every sound. He was a fugitive now, ready to fly, eager to be away, but with no settled plan of action. His one idea was to be off to London now and see Mayfield.

CHAPTER LVII—A CLEAN BREAST OF IT

There were strange rumours in the air; the servants at the Hall were asking thrilling questions in whispers. Nobody seemed to know anything but Slight, who kept his counsel. Everything was going to come right in a day or two; all they had to do was to go about their business quietly. Late in the afternoon it became known that Sir Vincent had vanished, and within an hour or two, strange men with an air of authority were calling at the Hall and asking questions. Mr. Dashwood had gone over to the dower house to see what was really wrong. He found Lady Dashwood in the dining-room in deep discussion with the family solicitor, Mr. Morley.

"What is all this I hear?" Dashwood asked. "The new head of the family has vanished, and I'm told that he and Mayfield tried to murder Ralph Darnley last night. Slight has told me a great deal, but he will not say anything as to the motive for the extraordinary crime. He says he prefers to leave me to hear the truth from Lady Dashwood."

"Or from me," Mr. Morley said grimly. "As I have said all along, you have been the victim of a most impudent imposter—the son of a woman called Speed. Lady Dashwood has just been telling me the whole history of the painful case. I need not go into that at length, Mr. Dashwood, as it is a confidential matter. She was a sister of the late Mr. Ralph Dashwood's first wife, which accounts for many things that that impudent impostor knew. I hear that the police have taken out a warrant for the arrest of this Speed and his companion in crime, Horace Mayfield. In any case, they are not likely to trouble us again."

George Dashwood responded suitably. He hoped that Mr. Ralph Darnley was in no danger. At the same time he could not be blind to the fact that the amazing change in the condition of affairs made a great difference to his own position. He had suffered the most from the machinations of the rascal who had so deceived them all. Also, he could see now that he was free for ever from the persecutions of Horace Mayfield. He felt quite proud and self-important; his position took definite shape before him.

"In that case," he said, "we revert to the old condition of affairs. As a matter of fact, I have never had any occasion to drop the title to which—"

"Pardon me, sir," Morley said drily. "You never had any more right to it than the wretched criminal who at the present moment is flying from justice. The young man you know as Ralph Darnley is really Sir Ralph Dashwood. Lady Dashwood has just given me the most absolute proofs of his identity. Besides, just before his death, the last Ralph Dashwood wrote to me and explained everything. It was the new head of the family who asked me to let Vincent Speed have his lead for a time. I believe there was some quixotic and sentimental reason to account for this conduct on Sir Ralph's part. On that head Lady Dashwood can speak more definitely than I can."

"When the time comes," Lady Dashwood murmured. "It is exactly as Mr. Morley says, George. And I am glad to say the doctor reports very favourably of Ralph this afternoon. If you had ever known my son, George, you would not have doubted the identity of young Ralph directly you cast eyes on him. I would rather not tell you as yet the real reason why he wished to be known as Ralph Darnley."

George Dashwood was very disappointed. Yet, on the whole, things might have been worse. He had never disguised from himself that the deposed impostor was anything but a gentleman. And his position at the Hall might have been a comfortable one, but it was full of humiliation. These things Dashwood spoke of as he walked with Morley down the avenue.

Meanwhile Lady Dashwood was spending her time between the dining-room and the bedroom wherein Ralph lay. She was sorry for all the anxiety and misery on the very day that Grace Cameron had arrived, but she had found the girl a great comfort to her, she was so quiet and resourceful, so ready to help. The doctor had called again for the third time just before dinner, and his report was as favourable as before. Lady Dashwood and Grace were sitting down to something in the way of dinner.

"I have been thinking," Grace said. "Mary ought to know of this."

Lady Dashwood started and laid down her knife and fork. She had forgotten all about Mary.

"She had quite escaped my memory," she confessed. "She will be very distressed because she rather likes Ralph, and he saved her life on more than one occasion. But Ralph is masterful and Mary is proud. Of course, I know what Ralph's feelings are, and I may say that he was instrumental in getting her out into the world. Oh, my dear, I think you can guess what the dream of my life is as to those two people."

Grace smiled with ready sympathy. Her delicate face flushed.

"It will not be a dream much longer or I am greatly mistaken," she said. "Mary loves that man. I know by the way she speaks of him. And Connie Colam has told me. I don't want to be inquisitive, Lady Dashwood, but I should like to hear the story of that romance. Connie says that I should hardly know Mary if I had met her on the first day in London. She was hard and proud and distant, and she deliberately allowed the ice to grow round her heart; she was eaten up with family pride. And she learned her lesson in two days. I could see her change, as a butterfly newly out changes in the sun. I dare say you may call that a ridiculous simile, but I can't think of a better. And when Connie spoke to her of love and the advantages of love over everything else she came to guess. I am sure that Ralph Darnley has told her that he cares for her."

"That is so," Lady Dashwood smiled. "He is a very masterful young man, as I told you before. And I fancy he told Mary that he would win her in spite of everything. He has taken his own way of doing it, as you may hear some day. But if all you say is true, I am not going to spoil Mary's pleasure in the telling of her pretty love story. So you think that Mary ought to know what has happened? You think that if we send her a telegram she will come down here at once?"

"I am certain of it," Grace cried. "She will be displeased with us that we had forgotten. It is all going to come right, Lady Dashwood. Your dream is coming true, and Mary will be a happy girl yet."

Lady Dashwood smiled as she reached for the telegram forms. She wondered if it would be possible for Mary to reach the dower house that night. Presently a cab crept along the drive; no doubt it was the doctor coming to call once more. Then Grace gave a cry of pleasure as the cab door opened and a slender figure in black jumped out.

"She is here, Lady Dashwood," the girl exclaimed. "Mary! She must have heard. These things find their way into London evening papers directly."

The door of the dining-room opened and Mary came in. She was pale and agitated; she had her hand to her heart. It was some time before she could speak. She glanced from one to the other, as if not daring to ask what was trembling on the tip of her tongue. Her eyes filled with relief as she noted the welcome on the faces of the others.

"He is better?" she gasped. "He is not dead. I—I was afraid to ask. Oh, if you only knew the gnawing agony of the last hour! I saw it in one of the evening papers. I flew down here as soon as possible. And how is he—how is Ralph?"

Deeply touched as she was, Lady Dashwood smiled. She was glad to hear Ralph's name come so naturally off Mary's tongue. It showed that she thought of him by his Christian name.

"He is much better," she said. "The doctor gives a very good report. And he is not in the least likely to die this time."

"You might have let me know," Mary said reproachfully. "It would have saved a deal of anxiety. And I am quite sure that in his heart you know that—"

"You loved the man who is lying upstairs," Grace said gently.

Mary's pale face flushed; a yearning look came into her eyes,

"You have finished the confession for me," she cried. "I did not know, I could not guess till I saw that dreadful paper. And then it came to me that a great blank would come into my life if Ralph died. He said that I should learn my lesson, and I have done so. It has not taken me long to learn the difference between the false and the true, and that love is everything, and money and position are nothing by the side of it. And then as if some veil had been lifted from my eyes, I saw that I had cared for Ralph all the time. He told me once that I should come to him on my knees and ask forgiveness. I am ready to do it now."

The girl's voice rose loud and clear; she looked very sweet and womanly in her self-abnegation. She felt all the better for her confession, as if a weight had been lifted from her soul. Lady Dashwood would have said nothing in reply, but the door opened at the same moment and the nurse came in.

"Mr. Darnley is conscious, my lady," she said. "He asked for you. It will do no harm if you see him for one moment. He seems troubled to think that he is in your room—"

Mary darted for the door. Before anybody could interfere she was half-way up the stairs. In the darkened room Ralph lay; he could catch the rustle of a dress; he noted the faint fragrance of a woman's hair. Then Mary was kneeling by the bedside, her cool, wet face pressed to Ralph's hot flushed one.

"I have come to you," she said. "My darling, I have come to you. My lesson has been learned. My eyes have been opened. And I love you, Ralph. I have come to tell you, and make my confession. On my knees, dear, on my knees, dear heart, as you prophesied, I make it!"

CHAPTER LVIII—"THE KING IS DEAD.—"

Mr. George Dashwood was of opinion that things at the Hall were not as they used to be in the old days. In the first place he had been compelled to walk up from the station after ordering a trap to meet him on his return from Longtown, and now he could see no sign of dinner. He had come downstairs in a temper, and had looked into the dining-room as he passed.

It was eight o'clock to the moment; there was no sign of dinner. The banks of ferns and the great silver bowls of roses were there, but nothing else. Dashwood forgot for the moment that he was no longer master of the house, and rang the bell. Slight came in presently. He was still wearing his morning coat.

"What is the meaning of this?" Dashwood demanded. "I ordered a trap to meet me at the station and no trap appears. Then I came back here to dinner, of which I see no sign. Have the servants left the house in a body?"

"No, sir," Slight replied. "We have had a trying day. In the first place the police—"

"Oh, the police, have they been here? Is there any clue to the mysterious attack upon Mr.—er, Ralph Darnley? I had to go into Longtown to-day; I did not expect to get back here till late. If your master has suddenly been called to town—"

"He has vanished, sir," Slight said, "you may not be so very much surprised to hear that he was at the bottom of the attack on Mr. Ralph—leastways I'll speak of him as Mr. Ralph for the present. In a manner of speaking, it was I who found the whole thing out. Perhaps it was foolish of me to do so, but I couldn't help letting that rascal know all about it. He went off in a great hurry this morning, and I for one shall be very much surprised if we ever see him again. In a manner of speaking, we are like a lot of servants in bear cages—nobody to look after us or give any orders. Me and the housekeeper are doing what we can, sir, in the hopes that Lady Dashwood will come over to-morrow and take charge. And that's why your dinner is forgotten."

"We will let it pass," Dashwood said with great magnanimity. "In the present extraordinary circumstances, I suppose that I cannot complain. If you could get me some cold chicken and salad, Slight, I dare say I could manage. And perhaps you will be so good as to wait on me yourself, seeing that you are so far in the confidences of the family. And perhaps you will give me an idea of what has happened."

The salad and chicken were served presently, and the meal together with the champagne, went far to salve Dashwood's wounded dignity. A cigarette completed the process.

"Now tell me everything," he said. "Mind you, you must be wrong as to our late host having anything to do with the outrage on Ralph Darnley."

"Begging your pardon, sir," Slight replied. "Why, the thing was as good as admitted. To call him by his proper name, Vincent Speed saw that the game was up. Mind you, servants hear a great deal more than their employers give them credit for, and I know that in some way Speed was under the thumb of that scoundrel Mayfield. How you could ever have tolerated him in the house, beats me, sir."

"I was also under the thumb of Mayfield," Dashwood murmured. "He was the sort of man who always got his own way, and he was not in the least scrupulous as to his methods. Possibly he knew who Speed really was."

"That's it, sir," Slight said eagerly. "He was after money. Well, Speed found out that Mr. Ralph was the real heir, and that his time here was limited. I dare say Speed got that information from his mother. I suppose it never occurred to the fool that both Lady Dashwood and myself knew who Mr. Ralph was."

"How did you know?" Dashwood asked. "I'm sure I didn't."

"Because you never met Mr. Ralph's father, sir. The likeness is a speaking one. The very first day that Mr. Ralph arrived here, I knew that you had no right to be in this house at all, sir. The same when Speed came along—though I'm bound to admit that he took me in at first."

"But the whole thing is inexplicable," Dashwood said irritably. "Why this masquerade? Why was Speed permitted to oust me at all? And why did I remain here?"

Slight had his opinion, but it was not his plan to utter this. He shook his head with an air of wisdom. Perhaps Miss Mary could explain that part. At any rate, if she could not do so, Lady Dashwood could solve the problem.

"Well, it really doesn't matter," Dashwood exclaimed. "Get on with your story. What had Speed to do with the disgraceful attack on Ralph Darnley?"

"He struck the blow, sir," Slight proceeded. "The murderous plot was arranged between Speed and Mayfield. It was necessary to get Mr. Ralph out of the way, and they determined to do it. For that purpose Mr. Ralph was invited to dine at the Hall. The game was to get him out of the way in such a manner as would not throw the slightest suspicion on those ruffians. They picked out you, sir, to be their witness as to the fact."

"But they were not out of the house," Dashwood protested. "Neither of them left the dining-room till bedtime, and we all went to bed together. And Speed had such a dreadful bilious attack that he was good for nothing. I have no reason to love either of those fellows, but I should be compelled to exonerate them."

"It was clever," Slight admitted. "At the same time, it was Speed who did it. He sat behind the screen over yonder, sir, but the window leading to the balcony was open. Perhaps you will call to mind how Mayfield left the table to fetch his cigar case. Then he came back with a message to the effect that Lady Dashwood wanted to see Mr. Ralph on his way home. I have had it from her Ladyship's lips that she sent no message of the kind. Still, the supposed message had the desired effect for it took Mr. Ralph past the balcony; Speed had only to pop out and knock him on the head, which he did. All the time you thought that he was simply sitting in the armchair behind the screen."

"Incredible, but possible," Dashwood murmured. "Go on, Slight."

"Well, sir, I was frightened. I felt that there was something dark going on, and I didn't go to bed. I came downstairs and found Mayfield drinking whisky and soda not long before daylight. And his dress slippers were all over dirt. I got hold of Speed's pumps, too, and they were as bad. That told me a story. I made Walters get up, and together we began a search. At the foot of one of the oak trees in the park we found Mr. Ralph. Though it had been raining at the time he left here, his clothes were quite dry, though we found him nearly half a mile from the house. Then I knew quite well that the body had been carried there. That the pockets being turned out was only to make it look like robbery. And I taxed Speed with it. I gave him chapter and verse for everything, and he's gone. And, what's more, I know what his game is. I got that from the telegrams he sent and the timetable he left about. He's gone to Weymouth on his way to Jersey. When he reaches Weymouth, he'll charter a fishing boat to take him as far as Jersey. It's no great distance, and for a little time he will be safe there. From Jersey he can easily get across to Granville by a sailing boat."

The more Dashwood thought this over the more was he disposed to agree with the old servant. It was good, at any rate, to know that he was no longer likely to suffer at the hands of Mayfield, for that rascal would have to fly also. No doubt Speed had given his fellow-conspirator a hint of what had happened, and that by this time he, too, was on his way to some place of safety. With these thoughts uppermost in his mind, Dashwood walked across the park in the direction of the dower house.

It was not yet dark, and Lady Dashwood was walking in the garden. There was a look of peace and happiness on her face that Dashwood had never seen there before. It was, at any rate, a good omen as to the progress of the patient.

"I have been having a long talk with Slight," Dashwood explained. "He has been giving me some astounding information. I have been in Longtown all day, and when I came back Speed had vanished. And Slight had afforded very cogent reasons for his disappearance. Only I am utterly in the dark as to why Ralph Darnley has behaved in this way. Slight suggests that you know."

"I do," Lady Dashwood smiled. "It is a very pretty story, and I think that even you will be touched when it comes to be told. In the meantime, there is one thing that I will ask you to do—please say nothing to Mary as to who Ralph really is till you have permission."

"I can promise that all the more readily because I am not likely to see Mary," Dashwood said in a grieved tone. "The child has behaved very badly to me; she seems to forget that I am her father. So long as she remains in London—"

"She is not in London, George. She has come back, and so far as I can judge, is not in the least likely to return to London again. Directly she heard of Ralph's accident, she came here at once to nurse him. Do not forget that she owes her life to Ralph. And do not forget that he loves the very ground she walks on. If my memory serves me correctly, he told you as much when you were doing your best to sell your child to that scoundrel Mayfield. If you refrain from interfering, that romance will end happily."

"By Jove, you don't mean it?" Dashwood cried. Visions of himself, comfortably housed and fed at Dashwood, rose before his eyes. It was not quite like being the master of the house, but it was the next best thing. "What a fortunate circumstance! Really, my dear lady, I appear to be luckier than I deserve."

CHAPTER LIX—"LONG LIVE THE KING!"

On the whole it was a most marvellous recovery. The nurse had been a little severe on Mary; she had had no business to fly to the bedroom of the patient in that way. But Ralph was most emphatically of the opinion that Mary's action had hastened his convalescence. At the end of the week he was in the drawing-room with the windows open, so that he could catch the sweet fragrance of the summer air, and the doctor was jokingly congratulating him on the thickness of his skull. The London police had been very busy during the past week, but as yet no success had rewarded their efforts. Ralph had said nothing; it was deemed far wiser not to allude to the attack at present, and old Slight had remained silent in the presence of the detectives. Their superior air irritated him and, therefore, he kept his knowledge to himself.

As to the rest, George Dashwood was in Paris. He had been sent there on an errand by Lady Dashwood, who wanted him out of the way. The chatelaine of the dower house was afraid lest George Dashwood should speak out and spoil everything. And Mary had more or less made her peace with her father, who had forgiven her.

"I've no doubt you thought that you were acting for the best," he said. "You are not quite old enough fully to appreciate what is due to the family pride. Still, as nobody knows that you have so far forgotten yourself as to try to earn your own living, it does not much matter. I suppose you have done nothing to be ashamed of."

Mary replied with becoming meekness that she hoped so. Only a little time before she would have flung back the suggestion with passionate scorn. But lately she had become more cheerful and gayer in her disposition. Still, the situation was not without its humorous side. It was not for Mary to point out to her father what a humiliating position he had occupied when he had accepted the impostor's offer of a home at the Hall. But as yet Mary knew nothing of the impostor's downfall, or the real story of the outrage on Ralph. All that was to come. So George Dashwood departed on his errand to Paris, and the mistress of the dower house breathed more freely.

The nurse had gone now; her services were no longer required. And to-morrow the doctor had told Ralph that he could walk across the park if he liked. The next day was a wet one, however, so there was no opportunity. The third day broke gloriously fine, and Ralph came down to breakfast, a little pale and shaky, but almost himself again. Lady Dashwood was reading the paper with a grave face. It was not until the meal was over that she drew Ralph aside.

"I am going to speak freely to you," she said. "It is a strange thing that you have never asked if we had found anything out about your accident."

"I was waiting for you to speak," Ralph said. "As for myself, I remember nothing. The night I was dining at the Hall, Mayfield gave me a cigar. Almost as soon as I reached the open air, I became so drowsy that I could have fallen down and gone to sleep. A sudden pain darted through my head, and I recollected no more till I came to myself here, and found that Mary was on her knees by the side of my bed. Did I dream that, or did Mary come then and say that she loved me? It was only for a few minutes that I was conscious."

"I have no doubt that that was real enough," Lady Dashwood smiled tenderly. "Mary did rush up to your room, and a fine scolding she got from the nurse for it. But you can settle all that with our dear girl later. Let us get one thing over at a time. You have not the slightest idea who made that attack on you?"

Ralph confessed that such was the case, and Lady Dashwood proceeded to enlighten him. She told Ralph everything that she had gleaned for herself, and that Slight had acquainted her with. Ralph's face was very grave and stern as he listened to the story.

"A very pretty plot," he said. "I can see it all quite clearly now. It was invented by Mayfield. It never occurred to me till now that Mayfield guessed who I was. You see he had seen my father. Very lately Mayfield had been in dire need of money. I had seen to that. He could guess why I stood aside and let it appear as if Speed was the heir of the property; he could see that I did this to save Mary, knowing that I could stop it later and claim my own. But this gave Mayfield a chance to blackmail Speed whilst he had a grip on the family exchequer. After that was done, Speed could go hang, as far as Mayfield was concerned. The whole thing was spoiled by my chance meeting with Speed in his mother's house. She could tell him who I really was. Hence the plot that nearly killed me. Perhaps I have been a little bit too clever. If ever I come across my friend Vincent Speed again—"

"You will never do that," Lady Dashwood said. "The man is dead. He perished in yesterday's stormy crossing from Jersey to Granville in a ricketty boat. There is a paragraph here in the papers. The man seems to have assumed his own name again, for his linen was marked Vincent Speed. And old Slight told me that he meant to escape in that way. On the whole, my dear Ralph, it will be just as well to save scandal as much as possible. Of course, the neighbours will naturally want to know a great deal, but we need not talk too much."

"I quite agree with that, though I fancy that the family pride will get short shrift from me," Ralph laughed. "You had better put it down to the fact that I had a democratic mother. But have you heard anything of Mayfield?"

"He has gone, Ralph, nobody knows where. There was a good deal about him in yesterday's papers—the disappearance of a City man, and strange stories of his swindled clients. I understand that a warrant on some charge or another has been obtained for his arrest. But he will never be found, Ralph; he is too cunning for that. On the whole, it will be better for you to tell the simple truth, that you had not the slightest idea who caused your accident."

"Well, as a matter of fact, I haven't," Ralph said. "But, of course, Mary must know all these things. I can only rejoice in the misfortune that has brought us together, and opened her eyes to the truth that love is best of all things. I suppose she has no idea—"

"None whatever," Lady Dashwood said eagerly. "Slight will say nothing, and George Dashwood has been got out of the way on purpose. But is it not time, my dear boy, that Mary should be told the whole story? You need not fear any longer that her heart is given to Ralph Darnley, and that Sir Ralph Dashwood is quite a secondary consideration."

Ralph laughed with a tender inflection in his voice.

"I was going to do it after lunch," he said. "And positively I feel quite nervous about it. You are very anxious to see us married, grandmother?"

"It will be the crowning happiness of a miserable life," Lady Dashwood said. "I have already told you the story of my past, of the sin that cost one life and wrecked the happiness of two others. For that sin I have fully atoned; I fancy that my punishment is ended, and that is the one thing that you are never to tell our dear Mary."

Ralph promised solemnly. After a pause Lady Dashwood proceeded:

"Now you know everything," she said. "I want to see my boy soon back in his proper place; I want to see the best ruler that Dashwood ever had. We have been too proud and cold in the past, and have thought more of our dignity than of the comfort and happiness of those dependent upon us. But I see that that is not going to be your way, and I rejoice in the knowledge. And in future I know that it is not going to be Mary's way, either. And if the evening of my life is going to be finished in the sunshine, I shall not regret the past. All I want to do now is to see a child of yours and Mary's on my lap, and...that's all, Ralph."

Ralph rose and kissed the speaker tenderly. He quite understood her feelings.

"God grant that it may be as you say," he murmured. "But I feel so anxious. And till now I have been quite strong in the knowledge that I should win Mary in the long run. She could never have married Mayfield; I had only to declare myself, and that was finished. But I saw the way to open the eyes of my dear one, and I did it. Still, I wish it was all over, the confession made, and my forgiveness freely offered. By tea time I shall know."

It was a quiet but very happy little party that gathered presently at the luncheon table. Mary was soft and subdued; she had not forgotten the night of her return, and the way in which she had knelt by Ralph's bedside, and told him of her love. From that day the subject had not been alluded to between them, for Mary had rather avoided Ralph save in the presence of others. But when she met his glance from time to time, she knew that all was well, and that the sacrifice she had made was the crowning blessing of her life.

"How sweet those roses are!" she said, as she plunged her heated face into a bowl of blossoms. "I used to smell those roses all the time I was in London. Really, I pretended to be very independent and all that kind of thing, but I'm afraid I should never have been able to stand the life. I should have run down here, and pretended that I was not well enough to return."

"Not you," Grace laughed. "Now, with me the case is different. It is essential to good art that we should have congenial surroundings. Do you know that I have done three solid hours' work to-day without feeling the least fatigue! If I had attempted such a thing in London, I should have been knocked up for a week."

"A few days have worked wonders in you," Ralph said. "In honour of the occasion, we will go and have tea at the Hall. Mary and myself will go and make all the arrangements, and you can follow with Lady Dashwood. What do you say, Mary?"

"We are trespassers," the girl said, with a laugh and a blush. "Still, the owner is away, and I am quite sure that Slight will give us a warm welcome."

"He had Mary's hand in his."

CHAPTER LX—OPEN CONFESSION

They had been very quiet for a long time as they sat in the rose garden looking over the park. They could see the dappled deer under the great oaks; the shadow of the fine old house lay behind. There was something very soothing and peaceful about the picture. It was Ralph who spoke presently; he had Mary's hand in his, and she did not draw it away.

"It is a pity to lose this," he said, "to know that it has gone for ever. Mary, you were better and braver far than you knew, when you turned your back on Dashwood Hall."

"Was I?" Mary asked absently. "It will always be a sadness and a sorrow to me, more from the knowledge of what I might have some day made the place than anything else. But I need not dwell on that. I have my living to get now."

"And I suppose I have mine," Ralph said. "Mary, you know what is on the tip of my tongue. Could you share that lot with me? But I know that you would; I know what your feelings are. You told me the night you came back here; you said that my prophecy had come true; that you had returned to ask my pardon on your knees. Do you regret that?"

"No," Mary said resolutely. "I do not regret it for a moment. Because it was true then, and it is truer now. It was Connie who taught me that lesson, I think. She pointed out to me what a good thing a man's love was. And when I thought that I had lost you, why, then I knew what my mind was. If I am worth the taking, Ralph—"

"My darling, you were always worth the taking," Ralph cried. "Even in the days of your pride I had dreams of the sweet Mary that would like you to love her, and behold, here she is! And you are prepared to share the lot of a poor man without even a pedigree?"

Mary swayed towards her lover, and he caught her in his eager arms. The next minute her face was hidden on his breast, happy tears rolling down her cheeks.

"Don't," she whispered. "Oh, please don't remind me of that, Ralph. From the bottom of my heart I love you; I must have loved you from the very first. What does it matter what you are, so long as you are what you are—a good man, with a kind heart for a foolish girl like me? I am prepared to share your lot, and go where you like, Ralph; anywhere you choose to take me. We shall be very poor, I suppose, but that does not matter. I am glad, glad that the day came when I had to leave the Hall."

"And if you never return you will not regret it, Mary?"

"No, Ralph, not with you by my side. And as to poverty, why, it could not be worse than what I have gone through lately. We shall be very poor, Ralph."

"Not so very poor," Ralph smiled. There was nobody near to see them, so the girl's head rested happily on Ralph's shoulder, his arm round her waist. "Dearest, I have a confession to make to you. We are not poor at all."

"But I thought that you had lost everything, Ralph. That Mr. Mayfield had your money. But don't let us talk about him. It makes me hot and cold all over. To think that at one time there was more than a possibility that I should—"

"No, there was never the slightest possibility," said Ralph. "I have had all the cards in the game from the very first. Mary, I am going to tell you a little story; it is the history of a man who passed most of his early life in America, where he did not see many people. He was quite a well-born man, but his father had quarrelled with his relatives, and so he had not all the advantages which were due to his station. But he was well brought up, and prided himself that he had a high sense of honour.

"Well, in time, he came to Europe, and then he met the one woman that he needed. She was very lovely, very proud, and very distant. But that young man could see what lay under her pride, and he determined to win her for his wife. She liked him, but she refused him. And for two years he did not meet her again. Then he came to England, and accident brought those two together again. In the meantime, the girl's father had come into possession of the family estates, and the girl was more proud and distant than ever. And still that young man was not dismayed.

"And now comes the strange part of my story. The young man, whose father had died in the meantime, had come here to claim a title and a property. He had not known anything of this till his father died, but he came, and his grandmother recognized him at once. But that very same property and title had passed to the girl's father. Now, the young man might have told the girl this, and doubtless she would have married him. But he was a romantic young man, and desired to be married for his own sake. Then another claimant to the property turned up, and the young man pretended to back this impostor's claim. He did this, so that the girl should go out in the world, as he felt that she would, and get her own living. And his estimate of the girl was correct, for she did so."

"Go on," Mary whispered. "You can't tell how interested I am."

"Well, it was even as the young man had expected. The carefully-planned plot succeeded beyond the most sanguine expectations. The girl went out into the world, and almost at once her better nature began to prevail. She saw the world through other eyes; she learned what a wonderful and complex thing humanity is. And when that young man saw the girl again he was astonished and delighted. He did not regret his plot in the least. He knew now that here was the real girl that he loved, deprived of her pride and hauteur, palpitating with love and tender sympathy...In your case would you have forgiven that man, Mary?"

"Oh, yes, yes," Mary cried. "Oh, I can read between the lines of your parable. I am the girl and you are the man who has brought me to my senses. Ralph, it sounds like a fairy story. And so you took this means of opening my eyes, and showing me how small and narrow my world was. Forgive you? Could you ever forgive me? And to think that you are the son of Ralph Dashwood come back after all these years. And to think that Lady Dashwood should know and not tell me. Marvellous!"

"I bound her to secrecy," Ralph explained. "And, really, things fell out wonderfully for me. There was the incident of the fire and that match-box, for instance; the incident that forced the impostor Speed to declare himself. For, of course, you have guessed who the man who called himself Sir Vincent Dashwood really was. I suppose we shall never hear who it was who tried to set the Hall on fire."

Mary laughed happily through her tears.

"And you never found that out?" she said. "Why, I knew at once. And I was horribly afraid lest the person should be found out and severely punished. Do you recollect the night that those men took possession of the Hall, the night when you tried to save me from Mayfield? Old Patience was there. It was one of her lucid nights when she possessed her full intelligence. And she kept on crying for somebody to smoke the rats out, for somebody who had courage to put the match to the faggot. I found her quite late, and took her to sleep for the night in my dressing-room. And when you came to save me, Patience had vanished. I never had the slightest doubt who set the Hall on fire, and I hope that you will not mention this to anybody, Ralph. Patience has quite forgotten it. I alluded to the subject only yesterday, and she expressed her indignation."

"Well, that is the last of the mysteries cleared," Ralph said. "I suppose the poor creature found that match-box somewhere. The next thing is to proclaim myself, and then, Mary, you can come back to the Hall as mistress again."

"What happiness!" Mary whispered. "But a different kind of happiness to the old. I shall hope a little later to see the old Hall a different place to what it has ever been before. I should like to build a charming house close by for the benefit of girls like my friends Connie and Grace. I owe them more than I can ever repay; indeed, I owe humanity in general a deep debt of gratitude. You will let me have my own way over this, Ralph, for I have set my heart on it."

"It shall be as you say, darling," Ralph whispered, as he kissed the red lips tenderly. "For the honour of the house, for now and evermore."


THE END

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